Sunday, September 18, 2011

There's Something Rotten in the Province of Quebec

This week was a remarkable week. On two levels, I witnessed now badly the situation has unfortunately deteriorated in la belle province.

I am of the opinion that under the guidance of Premier Jean Charest, Quebec has devolved into a kleptocracy and Charest has become a modern day despot exercising his control over the entire state including the judiciary.

Early in week, the report leaked to the press from the Quebec Government's anti collusion squad was damming. It went as far as to say that some functions of the state had been overtaken by a consortium of public servants working for the Ministry of Transportation, engineering firms, and the criminal element, supported by a clandestine financing of Quebec's major political parties in the way of kickbacks which arise from charging overinflated prices for construction projects and a portion of which eventually reach their way to the political party in power.

In other words, everybody in the consortium is taking a cut while the taxpayer is being ripped off for the replacement of the crumbling infrastructure at a cost that is 40% higher than the rest of Canada and is of lower quality. It goes as far as having the Ministry of Transport contracting out to the private sector to do the required inspection and supervision of the construction performed by the private sector firms. The report details how the consortium will arrange to charge the government for 1000 truckloads of contaminated earth to be removed when in reality it takes only 100 truckloads to perform the task.

No wonder the Quebec Government announced in the same week a 800 million reduction in budget expenditures, including funding for Health and Education. Faced with a mountain of debt, the Quebec Government has to find some way to keep the infernal money machine operating.

Incredibly, when Premier Charest faced the media, had the audacity to say that it was thanks to the determined efforts of his government that we have become aware at how corrupt it has become. He went as far as too say that he hadn't even read the report. Imagine going in front of the nation without having read the document leaked to the press and is available on the Internet that asserts that your government is the most corrupt in living memory.

Yet, Charest has something up his sleeve that most Quebecers are only vaguely aware of despite the recent public hearings of the Bastarache Commission that investigated irregularities in appointing judges to the bench.

During his press conference, Charest would keep coming back to the point that we live by the rule of law, evidence must be obtained, and that the government is determined to prosecute those who have engaged in illegal activities.

What is left unsaid is that Charest and his Liberal cronies effectively control the legal system. They decide where and how legal resources will be deployed concerning who is targeted for investigation and who will be charged. Moreover, they have put in place many of the judges who preside over the trials and more importantly the judges that decide which of their peers will hear which cases. In short, the fix is on as we should expect when candidates applying for positions on the bench have their resumes forwarded to Premier Charest with post-it notes that indicate whether they have supported the Quebec Liberal Party in the past.

At a personal level, I have first hand experience with how political power controls the judiciary. As any reader of my Taking On The System blog would know, we have filed a motion to have the first-past-the-post electoral system declared unconstitutional.

This week we received the decision from Quebec's Court of Appeal that I would liken to the insult to their intelligence that Quebecers felt when their Premier appeared before them to defend himself from the accusations from a report that he commissioned but couldn't be bothered to read.

Not surprisingly, the decision did not support our motion to have the electoral system declared unconstitutional. After all, for better or for worse, the first-past-the-post voting system distorts the popular vote to give dictatorial control of the government to the leader of the party that wins the most seats. The political power that the Premier enjoys results from a manipulation in the manner the votes cast are transformed into seats in the legislature and that power is used to appoint judges. Simply put, judges are human and they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them.

Intellectually, I understand the systemic bias that protects the status quo, but what I didn't expect is a decision that would make Kafka laugh in the way it was rendered.

In rendering his decision, Judge Dufresne did toss us a crumb in asserting that the lower court judge had erred when saying our case wasn't judicable. Wow! This question had already been addressed when Quebec's Attorney General tried and failed to have our case declared inadmissible at an earlier instance in the proceedings. Moreover, even a cursory reading of the jurisprudence would indicate that the Court is obliged to hear a case when reasonable doubt on the constitutionality of electoral practices has been produced.

However, when it came to the real question that was put forward, it was as if the three judges put their hands over their ears and started singing and uttering the phrase, "we can't hear you".

In our case, the judge accepted what was obvious, the first-past-the-post voting system distorts the popular vote, but declared that this in itself wasn't sufficient to grant our motion since all voting systems produce distortions.

Well then what about the scale of the distortions and the manner in which they are produced? We have provided expert testimony that demonstrates that the level of distortion is beyond that of the distortions caused by other electoral practices and were subsequently declared unconstitutional and that the manner in which it is done is unclear violation of the equality guarantees of the Charter.

No matter. We won't give that evidence proper consideration. In the lower court decision not a word was devoted to our most compelling evidence in the analysis and the Appeal Court Judges decided that this slight of hand did not constitute a judicial error.

Excuse my language but "What the Fuck!"

Again, I would accept the decision if it were demonstrated that we had erred in claiming that the fact that first-past-the-post denied representation to as many as a million voters that voted for the Greens in the 2008 federal election was an infringement of their democratic rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But this was not done. They simply dodged this inconvenient fact with dismissive silence concerning how such an electoral anomaly could be countenanced. To date, the contestable prejudice caused to those who have their votes discarded by an electoral system that is unique in that it doesn't possess a mechanism to aggregate votes or voting preferences has not been addressed and thus gives us grounds for an appeal.

Moreover, Judge Dufresne went on to make two outlandish statements that suggest that he doesn't understand or chooses not to understand the fundamental democratic principles upon which the case is founded.

The first was to suggest that the fact that the reversal of the democratic result of the Quebec 1966 and 1998 general elections (the party that won less votes than another went on to form a majority government) and the fact that almost a million voters who voted Green did not gain any representation in the 2008 federal election did not constitute a grave injustice. At the same time, Judge Dufresne uses a statistical outlier, a once-in-a-hundred year electoral result from the 2007 Quebec General Election (the three major parties gained more or less representation proportional to the popular vote) to demonstrate that the distortions inherent to first-past-the-post are not systemic yet ignored that two smaller parties that together garnered 7% of the vote were denied any representation at all.

He then suggests that the most recent federal election in which the Conservatives form a majority government with only 39% of the popular vote and in Quebec the Bloc is reduced only 4 out of 75 seats despite amassing 25% of the popular vote while the the NDP gains 70% of the seats with only approximately 40% of the vote is evidence to the contrary. In making such a claim, Judge Dufresne is suggesting that black is white for in no way do these electoral results conform to the principles of democracy, in particular that each and every vote carries equal weight.

One has to wonder what is the frame of reference being used to apply the concept of effective representation for each and every citizen. Do the egalitarian values inherent to democracy enter the equation? Apparently not in Quebec at this time.

Clearly, an appeal grounded on democratic principles would go nowhere in Charest's Quebec because to grant our appeal would upset the very power base that political parties rely upon to gain absolute control of the state and their subsequent ability to redirect a large portion of the collective wealth into private hands. Too many people profit handsomely from this dysfunctional form of governance to let it be replaced with a democratic electoral system.

In order to seek justice, we will need to have our case heard in a different political context, which we hope to find in having our appeal heard at the Supreme Court of Canada.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Epilogue: The Tao of Politics

Having taken a break from writing this blog over the summer, I have had the time to reflect over the texts that I have read and written over the last two years. I'd like to share those reflections with you.

At the heart of the Tao is the dynamic interaction between yin and yang represented by a symbolic circle divided into a black and a white half, each containing a smaller circle or dot of the opposite color. Effectively, this represents a perpetual motion in which yin gives way to yang, which in turn transforms back to yin and so on.

When I was reading John Dunn's brilliant book, Democracy: A History, I came across a reference to an essay written by Philippe Buonarroti shortly after the French Revolution in which Buonarroti asserted that at the base of any society is an intractable conflict or tension between the order of privilege and the order of equality and this conflict was the driver of the French Revolution.

In other words, at the heart of societal discord is a binary opposition. Sounds familiar.

While I was mulling this over, I picked up a copy of George Lakoff's, The Political Mind. In his book Lakoff puts forth the idea of the family as the central metaphor that controls American politics. He says that there are two competing visions of the family at play, the conservative family dominated by the authoritarian male and the progressive family in which more or less equal partners nurture the family.

What makes Lakoff's thesis particularly interesting is that he claims that these differences are to be found at the synaptic level in the brain. Those with conservative synaptic networks have much difficulty processing information associated with progressive perspectives and visa versa.

Pushing this binary opposition towards the Tao, a pattern begins to emerge in which we can associate the male energy of yang with the order of privilege and the conservative mindset while drawing parallels between the female energy of yin, the order of equality, and the progressive mindset. Importantly, this opposition or complementarity is grounded biologically in the structure of brain.

What really brought the notion home to me concerning the relevance of the Tao when looking at politics is primate expert, Robert Sapolsky's, finding that when looking at human sexual behavior and social patterns, we find that humans display characteristics associated with both tournament and pair-bonding species. According to Sapolsky, we have aspects of both species hard-wired into our DNA.

To paraphrase Sapolsky, "isn't that interesting? What's up with that?"

Well, in my opinion it goes a long way to explaining the historical ebb and flow of political conflict over the last two hundred years and perhaps longer. In short, this basic biological duality hard-wired into humanity is the root cause of the tension between the order of privilege and the order of equality, between conservative and progressive. Essentially, the order of privilege is the manifestation of an alpha male status hierarchy finding its way into conservative rhetoric while the equalitarian traits of a pair-bonding species is manifested into the social democratic beliefs of progressives. The interplay of these two opposing but complementary forces unfolds as the Tao of politics.

The incorporation of two radically mating patterns into the evolution of the human species begets an intractable conflict between the opposing sides. Nothing is stronger than the biological imperative to reproduce, so it should come as no surprise that each side is incapable of finding common ground with the other since to do so runs contrary to the genetic program each group possesses that is designed to increase their chances of passing on their genes to the next generation.

Simply put, alphas will be alphas and betas will be betas and never the twain shall meet.

Consequently, what we see at the society at large is a small group of alpha males trying to amass as much wealth and power as possible so they can engage in an ostentatious display of wealth in order to attract the most desirable females. If in doubt, take a look at the advertising for the sale of luxury items. This group is opposed by a much larger of beta males and females that push for a more equal distribution of the society's wealth.

Of course there is a variance in how this opposition plays out from one society to another. Path dependence is in play, so turning points in the evolution of a society, (wars, revolutions, changes in religious beliefs) can push a society in either direction so that we can identify societies as being predominantly supportive of either alpha or beta procreation patterns. This is not say that societies attain a permanent equilibrium that entrenches the rule of one over the other. In fact, over time each element can gain ascendency over the other in what could be described as the eternal motion of the Tao.

History repeats itself in an unmistaken pattern.

Regardless of the supporting ideology favored by the alphas, wealth is concentrated over time into their hands in order to support their mating habits at the expense of the betas. Eventually, the betas realize that the depletion of resources threatens the survival of their offspring so they organize and depose of the alphas that rule the society. Previously, this was done exclusively by armed conflict, but as societies develop they come to realize that it is advantageous to contain this perpetual conflict within their political institutions, hence the spread of democracy across the globe over the last two hundred years.

Each side possesses a competitive advantage that allows them to rule the roost periodically. In short, alphas are more motivated to organize so they can extract wealth from the betas, but betas have numbers on their side. Also, alphas are extremely sensitive to differences within a status hierarchy so they will be tenacious in their attempt to procure wealth since inequality of wealth distribution and subsequent ostentatious display of wealth is greatest at the very top of the hierarchy. Their steadfast refusal to share wealth is their undoing because eventually the sleeping giant awakes and addresses the situation. Betas, on the other hand, have difficulty organizing. Their propensity to share and cooperate makes them reticent to confront the forces of the alpha groups early on. It takes considerable time before their collective angst reaches a tipping point and they spring into action.

Looking back at the post war years, there is a definite oscillation between the order of privilege and the order of equality. Indeed, the conclusion of the Second World War ushered in a historical period in the English speaking countries in which there was great economic growth and the increased wealth was equitably divided throughout the societies. Thirty years later, marked by the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the order of privilege reestablished its control and material wealth over time became more concentrated in the upper echelons of the respective societies.

Today, we appear to be at the beginning of the end of the rule of the order of privilege. The global economy which the alphas so diligently worked to bring about is about to collapse. Mountains of debt have arisen as a result of the desire to increase economic growth so to enrich a privileged elite. To meet these debt obligations, the order of privilege is attempting to force austerity measures upon the betas. The question that remains to be answered is how long will it take the betas to respond and in what manner their response will take form.

Were the recent riots and looting in England an isolated event or are they the precursors to the type of change of regime that we have seen during the Arab spring? Certainly, the mettle of the West's political institutions are about to undergo a severe stress test. Perhaps, they will hold. Perhaps, they will buckle. One way or another, as we enter a period of crisis for the global political economy, there will be opportunities for significant societal change to come about.

This state of affairs reminds me of the lyrics from Bob Dylan's song, The Times Are A-Changing:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.