Saturday, January 23, 2016


Kevin O’Leary’s shot across the bow last week  was simply  Donald Trump-lite--just like we had voter suppression -lite and climate change denial -lite and science censorship not-so-lite under the Harper government. And would have enjoyed invasion of Iraq -- lite and financial deregulation -lite if we had had the extreme misfortune of having Conservatives in  office only a few years earlier.

Not that I am crazy about the corner Justin Trudeau has painted himself into, and us along with him: if he is really serious about “jump-starting “ the economy, and remedying  the infrastructure  problem, he will have to run deficits in the order of 2-3 times what he talked about in the past election.  If there is continued borderline recession and low interest rates for a number of more years, at least  that infrastructure money will go farther than it would  in a high-rate environment, and provide stimulus that is actually needed, and not just inflationary. Cross your fingers.

And that is nothing compared to the corner the New Democrats would be in had they been elected: they would be wearing Mr. Mulcair’s “balanced budget every year” promise like a ball and chain. In the current deteriorating economic environment, that would mean either breaking that promise every year or keeping it,  at the price of reduced spending and/or higher taxes. (It was truly remarkable to watch the New Democrats take a clear political asset—the statistical fact that NDP governments between 1980 and 2010 balanced their budgets 50% of the time, while Conservatives did so only 37% of the time and Liberals only 27%--and turn it into a clear political liability.)  It was a great talking point because it showed what Conservative zeal for tax-cutting actually leads to—i.e. tax cuts do not generally “pay for themselves”. But when the NDP leaned on it too much, and made it the cornerstone of their economic policy, they fell over.

The most vexing question on the horizon for me is what to do about electoral reform.  The politics of voting is characterized by a paradox:  a clear majority of both voters and experts agree that a more proportional and less winner-take all system would be an improvement , but  consensus breaks down when it comes to specifying any particular system. Proportional representation (PR) always succeeds when voters are surveyed or are chosen at random to deliberate about it in citizens’ assemblies, but  has failed to be ratified by voters in a referendum on all four occasions it has been put to the test , three times by a majority. 

On the positive side, what a relief it is not to have to watch those expensive, partisan, blue-washed “Economic Action Plan” ads anymore, knowing that Canada’s taxpayers had paid hundreds of millions of dollars on them. If the Liberals can show even a modicum of self-restraint in this regard, changing governments last fall and all its attendant uncertainties will have been worthwhile. Just like changing diapers is worthwhile—and for much the same reason.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Looking at Trudeau After the Paris Attacks


 The honeymoon is not over, but if you look closely, you can already see a tiny bit of egg on the face of our photogenic new prime minister.  Until Black Friday (November 13), it looked as though the Liberals’ first Throne Speech and Parliamentary session, and series of state visits and international conferences, would be just one triumphal procession after another. To be sure, there have been enthusiastic receptions by some journalists and photographers, who have pronounced him to be the newest “hottie” on the world stage, but all of that is being overshadowed by darker realities.

I am of course referring primarily to the fall-out from the Paris terror attacks, along with related events playing out in Belgium, Mali, and the Middle East.  These attacks put the politics of the recent federal election campaign in a new light, in particular the trifecta of security-related issues: Syrian refugees, Bill C-51 (the Anti-Terrorism Act), and the question of Canada’s military role in Syria and Iraq.  Comparing how the positions of the main parties looked then to how they look now is a deeply instructive reminder of just how fleeting the election frame is, even though it furnishes the mandate for the next four years of national government.

When Trudeau initially announced his target of 25,000 the House of Commons in March, he was acting in accordance with the Liberal strategy of  being bolder and more exuberant in its promises than the other guys. But he had no way of knowing how popular this plan would become  six weeks before the election, when the photo of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi started making headlines.  Nor could he know that just three weeks after the election we would be given so much reason for “pause”.  It proved a marked contrast to Harper, who preferred a smaller and much slower response  (10,000 over three years, although another 10,000 was added to the number in September). Trudeau also looked more generous than the NDP in the short-term, while still keeping most military options open:  The NDP would have granted the UN’s request to give 10,000 Syrians refugee status by the end of the year, with a total of at least 46,000 by 2019—alongside a vow to remove the cap on privately-sponsored refugees—and a complete end to Canadian military operations in Syria and Iraq .

So who looks better now?  After Paris, Mr. Mulcair’s decision to meet the UN’s request and settle 10,000 refugees by December 31 was proven to have been  perfectly responsible from a logistical and security standpoint, while still being twice as generous as the Conservatives. Mr. Trudeau looks rather less impressive on that score, and has been forced to back down on the 25,000 promise.  But  Bill C-51, and the Liberals’ qualified support for it, still seems a little less reprehensible in the minds of many Canadians. “Balance”, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and a professor of political science at Athabasca University.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cariboo-Prince George and Edmonton -Griesbach Illustrate the Difficulty--Even the Perversity--of so-called "Strategic Voting"

On the whole, the October 19 election was a good day for democracy. I had feared—more than once in these columns—what a re-elected Conservative Harper majority might mean in terms of creating a “new normal”. Instead, we had a 7% increase in national voter turnout, and a government with more women and aboriginal people than ever before. The Liberals won by having an optimistic and upbeat leader who  seemed to embody “Real Change” . The Opposition is strong, and , aside from the complete Liberal monopoly of Atlantic Canada,  each of the major political parties is well-represented throughout most of the country.
Of course, electing the country's first NDP government, with proportional representation, Senate Abolition and a million daycare spaces on the policy docket, looks more like "Real Change" to me. But elections are about politics, not policy.

Let's not forget that the Conservatives, the NDP and the Media all unwittingly conspired to give Mr. Trudeau his Golden Opportunity. The Conservatives, whose extra-long campaign made people forget about C-51 and the Senate Scandal , but which also made people forget about Trudeau's poor performance on those issues and Mulcair's strong performance; the NDP , by weakening its Quebec base and then taking its balanced-budget theme too far, creating more policy space for Trudeau; the media, in particular the Globe and Mail and the Munk Centre, who could have crowded the stage by adding Elizabeth May and GIlles Duceppe to the mix but instead gave Trudeau tons of visibility.

One sad feature of the election   was that,  all too often, so-called “strategic voting” just gave way to a  blind, convulsive bandwagon effect, of course amplified by our first past the post electoral system.  Cariboo-Prince George is a case in point. Voter turnout in 2015 was 53,590 or 68,9% of the electorate--- an increase of over 10,000 votes or nearly 11% higher than in  2011.  This was clearly a determined vote for “change” , since the Conservative share of the total  dropped from 24,324 to just 19, 668 votes—a loss of  nearly 20%.  So why weren’t the other 63.3% of local voters able to dislodge them?

A week before the election, LeadNow, a national organization dedicated to coordinating the efforts of all “progressives”, released a local Environics poll showing  the NDP’s  Trent Derrick was in the lead with 36% of the vote, the Conservatives’ Todd Doherty  well behind at 30% , the Liberals’ Tracy Calogheros running third at 29% and the Greens polling at 5%. Accordingly, LeadNow recommended to local progressives desiring a change to unite behind the NDP candidate. 

Edmonton - Griesbach was another perfect example. Janis Irwin of the NDP had long been in the lead locally and was seen as being the NDP's second-strongest riding in Alberta. A creditable survey of 509 people , considered accurate within 4 percentage points, was published on August 19. It showed Irwin to be in the lead with 48% of decided voters(!), Kerry Diotte of the Conservatives well behind at 32%, and Liberal Brian Gold third at only 15% of local voters.  Liberals were being urged to do their bit and hold their noses and vote NDP  in order to "heave Steve".  But a problem for the NDP was that 60% of those surveyed said they would be willing to vote differently in order to defeat the Conservatives. As the Liberal surge began to wash across the country in October , many of those ABC voters, either indifferent or ignorant of local circumstances and conditions,  began falling off the fence and voting Liberal (in effect, pinning their tail on the wrong donkey because it appeared to be the right donkey nationally). The final result: Irwin got an unexpectedly low 34.04%; Gold got an unexpectedly high 21.67%, and Diotte won with 39.91% of the vote. Conservatives deserve some credit for getting their vote out and perhaps for persuading a large chunk  of the 11% who were undecideds, but it was that vote-splitting defection from the NDP to the Liberals that sealed their victory.

The problem was that  a lot of people were watching what was happening  nationally and decided to climb on the Liberal bandwagon.  In those constituencies where the Liberal base was already big enough, (e.g Edmonton Centre, Vancouver Granville) that switch managed to elect a Liberal MP.  But in  several constituencies in western Canada,  the Liberal wave had the opposite, unintended effect: of splitting the vote and electing a Conservative MP instead.  In Cariboo-Prince George, Todd Doherty was the beneficiary of that vote-splitting.  In Edmonton-Griesbach, it was Kerry Diotte.

On the whole, however,  it was still a good day. I look forward to Canada presenting a fresh face to the world , at the U.N. and at the Paris Climate Conference. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when being introduced in Paris,  Justin Trudeau received an ovation…just for not being Stephen Harper.

But for me the big lesson to take away from this election was that given the difficulties of information sharing and voter coordination in the context of  increasing electoral volatility, in the end there is really no alternative to electoral reform, and despite what the prime minister seems to think, that means some degree or kind of proportional representation (PR). While many arguments can be marshaled against PR, nearly all can be met to a large extent through modifications of the PR formulae. So please, let's do it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Time for a Change

It’s the home stretch of the federal election campaign and two leaders’ debates and endless commercials may have done more to blur lines between the parties and leaders than to clarify them. The Liberals and NDP may have even switched places, with Justin Trudeau being anxious to corral the anti-Conservative vote with ambitious talk of redistributive tax adjustment and deficit spending on infrastructure, and Mr. Mulcair striving to reassure centrist voters and buttressing the NDP’s “balanced budget” record.  If it’s any help , here are three or four  observations about what I think  should happen both during and after the election.

First, the prime minister’s attempt to portray himself as a practical, sensible fellow who is only interested in being a good manager is highly misleading.  He is far more ideological than that, and if re-elected his American-style neoconservatism will have consequences for democracy and health care and the environment that are potentially far-reaching. It is difficult to discern a large economic dividend from the government’s attempts to privilege the corporate sector, and the oil & gas sector in particular. But we need  that dividend if we are to be persuaded that this government’s game is worth its candle.

Second, the NDP’s “balanced budget” mantra is genuine.  Mr. Mulcair has latched onto the fact that, according to the historical record, NDP governments balanced budgets more often than either Liberal or Conservative governments did on average between 1980 and 2010 (although some spectacular exceptions do tend to stick in voters’ minds). This is a basis for fiscal respectability and marks a return to the fiscal tradition of Tommy Douglas. Of course, several of the Conservatives’ tax loopholes will need to be closed in order to afford this, and the corporate tax rate will need to be raised to something closer to the OECD average. But when you balance the negative impacts of raising corporate taxes to the still-competitive rate of 17% against the positive benefits of lower small business rates, a lower proportion of tax burden being borne by ordinary Canadians, and the economic benefits of more infrastructure and a million child care spaces—that should be OK.

Third, I like what Justin Trudeau has said about the importance of infrastructure spending when the need is great, the debt-to GDP ratio is low, and interest rates continue to be rock-bottom.  Although Conservative infrastructure spending  is large in absolute terms and has risen sharply (to over 4 per cent of GDP), under the circumstances we should have had more,  especially  on transit and transportation of various kinds,  and less on advertising and political spending in Tory ridings. 

With any luck, the next Parliament will have a fresh approach to democratic reform, the environment, science, health, refugees and infrastructure, within a framework that is still fiscally responsible.

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and a professor of political science at Athabasca University.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Conservatism's Relativism about the Truth

Of course he rejects the Statistics Canada report concerning the definition of a recession. Just like he and other conservatives reject the ICPP reports on climate change, United Nations and Amnesty International reports on Palestine, unanimous verdicts of the Supreme Court of Canada concerning criminal justice and the rule of law, the concerns of Sheila Fraser and Marc Mayrand about the Fair Elections Act, the Parliamentary Budget Officer on C-35s, the leading legal experts on Bil C-51 and the leading trade experts on FIPPA, and scientists on just about anything...the scary thing about this government and the constellation of interests and ideas that it represents is that they do not respect any authority other than their own.…/harper-rejects-statscan-recession-rep…

Friday, August 21, 2015

Six Questions About Science and Technology

How government funds science and how it treats the information that scientists produce says much about the direction a society is taking and the vision that the government has for that society. Here are six questions that an engineer and researcher named Vallen Rezazadeh has been asking the candidates about science and technology. In response, I offer the best suggested answers that I can come up with.

1. What actions do you think the federal government should take to accelerate economic diversification in Canada?

A diversification strategy should emphasize (1) making strategic investments in infrastructure; (2) ensuring the availability of high quality labour (by investing in education and training, enhancing the quality of life, and improving the structure of opportunity for First Nations and immigrants); and (3) the encouragement of growth clusters through the funding of pure research at universities and the creation of generally hospitable environments for business.

2. Would you support measures such as Public-Private Partnerships and tax breaks to entice hi-tech companies to establish operations in Canada?

 As a general theoretical presumption, no. As a pragmatic response to what our competitors are doing, sometimes a qualified yes. Much of the research on P3s confirms that all too often government simply replaces an up-front capital expenditure with a series of recurring payments under a lease agreement that ends up costing even more. In return, private investor is too often shielded from competition.  As for tax breaks, if they are too targeted or discriminatory, they have economic effects that are not unlike those of business subsidies (which are supposed to be an economic no-no). But where such policies (1) are generally being promoted in our competitors' markets; and (2) there are no practical alternatives in terms of either direct public provision or regular private contracting , and (3) proposed projects have been vetted for moral hazard, they may be the best option.

3. What is your opinion on recent changes to the structure and mandate of the National Research Council of Canada by the Harper government?

I hate them. They are anti-science. Shifting the NRC away from funding pure science to supporting industry is ideological policy-making in the worst sense. It is also bad economics. The first role of government, economically speaking, is to supply those public goods that are under-supplied by the market--to do what markets cannot.  Pure research is such a public good.

4. As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the National Research Council of Canada?

Yes. I would look at what the world leaders in science are doing at the national level and look to at least match them, as part of our overall societal fitness and competitiveness. But that increase in funding is not as important as un-tying the funding from the ideological yoke of the Conservatives'  pro-business agenda, as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

5. As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency?

Yes. Canada spends less than 3/10th of 1 percent on its civil space program. Several nations with smaller GDPs spend more as a percentage than Canada does.

6.  As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada?

 Yes. In this envelope there is a little more room for "applied " research and for the funding of partnerships with business, and for the promotion of centres of excellence in science and engineering across the country.  But otherwise, what I said about the National Research Council applies to NSERC as well.

Mark Crawford  teaches political science at Athabasca University.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Debate About the Debates

“Pick your battles” is a wise adage for life, especially in the intensely competitive and adversarial arena that is politics. That is why we have a certain tolerance and even admiration for leaders who display this wisdom in their campaign strategies.

But what if that campaign seems never-ending,  and the battles avoided include major issues of the day and time- worn avenues of democratic accountability?  I am referring of course to the prime minister’s recent decision to not attend the traditional debates put on by the consortium of Canada’s major broadcasting networks.  These debates have become known as “the” debates and one the key focal points of the election campaign: in 2011 the first English-language debate drew 10 million viewers.  The only problem, from Mr. Harper’s perspective, is that he can’t control them. And that is why he prefers to have a Google/Globe and Mail debate on the economy in Calgary and a Munk debate on national security in Toronto instead. Smaller, more fragmented audiences looking at debates focusing on his preferred agenda, in his preferred context, suits him better.

By pulling out of the traditional consortium debates, the government has cleverly conflated two issues: one is that the idea of a broadcasting consortium effectively monopolizing and determining the debate format is no longer acceptable; the other is that it is acceptable for the government to unilaterally change the rules 5 months before an election. The government pretends that the former consideration legitimates the latter; it does not. All it suggests is that we should supplement the broadcasters’ debate with others, and then agree after the election to establish a Debates Commission to set the rules for the following election. 

Perhaps the prime minister’s audacity wouldn’t seem so bad if it weren’t part of an even larger pattern of audacity that has characterized his entire tenure in power. We don’t have First Ministers’ conferences anymore, even though healthcare reform and battling climate change are of immense concern to Canadians and require a very high level of federal-provincial coordination. We don’t have wide open press conferences anymore either.  Instead, we now have personal attack ads between elections, prorogations of parliament whenever a government is in danger of losing a vote of confidence, and omnibus budget implementation bills as the primary vehicle for unpopular measures that are neither budgetary nor about mere implementation.  All of this has become simply routine.

If Mr. Harper is rewarded with another majority and becomes the most successful Conservative PM of modern times, his behavior will become the template for Conservatives, the unspoken political playbook for all politicians, and the 'new normal' for all young and immigrant Canadians, and even for a large number of older Canadians who don't bother to remember the honour system that once was.  Is this the role model we want for politics in the future?