Monday, August 24, 2015

The 2015 Ballot Box Question: Who Can I Trust To Do The Right Thing?

The first couple of weeks of the Canadian 2015 General Election are mercifully over and the ballot box question has emerged, largely due to what has happened in the courtroom during the Mike Duffy trial and not by what has been said by the leaders during the campaign.  During the trial, it has become apparent that there was wrong doing by the members of the Prime Minister's staff, an attempted cover up, and the denial by the Prime Minister that he knew what his staff was up to.  Whose version of how the events that unfolded do you believe?

Well, that depends on whether you are a fervent supporter of one of the major political parties.  True blue Conservatives will believe the Prime Minister's version, while the supporters of the Liberals, Greens, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) will decode the received testimony of yet further evidence of the moral vacuum that has been guiding this country for the last ten years.

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But what about those who are not bonded to anyone of the major parties and can vote freely on election day?

I believe that it comes down to: who can you trust to do the right thing?  This operates in two different ways.  On one level, it involves an evaluation of what courses of actions are being proposed by each of the parties, in particular, what actions are being proposed to bring about what results in the fiscal and social spheres.  On an other level, it involves a judgement concerning how each of the parties would govern, which include issues of fairness, respect for all Canadians, transparency, and accountability.

With regard to the policy side, it really comes to what people believe about the role of government.  The Conservatives run on the idea of minimal intervention into the lives of Canadians, small government and low taxes.  The other parties would have a more activist approach, paying for their proposed interventions by increasing taxes on some segment of the society, either the corporate sector or for those who can afford to pay more or both.

Of course, a person's conception of what constitutes the good society and not the appeal of the leaders' hairstyles -- although Justin Trudeau does have the nicest hair -- will sway the vote towards one of the parties.

But where it gets tricky is the question of trust with regard to how the government is run.  Both the long standing ruling parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, have been plagued with scandals.  The Liberals lost their majority government due to the fallout of the Sponsorship scandal in 2004 and it now appears that the Conservatives will do the same in this general election with the fallout of the Senator Mike Duffy trial: their support is holding at less than 30% in the polls.

Which brings us to the NDP.

They don't have a tainted past in federal politics because they have never governed.  A similar situation existed earlier this year when Albertans, in what we thought was the most conservative province in Canada, voted in the provincial NDP to a majority government, ending  44 years of Progressive Conservative rule.  Looking at the polls, it looks like the NDP could form a minority government since the fear factor of electing an NDP government federally has diminished considerably.

The one thing that could change the existing dynamic is if the financial markets go into a free fall as was the case during the 2008 federal election.  It could happen that Canadians might not want to risk handing the reigns of power to an untried political party to lead the country through the tumultuous economic aftermath of a second financial crisis.  Better the devil you know than the one you don't.

In any case, only time will tell, and this campaign is dragging along at a snail's pace, leaving plenty of time for something exciting to happen. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Canada Embraces Its Watergate Moment And The People Will Decide, Maybe.

We could call the latest scandal in Canadian politics Duffygate, our version of the Watergate scandal that rocked America during the 1970s.  There are of course differences (tape recorded conversations vs. emails) but there are a lot of similarities in the unfolding of the two scandals.  In both instances, an unpopular leader of the country had to deal with the bungling of his underlings: in the US it was a bungled burglary attempt, in Canada it was a bungled Senate nomination.  In both instances there was a cover-up and the public was lied to.  In both instances, it was perceived that a breach of trust had occurred by the person occupying the highest and most important position in the country: in the case of Richard Nixon, he decided to resign rather than face an impeachment process; in the case of Stephen Harper, his fate will be decided by a grumpy Canadian electorate in the present general election.

Perhaps the most unsettling feature of both scandals is the contemptuous attitude that non-elected officials displayed towards the population at large, calling into question whether the two leaders shared this inclination and that the actions of the underlings were simply a manifestation of the culture created and maintained by the two men chosen to lead their respective countries.

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It could be argued that the unethical behavior is nothing more than the consequence of maintaining a political system in which political power is an all or nothing proposition.  To wield power the consent of the electorate must be won, and in the tradition of the political blood sport of electoral politics in North America, "winning isn't everything; it is the only thing."  Hence, the deception and manipulation are simply the means to a greater end.

However cynical this approach to politics might appear and whether the realpolitik in both Canada and the US actually functions in this manner, it fails to take into consideration the cornerstone of representative democracy: the trust that the electorate must have in transferring its sovereign power to an elected government.  Importantly, it is not required that everyone is in agreement with the government's programs and activities -- the electorate determines who possesses the legitimacy to act on behalf of the citizens, and if the people are not in agreement, those who are entrusted with that legitimacy can be voted out of office -- but while holding office those elected to act on behalf of the people must be trusted to act in the best interests of the citizens and to be truthful in their communication.  Failure to do so on either count constitutes a breach of trust and undermines the capacity of the political system to function.  After all, regardless of the power of mass communication in the information age, it still comes down to each individual citizen to evaluate the performance of an elected government and this cannot be done properly if the electorate has been deceived.

As a result, the result of the Canadian 2015 General Election will not be determined by the ideas and proposals from each of the political parties concerning the economy, social programs, the environment, and national security.  It will unfold as a morality play in painfully slow motion. 

Essentially, to re-elect the Stephen Harper led Conservatives, Canadians must decide if Mr. Harper is a man that can be trusted.  If they decide yes he can be trusted, a return to a minority Conservative government is by no means out of the question.  If they decide no, then the result of the general election is really a crap shoot, coming down to whether dissatisfied supporters of the Conservative Party decide to opt for the Liberals as the lesser of two evils, decide that the leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, is like the Tory ads say, not ready for the job and vote for the New Democrats, or stay at home and not vote at all.

If you like a horse race, as the first-past-the-post voting system implies, this one is too close to call.  It will go down to the wire, and without question the vagaries of the voting method will influence the final result. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When It Comes To Boring Nobody Does It Better Than Canada

A Group of Canadians Watching the Leaders Debate
Same as it ever was . . .
Same as it ever was . . . 
(Once In A Lifetime, The Talking Heads)

It's a moody Manitoba mornin'
Nothing's really happening, it never does (Moody Manitoba Morning, The Bells)

Having lived all my life in Canada, I am struck by the boring sameness of life in the Great White North.  Yes, there are some interesting places to visit and some interesting people to get to know, but, all in all, living here is like watching the snow melt.

I think it has something to do with the geography.  In a travel brochure you might see some appealing photos of Quebec City, Peggy's Cove, Niagara Falls and the Rocky Mountains, but what the brochures fail to mention is the vast distances separating our sights of interest and how excruciatingly boring it is to traverse those spaces of the big empty.

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Canada's Lamentable Lack of Imagination
Canada's Greatest Cultural Achievement: The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

I know.  I come from the prairies.  Living in Winnipeg was cool, but ask anyone what it is like to drive in or out of Winnipeg on the Trans Canada Highway.  The greatest danger comes from the fact that the land is incredibly flat and the road is incredibly straight.  It is so boring that people fall asleep at the wheel while driving, leading, of course, to tragic consequences.

A couple of years ago, I decided to drive from Ottawa to Winnipeg and traversed our largest province, Ontario.  Let me tell you, the Canadian Shield is interesting for about fifteen minutes of the two full days of seeing nothing but rocks and lakes and trees and the occasional Tim Horton's, Canada's favorite coffee and doughnut shop.  So boring that my two sons sucked me into an argument when leaving Thunder Bay about whether Terry Fox is a Canadian hero just to yank my chain in order to break up the monotony.

I can also attest that driving from Winnipeg northward to Thompson, Manitoba, and along Quebec's Lower North Shore are as boring if not more so than driving across Ontario.  Some would argue that the most boring drive is from Montreal to Toronto.  It's difficult to decide.  To do so would involve an extremely boring conversation I would rather avoid.

Regardless, if people are to survive and prosper, they need to be genetically endowed to be able endure long periods of time where nothing much happens and to fill those days, weeks, months, and years, with mind-numbing routines in order to pass the time.  Life in Canada is about exciting as paying down a 25 year mortgage.

My father, on the other hand, lived through some remarkable times.  He grew up during the Depression; went off to fight in the Second World War; played professional football; brought up two kids that saw a man walking on the moon.

Not me.

The only iconic moment that comes to mind thinking about the last fifty years in Canada was Paul Henderson scoring the winning goal with the time running out in the final game of the Canada-Russia Summit Series in 1972.  Not a lot has happened since.  Like what?  The Charter, NAFTA, Justin Bieber?  That's about it.  History is what happens outside of Canada.

Which brings me to Canada's current General Election, which will go down in history as one of the longest and most boring electoral campaigns ever held, as about exciting as driving across Ontario. 

In fact, Canada's present social contract has been in place for more than 40 years.  All we do is tinker at the periphery.  Raise or lower taxes slightly.  Add on an additional social program here and there.  Nothing that would rock the boat.  Steady as she goes.

It appears that we are either incapable or not really wanting to make any institutional changes.  We have a hereditary monarch as our head of state; an appointed corrupt upper house that cannot be reformed in any meaningful way; and an antiquated voting method that distorts electoral results.  Yeah, but life is good, especially if you happen to be from British or French stock.

Case in point.  Holding what will most likely the only televised debate between the leaders of Canada's major political parties more than two months before the day of the election.  Not that many people watched it, and most of those who did will forget about it.

Apparently, the biggest event that will mark the campaign is when Statistics Canada publishes the latest data concerning Canada's economic growth.  After five straight months of miniscule contractions of the GDP, one more makes it official: we are in a RECESSION.  Oh my god!  Run for the hills! 

Unless you work in the oil and gas sector, you won't feel a thing except paying less for gasoline when you fill up.  For those who do work in the oil and gas producing provinces, you could vote against the governing party, but then again we all know that the Conservatives do not control the price of a barrel of oil, and eventually either the Americans or the Saudis or both will come to their senses and curtail their production levels in order for the price of oil to rise, and with it Canada's GDP.

All in all, it comes down to which leader can do the least harm.  Four more years of the same, or four years of someone brand new that is trying to convince us that there are no big plans in the works?  These are the choices?

In any case, whoever forms the next government will probably not have a majority of seats in Parliament.  Nothing new there, four out of the last five governments have had less than 50% of the seats. 

Stay tuned.  Given how the first-past-the-post voting system does not work very well with multi-party elections, I am sure that the results will be something of a surprise, but nothing that would motivate Canadians to make any significant changes to our political system

After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Let's keep on chugging along with what we got, and thank God we are not living in Greece or Afghanistan or in Central America, places where you can't sit patiently and watch the snow melt.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Big Bumble: The 2015 Canadian General Election

Sometimes, I think Canada should change it's name to Bumbleslavia, a land in which people bumble along and where bumbles are common and appreciated by the people: "Did you see the latest bumble?  Yeah, that was a good one. It will be hard to beat."

The latest Big Bumble -- methinks it will be in the running for the Grand Prize in the Bumble of the Year Awards -- is the Prime Minister calling a general election in the middle of the summer while most people are away on vacation, eleven weeks before the day of the election.

Why on earth would he do that?

Well, as could be expected, our government bumbled big time when drawing up the so-called, Fair Elections Act (ha ha ha, calling elections fair in Bumbleslavia always gets a laugh).  The Minister responsible for drawing up the law did not foresee that groups who do not support the ruling party would start spending large amounts of money to air television commercials critical of the government in anticipation of the upcoming election. 

Oops!  Easy to understand since Bumbleslavia is running its first election where the date of the election was fixed by law, not that the Prime Minister is always bound to respect the laws his government draws up, the last general election was held before the fixed date!

But as we like to say in Bumbleslavia, one good bumble deserves another.

In this case, there just happens to be a clause written into the Fair Elections Act (tee hee, sorry I couldn't help myself) that increases the amount of money political parties can spend during the election if the campaign is longer than the prescribed 37 days.  This election will be the longest in living memory and will double the spending limit.  Oh, I guess you should know that only the ruling party has enough money to do so, and taxpayers will be picking up half of the bill.  Oops!

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According to the former Director of Elections, this move on the part of the Prime Minister is gaming the system, running contrary to the notion of having fixed election dates and having fair elections (big chuckle).  In the Bumbleslavian way of thinking, the Prime Minister saw an opportunity to expose a bumble in the law and did so and should be applauded.

I think the former Director is just feeling grumpy because he no longer presides over the Bamboozling Bumble that goes by the name of the Canadian General Election.  What makes it really interesting is that governments are formed on the basis of the first-past-the-post voting method. 

Get this!  Governments are formed in Canada not on the basis of the popular vote, but on the basis of the number of electoral districts won by each party.  To win an electoral district, a candidate doesn't need a majority of the votes.  He or she just needs to get more votes than the other candidates.

Wow! That means that in a close three-way race, more people could vote for the two losing candidates combined than for the winning candidate.  Get out of town!

Wait, it gets better.  Counting up all the electoral districts, a party could form what in Bumbleslavia is referred to a majority government (guffaw) by winning half of the electoral seats that are up for grabs.  Doesn't that mean that the so-called majority government could get elected with substantially less than fifty percent of the vote?  Absolutely!  In other words, more people could have voted against the ruling party than who voted for it.  And you call that "Democracy"?
Oops, but only in Bumbleslavia.  You see, in Canada we take the Big Bumbles all in stride.  Don't worry.  Be happy.  Why fret about what we are really good at.

I love you Canada.

Bumble on and bumble strong in the Great White North!!!