Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Oda and the Iceberg

Today the resignation of Bev Oda (CPC – Durham, ON) officially resigned from the Harper government and as a Member of Parliament. Anyone who knows who Bev Oda appears to be reacting rather positively to her departure from public life. After her deeply embarrassing $16 orange juice, luxury hotels, and limos the public patience was at a breaking point. Her Conservative colleagues have offered a weak defence of their erstwhile former-Minister, but in an interview with CBC’s Evan Solomon she declared she had no regrets, and therefore the government’s burden with Oda is not quite over.

I am glad Bev Oda has resigned. Her abilities as a minister were somewhat suspect and her stumbles and public failings over the last few months has only hardened the criticism over her competence. On an anecdotal level I have a number of friends who live in the riding of Durham. The talk there before Oda’s resignation was how embarrassing it was to have her as an MP. It is unlikely Durham would have flipped to one of the opposition parties without a landslide in 2015.

I write this blog because I love politics, but sometimes I absolutely hate politics. Bev Oda was pressured to resign, though no one admits it that much is pretty clear. One would hope that the reason was MPs were beginning to get negative feedback about this issue and pressured her and the Prime Minister’s Office. More likely (sadly) is that polling from the PMO showed Oda was a drag on the party. The convenience of summarizing Oda’s crimes with “$16 orange juice” made her a wonderful target for her detractors, regardless of affiliation.

Oda is not the most odious member of the Conservative Government. At the moment I believe that title goes to the Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement (CPC – Parry Sound-Muskoka). Mr. Clement redirected a $50 million fund that was earmarked for reducing border congestion and funnelled it into pet projects in his riding and elsewhere. The most famous/notorious example is a gazebo.

Minister Oda charged thousands of dollars unnecessarily to the public purse. Once outted she repaid the cost, but the stink stuck. The audacity of the $16 orange juice stuck in enough people’s craw that she had to go. Yes, I used the word craw. SecretaryClement misdirected funds, was caught by the auditor general, called out forviolating accountability rules and has paid no political price for it.

Peter McKay’s helicopter joyrides, the mishandling of the F-35 procurement, and Dean Del Mastro’s election fundraising problems are all, in many ways, far greater violations of the public trust... but they do not make for as good of a sound bite as “$16 orange juice”. This is why I can be driven to hate politics at time. We often become fixated on the smaller, more dramatic scandals than the deeper problems and obstacles to good governance.

Yes, it is a good thing that Minister Oda resigned today, but she is only the tip of a much larger iceberg of what is wrong in the current federal government. She was one part of a much greater problem, but the symbolic sacrifice has been made, though greater problems lurk beneath.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Money and Politics

To quote the magnificent TV series the West Wing, “Money and politics is like water on pavement... It finds all the cracks.” The notion of money and politics together unnerves me. My political inclinations tell me that as soon as you have to start asking for donations that will inevitably impact how you carry out politics. Even if you do not believe Members of Parliament, Congressmen, Senators or political parties are auctioned off like so much fine cattle, there’s still an element of ‘playing to the donors’ that will inevitably occur. I receive phone calls and letters from the NDP and ONDP trying to squeeze another donation out of me, especially when some news of the day gives them a new talking point, like the changes to Old Age Security, or the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election.

As repulsed as I was by money and politics and their disturbing mix earlier, I’ve sadly come to see it as a necessary evil. Having volunteered for a campaign, something has to pay to put gas in the campaign car, or pay for the phone line, or the office space. Something has to pay for ads, and research is not free.

I think some level of public support for political parties is a good idea. A vote subsidy makes a lot of sense. It means that political parties have to demonstrate a level of support to receive funding at all. $1.00 per vote, or thereabouts, is a good way of helping parties pay off the cost of elections. Coupled with the tax deduction, that is fair contribution by the public purse to the political process. Political parties that are unable to inspire a level of financing to remain sustainable probably do not have enough support to be a major contender. The Canadian political process is not stagnant, new parties rise and fall all the time at the federal and provincial levels. At the moment we needn’t worry about a calcifying system.

Who should be able to donate? Residents. Any person in Canada who is lives in Canada, citizen or otherwise, over the age of say, fourteen, should be able to donate. I’m not sure what sort of maximum cap should be put on donations. Right now you are limited to $1,200.00. My initial reaction is that that might be too low. Something like $2,500 might be better.

I think political donations should be limited to residents. That excludes businesses, NGOs, and unions. The spending power of these organizations far outweighs the spending power of individuals. Democracy is centred around individuals, not organizations. If ‘big money’ interests push out the ability of a normal citizen to exert influence, the system begins to break down. I am not comfortable with the commercials in Ontario used by unions. It is odd agreeing with Tom Flanagan, but there you have it.

Municipal politics is worse than provincial or federal. There are far fewer restrictions on political donations and poor oversight. In the St. Catharines Standard itwas recently reported that all but one candidate violated election spendingrules.  The problems facing Dean Del Mastro (CPC – Peterborough, ON) and the Conservative Party in recent elections have been troubling. Likewise, the stumbles by the NDP regarding union donations and the mistake in regards to the Broadbent Institute are problematic. I don’t think the two are equivalencies, but there you have it.

We need much stricter rules on political ads in Canada. Frankly, I think they should not be permissible outside of the writ period. The governing party has control of when the election is called, which makes it a real conflict of interest.

Money isn’t everything though. Bill James, the fellow behind the movie Moneyball, as played by Brad Pitt, proposed some ideas for politicians to succeed without alot of moneySo long as a candidate can make themselves stand out with meaningful policy differences and something that gets the attention of the electorate they can win. The major parties sometimes struggle to suit local needs. Parties are money and organization machines, any funding strategy need to take into account those who are outside the formal party process.

I realize that my proposals are not radically different from what Canada has today, but that is because I think Canada largely has the right system. I wrote this because of the news streaming out of the United States. The 2012 Presidential election is likely to be the first multi-billion dollar election. I cannot imagine how that is good for a nation’s democracy. The involvement of corporation and Super-PACs is deeply disturbing. How can a private citizen have any influence on national politics anymore? The President of the United States is the leader of the largest economy in the world; it is no surprise that the financial stakes are so high to buy it... win it. Perhaps more disturbing is the impact these funding rules will have on local races. Super-PACs could swoop in on a congressional race, drop a million dollars and obliterate a candidate.

Money and politics will never be separated. It’s best to make it as transparent and easy as possible. If we ban donations to $100 we will find secret trust funds going to politicians at the time of their retirement. There are diminishing returns on restrictions, and some benefits on a more liberal system. There should, to some extent, be a market for the market of ideas, but as with all markets, in my opinion, it should be regulated.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Regionalism or Sectionalism in Canada

While the tragedy in Toronto, on Danzig Street is dominating much of the media and many of our thoughts tonight I have decided not to write about it. Commentary without greater context is not worthwhile at this stage.

Something I wanted to discuss is division in Canada along regions. When Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) made his statements in regards to the Alberta tar sand development the Conservative Party and others quickly attacked him as pitting West against East in a cynical attempt to win votes. It was also said that this hurt the overall unity of the country by commenters, such as Rex Murphy.

I do not believe this issue is exclusively that of Tom Mulcair, but of wedge politics in general. Wedge politics is the use of specific issues that divides communities into stark camps and forces people to choose a side. Typically campaigns employ this strategy if a majority will be drawn to their side. Wedge issues often have very thin margins leading to very hot rhetoric to coalesce a side.

Obviously the oil sands/tar sands development is a wedge issue. Canadians in central and eastern Canada view the economic benefits through the lens of some of the environmental consequences. In Alberta that distinction can be trickier. The oil industry is the backbone of Alberta’s (and increasingly Canada’s) economy. That being said despite the attacks on the leader of the federal NDP his policy is not that far removed from the Alberta Premier, Alison Redford, of the Progressive Conservative Party.

A Conservative example? How about so-called tough on crime legislation? People who study crime suggest that longer prison sentences and tougher sentencing will do nothing to lower overall crime rates. Still, the types of reforms instituted by the Conservative government are incredibly popular among a certain segment of the population. Left-wing voters across the country oppose the policy, and several provinces object to it given that it will increase costs with negligible benefit.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s crime legislation is as unpopular in Quebec as Mr. Mulcair’s statements about the oil/tar sands are in Alberta.

Canada is a highly regionalized country. Our politics reflect that. If you doubt me go through the Wikipedia pages for Canada’s elections during the twentieth century. Regions of the country tend to vote as blocks to represent their interests. If the discussion of sustainable development is an effort to pit regions against one another then there is nothing new there.

Canada’s regionalism is emphasized by our electoral system. The First-Past-the-Post disproportionate awards the first place party overall. For example, in Saskatchewan the NDP won about a third of the vote, but received no seats. Saskatchewan is 100% represented by the Conservatives, therefore increasing the appearance of regional divisions.

While this style of politics is familiar, and tested there are serious consequences. Canada probably is not the type of country that can sustain itself by pitting regions against each other, especially in the case of Quebec. If Quebec, or any other province feels abused by Confederation they will exercise to remove themselves from the federal system. Perhaps Alberta or Ontario won’t separate, but they’ll push for greater provincial powers and weaker federal government.

There’s little value in giving  a sermon about the beauty of unity politics, because they generally don’t win elections. However, having a message that speaks broadly to the whole of the public is an effective way to win public support. The current Harper Conservative government appears to be appealing to a very narrow part of the electorate. As a party they are beginning to pay a price for it. There is a consequence to using that wedge; hopefully it is for the party, and not the country.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Can Mulcair become Prime Minister?

It’s spring 2015. After weeks of rumours Prime Minister Stephen Harper (CPC – Calgary-Southwest, AB) calls a federal election after passing his tenth budget. The Conservative government has a slight lead in the polls, and the budget was packed full of goodies to campaign on. The Liberals and New Democrats viciously attack the budget for being a crash political exercise to grab votes. The mainstream media agrees, but also states that it was good politics.

The election is incredibly contentious as the NDP and Conservatives spend the whole election in a virtual tie and a great number of Canadians sit on the sidelines, undecided. On the night of the election pundits are deeply uncertain of the results and predictions range from majority to minority for the two leading parties. And then the votes were counted...

And? Then what happened?

In three years when this scenario plays out it will be tough to know the outcome, especially since who knows what will happen in international, or national events, or the public opinion of the Canadian people. However, there are some structural challenges that face all of the political parties that deserve some note. Watching the polls many New Democrats have been dreaming that their time will come in 2015 and usher in their first government after the Canadian people have gotten tired of nearly ten years of Harper rule. When I read the polls and consider the electoral map I wonder if the NDP are confronting a ceiling that will block them from achieving power.

When the next election will be called there will be 338 ridings across Canada (up from the current 308). The thirty seats being added fall in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. The new ridings are largely needed to deal with the swelling suburban populations in the first three provinces. Suburban ridings have been typically out of the reach of New Democrats.

To win a majority government the NDP will need to win 170 seats for the barest of majorities. The party currently holds 101, though won 103 in the 2011 federal election. Where can these 70 seats come from?

The East?

Atlantic Canada is pretty friendly territory for the NDP. With a government in Nova Scotia and seats in every province except for PEI they are well positioned for future growth... sort of. New Brunswick is a more conservative province thanone might initially assume. The urban ridings such as Saint John and Fredericton are ringed by suburban and rural areas that are friendly to Conservative candidates. Even in areas where the left does well the Liberals and NDP tend to split the vote allowing Conservatives to win. In the best case scenario the NDP might win two more seats in New Brunswick. In Nova Scotia prospects are about the same. The NDP were successful in Nova Scotia in the last election winning 3 of 11 seats. If there’s an orange tide in Nova Scotia Halifax West and South Shore-St. Margaret’s could flip to the NDP.

As I said, I think PEI is out of reach. In a good circumstance they might snag Charlottetown, so there’s one more. Newfoundland probably offers the most growth for the NDP, in my opinion. Within the last week a poll came out showing the Newfoundland NDP leading in the provincial polls. It’s possible the NDP could see growth on the island in the next election. The province traditionally is Liberal-friendly though. The NDP may be able to pick up the two ridings of Long Range Mountains and Bay D’Espoir Central-Notre Damein western-central Newfoundland along with their St. John’s seats.

So, for the East, that’s 7. Only 63 more to find.


The NDP has a ceiling of support in Quebec of about 45%. As far as I can remember they have never breached that. That is a very respectable number, and a real domination over a province of that size. In the last election 59 MPs came out of Quebec for the NDP. If the NDP are poised to form government they are probably going to be flying high in Quebec. 65 is probably a reasonable ceiling for a number of seats out of the 78. Certain regions of Quebec favour other parties so a clean sweep will be very challenging.

Looking at the last election results I can see five seats that could topple to the NDP in the next vote. But remember those rookie NDP MPs are vulnerable themselves.  

So, there’s 7 more seats bringing us to 14.

British Columbia?

BC received six new seats, and brings it to 42. Despite BCs reputation in Canada as being a somewhat of a lefty paradise it has very Conservative parts of the province.

Vancouver Island will be getting an additional seat, but many of the ridings on theisland will be competitive between the NDP and Conservatives. The NDP have a chance to sweep the island if they are doing well, or lose the whole thing (except for probably Victoria) if things are sliding. So, let’s give the party the three seats on Vancouver Island they need.

According to Earl Washburn at Canadian Elections Atlas, with Vancouver’s new seat there will be a good chance for the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats to win two seats a piece. The rest of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland is tough going for the NDP. So, one more for the NDP.

In the rest of BC there was only one other seat close for the New Dems, that brings the possible added total to 5 and our overall total to 19.


Yeah, I know. While the NDP looks for new seats in Alberta I’ll begin my search for air on the Moon. But, the NDP already have a seat in Edmonton, Edmonton-Strathcona. In the most recent provincial election the Alberta NDP elected four MLAs. Mr. Washburn’s analysis suggests that the NDP will becompetitive in one new seat

That brings us to 20. 50 to go.

The Prairies?

Aside from Elmwood-Transcona, it appears the NDP have won all the reachable seats in Manitoba. Saskatchewan offers a lot more possibilities. The NDP in the last election won nearly a third of the votes and zero seats. New Democrats have stated that if the boundaries of the ridings were different there would be several MPs from the province. With the ridings are as they are (their new boundaries have not been released), the NDP could win 2, maybe 3 seats.

4 more from the Prairies.

The North?

The North is small and tends to favour incumbents. I don’t imagine that they will switch parties unless something pushes that region one way or the other.


Here’s the big question. With fifteen new ridings coming to Ontario and no map of where they might be going, it is difficult to make any sort of prediction at all. The ridings in Brampton, Mississauga, and York region are guaranteed to be split to make new ones. Toronto will see growth, and rearrangement as well. Most of Ontario’s growth has been in the suburbs around the GTA, which is a traditional Liberal-Conservative battleground. The Conservatives have unquestionably won the battleground for the moment.

The NDP elected its first MPP in Peel in the last provincial election, and in both the federal and provincial elections in 2011 won seats previously out of reach. Still, 21 and 17 seats out of the over 100 seats in Ontario is not enough. From the last election results I can imagine four Ontario seats falling to the NDP without too much trouble.

From my estimates that is 28 seats, well short of the 170 needed, and probably not enough to form a minority government unless the Liberals revive and form a coalition with the NDP.

The problem for the NDP and the biggest hurdle to overcome is Ontario. Most of the province’s ridings are competitive between Liberals and Conservatives, but the NDP have very little tradition outside of Toronto, Hamilton, union towns and the North, especially on the federal level.

Today’s story is about the possibility of a by-election in Etobicoke Centre. In that race the NDP will probably not be a factor. During the Orange Wave the NDP didn’t break 15%. While seat is slightly more conservative, this is the sort of seat the NDP will have to find a way to be competitive in. If the party wants to form government it must win seats across the GTA in small cities and in the suburbs.

The NDP cannot rely upon stealing from the Liberals either. If the NDP wins every Liberal seat in Ontario (and elsewhere) we would still have a majority Conservative government. The New Democrats have to defeat Conservative MPs if they hope to name Thomas Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) prime minister.

The NDP faces structural problems. They need to develop candidates and campaigns that can win in the suburbs, like Jagmeet Singh, or rural areas, to get the other 70 seats they need.

There is some hope though New Democrats. Given the peculiarities of First-Past-the-Post a small shift in the popular vote could mean dozens of unexpected seats going orange. The Quebec Orange Wave tells us just how uncertain politics is, and predictions that are sound can turn to dust on an election night. Lately the federal NDP have been polling a few points ahead ofthe Conservatives, in the mid-to-high 30s. Still, the road to power for the NDP could be a very difficult one. A breakthrough needn’t happen overnight, as Mr. Harper has shown us.

If you have any comments about this analysis, please feel free to share. I hope you like the new aesthetic changes I have made to the blog as well.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Elizabeth May's Stand

During the debate and filli-voting in the House of Commons on the Omnibudget or Bill C38 one MP stood head and shoulders above her peers. Elizabeth May (GPC – Saanich – Gulf Islands, BC), the sole MP and leader of the Green Party did more as an individual to slow Bill C38’s passage than anyone else. On her own she submitted hundreds of amendments, comparable to the entire Liberal and New Democratic Parties.

The most stunning accomplishment was the over twenty-two hours straight of voting Ms. May participated in, only missing a single voteout of hundreds. At the conclusion of the voting marathon the opposition side of the House gave her a standing ovation. Much deserved.

Bill C38 was a tragically perfect stand for Ms. May. If I associate the Green Party with anything it’s the environment (obviously), democracy and transparency. Bill C38 stood in stark opposition to these principles. The Omnibudget dramatically cut environmental protections and regulations. Omnibus legislation was pushed through, curtailing debate and violating the MPs’ ability to do their jobs. Many of the changes have placed power in the hands of cabinet ministers, and the financing of elements is still unclear.

I should be clear; my respect for Elizabeth May is not partisan. I’m not a Green voter, and have never cast a ballot for them. They have been my second choice in elections, but I’ve ultimately settled on other parties.

Ms. May’s performance to a great degree has underminedthe position David Wilks (CPC – Kootenay-Columbia, BC) expressed a few weeks before. As a singular Member of Parliament she did more to shape that debate than the entire Bloc Quebecois, or the swaths of Conservative backbenchers. In short, Ms. May conclusively demonstrated to the public that lone MPs can make a difference and be effective.

Now, to be fair, Ms. May sits as an Independent (her party is too small to have party privileges in the House) and therefore she has powers beyond that of a normal MP. Still, Bruce Hyer (IND – Thunder Bay-Superior North, ON) and Peter Goldring (IND – Edmonton East, AB) also sit as independents, along with all members of the BQ and did not nearly have the same level of impact.

Elizabeth May ultimately lost her fight on Bill C38. It passed the Senate with far less fanfare. None of her amendments passed. The bill was not broken up. However, at least in some way a moral victory was made and supporters of the Greens can be proud.

Can we imagine what our House of Commons might look like with 308 (or 338) MPs of the quality of Ms. May? With her level of knowledge of process, competency and principle? They needn’t share the same ideology to be good parliamentarians, there are good ones in all parties. Just as Bill C38showed us how toothless parliament can be Ms. May showed us an alternative.

I hope the voters of Saanich-Gulf Islands keep Ms. May as long as she will serve.

For a similar article on this matter check out this from the Ottawa Citizen.