Sunday, August 10, 2014

Robert Asselin's rather thin Canada 2020 paper on democratic reform

Robert Asselin is a reputable enough University of Ottawa political scientist, but his paper "An Agenda for Democratic Reform in Canada, " which  proposes mandatory voting and a majoritarian  Alternative Voting system (single member constituency plus preferential ballot) as the principal cures for what ails Canadian democracy, is not adequately defended.  Not discussed is the fact that diffuse interests would continue to be radically underrepresented and the exacerbation of regionalism would continue under AV.  Indeed, proportional representation is not even mentioned in the paper itself, and is given only two sentences in his video presentation,  in which PR is mentioned only to be dismissed as contributing to "instability"--without addressing Alan Cairn's discussion of the instability of the existing system, or the remarkable stability of Mixed-Member systems in Germany and New Zealand.

The track record of the AV system in Canada is that parties have adopted it either to prevent another party from coming to power (the Liberal-Conservative coalition adopted it in BC in 1952 to prevent the CCF from gaining power; Social Credit used it in rural Alberta where it was conducive to Socreds winning seats) or as a proposed cure for votes that are split (Thomas Flanagan advocated it when the conservative vote was split between PCs and Reform in the 1990s). But when the system starts to erode support for the party in power (because it affords the voter an easy alternative to the government to vote for) the system is abandoned.  Prediction: if a future Liberal government adopts this system it will be under increasing pressure to drop it after its first term in office.  Asselin does not address the historical track record of AV systems in Canada, and in particular its marked lack of durability.

More free votes in the House of Commons, consultation about Senate appointments, and a Prime Minister's Question Period at least once per week are all decent ideas that Asselin recommends and have been standard agenda items for years (PM's QP is the practice in the United Kingdom).  But the one thing that could make AV in the House of Commons acceptable to underrepresented minorities--pure PR in an elected Senate--is not discussed. Why not? If instability of the Government is an issue, why not have PR in a separate House, which is not the seat of government and therefore not a House of confidence?

Mandatory voting has much to commend it, but comparative political science suggests that PR would boost voter turnout by about 7% voluntarily because more voters feel that their votes count under PR.  Does mandatory voting cure the problem of political apathy, or does it just mask it?

Asselin's unexplained adoption of the Liberal nomenclature  instead of using the well-established categories of empirical political science ("Preferential Vote" is ambiguous, since both AV and STV  have preferential ballots), and the bold red type of the paper, have the look and feel of an in-house Liberal  partisan publication.  Most of these proposals are aimed against more radical reforms that would prevent a majority Liberal Government /Trudeau Restoration. This no doubt is what the Liberal leadership wanted to hear. But is it what we needed to hear?

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Letter to the Financial Post

William Watson is an economist who is right to be chagrined by the presence of only one professional economist on the 16-member Economic Advisory Council ("There’s a lot more to the economy than simply business,"--FP  July 17). He argues that Jack Mintz can't be expected to be the voice of labour and consumers as well as the whole economics profession, and I heartily concur.

 But Watson fails to ask a bigger question: does this government's repeated pattern of policy errors, such as stumbling too quickly into subprime mortgages, income trusts, expansion of foreign workers into services and manufacturing, and deregulation of railways, or moving too slowly on First Nations consultation, environmental regulation,rail safety  and food labelling, all stem from a blinkered,ideological confusion of business interests with good economic policy?   If that is true--or even partially true-- then shouldn't the Economic Advisory Council act as a corrective lens that provides more economic analysis and non-business input into the formative stages of policy-making?

 The government's stubborn refusal to do so amounts to willful blindness, motivated no doubt by an awareness that the nation's top economists are a continuing source of inconvenient truth.

Here is Watson's column, reproduced with permission from the Financial Post:

William Watson: There's a lot more to the economy than simply business


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Friday, July 25, 2014

The Tsilhqot’in Decision


Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia , announced on June 26, 2014, is the most important case on native rights since the Delgamuukw  decision back in December of 1997.  Since it originates in a dispute about aboriginal title right in our own backyard, I decided to read the decision in its entirety, instead of just relying upon press and media reports. In 1983, the Government  of British Columbia granted a commercial logging licence  to Carrier Lumber on land that the Tsilhqot’in considered their traditional territory.  One of the six Tsilhqot’in bands (the Xeni Gwet’in)  sought a judicial declaration prohibiting commercial logging on the land.  Relying upon the 1973 Calder decision recognizing aboriginal title, and the then brand-new Section 35 of the Canada Act, 1982,  the band amended its original land claim to include a claim for Aboriginal title to the land on behalf of all the Tsilhqot’in people.  At trial, Supreme Court justice David Vickers found for the Tsilhqot’in, based  primarily on the ground that regular passage by semi-nomadic peoples through a given territory in search of food and sustenance in accordance with the seasons constituted "occupation" of the land. The federal and provincial governments both opposed the title claim, and the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s decision, using a narrower test for determining what constitutes “occupation” sufficient to ground Aboriginal title as “only specific, intensively occupied areas.”
The crux of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to grant a declaration of aboriginal title after all was an understanding of sufficient occupation that compares the requirements of common law “in a culturally sensitive way” to Aboriginal culture and practices. Thus “occupation”  was taken to mean not just specific sites of settlement but tracts of land regularly used for hunting, fishing, and so on. Once this threshold was held to have been reached, it remained to simply apply the “section 35 infringement and justification framework”  first elaborated in Delgamuukw to the case.  That framework permits “provincial legislative incursions on lands held under Aboriginal title,” including the Forest Act, but  “the level of consultation and accommodation required varies with the strength of the Aboriginal group’s claim to the land and the seriousness of the potentially adverse effect upon the interest claimed.” In this case the B.C. Government was found to have breached its duty to consult.
As I see it, Tsilhqot’in is a good decision from a legal perspective, because the Supreme Court found that the trial judge (B.C. Supreme Court Justice David Vickers) had “identified the correct legal test of aboriginal title and applied it appropriately to the evidence.” Tsilhqot’in is also a good decision from an economic perspective because the basic prerequisite of economic development is clarity concerning property rights. This case clarifies the notion of aboriginal title sufficiently to enable future parties to economic development to negotiate on the basis of commonly agreed terms. Tsilhqot’in is also a good decision from a political perspective, because it will force a recalcitrant government to consult First Nations meaningfully in all future economic development projects passing through their land, without giving every First Nation an absolute power of veto.

Of course, there is a down side: this decision makes litigation look more attractive than negotiation, and that could mean more bad news for the Treaty process and more native claims clogging the courts for years to come. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chilcotin Decision Underlines Need to change approach to development projects

Vaughn Palmer has written a good column about the legacy of David Vickers. I would like to add the remarkable parallels between David Vickers and Thomas Berger, politically, legally, and  specifically with respect to the aboriginal title file.

The Chief Justice concluded that Vickers had “identified the correct legal test of aboriginal title and applied it appropriately to the evidence.” The test being that the band in question had demonstrated occupancy of the claimed tract of land to a sufficient degree, continuously and exclusively.

http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/Vaughn+Palmer+Landmark+judgment+cements+former+judge/9982947/story.html

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Have the Conservatives Finally Learned Their Lesson?


The federal Conservative government has been pulling its horns in lately:  witness the low-key way the Enbridge pipeline approval was announced recently and how Conservative MPs ducked the media;  the better late-than-never overtures for environmental cooperation with U.S. in late 2013; and the opening of an office for First nations consultations surrounding the Enbridge proposal (“too little too late,” according to BC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip) in May of 2014. The great victory of the Chilcotin Nation announced by the Supreme Court on June 26, which recognizes their aboriginal title to over1,750 square km, should help to ensure that the federal government recognizes the futility of its ways.

Does this mean that the government has finally recognized the error of its ham-fisted, counter-productive ways,  and is turning a completely new leaf?  I wish I could say yes, but the evidence points to the contrary.  After having added these two sorry chapters to the book How Not to Get a Pipeline Built, the government has continued to chip away at the historical standards of acceptable conduct with one abuse of power after another.  The prostitution bill is written not in compliance with the Supreme Court’s attempt to protect prostitutes’ constitutional rights, but as a pretext for imposing new restrictions and making the sex trade even more dangerous by driving it further underground.   Similarly, the cyber-bullying bill sneaks a number of measures into the law that are unrelated to the root cause of bullying and teen suicide:  measures that would make it even easier for police and other political authorities to obtain your personal data from telephone and internet providers. The appointment of Daniel Therrien as the new privacy commissioner and the attempt to appoint Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court; the determination to proceed with the F-35 contract despite a rise in price from $9 billion to $45 billion, still without open competitive bidding.  The notorious Bill C-38 Omnibus Budget is still being implemented, gutting thousands of environmental assessments. The forced backtracking on the so-called Fair Elections Act and the Temporary Foreign Workers laws are hardly reassuring:  they still bear the marks of the chronic audacity that gave them birth.

Thus Harper continues to pursue the limits of what he can get away with, to the detriment of Canadian democracy. The current overtures to natives and to environmentalists are simply reluctant, tactical retreats.  At bottom, being a citizen is no more difficult , and no more easy, than training a pet, raising a child or being a wise consumer. You can either punish bad behavior, sending the signal to all political actors that standards of truth and parliamentary appropriateness must be raised, or you can reward bad behaviour, sending the message that standards are to be lowered.  That is the choice we face in 2015.

Mark Crawford is a former public servant and now teaches political science at Athabasca University. He can be reached at markcrawf@gmail.com.

 

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Margaret Wente's "Takedown" of Thomas Piketty


Marget Wente’s purported “takedown” of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twentieth Century ( "Who Cares About Inequality? Wonks") Globe and Mail, May 3, p. F2), while anti-intellectual in tone, reminds me of  the philosophical arguments made against idealist theories of equality decades ago.  Friedrich Hayek railed against what he called the “mirage” of social justice, since  "the results of the individual's efforts are necessarily unpredictable, and the question as to whether the resulting distribution of incomes is just has no meaning" (The Constitution of Liberty, ch.6). Likewise, Robert Nozick pointed out that any attempt to build a just society around a preferred distribution would be intolerable, because   “liberty upsets patterns”. 
 Like Wente, both Hayek and Nozick  thought that inequality was a problem only in some people’s heads. Get rid of the egalitarians and their misplaced notions, and you get rid of the problem. But their arguments don’t address a more recent line of thinking about inequality, which gives it a different ontological status from simply being an expression of envy or of subjective notions about "justice".  Fred Hirsch's Social Limits to Growth (1977) analyzed society's declining ability to simply buy social peace and legitimacy through growth  in terms of the growing importance of inherently scarce positional goods.  Richard Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level (2009) was written by two social epidemiologists who found stronger correlations between the degree of inequality and various social ills than existed between those ills and any other social determinant. Their conclusion: "societies with more equal distribution of incomes have better health, fewer social problems such as violence, drug abuse, teenage births, mental illness, obesity, and others, and are more cohesive than ones in which the gap between the rich and poor is greater."  
Robert Frank (The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good , 2011) has found that it is indeed getting harder and harder to join the middle class. His views are supported by the researches and arguments of prominent economists like Tony Atkinson, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman.  Now, Thomas Piketty has tied a lot of this together and looked at several national economies over centuries and has demonstrated convincingly that there is an inherent tendency within capitalism for the return from wealth to grow faster than the return from work. This "rich-get-richer" dynamic is the norm in capitalism. America in the 18th and 19th centuries (which because of the abundance of land and higher productivity had much lower capital/income ratios)  and in the early-mid 20th century (because of Depression and war) was an aberration; it is now reaching capital/income ratios more like those that have been found historically in Europe. Piketty expects global capital/income ratios to reach about 6.5 in this century --barring another cataclysm.  That is why he argues for a global wealth tax as the best long-run solution, even if that is not practicable in the short term.
Even in societies where basic living standards and a full panoply of civil and political rights have  been achieved, much depends upon the assumptions of upward mobility  and equal opportunity. This is why Piketty threatens to turn conservative views upside down, because he shows once again that the problem may not be the virus of class consciousness or socialist attitudes coming from Europe, but the actual economic dynamic underpinning them. If that is true, then the baneful consequences of inequality will be felt here as well, whether we like to think about them or not.
 
 

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Federal Government and Healthcare Reform


The future of health care may be the most important issue that Canada faces heading into the 2015 federal election year.  The 2003 First Ministers’ Accord on Health Care Renewal injected $36 billion in federal money into health spending and the 2004 10-Year Plan to Strengthen Health Care added a further $41 billion over that decade in order to, in then-Prime Minister Paul Martin’s words, have a “fix for a generation” that would “buy change”. On March 31 that Accord expired.
Unfortunately, all this  federal spending mostly did was to buy the avoidance of  change for about half a generation. Hardly a “fix”.   And by avoiding hard choices, progressives in the Liberal Party and the NDP have opened the door for Stephen Harper – a man who was once the President of the National Citizens Coalition (an organization founded by an insurance salesman who hated Tommy Douglas for getting in the way of profits)—to do things his way.  The really scary part is that Harper doesn’t have to commit political suicide to undermine medicare. As prime minister, all he has to do is cap funding (with reductions conveniently scheduled to commence after the next election), not enforce the Canada Health Act very vigorously, and let nature take its course.  
But if  throwing more money at the provinces won’t work, what should we do instead?  We need only go to the source: when he first implemented medicare, Tommy Douglas was against the fee-for-services approach as something that blunted the cost effectiveness and equity of the single-payer system. Half a century of experience with our healthcare system (not to mention the analysis of the world’s most reputable health economists and policy analysts) shows that Tommy was right.  We need a federal government that will use its spending power to accelerate  the creation of a strong primary care foundation that is more patient-centred, more focused on prevention and chronic care,  and less focused upon high-cost providers simply billing the government for their services. We need to stop using acute-care hospitals as long-term care facilities.    And we need a national drug strategy so that we can  use the power of the single-payer to lower drug prices.
That drug strategy could have been accomplished by now.  Every business person understands that the larger your bulk order, the greater your chance of lowering the price. Economists estimated in one study that for four major drugs the savings in Canada of a single national drug plan could be as high as 50 percent.  Premiers Lorne Calvert of Saskatchewan,  Ralph Klein of Alberta, and Gordon Campbell of British Columbia all  called for a national pharmacare program. But prime minister Martin was too busy, and  he dithered. As a consequence, the deal was killed in 2006 when we elected the Harper Conservative government.