Op-ed: Hey, stop hating on coalition governments!

The idea of coalition government has taken a beating recent years in Canada. The most recent example of the form comes courtesy of Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak, who said they are not good for voters. From the Globe and Mail:

“I do hope that Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath will stop all this coalition talk,” he said outside the polling station. “Voters don’t like that. It might be good for politicians, it’s not good for the province. I say no to coalitions. And I hope that Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath will stop this game and be equally clear.”

Talk that delegitimizes coalition government has long been a pet peeve of mine, so I fired off a response in the Ottawa Citizen. Among other things, it says:

The problem is such talk shapes opinions. Over time, if repeated often enough, they create a reality of their own. While uncommon in Canada, coalitions are a perfectly legitimate and potentially useful form of government, one seen now and then in most other Westminster-style parliaments.

If enough politicians claim that they’re illegitimate, however, Ontarians — and Canadians, since this debate occurs at the federal level as well — may come to accept it as fact, effectively taking off the table a potentially useful form of government in times of political uncertainty.

You can read it all here.

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Operation Earful

What is to be done about the Fair Elections Act?

In an analysis published here at the Ottawa Citizen, I concluded that the Fair Elections Act could prove as costly for Conservatives as any other group in Canada. It is simply bad law, causing nothing but damage to our political system without benefiting anyone in the long run. If enacted, its legacy will be one of increased suspicion and polarization, decreased trust and legitimacy and ultimately, I argue, widespread resentment towards its architects, supporters, and perceived beneficiaries.

The Senate recommendations do not go nearly far enough to fix all that is wrong with the bill. What they have done however, is give us a window of opportunity to push government to reconsider the whole misbegotten scheme.

MPs (and Senators, who also matter in this debate) really do pay attention to feedback from constituents. Emails, letters and phone calls can cut through the clutter. If you have questions or doubts about the law, or are convinced that it is wrongheaded, I encourage you to tell your representatives about it. There are lots of other things you can do, depending on your level of outrage (and the flexibility of your work schedule, I suppose) but this is one clear, simple, and effective thing.

Call it #OperationEarful.

Look up your MP’s contact info here.

Senator contact info is accessible here (including information about province and party).

If you have friends or relatives living in Conservative ridings, consider reaching out to them as well. Explain why you don’t like the bill, why it’s so important to let MPs know what’s wrong with it now, before it passes and we all have to deal with the consequences.

As for what to say, there are resources all over the net to help. Here’s a list provided by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. If you’re pressed for time, I suppose you could do worse than the following (from my op-ed above):

From the soft disenfranchisement of voters, to changes in party finance rules that advantage the Conservatives, to the partisanization of elections officials, to restrictions on the chief electoral officer’s (CEO) ability to communicate with Canadians, the bill is replete with measures antithetical to the principles of democracy.

The Fair Elections Act is not yet a done deal. We can act now to help prevent its passing. Do so, and we’ll be doing all Canadians—including Conservative MPs and their supporters—a favour.

[UPDATE: Thanks for visiting, not to mention reading all the way to the end! A friendly reminder: if you agree with what you read here, and yet are clicking away from the site without contacting an elected and/or Senate representative (or at least making plans to do so soon), then that is not a 100% effective execution of Operation Earful, which includes four distinct phases: click, read, act, share. Have a great Easter long weekend!]

photo credit: x-ray delta one via photopin cc

Op-ed: Backbenchers’ calculus

New comment up at the Ottawa Citizen. It’s an attempt to lay out the political case against the proposed legislation, which is related to, but distinct from the principled case against it. Basically, it’s bad law that could easily come back to haunt the Conservative Party. Then the only question will be how much damage it does to the reputation of the party and its MPs. To wit:

Unless every one of the controversial elements are stripped out, C-23 will remain antidemocratic and, whether Conservatives realize it or not, an exceedingly risky political ploy.

Click here for the original. I have reproduced the original in full here as well:

Published on: April 16, 2014
Last Updated: May 20, 2014 6:12 AM EST

In tabling a set of nine unanimously endorsed amendments, the Conservative-dominated Senate committee examining the proposed Fair Elections Act has offered Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre a face-saving way to climb down from his previous position of intransigence. Given the minister’s initial reaction to the report, he may be inclined to use it.

Either way, action now shifts back to the House, where Conservative members of Parliament must soon decide whether to vote for, amend, or reject outright legislation denounced as antidemocratic in both content and process by experts throughout the media, academia, and in the public service.

Even if they accept all nine unanimous Senate amendments however, it will remain so.

Consider the principled case against bill C-23. From the soft disenfranchisement of voters, to changes in party finance rules that advantage the Conservatives, to the partisanization of elections officials, to restrictions on the chief electoral officer’s (CEO) ability to communicate with Canadians, the bill is replete with measures antithetical to the principles of democracy.

Many of the most controversial issues, including vouching, the use of Voter Identification Cards, and new financing loopholes remain unaddressed in the recommendations endorsed by the full Senate committee. The committee’s minority offered its own set of recommendations that go much further, but even they miss out some key problems with the nearly 250-page bill.

Unless every one of the controversial elements are stripped out, C-23 will remain antidemocratic and, whether Conservatives realize it or not, an exceedingly risky political ploy.

For one thing, it is a potent potential mobilizer for the opposition. Polling on the issue so far suggests that while most Canadians are not engaged on the issue, the more they know about C-23, the more they dislike it. A limited set of amendments will not change that calculus.

Should the bill’s opponents — a group including many voices that normally remain studiously nonpartisan, as well as those who had previously endorsed this government — break through to some of those disengaged Canadians with a simple message like “the Tories are stacking the deck,” it would be a powerful narrative for the next election, one that plays into an existing Conservative reputation for ruthlessness, even recklessness, in the pursuit of power.

Further, there is the lack of political cover to consider. Effectively, party and country alike have been put on notice that the bill is proceeding over the considered judgement of virtually every independent observer with expertise in the subject. If anything goes wrong because of this bill, the Conservatives alone will own the consequences.

That’s important, as things could go very wrong indeed. One slow-to-emerge narrative surrounding bill C-23 is the effect it would have on the nuts-and-bolts administration of elections. Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser, for instance, echoed concerns raised by current CEO Marc Mayrand regarding new barriers impairing the CEO’s ability to make decisions around the hiring of technical personnel. By making remuneration subject to Treasury Board approval, the act complicates the already complex process of election administration.

More outrageously, the bill injects incumbent members of Parliament directly into that administrative process, mandating that they or their representatives put together the lists from which key officials like the central poll supervisor are selected. This is one of the problems missed even by the Senate committee minority.

It is also one of the most puzzling aspects of the bill. Why any incumbent would want such power is quite simply beyond me, as it would make any victory potentially tainted simply because the possibility for mischief was there. If anything controversial were to happen at a polling station, the incumbent involved would come in for personal blame for whatever problems resulted — no matter if it was just an irregularity, no matter if someone were undertaking fraud on their behalf without their knowledge.

Finally, there is the impending spectacle of Canadians watching their fellow citizens turned away from voting. Even some Conservative supporters now talking a good game about the “reasonableness” of the bill’s identity and proof of residency requirements might waver a bit once they see and hear the stories of one friend’s aunt, of another’s son, who couldn’t vote, who were barred from exercising the most fundamental right of citizenship.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Senate committee’s recommendations, we must commend them for slowing momentum, allowing everyone to take a deep breath. In doing so, they have provided Canadians with a window of opportunity.

The one thing guaranteed to make parliamentarians take notice is an earful from constituents. Indeed, James Rajotte, a Conservative MP, has already signalled to the minister that his constituents have problems with the bill. If enough Canadians express concerns the Conservative caucus will have no choice but to finish the work that the Senate committee has started.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Twitter.com/StewartPrest

Op-ed: In defence of the Reform Act

I have a piece in today’s Ottawa Citizen. It’s a response to an essay written by Andrew Potter a couple of weeks back. He wrote in opposition to the Reform Act proposed by MP Michael Chong; I subsequently wrote in its defence. Here’s an excerpt:

Politics is not simply about the pursuit and exercise of power; it is about its regulation. Democracy is as concerned with the presence of effective checks on the use of political power as with the occasional elections that determine who wields it. It is his oversight of this fundamental point that in my view dooms Potter’s case.

You can read the whole thing here.

photo credit: Bust it Away Photography via photopin cc