Friday, February 28, 2014

Worth Reading – February 28, 2014

Apologies for the delay, business and then misfortune caused me to push this back.

Justin Ling, quickly one of my favourite Parliament Hill journalists, offers a rebuttal to Pierre Pollievre’s defence of the Fair Elections Act

John Tory announced he was running to be mayor ofToronto, but first he’ll have to get past Karen Stintz. 

Urban planning and dictatorship; Atlantic Cities has a fascinating look at the relationship between regimes and public space

The term middle class is so misused it has begun to lose all meaning. Joel Kotkin writes about the increasing proletarianism of the middle class in America

Susan Delacourt writes about the real reason political parties are failing Canadians

In Spacing Jon Lornic discusses what kind of transit plan John Tory may offer for Toronto. 

In the most-excellent news category, both the NDP and Liberals are putting forward legislation that will allow municipalities to use the ranked-ballot in Ontario

John Ivison suggests that the interesting policy passed by the Liberals at their convention may hurt them in the general election.

I loved the video store. As a fixture in the cultural and physical landscape it was one of my favourites. This piece celebrates the now lost video store, may it never be forgotten. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We’re Not All Crazy: Partisan Politics

The recent report released by Samara, along with the Liberal convention of last weekend has inspired me to write this. The idea for this spawned from a single moment. During the Liberal convention Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) correctly criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper (CPC – Calgary Southwest, AB) for not speaking to the media. That’s fine. However, Trudeau then proceeded to avoid the media or answer their questions for the remainder of the convention. It takes a certain amount of gall to be that hypocritical. Following journalists on Twitter, they were gobsmacked, but worse still was that equal numbers of Liberal and Conservative partisans attacked them for either failing to ask Trudeau questions and treating him with kid-gloves, or persecuting Trudeau and being Harperites.

The contrast is stunning, and to any non-partisan outsider they must all seem inflicted with some strange mental illness.

I am also forced to wonder if this is why parties become such isolated, narrow groups. The scare off anyone capable of critical thought and self-reflection.

I think I have identified the three types of people who participate in partisan politics:


Wonks are policy nerds, ideas trump the party. They care about the issues, and likely have preferred answers to important questions. They generally try to make themselves experts in these fields and obsessively study the matter. They probably got into politics to advance their concept further and a political party is the best vessel. Sometimes they’ll gravitate to particular politicians who push this agenda.

Ideologues and Activists

Ideologues and activists are those whose beliefs trump that party. In the NDP this is personified best by the Socialist Caucus who has so often butt heads with the greater party. The Socialists are committed believers and many would abandon the NDP if they failed to meet their standard. Social Conservatives play a similar role with the conservative parties, and sometimes flee for minor parties when their needs are ignored.

Faithful Partisans

These are the diehards, nothing trumps the party. They believe in their parties first and foremost. They defend them viciously and see no (or limited) value in the others. Winning is all that matters. If the party changes its core values it is all validated in the name of winning. While this is an extreme example, faithful partisans would line up behind Prime Minister Harper even if he declared that he wanted to nationalize banks and greatly expand the debt (more than he already has).

The faithful partisans are different in that unlike the wonks, ideologues and activists they tend not to get their heartbroken. Back in Ontario I am very disappointed in the provincial NDP, and could imagine seeking out a party that better fit my values. To a faithful partisan this would be an unthinkable treason. This concept is probably better represented in a Venn diagram than three distinct categories. I’ve know faithful partisans with strong ideologies who are experts in policy. Still, there is an attitude question that shapes thinking far more than particular intellectual interest. It’s about loyalty and principles and deciding what matters more.

To non-partisans party members can seem like lunatics. It should be understood that a lot of different of people are members of political parties, and it is not necessary to have cultish devotion and drink the kool-aid quite so deeply. We’re not all crazy. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Worth Reading – February 20, 2014

Good Thursday morning. Being in meetings has made it harder to keep track of all the stories this week, so this Worth Reading may be somewhat brief.

Martin Regg Cohn writes that Andrea Horwath has transformed the Ontario NDP from a progressive to a populist party. I have found myself frustrated at the direction that party has taken. Admittedly, no party is perfect, but the gap between what I want to see and what the ONDP is appears to be widening.

From the Niagara Falls review, a piece of election analysis that suggests all three parties have very little to be happy about with the results. 

This is a great piece from Adam Radwanski on the health of Niagara and how its revitalization needs to be made a priority. Niagara is one of the hardest hit regions in the province with the highest unemployment. The provincial government does not nearly take the region seriously enough.

Samara Canada released their latest report, “By Invitation Only” this week. It’s a great report, definitely worth reading, about how Canadians view political parties, and how they are failing the public. 

If you don’t have time to read Samara’s entire report Susan Delacourt offers a good overview and discussion of it here

When Kathleen Wynne became Premier in the minority legislature at Queen’s Park I became optimistic that several big files might advance with the support of the NDP. That has not happened, to my great disappointment, particularly on the transit file. Nor does it appear will ever to happen with the current leadership

Every day I am stunned by what is happening in the Ukraine. I keep expecting the violence to end and for something to bring it to an end, but instead every day some new tragedy occurs

Worth Watching

How to Hate Politics – Jennifer Hollett

Jennifer Hollett, former nomination candidate for the NDP talks about how parties and politicians turn people off to politics. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Leader Parties versus Citizen Parties

Samara Canada released their latest report inspiring this piece on the role of political parties. Read it here

Political parties have radically evolved in their purpose and function over the last century. What started out as coalitions of geographic and ethno-cultural groups moved into stark ideological camps. This sorting took considerable time, and was not complete until relatively recently. Political parties in the not-so-distant past used to be much broader in their opinions and members were much freer to rebuke the standard opinions found within them. This tradition has been far clearer in the United States with liberal Republicans and conservative (sometimes radically so) Democrats.

However, after the great ideological sorting was complete in Canada there seemed to be a realization that the broader population was not particularly polarized. Instead the mass of Canadians lived somewhere in the ever-dominant middle. As a result parties who sought power watered down their wine to such an extent that their grape juice-like swill was now indefinable from their peers, who they claimed to be so separate from.

It seems possible that personality-driven politics and elections are becoming more dominant as time goes on. Politicians with big personalities, charisma, notoriety or at least strong brands are in vogue. Citizens seem far less driven by policy than personality in many circumstances. I feel Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) is an example of such a leader. I admittedly have my biases against the Liberal leader, but his popularity seems to me to be fueled entirely on his personal appeal to voters.

Contrast this to Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West-Glanbrook) the PC leader of Ontario who has diligently put out policy positions but fails to outperform Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre) in likeability despite her relative silence on policy. In my experience policy often has very little to do with how voters make decisions. Traditionally parties used to believe with the proper policies they could win people over. Now modern marketing and psychology reveals that values and emotion are far more likely to sway people than logic. It’s confounding, but it’s true.

In this era when power is being centralized more and more in the leaders’ office political parties are becoming less about principles and policies, but more the machinery to place one individual (or small group of individuals) into power. Their rivals are not other ideals or philosophies, but rival pretenders to the throne who seek to turn the populace against them.

I personally reject this style of politics. In 2012 I helped select Thomas Mulcair to lead the federal NDP. Were an election to be held tomorrow making Thomas Mulcair prime minister would not be the sole motivator of my vote. Instead the quality of the local candidate, the platform, the issues, and the campaign would influence my vote, donations, volunteering and support. It seems more and more voters think only of the leader and less about the other factors.

What is the purpose of political parties? It is a question that is not well answered, or perhaps more accurately, not well fulfilled by our modern parties. Which is a shame, because it’s critical for our democracy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Worth Reading – February 13, 2014

Elections Canada recently released some information about how the transposition of 2011 election results would play out in the new districts. However, as Alice Funke points out that the results are flawed and why. 

Adam Radwanski in the Globe and Mail writes on a similar topic to Martin Regg Cohn’s piece I highlighted last week. The Ontario New Democrats are building a policy-less-based popularity

Marc Mayrand, the head of Elections Canada, has spoken against the Fair Elections Act

Tonight there are two by-elections in Ontario today. Votes should be coming in soon. Martin Regg Cohn sets us up for the results

Big news in Brampton politics, my former Regional Councillor John Sanderson has filed his papers to run for Mayor of Brampton against Susan Fennell. 

The Northwest Territories’ budget came out this week. Part of the plan is to increase the population by over 2000 people. It’s an interesting challenge, and perhaps unreasonable.

Despite their grandiose claims, the federal government’s efforts to refund and repair the armed forces are falling short of what is advertised

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dismissing the Watchman: The Fair Elections Act

Earlier this month the Conservative government under Stephen Harper (CPC – Calgary Southwest, AB) introduced a piece of legislation called the Fair Elections Act. The Orwellian-named piece of legislation has already moved passed second reading and is now being worked on in committee. It is more than passing reasonable that this bill will become law before the month is out and change the way elections are run in this country.

Having had a week the media has begun to sift out some of the issues in the legislation, or perhaps the problems. If you ask the Minister of Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre (CPC – Napean-Carlton, ON) he’ll tell you the law is designed to combat election fraud. This should be pointed out for what it is, a red herring bearing little resemblance to the truth, like tightening laws on private citizens' use of the internet and calling it a bill to combat pedophiles. Election fraud is not a major problem in this country, at least not because the wrong people are voting.

What election fraud that occurred in the last federal election seems to have been perpetrated by political parties who lied, overspent, mismanaged, misdirected and cheated voters. Elections Canada has been painstakingly trying to reconstruct what happened over the last few elections and has only become to bring some to some kind of justice. But Elections Canada was not only toothless in its punishments, but in its abilities to investigate. The new legislation actually weakens Elections Canada and moves the power to investigate away from that body.

Other bizarre changes will make it so Elections Canada will merely oversee elections, and not even advertise civic engagement to Canadians. Laws will be tightened to make it harder for the poor, the transient, students and seniors to vote. The Conservatives, like their Republican cousins in America, are introducing voter identification laws. In America these are seen as code to exclude minority and lower-income voters, who skew for the Democrats.

Election fundraising laws will be relaxed, including some bizarre provisions that will allow parties to write-off money used to raise money from existing donors. While experts I read seem unsure what this means, it could mean that if a party throws a gala dinner to fundraise the entire expense does not have to be claimed. This is an idea rife for abuse. The individual donation limit will be raised which at the current time is a benefit to the Conservative Party.

Leading journalists across Canada have concluded that something untoward happened in the last federal election, which has led some to doubt the legitimacy of the Harper government. I have never been part of that camp, but there were many who appear to have been playing fast and loose with election laws, such as the former Labrador MP and Dean Del Mastro (CPC – Peterborough, ON). Instead of improving our election laws this bill seems poised to make abuse easier and consequences less likely. It causes me great anxiety, and like many things in this country it will pass unnoticed and the risk not fully realized until after 2015.

Below are some pieces on this topic:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Worth Reading – February 6, 2014

Irwin Cotler (LPC – Mount Royal, QC) announced his intention to retire, and that he would not seek re-election in 2015. Cotler is a great endorsement for career politicians. He is an expert in his field of law and human rights and has brought great weight to the these discussion during his tenure.

Martin Regg Cohn writes in the Toronto Star about dissatisfied New Democrats in Ontario. Andrea Horwarth (ONDP - Hamilton Centre) refuses to clearly embrace a minimum wage increase. Left-wing groups in Ontario were endorsing a $14/hour wage, and Horwath refused to publicly endorse the increase to $11/hour. Cohn classifies this as the ONDP becoming a populist rather than a progressive party. I’m inclined to agree.

Today was budget day in the Northwest Territories. CBC North summarized the budget as presented by Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger today. 

The so-called Fair Elections Act is a law the federal government intends to pass quickly and quietly this month and change the way our elections are run. Chantal H├ębert speculates on the motivations behind these changes which will make it harder to vote, and reduce oversight. 

In addition the Conservative government intends to use time allocation to push the 242-page piece of legislation. This piece summarizes the bill nicely

Andrew Coyne writing on the effectively meaningless “Senate reform” Justin Trudeau undertook. 

Related to my post on Tuesday, former-Senator Hugh Segal writes on behalf of the basic annual income

Robyn Doolittle released “Crazy Town” this week detailing the journalistic investigation into Rob Ford, and in particular his drug use. If the rest of the book is like this preview chapter it must be an amazing read. 

From Spacing, Toronto, as a region, has about 6 million people. Cities the world over have great difficulty making the jump from 6 million into the next tier as their infrastructure reaches a limit. The author suggests that Toronto’s broken political culture and NIMBYism is preventing it from becoming aworld-class city

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Guaranteed Annual Income: Simpler, More Effective Solution?

Recently I have been watching a lot of people debate the minimum wage. Ontario’s government announced that the minimum wage would be increasing to $11/hour. Advocates were urging the government to put the province on track for a $14/hour to raise minimum wage, full-time workers above the poverty line. As I wanted the debate unfold it became very clear that the minimum wage was not the answer to poverty.

An ideas that I keep hearing about among policy wonks is the basic income supplement or guaranteed annual income. Obviously the welfare system as implemented for decades is not working to lift people from poverty. If anything, welfare seems to lock people within a pernicious system. Both basic income supplement/guaranteed annual income purport to address the failings of modern welfare in a far simpler, direct manner. I will do my best to describe them as I understand it.

The guaranteed annual income would basically function as a negative income tax. As I understand it Canadians would file taxes and if their income slips below a certain number it would be topped off to a certain basic level.

I found this infographic to quite nicely compare guaranteed annual income to the current welfare system, I suggest checking it out. 

The cost alone of the bureaucratic state to administer the welfare system could be partially cut, and better invested in other social services, such as mental health, addiction treatment, or affordable housing. Issues like affordable housing become much simpler because the state can assume a basic income that each citizen can count on. Proponents argue that lower-income citizens can build capital and climb out of poverty.

For more information you can check out the Basic Income Pilot.

The advocates make a very compelling point. Instead of the humiliating and fraud-prone system we currently have it could be simplified into a simple question of a tax return.

There is a problem though, this would be a revolutionary change to the entire tax system and dramatically redistribute wealth. It could be costly, but even if we accept everything as it is now a simple bump to the GST could cover the cost. What should be added is the mitigation of poverty would have incredible ripple effects across society and reduce all sorts of social and financial costs. At this early stage I think I am on board. I have even heard it suggested that with this system a minimum wage is entirely unnecessary. I think it is worth study, and I hope to learn more.