Thursday, January 29, 2015

Worth Reading - January 29, 2015

The scheduled October 2015 federal election will loom over the year for political nerds such as myself. Alice Funke did great work breaking down how some of the changes in the seats will impact the next federal election, I strongly suggest checking it out. 

As a follow-up to Funke's piece, Eric Grenier has released his model for projecting the seat counts for the upcoming federal election. 

"Middle Class" is one of those over-used phrases in politics that just drives me crazy. The reason it bothers me so much is that the term has become so divorced from the reality. As the article opens, 90% of Americans believe themselves to be in the middle class. Many who believe their middle class are working class, many in the upper class presume they are middle class. This article in Maclean's helps define who is in the middle class.

The Huffington Post shared an excerpt of Brent Rathgeber's book. The selection talks about the centralization of power in the office the Prime Minister.

There are no political parties in the Northwest Territories. The Territorial government resembles municipal politics back home in Ontario to my eye. However, there are advocates to abandon the consensus government model and move towards a party system

Idil Burale writes in Spacing about the depiction of Toronto's inner suburbs. I like Burale's approach here, the inner suburbs, and suburbs in general are facing growing challenges, but they are not uniform and should not be seen as some alien other.

Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns offers some of his thoughts on gentrification.

From this Globe and Mail article I pull the following quote, " One stand-out finding from our recent study was the growing proportions of Canadians who say that if the country were facing “very difficult times” it would be justified for the Prime Minister to close down parliament (23 per cent) or dissolve the Supreme Court (17 per cent) and rule alone." Take a look

Academics are criticizing the government of Newfoundland and Labrador for its plan to cut the number of MLAs down to 40 from 48. This will make the Newfoundland cabinet roughly half the assembly.

Emmett Macfarlane modestly defends the federal government's push to expand history education/discussion in Canada. I generally agree, Canadians need more exposure to their history so long as it isn't just the boiled down jingoism the current government prefers. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Serving the Public, Opposing the Government

The Leader of the Opposition is perhaps the most difficult job in Canadian politics. It comes with a great deal of political responsibility but very little actual power. Perhaps when best able to influence government policy, when the government is in minority, there is tremendous pressure not to give an inch to the governing party in efforts to make things difficult. Not to mention in those instances every move is about just building enough support to get to government.

It's a thankless job, but the good ones report to their post and grill the government, propose alternatives, work constructively and manage their parties in a way to remain coherent enough to present a united front on different issues and a government-in-waiting. In fact, the aspect of being the government-in-waiting is often overlooked as the constitutional convention where the Governor General or Lieutenant Generals may call upon the Leader of the Opposition to form government when confidence is lost. This convention ensures stability and continuity. If the new government fails to gain confidence of the house an election is called. Enter Alberta.

In the past few months Jim Prentice (PCAA - Calgary-Foothills) has become leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and Premier of Alberta. He oversaw a resurgence of the flailing party while weathering the attacks of Danielle Smith (PCAA - Highwood) then leader of the Wildrose Party, until December 17th, 2014. On that day Ms. Smith and eight MLAs of the Wildrose Party crossed the floor to join the government. Outside of a time of war I cannot imagine any possible time in Westminster history that a Leader of the Opposition joined the government.

When I heard this story I was conflicted on how I felt. On the one hand our system of government gives parliamentarians a great deal of discretion in determining who they align themselves with and who sits as government. Crossing the floor, changing parties and forming new ones is part of how parliament should work. On the other hand it is easy to see how Smith's move was a craven, crass bid for political power.

However, it was the news today that had me stunned about the state of Alberta's Loyal Opposition. Raj Sherman (ALP - Edmonton-Meadowlark), leader of the Alberta Liberal Party announced his sudden resignation as leader of the Liberal Party and Opposition. According to the story I read in the Edmonton Journal Sherman resigned for personal reasons, and I do not fault a man for leaving public life to deal with personal matters, but the impact must be considered.

Where does that leave Alberta? With an estimated two months until the next provincial Liberals the second and third place parties appear as though they will not have permanent leaders. The New Democrats are also under a new leader, Rachel Notley (ANDP - Edmonton Strathcona). 

The people of Alberta deserve an effective and strong opposition, especially because of the single-party nature of the province's politics. The PCAA has been in power since 1971 and appears poised to be re-elected this spring. Albertans deserve a strongly articulated alternative vision and a their government would be greatly improved if one party was not so closely tied to government. However, I fear that Albertans will not get that option in 2015. The Leader of the Opposition is a key component in our system and it has been far too neglected in Alberta to the detriment of the public life that province. Hopefully politically engaged Albertans can stand up and present multiple perspectives to reflect its dynamic and changing nature.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Worth Reading - January 22, 2015

There is a lot of talk in Ontario about getting new universities in communities like Brampton and Barrie. I think part of the reason people are attracted to the idea is because universities are seen a economic steroids to a community and valuable stimulus. This article from City Lab discusses how the University of Chicago can combat some of the problems associated with the inner city

Adam Radwanski spent some time traveling in America's Rust Belt and reported back with some lessons he drew for Southwestern Ontario. I take issue with many of the options Radwanski points to. Radwanski highlights a little too much the big, flashy investments and not enough on the small incremental improvements that make a real difference, in my opinion.

Alice Funke at Pundits' Guide has stumbled across an interesting little loophole added by the Fair Elections Act that could A) affect election timing, and B) affect election spending. 

Chantal Hebert writes a disheartening piece (at least to me) over the challenging electoral prospects for the federal NDP moving towards the 2015 election. 

I have featured a few posts by Jesse Brown and Canadaland in the last couple of weeks. Therefore it seems proper for me to share this critique of Mr. Brown and his work from the Globe and Mail.

In a recent poll the Conservatives have taken back the lead nationally from the Liberals. Eric Grenier breaks it down. 

As part of the Agenda's reporting from Barrie, Ontario they spoke to young adults on youth unemployment and opportunities. 

Gentrification is a fascinating phenomenon. It can have devastating effects on the existing community. This article in the Slate highlights some of the positives and the conception of it might be entirely wrong. The author argues that it may be better understood as a phenomenon of affordability.

A cool piece from the National Post on how Toronto's skyline has changed in the past 13 year.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Growth in Medium-Sized Cities

This week TVO's The Agenda is "On The Road" visiting Barrie, Ontario. Last night on the program a lot of the conservation surrounded the issues of growth Barrie has experienced. Since 1961 Barrie has added over 100000 people to go from 21000 to over 136000. This accelerated particularly in the 1990s. Barrie, unsurprisingly, has experienced quite a bit of growing pains. Making sure services keep up with needs, building up infrastructure and helping to transform small cities into medium-sized ones. Barrie is not unique in Ontario. Oshawa, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Vaughan, and Cambridge are just a few examples of small cities that have grown into medium sized (100000+ people) cities in recent decades.

While watching The Agenda last night I was impressed to hear Barrie's mayor Jeff Lehman talking in a way that suggested that roads, highways and sprawl are not the answer the Barrie's problems. As he stated, more complete neighbourhoods with services provided at a community level is a better solution. I do not know his entire platform, but his comments during the program suggested that he is trying to guide Barrie's small town roots towards its new urban realities.

Barrie's difficult transition is mirrored in many other communities. A town simply cannot quintuple in size without major difficulties. Sadly, many of these towns doubled down on the suburban sprawl style of development. Their modest urban elements have been swamped by detached single-family homes. Barrie has the good fortune of being a long-established regional centre and urban, others lack a true urban core to build around.

Sprawl is not sustainable economically, financially, or environmentally. It's not an efficient use of land and there is growing evidence for the negative impact on our health and social fabric. One of the things I thought of while watching the discussion on Barrie is if you knew a town was going to grow to quintuple in size, or transform from a small city to a medium-sized one, how would you plan for it? It's not an idle question. Cities such as Markham are preparing to grow to that point. Pickering and Barrie are expected to grow from their current numbers to each around 200000 by 2031. My hometown of Brampton is expected to grow from the current population of around 500000 to 725000. Despite current economic hardships the cities in the GTA are still growing, and in some cases quite rapidly.

The pressure to rapidly grow leads to cities adding fresh stretches of hundreds of houses in subdivisions. This is antithetical to incremental growth that is more integrated into the community that allows more time for services to catch up. Markham stands out in the GTA for being one of the few areas trying to constrain sprawl. As far as I am aware Markham is having mixed results. Barrie's mayor mentioned some basic plans, including that an area for new development will be using a grid instead of twisting cul-de-sacs, which seems like a basic fix that cities should adopt.

Ultimately perhaps the most important thing that civic leaders must do is convince the citizens of these changing cities that they are in fact cities. They are no longer small towns or cities but growing urban centres. The traffic-less, transit-less, low-rise style can no longer be applied. Growth needs to be joined by intensification. Looking at other cities in Canada that have undergone such rapid expansion I think it's clear that many have made errors. These up and coming cities should learn from these errors and not continue the bad habits of the twentieth century.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Worth Reading - January 15, 2015

"Close to transit" is a phrase many urban-dwellers will be familiar with, especially those hunting for an apartment. City Lab takes a look at the value of living close to transit and how close one has to live to reap those benefits. 

Sean Craig at the Canadaland Blog released a scathing piece that showed clear conflict of interest between CBC's Amanda Lang and her dealings on a story about the Royal Bank of Canada. 

You're standing on the sidewalk preparing to cross the street when a car approaches. Do you dash across to get out of their way? Why? Strong Towns looks at the threats to pedestrian space and how distorted our environment is. 

Jon Lorinc in Spacing reflects on the global city in light of the terror attacks in Paris

This was a really great post that I found really thrilling to read. The author takes a look of a post-war suburb in Portland. I like this piece because the infamous Portland looks much more like "normal" cities everywhere. The author peels back the mystique and takes a look at a special place in the 'burbs that offers a slight inspiration.

Tim Harper in the Toronto Star wrote pieces on what the three federal party leaders need to address moving towards the 2015 election. Here is his take on Tom Mulcair.  

The future of school board and its trustees is something that has been on my mind of late. There are not clear answers, but at least the Toronto Star is asking some questions. Should the Toronto District School Board be deamalgamated and should we elect trustees at all

I love film and I hate going to the movies. This report from the A.V. Club suggests I am not alone in that opinion in general. Here's a great look at the current state of attitudes about going to the movies

John Ivison writes that a case is mounting for a spring, instead of fall, election this year

Leading up to the next federal election Aaron Wherry has laid out all the possible outcomes of the 2015 election. 

Want to listen to Andrew Coyne and Jesse Brown talk about journalism and media? It's funny Check it out

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sir John A. and Our Past

Sunday marked the two hundredth birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada and arguably the architect for the country as it came to be. Journalist and Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn calls Macdonald the indispensible man without whom the country would never exist. Reviewing Macdonald's legacy it is easy to imagine how that might be the case. The formation of a nation out of the disparate parts of British North America into a cohesive country was by no means inevitable.

Sadly we suffer for a bias towards the present and many, when examining history, tend to look for the straight lines that lead to the current point. The outcome was X so it was always going to be X and everything led to it. This was not the case when it came to Canada. The colonies in the northern half of this continent had no clear and common interest aside from being British territories.  

Sir John A. managed to form a coalition and through careful negotiation brought the colonies of British North America into agreement to form a common dominion. Uniting Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was fairly impressive on its own, but Macdonald was a man of extraordinary vision. The purchase of Rupert's Land and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was nation-building on a scale this country has not seen since.

Canadian history has moved strongly away from the "great man" model. While Americans revere their presidents we have made our leaders very human. Many know Sir John A. was a drunk, but few know of the personal tragedies he suffered. It is perhaps healthier that we look at Macdonald as a man and not a petty demigod, but perhaps we are a bit harsh. Sir Winston Churchill may have had a drinking problem and held views repugnant to our modern sensibilities but the man was incredibly important to the history of the world. We recognize that and his flaws.

Prime Minister from 1867-1873 and again from 1878-1891 was essential in developing the key elements of early Canada. So many of our national institutions stem from that time, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national policy, the railway, and development of manufacturing in central Canada.

For modern-day Canadians Macdonald's most troubling legacy might be his stance on issues of race. Canada's long and troubled relationship with First Nations and Metis peoples definitely predate 1867, but certainly developments in Canada's West were tantamount to genocide. Interestingly Patrice Dutil offers some defence of Macdonald, stating that the crisis unfolding in the West was beyond his control and he attempted to intervene to alleviate suffering. While Macdonald restricted the vote of Chinese men he saw no reason to restrict black voters, and even advocated for a time to enfranchise single women. In short, it is difficult to cast our first prime minister in black and white tones.

Macdonald represented a form of "Canadianism" that is unfamiliar. Canada existed to be a British vanguard, a project of the Empire and not necessarily something with its own distinct identity. Perhaps this aspect of our legacy makes it all the more difficult to make sense of Macdonald; we are very different now from where we started. However, despite his flaws this country owes a tremendous debt to the man who helped it come to be. As wrong as we may judge his actions to be now there is no doubt he was a man of vision. We cannot disown him any more than we can disown our past for they are one in the same.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Worth Reading - January 9, 2015

Apologies for the delay. I spent all of yesterday travelling back from Ontario to the Northwest Territories. As a big of a pain that airlines and airports can be it's pretty amazing how far and how fast we can travel. These are some of the stories that caught my attention in the last couple of days. Going forward more normal schedule (Tuesday/Thursday) should follow.

I first saw this in the Brampton Guardian, the province of Ontario is considering a highway from Vaughan to Milton. This strikes me as a foolish decision. Freeways never reduce traffic. Perhaps there is a case, but there are so many more valuable projects to invest in.

Not long ago I drove past the "monster house" a few times a week. San Grewal reports on the ongoing court case over its construction. It's a weird little story, but I like it for the how-urban-planning-affects-real-people angle.

A fixture in Ontario media, Leslie Roberts of Global Television, has been accused of using his platform to promote his clients at a public relations firm for money. It's hard to believe Mr. Roberts will keep his current position over these revelations.

Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Parliament, has been named to be Canada's ambassador to Ireland.

The attack on Paris publication Charlie Hedbo is as shocking as it is tragic. The details, as I understand them, are truly horrific. Cartoonists around the world has rallied at the death of one of their colleagues and have produced amazing art in defiance. Here is a selection from The Walrus.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics by Christopher J. Kam

Sorry to everyone for the inconsistent posting. I have been enjoying an extended holiday this year and have not had time to follow any of the news, therefore the distinct lack of Worth Readings over the last couple of weeks. However, I have had the time to do some non-news reading so I have finished Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics by Christopher J. Kam.

Despite being deeply interested in politics Kam's Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics was a difficult book for me to read and understand. I never studied political science at university, though I wanted to find the time in my course schedule for it. Kam's work is definitively an academic approach to the question of how party leaders maintain discipline and order within their caucuses.

The study surveys four different Westminster systems: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Kam takes data from the last thirty years or so to provide him with the long-term data to discern current trends. Kam hypothesizes that political parties maintain control through what he calls the "LEADS model". LEADS stands for Loyalty through Advancement, Discipline, and Socialization.

The author takes time to look at the evidence for the support in how well methods of central control work on Members of Parliament. Backbencher unity is critical in the Westminster system to ensure that governments survive confidence motions, pass key legislation and, for the leader, avoid leadership challenges. Kam highlights that there are a number of forces that strain political parties, such as the difference between the party's position and the interest of individual MP's constituents. Kam even provides evidence how a certain amount of dissent boosts the popularity of MPs.

Kam's LEADS model does not really challenge the understanding of how parties maintain control of their members, but what it does do is shows the relative effectiveness of techniques. In the conclusion Kam points to the fact that advancement (promotion up the ranks) and socialization (MPs adapting to party norms and more readily being a 'team player') is the best tool in their kit. Discipline through demotion, restriction of privileges or public scolding is basically the A-bomb of parliamentary control. As such it can have a terrible backlash on the leadership and does not necessarily succeed in curbing the rebel's behaviour.

One of the aspects that interested me the most was the suggestion by Kam that the institutional structure of Westminster's system makes this sort of discipline and control an intrinsic part of the culture of democratic life. For example, Kam could not discern any clear ideological or issue-based rebellions among MPs. As a counterpoint it is easy to highlight that these are individual politicians, each making calculations based on their own interests and do not really provide a sufficient sample size to make predictions. Kam suggests in his conclusion that other political institutions have different structures that make this sort of control unnecessary or at least differently. In Scandinavia it is more common to see compromises on policy and in countries with strong committee structures the backbench exercise their power there.

The book was very challenging for me to work through. It is riddled with models and statistical analysis which left me blankly staring at charts with incomprehensible correlations. Kam does a decent job at setting up what each chart is seeking to examine and what conclusions he is drawing from them, but I simply lack the ability to analyze them myself.

Some of Kam's conclusions made me laugh in the light of the recent past. He states fairly early on that Canada is the parliament with the least disciplined MPs. His sample largely drew on the Chretien years (1993-2003). The Liberal Party was famously divided on a number of social and economic issues while simultaneously dealing with a fractious party with leadership challenges. Likewise in the opposition was the Reform Party rejected party discipline. I cannot help but wonder what sort of conclusions Christopher Kam would draw looking at the Harper years in office.

Ultimately Party Discipline and Parliamentary Politics provides a rich research basis to what is already accepted political wisdom. The delicate job of managing politicians, akin to herding cats, requires a multitude of tools which each come with their own set of consequences. I would only recommend this book to those with a background in political science and not for those interested in day-to-day politics.