Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Corporate Investment in Africa is Lacking

Check out the following website, which investigates corporate activity ( or the lack of it) in Africa. What it has to say about Boardroom Attitudes toward Africa should raise a few eyebrows:

Friday, May 22, 2009

One Sentence About B.C. Energy Policy

Instead of paying private companies a premium to dam rivers, BC Hydro should pay private citizens a premium for any solar, wind and geothermal power they can generate, as Germany does.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Post-Election Analysis (2) : Is electoral reform dead or is it just STV that is dead?

Of the 48% of the electorate who bothered to vote, 2/3 said they weren't interested. It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke.

Two ironies jump out at me from the long electoral reform process that we have just been through. First, it was ironic that even though the underlying premise of the whole exercise was that government was in a conflict of interest in deciding issues of electoral reform , Liberal backbenchers prevailed upon the premier to have a 60% threshold for approval--not needed to decide conscription or Quebec independence or Newfoundland's entry into Confederation, but necessary when MLAs jobs are at stake! Interesting! Second, it was ironic that the vote that finally defeated BC-STV was based on a turnout of about 48% of the population--an historic low which merely underscores the need for electoral reform. Bill Tieleman and others have proffered the solution of compulsory voting, but one gets the feeling that that solution is only treating a symptom and not the disease. To the extent that the problem is that voters are just too busy nowadays, compulsory voting is a satisfactory answer; to the extent that declining sense of voter efficacy, cultural shift, paucity of meaningful choices and unrepresentative legislatures are behind voting decline, more drastic measures are needed.

That being said, BC-STV is dead. The surprisingly low support for the system recommended by the Citizens' Assembly (39%, down from 58% in 1995), has even caused me to reconsider my own preferred solution, STV-lite. I was prepared, in the event of a "moral victory" of a 50% +1 vote, to wage an extensive campaign for a system that would be less proportional than BC-STV, but better at local representation ( 3-member ridings for big cities; dual ridings for southern interior and small cities; single rdings for the north). But perhaps the fatal flaw in STV was that its very name drew attention to a complicated vote-counting system. Perhaps the Citizens' Assembly should have understood that the perfect was the enemy of the good and that reaching for proportionality through STV was going to be a difficult sell. Better to drop the preferential ballot altogether and go back to the drawing board.

Specifically, we should go permanently back to 60 single -member constituences. The rest of the Legislature would consist of "at large regional MLAs", 4-6 larger electoral districts of 4-6 members each, depending on population densities and so on. An open list could still give voters the option of ranking the individual candidates of their preferred party, if they so wished; the "dual ballot" would be a simpler concept to understand than STV. Parties would be motivated to field lists that are ethnically and gender-balanced; local representation would hardly suffer and would arguably improve from having a "regional" dimension as well as a local one. Proportionality would be improved mildly. And minor parties would have a slightly better chance of getting elected (voter thresholds for 6-member seats being in the 16% range). Would a referendum be needed to validate such a proposal? I don't thinks so, but if so, then only a 50% threshold should be needed for this less drastic, and ultimately more sensible compromise.

Post-Election Analysis (1): It's the Economy, Stupid

Vaughn Palmer hit the nail on the head in his column of May 13: " Given the paramount importance of the economic issue, would any plausible strategy have won this election for the NDP? Probably not." But wait a minute--if the Liberals take credit when times are good, and are "the best stewards" when times are bad, isn't that a "heads I win, tails you lose" sort of proposition? It sure is.

There is a fundamentally un-level playing field in this province, as this year's election results remind us. And give Campbell credit--he succeeded in pressing his advantage. Besides doing everything he could to stimulate growth in the private sector, his U-turns on First Nations and the Environment prevented a Solidarity-like United Front of interest groups from forming behind the NDP.

But there was a time in this province--in the 1980s and early 1990s--when the NDP not only fronted such a broad coalition, but had an answer to the Right's economic policies. As you may recall, the Socreds were heavily criticized by the economics profession for making the last Great Recession worse than it needed to be by "Restraining the Economy", as the title of the book put out by UBC's Institute of Economic Policy put it. These economists also argued that the province ought to place greater emphasis on human capital and less on mega-projects. As the 1980s wore on, the NDP added another leg to its economic strategy, namely the idea that by drawing upon its roots in the labour and environmental movements , engaging in wide-ranging stakeholder discussions, ending the "war in the woods" and undertaking land-use planning and treaties with First Nations, the province could move forward toward sustainable and socially just economic prosperity. This bore some fruit until external conditions hit hard, just as external conditions are hitting hard right now.

There is plenty to criticize in Gordon Campbell's economic policies. Virtually none of them have achieved the results hoped for, and few have even come close. The so-called Heartland Strategy, TILMA, privatizing BC Rail, BC Ferries and BC Hydro, the tax cuts, the fish farms, the tax shift behind the carbon tax and the compromising of the Land Reserve, the "e-government initiative", and so on have not generated much employment or growth. The key to growth remains external markets, especially resource prices. That is why a different strategy focusing on human capital and environmental sustainability as a better way to capitalize on the potential generated by external factors is still a viable option.

I have a hunch that environmentalists and First Nations are going to feel disappointed--maybe even betrayed--by the next Campbell government. The NDP should aim not only to be a vehicle for their discontent and the discontent of other members of civil society, but to be an actually better vehicle for economic policy that is also attractive for small communities and middle-class voters as well. Let's get to it.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Final Thoughts on the 2009 B.C. Election

Congratulations to NDP leader Carole James for winning the TV leaders' debate. Now, after she loses the election next Tuesday I don't expect a headlong rush to replace her. Indeed, if she can improve NDP standings in the Legislature even slightly I would encourage her to stay on for at least a couple more years. But there are a couple of lessons that I hope are not lost on New Democrats and small "d" democrats as they sift through the debris of this electoral defeat.

First, let me make one last comment on the NDP's approach to the environment and the carbon tax issue. The best policies made in this province by the NDP arose during the 1980s and 1990s when the party drew on its deep roots in both the labour and environmental movements to thrash out compromises which informed the CORE process, the Land Use Plans, the parks and Forest Practices Code, the Treaty process and so on. They didn't come from some operatives in the premier's office reading political opinion polls. Making policy to appeal to average voters when gas prices and party approval ratings are fluctuating up and down is a bit like playing the stock market. It would have been wiser to forge a compromise that would have kept the red-green coalition together. I have suggested a carbon tax that would serve as an effective floor price rather than as a regressive duty on all fuel in all situations. Might environmentalists have gone along with such a proposal? Probably enough to have prevented Campbell from splitting the progressive vote.

Second, a last comment on electoral reform. It appears likely that for the second election in a row, electoral reformers will win a moral victory (i.e. between 50% and 60% of the vote). A large number of voters and representatives of minority groups have been torn in this election between the potential for greater representation of diversity allowed by BC-STV and the greater local representativeness and stability promised by our current system. I have suggested that what these election results mean is that there is a mandate for a more moderate type of electoral reform. What I have called "STV lite" would give MLAs manageable constituencies, give voters a manageable size of ballot, and ensure continued majority government most of the time. But it would also force parties and governments to worry about the majority of voters' preferences. And it would improve the representativeness of the legislature.

3-member STV in the major metropolitan areas , 2-seat STV in the southern interior and smaller cities, and single seats with preferential ballots in the North would be a far cry from perfect proportionality, to be sure, but that would be a good thing. For the demand function for proportionality is not the same as the demand functions for voter choice and local representation. Ideally, voters would like to represent themselves if time and resources permitted; they would also ideallly like an infinite variety of choices. But proportionality is an indubitable good only in small amounts; extreme proportionality backfires in the parliamentary context by giving small parties too much leverage and blurring accountability for decisions.

Another simple reform is suggested by the growing size of the legislature (now up to 85 seats). Just have 60 seats elected as they are now (when I entered college there were 57 seats in the legislature, so this represents an historically normal level of constituency representation)--and have 25-30 seats from open lists. The open lists could be split into 4 or 5 geographical regions (greater Vancouver, Island & mid-coast, southern interior and north). These at-large members would afford voters a greater degree of choice in casting their ballots and a greater degree of proportionality and fairness in the results.