The (waning) power of incumbency

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The last twelve months have not been a good year politically for incumbents. In the USA, mid-term elections, when all the votes were counted, delivered a stinging rebuke to House Republicans and, indirectly to President Trump. At the state level, eight governorships changed hands. In Europe, Italy and Spain swept previous governments from power while in Sweden, the former ruling party now clings to power as a minority coalition which could topple on any given day. Even in Turkey, the President’s party lost its majority in Parliament. Considering that Edrogan had been seeking a super majority to change the constitution, this counts as a major setback. In Brazil, a fringe former army officer came out of nowhere to win the Presidency from the socialist front runner on a platform largely indistinguishable from fascism.

Meanwhile in Canada, five consecutive provincial elections have ousted the sitting government. A sixth might fall tomorrow and, federally, the Liberal government is trailing the main opposition party, either by a little or a lot depending on which polls you believe. While campaigns matter, it looks grim for one-term PM, Justin Trudeau.

This is clearly not a left-right thing. Where progressives were in power, conservatives and right populists won. Where conservatives ruled, they lost out to left-wing or left populist parties. Meanwhile in Ukraine, a TV comedian with no apparent policies at all defeated the sitting president.

So, what’s going on? I suspect there are many factors at play. Let’s for a moment, leave the ugly stuff aside (the sexist attacks on women politicians and the demonization of immigrants or, if you like, the rich) though they certainly played a factor in some of the races. But in the USA, women and minorities did very well in mid-term elections, and these tactics were failures in Spain and Turkey.

I suspect what is really going on is a deep disappointment and anger at whoever happens to be holding power. People in western democracies no longer feel that they are being served, that their interests are paramount, that they can trust their own governments to protect them. Those governments, they think, are not working for them – time to try something new, maybe even, radically new. Why not, some have said, elect people who have no history in government or politics. They couldn’t be worse, could they?

Well, let me put it this way—I wouldn’t let someone operate on me because they had played a doctor on TV.

Whereas the power of incumbency used to be golden, now it has turned to dross. Politicians have suddenly realized they can win by running against their own history. In Newfoundland, the Conservative leader is running on a campaign that essentially says, I’m not like the conservatives you threw out 4 years ago—even though he comes from the most powerful conservative family in the province. If this kind of thing catches on, maybe we’ll see Trump run for re-election as an independent democrat.

Of course, sitting governments may have to share in the blame for all this. Most governments get elected on the promise to do things differently and often on specific policy proposals they come to find distasteful (election reform, Mr. Trudeau?). Inevitably they disappoint those who had voted for them. Those who had fallen in love with them—well, there is nothing more bitter than a failed romantic relationship.

So, what do we do? Give up on democracy? I hope not. As Churchill put it democracy is a lousy system, until you compare it with all the rest. Besides, politics is not really the problem; economics is. But you’re going to have to wait for that because that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

Party Time!

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Most countries that claim to be democracies do not do so because they allow people to vote. In most countries and smaller jurisdictions, it means you have a real a choice between representatives of different parties with different philosophies or policy platforms. The multi-party democracy was, at one time, the gold standard of political freedom. In almost all cases, that meant a voting system that actually reflected the choices that voters made, in other words, proportional representation.

There are exceptions. The UK, the United States and Canada still cling to a system called first-past-the-post (FPTP) where the candidate who gets the most votes wins the district, A product of historical chance rather than design. America twists that slightly by placing the electoral college between the voters and the president so that a candidate can become president while finishing second in popular vote.

The distinguishing feature FPTP is the two-party system. Hence for the last 100 years or so, all three of the countries mentioned above have alternated governments between just two parties—one slightly to the right of centre and one slightly to the left. While third parties have occasionally won seats and even held the balance in power in minority governments, they rarely achieve much prominence unless they succeed in replacing one of the other parties.

PR systems have much more fluidity in governments. While some parties have more support than others, a single party or two seldom dominates for long and parties, once they establish a solid, if small, caucus in parliament, seldom disappear. This is troubling in some European countries where far-right and far-left parties, or those established by clowns, now have a permanent legitimized place in the national dialogue (though the recent election in Spain holds out some hope for the future)..

Still, that may be preferable to what is currently happening in the United Kingdom and Canada. The proliferation of small parties has gradually led to parties able to form majority governments without the support of significant sections of the public. Since 1997 only once has the winning party had more than 40% of the vote, yet we have had 4 majority governments and three minorities where the leading party was grossly over represented in seat count. It is quite likely that the result of the next election will return a majority with less than 36% of the vote.

Meanwhile in the UK, the latest polls give the two largest parties considerably less than 70% of voter support—the lowest levels in more than 80 years. Because most of the smaller parties have strong regional support, the chances of the UK having a majority government in the near future seem dim. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the current leadership, the FPTP system will grant fringe or even fanatic parties disproportionate power while still shutting out much larger national parties like the Liberal-Democrats. Britain faces the prospect of become the new Italy.

In the USA, the two party system still seems alive and well but close examination shows how divided each of the two parties are with more than a dozen factions represented in the House of representatives.

Meanwhile in Canada, it is likely that we will see seats split between five or even six parties but with all or most of the power going to one. Hardly a formula for national unity or even, as Justin Trudeau argued in reneging on electoral reform, a more civil discourse in politics. That particular decision may be one we all live to regret.

And that’s 10 minutes from Hayden Trenholm

The Alberta Solution

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In the months leading up to the recent Alberta election, there were renewed calls from the fringes for Alberta to separate. Now Premier Jason Kennedy acknowledged they were extreme views but said (nudge, nudge) they reflected the real anger and alienation of Albertans and shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand (wink, wink). I’m sure now that their favorite Harperite is ensconced in the legislature ready at willing to tilt at windmills (I mean, literally given his wishy-washy position on climate change) and take on Ottawa – the fall-back approach for provincial leaders wanting power at any cost.

But I have to say, I was intrigued. To be frank, I thought of offering to help them pack.

Don’t get me wrong, I lived there for 11 years and have lots of friends and even family in Alberta. I encourage them to move to more civilized parts of the country. If they can find one after the results of recent elections.

Still, the logistics of it all are fascinating. If Alberta separated, where would they go? The USA wouldn’t take them – they already have Montana, Utah and the Dakotas, plus plenty of fracked oil and gas. What’s the added benefit of taking on a bunch of Yahoos from Canada?

And going it on their own where they are is hardly a solution. They would still have to try to ship their oil through BC and put up with folks from Saskatchewan dropping across the border to avoid the sales tax. And, as a separate country, they would get even less attention to their whining from central Canada (though it’s hard to imagine how Torontonians could care less about Alberta than they already do). Of course, the NWT would be happy—all that construction money to build a highway north of 60 to connect to BC would certainly make life easier, though winter driving might be unpleasant.

But we have the technology!

If we used all that heavy equipment sitting idle up in the tar sands (sorry, if I’m going to be brutal, I may as well call them what they are), we could dig down a mile or so and just airlift the whole province right out of there. Maybe Putin would loan us some of those heavy lift helicopters they’ve been developing. Finding a place to drop it off might be tricky—I mean we couldn’t just drop it in the ocean. Think of the mess.

But maybe we could balance it on a few of those empty islands way south in the Pacific. The climate there is lousy but Albertans are used to that and, besides, once they were free to unleash that bitumen on the world, it might heat up nicely.

As for the rest of Canada, we could get our inland sea back—even though the dinosaurs would now be living in the south Pacific. BC could expand their ferry service and Saskatchewan would get all that seafront property. It would almost be worth making a trip there.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a project manager, I’m easy enough to find.

And that’s 10 minutes in a light-hearted sort of way.

 

 

Leadership

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Everybody says they want strong leadership from our prime ministers and presidents. But what do they mean by that? Some want a command and control approach while others see that as authoritarian and dangerous (can you say fascist?). They prefer team leaders, a first among equals who consults widely and only acts when a consensus emerges. They are dismissed as dithering snowflakes. And the division is largely on generational lines.

This came crystal clear during a chat I had over lunch with old political friends. And when I say old, I mean I was the youngest person there. The topic of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott came up and we all agreed it had been a serious matter. Then one of the women asked: Why the hell didn’t Trudeau throw them out of caucus sooner? Why did he let them continue to say they had no confidence in him? It made him look weak.

It was in fact quite unprecedented. No Canadian Prime Minister I can think of would have tolerated what those two former Cabinet Ministers said and did. Harper, Chretien, even the great ditherer Martin would have dumped them from caucus forthwith. And it is not as if Trudeau has not been precipitous in dropping people from Cabinet and caucus—he did it to four men (2 were expelled and 2 left “voluntarily”) as soon as a whiff of sexual impropriety arose.

But this was different. Two high-profile women, potential future leaders, had, for whatever reasons (and I am not quite inclined to fully believe either side as to what those reasons were), turned on the government, in some cases testifying—but never quite delivering the killing blow but always promising more to come—and in others giving damaging interviews to major media outlets (though again filled more with innuendo than actual evidence). One refused to show up for votes in the house that could have brought the government down; the other secretly taped a senior public servant and then released the tape without consulting him. Still, the PM did not act, continued to say the caucus welcomed diverse views.

The turning point came when Philpott came to caucus to, according to some, say a mea culpa and try to walk back on her interview in MacLean’s. The caucus listened—though apparently not very politely—and she quickly made an exit. The Prime Minister—who swore when he assumed the leadership that there would be no repetition of the old Chretien/Martin internal party wars—had what he wanted. Where previously, a significant fraction of the caucus was prepared to continue to support the membership of the dissidents in their party, now, to a man and woman, they had had enough. No vote was held, because the Liberal caucus had never agreed on that procedure for dealing with caucus membership (and remember those who left unwillingly—no vote being held). And no one was willing to risk the recently achieved unity by demanding one.

The next day, the two MPs became independents. While one has talked about running for another party, the other has not indicated her intent. My prediction: after the October election, we will never see them on a national stage again. History, and the way the electorate actually decides who to vote for (hint: it is almost never due to the local candidate’s popularity), is certainly not on their side.

In the meantime, the unfortunate PM is dismissed as weak by one side and unfair by others, even though he acted in a manner quite consistent to the way he had promised to act, the way most of his generation want their leaders to act. Well, we all get to judge next October.

And that’s ten minutes.

Black and White

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Although we’ve colour movies since the 1930s and colour TV since the early 1960s, most people still see the world in black and white. There would be nothing wrong with that if they were also aware of the many shades (far more than 50) of grey.

No where is this division into dark and light, black and white, good and evil more prevalent than in the world of modern politics. Our leader is pure and just; theirs nothing less than the devil itself. Our leader’s intentions are always good (which lets us forgive their occasional mistake) while theirs are suspect at best and, if we were really honest, actually vile and repulsive (and any hint of the opposite is a deliberate cover-up).

Take Donald Trump (and, of course, I don’t really care where you take him as long as you take him) for example. To his supporters, he is the greatest president the USA has ever had. Most would say he is the greatest president possible. To his detractors, he is stupid to the point of being barely able to remember to breath and corrupt beyond words. Think of all the people he cheated (who must have been even dumber than him) and his real, though as yet unproven, ties to Putin, not to mention his womanizing and pandering to Nazis. In fact, recently, he was compared repeatedly to Hitler in a speech by Democratic congressman.

Now I know about Adolph Hitler, and Donald Trump is no Adolph Hitler. (Benito Mussolini maybe, but I digress.)

Make no mistake, I think he’s a second (or probably third) rate President and I find most of his policies either repulsive or dumb – but completely in line with policies that have been part of American government off and on for the last hundred years. Let me put is this way – if Trump were like Hitler, the death camps and pogroms would already be old hat. Trump needs to be stopped and deserves to be defeated in 2020, but I can think that (and America can accomplish it) without vilifying the man and every member of his family as the anti-Christ.

Of course, I get why the left would want to do that given the vile way their shining perfect President, Barrack Obama, was treated by the right.

In Canada, we’ve recently seen our Prime Minister go from golden boy to discarded dross over the most trivial of he said, she said scandals, where no crime was committed, no money changed hands, and there was no sex (despite the poorly delivered joke of a lame CBC comentator). Meanwhile, his accuser has gone from being one of the worst Justice Ministers in history (their words not mine) to the pinnacle of principled action. From tarnished to burnished in a single committee appearance. Saint and sinner now reversed to sinner and saint.

Of course, part of the problem is that politics has gradually been turned from a participatory sport to a spectator one – we are all expected to choose our colors (blue, red, green, orange, another shade of blue and, oh, wait, a third shade of blue) and then cheer on our team while vilifying the opposition. Having actually been a bench player in the game for 40 years, I tend to see them all in shades of grey – a little lighter here, a little darker there but mostly on a spectrum of well-intentioned but frequently misguided. Though I still have my preferences.

Voting is good – folks in Alberta and PEI should do that soon – but actually getting in the game might be better. Though given the amateur behavior of those who do, maybe, like comedy, we should leave it to the professionals.

But that’s another story and this is ten minutes.

Burn, Baby, Burn

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Currently a war is being waged in Canada over something that should be a unifying proposal. The Canadian public, who overwhelmingly believe that climate change is one of the major issues facing the country, must be confused. Almost everyone agrees it is happening and most of those also accept that human activity is a major factor in causing it. Scientific studies show that is so and, moreover, that there are specific things we can and must do about it.

Now before you link me to the phony web-sites denying all this or trot out your long-debunked theories about WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON, let me tell you I’m not interested – that ship is sailed. You have been relegated to the trash heaps of voodoo history, along with anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers. I can’t waste my precious time debunking that which, on the face of it, has no merit.

Besides, I want to get back to that which should unite us. The Carbon Tax, hereafter referred to as TCT.

Oh, I can already hear the gnashing of teeth—on both the left and the right. What’s that you say? You thought TCT was nothing but a leftist plot to destroy business and fund their crazy progressive programs. Well, not quite. A fair number on the left prefer a cap and trade system or a regulatory regime that gets at the real culprits of climate change, that is, large corporations, while protecting the innocent victim, ordinary folks like you and me. TCT is not sufficiently punitive to industry and governments, especially non-left ones, can’t be trusted not to keep the cash rather than use it to help taxpayers (which oddly is what those on the right say, too). What’s more, industry will simply pass the tax on to consumers. Bad all around.

Certainly, cap and trade worked pretty well for getting rid of sulfur (and hence acid rain) and regulation took care (mostly) of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons, which is why I, too, used to think they were the way to go for carbon emissions. Then I realized that not only was the chemistry different, the distribution of emitters was different, too. Everybody produces carbon emissions and, when the law of large numbers kicks in. individual emitters are collectively very significant; everyone must be engaged in reducing carbon. And the simplest way to do that is to put a tax on carbon. Of course, that reeks of market economics, also anathema to those on the left. Phooey, I say; I’m proud to use the tools of the enemy to advance good causes. Policy shouldn’t be designed to punish bad behavior but to change it. And people respond to price.

Which is why many real conservatives (and most of industry, including the oil industry) support a carbon tax. It is simple, requires little government intervention or bureaucracy, can be designed to be more-or less revenue neutral (put simply the government gives back in tax credits or rebates, all –or in my preferred scenario, most—of the revenue it collects) and creates a level playing field where individual choice moves the market from carbon-heavy to carbon-light alternatives.

Then why do so many so-called conservatives (Scheer, Kenny, Ford and the other camp followers) oppose it? The simple answer is that Trudeau and the Liberals support it. That pretty much sums it up. It is not principle or fighting for the little guy or, even, ideology that motivates these guys – it is pure partisan politics.

And when the quest for power (which they want so they can cut taxes for the rich and tell the rest of us what we can or cannot do with our hearts, souls and, mostly, our bodies) is the only motive, facts and rational arguments cease to mean a damn thing. Appealing to our most venal instincts (Damn taxes! I like shiny trucks! I don’t want to change! It’s someone else’s fault!), they will say and do anything to gain it.

And when the world burns to the ground, they can always say: I never knew!!! But, of course, they do.

And that’s 10 minutes (or somewhat more – I’m a bit rusty, but I’ll improve)

Rock Stars

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A recent article called into question the “progressive” agenda of the new leader of Ireland. Young, good-looking, openly gay and of mixed race, his election as Taoiseach (leader) was hailed as step into modernity for the people of Ireland. Certainly, Ireland seems ready for such a move, having recently approved gay marriage despite the opposition of the Church and many conservative politicians.

Yet, the policies of Leo Varadkar remain decidedly neoliberal in most areas and his support for women in a decidedly patriarchal and Catholic state has been called into question. How could this have possibly happened?

Well, give your head a shake. Varadkar was elected head of a centre-right political party, having been a long time member and MP. This didn’t happen by accident. He was elected leader not because he was gay and mixed-race but despite of it. Party members selected him (he has yet to face the people in an election) because he shared their values: more progressive on a few things but generally a conservative at heart.

Why do progressives fool themselves into thinking that politicians are equally progressive when it is clear that they are not? Certainly the fact they are better than the alternatives is a factor but I also put it down to the “rock star” factor.

We have a tendency to see certain kind of people – young (but not too young), good looking, energetic and athletic, well-spoken but not snooty—as somehow imbued with the royal jelly. They have a quality—often undefinable—that makes us see them as more than they are. While anyone who gets to be leader of a country or even a political party is a cut above average, they are still human, with human limitations. Not only that, they are also exactly who they appear to be; exactly who they’ve always been—no matter what shine they try to put on it.

The same can be said of France’s new president—elected as much to keep the ultra-right Le Pen out of office as for any other reason. Macron was viewed as a fresh face and a new approach and, even, by some, though certainly not by all, on the French left as progressive and forward-thinking. That was before he announced that he wanted to govern France like the god Jupiter. Yet, the president is exactly what he has always been, what he showed himself to be as a Minister (who quit in a huff) in the previous socialist government: a market-oriented liberal with some progressive views and a decidedly neo-liberal bent.

The same might be said of Canada’s own Justin Trudeau. I voted for him and generally like him but my vote was based on “he was better than the alternative” –including the party of the left at that time. While by nature and inclination a democratic socialist, I wanted Harper out and Trudeau was the best bet to do it when Election Day came.

But I was never under the illusion that he was left-wing or even slightly more than left of centre. He is a liberal with progressive views on some issues (women, indigenous people and the role of science) and very pro-market liberal views on taxation and, I suspect, the environment. But he looks like a rock star and still seems better than the alternatives. Though that may change if we actually get a leader who was a rock star.

Of course, the United States doesn’t suffer from this problem. Few of their current leaders or potential leaders have rock star qualities. They best they have to offer the public is reality-show bozos and aging hippies. But don’t worry – I’m sure Americans will find their own shining political star to lead them on and let them down.

And that’s ten minutes.