Sunday, May 22, 2016

"The Party of the Charter" and Parliamentary Democracy

As a former member of the Interior Health Authority’s Clinical Ethics Committee, I can attest  that assisted dying is one  of the mostly deeply controversial and difficult  subjects under the Sun, which makes the way it has been handled all the more deplorable.

The Liberals’ “Motion 6” (now mercifully withdrawn) would have reduced the number of days available to the Opposition to introduce motions, as well as imposing stricter time limits on those motions. Members of cabinet or parliamentary secretaries — all Liberals — would have been granted additional powers to control the business of the House as well.  Under the proposed new rules, we might have seen W.A.C. Bennett-style all-night sittings.

Why this suddenly draconian  posture towards Parliament, which also resulted in the Prime Minister’s angry and impulsive tussle, known as  “elbowgate”?  The Liberals  were deeply annoyed  and embarrassed when , at the beginning of the same  week, a surprise vote by the opposition caused the Liberal government to almost lost a vote on Monday on its own legislation to change Air Canada rules. Furthermore,  the government felt that it had to pass the doctor-assisted  dying legislation, Bill C-14, by the end of the week. (The Court has said that after June 6 the existing law banning physician –assisted  death will be of no further effect, as it had been struck down in the Carter decision back in February 2015.)  Hence Trudeau’s impatience and petulance. 

That much has been said often and elsewhere. But a couple of  additional observations are needed in order to complete the picture.  First, who is to blame for all this confusion and legal uncertainty? Perhaps I am just in a diplomatic mood, but I would apportion the blame just about equally between the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the Supreme Court itself.  The Conservatives, because Stephen Harper’s strict political party rule about avoiding socially conservative causes in this socially liberal country was rigidly adhered to  for electoral purposes—even if it  meant deliberately ignoring the Supreme Court  decision for  a full 8 1/2 months before the October 19, 2015 election.  The Liberals, because even though the Conservatives had ragged the puck for that  long, Grits were well aware of that fact the moment they took office, and therefore should have anticipated the time pressures that would arise.  The Supreme Court, because the Justices should have appreciated that a bill of this nature would require extensive debate as every MP expressed their constituents and their own consciences, canvassed medical opinion, and attracted considerable “sober second thought” from the Senate.  (The Court  had initially suspended its judgment for 12 months in  an election year; then it gave the new Government a paltry 4-month extension of that deadline on top of the Liberals’  already overflowing agenda.)

Second, one must add to this litany of institutional failings the background problem of  Charterphilia, a disease which is rampant throughout English Canada.  Its symptoms  are  most acute in the Liberal Party  (“the Party of the Charter”) and in the heart and mind of its young leader:   a pulse-quickening reverence for Charter rights and a belief in the near-papal infallibility of the Supreme Court's edicts about that Holy Writ.  That it was a Charter Right that was at issue , and that the Supreme Court had Spoken on its meaning, no doubt fuelled the prime minister’s  outrage at the continued stalling tactics of the Opposition and contributed to his remarkable lack of respect for Parliament.  (Remember Prince Hamlet, who was also egged on by his father's ghost to occasional impetuosity.)

The truth, however, is that Opposition Parliamentarians were dealing appropriately  with a profoundly political issue, a fact to which this Government in particular had become especially and determinedly blind.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Not So Fast on the Nenqay Accord

My initial response  to  the successful negotiation of the Nenqay Demi Accord announced this February was highly positive, because I viewed the Accord primarily from the perspective of the Chilcotin Supreme Court decision on aboriginal rights and its application to the long-simmering conflict over the Prosperity Mine.  My reasoning was as follows:  the fact that a high bar had been set by the Supreme Court, the Federal Cabinet, and the Environmental Reviews, meant that the parties would be measured under the Accord by how well they adhered to  eight mutually agreed –upon “Pillars of Reconciliation”.  (The Federal Government would presumably be measured by these criteria as well.)  Any economic project that cleared all of these hurdles, I reasoned, would be something that the vast majority of the community could agree upon and unite behind. But that was before someone pointed out to me that the map for the territory being discussed in the Nenqay Demi Accord  was quite different from the map that had been referred to by the Supreme Court ; and before I had reflected upon Christy Clark’s motivation in rushing things to a conclusion.

The map for the Accord now includes Quesnel, plus the area west of the Fraser River up to and including  part of Tweedsmuir Park.   This takes in land that other bands lay claim to, and  this could cause more conflict than unity.  Sure, no one’s private property is being expropriated,  but we have an interest in public property, too.  The government should not use land claims as way of getting around provincial park designation  in order to promote industrial development.  And by choosing a larger, more controversial map, the parties to this Accord are creating the same problem that was the ‘dark side’ of  the Nisga’a and Tsawwassen  treaties: that of overlapping tribal claims. The Ulkatcho, Bella Coola, and Redstone people must not be thrown under the bus just to placate one First Nation and promote development for the next election.

 Accordingly, it is imperative that  lands designated as  ‘Category A’, which  will be  under exclusive Chilcotin control,  must meet three conditions:  (1) they should not be extended to areas outside of  the territory referred to in the Supreme Court decision ; (2) they should  not extend to lands subject to overlapping claims by other First Nations;  and (3) they should not fall within the current boundaries of Tweedsmuir Park.   Other lands may be designated as ‘Caretaker areas’ which recognize the Chilcotin people as holding special rights and responsibilities, but not to the exclusion of other parties.    While much work remains to be done (the precise location of ‘Category A’ and ‘Caretaker’ lands will be negotiated between now and 2020), that to me is the bottom line, if the Nenqay Accord is to be worthy of broad public support.

Mark Crawford teaches at Athabasca University.  He can be reached at

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Canada Needs Electoral Reform, But Needs a New Process as Well

{This blog appeared as a column submitted last month to the Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger, the WIlliams Lake Tribune, the 100 Mile Free Press and the Omineca Express}

In the federal election last October  the Liberal Party  stated, "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform" .   This date for introducing legislation is  now  just 13 months away.

The Government  has a clear mandate  and duty to “make every vote count.”   This is especially clear since three parties representing over 2/3 of the electorate campaigned on that same principle, and a majority of Canadians have endorsed that view in opinion poll after opinion poll.  As a professor of political science who has been following this subject for 30 years, I have become a strong believer in having a mild dose of improved proportionality, as a way of improving voter turnout, improving public policy, better representing diversity, and reducing the exacerbation of regional cleavages by the electoral system.

What is not clear, however, is that the government has a mandate to enact any particular voting system that  it wants in accordance with the regular parliamentary process.  That is because of the clear conflict of interest that exists: the danger that the Liberals may try to enact a system that is most favourable to themselves. Justin likes the ranked ballot; it might look like self-dealing if lo and behold the final piece of legislation just happens to accord with Justin Trudeau’s preferences. ) This is also a logical point: if our winner- take-all system is so bad because it gives all the marbles to one party that only got 40% of the vote, why should that party be able to use that very same flawed mandate to change the system?

These difficulties largely explain why the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral reform  hasn’t been named yet. The very composition of that Committee (Liberal majority?)   and  its frame of reference (is legislation to  be approved by free vote majority of the House of Commons? A super-majority?) are bones  of contention.  But that doesn’t mean that the Conservative Party is right to demand a referendum.  There is no constitutional nor legal requirement for a referendum, and I for one am glad that there isn ‘t, because a referendum would risk throwing the general mandate baby out with the specific mandate bath-water.  But I do believe that a special process is needed—either 2/3 of a free vote in the House of Commons, or a referendum after two elections, or both.   And it might not be a bad idea to change the usual rules concerning the composition and decision-making process of the Parliamentary Committee, either.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

About Christy Clark’s Throne Speech

For the past month I have been intending to write a column about Alberta politics and the comparisons that can be made with B.C., but it  seems that  our premier, Christy Clark, has beaten me to the punch! Which, of course, was the whole point.  For her entire term as our premier she has been something of a one-trick pony, hoping that revenues from LNG would wash away her worries, obscure her bad decisions and help her to avoid difficult ones. Now, she realizes that her dream of easy money won’t happen before the next provincial election, so she has used the most recent B.C. Throne Speech to re-invent herself as the Queen of Economic Diversification. The Speech made it sound like Alberta could learn a thing or two from our glorious leader. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Clark manouevres to take credit for B.C.’s luck and geography, Rachel Notley has shown intelligent, visionary leadership as reflected in the 2016 Royalty review; the institution of a progressive tax system; a comprehensive infrastructure strategy; a new, greener, responsible  image in relation to energy development; and an economic diversification plan that features $500-million royalty credit program for new petrochemical plants; a credible program for replacing lost apprenticeships in the trades sector; and  a re-booted expert economic panel to advise the premier on diversification initiatives that spur economic innovation and job creation opportunities outside the oilpatch.

That is a huge improvement over Ralph Klein’s flat-tax, flat-Earth   talk of “dinosaur farts” and  steadily-accumulating reality of multibillion-dollar infrastructure deficits.  From the time Peter Lougheed left office in 1985 until Rachel Notley took office in 2015, successive Alberta governments oversaw the production of  many hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue from oil and gas (in 2014 alone, gross revenues from all hydrocarbons amounted to $111.7 billion and energy exports totaled $90.8 billion), including almost $200 billion in revenue for government, and used this “Alberta advantage” to subsidize both the highest per capita operating budgets and the lowest taxes in Canada. (It would be interesting to know how many millions in subsidized low taxes ultimately flowed into the B.C. real estate market.) That after three decades Alberta would have a paltry $17.4 billion in its Heritage Savings Trust Fund, major hospitals badly in need of repair, a lack of a mental health strategy, long waiting lists, and major unfulfilled needs in infrastructure, was an indictment of post-Lougheed conservatism, and of  the short-sightedness of the Ralph Klein era in particular.

So Christy Clark wasn’t entirely wrong to criticize Alberta’s historical over-reliance on energy revenue. But to blame the Alberta NDP for any of those mistakes, or to heap undeserved credit upon her own party’s wisdom for avoiding them, is just plain political hogwash.

Mark  Crawford is a former public servant and teaches political science at Athabasca University.  He can be reached at

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.