Roundup: The price of everything and the value of nothing

We’re into that part of summer where the news is so thin that we’ve turned to cheap outrage to get to some headlines. Combing through expense reports, many a reporter is simply putting a big number up on a headline and clutching their pearls about it, never mind that there’s no context around those figures, and that in most cases they’re actually reasonable. And lo, we look small town cheap, like backwater rubes as we continue to insist that our politicians subsist on stale bread and shaving water lest they look like they’re too good for the rest of us.

What is possibly worse is the fact that there is constant apology rather than defending any of the spending. Was the cost of Jane Philpott’s car service unreasonable? That’s debatable, and I’m dubious that the fact that the owner of the service was a campaign volunteer will gain much traction with the Ethics Commissioner. Catherine McKenna at least defended the use of a photographer at COP21 (and no, it’s not the media’s job to take photos that the government can later use for their own promotional need), but instead of media questioning the return that they got for them (Jen Gerson noted on Power & Politics that the quality of the photos she’d seen were questionable and the photographer hired had credentials that may not have been suitable for the task), we just get performed outrage at the dollar value.

In this he’s exactly right – this is made worse by politicians essentially cannibalizing one another to score points rather than saying “Whoa there, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Maybe these are reasonable expenses.” No. Instead it’s this game of tit-for-tat, Conservatives getting back at the Liberals for pointing out their own spending excesses when they were in government, and the NDP simply being sanctimonious and smug. The Globe and Mail’s editorial on the subject is right – we are spending too much time on the nickel-and-diming and the cheap theatre of performed outrage rather than on the actual scrutiny of government spending, and this may be related to the absolute dysfunction of the Estimates process in parliament (noting that parliamentarians themselves let it get this bad rather than push back on successive governments that caused this problem, and performing cheap outrage is easier). On the other hand, we’ve reached the point where we are living out that Oscar Wilde quote about a cynic being “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Reporters rushing to put up that headline number with no context attached have done the system a disservice. Insisting that everyone post receipts will only make things worse, and will only hasten the race to the bottom where MPs will be fighting for re-election on the backs of what brand of toilet paper they bought for the constituency office and whether it was on sale that week or not. We need to draw a line somewhere, before we both paralyze the discourse and make politics so unattractive to anyone who wants to serve the public that they won’t bother. We’re our own worst enemies, and we help nobody in feeding this populist noise.

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Roundup: Referendum lies and demagoguery

So, the electoral reform committee was back again yesterday, and they heard from two academics – one was an avid proponent of proportional representation that Elizabeth May fangirled over so hard, while the other was a former Quebec MNA who spearheaded that province’s failed attempt at moving to a multi-member PR system. There wasn’t much takeaway from either, other than Arend Lijphart (the former of the two) was a big fan of multi-member ridings in Canada (because apparently the problem of enormous rural ridings escapes him), and the fact that he felt that we should avoid a referendum because like Brexit, it would fall victim to demagoguery and “outright lies.”

To which I immediately have to ask – whose lies? The proponents of the status quo, or those of the advocates of PR? Because having seen both in the state of the debate so far, they’re equally odious. How about the lies that majority governments formed under our system are “illegitimate?” Because Lijphart was peddling that one. Or the lies about “38 percent of the vote gets 100 percent of the power”? Because a) the popular vote figure doesn’t actually exist (it’s a logical fallacy based on a misreading of our elections as a single event when they’re 338 separate but simultaneous events), and b) even in proportional systems, parties don’t get a share of power equal to their share of the vote, particularly if they are not part of the governing coalition and even if they are, the “share” of power will not be equal to their vote share. How about the lies about how voter turnout will suddenly blossom under PR? Because research has demonstrated that the most increase we might see is maybe three percent (because declining turnout in Western democracies is a widespread problem that has nothing to do with the electoral systems but rather a great many other factors). How about the common lies of PR advocates that votes are “wasted” and that they don’t count if the person they voted for doesn’t win, and that they system is so unfair? Are those lies any better than the ones about how a PR system would turn us into Israel or Italy and we would have nothing but unstable governments, and the sun would become black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon become as blood? Or are the lies that PR advocates tell okay because they’re well intentioned and lies about a future full of rainbows, gumdrops and unicorns better than lies about doom and destruction? Is pro-PR demagoguery morally superior to the demagoguery of status-quo doomsayers? That’s what I’d like to know.

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Roundup: Taking yet more wrong lessons

Another day, another column with a plaintive wail that Proportional Representation (PR) is really nothing like its critics say – really! And like Andrew Coyne last week, this defence by Devon Rowcliffe for iPolitics.ca relies again on comparisons that are problematic. The argument that small parties better reflect our diverse society ignores that large brokerage parties that exist in this country are adaptable and diverse in their own right, and seek to attract diverse candidates. Many countries that rely on PR systems are fairly ethnically homogenous, and I would be concerned that a system that privileges smaller ideological parties would also favour parties founded on ethnic nationalism – a party of Sikh voices or Ismaili Muslims, for example. There are plenty of stories that exist among people who currently organise in our system about attempts by these communities to turn themselves into voting blocs for one party or another, and in a system that privileges those kind of blocs with the promise of outsized power – as opposed to one that diffuses these differences among the many factions being brokered into a big tent – there would be the danger of rewarding sectarianism, which would do nothing for social unity. And no, Canada is not New Zealand, so trying to force that comparison is yet another attempt to draw lessons that may not be applicable.

Rowcliffe also cites that there’s no real fear of unstable coalition governments, and then cites the Danish political drama Borgen as an example of this in action, apparently taking the wrong lessons as every other episode of Borgen that I’ve seen (granted, I’m only into the second season currently) has the coalition being in danger of falling apart because one party or another that forms it is looking to leverage their way into more power or influence. Look at the Liberal Democrats in the UK! You mean the part where the party was virtually wiped out in the next election? Shouting “Stephen Harper!” as an excuse to implement PR ignores that there was a significant following for Harper and his policies at the time, and it should not bear repeating but trying to change the voting system to keep out a party you don’t’ like is a very poor reason to do it because that leads to all manner of unintended consequences. Pointing to the 1993 election as examples where the current system has failed ignores both the circumstances around it and the fact that it was a blip and not the norm (not to mention that once again, the logical fallacy of the popular vote is cited as being a real figure when it is not, and hence the epithet of the system being “broken and archaic” is reliant on a lie).

One last point, which is that constantly whining about how unfair the current system is to the Green Party (as Rowcliffe borders on) ignores that the Green Party is not a grown-up political party. It’s a loose collection of conspiracy theory-minded hippies and bitter Red Tories with a policy development system that consistently falls prey to marginal groups like “Men’s Rights Activists,” and their inability to effectively organize or come up with a coherent policy book is not the fault of the system. Pretending otherwise ignores the facts for the sake of sore loserism.

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Roundup: The AG’s disastrous advice

The Senate’s internal economy committee is signalling that they are looking into setting up an independent audit committee, and my alarm bells are going off so hard right now because if they follow the path that the Auditor General wants them to go down, then they are risking serious damage to our entire parliamentary system. And no, I’m not even exaggerating a little bit. You see, Michael Ferguson wants to ensure that if there are any senators on this independent committee, that they are in the minority and not in a position to chair it, because that would mean they’re still writing their own rules. And the answer to that is of course they’re writing their own rules. They’re Parliament. Parliament is self-governing. In fact, it’s not only ignorant but dangerous to insist that we subject our parliamentarians to some kind of external authority because that blows parliamentary privilege out of the water. If you don’t think that Parliament should be self-governing, then let’s just hand power back to the Queen and say “thank you very much, your Majesty, but after 168 years, we’ve decided that Responsible Government just isn’t for us.” So no, let’s not do that, thanks. And it’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an audit committee, and Senator Elaine McCoy has suggested one patterned on the one used in the House of Lords, which would be five members – three senators, plus an auditor and someone like a retired judge to adjudicate disputes, but the Senate still maintains control because Parliament is self-governing. It allows outsiders into the process to ensure that there is greater independence and which the senators on the committee would ignore at their peril, but the Senate must still control the process. Anything less is an affront to our democracy and to Responsible Government, and I cannot stress this point enough. Ferguson is completely wrong on this one, and senators and the media need to wake up to this fact before we really do something to damage our parliamentary institutions irreparably (worse than we’re already doing).

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Roundup: Not a hellscape, not a utopia

Because this is the summer of electoral reform editorials, we are treated to yet another gem by Andrew Coyne, who admonishes electoral reform’s detractors by reminding them that no, it won’t produce some kind of dystopian hellscape. Obviously. And most of the editorials opposing reform we’ve seen to date have been pretty ridiculous because they are talking about pure PR systems that are not really on the table here or in most places, and they raise the spectre of Italy of Israel as countries where these are problems. But the rebuttals to these kinds of arguments, including from Coyne, are just as bad because they cite Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Iceland, and so on as great places where PR works in stable countries, which also just happen to be ethnically and linguistically homogenous and are fairly small in terms of geography – things that do not apply to Canada. I was surprised that Coyne brought up both Austria and Belgium as examples of countries where PR works, because Austria is currently grappling with far-right parties attempting to form governments, and Belgium is a country that is linguistically and ethnically divided and which has had problems forming a government over the past decade, sometimes going for over a year without a government in place because a stable coalition can’t be formed among the resulting parties. Coyne also cites the metric of how many elections have been held in a number of these countries, which is misleading, when the metric should be how many ministries there have been. Part of the problem with PR systems is that they can form governments where a central party stays in power for decades and merely shuffles around its coalition partners from time to time – something that is a very bad thing for accountability (unlike our current system in Canada, which gives voters the ability to throw the bums out every decade or so). But by all means, admonish us for falling for the caricatures of Israel and Italy – just be aware that citing Scandinavian countries is just as much of a dishonest portrayal for ignoring the cultural contexts of those systems or the problems that they have that are simply different from the ones that we have. Canada is not a Scandinavian country, and citing their electoral systems as a model for our own is just as blinkered an exercise. PR may not produce a hellscape, but let’s not pretend that it will actually fix our woes either.

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Roundup: Case management conundrum

MPs complaining about the changes to the way that immigration files are handled returns to an old bugaboo of mine, and as it seems, Aaron Wherry’s as well. In other words, MPs shouldn’t be doing immigration casework, because it’s not what they’re there to do.

What I will add to this is that MPs’ jobs are not just as legislators, but rather, their primary function in a Westminster system is to hold the government to account – something that most MPs spend very little time doing these days. And the civil service has a lot to blame for this, don’t get me wrong, and everything I’ve heard has indicated that they are just as culpable by not even looking at some files until the MP’s office brings it up to them in cases, and that’s unacceptable. But we shouldn’t be making this situation worse by reinforcing the broken system that has MPs playing this role, because that’s a losing proposition. There needs to be political will to fix those problems, and if MPs would rather spend that will to reinforce the broken system (because they think it will win them local votes), then the cycle perpetuates. Enough has to be enough. Let’s draw the line.

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Roundup: Begrudging a day off

There was a good piece in Policy Options yesterday from Jennifer Ditchburn which talked about the problem of “vacation shaming” politicians, in light of Justin Trudeau making his first public statements about the Aaron Driver case almost a week after it happened, as part of Trudeau’s Atlantic Canada tour. There is a problem with expecting the PM to be on call for cameras at a moment’s notice, as the Conservatives certainly seem to be demanding, decrying his absence when bad economic numbers came down a few weeks ago, or when the Driver incident happened. But relevant, competent ministers stood up when those things happened, and it’s not like the Prime Minister could have said or done anything that would have added to the situation other than to be the face of it, when he’s made it clear that his is a government by cabinet, and that means that the responsible ministers get to be the ones that get in front of the cameras when things in their bailiwick happen, and guess what – they did.

Ditchburn also makes the very apt points that for everyone who says that they want better work-life balance, especially for MPs, demanding that they be every present fro the media goes counter to that desire, particularly when we badmouth them for being open about taking a day or a week off. The wailing and gnashing of teeth over the day off he took during the visit to Japan was outsized and ridiculous, and we’re seeing much the same thing here, compounded with the beating of breasts over the international coverage that people catching a glimpse of said PM with his shirt off. It’s excessive and it’s only fouling the well. Politics is close to being a 24/7 job as it is, and that can be a problem for all sorts of reasons (high divorce rate among politicians being a chief one), and it becomes just one more outlet for cheap outrage when we demand that our politicians now must forgo vacations, as well as forgo the bulk of their salary, pensions and benefits, and expenditures, as so many clueless wannabe pundits will declare over social media. Let’s grow up about our expectations and not begrudge them a vacation or a day off. We’re better than that.

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Roundup: Online voting scare

There was a story on Blacklock’s Reporter yesterday morning that used Access to Information documents to suppose that Elections Canada was moving ahead with electronic voting, despite the fact that the electoral reform committee hadn’t even made any recommendations around it. As it turns out, that’s not what they were up to, but it nevertheless touched off a discussion over Twitter about reasons why electronic voting is still a bad idea, and why never is still too soon to even start contemplating it.

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Roundup: Counter-radicalism and reality checks

In the wake of the Aaron Driver near-miss last week, public safety minister Ralph Goodale is set to announce that the government is moving ahead with a counter-radicalization programme, but it looks like the details are still a little ways out. That said, Goodale has been pretty frank that our current counter-radicalisation programmes have little coherence and that’s what he aims to fix over the course of this year. And while we get the musings about what kind of leader Trudeau will be in the face of terrorism, we get his former foreign policy advisor Roland Paris reminding us of what he has done to date (which is not nothing, as his critics have stated). More importantly, however, we need to remind ourselves of the reality of the situation, and for that, I would turn your attention to Stephanie Carvin’s piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, which explains why counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism is not as easy as you might think, and provides a good reality check for the kinds of rhetoric out there, and why saying things like “connecting the dots” isn’t actually helpful to any kind of conversation around the subject.

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Roundup: Petty, unhelpful suggestions

The fact that Mike Duffy’s expenses have reignited an old and frankly tiring debate on whether Senators should be able to claim for their legitimate work expenses, or whether it’s this particular shameless senator whose expenses, however legitimate, are forever tainted. We can look and see competing editorials from the likes of Robyn Urback, who is justifiably dubious about the whole thing given the history and cloud that remains around Duffy’s primary residence, and Kady O’Malley, who notes that Duffy’s current expense claims are entirely legit so we should stop begrudging them (while not forgiving past transgressions either). But of all the commentary that I’ve seen in the past week, the least helpful comes from within the Senate itself.

When asked about the whole Duffy ordeal, the Conservative Senate leader, Claude Carignan mused about how the Senate’s rules may still need to be updated, which I’m not quite sure how much more stringent they need to be at this point considering how much they’ve come in the past two years (and for years before that), and it sounds a lot like he’s trying to play along with the attempts at cheap public outrage over the whole thing, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that Duffy’s residency issue remains a problem from the manner in which Stephen Harper appointed him, and a Harper loyalist, Carignan is almost certainly loathe to criticise that decision. But it got worse. Carignan then basically dumped the problem into the lap of Senator Peter Harder, the “government representative” as though he were somehow able to do something about it. As Carignan, a former Government Leader himself should know, it’s not up to the Government Leader to shepherd rules changes considering that Senate Rules are the domain of the appropriately named Senate Rules committee, and that expenses are the domain of the Internal Economy Committee, and last I checked, Harder is not a member of either committee, nor does he have a caucus that has senators who sit on those committees. In other words, he has no senators that he can use to exert any kind of influence over in order to make those changes. With these facts in mind, I’m not sure why Carignan would suggest that rules changes need to be spearheaded by Harder except that it’s more petty politicking, trying to undermine his (already shaky) legitimacy, while looking to absolve himself of any responsibility event though Carignan controls the largest caucus in the Chamber. If we need to have a discussion about how the residency rules need to continue to evolve, then great, let’s do that. But to try and play this particular game about it is really beneath Carignan’s position and he should know better.

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