Harper screwed up on Duffy appointment

Published Apr. 13, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Senate residency rules become a public issue approximately once in a blue moon.

It happened back in 1979 when Joe Clark became prime minister with a minority Progressive Conservative government. Clark wanted to appoint his friend and trusted adviser Lowell Murray to the Senate. Problem was, Murray, although he had lived in Ottawa for years, was still technically a resident of Nova Scotia where he had a home in Cape Breton – and there were no Senate vacancies in Nova Scotia.

But there were in Ontario. So Clark approached Bill Davis, the Tory premier of Ontario, to ask if he could “borrow” an empty Ontario seat for Murray, who Davis also admired. No problem, Davis said. In short order, Murray acquired a condo in Ottawa, thereby satisfying the Confederation-era requirement that senators own $4,000 worth of “real property” in the province they represent. (Real estate prices may have risen in 148 years but the old quantum hasn’t.)

Continue reading

Anyway, Murray became known as the “Senator from Condominium”; he served with distinction in Upper House for 32 years before retiring at 75; while there, he held three cabinet portfolios in Brian Mulroney’s government.

That blue moon is shining on Ottawa again as the Mike Duffy trial unfolds. As we learned in week one, residency for Senate purposes is, to borrow Winston Churchill’s definition of Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” A native of Prince Edward Island, Duffy owns “real property” there, a cottage worth a good deal more than $4,000. You might think that would qualify him to be a senator from PEI.

But wait! Senate rules provide that members may claim travel and living expenses in Ottawa if their “primary residence” is more than 100 kilometres from the national capital. So Duffy declared the PEI property to be his primary residence and claimed living expenses for the Ottawa home where he has lived for 30-odd years. He could have claimed Ottawa as his primary residence, but if he had done that, he might have disqualified himself from his PEI Senate seat because the rules also require that senators be residents of the province they represent.

When the Senate asked the Deloitte auditing firm to review the residency riddle, the auditors threw up their hands in confusion: “There is a lack of clarity in the terminology used for the different residences mentioned or discussed in the applicable regulations and guidelines. The following terms are used without being clearly defined: primary residence, secondary residence, NCR (national capital region) residence, provincial residence. In addition, the term registered residence is not defined.”

Mark Audcent, who was the law clerk of the Senate when Duffy was named, told the trial he was not aware of any definition of primary or secondary residence. He said there was no rule about the length of time a senator spent at his primary residence and no rule against seasonal structures being designated as primary residences. Audcent testified, in effect, that a senator’s residence was wherever he claimed it to be and wherever the prime minister agreed it was when he appointed the senator.

When Stephen Harper appointed Mike Duffy in late 2008, both men knew Duffy had lived in Ottawa for years and was only a summer resident of PEI. They didn’t think it mattered. Harper chose to make Duffy a senator from Prince Edward Island. (On the same day, he made Pamela Wallin a senator for Saskatchewan, where she had roots, although she actually lived in Toronto.)

Mark Holmes, the crown attorney prosecuting Duffy, told the court that Duffy was probably ineligible to sit (and to claim expenses) as a senator from PEI from the moment Harper named him. “He was constitutionally eligible to have been appointed from the province of Ontario, but that is not what happened,” Holmes said.

In other words, the prime minister screwed up. He should have followed the Joe Clark/Lowell Murray precedent and made Duffy a senator from Ontario.

 

Obama-Netanyahu spat just political game-playing

Published Apr. 11, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

In discussing the future of Middle East peace, it should be stipulated that whether it takes a year, a decade or a century, at some point a partition and “two state” solution of some kind is inevitable.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this is nowhere on the horizon, and in fact prospects have regressed in recent years as the optimistic memories of the Oslo Accord fade. That said, the ramifications of the Barack Obama-Benjamin Netanyahu spat for the future of Middle East peace seem neither as revealing nor as significant as the initial media outburst would suggest.

An important part of Netanyahu’s motivation in criticizing the Iranian nuclear deal was probably an attempt to stiffen the U.S. bargaining position, rather than simply scupper the negotiations, much as he might have wished to do that as well.

Read more…

Treaties a basis for mutual respect

Published Apr. 9, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Waterloo Region Record

If you open up a newspaper or read almost any academic study about aboriginal peoples in Canada, it’s easy to get depressed. Study after study and report after report tells us the status quo isn’t working. Put simply, aboriginal participation within the constitutional framework of Canada has failed and is doomed to failure. And so commentators argue the only paths to reconciliation are either aboriginal assimilation into Canadian society or independence from the Canadian state.

To understand where this pessimism comes from, all one has to do is look at what is supposed to be the bedrock of the aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships in this country: the treaty relationship. History has shown that Canada has simply been unable or unwilling to respect the aboriginal view of what these treaties are supposed to accomplish. For the Crown, historical and modern treaties are supposed to represent the full and final settlement of all outstanding issues with aboriginal peoples. Period. For aboriginal communities, however, treaties with the Crown are supposed to be akin to the beginning of a marriage where the spouses agree to live together, but also recognize they must constantly work on and redefine their marriage as time and circumstances change. It is this fundamental difference in worldviews that breeds conflict, mistrust, and the paths of assimilation and independence.

Yet this can’t and shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is a solution, but it requires Canadian citizens and leaders to remember and draw upon our frequently forgotten civic identity and political heritage

Read more. 

All eyes will be on Duffy this week

Published April 6, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Mike Duffy trial, which begins this week, is first of three political happenings that will determine the fate of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government this year. The second is the belated federal budget to be presented on April 21 by Finance Minister Joe Oliver, an improbable alchemist who will try to convince the country that it is possible to turn red ink into black.

The third is the election itself, which by law must be held no later than Oct. 19. The pre-campaign has already begun, thanks to the generosity of taxpayers who, without having to be asked, are graciously contributing $7.5 million to advertise the Tory budget before it has even been presented. That $7.5 million is just a drop in the bucket, of course, a pebble in the ocean, as the Conservatives will keep spending to sell their dual message: they are the only party that is serious about the terrorists in our midst; and they are the only ones who can rescue the economy from its miseries (some of which, or so it might be inferred, could be laid at the door of nine years of Tory economic management). Continue reading

Back to the Mike Duffy trial.  The suspended senator from Prince Edward Island (a former journalist and celebrity fundraiser for the Conservative party) faces a total of 31 charges, most of which will drop away as the trial proceeds. The big one is bribery. Duffy is accused of accepting $90,000 from Nigel Wright, then Harper’s chief of staff, so that he could reimburse the treasury for expenses he claimed on his residence in Ottawa. Duffy says the claim was legitimate, although he agreed under protest to repay the money; the government says the claim was fraudulent and that Duffy was guilty of accepting a bribe when he took the money and agreed to keep quiet about the whole affair.

However, Wright, who is expected to be the crown’s star witness, was not charged with offering a bribe (although he lost his job), and that non-charge could be the Achilles heel of the government’s case.

The first part of the trial will examine the Senate expense-accounting system. For years it operated more or less on an honour system; senators spent money in the course of their work and the Senate (aka the taxpayers) paid them back. Now, however, auditors have the final say. No expense claim is too picayune to escape their mind-numbing notice. Should senators who do not relish the cold Camembert that Air Canada serves its executive-class passengers be expected to eat it rather than expense a breakfast elsewhere? Who really cares?

There are real issues that may – and should – come to the fore in the 41 days set aside for the Duffy trial. One is the patronage-riddled system of naming senators. Duffy and his colleague Pamela Wallin, another former broadcast journalist, who was appointed the same day as “Old Duff,” were not chosen for what they could contribute to Parliament. They were appointed for what they could contribute to the Harper party. They were expected to go forth and attract crowds and raise money for the party.

They were very good at it. Harper loved them, until the auditors got on their trail. Then he disowned them. The Prime Minister’s office went into overdrive, generating thousands of emails in a cover-up designed to insulate the office and the Prime Minister from any responsibility for any aspect of the Senate scandal.

These issues – what the Prime Minister knew, when he knew it and what he did about it – are central to the trial. As it begins, watch Duffy. When this all began, he wanted to save his job and protect his reputation. He still wants to do that, but his focus has shifted. He is angry and bitter. His priority now is nothing less than to bring down Stephen Harper and his government.

The trial may start slowly, but it could turn nasty very quickly.

Reviewing Journal Manuscripts: Some Thoughts

Earlier this week, I received an email from the editors of Political Research Quarterly that I was one of the recipients of the 2014 PRQ Outstanding Reviewer Award. Odd, right? But I must admit it was also somewhat gratifying. Reviewing manuscripts is often a thankless task and doing a good job rarely produces any tangible benefit to the reviewer.  So the award, from a large and well-respected political science journal, was actually kind of nice.

The first thing I did after receiving the email, of course, was to pull up the reviews I did for PRQ last year.  According to my records, I seem to have only reviewed one manuscript (twice) for the journal, but the review was typical of how I do them now.  At the core of all of my reviews is to start from a position of respect for the author(s) of the manuscript.  Why respect? Because these authors probably spent months and months on this papers and it would be disingenuous of me to believe that I have some sort of absolute authority or expertise on the topic.  Also, if we keep the idea of respect front and centre when we review papers, no matter their level of development, then everyone will be happy and the peer review process, wait for it, may actually work to everyone’s advantage! Continue reading

So, what are some things I keep in mind when I review manuscripts?

1) Always respect what the authors are trying to do and never read the manuscript in terms of what you wished they had done.  You aren’t a co-author!  As long as the authors make the case that the paper makes a contribution in some form, then the task of the reviewer is to assess whether they are successful in making that contribution.  So once I make a decision on whether the paper’s question and answers are a contribution (which is almost always the case), given the journal, I usually focus all of my time on assessing the rigour of the paper (e.g. concepts/theory/methods/data and analysis/conclusions).

2) Subdivided your comments and suggestions into two categories: absolutely necessary changes and changes that would be nice, but are purely optional. Again, I try to respect the fact that this isn’t my paper and I haven’t been working on it for months and months.  And so I try to identify some things that are clearly necessary to ensuring the paper meets the standards of the journal, then I provide some other things that might be helpful, but perhaps aren’t necessary for defending the basic arguments and contribution of the paper.  I always tell the authors which suggestions are necessary for my support, and which suggestions are purely optional and can be dismissed if they provide some convincing reasons.

3) Turn around reviews within a week or two.  Without exception, we all hate waiting on reviews. Everyone I know complains about long delays from reviewers and journals.  Yet delays are the norm!  I don’t get it. Again, respect that publications matter for careers, for future research and for public policy development.  So get off your butt and carve out an afternoon or two to review that paper that has been sitting in your inbox.  Respect your colleague’s careers and the amount of time they put into the paper and turn around your reviews asap so they can make revisions or send the paper to another journal.

I would say those are the big three things I try to do. The other thing I do is communicate with editors when I know or can pretty much guess who the authors of the paper are.  Our discipline and subfields are pretty small and I think it’s important we declare any possible conflicts of interests to the journal editors.  Let the editors decide and make assessments of manuscripts and referee reports with full information. That includes letting them know that you reviewed a paper previously for another journal!

“Albertans Have Spoken!” or Maybe Not: The Curious Coverage of Danielle Smith

Earlier this week, Danielle Smith failed to win the PC nomination in her riding and the knives were out.  Some commentators and politicians mentioned how “Albertans have spoken” or how “Albertans” didn’t like her floor-crossing behaviour and punished her accordingly. Continue reading

There are a lot of angles to this story but one that hasn’t been corrected is this fallacy that Albertans passed judgement on Smith.  Albertans didn’t judge Smith.  It was the PC members of Highwood who did that. To say that Albertans didn’t like Smith’s decision and so Albertans punished her by supporting Carrie Fisher is a little disingenuous.

A better test of Albertan views about Smith would have been if she had won the PC nomination but lost her seat in the upcoming general election. Unfortunately, we won’t get a chance to see how that test would have played out.

 

The Sunshine List is all breadth and no depth

Published Apr. 1, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Did you know that the Region of Waterloo’s chief administrative officer, Michael Murray, made $263,355.12 last year?

We know this thanks to the Public Sector Salary Disclosure — more commonly known as the Sunshine List — which provides a yearly financial picture of the province’s highest public sector earners.

Unfortunately, the list cannot tell us much else and leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions about value and efficiency.

The annual Sunshine List is the result of the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, legislation brought forward by the Mike Harris government in 1996.

The act requires that organizations receiving public funding from the Province of Ontario disclose the names, positions, salaries and taxable benefits of employees who are paid annual salaries of $100,000 or more. Currently, this legislation applies to the Government of Ontario, Crown agencies, municipalities, hospitals, public health and school boards, universities, colleges, Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation, and other public sector employers who receive a significant level of funding from the province.

Read more…

Harper is finally getting his wish — a war

Published March 30, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the spring of 2003, in the waning days of his prime ministry, Jean Chrétien announced the decision for which he will be long remembered. Canada, he told a tumultuous House of Commons, would be not joining the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in its war against Iraq.

There are times in politics when a decision not to take a certain step is tougher, yet wiser, than a decision to take that step. In March 2003, Chrétien was under pressure both from U.S. president George W. Bush and from Stephen Harper, the newly minted leader of the opposition in Ottawa, to commit Canadian forces to the invasion of Iraq. If Chrétien had succumbed to their pressure, Canada would have been locked into an unwinnable war that in the end dragged on for eight years, claiming the lives of 4,491 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians. Continue reading

Chrétien said no to Bush because the United States had been unable to persuade the UN Security Council to endorse military action. There was no evidence to support the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Canada, Chrétien said, would honour military commitments to its allies in the then two-year-old war in Afghanistan, but it was going to stay out of Iraq,

There’s not much doubt that if Harper had been prime minister in 2003, and particularly if he had a majority government, Canada would have followed the United States into Iraq. That would have been a huge mistake, as Harper finally and grudgingly admitted five years later, during a leaders’ debate in the 2008 election campaign. By this time, he was prime minister, and as the Green party leader declared in that debate: “We’re only not sending anyone to Iraq because you weren’t prime minister at the time (in 2003).”

So now it is 2015. Harper has a majority government, and Canada has followed the United States into war against ISIL with a bombing campaign in Iraq. Now the Harper government intends to extend its bombing to ISIL targets in Syria.

The situations are different, of course. Saddam Hussein was a brutal despot who deserved to be removed from power. He had thoroughly annoyed the United States, but did not directly threaten Canadian interests. ISIL is a monster of a different order. It is a movement of murderous fanatics who do not hesitate to wreak violence abroad as well as at home. Any polls I’ve seen suggest strong public support for the war against ISIL.

(It’s worth noting that the United Kingdom, which was alongside the U.S. in the “coalition of the willing” a decade ago, and which is part of the current anti-ISIL bombing in Iraq, is not going into Syria. The Cameron coalition government could not win the support of the British Parliament for a Syrian campaign. That’s not an obstacle Harper faces.)

Harper is able to do in 2015 what he wished he could do in 2003. He is going to war with no idea of how long it may last (longer than shorter one suspects) and with no assurance that Canada will be able to avoid committing boots on the ground somewhere down the road. And the government has no exit strategy to turn to if the war proves to be unwinnable.

Last week’s Commons debate produced plenty of partisanship and posturing, but a dearth of clear thinking about the degree of the ISIL threat, the actual need for Canadian military involvement, and the anticipated effectiveness of that involvement.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect clear thinking when the country is on the road to an election. Harper needs this war. Back in 2003, he wanted to push the Chrétien Liberals into the Iraq War. Now that he is in power he doesn’t need any pushing. Today, he is jumping of his own volition without knowing where he and the country may land.

Where Did All the Baby Bottles Go? Interest Groups, Media Coverage and Institutional Imperatives in Canada’s Regulation of Bisphenol A

Author: Simon Kiss

Published in Canadian Journal of Political Science

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.

 

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

Published Mar. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As Canada lurches unsteadily toward a general election, something important is missing. That “something” is a sense of national purpose – or vision – from any of the three major parties. How do the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Liberals envisage the future of the country they aspire to lead for (let us say) the next decade or beyond?

We know, broadly, where they are coming from. But do they have a roadmap? How do they see the Canada of 2025 or 2040? Will we still be a moderately liberal society, committed to equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens? Will we still welcome immigrants? Will we still embrace the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (or will we let the charter be reduced to a relic of a bygone era)? Will we still respect the supremacy of Parliament and the Supreme Court? And looking beyond Canada’s borders, will we be content to play a modest, if useful, role in a world dominated by bigger powers and their agendas? Continue reading

Of course, all three parties are dedicated (or say they are) to the service of the “middle class,” however they define it. But accommodating the middle class does not a vision make. It’s as though the leaders of the parties are so busy struggling with minutiae of the present (what should Muslim women wear on their heads; should rural dwellers be encouraged to keep guns by their beds; is income-splitting a good or bad idea) that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They become preoccupied with politics on the margins, slicing and dicing the electorate into interest groups where they hope to gain electoral advantage.

Elections should be an opportunity, for bold thinking, for big ideas. You can say what you will about John Diefenbaker, but he was not afraid to proclaim his vision (he even called it a vision) for Canada, based on northern development. So many Canadians embraced his vision that his Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. A decade later, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority with his vision of a Just Society.

Judging from the polls, Canadians are confused. They have elected Stephen Harper three times, but they still don’t love him or trust him very much; his poll numbers reflect that. The people like Thomas Mulcair, as long as he is leading the opposition. They would like to like Justin Trudeau, and they told pollsters that for two years; now they are not so sure.

As of early last week, the online poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com had the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat. Later in the week, however, a new poll by EKOS Research showed an apparent four-point shift from the Tories to the Liberals, putting the Trudeau party ahead of the Harper party by 32 per cent to 30, with the NDP holding at 21.

Frank Graves, the head of EKOS, suggested the movement, which he found significant, could partly be blowback over Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill. “The more likely explanation, however, is that the security and culture narrative is beginning to lose strength as the threat of a stagnant and eroding economy takes root in voters’ minds,” Graves reported.

The federal budget is due in the next month. But if the economy is struggling – and if the fear card is losing its potency – the Conservatives will be in trouble this spring.

Trouble for the government generally spells opportunity for the opposition. But for which opposition party? Talk of an NDP-Liberal coalition is very much in the wind. It may be the moment for a bold idea – say, a joint announcement by Mulcair and Trudeau that if (as seems likely) no party wins a majority of the 338 seats, their two parties have agreed to join forces to replace the Conservatives.

A risky idea and maybe dangerous, but its very boldness would make for an exciting election.

Where did all the baby bottles go? The regulation of bisphenol A in Canada

The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.

This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada’s regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was “toxic” according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that “at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical”. Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as “limited” (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces. Continue reading

In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.

This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: “I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system.” In research I’m doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don’t know this or don’t care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.

Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I’m pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt’s) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt’s reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as “inherently toxic”. While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found “inherently toxic” to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover — and my paper spells this out — this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn’t want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.

And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they’ve helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.

Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains – such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides – failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.

Forget Robert Munsch, kindergartners need skills training

Published Mar. 21, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it would be asking employers and industry groups to participate in a process designed to transform how universities are funded and operated in Ontario.

In many ways, this announcement is unsurprising in that it is simply the latest development in a long-term trend toward pushing universities to become places that focus more strongly on training students to meet the needs of the Canadian economy.

Universities, according to this vision, need to become sophisticated versions of community colleges, providing students with high-end skills and training to meet the current and future demands of the marketplace.

Predictably, this recent announcement has generated considerable opposition and disgust among my academic colleagues. I, on the other hand, applaud the government for taking this bold and visionary stance in provincial education policy.

Read more…

Appeal to politics of fear worked for Netanyahu

Published Mar. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

The Israeli election results are yet another reminder of what travails can be produced by a proportional representation voting system in complicating the democratic process.

Even with a minimum threshold of 3.25 per cent support to gain representation, Tuesday’s election produced 10 legislative parties in the new Knesset (Israel’s parliament), none of which receive more than 25 per cent of the vote. This means the task of forming a government requires cobbling together a deal among a wide range of prospective coalition partners, each with their own demands and agendas, which are frequently incompatible with other parties.

For example, a secular party like Yesh Atid has demands that are incompatible with the different Jewish religious parties (Ashkenazi and Sephardic). There is also a party that appeals to Russian immigrant voters, a party to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and one to the left of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union (formerly Labour), not to mention a newly aggregated bloc of Arab parties that would prefer to see the Jewish state disappear.

Read more.

Terror bill creates havoc in Harperland

Published Mar. 16, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3

With the House of Commons in recess this week for yet another mid-session breather, it is a perfect moment for everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and bring some calm to the debate over Bill C-51. To leash the dogs of war, as it were.

This could have been a civil debate. If the government felt it needed to top up police powers to deal with terrorism, it could have introduced a modest measure to that end, explaining to Parliament why additional powers were needed, what precisely those powers would be, whether they would be temporary or permanent, and what controls would be put in place to ensure the police did not abuse their new powers. And the Conservatives could have agreed to accept reasonable amendments from the opposition.

Continue reading

Parliament, I think, would have passed such a bill fairly quickly, assuming it represented an honest attempt to strike a balance between public safety and the protection of individual rights. The problem with the Harper government – or, perhaps more accurately, one of its problems – is that it cannot resist excess.

A measure that was introduced in response to the murders of two soldiers by lone-wolf assassins in unrelated incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, somehow escalated into a holy war against the jihadis of international Islam, then, courtesy of the personal intervention of the prime minister, branched into an attack on the dress code of Muslim women.

Why should the prime minister waste time worrying about what Muslim women choose to wear? The niqab or hajib have about as much (or little) to do with good governance and public safety as the ridiculous-looking Stetsons that Harper wears at the Calgary Stampede. In a free society, even prime ministers are permitted to make their own sartorial decisions.

It took Stephen Blaney, minister of the Orwellian-sounding department of public safety, to crank the fear factor up a nasty notch. It’s not just women with scarves on their heads that Canadians need to fear. There are “jihadist terrorists,” he assured a parliamentary committee, who have declared war on Canada “simply because these terrorists hate our society and they hate our values.”

How do we prevent them? Well, we start by making the “promotion of terrorism” a criminal offence. This, it seems, may mean limiting freedom of speech in Canada. “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words,” Blaney explained, sort of.

From jihadis to head scarves to our hateful values to the Holocaust – if it weren’t so serious, it might be funny, more Gilbert and Sullivan than George Orwell. But it’s serious because the Conservatives seem actually to believe this nonsense.

They believe it deeply enough to ram through Bill C-51, cutting off debate at every stage, as they rush to give the security forces powers they probably don’t need to deal with a threat that looms large in Conservative imaginations, and rejecting all opposition attempts to improve the bill with amendments to provide oversight of the police powers.

In the process, they are prepared to risk stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, thereby alienating some of the minority communities that they – Jason Kenney, in particular – worked so hard to woo in the 2011 election.

If the Conservatives seem to be panicking, it is because they see the headlight of the next election racing down the track at them. I think the Tories miscalculated. They thought playing the “fear card” would have brought them to a sweet spot in the polls by now, a spot where they would enjoy a tidy lead over the Liberals and NDP. Instead they are deadlocked with the Liberals with the New Democrats not too far behind.

Right now, a Liberal-NDP coalition or cooperative government is as good a bet as another Conservative government. Bill C-51 is simply creating havoc in Harperland. It’s time to step back.