Roundup: Ontario superballots?

One of the many challenges of Canadian democracy is our geography – especially the fact that we have so much of it. Rural and remote regions tend to have large riding boundaries, and that causes its own share of problems, particularly when you have a number or ridings larger than countries like France, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Ontario has been in the process of redrawing their riding boundaries after the federal government did in advance of the last election – notable because Ontario largely follows the federal riding boundaries, but in the past, they split one of the giant Northern Ontario ridings into two for practical purposes. Under this new redistribution, it looks like they want to split it into four instead. Where this becomes problematic is not only the fact that it far exceeds the usual 25 percent variance in rep-by-pop weighting that the courts usually allow, but it’s being justified in giving votes to francophone and Indigenous communities in the area.

In the National Post, Chris Selley takes on this particular proposition, and makes a very good point in that we don’t have any particular basis in this country for awarding “superballots” to traditionally underserved communities as a means of reconciliation or redress. Add to that fact, that while the commission may talk a good game about better enfranchising these Indigenous communities, they traditionally have lower turnouts not only for lack of access by elections officials, but because in some of those communities, they resist taking part because they don’t see themselves as part of Canada, but as a sovereign nation within Canadian boundaries, and participating in Canadian elections would undermine that sovereignty. I’m not sure that “superballots” would change that particular consideration for them either, which could make the commission’s excuse for naught. Would that mean that in these newly created ridings that the non-Indigenous voters who do participate have their votes count that much more? Quite possibly. And while one does understand the frustration and challenges of an immense Northern riding, there are other ways to mitigate those issues, with greater allowances for offices, staff and travel considerations that the government should be ponying up for. I’m not sure that this new proposal is going to pass the Supreme Court of Canada’s smell test.

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Roundup: Tracking the dissenters

The CBC’s Éric Grenier has posted an analysis of free votes in the Commons in the current parliament, determining which party’s MPs dissent the most often. Part of this kind of analysis bothers me in part because it’s quantitative rather than qualitative, in part with how it was carried out. Rather than actually going through each vote to see a) what kind of vote it was, and b) the substance of the vote, he relied on the measure of how the cabinet voted to determine if it was a whipped vote or not, which is a poor measure, seeing as this would capture all manner of procedural votes (albeit, there haven’t been nearly as many in the current parliament as there were in the previous one). I’m not sure that there are any particular surprises in here in that the Liberals have been given a freer hand with their free votes, which was largely the case with the Conservatives in the previous parliament as well – having a majority usually lets a give their backbenchers a little added room to blow off a bit of steam when necessary. It’s also not unexpected in the fact that the Liberals are a party that doesn’t have a core ideology that they feel compelled to adhere to in the way that most Conservatives and the NDP most certainly do. It also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that leadership candidates in the Conservatives are breaking ranks more often, given that they’re trying to put their own stamp on the party, so this is their latitude to start doing that. And as for the top “dissenting” voters, the top two are Liberals Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who have a history of being a bit…naïve, if I may be blunt, in some of the positions they’ve taken to date. Erskine-Smith, if you recall, recently got pulled from a committee because his attempts to do more consensus-building wound up getting him manipulated by Tony Clement into voting against his own party’s interests when it came to amendments to a government bill, and Ouellette is often seen saying…not terribly thought-out things in the media. So, does it surprise me that they’re the two who voted against their party the most? No, not really. But Grenier doesn’t have any kind of context around this numbers, and that’s all he does – post numbers because he’s the numbers guy, which can be interesting in reporting, but it also only tells a fraction of the actual story, which is why stories like these do rub me the wrong way.

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Roundup: Further conversations on constitutional conventions

In response to my blog post yesterday on the our unwritten portions of our constitution being just as important as the written parts, I had a lot of response over the Twitter Machine, many trying to argue that parties were not an integral part of the system, but historian Christopher Moore took the time out to chastise me for the use of the term “constitutional conventions” when it comes to Responsible Government. But the problem is that Moore is actually wrong in what he tried to argue. To wit:

Smith should look at Section 54 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which sets out in plain language that only the cabinet can make and propose the raising and spending of money. That is what defines the role of the cabinet of ministers. It budgets; it plans the getting and spending.  But then there is Section 53, which bluntly states that only the House of Commons can give approval to the cabinet’s proposals for getting and spending.

A few problems with this. First of all, he’s citing the Constitution Act, 1867 and not 1982, and looking at Section 54, there is no mention of cabinet at all:

It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill for the Appropriation of any Part of the Public Revenue, or of any Tax or Impost, to any Purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by Message of the Governor General in the Session in which such Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill is proposed.

As is consistent in our constitution, there is no mention of a PM, or cabinet, because they are part of Responsible Government, which as I pointed out yesterday are part of the unwritten conventions that we inherited from the UK. As is consistent with the rest of the written constitution, only the Governor General is mentioned. And here’s the kicker: the unwritten constitutional convention is that under Responsible Government, the Crown – by way of the GG – acts on the advice of ministers, and for that to happen, ministers must hold the confidence of the Chamber. Ministers via the convention do all executive government in the Queen’s name. It’s not written because it’s a convention, per the preamble, as a constitution being similar in principle to that of the UK. Moore’s contention that it’s not a convention and that it’s embedded in the text does not hold. So while I’m happy to be corrected when I get it wrong (and it happens), this is not one of those times. Also, if you’re going to quote the constitution at me, then quote the constitution. And as for those people on the Twitter Machine insisting that Responsible Government can function without parties, well, it’s possible in a theoretical world with vampires and unicorns, but it will never happen in real life, so trying to disprove it to make a point is pretty much moot. The practice of parties developed for a reason. Maintaining confidence without them is a fool’s errand.

With many thanks to Philippe Lagassé for talking this issue through with me.

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Roundup: An exit and a streamlining

In case you hadn’t heard, there are two national political policy conventions happening this weekend, both at the same time, so Kady O’Malley came up with a viewer’s guide to both events. Last night we heard from Stephen Harper in a pretty canned speech that was mostly the same talking points that were in his retrospective video, and he wants the party to look forward. The rest of the Conservative convention is to be dedicated to reinvigorating the party as opposed to giving it a complete overhaul, so say its attendees, but there is a push to get a better organization in place to engage youth in the country – something the party has not been good at doing, officially eschewing a youth wing – and the “draft Rona Ambrose” movement continues to try to get enough support to modify the party’s constitution to allow her to run (never mind that she’s stated repeatedly that she’s not interested in the job).

As for the Liberals, it’s not just a victory lap for them as they went from third place and from talks of their time being over and needing to merge with the NDP to forming a majority government. No, they’ve got a very serious debate on their hands as it relates to whether they adopt a new “streamlined” constitution or now, and by “streamlined,” it means more than just the actual streamlining of having 18 different constitutions, but it centralizes all of the power into the leader’s office and eliminates pretty much every accountability mechanism that exists in the party for the sake of becoming a party of Big Data. So while some streamlining is no doubt necessary, I’m not sure that this is the way that the party should be run. There is also a movement to have an emergency resolution debated to pressure the government into amending C-14 to make it more Carter decision compliant, but it appears that the party has quashed it.

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Roundup: The Sophie Grégoire Trudeau problem

The issue of assistants for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has become a bit ugly in social media, and overblown in the political arena while opposition parties on both sides of the spectrum try to cast the prime minister’s family as being these out-of-touch elites (some of it completely speciously, as the Conservatives try to equate Trudeau’s statement about not needing government funds for childcare and suddenly billing for nannies was hypocritical, despite the fact that he wasn’t the leader of a G7 nation before), because if there’s nothing that this country loves, it’s cheap outrage. And really, that’s what a lot of this is, combined with some garden variety sexist expectations that she should be a doting wife and mother in the home, taking care of meals and childcare on her own without any public profile. But before we delve into it further, a couple of important reminders.

Seriously, for the love of all the gods on Olympus, stop calling her the First Lady. We don’t have a First Lady in Canada because we have a royal family, and the closest equivalent – aside from Prince Philip as the Royal Consort – is the somewhat antiquated term of the Chatelaine of Rideau Hall.

No, this is completely wrong. We don’t elect governments or parties in this country. We elect 338 MPs, who come together in a parliament that forms a government. So in essence, we did elect the family that came along with the MP who was able to form a government.

And this really is the important point. We have a constitutional monarchy so that the royal family takes on the ceremonial and celebrity functions and prevents the Head of Government from becoming a cult of personality. Unfortunately, in this age of media and social media, where the Trudeaus are consider bona fide celebrities in their own right, it has created a kind of cult of personality (which is only worsened by the fact that the fact that Trudeau was elected by a nebulous “supporter class” means he is accountable to nobody and he knows it). So when the public comes looking for Grégoire Trudeau to do speaking engagements and to do the kind of celebrity outreach that members of the royal family do so well in the UK (but certainly less so here because of their relative absence), how are we supposed to react? What expectations do we put on her as the spouse of the Head of Government, who has no defined role? While I have no objections to the nannies or single assistant (Trudeau is prime minister of a G7 country, and demanding that his spouse do all of the domestic work is frankly odious, particularly given her diplomatic expectations), I find myself torn about the need for additional help. I have no doubt that she needs it, because she has chosen to parlay her celebrity toward charitable causes. And it’s less about the taxpayer’s money that rubs me the wrong way, but the fact that this is getting uncomfortable under our system of government and constitutional traditions. That we have a prime minister who has formed a kind of cult of personality is very uncomfortable, but it’s not a problem with an easy solution, short of insisting that members of the royal family start spending more time on our shores to do the work of the celebrity face of our constitutional order. Is the solution to have the party pay for her added assistants? Maybe. Or to charge speaking fees on a cost-recovery basis? One can imagine the howls out outrage that an “elite” is charging charities money already. There’s not an easy answer, but the discomfort around the larger problem of where our system is headed is something that we should be talking about. Unfortunately, that conversation is being drowned out by cheap outrage and the June and Ward Cleaver crowd, which is only making this whole exercise reek.

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Roundup: Real problems with Monsef’s committee

After a day of Twitter fights about the announcement on the electoral reform committee, let me say a couple of things. First of all, the moment anyone says they want to “make every vote count,” they immediately have lost the argument, and this includes the Prime Minister and minister saying this. Why? Because every vote already counts. No, it doesn’t mean that the person you voted for is going to win every time, but they’re not supposed to. If you believe otherwise, then you’re a sore loser. Whenever anyone brings up that the popular vote doesn’t match the proportion of the seats in the Commons, they are relying on a logical fallacy. The popular vote is not a real number because a general election is not a single event. It’s 338 separate but simultaneous events to elect members to fill each of the 338 seats, and together they form a parliament which determines who will form the government. We do not elect governments. If someone says we do, smack them. If someone gives a plaintive wail that the system isn’t fair, then they’re a sore loser trying to play on emotion, which isn’t actually how we should be making decisions. The fact that Maryam Monsef’s “five principles” for choosing a new system doesn’t mention accountability once is a giant problem, because that’s one of the key features of the current system – that we can punish incumbents and vote them out. Other systems can’t say the same, and we have European countries where parties just shuffle coalition partners and stay in power for decades. This is a problem. That the minister doesn’t seem to recognise that while she deals in emotion-laden words and saccharine emotion appeals is a problem. And it’s a problem that media outlets, in talking about other electoral systems, say nothing about the current system of its strengths. And after all of today’s Twitter fights, and appallingly ignorant statements made by the minister and other MPs on this issue, I’m going to reiterate a very important point that nobody is addressing – that the problem we’re facing is not that the current system doesn’t work, it’s that we have a crisis of civic literacy in Canada and people don’t know how the system works so they assume it’s broken because they buy into emotional arguments and sore loserism. That’s the problem that the minister should be tackling, not trying to upend a system that actually does work very well.

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Roundup: A committee nobody will love

So, the government has put the notice on the Order Paper about forming their electoral reform committee, and there will be howls of outrage from all corners as this is going to please precisely nobody. Well, except maybe Liberals who will be controlling this process. In short, Maryam Monsef’s principles for democratic reform have been distilled to five points from eight, and the committee will be constituted of twelve MPs – six Liberals, three Conservatives, one New Democrat, one Bloc and Elizabeth May, but the Bloc MP and May won’t have voting rights in keeping with established practice. The committee will invite all MPs to hold town halls in their ridings and submit a written report back to the committee by October 1st, and the committee’s final report is to be delivered by December 1st. Of course, the NDP are going toe be livid because Liberals continue to make up a majority on the committee (which is legitimate given that they have the most seats) and that it doesn’t follow Nathan Cullen’s “proportional” idea – which, let’s be clear, was all about gaming the committee to advance his own proportional representation agenda. May is going to be upset because she’d not getting a vote, and she too is going to be railing that it won’t allow her to advance her own PR agenda. The Conservatives are going to be upset because the possibility of a referendum is not in this proposal, and they see that as their way of holding onto the status quo (which they feel favours their own chances). And I’m going to add my own particular objections that, as I’ve written previously, there are some serious problems with those principles that Monsef has laid out. We’ll see how this exercise goes, and I have a sneaking suspicion that these town halls may start to become sideshows as groups like Fair Vote Canada start trying to Astroturf them in trying to get PR advanced as the model to go forward (and given how PR advocates tend to operate, the insults and nastiness are going to start flying pretty quickly). There is also the (not unjustified) suspicion that the fix is already in, that the Liberals have their preferred model (likely ranked ballots) and that this is all a big production number to make it look like they’ve consulted Canadians, and that may very well be the case. Suffice to say, I suspect the next few months are going to be one giant headache, especially for those of us who are cognisant of the civic literacy issues at play.

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Roundup: A possible pipeline

Pipelines will be the talk of the day, as the National Energy Board gave approval to Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement pipeline to the US late yesterday, and Candice Bergen wasted no time in putting out a press release demanding that the government approve it for the sake of jobs, and so on. Never mind that this pipeline doesn’t go to tidewater, so it won’t actually help Alberta get world price for its exports, but hey, it’s a pipeline and we are apparently in desperate need of them, except when we aren’t because they will encourage the further exploitation of oil and gas which won’t help us reach our climate goals, and all of that. But tidewater remains on everyone’s lips, as there is talk that the Northern Gateway pipeline may not be dead after all, and there is even talk that Enbridge is looking at alternate port facilities than the one that they proposed in their initial bid. There is a sense of a deadline, given that the conditional approval that the NEB gave Northern Gateway would expire by the end of this year, but it’s also hard to say that it was a real approval given the 200+ conditions that they attached to it, which may very well have been quite onerous – particularly any conditions that required First Nations buy-in when they are not keen to allow these pipelines over their territories, nor to have any terminus near the waterways that salmon depend upon for spawning, as that affects their local fisheries as well. That said, all of the agitation for Energy East will continue undaunted, no matter that it hasn’t even begun much of its environmental assessment process, nor the case for its “social licence” as Trudeau likes to call it – not that questions of process seem to matter to those who want it to happen yesterday.

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Roundup: First quarter results

The Fiscal Monitor was released yesterday, and Stephen Harper was quick to don his Prime Minister hat to tout that it showed that the government posted a $5 billion surplus for the first quarter of the fiscal year. Better than expected, he proclaimed. On track to a balanced budget! Err, except maybe not. Much of that revenue had to do with the sale of those GM shares that they used to show that the budget was in balance, and it doesn’t fully take into account the plummeting oil prices or the GDP contraction that our economy has been facing. (We’ll find out on Tuesday if we saw a second quarter of negative growth, officially putting us into a technical recession). Not unsurprisingly, the Liberals called the surplus “phony,” and pointed out things like the GM shares as proof. Here’s Stephen Gordon to put the numbers into context:

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Roundup: Making the AFN pitch

The Assembly of First Nations has been holding their General Assembly in Montreal, and both of the two main opposition leaders addressed them yesterday. As First Nations leaders try to convince their people to start flexing their political muscles, with some 51 ridings they say that they can influence, both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau made their pitches to the assembled chiefs. For Mulcair, it was largely a recapping of pledges he had made previously, while Trudeau unveiled a much more comprehensive policy plank for the party’s election platform. The fact that the parties are making this kind of a pitch – probably the most high-profile of such pitches in recent electoral memory – is a sign to the seriousness to which Canadians are taking these issues now, where they would have been considered far more niche in elections past.

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