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UK Brexit, Lib Dem Reentry?

Brits everywhere continue to grope for a response to last Thursday’s Brexit vote. Both Labour and Tories seem hamstrung responding to this in a decisive ways. The Tories are badly divided between go-it-alone types and supporters of continued engagement in Europe in order to advance the UK’s security and economic interests. Labour likewise struggles to reconcile skeptics of globalization with left-leaning international cosmopolitans. Given how badly the referendum went for both leaders, it’s quite possible Labour will be looking for a successor to leader Jeremy Corbyn before the Conservatives have found one for David Cameron.

That leaves the Liberal Democrats. The current third party—which not very long ago held the balance of power in the UK—has entered the fray with an unequivocal pro-EU position, committing to ignore the referendum result and keep the UK in the EU should they win the next election (assuming that option is still available at that point). Continue reading

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Ships in the night: The state of the debate on electoral reform

(Full disclosure: I tend to lean towards supporting PR, though am not particularly zealous about it. Even so, if my support for PR changes the way you expect to respond to what you’re about to read, you may find that this response reinforces my point below.)

The debate over electoral reform has barely begun in earnest, and it is in already in trouble. I see two significant problems related to different aspects of process, each of which in my view threatens the legitimacy of the debate and decision around this crucial issue.

The first problem concerns the substance and style of argumentation around the different electoral options available to Canadians. The second, which I’ll deal with in a subsequent post, concerns the problems with politicizing the process by which we try and change the “rules of the game.”

With regard to argumentation, we are beginning to see a lack of common non-partisan ground on which to even weigh different electoral options, let alone reach conclusions. Even at the levels of academia and informed political commentary, the discussion seems to have become, if not partisan, extremely polarized. We lack agreement over how to discuss the various systems, and how to characterize the various advantages and disadvantages that follow from the status quo or any particular change. On the one side, Continue reading

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Trump: Rise of the Carnival Candidate

One of the problems with a party which never stops is that all the things which only seem like a good idea at parties continue to seem like good ideas.

–Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything

Donald Trump is ascendant. Leading in national polls and in the delegate count, he is projected to carry most states in today’s Super Tuesday slate of primaries, and has a clear path open to the Republican nomination for President. Dismissed for months by nearly everyone with a keyboard, markets suggest he’s got the race nearly sewn up, giving him an 80% chance at securing the nomination. Opposition to his candidacy is now finally beginning to coalesce in the party, but it may already be too little, too late. Trump’s campaign seems to have, as the saying goes, the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why?

Some good explanations have already emerged. Many focus on the importance of style over substance. The recent and rightly lauded Trump profile by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone likens Trump’s campaign appearances to a “variety show.” That focus on the performance over substance is an important element of the candidate’s appeal. I would argue the larger effect is almost, for lack of a better word, atmospheric.

Trump constitutes a particular kind of candidate, one with few recent antecedents. The closest in recent years might be former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Let’s call them “Carnival candidates.” Continue reading

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Fourth Estate: the Fifth Business of Canadian Democracy

Note: I’m back! Sort of! After taking some time off blogging to finish and (successfully!) defend my dissertation, then pick up and move from Vancouver to Ottawa, I finally have a bit of time to write about things other than conflict-mitigating political institutions in rural Bolivia. I’m not totally sure what I’ll use this space for going forward, but I am going to try and fill it more regularly. Likely it’ll be some combination of Canadian and international politics, including more foreign policy now that I’m back at Carleton University’s NPSIA, and more general responses to contemporary debates. Suggestions are welcome. Anyhow, on with the content.

In his column yesterday, Andrew Coyne used the Alberta NDP’s short-lived barring of The Rebel Media’s correspondent from legislature briefings to a more general issue of state-media relationships, pivoting from a (basically justified) excoriation of the Alberta government for barring a very partisan journalist to a larger debate about the role of the state in media, including whether the state should be funding a broadcaster such as the CBC.

Coyne puts forward a number of arguments, but I want to focus on two issues: one empirical, and one more an issue of fundamental values regarding whether the media is in fact a public good. Continue reading

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Guest Post: Democracy Should Be for Election Losers as well as Winners

Hi all. Posting has been sporadic, to put it mildly, as I wrap up my dissertation. In the meantime, I’m happy to present this thought-provoking overview of the health of Canada’s democracy by UBC alumnus Chris Tenove. Chris is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics and Munk School of Global Affairs. He lives in Vancouver.

By Chris Tenove

Whatever happens in Monday’s election, many Canadians will wake up disappointed on Tuesday. The local representative we voted for will have lost, or our preferred party will not form government. It’s therefore worth remembering why democracy is the best political system for those who are on the losing side of elections, and not just for the winners.

Three features make losing more palatable and less dangerous in democracies – the legitimacy of elections, checks and balances on executive power, and a democratic culture of inclusion. Unfortunately, the Conservative government has undermined all three.

First, in functioning democracies, elections produce a government that is legitimate. We may be disappointed but we do not feel cheated, since each person had an equal opportunity to vote and each vote counted (more or less) equally.

However, with the misnamed Fair Elections Act, the Conservative government undermined fair and equal participation. The Act reduces Elections Canada’s programs to encourage voting, and takes away vouching or Voter Information Cards as sufficient proof of identification at polling stations. These changes are expected to make voting more difficult for thousands of people, with a greater impact on people less likely to vote Conservative, including student, indigenous and poor voters. The Act also reduces Elections Canada’s role in policing electoral laws.

Beginning Tuesday, we need to see how these changes affected the election. If people have faced unequal obstacles to voting, and if any party violated electoral laws as the Conservative party has in the past, we need to root out failings. Whether or not we pursue new voting systems, as the NDP and Liberals have proposed, we need to make sure that Canadian elections are increasingly equal, open and fair.

Second, elected governments face several institutional checks and balances, which help protect vulnerable groups and those on the losing side of elections.

Chief among these is the division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Stephen Harper’s record here is clear: he has consolidated power in the Prime Minister’s Office to a degree not seen previously in Canadian history. The legislative branch is a ghost of its former self, with honest debate stifled in the House of Commons and Committees, with omnibus bills rammed through without sufficient time for study, and with MPs given little independence or authority.

The judicial branch has been threatened (including public attacks on Chief Justice McLachlin), and its rulings have sometimes been subverted or ignored. For instance, the Federal Court found the Conservative policy limiting health care for refugee claimants to be “cruel and unusual,” and ordered the government to reinstate preexisting coverage until there was a new policy or a successful appeal. Instead, the government simply disregarded the ruling, not only harming this vulnerable group but the rule of law itself.

The Senate, too, is supposed to act as a check and balance. Its ability to represent Canada’s regions and improve policies was compromised before Stephen Harper became prime minister. But as we learned from the Mike Duffy trial, the Prime Minister’s Office put great effort into corrupting the Senate in private, while publicly attacking its credibility and delaying meaningful reform.

The Conservative government has also chipped away at the quality and openness of the public service. We want our public servants to develop policies in a transparent, innovative and evidence-based manner. Instead, we have seen knowledge smothered, facts ignored, and government units re-purposed as advertising agencies for Conservative ministers.

Beginning Tuesday, we will need to reinvigorate these institutions that improve our public programs and restrain an overly powerful executive office.

This takes me to our democracy’s third major defense of those who are on the losing side of elections, one that is even more fundamental than fair elections and democratic institutions. That is a culture of tolerance, curiosity and care among our diverse citizens. Such a culture prompts us to work together with citizens on the goals and problems we share, and to aid those who are attacked or neglected.

This is why electoral tactics of stigmatization and dishonesty by the Conservatives has been so galling. Whether singling out wearers of the niqab as un-Canadian, promoting xenophobia through a “barbaric cultural practice” hot line, or spreading falsehoods to targeted audiences (such as advertising in Chinese and Punjabi media that Liberals plan to sell pot to kids), the Conservative party has shown a willingness to win votes by poisoning our political culture. This, too, must now be restored.

Democracy in Canada remains deeply entrenched. Whoever wins the election on Monday will have done so in a fairly legitimate process, will face laws and institutions that help guard against abuse of power, and will govern a country with admirable trust and concern among its diverse citizens. But whoever takes office on Tuesday should reverse the anti-democratic policies that Conservatives have pursued in recent years, and work to make democracy in Canada stronger.

Photo:B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix walks away from the podium and leaves the stage after conceding defeat in the provincial election in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

What (else) can Canada do to respond to the refugee crisis, and the Syrian war driving it?

I wrote my first blog post for the Perspectives blog over at IRPP’s Policy Options. Here’s the link, and here’s the hook:

The debate in Canada has been consistently framed as a sort of humanitarian-guns-or-charitable-butter choice between fighting ISIS on the one hand, and accepting refugees on the other. It’s time to widen that discussion.

You should poke around a bit over there (after you finish reading my piece, of course). It’s a really solid looking new website, with lots of good material. Looking forward to contributing more regularly there once I get the dissertation submitted later this fall.

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Response to David Wells’ Reform Act op-ed

It seems that the Senate’s journey from relatively harmless anachronism to active obstacle of democratic governance continues apace. After weeks of speculation that the red chamber would allow Michael Chong’s Reform Act to die a quiet death at the end of Parliament, this week we heard an argument from one of the Senators opposed, Conservative David Wells, as to why the bill deserves such a fate.

The glimpse into senatorial thinking was… well, disappointing might be the best word. The arguments include inconsistencies and red herrings. Taken together, they give no basis to conclude that unelected Senators are justified in opposing a bill that the elected House of Commons approved overwhelmingly, with 260 yeas and just 17 opposed.

Wells dismisses much of the bill as inconsequential, quickly zeroing in on the provision to allow a party’s caucus to trigger and conduct a leadership review.  In an impressive bit of sophistry, he claims that this privileges “the wishes of a few” over the expressed will of the thousands of convention delegates who chose the leader.  By “the few” he means MPs elected to represent the will of Canadians in Parliament.

This, of course, is exactly backwards.  A central feature of the Westminster system is that voters selected MPs to exercise good judgement on their behalf. They are precisely the people who should be exercising oversight on leaders in Parliament.

It is the role of Parliament to exercise a check on the Prime Minister and cabinet; likewise, it is in part the role of caucus to exercise oversight on its leader. Those are separate elements of review, and both are important. Wells is implicitly—and wrongly—conflating the two, arguing that the only way for MPs to challenge their leader ought to be a votes of confidence. Essentially, if MPs in government don’t like their leader, their only choice is to bring down their own Prime Minister and trigger an election. Opposition MPs don’t even have this option; they’re stuck until the next convention leadership review rolls around.

There are good reasons a party caucus might challenge their leaders, and ought to be able to do so without bringing down the government and triggering an election—an act almost certain to spell defeat. A caucus review can be a much smoother process, ensuring continued governance by the party in power, while addressing significant issues that come up between elections and conventions. As likely as not, such a review would rarely be used—simply knowing that caucus could turf them out, leaders would be more likely to listen to caucus, forced to listen to the people’s representatives in their party, and not just the unelected staff that surrounds the PM and opposition leaders, wielding power without responsibility to all but the leader.

To justify his argument, Wells invokes the “private club” status of political parties. Effectively, he says, they’re just like any other club. Parliament has no more right to legislate their inner workings than they do your local curling club. If a political party wants to prevent MPs from reviewing their caucus leadership, if it wants to render leaders immune to challenge outside of conventions and indirectly through elections, then they can do just that.

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Your typical curling club dreams of ruling over the upcoming bonspiel or, failing that, winning the commanding heights offered by the seats near the TV at the bar. Political parties play a crucial organizing role in our politics. In order to carry out that function effectively, we have granted them certain rights under legislation, access to funds, broadcast time, information, and so on. Parliament has every right, and indeed the duty to place on them responsibilities as well to ensure the continued good governance of the dominion.

Having picked up the private club shield, he promptly drops it like a hot poker to make his next point regarding representativeness. Here, he argues that conventions are more representative than caucuses, because parties bring in delegates from all parts of the country. If the Conservative caucus were to challenge Stephen Harper’s leadership, Newfoundland, lacking in Conservative MPs, would get no say. Likewise, Alberta would be left voiceless in a caucus review of Trudeau’s stewardship of the Liberal party.

Again, this is nonsense. Just think of the example of the Bloc Quebecois to see how problematic the argument is. There is nothing in the Canadian political system demanding that we seek to achieve maximal representativeness in the selection of party and caucus leaders. The good people of Newfoundland and Alberta had their say in electing their MP. It is up to the MPs to act on their behalf in Parliament.  Prime Ministers are not presidents; opposition party leaders are not presidential candidates.  Their primary function is to organize government and opposition in Parliament, and to do so they must maintain the support. It is precisely this principle that Michael Chong’s bill, weakened as it was via the House amendment process, still seeks to reinforce.

More charitably, the confusion here perhaps lies in the fact that parties and their leaders have both internal party roles and functions, but also public roles and functions as well. Party leaders are also the heads of caucus, and it is caucus in Parliament, not the party membership across the country, that matters in terms of governance. Caucus, working side by side with the leader on the Hill, are far better position to hold the latter to account. They are far more likely to know when there is a problem, and are in a position to actually act in a timely matter.

In the Westminster system, grounded in representative government, we trust our MPs to act on our behalf.  To privilege parties and their workings over the functioning of Parliament is exactly backwards. It is Parliament and its governance that matters most. Providing caucus with the explicit ability to review its leadership reinforces a crucial layer of government oversight, one that arguably has atrophied in the Canadian version of the Westminster system, unlike many others—Australia being an obvious example.

In reality, a call to protect the primacy of party institutions is to further reinforce the sway of the party leader. Party members get one biennial review during party conventions, and voters get a shot at making their voices heard every four years or so. Outside of that, party leaders rule virtually unchecked by anything but statute. If we bemoan the increasing role of the courts in checking the government, I would suggest that they are doing so in part because so political checks—including caucus oversight of party leaders—no longer operates as it should. Political problems fester until they become legal ones, as there is no one with the political power to effectively challenge established leaders when they make bad decisions.

The Reform Act in its amended form does little enough to stop all this, but it is a start. Beyond its substantive impact, its passage would provide a template for future, more comprehensive attempts at change. It provides evidence that, even in the context of today’s extreme political polarization, parties could work together and change our institutions, however modestly, for the better.

It’s not too late. The bill is at Senate committee right now, after an outpouring of letters imploring the Senate to take it up again. Another avalanche might convince the Senate to actually pass the thing.

If it does die though, the cause of political reform will go on. Next time, the Senate may find itself near the top of the to-do list.

Photo courtesy Mightydrake via wikimedia.