Thursday, May 28, 2015

Worth Reading - May 28, 2015

Post-apocalyptic fiction is probably my favourite sub-genre of science fiction. In Slate Joe Mathews writes about how the genre is repetitive and doesn't speak to current issues. I think he has a point, but the issues he highlights lends itself more to the dystopian than post-apocalyptic fiction.

The future of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto is a contentious issue. The Globe and Mail has a piece advocating for its destruction, in line with what other cities have done with similar freeways. 

Likewise, this Gizmodo article shows examples from other cities of inner-city freeways that got taken down. It features a park in Seoul that I visited!

Andrew Coyne slams the first-past-the-post system ala the UK election. 

Steve Paikin asks whatever happened to classiness in Ontario politics. The source of his frustration seems to be everyone having to be on message all the time. I can sympathize with that.

If the debate changes Susan Delacourt has some suggestions for how journalists can cover the election

Still on the federal debates CBC looks at how the parties are gaming the negotiations

Let's mock Nimbyism. Classist, wealthy Midtown Torontonians don't want to see the expansion of multi-story buildings because it'll bring in the underclass, i.e. those who can buy $500000 units. 

From Strong Towns, Rachel Quednau writes about lessons she absorbed while living in New York that can be applied to communities of all sizes for a healthier city fabric

You may be shocked to learn of how vulnerable condo-owners and renters are to abuse or neglect. The Ontario government announced plans to reform laws around them. 

Finally, from Maclean's the Reform Act continues to struggle in the Senate against opponents with weak math skills

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Young Politicians and Social Media Baggage

It is unlikely that many people know the name Deborah Drever. She was recently elected to be the MLA for Calgary-Bow for the NDP. However a string of discoveries on her social media accounts gained media attention which embarrassed the party. After a photo came to light that contained a homophobic slur the party moved to suspend Drever from the caucus

To be clear I do not intend to defend Ms. Drever. What I will say is that the 26-year-old MLA is being judged for photos from when she was 19-years-old in some cases. Some of them are far more recent and the frivolity of youth provides limited cover to her statements. I am only one year older than Ms. Drever and as a person who has participated in politics and thought about a career in the partisan side of government I have often feared what comments I have made on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere on the internet that can come back to haunt me. I can easily recall things I've said in jest that out of context would be humiliating for a public figure.

Deborah Drever is not an outlier but an omen. We have had politicians behaving badly on social media before, that's not new, what is new is a younger person who has spent years on social media being asked to account for comments they made well before they entered the public sphere. It seems to me that this is a question that our political culture is going to have to increasingly wrestle with because there will soon come a time when all politicians have this sort of baggage.

It reminds me a bit of the episode of The West Wing, The Supremes, when they have to nominate a Supreme Court justice but anyone with controversial decisions has to be nixed from contention. That is until they figure out how to put Donna's parents' cats on the bench. This is a tangent... The point is that people live their lives on social media and to our great misfortune privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve, especially for those who wish to engage in the political discourse. I've heard it said that social media has basically transformed everyone into a public figure to greater or lesser degree.

On a somewhat related note I heard a tidbit from the UK election that had me wondering. From the BBC I heard that every MP elected under the age of 30 was a member of a political family. To me this raised real questions about whether or not there was room for young Members of Parliament outside of nepotism. The NDP has trumpeted successful elections of younger candidates in 2011 federally and in Alberta this May but that came during a wave. Would these young men and women have even been considered for this opportunity if they were not perceived to be such long shots?

I would hope that in coming years we will be respectful to candidates and barring seriously controversial material we can ignore the things that are a little more embarrassing to drag out in the public eye. However, I would say that things such as blog posts or essays written by politicians could be fodder for questioning. Dissecting someone's character from 140 characters seems far less valuable.

What worries me is that this is a simple story for partisans to find and journalists to report. Instead we are more likely to humiliate those who come forward into public life, which again raises questions about how will we engage the next generation to become leaders and take on positions of authority within our communities.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Worth Reading - May 21, 2015

Stephen Maher writes how the so-called Fair Elections Act could cause chaos on election day

Filed under the "Kids Aren't So Bad" here is a news story about the young ladies that created a petition to have consent included in the sex ed curriculum and their response to opponents.  

Tim Harper in the Toronto Star raises an interesting point about the upcoming election; 7 in 10 Canadians are decided not to vote for the Conservatives. Of course it is way too early to predict that, but I would say that the number has to be close to 6 in 10. That's still room for a majority, but only if it all breaks their way. Tim Harper suggests that Mulcair might be the one to rally the anti-Conservative vote.

Eric Grenier writes about the prospect of a three-way race federally with the seeming growth of the NDP in recent polls. Here are some other articles on this topic, one from Huffington Post 
 and 308 Blog I should probably tone it down on poll-pieces... but the first is a good read!

Apparently the fiftieth anniversary of the Ontario flag is this month. Steve Paikin writes about effort by some to change it. It's mostly interesting for the history though.

From super happy news from my former employer, Lutsel K'e Dene School is having its first graduate

Vice writer Justin Ling poses the question - what if the federal debates didn't suck

Susan Delacourt writes about the Conservative's logic behind the changes to the federal debates. 

Elijah Harper passed away this month. The man made a poignant stand for Aboriginal rights as a Manitoba MLA that sunk constitutional reforms.

Michal Schick at Hypable has posted two pieces that help to encapsulates the controversy surrounding the sixth episode of season five of Game of Thrones. I won't go into details if people have not yet watched it. The first part makes the case for why a particular set of scenes is controversial and the fan/media fallout.  

I found this piece from the Washington Post about Game of Thrones to be quite compelling. Alyssa Rosenberg looks at the backlash at this week's episode and defines the show as being centred on sexual violence

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Next Federal Debate

Out of nowhere it appears we're about to change how debates are conducted in this country. If I understand the timeline of events correctly the Conservatives rejected the debates hosted by the Media Consortium in favour of up to five debates put on by any organization who wishes to coordinate them. Federal Leaders' debates are problematic in this country. Consider the fact that in this country we are lucky to get two debates (one in English, one in French) compared to the United States where candidates for president are expected to debate endlessly for the nomination and an independent commission structures, I believe, three debates during the final weeks of the campaign.

The scene at the last federal debate.
An independent commission is likely the model Canada should be moving towards. The eleventh hour negotiations gives way too much leverage to the governing party, or the party in first place. Rules should be set months, or perhaps years in advance so that everyone goes into it fairly. Add in the question of who should be allowed to participate at all and you raise all sorts of other problems.

The move by Prime Minister Harper to make changes to the debates is not at all surprising. Susan Delacourt does a pretty fantastic job laying out why Harper would like to see changes.

The people I have spoken to about this expressed some cautious optimism, but I have my concerns. As Delacourt writes the Conservatives want the debates to be held in the summer, months before the election is to be officially called with a great deal of time for the public memory to fade if Harper comes across poorly. A bump in the polls for Mulcair, Trudeau or May would long vanish when the leaves fall from the trees and Canadians start to seriously make up their minds.

This approach raises real questions. Will the parties try to insist on networks and moderators that would be more friendly to them? What concessions might be demanded? Getting away from the Consortium's debates might be for the best but launching into this uncertain future is not exactly encouraging. So far two debates seem approved, one by Maclean's and Rogers and another by Quebec's TVA.

This causes me to wonder about the local debates. Remember that Canada won't have one election in October but 338. I seem to recall that debates were somewhat frequent in my former riding as community organizations all put forward their own 'meet the candidates/debate' events. By the end of it the candidates knew each other quite well. It was even collegial despite the fact they often disagreed profoundly. That's not always the case. MPs in safe ridings have little incentive to be berated. Local media and community groups should be considering their own approach to their own local debates and how they might be improved as the election nears.

Debates are not the be all and end all. The ability to give a witty retort reveals very little about who has the best policies, ideas and temperament. That said it gives the candidates a chance to stand equally before the public and be seen. That alone is important. The challenge is to make that valuable.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Worth Reading - May 14, 2015

We may be able to learn something about the Parliamentary Press Gallery by their Twitter following. From Policy Options is a piece of research on what one's Twitter audience may reveal about implicit, assumed or imposed bias

Ever since I returned to Ontario I have heard grumblings about a potential teacher's strike. To me this seems to have come out of the blue. But leave it to Ashley Csanady to lay out the situation that may lead to a full on strike

Lost in some of the news coverage of the NDP triumph in Alberta was the fact that that election was also the best the Wildrose Party has done as well, winning 21 seats. I hope Mr. Jean, leader of the Wildrose, provides a healthy opposition to Premier Notley.

As was feared, it looks like the Senate might kill Michael Chong's (CPC - Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) Reform Act. This is both unsurprising and terribly disappointing. Worse still, they won't vote it down, just let it die when the election comes.

The Conservative candidate slated to run against Justin Trudeau this fall was actually doing it as a pieceof performance art. Seriously.

In an essay The Economist asks a poignant question, what's gone wrong with democracy? I share many of the author's concerns about the future of democracy around the globe. I highly recommend this one.

Given some of the conversation about the place of Black Canadians in Toronto I thought this article about Peel was an interesting addition. Apparently black youth are struggling in Toronto's largest suburb, which should be a major concern to civic leaders.

Paul Wells' on Mr. Trudeau's recent announcement on middle class tax shift and other policy tweaking. The takeaway seems to be the small differences between the Liberals and Conservatives.

Finally, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario chose a new leader, Barrie MP Patrick Brown. Martin Regg Cohn summarizes Brown's win and what it might mean for the future of Ontario. As Cohn writes, "[Brown is] a right-learning, pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, social conservative...]; doesn't quite sound like the Ontario I know. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Post-Mortem on the 2015 Alberta Election

There is no doubt that the results of the Alberta election were a stunning upset. Four decades of Progressive Conservative Association rule was brought to a screeching end. I'll do my best to summarize my thoughts on this in a succinct manner.

2015 Election Results, Wikipedia
The Alberta NDP's victory last week was massive and unprecedented. It was the first win like that by a left-wing party in the province's history. On the other hand commentators have noted that it is not entirely dissimilar to the landslide victories that ushered in the rule of Social Credit or the PCs. However this isn't quite the case. The Alberta NDP won a much narrower victory than the PCs or Social Credit Party did when they took power in 1971 and 1935 respectively. The NDP took 40.6% of the popular vote and won 53 of 87 seats. As a person who consistently advocates for electoral reform I should point out that the majority won is as distorted as those when  by most governments in the First-Past-the-Post system.

Something I've heard quite a bit is whether or not this means there has been a sea change in Alberta politics. I would counter by saying that Alberta is not as conservative as people think it is. Edmonton and Calgary have grown tremendously over the last twenty years. The political differences between the major cities and the rest of the province are asserting themselves more and more. Three politicians embody the leftward drift of the Alberta electorate: Naheed Nenshi, Don Iveson and Allison Redford. Nenshi, perhaps the most popular mayor in Canada, is an urban progressive. He may not hew to a left-wing ideology but his politics appear that way. I'll put it this way, Stephen Harper and Nenshi are both from Calgary but they are very different politicians. Iveson is considered by some Alberta commentators to be bringing a Nenshi-style approach to Edmonton. Allison Redford, the disgraced former Premier, was seen as more of a liberal than a conservative. She made frequent trips to Ontario and the space between her and premiers like Kathleen Wynne was not seen to be that great. Governing parties like the PCs tend to move into the centre, and Redford was arguably on the left-side of the party. Jim Prentice was a return to a more conservative PCAA.

Regardless, those three politicians symbolize the Alberta was not the same province that many hold in their imaginations. It should be remembered that our electoral system distorts our vision of Alberta. Before the provincial election there was speculation that the Liberals and NDP might pick up some seats federally. In the previous provincial election the NDP and Liberals both performed well. The overall point is that things were shifting much earlier than just in this campaign.

Two parties seem in deep trouble: the Alberta Liberals and the PCs. They will have a difficult time recovering from the setbacks in this election. Despite the dirges sang for the PCs I think it is the Liberals who are in greater trouble. The Wild Rose on the other hand have reach their historic best despite a bad few months. We could be looking at a three party system in Alberta for a time - NDP, Wild Rose and PCs.

How will this affect the federal election? The answer is probably not much, sadly. Remember that political parties in this country are also highly regional. The Conservatives will continue to do well in the West for some time, especially while its leader hails from there. As I wrote about last week the Alberta electorate was looking for a capable alternative to the Prentice PCs and found it in Rachel Notley. In Alberta both Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair will likely stand as reasonable alternative and so it is unlikely to coalesce behind one opposition. Add in a critical factor, the right was divided in Alberta between the Wild Rose and PCs. This will not be repeated federally.

There is a possibility that the NDP will be able to convert local strength, activists and candidates to their cause and start from a much stronger base. If the NDP are lucky the provincial government will remain popular and rub off on them in a positive fashion. But it is not a one-to-one relationship. The Ontario NDP wanted to ride the federal successes just six months after and fell well short in 2011. An advantage may be that the Conservative Party may feel pressured to defend some Alberta seats more if they appear to be in play. That's money and resources not going to other battleground ridings. The provincial Liberal Party appears to be on the verge of crisis. This will be unlikely to dramatically affect their federal cousins, but it certainly is no help.

Finally, a great deal of comparison was made between Rachel Notley, premier-elect of Alberta, and Bob Rae, Ontario's former NDP premier. I think this is a false comparison. Notley does face substantial economic headwinds, but her premiership starts off much more like Ontario Premier David Peterson. Peterson ended the four decade rule of the Big Blue Machine and helped to modernize Ontario politics. It also ended one-party rule and start the three-party competition that Ontario has had since. I am hoping Alberta walks that path. Peterson's government was responsible for critical reforms in the 1980s in Ontario and ushered in a more representative government. I hope Notley does the same, with greater political success.

So ends a dynasty, but dynasties are bad for democracy. Choice, competition and power divorced from one single political party does a long way to stimulate the democratic process. The long-term consequences won't be known until the next provincial election (and the five after it), but it certainly going to be interesting to watch. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Worth Reading - May 7, 2015

Let's talk about Alberta.

Alice Funke breaks down some of the numbers from the vote. Despite the Alberta NDP winning a majority it was a much more narrow victory than you may initially assume.

In Maclean's Paul Wells provides some context on Alberta's Premier-elect, Rachel Notley

This article was written well before the provincial election but it provides a great deal of context for why the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta lost power

One of the big questions at the moment is whether or not car ownership will actually decline. From the Guardian, a story about a few European cities' efforts to use modern technology and strategies to cut car use

I guess it's nice to know we're not alone? This piece in the Sydney Morning Herald discusses how their system of government is broken. The author points to instability in party leadership, but to my opinion that could be chalked up to poor caucus management and leaders and not a systemic problem necessarily.

Speaking of reform (yay for segues!), Andrew Coyne recently interviewed Brent Rathgeber (Ind. - Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) on his experience outside of the Conservative Party caucus and parliamentary reform. 

I listened to this podcast last night and this morning. Chuck Marohn interviews Steven Shultis about his research on urban schools and their connection to sustainable cities and social attitudes towards them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Public, the Partisans and the Press

Yesterday Prince Edward Island held a provincial election. The Liberals will remain the government but there were a few interesting changes. The Greens won a seat and the Liberals lost several seats to the Progressive Conservatives. Despite performing well the NDP failed to win any seats this time. Today Albertans will cast their ballots to choose MLAs in their own election. Some of the coverage I've read and listened to had me thinking about election coverage.

The most shocking thing about the Alberta election is that polls indicate that the NDP are surging and may form government. All the caveats that polls are polls should be kept in mind, but it shapes the conversation, especially for the media and media shape the conversation for the public. The trouble is that the press and the partisans they talk to see elections very differently than the public who ultimately decides them.

I will be forced here to speak in generalities because it is not as though I have done specific research to back my observations. With that disclaimer in place I think it is fair to say that partisans (supporters of particular political parties) see things through ideology. Because they are interested in politics they develop a set of values and beliefs and attach themselves to political parties that closely align. There are, for a lack of a better term, tribal partisans for whom the ideology may be incidental to their support of the red or blue or purple team. This level of dedication is how partisans can stay committed to a party even when the values of those parties change. In the mind of ideologues the parties are nicely arrange on a spectrum with camps of voters who move between the parties left or right.

To write stories and gain understanding journalists talk to partisans (ex. political operatives, campaign managers, strategists, candidates, activists, etc.) about the political dynamics inside the city/province/country. As a result the view of the political world that we get is one shaped by the partisan perspective. This is fundamentally flawed.

Both the media and the parties have an assumed classic liberal disposition towards how our democracy works. That means that voters are rational actors who weigh the policies, experience and character of politicians and make informed decision, along with whatever values match their own. It is an ideal that was espoused by the American Founders and democratic theorists now for centuries and one that I fear bears little resemblance to reality in mass democracies.

The assumptions of partisans (and therefore the press) is that there cannot be such a thing as a Wild Rose-NDP swing voter, or PC-Green, which obviously does exist. The truth is that unfortunately politics is driven much more by personality than one might initially suppose. I think American presidential elections really prove this point. How is it that there were voters who would support Hillary Clinton but not Barack Obama if he were the Democratic candidate for president? They were members of the same party and had essentially the same platform but within the public mindset their differences made it so Barack Obama would struggle in the general election where Clinton may have sailed by easily. In 2000 it was summarized by "Who would you rather have a beer with?" This in general better reflected the public's mood. The move in politics in recent years acknowledges this, such as in Issenberg's Victory Lab book.

Coming to Alberta. How is it "conservative" Alberta might elect a NDP majority government tonight (not likely but a possibility)? Albertans are frustrated by the ruling party and Premier Jim Prentice. Naturally Albertans cast their eyes to the alternatives. Brian Jean is unsteady and new in his role as leader of the Wild Rose. David Swann, leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, has been somewhat of a dud in the election and his party has never gotten off the ground. Rachel Notley has been a credible alternative with a family name in politics and by all accounts has presented herself and her party well. Voters don't see things in the harsh black and white lines that partisans, and by extension the media, do.

Personality matters. Values trump policy. The gut feeling of a voter on who they 'like' can do more good than any number of debates or talking points or TV ads. Alberta and PEI's elections could be valuable case studies as we move towards the autumn federal election.

Happy Election Day, Alberta, make good choices.