Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Big Finance Leverages Territorial Representation in the US Big Time

Watching the Goldman Sachs spectacle and at the same time watching the
Republicans perform in the US Senate brings home the point of how the
geographic bias built into the electoral system allows for and actually
encourages the systemic looting of the public purse.

Clearly, the charges laid by the Securities and Exchange Commission -
Goldman Sachs packaged and sold toxic debt securities and then placed
bets on the eventuality that the debt obligations would not be met -
should indicate that investment banks in the US were not properly
regulated. However, although Republican Senators would join in on the
public shaming of Goldman Sachs representatives that occurred during the
hearing, they all voted against beginning the debate to reform the
financial system in the Senate.

In the US Senate, it takes 60 votes from the 100 votes available to
approve a motion. In other words, only 40% of the votes, a clear
minority, is required to block something as important as reforming the
financial system. Keep in mind that the public funds allocated to
bailout the financial system are twice what has been spent on the war in
Iraq. Moreover, since each state is allotted two seats in the Senate
regardless of its population, the 40 votes needed to oppose any reform
can represent as little as 12% of the population.

Now, that's leverage.

With the mid-term elections coming up there seemingly is the possibility
that the Republicans could experience a net loss of seats in the Senate,
which would make qualitative financial reform inevitable.
Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court recently ruled that there can be no
limits to the amount of money corporations can give to political
parties, thus creating an extremely unlevel political playing field.
Without question, Big Finance will target the senatorial races where
their dollars will make the difference, and unless the Democrats can
successfully repeat their performance in getting out the vote last
November, Big Finance will reap huge rewards on their investment and the
industry will continue to suck out the life blood out of the real
economy and out of the nation.

God Bless America for the land is blighted by an amoral rapacious elite
with an insatiable appetite for acquiring riches that has no
reservations bringing misery to millions.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Peace, Order, and Crappy Government

Despite the good intentions of the fathers of Confederation, who enshrined the phrase, ‘peace, order, and good government’ into our constitution as a guiding principle for our governance, I can’t help feel that we have strayed far from this ideal.

In reality, we have crappy government because we are unable to exit from the cul-de-sac of a system of governance that is set up to give domination and control to our two founding charter groups at the expense of having the capacity of delivering what the vast majority of Canadians want: a healthy environment, an effective education system, health care that is there when you need it, and a sense of individual and collective well-being.

I’ll start with an analysis of the problem and then finish with how our elected governments are not meeting the performance requirements that we should expect as citizens from a democratic government.

Canada is a large piece of territory carved out of the Americas as a result of the vagaries of European imperial conquest. When the first settlers arrived, they were met by indigenous peoples who had occupied the territory for thousands of years. We seem to have acquired a collective amnesia over this point, especially if we recognize that aboriginal title to much of Canada has never been extinguished by the state and that according to the principles of common law, as the successor state we are bound to uphold by our own constitution, section 25 of the Charter, the rights stemming from the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which recognizes the rights of First Nations peoples, including land rights.

In short, our political system was modeled on the British system, with an electoral system that initially gave the vote to white, male, property owners to the exclusion of everyone else. Although the right to vote evolved as our conception of human rights evolved, (yes women, people of colour, and non-Christians are also humans) the electoral system still has a geographic bias that gives disproportionate voting power to the descendents of the charter settler groups. For a more detailed explanation see my post: Canada at 150: Ethnocratic Settler State or Multi-ethnic Pluralist Democracy?

In this system, we divide up the territory into electoral districts and the declared winner of each electoral district those who got the most votes becomes the representative. There is no aggregation of votes or of political preferences. We are only concerned with who gets the most votes, not whether a majority has been established.

Given that the rural seats in a vast territory such as Canada comprise the majority of seats and the people who live there are mostly from the ethnic groups who first settled (appropriated?) the land, this electoral system awards effective political control over the territory to these groups at the expense of the democratic principle of one person, one vote. In other words, Canada is still a dominion in which French-Canadian Catholics dominate and control the territory of Quebec and Anglo-Canadian Protestants dominate and control the territory outside of Quebec.

In my view, there is a trade off between control and domination of the charter groups and good government.

At the time of Confederation, the settlers’ principle concerns were to protect borders, secure the territory and exploit the natural resources therein, and the system of governance put into place reflected those concerns. Today, however, we live in a world that is exponentially more complex, and we expect our government to be able to the meet the social and economic challenges within our borders and play a responsible and effective role with regard to global concerns.

Unfortunately, these expectations cannot be met by a political system that reduces the complexity of issues to for or against the question at hand, and a vote for either the red party of the blue party. Yet, that’s what the system gives, and those who have the power to change the system to make it more intelligent, to make it more democratic, prefer to hang onto the outdated system because at the end of the day, they retain the power to decide what makes it onto the nation’s political agenda and how it gets decided.

Take for example Canada’s woeful performance on climate change. How is it that we are signatories to the Kyoto Accord, the majority of the population supports that we respect our international obligations, and the majority of the members of Parliament think likewise, yet we do precious little to meet those obligations?

Put simply, the idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Canadian Protestant hegemonic idea that nothing can be done if it would cause harm to the economy. Forget science, forget risk management; it is sufficient to raise the spectre of less economic growth and to say this is a bad thing and the descendents of the charter groups fall into order and vote accordingly. Keep in mind that together the Liberals and the Conservatives have little more than the support of only one third of the electorate (38%) and the present government is there thanks to only 23% of the electorate or 17% of the population.

Of course, the situation would be much different if the make-up of parliament actually reflected the popular vote, but to do so would mean moving out of a control and domination mode into a consensual mode of government. Heaven forbid.

Here in Quebec, the electoral system gives us the choices between two government options: the red team, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party, an incompetent and probably the most corrupt government since the days of Duplesis, and the blue team, an equally incompetent party that reduces the complexity of Quebec’s social and economic problems to the question of sovereignty.

Yes, regrettably these are the choices.

Never mind that the public education system is a disgrace, the health care system is a bad joke – this week a fundraising raffle included as a prize, gaining patient status with a family doctor – the province has the highest level of public debt in North America and its citizens are among those who pay the most taxes.

Never mind that the obsession with a Westphalian conception of sovereignty hardly applies to a territory we occupy as a result of European conquest, and that the Council of the Federation, free trade with the European Union, and plans for turning Quebec’s North into the land of milk and honey or whatever cliché that you prefer are essentially political diversions to cover up the real problem: neither the blue team or the red team has the capacity to govern effectively.

If that’s the case let someone else into the game. Let my vote count as well as the hundreds of thousands of other voters here in Quebec and the millions of others in Canada who can think critically and who don’t let their ethnic allegiance determine how they vote.

Until that day arrives, I am and will be the disgruntled democrat.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Canada at 150: An Ethnocratic Settler State or Pluralist Multi-ethnic Democracy?

In the near future, Canada will be celebrating its 150th birthday. Many would say the nation is still in its infancy, but within this relative short historical period our population has grown 30 fold, and the size of our economy allows us to be a member of the select G8, which demonstrates that we have become an important player on the world’s stage.

Certainly, Canada has evolved. Since confederation, our borders have expanded so that we are now the second largest country in the world. Within these borders, the demographic portrait has shifted from a population predominately of British and French origin, widely dispersed throughout our rural regions, to a population that is multi-ethnic and concentrated in our urban centers. Politically, a franchise that was limited to male, Protestant landowners gave way to universal suffrage, and with the adoption of the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we became the masters of our own political destiny. However, despite these changes, Canada remains a vestige of European empires that have long since receded. Although we have developed some of the political institutions that are normally associated with free and democratic societies, we have yet to fully embrace democracy, and we cling to our heritage as an ethnocratic settler state.

Essentially, what keeps us from becoming a full-fledged democracy is that we maintain the privileged position of the initial settler communities. Similar in kind to other former British colonies, most notably Australia and New Zealand, Canada embodies a system of governance that is, however, slightly different: it is “for” and “by” two charter groups rather than a single specific ethnic community: French-Canadian Catholics within Quebec and Anglo-Canadian Protestants throughout the rest of Canada.

Regrettably unfamiliar to most Canadians, the term “ethnocracy” was coined by political geographer Oren Yiftachel in his investigations concerning the role of law in creating and enabling ethnocratic land regimes. The use of the term as it applies to Canada sheds light on our historical past and helps to make sense of recent political developments.

As explained by Yiftachel, ethnocracy is a distinct regime type that facilitates the expansion of a dominant ethnic nation in a multi-ethnic territory. Within these regimes exists a constant tension between two opposing principles of political organization: the ‘ethnos’ (community of origin), and the ‘demos’ (residential community of a given territory). In the heydays of ethnocracies, the ‘ethnos’ enjoys clear legal and institutional prominence. Ethnicity, rather than citizenship, constitutes the main criterion for distributing power and resources.

The regime sub-type ‘settling ethnocracy’ stresses the ethnic settlement project as a constitutive element of the regime. In the formative periods of settler societies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, the state is usually deeply involved in a strategy of ethnic migration and settlement, which aims to alter the country’s geographic and ethnic structure. As the charter group of settlers usually refrains from mixing with indigenous populations and ‘inferior’ groups, such societies are based on deeply ingrained patterns of segregation frequently resulting in three major ethno-classes: founders, immigrants, and indigenous.

(a) The ‘Founders’ (also termed the ‘charter group’) – this group achieves the dominant status due to the high military, cultural, political, and economic standing established during the state’s formative years. Furthermore, intergenerational mechanisms, such as the land regime, together with rules of inheritance and transfer of property rights reproduce over time the ‘founders’ privileged position in different societal realms.
(b) The ‘Immigrants’ – this group comes from a different ethnic background from the founders (and is often split into a number of sub-groups based on ethnic background and race). Formally, the immigrants are part of the new nation built into the settler society. However, while they undergo a prolonged process of ‘upward’ assimilation into the ‘founding group’ they often remain in lower economic, geographical, and political positions.
(c) The Indigenous or ‘Foreign’ People – these groups, also termed ‘aliens’ or ‘natives’ or ‘others’, are characterized by long-term marginalization through the process of nation-and-state building; they are generally isolated in the geographical, economic, and social periphery of the settler society. Such groups include, for example, indigenous peoples such as Native Americans in nineteenth-century USA, the Inuit in Canada, the Aborigine in Australia, and the Maoris in New Zealand. They also include other ‘alien’ groups not fully included in the settling nation, such as the Chicanos in nineteenth-century southwestern USA, the Tamils in Sri-Lanka, or the Palestinians in Israel.

As explained by Yiftachel’s associate Alexandre Kedar, the establishment of ethnocratic settler states usually entails the construction of new property regimes. The acquisition of land is crucial component in this phase and often occasions a vast and violent dispossession of indigenous peoples from land they possessed for generations. While in most cases land is originally acquired by direct force, this violent acquisition is subsequently translated into institutional arrangements that represent and legitimize power relationships in the ethnocratic state.

As we have seen, ethnocratic settler societies usually contain three major groups: founders, immigrants, and natives. Ethnocratic land regimes reproduce and reinforce this social stratification. In the land regime they create, the founders control most land resources. Immigrants usually receive only a small part; while indigenous and alien groups, who often serve as the main contributors of the land, are generally denied a fair share of its allocation. By freezing this ‘initial’ spatial arrangement, the new property system facilitates the perpetuation over generations of the ethnocratic power structure.

The property regime also constitutes a legal-cultural order that reduces the necessity of direct force to maintain the ethnocratic system. Elites of the dominant ethnocratic group strive to institutionalize a hegemony that deflects open debate about the system and justifies their control of the territory. Under this hegemonic system, the ethnocratic spatial order is constructed as something ‘taken for granted’. Law and courts occupy a special place in the institutionalization and legitimization of these socio-spatial power structures.

With regard to the Canada’s indigenous peoples, the conflict caused by the imposition of the European property regime by the charter groups is intractable. In the famous words of former US Chief Justice, John Marshall, “conquest gives title that the courts of the conquerers cannot deny.” Consequently, aboriginal title to the lands obtained by conquest cannot be recognized in a meaningful way since to do so would require a complete transformation of the existing property regime.

As Canada continues its process of decolonization, however, further appropriation of indigenous lands will be curtailed, and we can expect that there will be some minor victories for indigenous groups in the Courts, but nothing of the sort that would threaten the existing order. Canadian Historian, Peter Russell, notes that “these juridical wins come with a downside – a reminder of the subordinate place of native societies within the larger settler societies in which they are embedded, and of their dependence on the courts that pronounce upon their rights in that larger society.”

Conversely, with regard to the relation between Canada’s charter groups and its immigrant population, there exists the potential for a significant realignment of the power relations between the two groups. According to Statistics Canada, by 2031 one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority. One in four will be foreign born. Their ranks will grow from 5.3 million today to between 11.4 and 14.4 million. Between 29% and 32% of the population could belong to a visible minority group, nearly double the proportion reported by the 2006 Census. More than 71% of all minority people would live in Canada’s three largest metropolitan areas: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The increasing tension between the ‘ethnos’ and the ‘demos’ brought about by the demographic change could cause a bifurcation of the nation: the ethnocratic settler state gives way to the creation of a modern democracy.

Historically, the charter groups in settler states have been able to maintain their position of dominance within their respective political systems by the use of malapportionment of seats between urban and rural districts, thereby ensuring the domination of the legislature by the rural regions where the members of founder groups form large majorities. However, reapportionment along the democratic principle of ‘one person, one vote’ disrupts the hegemony of the ethnocratic elite since the votes of the other ethnic groups cannot be controlled by traditional identity politics and cultural cognition.

Indeed, the election of President Barak Obama and the subsequent reform of the American health care system, which will extend health insurance to approximately 34 million previously uninsured Americans, for the most part members of visible minority communities, signal the end of the Anglo-American Protestant hegemony in the USA. In short, landmark decisions from the US Supreme Court, most notably Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Simms (1964) paved the way to equal representation for equal numbers of people, without regard to race, sex, economic status, or place of residence within a state. A complete redistricting of state and federal electoral maps ensued, and, as a result, a series of progressive programs such as Social Security and Medicare were enacted that empowered what previously had been an underclass to rise up and eventually elect one of their own as President of the United States.

Here in Canada, malapportionment has recently become a concern, but the context in which it is addressed is less fraught with inter-racial tensions because of the manner that the right to effective representation is protected constitutionally.

For example, a number of recent studies have demonstrated that urban ridings where immigrants comprise a significant percentage of the electorate have less voting power than those rural ridings where the electorate is comprised largely of members of the charter groups. For the most part, theses discrepancies (an urban riding in Alberta has three times as many electors as one in Prince Edward Island) are due to the constitutional guarantees afforded to the smaller provinces for the number of seats they are accorded in Parliament, in other words, an unintended consequence of Confederation. Moreover, section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 guarantees that, notwithstanding the measures taken to protect the representation of the smaller provinces, each province will be represented in Parliament with a number of seats that is proportional to its share of the population. Consequently, in April 2010, legislation was introduced to award 30 additional seats in Parliament to the provinces (most likely to be enacted after the 2011 Census has been completed) which have experienced marked population growth as a result of the growth of their immigrant communities in their urban and suburban regions. Furthermore, the substantive equality guarantees of section 3 of the Charter limits population variations between ridings within a province to 25% from the provincial average for the number of electors per riding. This is a far cry from the 400 to 1 and greater population ratios between urban and rural electoral districts to be found in the United States before Baker v. Carr. Finally, it should be noted that the decision to change Canada’s ethnic composition was taken, and is being taken by the legislative assembly, the Parliament of Canada, that is dominated by the two charter groups, and they are fully aware of the demographic consequences of their decisions.

More serious concerns with regard to malapportionment in Canada arise from the continued use of a Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system that dates back to medieval Britain. Essentially, the SMP system manufactures majority governments that require far less than a majority of votes from the electorate. Generally speaking, 40% of the popular vote translates into 60% of the available seats in the legislature and 100% control of the political process. Most often, a candidate requires only a simple plurality of votes to be elected, which means that the majority of votes cast are discarded and have no bearing on the electoral results.

Since representation is given strictly on the basis of winning territorial electoral districts, and the population of the charter groups is widely distributed throughout the major portion of the territory in sufficient number to form pluralities in most of the rural ridings, the SMP system gives charter groups considerable political leverage. Essentially, the property regime is the source of political power, where the territorial control of electoral districts, winning seats, translates into the effective control of the political process.

The degree of leverage arising from territorial control is considerable, especially when we consider the dwindling percentage of eligible voters that choose to exercise their right to vote. For instance, as a result of the 2008 federal election, the Conservative Party formed a minority government, which exercises the power of a majority government subject to the willingness of the opposition parties to plunge the country into another general election, having won 143 of the 308 available seats. What is remarkable from a democratic perspective is that the government was formed with the support of only 22.16% of the eligible voters or 16.5% of the general population. Moreover, this was done with only two seats from the metropolitan centres, of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, which indicates that the present government was elected for and by the charter groups, primarily by Anglo-Canadian Protestants.

As we could expect, this type of electoral result exacerbates the tension between the organizing principles of ‘ethnos’ and ‘demos’ within the country. Recently, the trigger events were the usually innocuous parliamentary practice of proroguing Parliament. However, in both instances, the act of proroguing Parliament – an anachronistic royal prerogative transferred from the British Monarchy to the Prime Minister – was widely perceived to allow the Prime Minister to escape the democratic will of Parliament: in the first instance, as a way to escape a non-confidence vote that would have surely brought down the government; in the second, as a way to delay the provision of potentially damming evidence to the opposition parties concerning the transfer of Afghan detainees. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets in order to protest a practice, although legal and in keeping with a constitutional monarchy, because it was believed to arise from a flagrant disregard of democratic principles.

It is unlikely that the structural tension between ‘ethnos’ and ‘demos’ will subside. As a result of the Liberal Party losing its capacity to offer the electorate a government option, the historical alternation between the Liberals and the Conservatives forming governments since Confederation has been broken. In fact, the two charter groups now find representation in political parties that are diametrically opposed, Anglo-Canadian Protestants with the Conservatives and French-Canadian Catholics with the Bloc Québécois. Consequently, Canada’s system of governance inherited from the British is mired in successive minority governments with no immediate prospect of exiting from what is supposed to be only an irregular inconvenience.

Throughout the last decade, a number of citizens groups have contested the continued use of the SMP voting system in Canada because of its systemic distortion of the popular will in translating votes into seats in the legislature. No less than four provincial referendums were held without success to replace SMP with voting systems that gave more proportional results. Yet, the problem remains, especially for the supporters of the emerging Green Party that amassed approximately one million votes in the last federal election but gained no representation whatsoever. Of note, the Greens in their support of the environment reject the property regime advanced by the charter groups. Their core beliefs are much closer ideologically to those of the indigenous peoples.

Presently, the Greens are pushing forward with a Charter challenge of the constitutionality of the SMP system, having already won the equivalent of Baker v. Carr in that the question was ruled judiciable in the lower Courts and are pressing forward to have the Supreme Court rule that the continued use of SMP is in fact unconstitutional. Essentially, the Supreme Court will be asked, as much if not more as it did in the Saskatchewan Reference, to determine the nature of Canada’s electoral system and, as a result, its system of governance. In brief, by upholding the continued use of SMP, the Court will validate Canada’s continued existence as a ethnocratic settler state; by striking it down, the Court will put into place a process that will eventually bring to an end the hegemony of the charter groups in Canada as the territorial bias within the electoral system that is responsible for ethnic domination will be severely curtailed.

A second eventuality will also come into play that could cause Canada to deviate from its path as a dominant settler society. Indeed, the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign as Canada’s Head of State will create a window of opportunity for Canada to step away from its colonial past. When that day arrives in the not so distant future, Canadians will be faced with the decision of whether to allow for Prince Charles’s succession as Canada’s sovereign. Without question, royal succession will bring to mind the position of the dominant ethnic group and it will be debated in a far different cultural context than when Elizabeth II took the throne. For instance, when Elizabeth became Queen, Canada relied almost exclusively on Europe and in particular Great Britain for its immigrants. Today, Canada’s immigrants are primarily non-European and account for a far greater percentage of the population. Consequently, there will be far less identification with the new British Monarch, most probably the weakest identification with the Royals in Canada’s short history.

Given the scale of demographic change that will occur in Canada during the 21st century, a re-alignment of the power relations between the charter groups and Canada’s immigrant groups will most likely occur along the ethnocratic/democratic fault lines previously discussed. How and when these changes will impact on Canada’s democratic institutions is uncertain, but the trend is clear: Canada’s charter groups will enter into a new power sharing relationship with its immigrant communities.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quebec Needs Its Own Gomery Inquiry

In my last blog, I wrote at length of the pathetic state of Quebec’s electoral system, but yesterday’s revelations by Marc Bellemare, the former Quebec Minister of Justice and Quebec Attorney General, went way beyond what many of us here in Quebec had suspected.

In short, Bellemare stated that the Quebec Liberal bagmen had exercised undue influence upon Premier Charest’s Cabinet in order to make sure that their preferred candidates were appointed to the judiciary. A second unidentified source today confirmed Bellemare’s allegations.

As you can imagine, these allegations cut to the heart of the democratic legitimacy of Quebec’s elected government. So serious are these allegations is that the Premier finally capitulated and announced that he would be striking a public inquiry to examine the manner in which judges are appointed.

So far so good, but what about Bellemare’s other allegations: money in envelopes being transferred to representatives from the Liberal Party, undue influence by Liberal financial backers in other government appointments and interference in the legislative process?

Apparently, we are supposed to accept Charest’s word that everything is above board with the manner in which the party receives its funding in spite of the fact that three other ministers said publicly that they couldn’t prevent businesses in the construction industry from making financial contributions and that these donations are illegal.

Moreover, we are also supposed to put aside our desire to have a public inquiry into the financial link between the construction industry and the Liberal government because it struck an investigative task force called Operation Hammer.

Wow John, which comic book universe do you live in?

Apparently in John’s world, the very individual who has had some very serious allegations made concerning his behavior can exercise his judgment in setting the terms of reference for the public inquiry. Conversely, the entire political class here in Quebec has come out and said that Charest cannot be one of the principle targets of the investigation and decide how the very same investigation will be conducted.

John doesn’t get it, but Pauline Marois the leader of the PQ does.

It’s all fine and well to have a public inquiry, but the terms of reference in this instance need to be determined by an impartial, independent, competent person who has much needed experience in dealing with such matters. According to Pauline, none other than retired judge John Gomery would be perfect for the job.

Couldn’t agree with you more Pauline. Brilliant suggestion.