Tuesday, May 31, 2011

50% + 1 is Less than Clear

I have three things to discuss today. The first one is relatively brief and the second will be the focus of this entry.

First, with my limited skills as a graphic designer I have created a logo of sorts for the Orange Tory blog located in the top left. The shape is called a triquetra, a traditional Celtic symbol. The ring is blue representing conservative values, and the orange the social democratic values I express on this blog. The triquetra is also a good symbol for this blog because it resembles the three-leafed trillium, Ontario’s symbol and provincial flower. It also denotes the three levels and three branches of government.

Next, earlier today I submitted a form and paid for membership in the Ontario New Democratic Party. From this beginning of this blog I have stated that I’m not a partisan. I continue to hold that to be true. Watching the Ontario NDP in the wake of the 2003 election was what really got me interested in politics in the first place. That being said I have been critical of their policies and practices. The federal NDP doesn’t get a free ride from me, and I keep an open mind in every election.

Being a member of a political party gives a person influence over the democratic system in Canada. Local riding associations pick candidates and offer feedback to elected Members of Parliament, or Members of Provincial Parliament. You also elect the local party officials who have control and influence and the opportunity to become some of these officials. For $25 it seems like a good deal.

I had not planned for my enlistment with the NDP to dovetail with my objection to a position the party has recently taken, but it has. This week Jack Layton has stated that in his opinion, and one would assume the federal NDP’s, that a vote of 50% + 1 (a standard majority) would be enough for Quebec to separate from Canada.

Quebec has held two referenda and both were defeated on narrow majorities in 1980 and 1995. The 1995 one was particularly close and put the entire country on edge. If the vote switches only a few thousand by the time of the next referendum Canada would break apart. Or it should, according to the federal NDP leader.

Jack Layton is a federalist leader and does not want Quebec to leave confederation, that much should be said, but his position makes separation easier for sovereigntists.

Let’s contrast the majority needed to leave Canada to the ones needed to reform our electoral system. In British Columbia the STV referenda in 2005 and 2009 required 60% of the vote to pass. The Ontario referendum in 2007 to introduce mixed-member proportional needed 60% of the vote and majority (over 50%) in 64 of Ontario’s 107 electoral districts. British Columbians had over 50% supporting a reform, but fell short of the supermajority required.

Conditions at least as stringent as Ontario’s electoral reform referendum should be required for Quebec to be a nation. Quebec needs to prove that its people really wants to be a separate nation in convincing numbers. Mr. Layton’s suggestion otherwise damages the stability of Canada with a superficial policy and appeal to Quebec nationalists. Quebec isn’t the be all and end all Mr. Layton, there’s the country to consider.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Gas is Expensive and is Only Going to Go Up

For my readers who depend upon gasoline, I’m sorry for my depressing title this week. I remember growing up in Ontario and gasoline was cheap. In my earlier years gas prices were typically below 50 cents a litre. I cannot find conclusive evidence through casual searches, but I believe I recall 30 cents a litre being not unusual.

Since the late 1990s the price of gasoline has been going up. The price has not gone up consistently, it has fallen, for a variety of reasons and the growth in the price of fuel has leapt forward and crawled upwards. However the trend is clear, ever upward. But why? Why is gasoline more expensive today than it was fifteen, twenty or thirty years ago?

As any economist can tell you the price of an item is determined by two factors: supply and demand. We’ll begin with demand because that one makes sense and is easily explained. Demand is the market (or desire for) a product. When we switched in the 90’s from compact cars to SUVs the demand for gasoline went up across the country, and the world. But we are not alone. As the nations of India and China industrialize and create a middle class they too need more fuel. This growing demand pushes prices higher and higher.

Steps can be made to reduce demand. We can switch to alternative fuels, conserve, use public transit, carpool, etc. Though even if we all took those steps and kept the demand to the level it is at presently the price would still rise. The problem isn’t demand.

The problem is supply. The first oil discoveries were laughably easy. A person would literally find oil bubbling to the surface and set up a drilling facility to extract more product. Eventually the process was refined and we developed methods for discovering oil pockets elsewhere. We have used up virtually all of the easy oil. The oil left in the world is in difficult locations, such as the bottom of the ocean, in the Arctic or Siberia, or in unstable regions of the world. It is easy to imagine why it might be more expensive to set up an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico than to build a pump in Petrolia, Ontario.

The oil left in the world is increasingly difficult to get to, or is in increasingly unstable parts of the world, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. There is a larger problem that looms over all of this though, that is peak oil. Peak oil is a theory that was developed in the mid-twentieth century. Given that oil is a finite resource there will come a time when we produce less and less. One day, and some predict it already has occurred, we will cross a line when we will produce less oil one year than the year before it. In short the world supply is diminishing. With our demand continuing to rise the competition and price of oil will grow.

Oil is used to make gasoline, and so there is a direct correlation in price. Gas prices first rose to over $1.00/litre in 2005, and sank back down. During the height of the Great Recession gas prices remained under $1.00. With the economy on the rebound and demand for gasoline on the rise again prices have started to spike. $1.35, or $1.40 per litre are not strange sights today. Over the summer as the driving season gets underway prices will likely shoot over $1.50/litre for the first time, and perhaps higher. But as autumn comes prices will fail to recede.

Prices may sink below $1.00/litre again, but I am doubtful that would last long. Within the decade we will likely see $2.00/litre, in my opinion. What will we do to respond to this as time goes on? We can try switching to other energy sources, and that may help. The short term prospects look good, and the end result means that we will be paying more to move around and do the things we like. It’s time to start thinking about the coming world to be.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cabinet Building

A couple of weeks ago I gave my broad prediction of the election results that occurred on May 2nd. To accompany my seat predictions I did a riding projection for all 308 ridings in Canada. Yes, I sat down a predicted all 308 ridings. Yes, I am a terrible, terrible politics nerd.

I correctly predicted the winner of 224 seats, which is a prediction rate of about 72.4%, I got 84 incorrect. Most of these misses came out of the growth of the NDP explosion in Quebec. I did not expect the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc to collapse so totally to the orange crush. The disintegration of the Liberals in Ontario also hurt my prediction. If you exclude Quebec my numbers are probably more in the 85+% range.

It’s not my best prediction to date, but it’s not terrible either, in my opinion.

Tomorrow morning Stephen Harper will announce his new cabinet. I cannot talk about something that hasn’t happened yet but I wish to raise a concern about the cabinet process in Canada. Canada has the largest cabinet. Canada does not have a government with any greater needs than Britain, France or the United States. We have a large number of ministers to meet regional needs of our politics.

Most of our ministers are not selected because of great competencies in their area of responsibility. No, they are chosen because they are from a particular group or region. The Conservatives only have five members from the province of Quebec. Even though many of them don’t deserve to be in cabinet as many as three will probably be in cabinet so the province may be represented. The one PEI MP for the Conservatives will be in cabinet, for sure.

Regional balance, gender balance and ethnicity should not be considerations for building a cabinet. I understand why it is, we’re a very regional nation, and the cabinet is used to try to represent the whole of the country. I would much prefer fifteen competent, capable ministers from one province than lightweights for token representation of various provinces and groups.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The New NDP

Before the May 2nd election I was a happy oftentimes New Democrat. By which I mean that more often than not I considered myself aligned with the NDP. Hence the “Orange” of Orange Tory. I’ve volunteered on NDP campaigns, and more often than not I have voted NDP in federal and provincial elections.

One of my justifications for voting New Democratic over the past few years was my belief in a principled, progressive opposition. One of my favourite examples that I provide is a number of years ago the McGuinty Liberals of Ontario cut funding for an educational program for autistic children with no justification. Parents and children were promised these programs, and as many know autistic children do not deal well with change. The program was expensive per child, but cost the government very little, and experts argued that it significantly improved some children’s (not all) performance.

Parents of autistic children were irate at the decision. So, everyday in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario Shelley Martel (NDP – Sudbury), now retired, rose to speak to the issue and cajole the Liberal government to respond. After months of struggle and media scrutiny, largely helped by the efforts of Shelley Martel, funding was restored. Now, one could argue that the NDP was motivated to make the Liberals look bad for the next election, but one was years away. Also, the voters motivated by autism-based educational issues are the definition of a small voting bloc. It is these kinds of principled stands on important policy questions that first attracted me to the NDP in the first place. As an internet-based hipster meme might say, I liked the NDP before it was mainstream.

I worry now with the NDP as the rising party that speaks for the centre-left in the whole country that something will be lost. Many are talking about how the NDP have displaced the Liberals as the potential governing party of the left. What worries me is that the NDP have replaced the Bloc Quebecois. Not dislodged it, but absorbed it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find my political comfort zone in a party packed with Quebec nationalists.

The social democracy and leftist values of the urban cores and Quebec do not appeal to me, generally speaking. They tend to be the pacifists, and social liberals. My values fall more in line with the labour roots, western populism and reform movements of the English or Western NDP. If the NDP shifts to become the government-in-waiting, and its character becomes the poll-following rather than principle-following character that plagued the Liberals I may find it increasingly difficult to vote orange.

In addition, I think I’m drawn to third parties. For example, were I a British citizen I would have voted, and likely would vote in the future for the Liberal-Democrats – a centrist third party. The Lib-Dems are not that dissimilar to the Liberal Party of Canada, and the NDP is not totally removed from the British Labour Party. Yet I’ve never voted Liberal, yet I could happily vote for the Lib-Dems. I think my core philosophy of politics is that reform is necessary and power corrupts, impeding reforms. Third parties promise reform so that they have a better chance in the system, once they succeed within the system they lose their zeal to change it.

I am excited to see the NDP as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, I hope it means that they don’t change as a party, as a set of ideas. But just as important to my political identity, Orange Tory, is the Tory aspect, which means I’m tied to no party, only my principles. I follow them.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Beyond the Surface: Post-Election Thoughts

I don’t want to spend time fixated on the events of last night. If you’re curious for the results there are many fine outlets that can give you the details. I’m hoping to provide at least some cursory analysis of how the election may impact upon us.

First, the Conservatives have achieved their ambition and won the first Conservative majority government since 1993 (elected in 1988 under Mulroney). Congratulations are deserved for their impressive effort. Many of my progressive friends are deeply concerned about the idea of a Harper majority government. My rebuttal is that I do not trust majority governments of any stripe.

My vote helped to elect Malcolm Allen in Welland for the NDP. While I am pleased with my vote and proud of the outcome I would be concerned if my vote fed into a push that resulted in a majority Layton government. Again, as I have stated on this blog before, majority governments lack the same kind of accountability a minority intrinsically possesses.

It’s difficult to say what Harper will do with his majority. The constraint on the budget means that big spending programs and tax alterations are not likely to be found in the coming years. Every Prime Minister wants to leave a legacy. Trudeau is probably the best example of a Prime Minister who sought to leave his mark on the country in the modern era.

Since Harper cannot enact the kind of economic program he may desire, with the exception, perhaps, of spending cuts, he is forced to look up other avenues to keep his government busy. One thing that I believe may be on the table is a Senate reform push. The Senate has been a pet project of the Prime Minister since his Reform Party days. Perhaps now we may see some action on the issue with support from the NDP, though not needed. Harper may turn his attention to social and governmental (as in good governance) issues.

The results of last night’s election are so dramatic it is perhaps a good thing that there is a majority in place. Every party needs time to adjust to the new reality. The NDP have to look at being a heavily Quebec-based party. The Liberals must now find a new leader, and a new purpose. The Greens must work on a parliamentary strategy, what will they do now that they have their seat in Ottawa? The Conservatives have to figure out how to work with their new cadre of urban, suburban and Atlantic members. The government must also figure out its relationship to Quebec, a province they were nearly drummed out of entirely. The Bloc has to figure out its future altogether, as in, does it have one?

Be wary of using the word realignment. This election could be a freak. Quebec could quickly tire of its large number of rookie orange MPs. The Liberals could seem the reasonable alternative to the unstable NDP and the Harper Conservatives. The Bloc could feed into resentment at all the federalist parties and return to its former prominence. None can be known for sure until parliament gets back to work.

No doubt the next few months and years should provide something for political junkies to gawk at. Much like going into the election it is, the outcome is very uncertain.