Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Independence Streak

David Wilks last week transformed from a entirely unknown backbencher in the Conservative caucus to one of the best-known Conservative MPs in Canada. Mr. Wilks (CPC – Kootenay-Columbia, BC) committed one of the most familiar errors in democratic politics – he was caught telling the truth. During a meeting with constituents on the omnibudget bill expressed concerns he shared with his constituents. In the YouTube video linked above Mr. Wilks admits (confides?)  that he and other MPs have major reservations about the Harper budget.

Wilks offers startling, and frank insight into how the Conservative caucus, the House of Commons and Canadian politics works. He states bluntly to his voters that he has no power as an individual. While he has major reservations and problems with the legislation unless thirteen other CPC MPs object with him, nothing will happen. So, if a vote against won’t do anything, he might as well vote for and not rock the boat.

Perhaps the most alarming thing Mr. Wilks discusses was that backbencher MPs get 10 minutes a week to raise questions and concerns. I recently spent time with academics, and they fail to ask brief questions/comments, I can only imagine a politician. This is not how the system is designed to work.

To paraphrase V for Vendetta, people shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their MPs. In a Westminster parliamentary system the Prime Minister and cabinet only hold power at the consent of the caucus. Caucus revolts are not unheard of or uncommon in the United Kingdom. Even after vigorous whipping MPs will vote against their government if their constituents, or their principles would not go along with it. Political parties are merely alliances of candidates/MPs, if a leader loses authority or trust over this alliance their government falls.

Canada has strayed from this system. We elect party leaders directly which gives them extra clout. In previous weeks I have discussed the alarming concentration of power in the hands of our Prime Ministers. The toothlessness of the MPs are a key component of this. Aaron Wherry is entirely correct in this piece when he speaks about what David Wilks’comments mean.

I would like to see greater independence amongst Canada’s MPs (and MPPs/MLAs for that matter). They are our representatives. Citizens often have limited power in relation to their governments, but MPs constantly have the ability to influence and shape events. The five political parties in our House of Commons cannot possibly represent the full spectrum of opinion in Canada, marching lockstep behind party leadership only weakens our democracy. Bruce Hyer (IND – Thunder Bay-Superior North, ON) claims to be much happier now that he is free of party discipline.

However, there is a caveat. We probably do not want to see a parliament filled to the brim with independent-minded MPs. The House of Commons may begin to look much more like the United States’ House of Representatives. Congressmen and -women are only moved to vote for legislation if a particular provision of theirs – some pet project, or favour – is supplied. This is how you end up with boondoggle infrastructure projects and ludicrous public policy.

A certain level of party discipline has its place, but the rigid control and silence of dissenting voices helps no one. The saddest part of all is that no one took away MPs’ power, they surrendered it. In order to please the leadership in hopes of future advancement many have neutered themselves. On the positive side to return the system to order they merely have to act. They’ll need pressure though, and the only place that can come from is from voters.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Reluctant Republican?

I am a monarchist. It is my evaluation that a constitutional monarchy is the best form of government available. In reality the form of government is only marginally important. Republican, monarchial, presidential or parliamentary – they are all valid and can produce healthy democratic systems. In addition, I feel the Windsor family, the royal family of Canada, has led Canada with great dignity, particularly in the person of Queen Elizabeth II.

I am still satisfied with most of the elements of our system of governments, but there is a growing issue at the core of our government that concerns me.

Political scientists in Canada like to point out that the office of the Prime Minister is perhaps the most powerful executive in the Western world. Very few countries grant their leaders the sweeping powers and strict control that the man or woman at 24 Sussex Drive possesses. Canadians often consider the United States’ President to be an incredible powerful leader. The truth is that the President has influence, and his or her power is only exercised with the cooperation (or resistance) of the two other branches of government (Senate/House of Representatives and the Supreme Court).

In Canada the Prime Minister is restricted by the courts, and the need to command a majority in the House of Commons. However, the House of Commons has been significantly cowed by our Prime Ministers, dating back to the leadership of Mr. Trudeau. Since that time there has been a worrying concentration of power in the person of the Prime Minister. Dan Gardner on CTV’s Question Period recently quipped that Canada has a presidential system without the checks and balances. Andrew Coyne, in a remarkable debate with Sheila Copps (Does power corrupt Canadian Prime Ministers?) said that Parliament has in effect become an electoral college for the Prime Minister. The person  leading the party with the most seats because President/Prime Minister of Canada, to rule unperturbed until the next election.

But, in our system of government the Prime Minister is not the head of state. The office is a servant to a far higher power, our monarch, and sovereign. The Kings and Queens of Canada have long ago abandoned governing Canada directly. Instead they relied upon their agents, the Governors General to act on their behalf. Sadly, as power waned from monarchy the levers of control exercised by our monarchs fell into the hands of the Prime Minister. The Governors General fear to act because they lack legitimacy as political appointees to an unelected office.

What on paper should constrain our head of government is no more than words on paper. The Senate, the House of Commons, and the Governor General fail to properly provide the restraint needed in a proper democracy. I have a hard time finding fault in Richard Poplak’s article against Mr. StephenHarper and the anti-democratic nature of Canada. At minimum, I sympathize with Mr. Poplak’s concerns, and share his deepest fears.

The acquisition of power of the monarchy to the Prime Minster should be, and must be, reversed. Governor General David Johnston sadly cannot simply begin to act as though this is the nineteenth century and exercise his constitutionally enshrined powers – he simply does not have the legitimacy. In Canada, like most democracies (if we can still bear the name), rely upon the vote to instill legitimacy. Perhaps then it is time to be rid of appointed Governors General and created elected Presidents. The manner of election would have to be decided by greater minds than me. I have heard suggestions that perhaps an election by all of Canada’s legislatures would be valuable, or a simple national popular vote, similar to France’s. Hopefully we would not repeat the mistakes of the past and impose a First-Past-the-Post system. Our presidential elections could be non-partisan. Candidates for the high office should perhaps be drawn from the bar, or the bench, and only those with constitutional expertise could hold office.

Does electing our head of state mean an end to the monarchy? What if we elected the Governor General and kept the Kings and Queens of Canada to preside overall. I have no other objections to monarchy as a system, and I still favour it – so long as we can amend it to create a more democratic nation. This is not a partisan concern. The centralization of power, erosion of parliament and weakening of democracy is something that should concern all citizens. Power is not easily wrestled back once surrendered, but it is critical that it is. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reviving Ontario's Economy

Last week I discussed how NDP leader’s Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) remarks about the Dutch Disease and the effect of the energy economy on manufacturing across Canada had a ring of truth to it. However, my point was that Ontario’s decline, particularly in the field of manufacturing, has to do with much greater issues in Ontario’s competitiveness. Finally, in closing last week I suggested I might come up with some recommendations that may address this issue. Without further ado, here is a brief list of ideas that Ontario could put in place to improve its economic standing.

Idea #1 – Subsidies and band-aid solutions will not fix Ontario’s competitive gap

For some reason the first instinct of governments is to offer unsustainable incentives to compete with lower-cost jurisdictions. I have two responses to that; Ontario cannot pay to build an economy by bribing business, and the province trying to compete for low-cost sectors will not work. Ontario must build upon its innate strengths. It is important to note that these strengths and advantages vary in different regions of the province, but I’m speaking in more of a general sense.

Idea #2 – Make Ontario a more efficient place to do business

Ideas 2 and 3 will be related, so bear with me. A number of months ago I wrote a blog post about the desperate need for Toronto and the GTA to get its traffic problems under control. Every year Toronto loses $6 billion in productivity due to congestion. When you include the GTA and the rest of Ontario I have to assume that number starts creeping up to $10 billion, though I admittedly have no research to back that up. If congestion could be cut by even 1%, that is a savings of $6 million to Toronto businesses.

Taras Grescoe recently published a book called Straphanger: Saving Our Cities from Ourselves and from the Automobile. In it he argues Toronto used to lead the way, and can again if it rededicates itself to public transit. Premier Dalton McGuinty should increase the scope of Metrolinx (a provincial agency that oversees transit in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area) and start coordinating the municipalities’/regions’ transit systems to provide more effective transportation. Road and freeway improvements may also have to be part of the equation. An efficient transportation network will make the GTHA even more attractive for business and investment.

Idea #3 – Trade and Access to Markets

Trade is always going to be a deeply uncomfortable issue in Ontario. Many feel that NAFTA created a giant sucking sound as jobs fled Canada for overseas territories. The federal government is currently pursuing trade deals with various different jurisdictions. Ontario and her businesses should be positioning themselves to compete and take advantage of these opportunities. Likewise, Ontario should be putting forward a friendly face for foreign investment. This does not mean kowtowing, we need not bribe businesses to make smart investments. Ontario is the heart of Canada with a large market, and the world’s largest economy is at our doorsteps.

Part in parcel of this is expanding the province’s connectedness to the world. This could mean more effective rail and freeway links to the United States, or a second major airport in the GTA, and perhaps opening up our medium-sized cities more to international markets.

Idea #4 – The Right Kind of Workforce

Businesses that open in Ontario are tapping into some of the most educated labour pools in the world. But are post-secondary institutions equipping young people with the skills needed in our modern economy? Margaret Wente published a great article summarizing the issue, here. Currently we subsidize education roughly equally. What if instead we adjusted tuition to reflect market demand? Blanket policies are almost always weak policies. If a student studying sociology had to pay $500 per year more so an engineering student could pay $500 less, I think that is probably good policy. In addition, the highly demanded skilled trades should be subsidized to meet the needs of the economy.

I also think our provincial public education system (K-12) needs a major overhaul, but I do not have the space to comment here.

Idea #5 – Wrestling with the Bubble

The Globe and Mail has been doing quite impressive reporting over the last few months (and probably years) warning about the housing bubble that is developing in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. The construction boom and rising house prices may have exceeded the capacity of Ontarians to purchase them. The ridiculously low borrowing rate will come to an end and a number of people will default on their mortgages. Instead of remaining silent on this matter Ontario’s leaders (mayors, MPPs, councillors and provincial government) should begin to warn the public, consult the banking sector, and prepare for the possible fallout. If steps can be taken to minimize the deflation of this bubble, the must be taken.

Idea #6 - A Great Place to Live, a Great Place to Grow...

Ontari-ari-ari-o! Quality of life is important. I believe citizens, residents, government and civil societies in Ontario need to push to make this a more pleasant place to live. It will attract a better workforce, enhance economic opportunities and improve quality of life. I have talked previously about the notion of public art, but add in improving those cookie-cutter suburbs, and developing dismal areas and you can turn communities from places people live, to places people love.

I do not think my list above provides any panaceas, but it may offer a starting place. I also tried to propose ideas that a cash-strapped Ontario could manage. This list is by no means exclusive and much more could be added. I hope this gets the ball rolling.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ontario's Central Problem

Late last week I had an interview. One of the first questions I was asked was ‘What is the biggest problem facing Ontario?’ After giving it a moment’s consideration I replied with the budget deficit and Ontario’s debt. I feel it was the safest possible answer, and probably also the consensus answer if you asked most journalists, pundits and politicians. On the train ride home I agonized over my interview, and tried to figure out how it could have gone better.

Aside from bombing a couple of questions, and perhaps cracking too many jokes, I was stuck on this answer. Again, it’s not that my answer was wrong, it’s that it could have been better. Ontario’s debt and deficit are not issues in and of themselves, but symptoms of broader problems that plague my home province.

Ontario’s key problem is that of economic competitiveness. Over the past twenty-five years it has appeared as though Ontario was spared the recession that has dogged its neighbours in the American Midwest. I am a fan and avid reader of Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile blog where he discusses the urban issues in the Midwest and how to improve the region’s cities. I began reading the blog because he was the most prominent blogger on the subjects that interested me, though his focus was only Ontario adjacent. I was always a little baffled to the languishing conditions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan compared to Ontario.

The truth of the matter is that Ontario weathered the last few decades comparatively better than the other Great Lake states because of the Toronto economic engine pushing it forward. Small and medium cities and regions, such as Niagara, which depended upon manufacturing mirror their American counterparts. Being a centre of Canadian business and finance, and the immense growth of Greater Toronto cities and a high level of immigration has kept the Ontario economy afloat.

The Ontario government and economic life never really shifted off of the manufacturing base. The province held onto industrial jobs much longer than its neighbouring competitors. Thousands of jobs have been lost since 2000. Given the changing nature of the Ontarian economy it is possible that the structures of revenue and expenditures must be rethought to meet this new reality.

When I was sitting on the train I wanted to promote some strategies to address Ontario’s competitiveness. I only could come up with a few ideas, so perhaps I will devote some mental power to it and try to come up with something comprehensive, hopefully next week.

If the Ontario economy came roaring back with tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, the need to rethink Ontario’s government and economy would not be necessary. The consensus seems to be these jobs may be gone for, at least, the short and medium term. Therefore solutions will be needed, or at least new perspectives.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Twelve Since Forty-One

As of tomorrow, it has been one year since the forty-first Canadian federal election. That election saw a number of historic events for all of Canada’s major political parties. Three parties, Conservatives, NDP and Greens, were elevated to new highs and the two others, the Liberals and Bloc, have been brought to a new low.

The aftermath of the election was scrutinized, especially the NDP surge and Liberal decline as a one-time phenomenon. The death of Jack Layton and polling information from the rest of 2011 seemed to confirm this hypothesis. The NDP lost ground as the Bloc Quebecois advanced. A year after the election, what can we say about the parliament and Canadian politics?

First, the Conservative majority remains stable. Despite a number of deeply troubling scandals the Conservatives would continue to win majority or strong minority governments. Perhaps if a minority parliament were to return the NDP could form a coalition with the Liberals to keep power. The Liberals have no interest in cooperating and bringing in the first NDP government. Instead they probably would prefer to act as kingmakers in an unstable parliament. That is merely my read of the landscape. Stephen Harper’s supporters seem unfazed by the F-35, robocall or ministerial accountability. With the Liberals in disarray there is not reasonable alternative for centre-right Canadians.

Second, the NDP remain strong in Quebec, and are mounting a serious challenge to the Conservatives and Liberals elsewhere. With the election of Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) as NDP leader Quebec has a native son leading a federal party. In addition Mulcair’s centrist nature and experience in Quebec’s government has buoyed the NDP’s numbers nationally, bringing them to tie the Conservatives, or at least nip at their heels. Therefore the NDP are not a petty rival that will obstruct the Liberals from challenging the Conservatives for power, but they are increasingly building a base themselves to win government.

Third, the Liberals remain in deep trouble. It seems clear now that the NDP are drinking the Liberals’ milkshake. The NDP are the progressive alternative that Canadians are turning to in the face of the Conservative government. Brian Topp, NDP leadership challenger, summarized the Liberals’ problems quite succinctly in a recent article. As a centrist party with broad appeal the Liberals were able to hold government by snatching votes from New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives concerned about the Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois. As a blocker the Liberal Party was highly effective, but now, as power ebbs further and further away the Liberals have very little to offer Canadians not present in some other party. I don’t believe Canada will shift into a two-party system any time soon, however, Andrew Coyne puts the matter clearly to the Liberal faithful – do we need athird party, and if so, to what purpose? Coyne states that the Liberals can become a meaningful political voice again with bold policy solutions that go beyond the ideological Conservatives and New Democrats. I would love to see a greater focus on policy, but I have as much hope in that as I do the Liberal Party.

Fourth, Parliament and Canadian democracy are arguably in decline. Lawrence Martin, in a far more articulate manner than I am capable of, laid out the litany of black-eyes Canadian parliamentary democracy has received in the past year . Depressingly, Mr. Martin poses the question of whetheror not Canada still has earned the label democracy. Indeed, it does feel as though we are slipping further from the liberal democracy of nations we respect, and even our own country. Dan Gardner on CTV’s Question Period discussed the tone in Ottawa this past Sunday. He stated that pundits and journalists previously explained the partisanship and rancor in Ottawa over the past eight years or so as a product of minority government. The past year has erased that fallacy. What worries me the most is that Prime Minister Harper’s lasting legacy will be the relationships of the Prime Minister with Parliament, Cabinet and the caucus. The dramatic centralization and control, and the corresponding culture of secrecy is deeply frightening. I am concerned that in 2016 it might be Prime Minister Mulcair’s muzzling of bureaucrats and lack of ministerial accountability that will have me typing.

Hopefully when Canadians are summoned to cast their ballots to decide the forty-second House of Commons they do not forget the first year of the forty-first.