Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Stories of 2013

Over the course of twelve months a number of stories have captured my attention. If internet trends are to believed numbered lists are quite popular at the moment, so I thought I would embrace the format for my final post of 2013.

#10 - Ontario’s Five By-Elections

In August 2013 five by-elections were called in the province of Ontario. The three provincial parties fought tooth and nail to shape the narrative in the aftermath of the election. Five Liberal incumbents, all former cabinet ministers, retired, triggering the political contests. Two of the seats were won by the ONDP, two by the Liberals and one by the Progressive Conservatives. Despite the Liberals losing three strong seats the narrative in the media shifted to a PC loss and NDP victory. Here was my take

#9 - Lac-Megantic Train Accident

The town of Lac-Megantic is still recovering from the disastrous industrial accident that devastated the small Quebec town. The disaster has raised serious questions about industrial regulation and safety in Canada.

#8 - Idle No More

The Idle No More movement began in 2012 but its effects have continued to be felt in the country. The proposed Aboriginal education legislation is evidence that despite efforts to push the federal government into meaningful discussions has been ignored. Protest has continued across First Nations communities. Here is my take

#7 - Big Move Stopped

I am not sure there is any leader who believes that the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area is not in need of desperate of investment in transit. The Big Move plan has struggled to get off the ground for a lack of funding. This is one of the major policy questions facing the province and inaction on the file is chronic.

#6 - British Columbia’s Provincial Election

In April the British Columbia general election delivered a shocking upset victory for the BC Liberals. Polls and pundits expected the BC NDP to do well and Adrian Dix to become the province’s next Premier. But on election night the voters returned the Christy Clark government.

#5 - Natural Resources and the Environment

These kinds of stories appear in the local media of the Northwest Territories all the time. There are serious concerns about the development of our natural resources and the impact it has on the environment, and by extension, our health. From fracking protests in New Brunswick to water contamination in the Arctic there are clear consequences to this form of economic development.

#4 - Justin Trudeau becomes Liberal leader

As much as I may dislike Justin Trudeau, his selection as Liberal leader has had a dramatic impact on the standings of the parties. The Liberals now lead in the polls, buoyed by Conservative scandal and the appeal of Trudeau.

#3 - The Reform Act

Michael Chong’s (CPC - Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) private member’s bill to change the way leaders maintain the confidence of the House of Commons has triggered a fascinating debate about Members of Parliament, the division of power, and political leadership. It will continue to be a story in the new year, but also represents discontent within the House.

#2 - Rob Ford’s Ongoing Saga

Rob Ford. Sigh. Certainly the most outrageous story in Canada this year. We watched in rapt fascination as an elected official dragged a city deep into the mire of his own personal demons.

#1 - Senate-PMO Scandal

With an ongoing criminal investigation, and deep unhappiness within the public regarding this scandal, this could be a major weight around the Conservatives’ necks going forward. Thomas Mulcair continues to press the attack on this issue very effectively, and Conservative supporters and MPs are increasingly unhappy. Depending how it all plays out it could be the end of the Harper government and it certainly demonstrates the paranoid, controlling nature of the PMO and how it has backfired.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Worth Reading – December 26, 2013

My last Worth Reading for 2013 is a tad bare. As I hope most of my readers, I have been spending time with friends and family and not immersing myself in the world of politics, government, policy, and my other general interests. I got three books for Christmas that I will hope to review in 2014, Shopping for Votes, The Longer I’m Prime Minister and Paikin and the Premiers.

Andrew Coyne writes great satire, here is a fictional interview between himself and Prime Minister Stephen Harper

One of the early defining points in Ontario 2014 political landscape will be two by-elections in Thornhill and Niagara Falls. The Liberals have their candidates, so an election will likely follow shortly. 

A big story in 2014 will be the Ontario municipal elections. Rob Ford’s campaign to be returned as mayor is not the only interesting story. Mississauga and Brampton’s municipal elections are sure to be interesting. Nominations open January 2, and the vote will be held in October. 

The Progressive Conservatives of Ontario announced their plans for transit, were they to form government. In my opinion, it is a foolish and misleading plan. Ontario’s public service is one of the smallest per capita and is far less wasteful than the public and conservatives would have you believe.

Chantal Hébert says that Mulcair and the NDP needs to target Ontario rather than Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. Fascinating point, and makes a strong argument for NDP offensive for seats, rather than fighting in the polls.

My family have heard loud booms and have worried of greater damage to our home/neighbourhood. Turns out it was a strange phenomenon called frost quakes

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

To Serve One Another

I have journeyed home to Ontario for the holidays. After about eighteen hours of taxis, airports, planes, more airports, bigger planes, and car ride home I safely made it back to the province of my birth. I find when you travel like this your brain condenses time. Back in Fort Smith I could feel the four months I had spent there, but soon as I got back to Brampton the time collapsed and it feels like some sort of strange dream. Before departing I was repeatedly reminded by my coworkers that I do have to return.

Here is a short list of the things I have missed about Ontario (besides from the obvious stuff): take-out Thai food, naan and hummus, fast internet, speed limits between 40 and 90 km/h, fully paved roads, temperatures above -20 (it was 0 when I landed and I started sweating).

Given that today is Christmas Eve I wanted to take a moment to encourage my readers to consider those around you and the work many people do every day to make our modern lives possible. The afternoon after I returned to Ontario the ice storm arrived. For many hours straight rain fell from the sky and quickly froze to whatever surface it found. When I went to bed around midnight I heard the first branches breaking as the weight of the ice shattered limbs of stressed trees. The neighbourhood I grew up in is a mature neighbourhood with many trees well over 20 meters tall. Some are dying, or rotten, or just old and the storm overtaxed them and virtually every property in my area is affected.

The power went out not long after. The next morning, devoid of anything to do, and still suffering from time difference, I wandered my childhood neighbourhood and joined in the efforts to clear debris from the road. Neighbours helped each other where they could, but in many cases heavy machinery was needed that brute muscle power could not deal with.

It should come as no surprise that the devastation was great, but government workers and private individuals/companies pitched in to ease the burden to make things normal in time for Christmas. I know people are upset and worried, especially if their homes are still without power, but there are too many who have not given thought to the people trying to make this happen. Power in some neighbourhoods will not be restored until Thursday, or so is said, but that means that power workers will be working day and night over Christmas. People forget that it is another person who makes the service work. The public utilities would much prefer to be home or with family and friends than fixing power lines and transformers.

The storm offers a stark contrast, but the same is true with most services. My flights home were delayed. I was impressed not to hear people complain, but stoically and agreeably work with the airlines to get things moving. Having worked in retail, or entertainment over the holidays meant providing people a service they wanted at the expense of your own time. People are frustrated and stressed, but that is no reason to forget you are dealing with a human being and everyone is doing their best to deal with constraints imposed by supply/demand, companies, weather or the million other random circumstances of life.

To borrow a line from The West Wing we should endeavour to be better servants to one another. We should try to find ways to make the lives of others easier and perhaps more meaningful, and have greater compassion and empathy for those whose lives we touch. Most of us now work in the service industry, which means we routinely deal with people. It would be a wonderful gift, or resolution if we worked to be more patient, caring and understanding to one another, especially those who work to serve us. We are not alone and I think we would find great comfort in the community of our circumstances rather than the outrage of our personal suffering.

Brampton couple walk hand-in-hand after the ice storm.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Worth Reading - December 19, 2013

The decade of darkness is a line used to describe the military cuts and shortfalls experienced by the Canadian military under the Chretien Liberals. It is fitting then that Jon Ivison uses the same language to describe the deep cuts impacting Canada’s foreign service. As Ivison puts it, “But is all this activity motivated by a desire to protect hard-working Canadian taxpayers, as the government claims? Or is it a short-sighted and politically motivated fire sale, designed to help the Conservatives balance the books?” 

Chantal Hébert writes that Mulcair and the NDP need to focus on Ontario if they hope to form government in 2015. 

I think this story shows a microcosm of what is happening in Toronto. Rob Ford’s crassly partisan paragraph in a standard correspondence has been altered to more neutral language over his protests.

Jon Lorinc writes about the current state of politics in Toronto and calls on the voting public and candidates to embrace strategic voting to get Ford out of office when the next election comes in October.

Bruce Hyer (GPC – Thunder Bay-Superior North, ON) changed party affiliations from independent to Green this week. Hyer was initially elected in 2011 as a New Democrat, but had a falling out with the party in 2012. I cannot blame Mr. Hyer, and I find the vitriol of some New Democrats on this very unsettling. I really like the Elizabeth May and the Greens, so I understand Hyer’s switch. As an independent he had common cause with May on several issues. 

In the “There’s something wrong here” category, Ontario’s ombudsman reported that municipalities are addicted to secrecy. Many local governments are improperly using in-camera and excluding public oversight of council meetings. 

A think tank has come forward with criticisms of Metrolinx’s proposal to improve transit in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area. I found this a tad frustrating because the desperate need to improve transit is constantly hindered by hemming and hawing over specifics. My general opinion is that investment and construction should have begun years ago, but they raise interesting points about a few of the Toronto projects. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Threat of Illiberal Democracy

Apologies for not posting a Worth Reading last week. I was on the road for work and my hotel’s internet was less than optimal. My personal laptop was not exactly eager to cooperate with their wireless system. By the time I got home Friday evening I did not feel the motivation to write, and so here we are.

Back in university I wrote a paper about the August Putsch in 1991 in the Soviet Union. I argued that the traditional interpretation of Boris Yeltsin as a democratic champion was terribly flawed, and that the years immediately following his rule did not reflect what we would typify as a liberal democracy.

In the spectrum between liberal democracy and totalitarian dictatorship there is a great deal of variation. Much of that middle spectrum can be called illiberal democracy. In the initial definitions this was seemingly democratic states who restricted the freedoms of their citizens. Russia is a good example of this, and Singapore is sometimes held up as part of this phenomenon. Basically the government intrudes into the lives and freedoms of the citizenry. However, is it possible that illiberal democracy could form from citizens’ disinterest in the state?

I think the threats to modern liberal democracy are manifold and as opposed to the state encroaching in our freedoms we have a disengaged populace who is allowing institutions to decay and fail on their own. The government is the easiest one to begin with. Decreasing voter turnout, declining participation in formal politics, increased ignorance and apathy towards our politics means that political leaders are given a freer hand in abusing our system.

Prorogation is an obvious example here. Putting aside Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (CPC – Calgary Southwest, AB) tenure in office, there is evidence elsewhere that the conventions that used to govern our system are in absolute freefall. British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly sat 36 of 576 days, is this really evidence of a healthy, vibrant democracy? If you heard that about somewhere else, what would you think? If that comment was about Zimbabwe you would dismiss as an obvious truism of an undemocratic society.

A free press is also a critical component of a liberal democracy. Even if you accept the presence of strong redoubts of meaningfully critical, thoughtful media, it is safe to say that the lowest brow, least critical, least relevant media is gaining traction over anything thoughtful. More people probably get their news from Buzzfeed than the Globe and Mail, or their local paper. Institutional, thoughtful reporting is in a real crisis. The consolidation of papers by large companies, and the diminishing market share, along with sad appeals to market increasingly disinterested in news has hurt our free press.

The state is not particularly interested in silencing the freedom of speech, but very few citizens care to listen (or speak) anymore. Most of my participation in political events consists of myself and the usual suspects. Freedom of assembly is only somewhat battered, but no one cares to participate. While you may reject my premise that Canada, and other countries, are progressively sliding towards illiberal democracy, I don’t think it is possible deny that the vibrancy of our democracy is fading.

Accountability at the federal level now seems to be defined by whether or not criminal charges have been laid. This type of arrogance is only possible because so few people care. The Mayoralty of Rob Ford can continue blithely because he can be rest assured that the huge number of Torontonians will not vote and he can still carry the day despite his abysmal behaviour because people have such a low opinion for our system already.

The passivity of citizens must have some sort of long-term impact. I do not blame the government, or some other boogie man. Some sort of socio-economic/technological change is dramatically reshaping the culture and leading to the shocking erosion of traditional institutions. This loss of faith and acceptance is having a tangible impact on how we are governed and the lives we lead. Sadly, I see no averting these changes, and those who are expressing concern may be crying into deaf ears of a public who prefers to not listen. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

Following Barack Obama’s surprising victory in the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 a great deal has been made about how exactly the Obama team managed to pull it off. The campaign’s impressive work in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election has solidified this opinion that they have managed to do something special and win over voters. Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab gives us a tiny peak into how.

This is the premise that I do not doubt attracts a majority of the readers of The Victory Lab to the text. It has been frequently called “The Moneyball for politics”, but I do not think that that is a fair comparison. The Victory Lab is basically a history of American research and practice of electoral politics. It begins modestly with the story of the first quantitative research on elections, and how to improve voter turnout. From the early twentieth century to the present day Issenberg explains how changes in technology, media and developments in the marketing/public opinion industry have reshaped American (and Canadian) politics.

What The Victory Lab demonstrates is that commercial interests now have a tremendous amount of information about us and political parties and candidates are now learning how to use that information to press our buttons. On one hand it is a staggeringly cynical way to look at politics. It is not particularly new; allow me to provide an example. It is not unusual in the 20th century for a pro-gun candidate to contact the list of subscribers to a hunting magazine to trawl for potential voters. That’s a pretty obvious correlation. However, the vast database of individual consumer purchases, when aligned with similar people and their voting patterns, means that campaigns can very specifically target individuals. The way Americans preserve voter information makes this far more feasible than for their Canadian counterparts.

If you give the right data to a modern campaign operative she/he can identify the type of party/candidate/message will best appeal to you. It’s important to remember that this is not a one-to-one analysis. Buying Pepsi does not make you a Democrat, but a person who lives in your style of neighbourhood, with a luxury smartphone plan and premium cable tends to vote for candidates X, and prefers lower taxes, and worries about public safety issues. So instead of getting the mail item about the environment you get the one about policing. It’s clever, and vaguely terrifying.

The tragic part about The Victory Lab is the specifics of how this all works is left vague and unclear. Issenberg lays out the history and how American politics has reached this point. The ubiquity of consumer data and the constant expansion of voter database information means that things are bound to change. Issenberg alludes to the fact that personal politics has eclipsed the mass politics, in a way reverting to democratic origins of the early republic and the 19th century.

The observations and some of the anecdotes are fascinating. The academics in the book are always looking at ways to squeeze out more turnout and figure out objectively what works best to bring people to the polls. However, the methods being employed now undermine consistency in politics. A campaign can freely speak out of both sides of its mouth. However, the strategy is for a more positive end for now, driving up turnout. One of the interesting things about the 2012 election is that the Obama campaign was able to turnout its supporters so effectively it distorted the composition of the certain states. Like old 19th century elections, it’s a numbers game again, so line up the men and make ‘em vote. Vote early, and vote often.

Ultimately though, the story Issenberg presents is merely a history and how campaigns have changed and how traditional thinking and posturing by pundits and “strategists” is terribly outdated. He makes a compelling case, but case studies are not fleshed out enough to connect it. This is a narrative, not a how-to. Issenberg points frequently to Donald Green and Alan Gerber and their book Get Out the Vote as more of a manual. Issenberg provides a fascinating overview of how American campaigns have changed, and how they will likely continue to evolve, but the relatively dry subject matter is really only for the most dedicated of reader on this topic.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Worth Reading - December 6, 2013

Apologies for the delay. I was on the road yesterday. After logging 600 km on the road, and getting up at 4 AM I did not trust my ability to articulately share interesting reads.

Michael Chong’s Reform Act is gaining significant momentum, and opposition. The Star updated us on the efforts to empower Members of Parliament and change how political parties operate. 

Chantal Hébert discusses the communications strategies being used by the Prime Minister’s Office on the Senate Scandal and how it reveals their tone deafness

Jon Lorinc might be the most interesting writer chronicling Toronto politics. In the Walrus he compares Rob Ford to Don Quixote

How increasing density would help decrease congestion in Toronto. One of the most interesting aspects of congestion/sprawl in the GTHA is that people cannot afford to live in the areas they want and therefore must move to the suburbs and must own a car. This is something that is definitely reflected in my personal experience. 

Martin Regg Cohn writes that an election is approaching for the province of Ontario. The NDP are doing well in the polls and are the only party that has supported the minority Liberal government. Expect the Wynne government to lose the budget vote in the spring, Cohn warns. 

Christopher Moore reviews a book analyzing Westminster parliaments in the Anglo-world. Moore’s review highlights to what extent Canada is an outlier

Worth Watching

Patrick Klepek, news editor at Giant Bomb, recently spoke at a TEDx talk about internet etiquette. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Defending the Reform Act

Michael Chong (CPC – Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) has sensed his moment and he has acted. The normally unassuming Member of Parliament in the Conservative backbenches is best known for his attempts to reform Parliament. At first he tried to tackle Question Period, but now it seems that he has set his eyes on something far larger.

Chong has plans to introduce a bill short titled the “Reform Act” which has the potential to fundamentally reshape political power in the House of Commons. Andrew Coyne is probably the most outspoken and well-known public intellectual who has heartily endorsed the plan, but individuals from all parties have come forward to lend support to the idea.

Andrew Coyne in the National Post eagerly endorsed the legislation as an important first step to restoring Parliament. The Reform Act has three central components: it would enshrine MPs ability to call a leadership review, it would allow caucus to decide whether or not an MP may sit among them, and candidates for election would not require the signature of the party leader to be a candidate. This is precisely the package of reforms I endorsed, and Andrew Coyne proposed in his speech “The Alarming State of Canadian Democracy” that I featured on this blog a few weeks ago.

It can hardly be surprising that I find a great deal of merit in this legislation. Though I have written about it in the past I will quickly say that re-establishing the MPs’ right to topple their leaders, control caucus collectively and win the support of their riding associations free from leader interference would go a long way to restoring the independence of MPs. I, unlike others, do not believe this will correct our democracy overnight, but I hope it will act as a course adjustment and create a greater public diversity of opinions and stronger, more influential Members of Parliament.

Not everyone is as enamoured with the proposal. Today Alice Funke’s analysis and calls for “Sober First Thought” has gained traction as chief critic. First, I’d like to say I greatly enjoy Funke’s work and have shared it on this blog, but I would like to take some time to deconstruct her argument.

Funke begins by suggesting that the mad rush to endorse the legislation that had not even been presented was foolhardy and showed the clear desperation of some for reform. I believe she has a point here. I was stunned at the mad rush of support that I witnessed. I think it is significant though because it reveals that this reform has an honest intellectual basis of support. As has been iterated many times, this is the practice in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It is how a parliament is meant to function. The excitement around it also speaks to the desperation to staunch the bleeding. Clearly our politics and democracy is sick, even a cotton swap and bandage start to look like miracle cures.

Funke’s second line of argument is the formalization of caucus ousting leaders, “the Bill would formalize in legislation a party caucus’ ability to call for and effect a leadership review. I say formalize, because there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system”. This is one of the great weaknesses in Canadian democracy. So much of our system is governed by convention and ritual that there are little formal restrictions on power. Prorogation is a perfect example. It is a common tool used in Britain, but rarely more than a day or two, but there are no “formalized” procedures for its use so there is nothing preventing a government for hypothetically proroguing for months and months.

Our traditions are so atrophied and weak that is only logical to formalize the conventions to restore them, and protect them from further loss. Yes, parties now could kick out their leaders, but there is limited ability in the party constitutions to do so. The recent examples Funke cites involve parties in opposition whose leaders are far weaker than sitting premiers or prime ministers.

Funke also raises the arguments that voters want cohesive party messages and not a disparate array of opinions. That makes sense, this would not, however, eliminate party discipline. In the UK it is not as though voters are unsure of the general positions of the Labour or Conservative Party. I would add that in our system we do not elect parties, but Members of Parliament. This may encourage a greater degree of scrutiny of those individuals.

My blog is running long and Funke had other points. I will endeavour to address some of the final points quickly.

Canada is a distinctly regional country. Burying our regional conflicts under the guise of a national party does little to correct or address them. Maybe it makes sense if all the British Columbian MPs, regardless of party, came together on an issue that affected them. This will change the nomination process and parties will have to be more careful, Funke argues. It seems to me parties are already pretty careful, even still, crazy candidates slip through and the public (thankfully) rarely elects them. Voters should be the safeguards of quality, not the central party. Local riding associations have a duty to put their best foot forward, let’s not let them off the hook.

What Alice Funke misses is that the legislation is meant to empower MPs and give them a weapon to use against the leadership. The leaders will still be able to run roughshod over the caucus, but there will be a consequence. Consider Mark Warawa’s (CPC – Langley, BC) efforts to speak out on a motion regarding abortion. The Prime Minister would be welcome to silence him, but the Conservatives would back Warawa might be far less inclined to support him, or if Warawa declared a challenge, back him.

The hope of reformers such as myself is that this legislation may restore the long-vanished backbones of our Members of Parliament. That the leaders will have to think carefully about whether or not they can afford to silence our democratically-elected representatives, and whether or not parties can survive a diversity of opinions. It works in other countries, and I desperately hope it will work here.