Roundup: Gaming the system a second time

So the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s nomination committee has allowed Patrick Brown to run for the leadership contest, despite the fact that he was kicked out of caucus (which also rescinded his nomination as a candidate in his riding), which is going to go super well for everyone involved, be it Brown claiming that he’s been vindicated from the allegations (he hasn’t), or the other candidates who are trying (and failing) to come up with new policy on the fly as they try to distance themselves from Brown’s campaign platform. But what gets me are all of the pundits saying “It’s up for the party members to decide,” which should provide nobody any comfort at all, because the reason the party is in the mess it’s in is because Brown knew how to game the system in order to win the leadership the first time. He has an effective ground game, and can mobilise enough of his “rented” members, likely in more effective distributions (given that this is a weighted, ranked ballot) than other, more urban-centric candidates can. He played the system once, and has all the means necessary to do it again. Saying that it’ll be up to the membership to decide is an invitation to further chaos. This is no longer a political party. It’s an empty vessel waiting for the right charismatic person to lead it to victory, which is a sad indictment. Also, does nobody else see it as a red flag that Brown’s on-again-off-again girlfriend is 16 years his junior and used to be his intern? Dating the intern should be a red flag, should it not? Especially when one of his accusers is a former staffer.

Meanwhile, here’s David Reevely previews the party’s civil war, while Andrew Coyne imagines Brown’s pitch to members as his running as the “unity candidate” in a party split because of him.

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Roundup: Romanticizing a political “success” story

It’s not a secret that Globe and Mail editorials have a tendency to be terrible, but one yesterday was particularly misinformed to the point of being criminally negligent. The subject? That politics needs more Ruth Ellen Brosseaus. The thrust of the piece is that politics doesn’t need more lawyers or titans of industry, but plucky individuals with a common touch. What they completely ignore is how much support the party gave Brosseau to turn her from the assistant manager of a campus bar who spent part of the campaign in Vegas (who never actually went to her riding during the campaign) into the eventual NDP House Leader that she is today.

To wit, after the 2011 election, the party sequestered Brosseau, put her through intense French immersion to get her proficiency in French back up to an acceptable level for the francophone riding that she was accidentally elected into during the Orange Wave, and then carefully kept her away from the media except for select clips to show how great her French was. Her early interventions in the Commons were brutal – I recall one particularly memorable nonsense question in QP about how, as a busy single mother, she didn’t have time to worry about all of the Conservatives scandals. Riveting stuff. She was given a deputy portfolio that kept her very constituency bound, and again, she was largely kept away from the media spotlight for four years, and when she was in the media, it was for personality pieces and not policy. During the last election, the party put her forward to every outlet conceivable to showcase her personality and endear her to voters, and she did win again. And good for her.

But what the Globe piece misses entirely is that plucky everywoman Brosseau was given a hell of a lot more support than any other candidate or MP gets, because they wanted to rehabilitate her image, and to demonstrate that they didn’t make a mistake in putting her name on the ballot in the manner that they did. And sure, maybe we need plenty of everyperson candidates, but we also do need lawyers and corporate types who have policy experience as well, because part of the danger of just nominating your everyperson candidate is that it puts them in the position to be the puppets of party apparatchiks run out of the leader’s office. We already have too much central control in politics, and there is a real danger that candidates who are unprepared for political life will become fodder for those machinations, which will do no favour to our political system. So sorry, Globe editorial board – maybe you need to do a little more homework before you file a piece like this.

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Roundup: The cause, not the cure

The particular turmoil of the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership is difficult to turn away from, particularly given that right now it’s grappling with a fairly fundamental point about what is ailing our Westminster parliamentary system, which is the way in which we choose our leaders. Andrew Coyne lays it out really well in his latest column, which notes that another leadership contest won’t solve the party’s problems precisely because it’s the cause of those problems. And Chris Selley notes that with the inclusion of Doug Ford in this new race, that system of leadership selection is just as likely to result in a civil war within the party as it will do for anything else. (On a side note, Selley’s piece notes how Ford is attracting the evangelical endorsements in such an eerily Trump-like way).

Another point that Coyne gets to is this particular fetishization of the membership figures that Brown was able to attract to the party, but it ignores the fact that most of those who are signing up memberships have little connection to the party itself, and are little more than tools to be used by the leadership winner who sold them those memberships. And the point that I would add is that these memberships don’t actually strengthen the party because they’re being used to justify central control by the leadership rather than being a vehicle by which the riding associations are interlocutors between the grassroots and the caucus. These “rented” memberships are meaningless and do little to enhance the party, the way the chatter would otherwise suggest. If anything, they weaken the meaning of what the grassroots is supposed to represent. That’s why we need to get back to the proper working of a Westminster system, and restore caucus selection, so that we can reinvigorate the meaning of the grassroots.

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Roundup: Protected nominations and the suffocation of the grassroots

Oh, Liberals. You’ve really gone and done it again, haven’t you? All of your grand talk about respecting parliament, and now you’ve decided that you’re going to go and protect the nominations of your incumbent MPs, so long as they meet a set of criteria that, while better than nothing, is not all that onerous. Never mind that four years ago, it was all about how open nominations were about community leaders devoted to community service, but now? Now it’s about ensuring that your MPs simply have a big enough war chest and participate in a bare minimum of door knocking over the course of a year. You’d think that with this list of requirements, ensuring that there still remains an actual nomination process wouldn’t be too difficult – after all, if the excuse is that they’re so busy in Ottawa that they can’t be also running for their old jobs, then ensuring that they’re still doing the work that would be associated with a nomination process seems like a pointless self-inflicted black eye, no?

I’m not going to re-litigate this too much, but I wrote about why protected nominations are a Bad Thing in Maclean’s last year, but it really boils down to one basic concept – accountability. The biggest reason to ensure that there are open nominations is to ensure that a riding can hold their incumbent to account without needing to vote for another party to do so. Protecting nominations removes more power from the grassroots party members and enshrines it in the leader’s office, which is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. (And yes, Trudeau has centralized a hell of a lot of power, especially after pushing through the changes to the party’s constitution). And by imposing those thresholds to ensure that the nomination is protected, it creates incentive for the incumbent MP to treat that riding association like a personal re-election machine, rather than a body that holds that MP to account at the riding level.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Liberal problem. The Conservatives also set a fairly high bar to challenge incumbent nominations, some of which we’ve seen in recent weeks, but that’s been accompanied by rumblings that some of these challenges have been stickhandled out of the leader’s office, which is even more distressing for grassroots democracy. The erosion of grassroots democracy is a very real crisis in our political system, but most people don’t understand what these changes mean, more content to chide the Liberals for broken promises about open nominations than be alarmed at what the bigger picture result is. It’s a pretty serious problem, and it’s bigger than just a broken promise.

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No, Elizabeth May, that’s not what “loose fish” means

(Note: This had been submitted as an op-ed that wasn’t picked up. I’m posting it here instead).

In Monday’s National Post, a section of Elizabeth May’s chapter in Turning Democracy Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Democracy was republished, in which May called for parties to essentially be abolished, and for the prime minister to be elected from the Commons as a whole at the beginning of each parliament. The problem? That May was wrong in both her history and her understanding of what Responsible Government means, which undermines her argument and spreads dangerous misinformation about how our democratic system is supposed to work.

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Roundup: Earnest Scott Simms

As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.

Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?

So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.

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Roundup: Two yays and a nay

The government announced its decisions on three pipelines yesterday – no to Northern Gateway (and a tanker ban on the north coast of BC was also reaffirmed), but yes to Kinder Morgan expansion and Line 3 to the United States. There are a lot of people not happy on either side – the Conservatives are upset that Northern Gateway also didn’t get approved, saying this was just a political decision, and the NDP and Greens (and the mayor of Vancouver) unhappy about the Kinder Morgan announcement, Elizabeth May going so far as to say that she’s willing to go to jail for protesting it.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone, as Trudeau has pretty much telegraphed these plans for weeks, if not months. And as for the critics, well, Robyn Urback makes the point that I do believe that Trudeau was going for:

In fact, Trudeau said as much yesterday in QP when he noted that they were sitting between a party demanding blanket approvals on everything, and another party opposed to approving anything, so that was where he preferred to be. He’s spending some political capital on this decision, including with some of his own caucus members who are not fans of the Kinder Morgan expansion, but he has some to spare, so we’ll see whether he’s picked up any support in the west, or lost any on the west coast when this all blows over.

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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 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: 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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