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.

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.

Op-ed: On Canada’s “Progressive Primary”

My latest in the National Post. Click here to read. For archival purposes the full text is below the fold… Continue reading

Are the Liberals losing the Progressive Primary?

Are the Liberals in trouble? Recent developments—including not only the recent NDP win in Alberta, but also the continuing opposition to Bill C51—suggest it’s a question worth asking, as does a new poll putting the NDP in first place.

In Canada’s present federal political configuration, dating from the emergence of a united Conservative alternative, it is convenient (if oversimplistic) to think of Canadian politics as consisting of two simultaneous competitions: the progressive primary and the main event. That dual campaign gives contemporary Canadian federal party politics much of its character.

With the Conservatives apparently able to capture a sturdy but limited 30-40% share of the vote, a big win in the progressive primary is a necessary prerequisite for either the Liberals or the NDP to have a shot at winning an election. That is, one or the other must convince progressives who dislike the incumbent that they stand the better chance of unseating them. If neither does so decisively, Continue reading

Prest: Bias behind market’s overreaction to NDP victory

An op-edified version of my last blog post is in the Ottawa Citizen.

All bias, no information: on the market’s (over)reaction to the NDP victory.

Here we are in day two of the Glorious New Albertastani revolution. The buildings are still standing, but markets are apparently nervous. Headline after headline notes the fear gripping the petroleum industry about what this “leftist” government will do. One analyst described the situation to Bloomberg using phrases like “completely devastating” and “extremely dangerous.” Executives and analysts dropped the dreaded u-word—uncertainty—yesterday, and oil prices rose slightly even as oil sands producers’ stocks fell somewhat as the market digested the news. Whether they processed it correctly is another matter, of course.

At base, all a market does is aggregate the perceptions of a self-selected set of monied actors, which in turn are based on the information available combined with their own intellectual biases. Right now, it’s collecting almost all bias, and no information. Simply put, markets are aggregating collective misperception at the moment.

Indeed, the market actors—and even more so the market analysts predicting doom—seem to be unduly discounting the information that is available. Rachel Notley and the NDP have pledged to hold off on a royalty review until prices have recovered. They have also committed to an independent review, which is more than the Conservatives managed under Ed Stelmach. If royalty rates do go up—and that’s an open question—they will do so in a manner that ensures Alberta remains comparable with other oil-producing regions with which it competes.

The promised corporate tax increase to 12% is actually lower than the rate was in 2003. It’s on par with Saskatchewan and 1% above BC—in other words, it’s a very competitive, reasonable rate for a left-of-centre government in a business-friendly province. Max Fawcett writes convincingly about the overall reasonableness of the NDP’s approach to business, albeit in that notorious lefty rag Alberta Oil Magazine.

Alberta has elected an eclectic new government to be sure, but the signals it has sent out mark it also as a pragmatic one—they would not have won otherwise, and stand no chance of winning again unless they stick to that pragmatism. Indeed, I have a hunch that Albertans, even some deeply suspicious of the new government, may be pleasantly surprised how nice it is to have a government that knows it has to listen and be responsive to the concerns that people express if it hopes to stay in power.

Basically, the only way this doesn’t work out is if market fears become self-fulfilling, and business goes to war with the new government rather than work with it, as happened in Ontario twenty years ago (h/t to Geoff Solomons for that link). Don Braid writes well about that possibility in the Herald. My hunch is that will not happen in this case however, given how much value it would leave on the table for businesses so heavily invested in the province already. Sunk costs and all that, sure, but there are only so many places with oil in the ground in the world, and very few of them are more hospitable to business—a fact that really won’t change much.

It’s probably true that profitability will decrease marginally under an NDP government. They are raising corporate taxes, after all. It’s also true that a cautious approach is sensible in the face of the unknown.  The key word is marginal, however. If markets continue to price in a significant risk factor going forwards, I have two words: buy now.  Once more information becomes available in the form of concrete actions, the market will eventually correct itself.  The market is not always right, but it usually gets there sooner or later.

photo credit: pump jack southeastern New Mexico via photopin (license)

Last night I had the strangest dream…

[Note: I wanted to write something about the NDP’s stunning win last night in Alberta, but don’t really have the time. So, I’ve done the lazy next best thing and compressed a couple of exchanges I had on social media this morning.]

Man, I had the craziest dream last night. There was this big election in Alberta, and the NDP won!

Q: So tell me, will/can this spell into a NDP majority in the next federal election?

A: No. It’s important not to read too much into what happened here. Alberta didn’t turn socialist overnight, any more than it was ever the Conservative monolith that outsiders saw. At its simplest, this election is the story of a province that got tired of a 40-year-old government, a government that had been around longer than most Albertans have been alive. Once a collapse in prices stripped the PCs of their oil-fueled incumbency powers, Albertans didn’t like the look of what was left. They turned to the best option available. Rachel Notley and the NDP, in what will be remembered as one of the great campaigns in Canadian history—not to mention one of the worst by an incumbent—convinced Albertans that they were that best option. The PCAA offered Albertans a CEO, and they elected a leader instead. (And what a leader! If you haven’t seen Notley’s acceptance speech yet, do yourself a favour and watch.)

An NDP win at the federal level, let alone a majority, really also requires a collapse of the Liberals, and I don’t see that happening. If anything, this might slightly help the Conservatives insofar as it’ll cause the NDP to dig in, and make strategic voting among progressives even less likely.

This is a story about vote splitting above all else, and the crazy ways that First Past the Post voting systems can mangle their representation of voters’ preferences. As my former professor Max Cameron said, that is not a good news story for either the NDP or the Liberals at the federal level.

(Incidentally, my favourite subplot to watch for in the coming months is the sudden conversion of Albertan conservatives to PR supporters. If PC/WR can’t manage a merger by next election, we may hear some loud calls for institutional change coming out of my home province.)

If you want to read more on this subject, my friend and colleague Daniel Westlake wrote a very good analysis of what changed, and what did not, in the election last night.

Q: Ok, so will Alberta go fully blue again in the next federal elections? apparently the NDP can take the seats from the Conservatives and not just the Liberals.

A: Not to take anything away from Notley’s team’s campaign, which was dynamite, but had Danielle Smith not defected, I think it’s more likely than not we’d be looking at a WR government in Alberta this morning.

I bet the NDP carries a handful of federal ridings in Edmonton and Calgary. The Liberals are looking at another generation in the wilderness after this. Their brand has never been particularly welcome in Alberta because of that thing Pierre Trudeau did back in 1980, and this is about as clear a signal as you could ask for for voters to coordinate around.

I normally think momentum is bunk, but this is organization-changing momentum in Alberta. Suddenly, there’s a progressive provincial party with the potential to build a local political machine (something else Alberta has never had in my lifetime). While the national and provincial NDP have their significant differences—this piece touches on some of the most important areas of convergence and divergence—the NDP is now the team to play for among among Alberta progressives. In consequence, in urban areas at least, the NDP will be a force in the federal election.

There’s one final point that’s hard to capture pithily, because it goes to the very basics of social identity. Growing up in rural Alberta, I remember it being actually embarrassing to talk about supporting a party other than the PCs—and really, to show an interest in politics in general. It immediately marked you as a weirdo. That may be gone now. Being NDP is suddenly a legitimate choice. It may not change much, but then again, it might be the thing that matters most in the long run, particularly if the NDP manages competent, pragmatic governance throughout the coming term, no mean feat giving their newness and the stiff economic headwinds facing the province.

For the short term however, the best the NDP can hope for is to push the Liberals out of the way completely in the province. 52% of Albertans voted for a right-of-centre party in this election, and a similar number will do so in the coming federal election.

The bottom line is that the Alberta party system shifted dramatically last night. We saw the dramatic rise of one party, and the decline or demise of several others. That will have huge implications in the province, and some significant effects beyond its borders as well.

The people of the province however, are just the same as they were yesterday.