Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stephen Harper and the "S" Word

Uh oh. Prime Minister Harper is using the “s” word again. After the retrieval of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body from the Red River in Winnipeg, and the recent discovery of a decapitated body in Kamloops, calls for a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women were renewed. The Prime Minister’s response: no, there should not be an inquiry, because “ we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime.”  He is wrong: we should view it as both a crime and as a sociological phenomenon.

If viewing the 1,181 cases of killed or missing aboriginal women over the past 30 years as a societal or systemic failure and viewing them as crimes were mutually exclusive choices, Harper would have a good point.  But of course they are not mutually exclusive, and therefore he does not have a very good point.  Part of the rationale for a judicial inquiry is that aboriginals have good historical reasons for not trusting the government, but have reason to think that they can get a fair shake from the courts. Of course, this government doesn't want to recognize that.

Another point: If murderers were targeting Conservative politicians in wildly disproportionate numbers, would those politicians  be satisfied by the police saying that those crimes are being solved at the same rate as other murders?

British Columbians who have wondered about the slowness with which authorities responded to the disappearance of women on Vancouver’s East Side were not completely satisfied by the conviction of the man who killed them.  What weaknesses and biases within the justice system caused these disappearances to happen for so long?  The string of fatalities along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert—the “Highway of Tears” – also raises a number of questions: what factors place women at highest risk?  Are most victims prostitutes or drug addicts  engaged in high-risk occupations, or are they simply vulnerable and targeted because they are poor and female and aboriginal?  Is the dismal state of education on reserves to blame? Tina Fontaine liked math and science and was popular at school, but became emotionally troubled after her father died and was placed in foster care..  Loretta Saunders, an Inuit university student killed in Halifax in February, was working on a thesis about missing and murdered aboriginal women at the time she was killed.  

It is not just important to find out who dunnit and punish them – it is important to identify the risk factors for native women and take steps toward prevention that will hopefully stop the steady trickle of targeted killings that take place across this country at a rate of at least three per month. 

If the Native Women’s Association of Canada gathers 23,000 signatures calling for a national inquiry, do they deserve to be ignored?    A formal judicial inquiry would have badly-needed legitimacy in the eyes of both natives and non-natives alike.  It could be used to guide schools and social workers and policy makers about causes, risk factors, and prevention.  It could also be used to raise public awareness and support for education and drug treatment and economic opportunity for First Nations people.  Surely, it is time that this government showed native women more respect, swallowed its pride, and committed some sociology.

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?