Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010: Year in Review

2010 has been a rough year. Perhaps we remember the bad times more than the good, but I do not think that many could doubt we have faced many trials in the past twelve months.

2010 started with the massive earthquake in Haiti. Despite nearly a year having passed Haiti is still struggling to recover. The initial outreach by the global community has waned, and as has our attention.

On a more positive note the February Winter Olympics were a massive success for Canada. It was a great moment in our collective national memory. It felt like a massive surge of patriotism across the country, from coast to coast. Canada was well represented on the world stage, and our performance will be tough to beat.

In April the Icelandic volcano, which shut down European flights, leaving thousands stranded. It seemed like Mother Nature was having a field day. But we got ours back when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. When historians look back at 2010, it seems like the massive pollution and destruction that occurred will be what keeps their interest, and notes this year.

Spring saw Greece enter a financial crisis, triggering a ripple in the European economy, which has yet to stop.

Around the world during the summer and fall saw political and social unrest. The problems in the global economy caused pain on the ground. Riots, protests and unrest marked much of the past twelve months.

The consequences were manifested when in November when the U.S. Congress switched from complete Democratic control to a Republican controlled House of Representatives. President Obama, who won in 2008 in a landslide was rebuffed by the American public.

The 2000s have been called the Lost Decade. 2010 has not proved much of an improvement. So here’s to 2011, may it be more gentle to the world than 2010 was.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'Tis the Season

Normally, at this time of year, it is easy to become disheartened and sickened by the commercialization and greed that seems to consume the culture, and society. Commercialism is a bothersome and worrisome for me, but that is not what I want to talk about.

The greatness of human character often comes forward now. It is always encouraging to see people take their time and money and donate to charitable causes. The contrast between the extreme commercialism and capitalism with community groups asking for small donations is pleasant. At the mall I frequent the Salvation Army’s stand is across from a luxurious jewellery shop. During December I try to drop whatever change I have from Christmas purchases to the cause.

Christmas is a difficult time of year for many, as is well known – emotionally and economically. Families who cannot afford even modest gifts for their children, people who don’t have anyone to spend the holidays with, or people who must weather the brutal weather while others sit in comfort.

I’m not saying that everyone must go out to their nearest soup kitchen and spend all of the holidays there, but I would like to encourage the few that read this blog to give a little something – donate a toy, or food, or money, or time to a charity that you believe in.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Best Disinfectant for Brampton

Despite living in St. Catharines for about five years now I still consider Brampton to be home. Though I voted in St. Catharines I like to keep an ear to the ground for what’s happening in Brampton. Shortly before the election allegations that Mayor Susan Fennell has some inappropriate financial dealings surfaced.

Susan Fennell won the mayoral election for 50.7% of the vote. Her nearest competitors was 30 points behind. Pressure has been building for an integrity commissioner. Fennell has asked the City Manager to provide a report on the viability and usefulness of getting an integrity commissioner, further delaying the issue.

The city manager recommended against the commissioner post in 2007. I somehow doubt she has changed her mind in the intervening three years. According to a recent article in the Toronto Star, Mayor Fennell has been holding secret meetings with members of council – her closest allies – on the question of an integrity commissioner.

While the Mayor’s financial dealings do worry me, I do not know if an integrity commissioner is needed. It seems like an expensive and burdensome post that makes it more difficult for candidates to run for local offices. I assume that an integrity commissioner would also become responsible for overseeing aspects of candidates for election. But, I’m willing to admit that I’m wrong. Would it not be better to force politicians to publicly disclose their financial deals, pass laws to ban certain questionable or corrupt activities? I do not see why the police could not be called on to investigate allegations of corruption, instead of another city bureaucrat.

However, it is worrying that secret meetings of council members are occurring. Public disclosure is the best way to ensure that government is functioning honestly. Backdoor meetings hide the business of the city, which defeats the mission of city council meetings being open to the public. If the media and citizenry were able to scrutinize their government, than we wouldn’t need a commissioner. I hope Brampton cleans up this mess, it has been known to be a city with good government. Next it must deserve that reputation.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

For Americans, their political system is set on a very specific clock. Without an intense overhaul of their political system anyone can tell you the date of every major election they will have between now and.... well forever I suppose. Whether the American Republic will last forever is a different discussion altogether (though the answer is no).

The reason the Americans can tell you when their elections will be is because they have set election dates. On the first Tuesday after November 1st elections are held. If you ask when the next federal election will be to a Canadian, at best, he or she could give an educated guess. Or worse, a wild stab in the dark. I follow Canadian politics closely and I have no idea. So-called experts can only hazard a guess. Right now the person who is in the most control of the date of the next Canadian election is the Prime Minister himself, Stephen Harper, and I bet he does not even know when the next election will occur. Unless he’s scheming.

Canada, for the most part does not have fixed election dates. Most parliaments in Canada are only allowed to sit for a maximum of five years, unless there is a major crisis – such as war, which can extend it. Parliaments can fall at any time. A simple motion of no-confidence sponsored by the opposition or the government would lead to an election following dissolution.

Four jurisdictions in Canada have fixed, or semi-fixed election dates: British Columbia, Ontario, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories. The Northwest Territories chose to fix elections because holding elections in the winter in such a jurisdiction was less than pleasant.

In Canada municipalities also have fixed election dates. Elections, for the most part, are held every four years at roughly the same time.

What made me write this was something I noticed about American media coverage following the 2010 Midterms. Within hours of the outcome becoming clear the pundits and newscasters began to postulate on 2012. That, generally speaking, does not happen in Canada. When an election finishes in Canada, or even Britain, there is about a week worth of analysis, maybe more if it was a close election. Then the media usually starts focusing on the “What next?” story.

Questions circulate over how the new Premier/Prime Minister will govern, who he or she will bring into Cabinet, if there will be a coalition and what policies will come forward. Then, because we just finished an election, we are generally spared election talk for about 6 months. Then periodic crises (if it is a minority parliament) draw our attention to the possibility of an election. Elections come and go, and after about 8 weeks it’s all over. Between these periods is, generally, governing. On the other hand with two years until the 2012 elections the American political machine is gearing up. Governing will take a backseat to partisanship for the next two years. I’ll take political jockeying over elections over non-stop politics any day.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pooling Together

This is somewhat of a rant posting. I have been thinking about this topic for about six months now. S.O.V. is an abbreviation that is common in traffic planning. It stands for Single Occupancy Vehicle. I do not own my own car. This is partly through choice, and financial constraint.

During the summer I worked at my university. Every morning for three months I took the bus to work. I live near a two-lane arterial road in my current city. While I stood in at the bus shelter I watched the cars and trucks and SUVs pass me by. I started to notice something I found peculiar with the cars that were passing me on this major avenue. Virtually all of them had a single passenger.

I watched the cars pass me on the road I could not help but wonder how many of them originated from similar places. More to the point I could not help but wonder how many of them were going to nearby places. It is impossible for me to know the actual destination and origin point of the commuters that passed me on the road, but in my life I have experienced concrete examples of people failing to carpool.

In my family, one member lives in the same neighbourhood as fellow co-workers. Every morning three of them drive from the same neighbourhood to a distant office park in a different city. If the three of them pooled resources they would spend one third the money on gasoline and take two cars off the congested route to their works. They would also force their work to provide less parking and have a more social commute.

Generally speaking I am very much in favour of car pools, and policies which support them, like car pool lanes on highways. But that’s easy for me to say as a person without a car I suppose.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What About the Boys?

The classic liberal inside me rails against looking at people as categories. As I’ve spoken about before I don’t like it when people accept birth as a recipe for destiny. Being born a certain race or a certain class does not determine the path for the rest of your life. This belief sits at the heart of my worldview.

Likewise I would like to believe that a person’s gender does not inevitably shape his/her life. I said I would like to believe. Gender roles are fundamental in every society. Natural and cultural values are assigned to the sexes and shape our interactions. In our society we are aiming for true equality between men and women. At this, we are failing. Boys are getting left behind.

I was thumbing through the October 25 issue of Maclean’s magazine and discovered this article. There are growing trends amongst the youth in Canada that give me pause about the future of men in our society. It is a widely known fact that universities are increasingly skewing towards women, roughly 60-40 female: male. At first I had no concern over this, but upon reading this Maclean’s article, it is clear that the trouble starts early on.

Ontario secondary schools are divided into two major streams, applied and academic. Applied is a less intensive program academically. Applied students are disproportionately male. Are we to accept that men are simply dumber than women?

The article points to the fact that males mature slower than females. This creates a gap in early years that boys may interpret as a weakness in education, turning them off. However, Maclean’s briefly points to another factor that I think may be more important.

Over the last 30 years or so education has transformed from a teacher-centred practice to a student-centred practice. The cliché of women being more in touch with their feelings, and attuned to their own emotions and thoughts allows them to succeed in this type of environment. On the other hand, boys tend to thrive when there is strong structure and a more authoritarian leader in the classroom. Part of me wants to believe that men and women don’t respond differently to different styles of teaching, but it seems they may.

In a previous era when these boys dropped out of high school they would find work in factories and shops and earn a respectable living for decades. From this healthy salary they could raise a family, and live a comfortable middle-class existence. That’s not the case anymore. What becomes of these young men?

Drop-out rates are higher for men than women. According to the article many women drop out of high school to start/raise a family (or did), young men who drop out don’t do that generally. The title of this article is what caught my eye most, “Are we raising our boys to be underachieving men?” Sometimes when I looked into the faces of my students, or think about my peers I do not see the drive and ambition I hope to. Too much apathy, and a disregard for their own futures means that they may be less bright, and frankly - dull.

I’m not a gender warrior, my point isn’t that feminism has gone too far and now everything is screwed up. I wonder now that professions are skewing female how this will affect society. I have a lifetime to watch it unfold, and so do the young boys the system isn’t working for now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Züming to Success

Readers, recently I posted on a discussion of Brampton’s upcoming experiment on Bus Rapid Transit known as Züm. The service has been in operation now for over a month. Sadly, I haven’t myself been able to access it. I’ve been home once this semester and it wasn’t online then. Friends of mine back in Brampton have told me positive things about the system so far.

Züm recently pointed its Facebook Fans to the following news article.

According to the article, Züm has contributed to a 16% increase in ridership for Brampton Transit along the Queen Street Corridor. This is an exciting development. Whether or not this can be sustained is something else entirely, but it is a promising start.

Many critics suggested that Züm could not work in a low-density, suburban city like Brampton. I feel that characterization also doesn’t match the city, but Züm is proving critics wrong, at least for now.

I hope the next city council continues to support Züm and the program, and that Brampton can become a leader for cities such as itself in transportation innovation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Prediction Results - 2010

So this week I want to reflect on how accurate my prediction was for the American midterm elections last Tuesday. I apologize for not posting last night, as usual, but I was delayed.

Of the Governors’ races I predicted 32 correctly. I got three wrong and two are yet to be determined. The three I called incorrectly were Illinois, Hawaii, and Rhode Island. These three states favour Democrats generally and elected Republicans or former-Republicans. I figured Illinois would favour the Republicans, and that since Kirk won the Senate seat there that he would pull along Brady to the Governor’s Mansion. The race in Hawaii received little polling and the state normally votes very strongly for the Dems. Rhode Island was in the middle of the three-way race. Linc Chaffee, a former-Republican Senator turned independent, managed to beat out the Democrat. The two races that are being recounted – Minnesota and Vermont – are favouring the Democrats, who I picked to win. So of 35 called races I got 32.

In the Senate there were 37 races. I predicted 33 races successfully, 3 unsuccessfully and 1, Alaska, has yet to be called. The three that I called incorrectly were Colorado, Nevada, and West Virginia. I predicted all 3 would go to the Republicans, but the Democrats managed to hang on/win. Colorado was very, very close, so I don’t feel so bad about that one. The polling for it was nuts. Two polls would come out the same day showing Ken Buck up 5% and another with Michael Bennett up 4%. It made no sense, but I figured Colorado would go Red. Oops.

Sharron Angle failed to gain a majority of support in Nevada. Harry Reid beat her 50-44 with approximately 5% casting their ballots for none of the above, or another candidate. I was deeply impressed with Harry Reid’s win, and I honestly did not think it was at all possible. I have heard from pundits that he won on the back of Hispanic voters. Frankly, I think he won by being the lesser evil of two despised candidates.

West Virginia was a bit of a gamble on my part. West Virginia never like President Obama, and I figured they would send a message by keeping their popular governor in Charleston and sending a Republican to Washington. Oops.

In addition in Alaska over 40% of the vote is Write-Ins, and Miller got 34%. I haven’t lost hope that Miller beat Murkowski yet, but if one in four Murkowski voters filled out their ballots incorrectly than that is game over for them. I’d rather Murkowski win overall, but Miller is who I put my money on.

If I may brag now, I got over 90% of my predictions correct, which I think is a pretty good prediction. The sad news now for election watchers is that it is time to start governing America again. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Education and Elections

It’s a political junky’s favourite day – election day. I’m avidly following on television. So far my prediction is holding up pretty well, but it is still very early. As near as I can tell I’m wrong about one race.

We just left behind a municipal election. One election people pay very little attention to are the elections of school board trustees. Even though school board trustees are possibly the lowest level of government we elect, they are the highest officials in our educational system. The Minister of Education has a lot of power, yes, but much of the time the Ministry outlines broad policy and then school boards determine local policy. Local boards often overlook policy recommendations from Toronto, or put them in the drawer. Boards have a lot of power, more than people realize.

Yet most school board elections get only a few thousand votes. Most people do not bother to investigate the candidates. It is hard to imagine that in an area of such importance that we care so little. Education is often held up as the key determinant of economic competitiveness in the 21st century. How can we say we’re taking education as a serious matter if we don’t examine the policies being implemented in our area?

There are some matters that I think schools should take into consideration right now. Here are two ideas that I think if introduced would generate a healthy change. First, research has consistently shown that if schools start a little bit later that it makes a big difference. In my experience students don’t wake up until about ten, but we drag them in and whip them into paying attention. I wonder how different a school environment would be if we went from an 8:30-2:30 clock to a 10-4 clock.

Something else I think would transform schools is if we provided more free lunches and breakfasts. Too many of my students come to school hungry. They haven’t had any breakfasts, and if they do it is a poor one. I’ve seen students swigging from 750 mL Coke bottles at 9:30 in the morning, or eating from bags of chips during O Canada. I’m not typically an advocate of institutions intruding on what I consider the domain of personal and familial responsibility, but if some won’t take care of their children, then someone must.

Sometimes I feel no one is taking the education process serious. It’s either critical to our success as a city, province and country or it’s not. If it is, then we should treat it with the respect it deserves.

Now, I’m going to go watch more election results to get my fix.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Give Peace a Chance

Today at school I spoke with someone about the election results in Toronto. Last night Rob Ford was elected with 47% in the municipal election in Toronto for mayor. To say Rob Ford has been a controversial character in this year’s election is somewhat of an understatement.

Some of the conservative elements of my mind think that Ford has been the target of the liberal-elite that characterizes every major metropolitan area. Ford does not have the refined elite air about him, not in the slightest. I don’t believe Smitherman did either, but at least he ran in the right circles from the point of view of these so-called elites.

Attempts to caricature Ford as an extremist seems baseless. He’s a Toronto city councillor, that gets you to Red Tory at best. That doesn’t mean Ford is not to the right of the average Torontonian, but I doubt he’s a paleo-conservative that Dick Cheney would be proud of.

Attacks on Ford’s personal failings, well, that’s something else entirely. Drug use and allegations of domestic violence may have soured my vote for him. I probably would have voted for Joe Pantalone, but I didn’t follow the race that closely.

While I have a very small readership there’s something I believe in that I wished more people would follow. While I am highly critical of candidates during a campaign, once their elected I think a certain grace period should be allowed before we start making judgments on their competence and effectiveness.

One thing I worry about is whether or not Rob Ford is a fiscal conservative or a fiscal extremist. I have, at times, labelled myself a fiscal conservative. Being smart about balancing budgets and cutting spending requires a surgeon’s hands and a scalpel. Ford has made comments, such as removing streetcar lines (which was a rumour denied by the campaign), that he intends to tackle the budget with a hacksaw and the grace of a drunk.

That being said, I am going to reserve final judgement until Ford actually does something I can evaluate. I bet Mayor-Elect Ford wishes the media would cut him the slack a small-time blogger does.

Also, congratulations to the candidates that won in Ontario's municipal/local elections yesterday. Best of luck in serving your communities and leading them into the 21st century.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

2010 U.S. Midterm Election Prediction

I can't resist making a prediction. The election will be going on in two weeks time, Tuesday November 2, 2010. Despite what I said a few months ago I did do predictions for the governor's races as well. I have no firm prediction about the outcome of the election in the House of Representatives. What I will predict is that the U.S. House of Representatives will be taken over by the Republican Party, I predict they will capture 45 seats, but that is gut instinct and not based on any science. I'll post in a couple weeks to see how well my prediction turned out, and discuss the results broadly.

Here is something... controversial in my U.S. Senate prediction. My current numbers show that the Senate will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. This will be a massive turning point in the American political narrative, and the Obama presidency. With no clear majority both parties will have to work hand-in-hand to get ANYTHING done. Given how politics has been shaped over the last two years I sincerely doubt that can happen. Senate Predictions are below.

As for the Governors? Well, it tends to be less nationally partisan, each state has its own distinct politics. But since the census has been conducted the states are going to redesign the congressional district boundaries, and given the tradition of gerrymandering (see a previous blog entry) who controls the governors' mansions will determine who may hold the U.S. House of Representatives in the coming 10 years. For the Governors I predict that by the end of Tuesday night there will be 30 states with Republican governors and 20 with Democratic governors. I predict that Republicans will win 24 of the 36 governor races.

Predictions are broken into Solid, Likely, Lean, Slight, and Toss Up. If there is no subcategory it's because no race matches that description from my estimation.

Senate Prediction

I've ranked the races by those most likely to be won by Republicans to those most likely to be won by Democrats.

Solid Republican

South Carolina - DeMint
Idaho - Crapo
North Dakota - Hoeven
Kansas - Moran
Oklahoma - Coburn
Arizona - McCain
Alabama - Shelby
Utah - Lee
South Dakota - Thune
Arkansas - Boozman
Iowa - Grassley
Indiana - Coats
Louisiana - Vitter
Georgia - Isakson
North Carolina - Burr

Likely Republican

Florida - Rubio
Ohio - Portman
Pennsylvania - Toomey
Missouri - Blunt

Lean Republican

Wisconsin - Johnson
New Hampshire - Ayotte
Kentucky - Paul
Colorado - Buck

Toss Up

Alaska - Miller - Republican
Nevada - Angle - Republican
Illinois - Kirk - Republican
West Virginia - Raese - Republican

Slight Democratic

California - Boxer
Washington - Murray

Likely Democratic

Connecticut - Blumenthal

Solid Democratic

Oregon - Wyden
New York - Gillibrand
Delaware - Coons
Vermont - Leahy
New York - Schumer
Maryland - Mikulski
Hawaii - Inouye

Governors Predictions

This follows the same format as the Senate above.

Solid Republican

Kansas - Brownback
Wyoming - Mead
Nebraska - Heineman
Utah - Herbert
South Dakota - Daugaard
Alabama - Bentley
Tennessee - Haslam
Oklahoma - Fallin
Alaska - Parnell
Iowa - Branstad
Idaho - Otter
Michigan - Snyder

Likely Republican

Arizona - Brewer
Texas - Perry
Nevada - Sandoval
Pennsylvania - Corbett
New Mexico - Martinez
South Carolina - Haley

Lean Republican

Georgia - Deal
Illinois - Brady
Wisconsin - Walker

Slight Republican

Maine - LePage
Ohio - Kasich

Toss Up

Florida - Scott - Republican
Oregon - Kitzhaber - Democratic

Slight Democratic

Hawaii - Abercrombie
Vermont - Shumlin

Lean Democratic

Connecticut - Malloy
Rhode Island - Caprio
Minnesota - Dayton
California - Brown
Massachusetts - Patrick
Colorado - Hickenlooper
Maryland - O'Malley
Arkansas - Beebe
New Hampshire - Lynch
New York - Cuomo

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vote, Or Pay a Fine

A look ahead to begin. The American election is on November 2, which is now only three weeks away. Next week I’ll make my final predictions before election day. Normally I hold off a couple days before the event and predict the night of, but I want to get my predictions in sooner rather than later. Look forward to that.

An election is approaching in Ontario. I’m having some trouble participating in the democratic process this time. That being said it got me thinking about how we exercise democracy in this country. The fundamental building block in our democracy is that citizens vote and popularly elect officials to represent their community’s views. There is a part I wonder about. What if no one votes?

Despite what you might hear Canada’s voting rate is not really trending that far downward. In fact in 2006 the turnout was 64.7% and in 58.8% in 2008. 58.8% is the lowest turnout in Canada’s history. Post World War II the highest turnout was 79.4% in the 1958 election. For much of the twentieth century the voting rate has hovered at about 75%. In the 2000s the number averages in about the 60’s.

A majority of Canadians still vote, but what if the number continues to decline? If an election was held and 55% vote, is the election still valid? What about 50%? 45%? What if 30% of Canadians vote in an election? At one point do we say that the elections results are invalid?

I believe that the more people who vote the more legitimate an election result is. Therefore the question comes to mind, why don’t we have compulsory voting? If everyone voted the elections would represent the true voice of the country. For those that don’t want to actually pick a political party or politician they can pick None-of-the-Above.

There is another aspect to consider. It would transform politics. Given that turnout is so important in our elections parties sometimes appeal to the extreme ends of the political spectrum to turnout votes. If everyone was going to vote anyway political parties would have to work on building majorities across their ridings and the country.

Changes would have to be made to our elections. I believe polls would have to be open from 7 AM to 10 PM Sunday to Saturday. That’s in an ideal world. You could also accomplish full voting through early or mail-in voting.

Voting, in my opinion is a civic duty, not just a civic right. It’s a responsibility citizens have to their government to ensure that the system functions as it should. I know there are problems with this idea, but I believe it is something that should be seriously considered if voting rates fall to 50%. I just wonder how far turnout can drop before action must be taken.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

HST: Talking Taxes

This week I’m doing something different. Like a decent cover band, I’m taking requests. Not at all like those lame bands that refuse to play Rage Against the Machine for my friends and I, imbibing respectful social drinks. I was asked to look into the HST.

Harmonized Sales Tax. It’s one of those innocuous phrases that really doesn’t reveal too much about it on the surface. The tax has been harmonized between the federal GST (Goods and Services Tax) and Provincial Sales Tax (of whichever province you are discussing).

I was linked this article discussing the tax. To be truly honest I had not given the HST much consideration. I consider myself an informed and active member of the citizenry, but I didn’t really may much heed to the HST while it was in the height of the debate nor when it was introduced. Why not? Well, I think people often overreact to taxation. That’s not to say that tax increases should not be challenged, but there are some people out there that seem to think there is no such thing as a good tax increase. Clearly that cannot be true, there has to be a justification to, at times, raise taxes, temporarily or permanently.

In the province of Ontario we have structural deficits. That means that our government now spends more than it takes in in revenues, putting the recession aside. The deficit, the annual shortfall is presently at $20 billion. The HST was introduced to close this gap and streamline the taxing process. So, I pose the following question. If we are not to increase taxation, what $20 billion worth of spending and programs would you like to cut? Education? Infrastructure? Healthcare?

As the article’s author, Tony Wilson, points out, the HST is more progressive than the GST, that is it ‘punishes’ low-income individuals less through greater compensation, at least in British Columbia, the case in Ontario, I’m not familiar with the details.

In a way, an increase in the sales tax is the fairest way to increase taxation. Think of it this way. If you increased taxes on income, you’re either employing class warfare and targeting the rich, or you’re pressing on the middle-class, who already have a significant tax burden. Corporate taxes? Well, in the Age of Globalization provinces must remain competitive to ensure that international business is drawn to our shores. Corporate taxes can hurt employment and future investment. Fees almost never raise a significant amount of money. Sales taxes are paid by everyone – citizens, businesses and governments. It’s a tax on everyone because everyone in society buys things. That’s the beauty of a value added tax.

As Wilson points out, the marginal impact of the tax may be very small. Overall, people of British Columbia and Ontario may see very little change in the amount they pay in taxes.

Taxes are a really sensitive issue for some. See, United States of America – Tea Party Movement. I see taxes as the price we pay to live in the type of country and province we do. I find the tax rate my family and I pay reasonable, and when I make a decent salary and government runs off with a good chunk of it, I’ll likely nod and say, that’s the price of living like I do, where I do, and as happily as I do.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Gerrymandering Can Destroy Democracy

Democracy is a highly fragile thing. It’s the kind of institution that without proper care and management quickly falls into a terrible state of disrepair. What of the systemic problems that can take hold in a democracy is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a process in which electoral boundaries are modified specifically to achieve a desired political outcome.

What this means is you try to optimize the number of districts your party can win and minimize the number you opponents can win. This usually involves concentrating your strength so you have areas that will never come close to electing the other party.

The ironic thing about gerrymandering is it is probably as old as democracy or representative government itself. Britain, the first democracy, had a problem known as “rotten boroughs”, which were electoral districts with no or marginal population. One, in fact, was a community that had gotten swallowed by the sea but still managed to send a member of parliament to Westminster.

The United States is notoriously bad for gerrymandering. In Canada most of our redistricting is done by independent commissions with limited political bias. Though there are complaints is by no means systematic. Check out this Map. Here you can clearly see strange shapes in the districts. The meander all over the map of Southern California so that friendly neighbourhoods to one party or another are together so that they are reliably Democratic or Republican. This is most clear with rural, and ethnic voters who predictably vote for one party over the other.

How does gerrymandering hurt democracy? At the core of democratic values is one person, one vote – gerrymandering screws with that idea. It goes as follows. Every citizen is permitted one vote, and exercises it to elect local representatives. However, if parties determine which party will reliably control which district than the freedom of choice is taken away. Though there is a bigger problem. Candidates that win their districts tend to be in the middle of their district’s values. In a healthy, non-gerrymandered democracy this produces a lot of centrist politicians. In a gerrymandered democracy it produces extremists. Why? Well, if a district is reliably liberal or conservative the representative only has to worry about challengers from within the party. Therefore they can be as radical as they want because they will not be kicked out on election day.

Gerrymandering fosters extremists and extremists break down the governing process. Gerrymandering weighs down the political parties with large numbers of hard left and hard right politicians that cannot compromise for fear of losing their seat to someone more radical than they are. On the other hand when a party sweeps to power they only do so by electing many more moderates than they are used to in their party, to win these liberal/conservative districts where their party normally doesn’t perform. The governing party naturally begins to lose traction and fall apart because the extremists and centrists can’t get along.

Gerrymandering interferes with the creation of a healthy, vibrant centre in public debate, and therefore effective government. Certain parts of a given country are going to be more liberal and more conservative, there’s no point in forcing the public’s hand by rigging the system. It’s my opinion that the road to salvation for American politics is first to get independent redistricting underway, and in Canada it is necessary to protect the system we already have.

One person, one vote is the central value of democracy, but it starts to lose meaning if everyone you vote with agrees with you.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Goodbye Moderates

I worry when it looks like moderates are getting mowed down. There is something alarming when political parties cannot hold a substantial presence in the middle of the political spectrum. I see the obvious problem with this though, if all political parties are somewhere in the middle they tend to sell out their principles, infuriating their strongest supporters.

Periodically political parties undergo “purges”. I’m not sure how much I like the term purge when describing voter and party anger in real democracies when the origins are much more sinister. Regardless, these events occur. The squishy, compromising middle of a political party gets the sights levelled on it and they start to vanish.

I believe it might be fair to say, that in a way, the Republican Party is undergoing a purge. Political veterans that trace the beginning to the election of President Obama are being short-sighted. The last moderate Republican President was George H.W. Bush. Ever since he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 the Republicans have been moving right, sometimes steadily and other times lurching. This year is a period of lurching. Since 1992 the Republican controlled Congress in 1994 was much more conservative, and continued to be so socially, which culminated in the election of evangelical President George W. Bush.

I think the principal sign of this transformation has been the career of Senator John McCain. In 2000 when he ran for president he was very much a moderate Republican and in the early Bush years he was seen as a centrist, and in fact led a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

This ended in the lead up to the 2008 presidential race when he started to move hard to the right. He adopted virtually all of Bush’s and the conservatives planks as his own, despite being a leader on some issues, which I’ll return to. 2010 saw McCain threatened with a primary challenge from his right. Being faced with conservative opposition McCain went hard right.

The true symbol of this is immigration reform. McCain used to be a major leader on immigration reform, and sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy to make sense of America’s failed policies. In 2010 he vowed not to move to make any compromise at all on immigration. Oh the times they are a changin’.

I’m sure most people have no idea who Mike Castle is. Mr. Castle was the Republican favourite to win the nomination for the Senate seat in Delaware. He was a nine term congressman (that’s 18 years in the House of Representatives), and before that he served two years as Delaware’s Governor. So, when Castle said he wanted to run people who voted for Castle for decades threw their support behind him. Many believe in a year good for Republicans like this, Castle was a shoe-in even in bluish Delaware.

But that’s not going to happen. Castle lost the nomination to a conservative “Tea Party” candidate named Christine O’Donnell, who has no experience in government and a questionable past. Castle was a moderate, would have made a great Senator. O’Donnell if she wins... well, I don’t have much hope.

It’s one thing to turf moderates, but to get rid of the experienced, savvy politicians... that seems reckless.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Race in Canada

It is a particular, peculiar belief of Canadians that racism is a minor element in Canadian life. Canadians take a certain pleasure in looking down upon our American neighbours and their unglamorous relationship with race. The juxtaposition of the slave-owning American Republic to our own country gives us a certain comfort.

While Canada has had a better overall relationship with those whose ancestors originated in Africa centuries ago, it is not so much better that we can stand proud. Our history mirrors that much more of the Northern United States than some Canadian idealism of racial harmony.

Who else? Aboriginal Canadians have a long and tragic relationship with the Newcomers. To this day, as a race, they occupy a lower socio-economic rung from other Canadians. Aboriginal communities are distinctly poorer and face immense social problems compared to their “Canadian” counterparts. Alcohol abuse, suicide, arrest rates are all higher. It’s a painful reality.

Euro-Canadians often disparage Aboriginal demands. They dismiss their historical grievances and view them as leeches on the state. This view has in some form stood with Canadian society for many decades. It is also unlikely to go away in the near future.

What of immigrants? Our immigration policy is comparatively progressive. We welcome the world, so long as they have the skills and resources we want/need. However, we’ve all heard the complaints and muttered anger. “Immigrants get a free ride,” “Look at what they get,” “Twenty of them in one house,” and on and on and on. Anyone who actually met families who immigrated the traditional way will tell you that there’s not much the government offers. Twenty members of a family live in one house because they cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Racial attitudes are ingrained here just as they are in other countries and places. Those ethnic groups associated with crime and poverty are likewise ostracized and, to an extent, ghettoized in Canadian cities. Racial discrimination has long been banished in a legal sense, but it lives on in the minds of Canadians. For better, and for worse racism has not been stamped out. To pretend otherwise is the height of naïveté. Things won’t change overnight. Coming from Brampton and growing up in a massively multi-cultural community I have faith in the future.

Racism has been a major social ill since at least the early modern era. I don’t expect to see it gone in my lifetime, nor my children’s, nor their children’s, but I can hope that the symptoms of this social disorder will fade.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Remembering 9/11

This Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. I think it’s hard for most of us to remember how it all felt that day. CBC Newsworld recently played a documentary called 102 Minutes that Changed America. The documentary recounts the events of the morning of September 11th from the perspective of never-before-seen camera footage from people on the ground in Manhattan and New Jersey. Interspersed were 9-11 emergency calls. Perhaps most haunting was the recorded, real-time conversations between those watching the fires rage in the World Trade Towers.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when a pair of girls watching the NYU Dorm were recording out their window when the second airplane slammed into the other tower. Their shrill screams and instant terror communicated a feeling that washed over anyone who watched that day, “This isn’t an accident.”

My father, and many others, have said that 9/11 will be the Kennedy Assassination for my generation. It is a cultural touch-point that we can all look back on and ask the same question, and we will have an answer to what we did that day.

My 9/11 story is a little strange. On Tuesday September 11, 2001 I was home sick. I had a fever and the flu. After waking up from a restless feverous sleep I turned on the TV and since it was morning television, I put on CNN. CNN already picked up the breaking news of the first tower on fire. Lying in bed with a fever watching something like that you begin to wonder if you’re delusional. I was only 13 at the time. It’s hard to think it was so long ago.

That fear, the fear about what could happen next was intense. Canadian media was scared about the planes overhead our nation, while the Americans counted down the planes they didn’t have an account for. The rumours over what got hit next, and the idea that anywhere could be next.

When commentators last December and January started calling the decade between 2000 and 2009 a lost decade it was easy to know what they meant. The events that stemmed from 9/11 are still echoing around the world. As a historian I wonder how 9/11 will fit in the context of the next century. Will it be a blip? Something whose impact will fade in the coming decade, or is the death of Franz Ferdinand, whose impact shaped the modern world? Maybe I’ll leave long enough to know, but I was there for the start

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An American Monarch

I think the American presidency suffers from certain problems surrounding the expectations of the American public. This became most clear to me during the BP Gulf Coast Oil Disaster. I follow American and Canadian media quite actively. One of the key criticisms levelled at President Barack Obama was that he was emoting.

That’s right, emoting. Commentators were concerned that Obama wasn’t getting angry enough. Similarly, a comparable problem has developed involving the economy. Talking heads are critical of Obama for not being able to express that he feels the pain of the American public going through economic hardship. This inability is often contrasted to Bill Clinton, who is thought to have done the job of connecting to the public superbly.

It seems the American public doesn’t just want an administrator, but someone to be the penultimate symbol of American life to sit in the executive. One of the comments I heard after Barack Obama was elected was that it will be nice to see a President in the White House with young children, which is the first time this has happened since John F. Kennedy. Why should that matter? Information indicates that George Bush won election largely on the basis that he was the candidate people would rather have a beer with. How is that a relevant determinant of who should lead the federal executive?

Last week President Obama was on vacation with his family. Photos were released that featured Obama swimming with his children. It’s as though the American media establishment and public are obsessed with the personage of the America President, as more a celebrity than a leader.

I cannot help but compare this to Canada. Stephen Harper has been rarely photographed on vacation with his family, though he was famously seen taking his son to school many years ago. Harper also has a young family, though they rarely are mentioned or seen by the public. Though Canada is going through a recession no one has asked the Prime Minister to share the pain of the Canadian public. Contrarily, Canadians seem to pick their leaders, largely, on the basis of their managerial talent, like a meritocracy.

Perhaps the American public would be better served if they just make their desires more formalized. The Americans should get a royal family.

An American monarch could fill all the ceremonial, and public relations roles that now clutter the President’s schedule. No more ribbon-cuttings, and speeches about mundane asinine topics, the President could focus on his constitutional duties. In fact, the mystic of the imperial presidency could be stripped away. Because the American President has held such an informal regal authority it has resulted in the presidency exceeding its constitutional authority. If the presidency was reduced to the stature of the Speaker of the House, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or Leader of the Senate, which it should be, perhaps the American system of government would work better.

The allusion to the President as monarch is not a new idea. The Kennedy administration was often referred to as Camelot. As mentioned above, the imperial presidency is an idea that has existed since the 60’s. The law suggests that the President may not be sued directly, or taken to court and that his advisers have legal immunity, just like monarchs of older times.

Many Canadians are familiar with Queen Elizabeth’s address to the Empire during the Blitz as a young girl in World War II. Her speech helped to connect her to the British public and motivate them. Likewise her Christmas address is tradition. The Speech from the Throne and the State of the Union are not terribly dissimilar.

Perhaps it is time for the American people to abandon the notion of a republic. The King or Queen of America can be the figurehead they so desire, who they foist their national narrative and ambitions upon. A living symbol of the American nation. Then, finally, the American President can get down to his/her real purpose – governing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Dark Side of NIMBYism

Nimbyism is an interesting concept. NIMBY is short for Not In My Back-Yard. A couple weeks ago I talked about how opposition against freeway expansions in the 1960s and 1970s by communities helped to save inner-city neighbourhoods. NIMBY in the name of self-preservation is an admirable goal, or so it seems to me.

Nimby has a less pleasant face though. Nimby is an expression of popular democracy, and it is the actions of the people affecting the actions of government. It proves useful because politicians and bureaucrats can be death to disenfranchised and marginalized groups, particularly groups that are taken for granted, or ignored by the political process. However, it also means that decisions that have no real negative impact on a community, but are unpopular can be stopped.

The issue which has been given the shorthand “the Ground Zero Mosque” is representative, in a way, of this idea. The Park 51 Islamic community centre aside, the issue has drawn a great deal of attention to the plights of similar cases around the United States. According to media reports, mosques (actual ones, not community centres) have faced major opposition in Tennessee, Wisconsin and California. While I haven’t taken the time to explore each issue in depth I get the distinct impression that regardless of the local particulars there is a segment of the population that says that one mosque is one mosque too many.

Briefly looking at the issue of the proposed community centre in Lower Manhattan, I watched an episode of Hardball with Chris Mathews from August 23rd, and he raised an interesting point. How far away must the mosque be to be acceptable? The question gets to the heart of the matter. If you believe there is an inherent right to build the centre in the First Amendment, which most do, then the question is a matter of details. The building would be 2 blocks away, should it be 5? Or 10? Or 12, such as an existing mosque?

Most people in the United States would say that a mosque has a right to be built, but if you ask them do they want one built down the street, in their backyard, they would probably be less comfortable. The source of the discomfort is the problem, very obviously, but the idea of supporting something in abstract but not in concrete causes us a great deal of trouble.

We see this everywhere. Nimby advocates fight issues that would benefit their communities as a whole potentially if it interferes with their local existence or is a perceived threat. If too many people say “Not in my backyard!” soon it’s everyone’s backyard and there’s nowhere to make necessary changes. Change is necessary, even if it is uncomfortable.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Faces of the Republican Party

It’s not unusual for people to think of the Republicans as a racist party. It’s not an entirely unearned smear against them. Republicans in decades past have performed very poorly against Democrats among ethnic minorities. The skew in preference is most clear in African Americans where often 9 in 10 vote for Democratic candidates over Republicans. The Latino community also slants towards the Democrats to the tune of about two-thirds. According to Pew Research Obama won Hispanics by 67 to 31, which is just slightly above average.

Republicans are well known as the party of old, white men. The reason for this is that older voters, men, and white voters tend to pull the lever next to R more often than D, not by a significant difference, but enough. Until very recently the Republicans in major positions of leadership were all white. However that is changing.

The 1990s had some prominent non-white Republicans on the scene, such as J. C. Watts, an African American from Oklahoma, but I feel the transformation has taken place in the last ten years. The earliest and most prominent name that comes to mind is Bobby Jindal. Jindal was elected as Governor of Louisiana in 2004. Jindal was born in Louisiana to the parents of Indian immigrants. Jindal’s presence on the national stage became greatly underlined as he was repeatedly mentioned as being on the short list for John McCain as Vice-President. He also delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union in 2009, which is a prominent place parties in opposition like to place their rising stars. Jindal is a potential contender for the 2012 Republican nomination for President or Vice-President.

Jindal is a social and economic conservative and possesses all the hallmarks of a 21st century Republican. The fact that he has risen to such prominence with minimal concern of his race in a Deep South state speaks volumes of the present position of the party.

The second major figure that comes to mind on the national stage is Marco Rubio, who is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Florida. Rubio is a Cuban-American, descended from immigrants from the communist dictatorships off the Florida coast. Rubio had a prominent career as a major leader in the Florida legislature. He challenged Republican (now independent) Governor Charlie Crist for the nomination from the right, his campaign succeeded in pushing Crist out of the Republican Party, and now he, Crist and the Democrat are in a three-way race. Rubio has spent time in recent weeks responding to the Republican Party’s reputation amongst Latinos, given that he himself is one.

Rubio’s insurgent right-wing campaign, if successful, will make him a major star in the Republican Party.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in the American Civil War. It has a long and dark racial history. And, for the first time in its history, has a visible minority as the nominee for Governor on the Republican side. Nikki Haley, after being endorsed by Sarah Palin, catapulted into the nomination to win the governorship of the state. The Republicans are heavily favoured to win in South Carolina, and so her nomination almost assures her a place in the Governor’s Mansion, and history.

Nikki Haley is, like Jindal, an Indian-American. Also, like Jindal, she is a Christian, though she was attacked by Republican opponents for being a Muslim. Haley’s campaign reveals two realities in the Republican Party, the old white establishment that has issues with race, and the new face of America, which is increasing not white, and also open to the principals of the free market and family values.

The Republicans aren’t out of the woods yet. The Tea Party folk have employed openly racist rhetoric and imagery against their opponents. Mainstream Republicans realize that their future is in appealing to minority communities as they grow as a proportion of the electorate. Much like the Conservative Party of Canada, unless they diversify their appeal they may be tossed aside in an increasingly multiracial country, but it should not surprise us if the leaders of the Republican Party reflects the population.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Möving Into the Future

Brampton, Ontario is my hometown. It has a reputation as being a sleepy suburb. This is an incorrect assumption. When I was born Brampton's population was about 200,000, today it is well over double that, with 510,000 people in 2010. Can we still call Brampton a suburb when it is now eclipsing Hamilton - Ontario's historic second city?

It's Brampton rapid growth that means its status as a simple suburb is going to end. Projections state that Brampton will exceed 700,000 by 2030. That will certainly change the nature of the city. That being said, it is already changing.

Brampton is a low-density development, by and large. The city government in recent years has come to the realization that we cannot grow out indefinitely. Brampton will reach its boundaries, so it must also grow up as well as out. While the urban form changes from single detached homes to more diverse duplexes, apartments, condominiums, etc. so must our transportation change.

Unlike other cities in Ontario, Brampton does not have historic urban roots. It was a farming community, and so there is no legacy of streetcars. Brampton's modest transit system, Brampton Transit, is exclusively buses. Brampton has access to other networks such as VIA Rail, and GO Transit, but no rapid transit system of its own. For now.

Next month that all changes! In September 2010 Brampton will begin its first ever rapid transit system. The city is using a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, named Züm. Züm is part of a program across Ontario to help cities develop transportation systems. This innovation is ideal to meet Brampton's needs.

What are the merits of a BRT system? First, bus rapid transit, compared to its light rail competition, is dramatically less expensive. The cost in dollars, time, and public patience for light rail (street cars) can make it impractical. Second, rail systems cannot be adjusted to meet changing needs. For example, if the Queen Street line, called the BY Line (Brampton-York), becomes busier than expected all planners have to do is add buses. Or, if it isn't as busy they can eliminate a stop at the end of the line without the cost of wasted rail infrastructure. BRT works for a city like Brampton, which is comparatively low-density. It is a highly cost effective solution to provide a rapid transit option to the city.

Züm begins operations on Main/Hurontario Street and Queen Street this September and plans are on the table to soon begin additional routes along Steeles and Bovaird in years to come. The Züm program offers Brampton a great deal of flexibility for the future. Additional routes can be laid on, and adjustments made the routes such as creating dedicated bus-only lanes, and perhaps upgrading to light rail if even that gets exceeded. These types of programs have met with great success in other cities, and I have great deal of hope for Brampton's gambit.

I'd like to applaud the physical design of the system. The buses look sleek and there is strong attention payed to aesthetic and design features. The look is sharp, distinct and modern. The bright reds set it apart from the whites and blues of regular Brampton Transit. I also like the name, it really communicates the central purpose - which is speed and efficiency.

I think Züm says something else very important about Brampton, that we're ready to a big city, and that we are beginning to see ourselves in that light. Züm makes a specific pitch in its advertising and marketing campaigns to be about "You", or the people of Brampton, that Züm will improve the lives of everyone, and also implicitly that Brampton is on the way up, including its downtown. This is an exciting prospect, and I hope Züm is the beginning of great things in Brampton in terms of transportation.

I encourage everyone to check out Züm's website, here. Especially the video.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Civically Minded

Usually we learn over time to read the instructions. For whatever reasons, we as young people like to dive in and begin work on things without figuring out how to do it first. It’s likely some combination of youthful exuberance and impatience. Those of us who never learn this skill have a lot more problems during the rest of our lives. Some of them inevitably end up on Canada’s Worst Handyman or Driver.

Perhaps the most important thing people are entrusted with that they don’t read the instructions for is citizenship. The owner’s manual of any country, essentially, is its constitution. How many of us have read it? How many of us actually know our specific rights, or only have a vague notion of them from what we’ve heard and read. I’ve heard people in Canada talk about their Fifth Amendment rights, which is, of course, American. No doubt they picked it up from Law and Order.

I’m not going to complain about adolescents or young adults, because it is the system that seems to be failing. Given my interests and education if I become a high school teacher one of the courses I want to teach is Civics. In Ontario students are required to take one half-credit course on Canadian Civics. Four months. It’s the only class in the entire Ontario curriculum specifically dedicated for students to develop an understanding of their roles as citizens, and we give them four months to accomplish it.

My peers often give me strange looks when I say I want to teach Civics. Usually it is taught, poorly, by a teacher who drew a short straw. It requires no special education to teach it, and is usually foisted on someone with a Social Science degree. As a great credit to our political class, a large number of Canadians are apathetic about the political system. The reason is because we are governed comparatively well. Peace, Order and Good Government – the nation’s motto – seems to fit well with how we’ve been going along, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s Chretien, Martin, Harper, Ignatieff, etc. The ship of state continues on a steady-as-she-goes course, likewise with the Province, and with most cities.

Why does Civic Education matter? There are three main reasons that come to mind immediately. First, learning your actual rights and responsibilities. The first is self-explanatory, but the second is often overlooked. As a citizen of a municipality, region, province, and nation you have certain duties to perform. It’s not enough to simply be a citizen, but to be informed and aware of the condition of your body politic. It isn’t just your right to vote, it’s your responsibility. Without your voice the government is incomplete. 40% of the public doesn’t vote, based on Canada’s system of elections if all of them came out and voted it would likely form a majority government, think about that.

Second, representative government requires an active citizenry. Informed, active citizens have changed the face of history. In the 1960s numerous cities across North America faced outrage and protest when plans to construct expressways by demolishing neighbourhoods came on the table. This riled up communities and they resisted. Spadina in Toronto is an example of this. If people said nothing and allowed the municipal government to do as it pleased their homes and community would have been destroyed. People aren’t heard if they don’t speak out.

Third, teaching how to use government more effectively. Government is complex with many layers. By understanding the responsibilities and powers of each level of government and who can get you what you need.

There could be a fourth item, how to politically organize, and what your politics are. I may choose to avoid teaching it, because there is a risk of teaching your ideology. However, there is a benefit to having students learn how to protest, how to politically organize and how to sway the opinions of those in power.

Civics doesn’t just benefit those who learn, but society as a whole. It’s an investment in the future to ensure the stability and health of the country, province, region or municipality. Because after all, the children are our future, and we have to make sure they’re ready to take over.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Obama - A One Term President?

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in November 2008 I assumed that this was the beginning of an eight year reign of the Democrats in the White House. It was a fair thought, at the time. In 2008 Obama was elected in a virtual landslide. He won by a 7% margin, and 365 electoral votes, and won every swing state but Missouri.

What a difference 18 months makes. Since being sworn in the Obama presidency seems to have only hit disaster after disaster – literal or political. The stimulus package passed in early days, and T.A.R.P. which was proposed by the Bush administration, but backed by candidate Obama, which was largely seen as necessary at the time has grown toxically unpopular. The word bailout has become a virtual curse word in the American political lexicon.

Things have only gotten worse. The pledge to hold unemployment to 8% was broken nearly as soon as it happened, which is beyond the control of any political leader. Then there was the debacle involved in passing health care reform. It took a year to pass and left America divided and angry, spurring on the Tea Party movement while disappointing the leftists.

Obama’s approval rating hasn’t been above 50% since November 2009. The most recent polls show more of the American public disapprove rather than approve of President Obama. Political watchers always note when the popularity of a politician drop below 50%. The reason is because in a two-party system if you are below 50% you are far less likely to win. Any win requires 50% + 1 between two candidates.

Now that Obama has consistently sat below 50% and there is a great deal of opposition has congealed. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, it appears the Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps even the Senate. How likely is any of Obama’s policies to pass with Republicans in control of Congress? The label as “The Party of No” seems fitting. Anti-Obama sentiment is strong in the country, and particularly in the Tea and Republican Parties.

Predicting the November 2012 presidential election in July 2010 is completely out of the question. However, the idea that Obama’s re-election is assured is gravely in doubt. It is now more conceivable that 2012 will look like 2004, a highly divisive and contentious election with a comparatively narrow margin for the incumbent, Obama, to return to office.

Obama’s saving grace is that the presidential election is not a referendum, but a choice, and the Republicans will have to find a man or woman with enough appeal, experience and political savvy to knock off the Obama machine.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Teaching Today

While sitting in my dentist office last week I picked up a copy of Maclean's magazine, essentially a Canadian version of Time magazine. As I flipped through the magazine one article in particular caught my attention. The headline was as follows, "Watch and learn, kids". The article discussed the role movies and films have taken in Ontario classrooms over recent years.

Films have long since had a place in the classroom. Educational films have been around since the cliche "duck and cover" videos distributed in the 1950s. However, according to the article and my own anecdotal experience, Hollywood films are increasingly present in the classroom. Films are intended, or at least should be intended to supplement lessons, not provide them. Romeo + Juliet, the Leonardo Dicaprio version, provides additional insight, but in no way should replace the classic text in English classrooms.

The worst offender, according to the Maclean's article, is geography classrooms where films like The Day After Tomorrow are shown. The film has no basis in scientific fact, and teaches nothing of value. Movies nowadays are used as tools to help control classes, as the carrot to reward good behaviour. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this as a concept except that films eat up an extraordinary amount of class time given the length of the films and the periods. In classes of specialized study, like geography, playing a 2-hour movie can cut considerably into the percentage of time for that subject in a semester.

As a future educator I can see the value in using videos in the classroom, but I cannot truly see the value in watching a film that has no connection to the material you are teaching. There would be nothing wrong, in my opinion if in a history class you played the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan to illustrate the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, or in Enemy at the Gates for the fierceness of the Eastern Front.

Students should not have to be openly bribed to pay attention and work in class. Films are being misused by some teachers in my opinions to give themselves a break, which though understandable may be inappropriate.

A documentary is soon to be realized called Waiting for "Superman". The film focuses on the plight in the modern American educational system. I strongly urge you to watch the trailer. While it's easy for us here in Canada to get up on our high horse and look down at the Americans two important ideas are key to keep in mind. One, trends tend to match our continental neighbours. What happens in one tends to exist in the other, so we may be about to plunge with the Americans in quality of education. Second, apathy is a recipe for failure. The system of education and standards of teaching must constantly be revised.

I worry that our system of education in Ontario (and most of Canada) protects teachers and their interests than those of their students. It's not enough to be qualified, you have to be compassionate and caring enough to really make a difference. I've worked with some amazing, and a few bad teachers, and some definitely give the impression of coasting through their lessons and just letting the chips fall where they may. I suppose the first step is to try, both students and teacher for real learning to occur, save the blockbusters for the weekend.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Crisis of Faith: The Liberal Party of Canada

A crisis of faith occurs when a person's worldview is fundamentally challenged and requires, usually, a rapid and drastic alteration to confront the new reality. This is what has happened to the Liberal Party of Canada.

Between 1993 and 2006 the Liberal Party held power in Canada. For most of that period the country and party was under the leadership of Jean Chretien (1993-2003). Chretien's successor Paul Martin began an era of failing leadership for the Liberals. Martin very much earned the moniker Mr. Dithers from his flip-flopping on policies and being chronically indecisive. With the combination of mounting negative views of Martin and the corruption charges of Adscam and the Sponsorship scandal the Liberal party lost power in the 2006 election.

However, looking back it is fairly clear that the Liberal majorities of the 1990s and 2000s were largely fueled not by any grand vision or leadership, but by the fractured Canadian political landscape. The Liberals under Chretien only ever won little more than 40% of the popular vote, which in our system is enough for massive majorities. Soon as a credible alternative could be put to the Liberals - a united Conservative Party - they were elected to government.

Say what you will about Stephen Harper, love him or hate him, but he has made serious missteps in government, mistakes the Liberals should have been able to exploit, but the Conservatives have only gained in succeeding elections. In 2008 under Dion the Liberals sunk to a 26.2% of the popular vote, only one time was it less, in 1867 against Macdonald's Conservatives.

Ignatieff like Dion and Martin before him is struggling to gain traction. Why? I believe it is because the Liberals don't stand for anything any more. The party occupies the centre of the political spectrum, so unlike the NDP, Conservatives or Bloc cannot derive massive support from an ideological base, especially considering the centre is contested to some extent by the Greens, and the previously named parties - especially the Conservatives.

Liberal leaders have been forced to lift policies from other parties. Dion's Green Shift was a direct attempt to usurp the Green Party, and the deal with Elizabeth May cooperate to an extent in the election in Central Nova clearly illustrated a need to find some kind of identity.

I consider myself an informed person in terms of Canadian politics, and I cannot really state firmly what the Liberals stand for. This tells me they stand for nothing. The Liberal identity was as the "natural governing party of Canada". After four and half years of Conservative governance that's a hard claim to make. The Liberals were a centrist governing party, and without holding the reigns of power their relevance is being sapped away to stronger, more principled parties - the Conservatives, the Bloc, the NDP and the Greens.

If the Liberals hope to unseat the Harper government hey need to create a cohesive message of who they are and what they believe. A July 6 poll showed the Liberals at 23.9%. At that range the Conservatives could form a majority and the Liberals may be eclipsed as the Official Opposition. The Liberals have gone through three leaders, and created no original ideas. Leadership isn't a flippant choice, people have to want to follow, but first you have to have a real destination.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ripples from Across the Pond

On May 2010 the citizens of the United Kingdom went to the polls and cast their ballots in one of the most dramatic elections in Britain since 1945. The 306 Conservatives, led by David Cameron, with the largest vote share and number of seats in the House of Commons immediately made a public, open overture to the Liberal-Democrats, led by Nick Clegg to form the government. Since mid-May Britain has been ruled by a coalition.

There were two major incentives for the Conservatives to form a coalition. First, Britain is on the verge of an economic crisis with its massive debt and spiralling deficits. Second, by forming a coalition the Conservatives remove the sting and stigma for these policy decisions from themselves alone. The Liberal-Democrats are now in the position of defending the actions of their government because their young leader is deputy prime minister, and they hold significant posts in cabinet.

The Cons and Lib-Dems share a lot of common ground on the budget and economy. Both are free market parties that support free enterprise, but the Lib-Dems are tempered by a progressive ideology and notions of social justice. There is also a gulf of differences, particularly on democratic reform, which is the price the Libs demanded for coalition.

While the political transformation in Britain is ongoing there has been an effect here in Canada. Over the past two months talk as swirled regarding the possibility of a coalition here between the Liberals and NDP. Pieces came out as early as May 14 discussing the possibility. Talk about a coalition initiated in the winter of 2008 between Dion, Layton and Duceppe, but the Canadian public rejected the idea in polling.

I find the discussion of a coalition in Canada following the British election a bit ridiculous. Aping the British seems to be ingrained in the Canadian psyche, but in all honestly we’re comparing apples and beavers.

I suppose the principal drive for the leftist coalition has been the simple comparison. The Lib-Dems and the NDP are both third parties, and the Conservatives and Liberals have been kicked out of power for a number of years. That’s about all the two scenarios have in common by my read, and a minority government was the product of the British election, and likely the outcome of any Canadian election in the near future so a coalition would provide a government with a more stable majority.

On the far left in British politics is the Labour Party, followed by the Liberal-Democrats in the centre-left and the Conservatives on the right/centre-right. In Canada the model is the NDP on the left/centre-left, the Liberals in the centre (debatable) and the Conservatives on the centre-right. The point is that the Liberals are the centrist party in both countries, and as the third party in the UK they could reasonably form government with either of the main parties. The Liberal Dems have long considered themselves part of the middle, and could see a path to coalition. The NDP on the other hand style themselves as the conscious of the parliament.

The NDP are, at least in their own mind, principled voices. When asked to compromise with the Liberals, those who they view as poll-following, power hungry centrists who compromise a progressive vision of the country. Run on the left, and govern from the right. The alliance between the NDP and the Liberals are filled with potholes for both, as Bill Tieleman discusses here.

Curious enough, polls show that even if the parties do merge they would not instantly get the combined support of their component parts. Merged under Ignatieff the new party polls 34% to 40%, with Bob Rae at the helm the Conservatives and new party would be tied at 38%. However, with Jack Layton the new party would lead 43% to 37%. The “protest” vote of the NDP would likely spill to the Greens, especially if the party got dragged to the centre. Moderate Liberals would switch to the Conservatives, especially in a province like Ontario where the NDP are very unpopular.

There’s also the consideration that the NDP and Liberals are from fundamentally different origins. The NDP is largely a deep urban and union party, with support in union towns and remote districts. The Liberals are suburban, or metro.

Canada has a fractured political system, and coalitions between parties are not simple or straightforward. The NDP and Liberals are often political enemies, and have trouble sharing the political left in this country. The talk of merger says to me that the Liberals, as always, are desperate to return to power, and the Conservatives are relatively strong. The NDP see an opportunity to reform the system and gain power as well. Still, it won’t happen, because unlike Britain we are not in the midst of a crisis, there’s no incentive for a drastic political change.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Toronto G20: Confronting Reality

Like most people in the GTA, or so I believe, I spent this weekend doing chores, running errands engaging in leisure activities and doing a little work. On Saturday evening I sat down to watch some television while I ate dinner after a long day. Surfing the channels I stumbled upon the media coverage of the G20 in Toronto.

At the time I turned on the television the fire was tearing through the second police car on Queen Street. Perhaps it was naive, but I was actually shocked. I watched CBC’s coverage. A number of journalists on the street were at risk in the no man’s land between the “protesters” and police forces.

Before this weekend I had never heard the phrase “black bloc” tactics before, but I could immediately recognize the type. The black-wearing groups of people who lurked through the city and to my eyes caused mayhem.

People’s comments about how this was a police state are ridiculous. They’ve clearly never talked to people who have lived in a police state. In a police state no demonstrations would have been legal, and any sign of dissent would have been immediately crushed. Let’s know what words mean. The security measures and reactions of the police, given the scenario, seems, to a point, reasonable. Obviously there were police abuses. We know this. People were arrested for very little reason and the use of force at times was excessive. But let us keep in mind that there were over thirty leaders of major world powers meeting in a small section of the city of Toronto. Thirty. Rarely do so many world leaders concentrate in one place in an ad hoc manner.

The organized, peaceful protesters – largely labour unions – had their role to play, I’m sure. But I also wondered about this, what were they actually fighting about? I listened to Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, discuss what the point was, and it was the same old, same old. Anti-globalization, anti-bank, anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate, pro-environment. There’s nothing specific about these complaints. If the government was declaring a new war, or taking a specific policy action and they were protesting it, then it would make sense. But that is not the case, “We don’t like you!” seemed to be the message.

On TVO’s the Agenda on Monday night commentators at one point described the acts of some to be a performance. Mercedes Stephenson, an investigative journalist, was amongst a crowd and according to her protesters were taunting and degrading police officers and a man turned to her and ask, “Did you get that? Cause we can do it again.” I think the most important piece of news I heard was that black bloc activists put broken glass in a main boulevard so that passing innocents would pop their tires. People cheered each time they heard a pop.

People actively antagonized police, throwing rocks, bottles, insults and spat upon officers. Police attacked and arrested protesters, at times, without provocation, worse still is the fact that the police failed to protect the property of the people and city of Toronto. In short, it was a disgrace.

On the positive side, the international media is paying only modest attention the 19,000 police and the black bloc activists’ antics. The focus is on the commitments the world leaders arrived at, and the violence is considered all a part of doing business. It’s a sad reality. All of these types of gatherings will have outcomes like this – violent protests and police overreaction and photos of world leaders. I guess I am not the only naive one to have assumed it couldn’t happen here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Snapshot of 2010: Race for the Senate

On November 2, 2010 the American electorate will go to the polls to cast their ballots for candidates to make up the 112th Congress. All 435 districts of the House of Representatives are up for grabs, though about 70% of them are safe to the incumbent party every time. In addition there are 36 Senate seats and a number of gubernatorial and state-wide elections in the United States.

I do not try, or bother to work out the outcome of the House of Representatives’ elections because one – it requires an in-depth knowledge of each seat, or comparable seats to make any kind of assessment, which I do not possess to talk wisely about them in any detail, and two – it is a great deal of work to try to gather that information and present it in a comprehensible manner.

So instead I focus on the Senate races. Let’s briefly examine them. Note, in the future I will not be examining all 36 races in the future, merely the competitive ones, or ones that have swung dramatically.

First, this is the midterm year of a president’s first term. This is nearly always a bad year for the president’s party, in this case the Democrats. The sluggish economy, and an energized right also make these races all the more difficult for Democrats and easier for Republicans.

Second, incumbents have a considerable advantage over challengers. Retirements, especially in competitive states offer a huge advantage to the outside party.

After these 36 elections conclude I predict presently that there were will be 23 Republican victors (a gain of 7), 8 Democrats (a loss of 10) and 1 independent. We’ll begin with those seats most likely to go to Republican to the most likely to go Democratic, and meet in the middle with the toss-ups.

There are twelve seats that are, at this time, mortal locks for the Republicans. Senators Shelby (R-AL), Murkowski (R-AK), McCain (R-AZ), Isakson (R-GA), Crapo (R-ID), Grassley (R-IA), Coburn (R-OK), DeMint (R-SC) and Thune (R-SD) will, barring some grand unforeseen event being returning to Washington. Kansas is expected to elect a new Republican after the retirement of Sam Brownback, and Utah, though it turfed its sitting Republican Senator, will almost assuredly elected a new one following the primary. That’s eleven. Number twelve is a seat held currently held by the Democrats. Senator Byron Dorgan’s (D-ND) decision not stand for re-election has given the very popular Republican Governor John Hoeven a cakewalk to Washington to become the Junior Senator from this state.

In a good year for Democrats they would be eyeing Republican Louisiana Senator Vitter. He is still shaking off a prostitution scandal he was involved in 2007. But a weak Republican with the wind at his back will survive when in an average year he may have fallen.

Four seats are likely to go Republican at this point, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware and Arkansas. Senator Burr (R-NC) is not particularly popular in North Carolina, but like Vitter with a positive headwind for the Republican Party being unpopular is less important so long as you are more popular than the Democrats. Senator Gregg is retiring in New Hampshire, and this is a seat the Democrats hope to pick up, but polling shows Ayotte (the Republican frontrunner) up by 10%. Delaware has no strong Democratic candidate, and on the other side is current Congressman and former Governor Mike Castle as the Republican candidate. This is a blue state, and yet it will more than likely elect a Republican in November. On the other hand Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) is in for the fight of her career after an uphill primary challenge. Arkansas is a conservative state, and Lincoln will likely fall to her Republican challenger.

Four seats lean Republican, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, all four have no incumbents, the first two are currently held by Republicans, and the latter two are held by Democrats. Kentucky may slide closer to the toss-up category as time goes on. Rand Paul is still ahead by 8 points in a recent poll, but controversial remarks by the Senatorial candidate could drag him down as time goes on. Missouri was the one toss-up state that did not go for Obama in 2008, and I doubt it will swing to his party now. When Obama was elected to the presidency he left his Senate seat open which triggered a string of events that have embarrassed Illinois, and the Democratic Party. Republican Mark Kirk is now set to win the deep blue state. Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced his retirement earlier this year, which resulted in a scramble. Indiana is leaning Republican.

Florida’s Senate race is where our one independent comes from. Governor Charlie Christ is smartly taking ownership of the centre in the state. Kendrick Meek, the Democrat is left with little breathing room as the popular former-Republican governor steals elements of the Democratic base. Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate, seems to be losing momentum to Christ.

Now the four toss-ups: Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada. I break these down the middle, two will go the Dems and two to the G.O.P. Colorado and Ohio are swing states, but the political winds are blowing the other way, so they are likely to swing to the Republicans this time around. Rob Portman is a highly impressive candidate in Ohio, and given the economic conditions of the state I feel that it will very likely go red this November. My assessment is Sestak (D-PA) will edge out Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania for a win for the Democrats at this point. Harry Reid, Democratic majority leader in the Senate is thought to be at risk this November in Nevada, but given the radical nature of his opponent, Sharon Angle, I doubt that Reid will lose this time around.

Seats leaning for the Democrats right now are two incumbents, Boxer (D-CA) and Murray (D-WA). Murray being at risk is somewhat of a surprise, and demonstrates how bad the current climate is for the Democratic Party. Both of these states are solid blue states federally, but the economic crisis is draining Democratic energy.

Likely wins for the Democrats, again, come from seats they already hold. Feingold in Wisconsin and Blumenthal in Connecticut are expected to win at this point. However, Feingold was weaker earlier in the year, and he could slip again. Blumenthal is a very popular Attorney General in Connecticut, and so long as he avoids further bungles should win.

Six Democratic incumbents – Inouye (D-HI), Mikulski (D-MD), Gillibrand (D-NY), Schumer (D-NY), Wyden (D-OR) and Leahy (D-VT) – should win their seats easily and return to Washington.

It is very early at this point though, and anything could happen, but right now we are seeing a massive surge for Republicans in the Senate in 2010.