Referenda

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The recent British election highlights the core problems with referenda. Some voters who voted to leave Europe either resented their choices or did not see Brexit as a ‘conservative’ issue. Instead of supporting Theresa May and the Tories, they chose someone else. Referenda are never more that simplistic snapshots of how someone mostly feels on a particular day.

Mostly is the key factor here – and it is easy to see how even winning a referendum on a simple either/or question does not necessarily reflect the popular will. It has to do with how strongly you feel.

Some people of course are 100% for something or 100% against. These are the same people who constantly use ‘always’ and ‘never’ in arguments. “You always spend too much money or you never do the dishes” is usually a replacement for “You often spend too much money and you seldom do the dishes.” Indeed, even if the splits are more like 60/40, the words always and never get bandied about.

And that is how most people are about most things. They are mostly for them or mostly against and sometimes that mostly is just 51/49.

Take a person who voted to leave Europe – they might know that their kids are doing okay in the city and they might enjoy a bit of low cost French cheese or Spanish wine but hate the idea of large number of foreign workers or the tax cost of supporting Greece. They may feel 47% for Europe and 53% against it but by voting Leave, they become 100% for going. The same analysis works on the other side.

But now imagine that the 48% of Brits who voted to stay in Europe are actually more committed to the idea – say on average 60-40 – while the 52% who voted to go are more ambivalent – say 45-55 – and, if you do the math, the popular sentiment (adding up all those splits) would be to stay in Europe.

Of course, there is no way to measure that with the simplistic way we currently run referendum – but why should we be stuck with something designed 100 years ago? This is 2017 and we do have the technology. Suppose you could register your ambivalence?

There might be a two part question. Are you for or against proposition Z? How much are you for or against it? A person might, if they are at all reflective and capable of seeing in colours other than black and white, decide that they are 51% in favour and 42% against and 7% undecided.

Then our clever machines could tally it all up and say that the average voter is 48% in favour, 45% against and 8% undecided. And we all get to embrace Proposition Z and most of us would be at least partly satisfied.

There are plenty of other things wrong with referenda (and difficulties with true democracy, despite its superiority to other forms of governance) but at least this version could provide you with some certainty about how the people feel – if not why they feel that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

Liberal (Mis)fortunes

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Yesterday, voters in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smaller provinces, gave the governing Liberals a reduced majority, marking the first time since 1988 that a government has won back to back majorities. It was a close thing though, with the government losing 6 seats and two cabinet ministers. When the final tally was made, they held on to 27 seats compared to 24 for the two opposition parties. That is a workable majority – even after electing a Speaker (almost certainly a Liberal), they can afford to have one member down with the flu and still hold onto power.

Not so in British Columbia, where, a week after all the votes were counted and nearly a month after the actual election, uncertainty continues over the form of the next BC government. There, the Liberals were one seat shy of a bare majority, winning 43 of 87 seats. When they failed to find common ground with the 3-member Green party, the latter turned to the NDP (41 seats) to form a governing pact (though not a coalition) to run the province for the next 4 years.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that; the outgoing Premier is notorious for not giving up and has the track record to prove it, coming from behind twice to win the most seats when trailing at the start of the campaign. She hasn’t yet definitively said she will step aside and allow the NDP to form the government. She may insist on facing the House with a Throne Speech (or possibly ask the Lieutenant Governor to call a new election) and the newspapers have been rife with speculation that she would try to tempt one of the opposition members to cross the floor so she can hold onto power. This, however, seems unlikely. Both the NDP and Greens have been seeking power or influence in BC for 15 years and every one of them knows that the fate of floor-crossers is seldom rosy.

Besides, a bare majority for either side would be fraught. The Speaker – supposedly impartial – might be in the situation where he or she constantly has to vote for the government to keep things going. A single MLA becoming incapacitated before a crucial vote could bring down the government in a hurry.

Oddly enough, I’ve seen little speculation about a Liberal agreeing to either cross the floor or, more likely, run uncontested for the Speaker’s job. While their fate is not likely to be any different than that of another party, the Liberals have been in power for 15 years; there must be at least one backbencher who would be willing to end his career on a high note with all the pomp and perks that the Speakership holds. If they lose their seat in the next election – well, they will still have a pretty good pension. The NDP-Green government would then have a working two-seat majority to implement their shared agenda.

It should be an interesting few weeks on both coasts as the Liberals appoint their new Cabinet in Nova Scotia and as British Columbia finds out who exactly will get to do that job for them.

And that’s ten minutes.

Rigged

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Donald Trump has expressed concerns that the upcoming Presidential election may be ‘rigged.’ I thought originally that he was making an elaborate metaphor about the apparatus of government – you know the ropes and pulleys required to drive forward the ship of state.

But no, he means it in the sense given by the urban dictionary:  to describe situations where unfair advantages are given to one side of a conflict.

He provides no evidence as to this claim – nothing new for Mr. Trump – so I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for it. Like we should accept his claim that there is nothing wrong with his tax returns (move along, nothing to see here) or that his small hands are no indication of anything else.

I suppose in a way he might be right. Clinton does seem to have some distinct advantages. She’s sane for one thing – though it is just my opinion that Trump is not. But she does seem to have more money, a better organization, and a substantial lead in the polls. And those are all unfair advantages: a form of systematic discrimination that Donald Trump – if he were anything but an old white man – might readily recognize.

It’s hard to know where Trump’s latest claim comes from – it is increasingly suspect that the things he says come from anywhere. He may well simply have impulse control and a supreme belief in the rightness of his own, well, beliefs. Who needs evidence when you know you are always right?

If I thought Donald Trump were capable of being self-aware and able to see the writing on the wall, I would say he is trying to prepare his supporters for an epic defeat – and it could well be truly epic. If current numbers hold up and Clinton wins the election say 50% to 42% with 8% going to third parties, it will rank in the top ten of the worst thrashings in modern American presidential races.

Nothing like the election of 1936, of course, where FDR got more than 60% of the vote and took all but 8 of the Electoral College votes. Or even Reagan and Nixon’s best performances when they beat very left wing Democrats (do I hear an echo?) by substantial margins. But it could be similar to the crushing of Barry Goldwater who was the worst performing Republican since the 1936 vote.

Of course, it might be simpler than that. Trump may simply be trying to change the channel – anything to get away from his attack on a Muslim American war hero and the subsequent close examination of his own draft deferments during the Vietnam War. It worked for him when he got into trouble accusing a judge of bias against him, why not now?

Because now, we are into the real race. Now, there is only him and Clinton (with apologies to third party supporters). Now, nothing will go away and the self-inflicted wounds of the GOP campaign threaten not only Trump’s defeat but maybe the destruction of the Republican party for the next 20 years.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Future of Energy

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This morning I woke up to the news that the first round-the-world flight of a solar-powered plane was completed. There were a lot of technical difficulties along the way as one might expect when something is done for the first time and I don’t expect to be flying to Yellowknife in a solar plane anytime soon. Still, it was still a remarkable achievement and a probable signpost of things to come.

On the same day, another news report talked about the dramatic decline in the number of oil rigs operating in North America. Since last year, the number has been cut in half. Despite persistently low oil prices, demand for the black goop continues to moderate. While bad news for oil producing regions, it may be excellent news for the rest of the world.

While oil is decried for its polluting qualities (250,000 liters are currently fouling the waters of northern Saskatchewan) and for its contribution to climate change, it is its impact on global politics that may be the most pernicious. Oil fuels the terrorist activities of ISIL and has led to social, political and military conflict across the globe. While North Americans haven’t actually come to blows on their own soil in recent years – they have been sent to fight in the oil wars in the Middle East for years. Conflict in the South China Sea, with Beijing ordering the construction of fake islands to spread its influence, is completely about access to oil reserves that lie under those waters.

The end of oil would create massive social disruptions (these are already occurring in Venezuela and Nigeria where falling oil prices have placed strains on governments and economies) and would undoubtedly impoverish some countries – though not Norway who cleverly banked their oil revenues. Even the Canadian economy would not be immune to the long term decline of oil prices – but we have the advantage of diversity and while some regions would lose out, others would stand to gain from shifts in energy consumption away from oil and toward solar, wind, hydro and other alternatives.

Energy use is likely to continue to grow over time and in the past that has always meant the growth in the consumption of oil. But as alternatives to oil like solar (and, by the way, you can thank Obama in large part for that) gain ground, we may be able to raise the standard of living of people across the world without the price of pollution or global conflict. After all, the sun shines and the wind blows wherever people live on this planet – with equal distribution a major irritant for global conflict will disappear. And oil will cease to be the bankroll for dictators and terrorists.

That would be a sunny future indeed. And that’s ten minutes.

Builders and Wreckers

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There are two types of people: those who separate the world into categories and those who don’t.

Seriously though, I’ve found in my years of observing them that politicians often do fall into two categories: builders and wreckers. It is not really an ideological vision – I can name plenty of conservative builders. John A. MacDonald, for example, or Robert Borden. More recently, John Diefenbaker and even Brian Mulroney (who started to look good after the wreckers took over his party). You can find conservative builders in every country. These are men and women who have a particular vision for the world that is expansive and constructive. You might not agree with their vision but you have to acknowledge that it’s there.

There are wreckers on the left as well – though they often masquerade as builders. I suspect history will judge Hugo Chavez as a wrecker, rather than a visionary. He didn’t build a true socialist society but rather squandered the nation’s resource wealth to pay for populist projects. When the money was gone, so was the state. He could have taken a more prudent approach – like Norway which has secured its long term security under both left and right wing governments.

Canada has recently changed governments and a lot of people have suggested that it has taken little time to do away with the previous PM’s legacy. I would argue that is because Mr. Harper had no real legacy. His party was a party of the small – they had no vision for the future but only a determination to tear down what previous generations had built – peacekeeping, an open society of expansive human rights, social safety nets, environmental protections. It left a lot of rubble to clean up but there was nothing there to get in the way of rebuilding.

It’s too early to judge what Mr. Trudeau will be. He is certainly an activist and seems to have a specific vision – quite clear when you wipe away the hype over selfies and public relations – of the Canada he wants to build or, at the very least, restore. But he needs to go beyond restoration of previous glories and do something new and big. Restoration is always a conservative project and often lapses into a subtle form of wrecking, called petrification.

Like making America great again. While Mr. Trump claims he wants to build a wall, it doesn’t appear that he plans to build anything else. Indeed he has all the hallmarks of a wrecker on a grand scale – certainly his legacy of corporate bankruptcies and a failed university would suggest that. But more importantly he wants to tear down social safety nets and environmental protections – elements that provide the only protection most Americans (including the vast majority of his supporters) against rapacious capitalism.

I might have some doubts about Ms. Clinton’s builder credentials – though I think they’ve improved because of a push from Mr. Sanders – but I know she will at least keep what America has built. And maybe keeping America great is better than some vague promise to make it great again.

And that’s ten minutes – back again for an indeterminate run.

Right to Die

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Yesterday, an 81 year old man suffering from terminal cancer and in terrible pain that could not be relieved or mitigated was assisted in dying by his physician. This came one day after a judge ruled that the procedure could go ahead. This was the first individual, outside of Quebec, to use the Supreme Court ruling of last year to end his life.

Quebec and the Supreme Court have long been critical to changing the law to reflect the changing social mores of Canada. It was Quebec courts – or more specifically Quebec juries – that initially struck down the provisions of the Criminal Code prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court ratified those decisions and when the Canadian Senate refused to pass new laws proposed by the Mulroney Conservative government, Canada became the first country in the world to have abortion a matter of public policy rather than of the law.

Once again it was case law from Quebec that led to the Supreme Court to strike down the criminal code provisions against physician assisted death and establishing the court-approval process in advance of a new law being passed by Parliament to regulate the process. This law is expected to pass (as required by the Court) by the end of June.

What is most striking about this decision is that it is a reversal of the decision the Court made twenty years ago in the Sue Rodriguez case. Then, in a split ruling, the Court ruled that assisted suicide would remain a crime and that those suffering an inevitable and painful demise had no recourse.

There are those who argue that this is a slippery slope and that it is immoral. There is no evidence for the former and the latter is a matter of debate – a debate that will undoubtedly occur in the House of Commons and the Senate. The government is likely to create a system of approval rife with safeguards and oversights. It is critical that the right to die remain an individual right – with decisions made solely by competent individuals free from family or institutional coercion.

The right to die decision – like the abortion one before it – was based in a legal argument that the law, including constitutional law, must evolve and may change as society changes. The Courts in Canada have not always been so liberal in their interpretation – we had to send a case to the Law Lords in London to recognize that women were persons back in the 1930s – but have grown more flexible when Canada adopted its new Constitution along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This is quite different from the debates that rage in the United States where some believe the Constitution should be interpreted as the founding fathers intended (though the same jurists made an exception for Second Amendment rights in the greatest example of judicial activism ever). They accept – barely – those amendments that outlawed slavery and gave women the vote, but otherwise want to lock America into a past that has long ceased to be relevant to most modern Americans.

Yet another reason I’m thankful for being born Canadian.

And that’s ten minutes, eh?

Church and State

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While many Americans have trouble telling the difference between their country and Canada and even more Canadians live in a state of anxiety about that apparent lack of difference, I suffer from no such illusions. There are dozens of deep differences between our societies; one of the most profound is the role of religion in politics.

It is not that the religious do not try to impose their views on us. Most recently the Catholic archbishops have suggested that those who support physician assisted dying cannot expect to receive a church burial. Similar threats have been made in the past; I expect this one will have no more impact than the others. Canadians and, more importantly, Canadian politicians see no particular role for religion in the governing of the state.

Many people, for example, were surprised to discover that Pierre Trudeau, who legalized homosexual acts between adults in the late 60s with the famous line, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” was a deeply devout Catholic. The vast majority of Canadian politicians view their personal beliefs as private. And so do the voters. When it was discovered (after his death) that PM Mackenzie King held séances to consult his dead mother on policy matters, most people simply shrugged and said: well, he did a good job and kept his strange views to himself.He is still regarded as one of our greatest Prime Ministers.

It’s hard to imagine a modern American politician being so open and obvious about their beliefs – or lack thereof. Bernie Sanders is purported to be a rational sceptic but he hardly proclaims his doubts from the pulpit. Ted Cruz apparently wants to create a theocracy. When I consider the choice between him and Trump, I have to say that Trump who is vague about his religion (but still eats Ted’s lunch among evangelicals) is the lesser of two evils.

In part, our politics reflect deeper divisions between our nations. America was founded out of religious persecution. Many of its early settlers were Protestant dissidents, fleeing Catholic or Anglican persecution in Europe. The American founding fathers may or may not have been religious themselves (some were, some almost certainly weren’t) but were well aware of what religion, when incorporated in the state (the King of England was also the head of the church), could do to freedom. They explicitly forbade the establishment of a state religion or of the dominance of one faith over the other. They’ve been fighting about it ever since.

Canada, on the other hand, came later, when class and nationalism were the driving forces of both oppression and revolution. Religion had a role (especially in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution of the 60s) but not a central one. Early Prime Ministers may well have proclaimed Canada to be a Christian country but the near equal balance of Catholics and Protestants in the population made them wary of incorporating much dogma into the law. Since World War II, religion has grown increasingly silent which may be related to why ‘none’ is the answer one in four Canadians give when asked their religion on the census. The number of non-religious is lower (but growing) in the USA – though fewer Americans than Canadians claim to actually be atheists; in part, it may be to avoid trouble.

Maybe this is why it is easier for Canada to accept immigrants of diverse faiths. We were raised to think that religion is nothing to fear; Americans apparently know better.

And that’s ten minutes.