Quebec Sovereignty: Coming Soon?

Quebec’s general election next week is likely to return the Parti Québécois. The last time the PQ moved from opposition to government, they launched a referendum that nearly broke the country apart. Some are comforted by the fact that the Oui forces in 1995 were led by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, and if he couldn’t do it, then there is nothing to worry about the far less magnetic Pauline Marois, right? Let’s discuss what might be a very real possibility of Quebec separating from Canada.

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Some polls suggest 40 percent or more of Quebecers are ready to vote in favour of sovereignty. That’s a baseline level.

The question is, what would it take to push that number above 50 percent. Here, I suggest the answer is: Not much. If some discount Pauline Marois as unengaging, then “not much” means she still can guide a wave of support for sovereignty right through that 50 percent mark. But it may be less about what passions the PQ flares up. What might potentially unglue Quebec from Canada is the total lack of engagement Quebeckers have with the Canadian government.

Let me illustrate with some data.

The Ipsos Reid 2011 federal election “exit poll” contains the following survey item: “I want Quebec to become sovereign, that is, no longer part of the Canadian federation? “ Around 40 percent overall agreed with this “hard” version of a sovereignty question. Furthermore, support among French-speaking respondents was 45 percent,  and it is fluctuations among francophones that will determine the next referendum, given that non-francophones are more likely to remain stable in their opposition to sovereignty. Therefore, from this point on, all analysis and commentary here relate to francophone Quebec respondents of the survey.

Among francophones, then, what positions juxtaposed against “standard” federal government positions relate with greater levels of support for sovereignty?

One obvious start is the leadership style in Ottawa. The current federal government’s “hands off” approach to just about everything is based on a very classical small-c conservative view of refraining from intervening in too many areas. But it also means the federal government means less to Quebecers. Based on a survey question that asked respondents whether they thought the federal government had any impact on their lives, the more one feels disconnected, the greater the support for sovereignty. As shown in the table below, among those francophones who perceive little or no impact, support for sovereignty approaches 60 to 70 percent. 

It may seem obvious to expect sovereignists to feel alienated from the federal government, but there are good reasons to suggest a less interventionist style from Ottawa may do more harm that good for Quebec’s relationship with Canada. Quebeckers are generally more inclined to accept government intervention as a norm, not a necessary evil to be exercised ever so rarely. If the federal government is seen as more distant, less involved, then Quebeckers will naturally look more to Quebec City as its sole centre of political and national meaning.

Perhaps there is a lack of inspirational leaders in Ottawa, and this may explain the “orange wave” that led the NDP to sweep Quebec. While there is no data in the Ipsos survey that taps into perceptions of current NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, support for sovereignty rises with the perception that Ottawa needs a fresh new generation of leaders, as shown in the next table.

There is an obvious lack of that “vision thing” in Ottawa, and that makes federal political life less interesting. That may matter little to the politically engaged, but to the rest of the population, it leaves little to attract. Without a “pull” from Ottawa, Quebeckers, even under Marois, would have an easier time supporting the vision of a Quebec country.

More tables could be produced, such as those that connect views about same-sex marriage, the environment, gun control and capital punishment to support for sovereignty. (For your own analysis, access the data at LISPOP`s Data Portal.) We typically see the same thing: Sovereignty is higher among those who support access to abortions, oppose capital punishment, are in favour of same-sex marriage, and so on. However, none of these correlations assume causality. There is nothing to suggest one’s support for any issue automatically leads to support for a separate Quebec. But if more and more Quebeckers feel estranged from the federal government, if more see nothing inspirational in Ottawa’s leadership, and if more see their issue positions at odds with standard party lines on the government benches, then there is little there to resist the sovereignist message from offering itself as an appealing alternative.

K-W Byelection definitely a three-way race

Published on August 31, 2012 in Waterloo Region Record

Past conventional wisdom suggests that the Sept. 6 provincial byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo would normally be a contest between the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals.

… However, the federal experience suggests that if one removes Witmer from the equation, the corresponding Kitchener-Waterloo riding is a fairly reliable bellwether of Ontario in general. More…

LISPOP Associate comments on Kitchener-Waterloo byelection

Published on August 29, 2012 in Waterloo Region Record.

Is a New Democrat win unimaginable in this riding, which has always been dominated by its highly-educated, well-paid professionals, ensconced in their leafy suburbs, routinely voting for Progressive Conservative Elizabeth Witmer the past 22 years?

The short answer is that nothing is impossible here, where the latest polls indicate a three-way tie, according to Wilfrid Laurier University professor and elections expert Barry Kay. “This is a three-person race, not a two-person race,” he said. More…

LISPOP associate comments on new Ontario ridings

Published on Monday August 27, 2012 on Global News.

A new electoral map released on Monday would give Ontario’s sprawling suburbs more representation in the House of Commons in the near future. Although determined by population growth, several of the new Ontario seats lie in areas where the Conservatives did well during the last election, areas like Brampton, Durham, Ottawa and Mississauga.

But that doesn’t mean they will be a lock for the party, according to Barry Kay, an associate professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University. “The more urban ridings are more competitive between the Conservatives and one of the other parties,” he said. “There would be ridings where the Conservatives won last time if you look at the results the Liberals would be very competitive in a lot of those new ridings”, he said. More…

Incumbents fight to survive as voters look for change

Published Aug 27, 2012 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury

Change is a four-letter word to politicians in power, something to be resisted, not
embraced.

For Jean Charest in Quebec, change means fighting from behind, desperately struggling to keep the job he has held for nine long – too long – years. Quebec voters have become bored with Charest and cynical about his Liberals. Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois is no René Lévesque or Lucien Bouchard in the charisma department, but if the polls are to be believed – and I wouldn’t bet my coffee money on it – she will end the Charest era
on Sept. 4, emerging with at least a PQ minority. Continue reading

For Dalton McGuinty, also too long in office (nine years, just like Charest) change is the nightmare that began last October when Ontarians took away his Liberals’ majority and left him to play brokerage politics with the opposition parties. That’s a high-stakes game that the premier does not play well; too many years with a majority dulled his survival instincts. McGuinty has to hope the nightmare of 2011 has receded enough to let him to regain his majority in the two byelections – Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan – on Sept. 6. His chances of winning both would seem to be somewhere between slim and bleak.

South of the border, President Barack Obama might ordinarily be shoo-in for re-election. The Republicans fielded a bunch of clowns in the primaries (remember the two Ricks, Santorum and Perry, and the flat-tax guy, Ron Paul ?) before settling on the colourless and humourless Mitt Romney, who has to be the least impressive candidate for president since Gerry Ford in 1976 – with the Tea Party darling, Paul Ryan, as Romney’s running mate.

But the desire for change may be profound enough to let the Republican duo win in November. A USAToday/Gallup survey last week showed them in a dead heat with the Democrats in a dozen key battleground states. Ominously for Obama, registered voters in those states, by a 56-40 margin, told the pollsters they are worse off today than they were
when he became president in 2008.

Back to Quebec, where some observers are saying the Charest Liberals could finish third, just as their federal Liberal cousins did last year. This would put them behind both the PQ and François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec – notwithstanding Charest’s vaunted ability as a campaigner.

I was struck by a comment quoted in the Globe and Mail from Cédrick Billequey, a 37-year-old soccer dad and erstwhile Liberal voter in the bellwether riding of Laval-des-Rapides. “What I want is change,” he said. “Mr. Charest has stopped thinking outside the box. Mr. Legault could shake up Quebec, and Quebec needs it.”

When Quebecers last decided to shake things up, in the May 2011 federal election, the orange wave they released carried New Democrats to victory in 59 of the province’s 75 ridings.

In Ontario, McGuinty, unlike Charest, can take comfort in the knowledge that when he wakes up the morning after the voting he will still be premier. He doesn’t have as steep a hill to climb as Charest. He doesn’t have to fight off allegations of corruption in the construction industry spilling over into his party. But the Ontario Liberals do face serious issues of their own – issues that speak more to mismanagement than to corruption.

There’s the $180 million fiasco of the cancelled gas-fueled electrical generating plant in Mississauga; the $1 billion eHealth scandal; and currently the Ornge air ambulance scandal in which the premier is hiding behind his minister of health to avoid appearing before a legislature committee.

The scandals reveal a pattern: a provincial government that is careless with taxpayers’ money, that does not take the trouble to make sure publicly-funded projects are well-conceived and adequately supervised.

Will any of this make a difference to McGuinty’s byelections? Perhaps we’ll get an idea when the major candidates in Kitchener-Waterloo try to shake things up tonight in a public forum sponsored by The Record and its partners.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at
geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

Swing Voters in Ontario Elections

Outcomes of the September 6 byelections in Ontario focus a great deal of attention on the “swing voter,” that is, the voter with loose partisan ties who can potentially be swayed from one party to another. This is the prize all three parties pursue, especially in Kitchener-Waterloo where there is nothing to suggest one candidate has a comfortable and wide lead. It’s anybody’s game, hence the race to sway the swing voter.

On this theme, I raise four questions, and locate answers based on a preliminary analysis of some data in our collection. Continue reading

First, how do we define a “swing” voter, methodically? This is certainly not a new topic. For instance, Mayer used the American National Election Study’s 100-point thermometer scales to identify the American swing voter, defined as a voter with equally favourable views of the Democratic and Republican parties. Read the article for details on the actual methodology. However, at present, it cannot be easily applied in the Ontario case, at least not with the data I have on hand.

I’m using the 2011 Ipsos Reid online “exit poll” conducted on the day of the Ontario general election (available at the LISPOP data portal), and it does not contain thermometer rating scales. So I had to improvise using other items available in this survey.

Let’s start with some assumptions about a swing voter. They probably hold the following attributes:

  1. They are less likely to remain loyal to one party. Such partisans are, by definition, the opposite of a swing voter.
  2. They likely make their final vote decision later in the campaign, given their propensity to “swing” back and forth along with the oscillations of campaign dynamics.

Either one, on its own, may not be sufficient grounds to identify the swing voter. One can vote for one party in one election and another party in a later election because of a change in loyalties. Or, someone could wait until near the end of a campaign to make a “final” decision, but it may be little more than an affirmation of the party which they tend to support quite regularly. They are not moved by any partisan loyalties, per se, but by habit (which, I guess, is a form of partisan attachment). In any case, it seems that from this improvised two-dimensional typology, the “swing” voter would be one who decided late and also decided to support a party that is different than one chosen in a previous election.

My second question is: How large is the “swing” vote? According to some American observations, it’s marginal. A New York Times article (brought to my attention by a LISPOP colleague Geoffrey Stevens) reports on research that finds a very small percentage of the American electorate  considered true swing voters, identified as those who are “independent” or not partisan to any one party. Furthermore, most swing voters appear to reside in non-battleground states, such as California and Texas.

But when my two dimensions are applied to the Ipsos survey, we see different picture.

As the table shows, 30% of respondents voted differently between the two elections. The same applies for the Kitchener-Waterloo riding, although this is based on a much smaller subsample (n ˜ 80). The numbers from Vaughn, while available, are too tiny to render any meaningful insight. But regional data shows the “416″ and “905″ as having the largest percentage of consistent voters (more than 70%).

Furthermore, 52%, appear in the top-right section: voted the same in 2007 and in 2011, and made this decision early in the campaign, defined here as before the televised leaders’ debate. These voters may have been unaffected by campaign activities as their decision to vote for the same party they had supported in 2007 was reached before the campaign actually began. We can call this cell the “partisans.”

The least populated section is in the top-left, switchers who made their final decision before the campaign. This is not surprising at it takes some effort to move someone from supporting one party to another. What’s a bit surprising is this cell still accounts for a substantial proportion of the sample, 14%. Perhaps these are voters whose partisan ties have realigned.

The bottom right-hand comprises 18% of respondents. Their vote from 2007 to 2011 remained the same, but for some reason the final vote choice arrived late. Perhaps these are the more “habitual” partisans who were not entirely engaged with the campaign, so their final decision was to remain loyal to one party. It could very well be that these are swing voters who may have at one time during the campaign moved to another party, but were, for whatever reason, swayed back to their original leanings.

Let’s now turn our attention to the bottom left group of cells. These respondents, which account for 16% of the total sample, voted in 2011 for a party different than the one they had supported in 2007, and also made their final vote decision sometime after the leaders’ debate, i.e., the “swing” voter according to the formulation outlined here. It is not a humungous proportion of the electorate, but not insubstantial.

Provided we accept this formulation, then just how practically significant is this group of swing voters? In other words, among this group of 1300 respondents, how did their vote change? Which party benefited? That’s my fourth and final question.

From the above table, two things are clear. First, the biggest group of swing voters are those who voted Liberal in 2007. Second, the biggest beneficiary was the NDP, which gained most from swing voters across all parties. Even among those who voted PC in 2007, 46% moved to the NDP, which is higher than the 43% who moved to the Liberals.

Hayek and School Closures

In a recent post, Loren provides an excellent analysis of the silly decision making process that is being used to decide school closures in Hamilton.  Among many cool tidbits, he writes:

“What is troubling, however, is the uniform obsession with closures. There are a range of creative and cost-effective ways we might reconfigure and reimagine existing facilities: partial decommisions, mixed uses, or a range of potential public-private partnerships. Most boards take none of these seriously.”

To me, this is a Hayekian story about expert information, its location (either dispersed throughout or concentrated within a particular segment of society), and how some politicians and policymakers sometimes make bad decisions because they assume they have a monopoly on expert information. Continue reading

According to Loren’s post, these politicians and civil servants seem to believe they have a monopoly on expert information regarding how to assess and solve issues relating to school building use and maintenance.  They made their decisions based on their own knowledge and then took those decisions to the public for “consultations.”’ In the case of Loren’s neighbourhood, which is a location filled with university professors and professionals, they encountered a variety of citizens who had access to their own expert (and local) knowledge that was relevant to the school closure decisions. Rather than consider and incorporate this new expert knowledge, the policymakers and civil servants ignored them, probably because they were in positions of authority and as such assumed that they had a monopoly over the expert knowledge on these issues. The result was bad public policy.

Hayek may have been wrong about a number of things but it’s examples like these that show his continued relevance.  If policymakers and civil servants simply realize that it is possible that expert knowledge is (at least sometimes) dispersed throughout society, then perhaps we’d have better policy outcomes.

A School of One’s Own

Yesterday Chris posted an example of rational responses to perverse incentives in relations between principals and supply teachers in Ontario schools. Let me add some further thoughts on similar themes, specifically, the rash of school closures and consolidations that are all the rage now at Mowat Block and Queens Park.

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I’ve been involved recently in one such closure process, in west Hamilton, where a committed and diverse group of concerned parents and residents fought in vain to keep a small neighbourhood school open, against a board that was hellbent on closure, in spite of lip service to a variety of possible options. And Hamilton is certainly not unique: across the province school boards have been shuttering schools and looking for others to close, citing declining enrolments and prohibitive maintenance and repair costs.

These boards aren’t making up the numbers (although they sometimes fudge them in silly ways). Enrolments are generally declining across the province, especially in rural areas and traditional urban centers. And the costs of maintaining ageing facilities are going nowhere but up.

What is troubling, however, is the uniform obsession with closures. There are a range of creative and cost-effective ways we might reconfigure and reimagine existing facilities: partial decommisions, mixed uses, or a range of potential public-private partnerships. Most boards take none of these seriously.

One problem, especially evident in Hamilton, is the alarming degree to which school boards and city governments are locked into administrative solitudes. The result is that the very people who could profitably work together often see themselves working at cross-purposes.

The structure of provincial funding to local boards is of no help here: while the funding formula is complex and multifaceted, the primary unit of allocation is students, not schools. Thus, while enrollments ebb and wane for any given school, the costs of facility maintenance are unrelenting. The ministry touts their generous capital investment initiatives (green schools! good places to learn!), but ministerial rhetoric is decidedly less sanguine: urban boards were recently accused of using the funding formula to maintain small and underutilized schools. The implication is clear: full utilization of existing and proposed new facilities is the order of the day. No wonder that closures and property sales are overwhelmingly attractive options for struggling school boards.

As irritating as I find simple-minded mantras of efficiency and full utilization, I readily accept that there are good arguments for some closures and consolidation. I also think that my argument below for walkable neighbourhood schools may find less purchase for middle and high schools. Here, students may well benefit from going afield from their home communities to attend bigger, newer, better-equipped facilities.

But for our youngest students? In my judgement, they should have a school of their own.

By this I mean that we should think about primary schools as vital anchor institutions in safe, walkable neighbourhoods.

This is hardly a new idea. Indeed, everyone, of every political stripe, seems to accept some variant of this idea, recognizing the importance of schools to healthy, vibrant, attractive communities. Yet few seem willing to follow through the political and financial implications of this commitment.

I think that, at least for the first years of our childrens’ education, we should be less concerned with flashy new facilities and technologies, or the latest pedagogical fad from trendy theorists at OISE, and far more concerned with ensuring that children enjoy safe, walkable neighbourhoods, anchored by small schools. If efficiency and consolidation measures suggest that this will be more costly than busing students to fewer, larger schools, then that is a cost worth bearing, for the greater good of secure neighbourhoods with walkable schools.

I don’t pretend that this will be a cheap endeavour, and indeed, I’m not proposing any specific strategies for meeting this moral ideal of safe, walkable neighbourhoods. I am a political theorist by training, so my inclination is to be clear on our values and interests before worrying about implementation and costs. Framing the matter in the way I’ve laid out here makes clear just what is involved in educating a child: a nurturing home life, safe streets, and early healthy habits – like daily walking – all matter at least as much as school facilities, teacher training, and curriculum design.

But in a political system that compartmentalizes the day-to-day business of urban life (policing, zoning, parks and recreation) and education into separate administrative silos – each answering upward to respective ministries, rather than talking together, on the ground – it is difficult to imagine primary education as bound up with so much else of local politics and everyday life in our communities.

Instead, we think of education largely in terms of bricks and mortar and taxpayer dollars, curriculum and standardized testing and full-day kindergarten. In such an environment, calls for efficiency, accountability, and full utilization are the inevitable terms of discourse, rather than a broader understanding of primary schools as an intimate part of the fabric of everyday life in our neighbourhoods.

This is why, for instance, in our efforts in Hamilton, we kept hearing from our school board staff the insistence that they weren’t urban planners, and so they couldn’t take into consideration the impact of closures on, say, the attractiveness of surrounding homes to young families. The result: board staff and trustees, in Hamilton and various other cities and localities across the province, end up making decisions, based on narrow economic considerations, that have profound and enduring consequences for the future social and economic vitality of their host communities.

That strikes me as perverse.

Quebec Leaders’ Debates: Game Changer?

Let’s turn our attention to the Quebec election. My comment is about Sunday’s debate and its possible effects on the electorate. Here is the summary: The effect is probably marginal, and it is at the margins where one is likely to see most effects. The big “winner,” should there be a need to declare one, is the one leader least likely to emerge as the premier of that province in the Sept. 4 election. Continue reading

It is important to point out the debate involved four leaders, two from the main parties (Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois), one from the brand-new Coalition Avenir Québec, and the fourth from fringe party Québec Solidaire (QS), which has one member elected to the Quebec National Assembly. According to a poll by Forum, the “winner” of Sunday’s debate was the previously little known Françoise David, leader of QS. Why? Precisely because she was the least known of the four.

I coauthored with Andre Blais an article which goes into further details about the general effects of debates.  In sum, televised debates offer an equal opportunity for party leaders. Consequently, the least known has the most to gain. But they don’t usually make a major difference; they don’t change too many minds.

Debates have other equalizing effects, too. Those low in the polls tend to see a bump, those in front tend to lose. The Quebec Liberal party, for instance, was slipping in the polls, but have since the debates regained some ground, according to Forum. Again, this may have little to do with Jean Charest’s actual “performance” and more to do with raising awareness about all four parties and their leaders, and what they ultimately stand for. Perhaps debates rebalance views that may be exaggerated for whatever reason (negative ads? media coverage?). That’s pretty much the extent of debate effects. No game changer, really. It is just another component of an otherwise more elaborate array of campaign activities and dynamics, which on the whole may matter more than any one single moment, such as a debate, despite being in the spotlight, literally.

Sure, performance is important in some cases, assuming there is a so-called “knock-out” punch. These are rare, and even when they occur, they are not always important game changers. Recall way back when federal Liberal leader John Turner hammered Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for “selling out” Canada in the free trade negotiations with the United States. Mulroney was re-elected in that 1988 election with a majority. Most recently, the late Jack Layton’s fiery attack during the televised debates (recall “hashtag fail!”) may appear to have helped the NDP emerge to its best standing ever, but it’s also plausible that Layton’s performance in the nationally televised debates was less important than his appearance on Quebec’s popular Radio Canada television program “Tout le monde en parle,” or other factors peculiar to Quebec (electoral fatigue with the Bloc Québécois? disenchantment with the rightwing ideological pull of the governing Conservatives?). The debate may have mattered little.

Supply Teaching and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Each year, I begin my Introduction to Canadian politics course at Laurier by describing the prisoner’s dilemma.

In this model, two men, Bob and Jack are arrested for drug trafficking.  They are put into separate rooms and are told the following:

“If you testify against your partner, and he stays silent, you go free and your partner gets 10 years.

If your partner talks and you stay silent, then you get 10 years and he goes free.

If you both talk, you both get 8 years.

If you both stay silent, then you will each get 1 year on the lesser charge of possession.”

The optimal strategy in this situation is to cooperate and stay silent.  But what usually happens Continue reading

is that the suspects do not cooperate.  Instead, they choose the rational strategy, which is to rat each other out.  Why? Because no matter what the other person does, it pays more to not cooperate.

Recently, supply teachers from a school board in southern Ontario have been caught in a prisoner’s dilemma.

The dilemma is this: Some principals apparently have been asking supply teachers to teach more classes per day than what is stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement. The optimal response for these teachers is to say no, since teaching more classes per day means: a) they are doing free work; and b) they are doing more work than their peers who are currently employed in permanent positions.

Rather than choosing the optimal strategy of cooperation by collectively saying no, however, teachers are individually choosing to say yes.  Why? Some teachers indicate that if they say no, that they will be at a disadvantage when permanent jobs come up.  Others fear that they may be blacklisted from future supply work if they say something to the principal or the union.   In short, teachers are choosing the rational strategy, rather than the optimal one.

Another example of this situation is the informal requirement that prospective teachers volunteer in a school before applying for a job.  The optimal choice for these teachers is to not volunteer, but the rational choice is to volunteer. Not volunteering is the optimal choice because teaching candidates shouldn’t have to work for free for a year after they completed their degree, especially when their studies already included a lengthy placement at two schools.

Yet the rational choice, and the choice that teachers almost always choose, is to volunteer – Why? Apparently, some school administers seem to favour teachers who have volunteered at their schools over those who have not.

In both cases, the principals and the teachers are to blame for the suboptimal choices being made.  Principals are guilty for taking advantage of the plethora of unemployed teachers by extracting more work for less or no pay while teachers are also guilty for allowing principals to take advantage of them.

What’s the solution? Establishing institutions that facilitate collective action (and especially information sharing) among teachers and that discourage principals from engaging in these unfair practices.

Byelections can have surprising results, what will happen this time?

Author: Geoffrey Stevens

Published August 20, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record.

It’s been nearly two weeks since Dalton McGuinty called provincial byelections for Kitchener-Waterloo and for Vaughan. At this stage, no one, frankly, can predict what is going to happen. Continue reading

That’s par for the course. We are in the dog days of summer and voters are more interested in their cottages and their barbecues, and in getting the kids ready to return to school, than they are in whether McGuinty’s Liberals regain their majority on Sept. 6 — or in such local issues as whether the widening of Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, already 31 years in the planning, will ever happen.

Drowsy, inattentive voters always make summer campaigns hard to call, even for experienced pollsters. The sheer unpredictability of voters in byelections simply magnifies the problem. Voters can do almost anything in a byelection. Historical voting patterns may count for nothing. Byelection voters find themselves liberated. They can throw off their shackles and vote any way they darned well please.

Sometimes the result can be startling. Flash back to October 1978, to Newfoundland. Pierre Trudeau was in power, and his Liberals regarded Newfoundland as their fief, except for those occasions when the Tories borrowed a few seats. Newfoundlanders had never sent a New Democrat (or CCFer) to Ottawa. Suddenly, out of nowhere, in a federal byelection that October, an NDP candidate with the improbable name of Alphonsus E. Faour (known as “Fonse” to his friends) captured the riding of Humber-Port au Port-St. Barbe. Even New Democrats were dumbfounded.

(Fonse Faour was an MP for 490 days before losing the seat to a Liberal in the 1980 federal election. He went on to serve briefly as the provincial NDP leader and today sits as a trial division judge on the Newfoundland Supreme Court.)

In Ontario, back in 1969, a provincial byelection produced an equally unexpected result. The riding was Middlesex South, on the edge of London, which was the political fortress of the Conservative premier of the day, John Robarts. In the case of Middlesex South, the byelection served as a surrogate for a major political battle. Premier Robarts had held Ontario out of medicare when the national health insurance plan came into force in the country in 1968. Robarts denounced medicare as a “Machiavellian plot.” (What he meant was never entirely clear, but his opposition to medicare was shared, if not inspired, by the insurance industry in London.)

The NDP was determined to take the medicare fight to Robarts, on his home turf. They blanketed Middlesex South, sending high-profile canvassers from Toronto and beyond to knock on farm doors. Their unknown candidate, Kenneth Bolton, an Anglican archdeacon, won. The Conservatives got the message, and Ontario joined medicare. (Ken Bolton lost the seat at the first available opportunity, as Middlesex South returned to the Tory fold in the 1971 provincial election. Meanwhile, Robarts retired and Bill Davis became premier.)

Closer to home, there was a federal byelection in the riding of Waterloo South (now Cambridge) in 1964. The Conservatives owned the seat or thought they did. In the 1964 byelection, however, they were upset by New Democrat Max Saltsman, a local dry cleaner, who went on to get re-elected four times and proved to be a popular and effective member for 15 years in the House of Commons. The NDP hasn’t done much in the region since Saltsman’s day.

Over the years, byelections have produced some notable results. By my count no fewer than five future or former prime ministers have used the byelection route: Lester Pearson, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark (in 2000, on his second time around as Tory leader) and Stephen Harper (in his Canadian Alliance days).

Then there’s Thomas Mulcair (2007 byelection), Bob Rae (both federally and provincially), Stéphane Dion, Tommy Douglas (twice), Robert Stanfield, Paul Hellyer, John Crosbie, David Crombie and Sheila Copps. At Queen’s Park, byelections have produced Christine Elliott, John Tory and Andrea Horwath, among others.

What will Sept. 6 produce?

Polls about National Unity

Opinion polls about national unity issues are often troublesome. Here is one by Abacus that suggests that while a slim majority of non-Quebecers want Quebec to remain in Canada, a quarter would vote to kick out the province. The basis for either lukewarm support for Quebec or hard-edged opposition to the province stems from a perception of extra-favourable treatment, as if Quebec were a spoiled child of the Canadian family. This perception, as is true for much public opinion about politics, is based on a great deal of ignorance.

First, the problem with the “national unity” issue is that it assumes there is a “nation” in the traditional sense of a people coming together to form a common bond. Canada was not founded from such a national spirit, but out of an attempt from the British to find a way for the North American colonies to govern themselves. So the genesis of Canada was not a collective continental embrace of farmers, artisans and other “ordinary” people from disparate regions under some new identity. It was a partnership among the provinces.

Second, the problem with Canada’s on-again-off-again national unity debates is the differences in the understanding of the terms of that partnership. The colonies were constituent units with already fairly cohesive governing structures. When they came together to form Canada, they negotiated. But who negotiated what? What concessions were made? What vision propelled the partnership? What side-deals were made? What promise were made, and what promises were perceived?

Such questions produced reams of books and papers, so there are many possible answers. Over time, this evolved into a situation that, Lusztig noted in a CJPS article back in 1994, left Canada with competing and irreconcilable visions of the country’s founding constitutional character. This is apart from what is actually written in the BNA Act of 1867 or in the Canada Act of 1982. These competing visions concern some key assumptions about what brought Canada together. Here are some.

  • was the founding of Canada a partnership between the French and English?
  • was it a partnership between Quebec (which, since the 1700s had been granted various legislative exceptions from Britain) and the predominantly English-speaking provinces?
  • was it simply a merger of provinces as equal partners, beginning with the original four (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia)?

Add to that list new visions inspired by more contemporary expectations, some of which are reflected in the Charter of Rights. For instance, regardless of what Canada was like in the 19th century, has it become a union of individuals, each with unalienable rights? Is it (also?) a coalition of “groups” whose identities transcend territory?

Now, consider this: In an age when we are supposed to be all “equal,” when favouritism is no longer tolerated, at least not in politics, how, then can you expect anybody who puts less than a few fleeting thoughts into complex political matters to agree that yes, one province should be granted all sorts of exceptions? Or, how could you expect the typical Quebecker to disagree with the asymmetrical vision that Canada was a compact between Quebec and the other provinces? After all, that’s what Quebec premiers have been advancing for nearly a century, so it’s not absurd to see that province’s population follow suit. Just as it is not surprising that people in other provinces, whose premiers push agendas best legitimized through a vision that Canada as founded through a merger of equal partners. All provinces manipulate various visions because, as noted earlier, Canada was not founded by “people” so much as by provinces, each with their own (mainly economic) priorities, each ready to pursue gains at the expense of another province. Look at the squabbling over oil pipelines in the West and hydro power in the East. There is absolutely no binding “national spirit” in any of these inter-provincial disputes. Political leaders may mention how a particular project benefits “all Canadians,” but the bottom line has nothing to do with benefits to people or any sense of “equality” among stakeholders. It has all to do with provincial interests and how membership to Canada is a benefit or a hindrance to those interests.

This is not to slag Abacus and its methodology. My point is we shouldn’t expect much from such a poll question. It’s like poking a stick to a hornets’ nest. Do not expect a surprise, and in the case of opinions about national unity, don’t expect much more than a reflection of whatever vision passes as orthodoxy in their home province. Perhaps such national-unity poll questions should contain subsequent questions to determine how much a respondent knows about Canada’s primarily interprovincial history, and whether they can name other provinces (or regions) that have at one point or another threatened to separate. For instance, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Alberta, and even Toronto. Quebec was not the first and only member of Canada’s “club of the constitutionally aggrieved.”

Could Conrad Black make a mark on Ontario?

Author: Geoffrey Stevens

Published August 14, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record.

Conrad Black speaks at a luncheon at the Empire Club in Toronto on June 22, 2012. Columnist Geoffry Stevens wonders how a Lt Gov Black would make his mark on Ontario. The editors at The Telegram, the daily newspaper in St. John’s, N.L., had a bright idea.

Noticing that the five-year term of the lieutenant governor of Newfoundland and Labrador was due to expire early next year, they thought: why not involve the public in the choice of the new lieutenant governor? So they organized an online poll asking readers to nominate candidates.

Now, this would probably not work in most parts of Canada. At a guess, 80 per cent of the folks in most provinces have no idea what a lieutenant governor does and probably 95 per cent, if asked, would be unable to name theirs.

But Newfoundlanders are different. They take their politics seriously. And they have a lieutenant governor who has raised the profile of the office to a level approaching, if not exceeding, that of the premier or prime minister.

His name, if you haven’t guessed, is John Carnell Crosbie, the former federal minister of finance, trade and fisheries, and the most controversial politician in the province since his old nemesis, the late Joey Smallwood.

Crosbie is highly intelligent, honest, opinionated and irascible, with a delightfully wicked sense of humour. He was the federal minister who closed the cod fishery (to protect the stocks), and he is “Tequila Sheila” Copps’s favourite Tory, as much as she pretends to be appalled by him. (Full disclosure: I helped John Crosbie write his 1997 memoir, No Holds Barred.)

I have no idea why Stephen Harper decided to make Crosbie the Queen’s representative in St. John’s. He had to know Crosbie would be outrageous, as he was in 2009 when he wore a seal skin coat while squiring Prince Charles and Camilla on their visit to his province. He did it in the knowledge (and fervent hope) that his support of the seal hunt would make headlines across Europe.

Now Harper has to find a successor to Crosbie.

Luckily, The Telegram is there to help. Its invitation to readers has produced a ballot of no fewer than 66 names; readers will vote until Aug. 29 (it’s a non-binding contest).

Some of the names are familiar to all Canadians: artist Mary Pratt, actor Gordon Pinsent, comedian Mary Walsh, soldier Rick Hillier and media personalities Rex Murphy and Rick Mercer. Also on the ballot are two senators, three former premiers, one federal cabinet minister, one rugby coach, one fisherman and (I am pleased to report) one newspaper columnist.

Good for Newfoundland and Labrador, but what about Ontario? The term of its lieutenant governor, David C. Onley, expires next month. Who will Harper pick to preside over Toronto’s Pink Palace? There hasn’t been a word of speculation in the press — nor, let it be confessed, even a whiff of interest.

If Harper wants to create interest, raise the profile of the office, and generate unrelenting media attention, I have a humble suggestion. How about Conrad Black? Just kidding, but the poor man certainly needs a new focus. Ever since his return from prison in Florida, he’s been repeating himself: employing his vast vocabulary to devastate his detractors; suing his critics; and firing broadsides at the U.S. justice system for using overzealous prosecutors and defective laws to incarcerate innocent tycoons, such as himself.

Admittedly, there would be impediments to making Black Ontario’s new lieutenant governor. There’s his criminal record, not to mention the citizenship he repudiated in order to join the assemblage of aged aristocrats and political has-beens in Britain’s House of Lords. But hey! — Why does the prime minister keep Jason Kenney around the cabinet table if not to make these irritating little immigration issues go away?

Black wouldn’t have to worry any longer about losing his precious Order of Canada. As lieutenant governor, he could admit himself to the Order of Ontario. Yes, there actually is such an order and it’s been around since 1986. He would be able to style himself “Conrad Black, Ont.” Perhaps a bit of a reality check after “Baron Black of Crossharbour.”