Rob Ford’s campaign gains momentum

Published Sept. 2, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

It is absurd.

Nearly four years ago, a suburban councillor by the name of Rob Ford, was elected mayor of Toronto. City politics had never seen a candidate quite like him. He presented himself as a right-wing populist, the leader of something he called “Ford Nation.” He preached less government and lower taxes. He pledged to stop the “gravy train” at City Hall and to build subways to the suburbs. That was about it. Facing a weak field, he won the chain of office.

The intervening four years have been a disaster. Far from being a charismatic defender of the downtrodden, Ford proved to be a loathsome individual. There were drugs, booze, outrageous public behaviour, self-serving lies, criminal associates, obscene comments about women, including female colleagues on City Council, plus various conflicts of interest – the list goes on. He was a disgrace. He made Toronto a joke on the comedy circuit at home and in the United States.

Yet by some strange alchemy this unspeakable person stands a very good chance of being reelected mayor in October. Who would have thought it possible?

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Last week a Forum Research poll put Ford in second place, closing in on the current leader, John Tory, and pulling away from the third candidate (and early favourite), Olivia Chow. In a sample of 1,945 Torontonians, Tory had 34 per cent, Ford 31 and Chow 23.

True, it was an automated phone survey – in other words, a “robopoll” – but it may not be a rogue poll. Its results are roughly consistent with the unpublished findings of the candidates’ internal surveys. The Chow campaign is stalled. Tory is flagging. Only Ford has momentum.

How did this happen? It has been an impossibly long campaign – eight months so far with almost two to go before Oct. 27. Chow was the early leader, the most outspoken critic of the mayor and, as a left-wing populist, she tapped into some of the same anti-establishment sentiment as Ford, while offering a very different set of progressive policies. Ford is a Conservative, Chow a New Democrat (and former MP). The choice between left and right, between downtown (Chow) and suburbs (Ford) seemed clear.

Enter John Tory. He’s a conventional Conservative, a former provincial leader who led his party to defeat in the 2007 Ontario election. For municipal voters who wanted someone conservative without getting Rob Ford, Tory was their man. Where Ford is a populist, Tory is pure establishment. Where Ford is outrageous, Tory is bland to the point of boring. He seems to be running because he wants to be elected to something, not because he has a grand design for Toronto.

At the end of the spring, Chow had the lead by five or six percentage points. She seemed to represent the face of the new Toronto – young, ethnic and open to change and challenge. As Tory slipped into second place, he became the face of the old Toronto – greying, WASP and risk-adverse. And it looked as though Ford was out of the running.

At the start of May, Ford entered rehab for his alcohol and drug issues. When he emerged two months later, the race changed. Former Ford supporters, who, weary of the City Hall soap opera, had moved to Chow and Tory, now moved back. Chow’s lead became a deficit. Tory could not get any traction.

Polling indicates that women voters, in particular, were disposed to give Rob Ford a second chance. He had admitted his sins and rehabilitated himself (or so he claimed). Who would refuse to forgive a repentant sinner?

I think this forgiveness accounts for some of his campaign revival. Sheer name recognition contributes the rest. In municipal politics where there are no parties or leaders to guide voters’ decision making, name recognition can be everything. Rob Ford may be a dreadful mayor, but he is a genuine celebrity, mobbed wherever he goes. When you are a big enough star, a little notoriety simply adds spice.

No, Rob Ford Will Not Win Re-Election

In a recent Toronto Star opinion article, communications consultant Dan Rath puts forward an interesting argument: Rob Ford will be re-elected as Mayor of Toronto.

For most politicians seeking a second term, this is not a controversial statement. Voters are generally forgiving towards single-term incumbents. Most incumbents usually have a good shot at re-election, especially at the municipal level in Ontario where political parties do not exist. Name recognition is king and many incumbents know how to maximize it to their advantage.

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Ford, however, is a different case. Ford is unlike any other politician we’ve ever seen in municipal politics. Since being elected in 2010, he has admitted to smoking crack and has been seen on video hanging around with convicted drug dealers and gang members. Even before revelations about his drug use emerged, Ford was courting controversy. Whether it was reading while driving or his conflict of interest trial, Ford was routinely front-and-centre in local and national press.

Rath insists the public will overlook this and puts forward four main points to support his argument. First, Ford’s celebrity status has enamored the public. Second, news coverage has become more simplified, allowing Ford to escape scrutiny on multiple occasions. Third, the campaign has become a referendum on Ford’s character and suitability for office. Finally, a “reformed” Rob Ford is appealing to voters. Rath’s claims are not without support. Forum has released some new polling showing Ford gaining strength.

I, however, do not share Rath’s belief that Ford could win re-election. I don’t believe he has a legitimate path to victory and I don’t think he really has for more than two years.

I won’t dispute that Ford has reached celebrity status. At his recent Ford Fest barbeque, thousands of people lined up for hours for free food. Hundreds even stood in line for the chance to meet him and his brother Doug. Wherever Rob Ford goes in the city, he is mobbed by swarms of selfie-seeking onlookers. Ford is a bonafide celebrity.

While he is never short of onlookers and curious observers, Torontonians are absolutely exhausted from the circus at City Hall, which is why I think his hopes for re-election were dashed long ago. It seems like every week brings a new conflict of interest allegation, a lawsuit, or a new controversy over slanderous language. Council has at times seemed absolutely unmanageable this term and Rob Ford and his brother Doug are often the cause.

Simply put, voters are tired, which I believe means change is coming. While Ford has been amusing to watch, the city faces serious challenges to which he has proven unable and unwilling to devote his full attention.

I think there is support for Ford’s agenda. There are many in Toronto who hate streetcars, loathe bike lanes, believe tax dollars are constantly being wasted and want their taxes lowered. They exist and while Ford was their champion, he has long worn out his welcome. While the idea of a “reformed” Ford is appealing, his antics have not abated since he returned from rehab. A second mandate for Ford means another four years of chaos – an entirely unappealing prospect for most voters.

Voters growing tired of the Harper Tories

Published Aug. 25, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

For lack of a better term, let’s call it “voter fatigue.” Voter fatigue is what sets in when the public simply grows tired of the politicians who are running their lives. They may not be especially angry at the people in power. It’s more a matter of being weary — and bored — of hearing the same self-serving arguments, the same empty platitudes, the same threadbare rationalizations over and over from the same political mouths.

That’s when voters start telling one another (and they tell pollsters, too) that “enough is enough.” I think we are at that point in federal politics today. As I read the opinion polls, people are not so much outraged by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives as they are tired of them. Some of this was reflected in the Angus Reid Global survey mentioned in last week’s column. Asked to describe Harper in one word, 26 per cent of the 1,502 Canadians polled chose “boring,” while 37 per cent said “arrogant.”

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These responses have less to do with the merits of the government’s policies than they do with the tone that the administration projects. Are they sensitive to the people’s concerns? Do they put the public interest ahead of their own political interest? Are they compassionate when compassion is called for, as with Canada’s veterans? Or do they treat the vets as just another special interest group to be shoved aside? Do they really care about the treatment of aboriginals? Are they really interested in protecting the environment?

The Harper government does not fare well when faced with questions like these. It comes across as being more concerned with its own well-being than with the interests of the population as a whole. After 8½ years in power, it has lost sight of why it wanted to get elected in the first place.

We have been there before. To cite one example, it happened to Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney at the same stage in his reign. He was elected in 1984 and re-elected in 1988. By 1992, the public had had enough. He might have weathered the controversies over free trade and the goods and services tax, but it was the Mulroney style (remember “Lyin’ Brian?”), the arrogance and the sense of entitlement of a party that had been in power too long that did them in. As the opinion polls cratered, Mulroney took his leave but it was too late; the Tories were annihilated in 1993 under the leadership of Kim Campbell. Thus began the Jean Chrétien Liberal era.

I am not suggesting a catastrophe of such magnitude awaits the Harper (or post-Harper) Conservatives in 2015. But when the public takes it into its head that enough is enough, it will take more than a portfolio of shiny new polities, a major retooling of the cabinet, or maybe even a new leader, to right the ship.

At the moment, the Tory ship is sinking, and has been for the past year. An EKOS poll this month put the Harper party 13 points behind the Liberals (25.6 per cent to 38.7) and barely ahead of the New Democrats (23.4 per cent). A Forum Research poll had it closer — a nine-point lead for the Liberals (41-32).

Either way, the numbers suggest a Liberal government. The Liberals are talking about winning 170 seats, enough for a bare majority of the 338 seats in the enlarged House of Commons. They aren’t there yet and may not get there; the NDP has no intention of rolling over. If the Liberals do form a government, it won’t be because they dazzled the country with irresistible policies or because Justin Trudeau set the woods afire with his personal magnetism.

If they win, it will because the Harper Tories got old, out of touch and took the keys to 24 Sussex for granted. It will be because voters, having concluded “enough is enough,” made the next short step to “time for a change.”

Islamic regimes uncomfortable with extremist jihadist groups

Published Aug. 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Whatever outcome results from the on-again off-again conflict in Gaza, Hamas is obliged to declare victory as it did in 2009 and 2012, if only to save face from the debacle they have put their population through.

Whether that “victory” is purely symbolic, as in “Hamas is still standing,” or has some substantive gain, remains to be seen. The rush by some academics to challenge battlefield accounts and definitively declare the conflict as an Israeli defeat depends upon definitions. The perception of any encounter can be revised so that any victory or defeat can be redefined upward or downward to mean anything.

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Is Harper influenced by polls?

Published Aug. 18, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Pollsters are forever serving up useless information. But sometimes they come up with findings that, while devoid of practical value, are sort of interesting nonetheless.

For example, polling companies report periodically on the number of people who believe that Elvis is still alive. Why they ask this, I don’t know, but they do. A few years ago, the number stood consistently at 12 per cent to 13 per cent of adult Americans. While more recent polls put the figure at “only” 8 per cent, it means that roughly 16 million (delusional) Americans believe the King is still with us. (For the record, Elvis left the building in August 1977, or so we are told.)

In the category of useless but marginally interesting information, I would put a new poll by the firm Angus Reid Global, which asked 1,502 Canadians to choose adjectives to express what they thought of a selection of national leaders. Not surprisingly, United States President Barack Obama, who always polls better north of the border than south of it, did very well. Forty-six per cent of Canadians said he was “influential,” 33 per cent chose “compassionate,” 32 per cent “inspiring.” 29 per cent “credible,” and so on. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Canadians can’t vote in the mid-term elections in November.
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Also not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin fared badly. To 54 per cent of Canadians, he is “arrogant,” “corrupt” (52 per cent), “dishonest” (45 per cent), and “secretive” (41 per cent).

And how is Stephen Harper viewed by his own countrymen? Surprisingly (or perhaps not), he stands closer to Putin than to Obama. In terms of being “secretive,” he is right there with Putin, at 39 per cent to the Russian president’s 41. In terms of being “arrogant,” Harper trails Putin 37-54. Among other descriptions, Harper is seen as “dishonest” (31 per cent) and “boring” (26 per cent).

Who cares about any of this? Probably not Obama. Personal popularity is not a big concern when he is constitutionally precluded from seeking a third term. Certainly not Putin. He doesn’t need to court public support at home let alone among detractors like Canadians.

But Harper may care. His Conservatives face a federal general election in October 2015, and if Harper decides to seek a fourth term as prime minister, he will have to be concerned about the hardening negative perception that Canadians have of him and his leadership. According to the poll, positive impressions are much weaker than the negative ones. Only 19 per cent say they see him as a “strong” leader, 18 per cent say he is “influential,” 17 per cent “credible” and 13 per cent “honest.”

So here is the dilemma, if you happen to be Stephen Harper. By election time, you will have been Tory leader for 12 years; you will have fought four national elections (and won three of them); and you will have been prime minister for nine long years. The negatives revealed in the Angus Reid poll are not news to you. You have never gone out of your way to make yourself lovable, or even very interesting, to Canadians. Today your party trails so badly behind the Liberals that pundits are starting to speculate that the Conservatives could finish third behind both the Liberals and the NDP.

But if you want to win again, how do you persuade the public that its perception of you is wrong? How do you convince them that you are, in fact, what they believe you are not? How do you convince them that you are open, honest and compassionate? How do you, after all these years, compete with the freshness and vigour of a Justin Trudeau? Or can you bring yourself to you fold your tent and let your party move on without you?

In the end, maybe none of this matters. A poll is just a poll after all. This one may prove to be useless, but it is sort of interesting all the same.

Should We Continue to Assign “Term Papers” in University?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about teaching and learning recently (in between finishing a new book with Jen Nelles and a really cool new paper on political donations with Chris Cochrane: more on these projects once they are closer to completion!).

Last year, a colleague in my department noted that a student could technically complete a BA in political science at WLU without ever having to write a lengthy research paper. This colleague had gone through all of our syllabi and found that very few of us assigned term papers in our courses anymore. This led to some discussion about the need for students to write at least one major term paper during their studies at WLU (or ideally, one major term paper per year).

In my view, the death of the term paper may not be such a bad thing and it seems others agree:

http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/11/20/lets-kill-the-term-paper/
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There is no question that the skills involved in writing a term paper are valuable and should be taught and fostered among our students, but I’m not so sure that the traditional term paper is the way to do it!

In my view, many of the learning outcomes associated with the traditional term paper (e.g. research skills, comprehension and evaluation, critical thinking, and writing) can be better achieved by:

a) shorter, and more frequent writing assignments; and

b) assignments that better mimic what they might do in the real world (e.g. policy briefs; ministerial briefings, summaries of literature or events etc).

I know some of my colleagues engage in scaffolding, which provides students with the same benefits as (a): frequent practice and feedback.  But I’m not sure there’s a ton of value of having students write traditional research/term papers on “should Canada reform its electoral system”, unless such papers are aligned with (b).

I guess much of my skepticism comes from trying to pay more attention to the importance of learning objectives/outcomes and the empirical evidence on learning.  As someone who received absolutely no training and teaching, I’m slowly starting to see the need for reforming my courses and teaching!

 

 

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

So reads the title of a new book I just finished reading.  It was written by two psychology professors and a novelist.  In essence, it draws upon the empirical literature (mostly experimentally-based studies) on learning to describe how we learn and how instructors/trainers can best facilitate effective learning.

So what are the key messages? There are three main ones:

1. “Effortful learning” is more effective than “easy learning”.  Forget highlighting and rereading the textbook or your notes.  These strategies give the illusion of effective learning and mastery but empirical studies show that these strategies tend to produce short-term gains.  Instead, “retrieval practice” is more effective for generating meaningful and long-term learning.  By retrieval practice, the authors mean “self-quizzing”. This means reading a portion of the textbook chapter and immediately self-testing without looking at the textbook.  Self-quizzing is more effortful than rereading and highlighting and the empirical research suggests that the latter strategy is more effective than the former.
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2. “Space out your retrieval practice.” Don’t cram. “It’s a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition. Lots of practice works, but only if it’s spaced.”

3. “Interleave the study of different problem types”.  The example they give is baseball players.  It is more effective for batters to see a random mix of fastballs, changeups, and curveballs as opposed to seeing 15 fastballs, then 15 changeups, and then 15 curveballs. “Blocked practice – that is, mastering all of one type of problem before progressing to practice another type – feels (and looks) like you’re getting better mastery as you go, whereas interrupting the study of one type to practice a different type feels disruptive and counterproductive.” Yet “mixing up problem types and specimens improves your ability to discriminate between types, identify the unifying characteristics within a type, and improves your success in a later test or in real-world settings.”

Other effective strategies for learning include elaboration (e.g. “relating the material to what you already know, explaining it to somebody else in your own words, or explaining how it relates to your life outside of class), generation (e.g. “an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or solution”), reflection (e.g. take “a few minutes to review what you have learned), calibration (e.g. “using an objective instrument to clear away illusions and adjust your judgment to better reflect reality”), and mnemonic devices (e.g. memory devices to remember new information).

If these observations accurately reflect the science of how we learn effectively, what does that mean for us as course instructors at the university level (well, at least us political science profs)?

First. I think it means we need to teach or at least inform students about these aspects of learning so they can adopt the right strategies.

It means we need to move away somewhat from the traditional format of weekly readings and lectures, mid term test, final exam, and research essay, towards a structure that embraces low stakes, frequent and cumulative testing. We also need to include more writing opportunities in which students engage more frequently in cumulative elaboration, reflection, and generation.

In my second year courses, I’ve already started to do some of these things with more frequent writing assignments as well as weekly online quizzes based on the readings. I also use and automated response system like learning catalytics (and this year, top hat monocle) to quiz students about lecture material during class, in real-time. But none of my quizzes are cumulative and so perhaps I need to make that adjustment.

Anyway, the book offers a lot of useful advice and insight and is very readable to boot! My one complaint is that at times, they don’t practice what they preach.  It would have been nice, for instance, if they had put some sample retrieval questions at the end of each chapter to help me practice! However, they did interleave and space out their teaching, which was consistent with their argument.  I guess I needed to be more vigilant with the self-quizzing part!

The F-35 continues to haunt the PM

Published Aug. 11, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Somewhere in Ottawa, unknown to the outside world, there is a black hole — a secret place where the government consigns toxic ideas, ideas that it dares not implement, yet cannot bring itself to kill.

The F-35 fighter jet is one such idea. The Harper government has been grappling with it ever since it took office in 2006. It has heard from experts that the super-sophisticated F-35 is not the right plane; that it does not suit Canada’s modest military requirements; that its single engine makes it too dangerous for patrols across the country’s vast distances; and that its humongous cost — $45 billion or more for 65 aircraft — puts it well beyond the reach of the budget-conscious Conservatives.

Somehow the F-35 has managed to survive on the government’s to-do list, never categorically endorsed, but also never firmly rejected. This June, it surfaced on the cabinet’s agenda for a decision. To his credit, the prime minister removed the item from the agenda, ostensibly to give ministers more time to weigh the implications. So the F-35 went back into that black hole.
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One can hope that its time there will be usefully spent. The question of whether Canada should buy any military aircraft without an open competition among manufacturers is a long-standing issue. There have also been some recent developments to be considered. Safety is one. On the eve of the July 4 holiday, the Pentagon announced it was grounding its entire fleet of new F-35s following an engine fire during trials in Florida. It decided it would be too dangerous to fly the F-35s across the Atlantic to debut at two air shows in Britain, the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow. Those appearances were cancelled.

Critics in the United States keep hammering away at the cost. The Pentagon plans to purchase 2,443 copies of the F-35 at an all-in cost (including operating costs over the lifetime of the aircraft) of something in excess of $1 trillion.

To the critics, it’s a question of spending priorities. Eliminate homelessness? The F-35 expenditure would be enough, one report calculated, to buy every homeless person in the United States a $664,000 house.

Food for the poor? If the money were directed to the U.S. National School Lunch Program, it would pay for nutritious lunches for all 55 million students enrolled in elementary school in country, not just next year, but for the next decade. Or to look at it another away, the money could fund UN peacekeeping operations at their current level for 46 years.

Logic and priorities aside, there is no chance that the United States will abandon the F-35 program. It is too far in to back out, having already spent $298 billion in taxpayer funds. What’s more, the F-35 is more than a weapons-acquisition program for Washington. It is a massive job-creation scheme, extending into almost every corner of the United States. It’s a huge pork barrel. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, has hired suppliers and subcontractors in no fewer than 45 states, meaning virtually every senator and congress person has a vested interest in keeping the aircraft program alive.

Like other countries that have been supporting the F-35, Canada’s aeronautical sector has a slice of the jobs. The slice would presumably grow if Canada proceeds with the purchase.

For a government focused on job creation and economic growth — and facing a general election next fall — those highly paid jobs are an important consideration. Against them, the Tories must weigh arguments that Canada doesn’t really need F-35s to do what they are meant to do — support ground forces in combat zones; that the requirements of continental defence could be better served by twin-engine aircraft; and that the obscene price of $45 billion or more would devour an inordinate share of the national budget.

The F-35 would be a hard sell on the hustings, which is why it may remain in the black hole for quite some time.

Sustainability

Authors: Felix Munger and Manuel Riemer

Published January 2014 in Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology.

Introduction: Defining a particular relationship between nature and society, sustainability is closely linked to the social construction and social use of nature because humans require an ecosystem (i.e., limited areas of interaction between all living organisms and nonliving components such as water, rocks, air, minerals) that supplies sufficient renewable resources (e.g., clean air, water) to survive and nonrenewable resources (e.g., minerals, natural gas) for the production of goods. Through the advent of modernization, industrialism, and the development of capitalism (especially in the neoliberal form it has taken since the late 1970s), the social construction of nature has shifted from a perspective of a living organism with which humans live in harmony (e.g., mother earth) to an instrumental view (i.e., nature as machine).

Responding to the “New Public”: The Arrival of Strategic Communications and Managed Participation in Alberta

Author: Simon Kiss

Published March 2014 in Canadian Public Administration.

Abstract: This article examines the rise of more strategic, professional and politically sensitive communications in the Government of Alberta and argues that citizen demands for transparency and participation are also reasons for the increased importance of strategic government communications. Accommodating these demands in the context of traditional representative democracy requires politically sensitive staff who can manage processes without jeopardizing the government’s re-election or policy agenda. This article draws on analyses of government documents, interviews and the archives of premiers Getty and Klein.

The Nature of Political Advising to Prime Ministers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK

Authors: Anna Lennox Esselment, Jennifer Lees-Marshment & Alex Marland

Published June 2014 in Commonwealth & Comparative Politics.

Abstract: Political advisors to heads of government occupy such a privileged sphere of influence that their role is a source of consternation among democratic idealists. Interviews with advisors to prime ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK inform a small body of comparative literature about political advising in the Commonwealth. The authors find that first ministers consider input from many advisors and therefore the counsel of any one advisor is of limited impact. Further research is needed to understand the extent to which these agents project the power of the executive office and make decisions on the principal’s behalf.

Trustees need greater role in strategic planning

Published July 5, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

When I first expressed my intent to run as a school board trustee, many people asked why I would want to take on a role that was essentially pointless.

I defended the board, believing the role of trustee to be far from pointless, but rather a platform from which I could improve the conditions for students in the classroom.

I did not expect all of my ideas to be acted upon, but I, perhaps naively, believed the board of trustees would operate similar to other boards I had served on in the past.

I assumed a strategic planning process would give me an opportunity to share my ideas and hear my fellow trustees thoughts. Then after discussion and deliberation, a plan would be approved that reflected the will of the board of trustees.

It did not take long for me to realize those cynics knew something I did not. At my first formal board meeting, the strategic direction was provided to us by the director of education. We did not even pass a motion to rubber stamp the direction.

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How to Win and Lose an Election: Campaign Dynamics of the 2011 Ontario Election

Authors: Simon J. Kiss, Andrea M.L. Perrella and Barry J. Kay

Published August 2014 in Canadian Political Science Review.

Abstract: Ontario’s general election on Oct. 6, 2011, produced a hung parliament and left much unresolved. The Progressive Conservative party under Tim Hudak entered the election year with promising prospects, and the PCs won 37 seats, 10 more than in 2007, yet failed to beat out the Liberals. The New Democratic Party under Andrea Horwath also enjoyed a much improved seat count of 17 elected members to Queen’s Park. Combined, the incumbent Liberals were re- elected, but reduced to a minority of 53 seats, one seat shy of a majority, and the first minority government in Ontario politics since 1985. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s attempt to secure a majority of seats in the form of 2012 by-elections failed, and shortly thereafter he resigned, leaving his Liberals and Ontario politics on stand-by for a possible non-confidence vote and, consequently, a new election. This review examines how the 2011 result unfolded. We place attention on campaign dynamics and issue salience.

Taking politics out of the Senate

Published Aug. 5, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. What, one wonders, would happen if the Harper government applied that adage to the seemingly intractable issue of Senate reform?

We already know, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada, what is not possible. It is not possible to abolish the Senate without the unanimous consent of the provinces. The same unanimity requirement would surely pertain to any effort to redistribute Senate seats to reflect demographic reality — by taking from the East and giving to the West. Other reforms, involving the powers of the Senate, the direct election of senators or term limits for its members, would also require significant involvement of the provinces — if not unanimous agreement, at least the consent of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population (the 7/50 rule).
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The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in the Mulroney era illustrate the futility of trying to negotiate provincial agreement on constitutional proposals. It would be no easier today, in an era when the provinces simply do not trust the federal Conservative government to say what it means and to do what it says.

Given this sad reality, the trick for Stephen Harper, if he is serious about Senate change, is to work around the constitutional straitjacket by implementing measures to make the upper house more democratic, more relevant, more useful and more productive — without wasting years arguing with the provincial governments. The measures are all within the realm of possibility, and within the power of the federal government, acting on its own.

First, eliminate party blocs within the Senate by abolishing the Conservative caucus as Justin Trudeau has already abolished the Liberal caucus. Freed of partisan shackles, senators would be able to debate legislation without party rhetoric and to make laws better before sending them back to the House of Commons. Isn’t that what the chamber of sober second thought is supposed to do?

Second, flush the patronage out of the Senate system by changing the method of appointment. Direct election (as for members of the Commons), would require a constitutional amendment, but Harper doesn’t have to go that far.

He could do two things without sacrificing his constitutional prerogative to name senators. First, he could encourage provinces to hold “consultative” elections of senators, as Alberta already does. But Harper would have to pledge to appoint whomever the electorate chose, even if the person were not a Tory. Alternatively, the prime minister could invite the premiers to choose the senators for their provinces.

For example, Ontario has 24 of the 105 Senate seats. Four Ontario seats are currently vacant. Harper could invite Kathleen Wynne to present four names and he would appoint them, no questions asked. She might choose four Liberals, or she might not. That wouldn’t matter. Once partisanship is eliminated from upper house, the party stripe of newcomers will be less important than their experience and other qualifications.

Informal groups of senators, feeling the pressure of public opinion, have been meeting secretly in recent weeks to discuss ways of fixing the upper house. (Why the secrecy, I have no idea.) One of their ideas, long overdue, is that their speaker be elected by the members (as the Commons speaker is), instead of being appointed by the prime minister. Another sensible idea is to abolish the daily question period. Now that the government leader in the Senate is no longer a member of the cabinet (a move Harper made to distance himself from the Senate expenses scandal), the question period is even more useless than it has historically been, because now there is no one to answer for the government.

A better idea, I submit, would be for senators to arrange for the prime minister to attend the Senate once a week to take questions for a half-hour or so.

None of these changes would revolutionize Parliament. But they would make the Senate more relevant without reopening the Constitution.