Monday, July 25, 2016

A Referendum if Necessary, But Not Necessarily a Referendum


Opinion is divided on the question of whether Canada should have a national referendum on electoral reform.  Supporters of the idea correctly suspect that the Liberal Government, and indeed all political parties, are inherently in a conflict of interest and should not be blindly trusted to design the rules by which they are elected.  The Liberals’ belated decision to relinquish its majority on the Commons Committee on Electoral Reform, and its commitment to having a free vote in the House of Commons on the final bill, go only part of the way toward alleviating this concern. 

 A free vote will still be based on the very distortion of representation that electoral reform is supposed to correct: for example, individual Liberal MPs will have 54% of the seats on the strength of 39.5% of the popular vote; and one Green MP will have 0.3% of the votes cast despite representing 3.4% of the electorate.  Secondly, even if these problems could be addressed adequately so as to assure fairness between political parties, there might still be a conflict of interest, since politicians as a class  will still frame the question and ultimately decide its answer, without due consideration of how much “non-Ottawashed” citizens may not wish to affirm or support political parties as the primary organizations that mediate the popular will.

Opponents of the referendum have an equally impressive  list of arguments.  It is clear is  that referendums polarize opinion instead of forging compromise, as both the Quebec referendum campaigns and the recent UK vote to leave the EU have shown. The value of representative democracy is that it can examine all sides of an issue and fashion solutions that serve the interests of the majority while still being acceptable to minorities.  The debate over Brexit showed how misinformation and errors of fact (concerning Turkey’s membership and the savings for the NHS, for example) could not be corrected in time for the vote, with incalculable consequences for the future of the UK and of Europe.

The ideal solution, therefore,  is one that fully addresses the problems of legitimacy and conflict-of-interest that  a referendum is  supposed to solve, while at the same time  avoiding if possible all the problems of polarization and prevarication that a referendum is prone to  create.  Such sound   deliberation, suitably scrubbed of partisan self-interest, was the both the purpose and the effect of Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform in British Columbia and Ontario and the Citizens’ Committee in Quebec.  

Where those processes went wrong (particularly in B.C. and in Ontario)  was in keeping those islands of deliberative democracy in splendid isolation from the voters, while letting legislatures completely off the hook for the decision. Referendum results reflected  both the electorates’ lack of familiarity with the Citizens Assemblies  and the ability of the ruling parties to tilt the playing field away from change.  Legislators relied too little on democratic persuasion and too much on 60% voter thresholds and inflexible “take-it-or leave-it” ground rules.

Provinces are supposed to be the laboratories for policy.  Applying the lessons learned from failed (or partially successful) provincial experiments to the current referendum debate, we should create a structure for institutional dialogue between a Citizens’ Committee on Electoral Reform and Parliament. Such a structure could force politicians to justify their rejection of, or amendments to, a citizens’ initiative, thereby improving the legitimacy and deliberative quality of the bill. The result would be to either reduce the felt need for a referendum (if the process went well and a double majority of politicians and informed citizens could reach consensus) or to better prepare and inform the electorate if a referendum were needed to adjudicate a fundamental disagreement  between parliamentarians and informed citizens.  Even many advocates of proportional representation, who fear that the rights of all to have their votes counted equally in Parliament will be trampled by a majority, would be more receptive to a referendum if it were needed to resolve such a conflict.

 The upshot is that  a referendum is necessary only as a last resort.   A Citizens’ Committee should be struck to conduct parallel deliberations with the House of Commons. If the House of Commons and the Citizens’ Committee  prove unable to agree, then that impasse can be resolved by a referendum.  But if they can agree, then a referendum should be deemed unnecessary.

 

Mark Crawford is an assistant professor of political science at Athabasca University, where he teaches courses in Canadian Government and Democratic Theory.

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 markcrawf@gmail.com.

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 markcrawf@gmail.com.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Trump-Lite

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 refugees.in 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.