Why Elections Canada? Scrap? Reform?

Suppose you think there is a public goods rationale for government doing more than simply telling citizens where and when to vote. Suppose you accept — in principle, at least — that government has an interest in ensuring a fair political playing field. To be sure, you might disagree about the specific ‘goods’ in question and how they are best provided (as Chris and I do), but still think there is an important regulatory role for government here.

If you think this, then Chris quite reasonably asks: why Elections Canada? I may muse darkly about needing a strong and independent federal agency to stop a slide toward U.S.-style electoral theatrics, but at the end of the day Canada simply isn’t the United States: there are a range of social forces and public actors here that mitigate against the kind of free-spending, vitriolic, evidence-free acrimony that I fear.

So, even if my characterization of the U.S. system is accurate, why turn to Elections Canada, of all things, to do the work that could be done better by other agencies and non-government actors? That’s the essence of Chris’s challenge to me here. Continue reading

To be clear, I am not against serious reform to Elections Canada. Indeed, I think a genuinely fair elections act would do just that: reform and empower the agency. I’m also not wed to the centralized solution I’ve been lobbying for (although I do think there’s a good case for going that route). I might even share some of what I take to be Chris’s more generic suspicion about rushing to centralization of regulatory power as the solution whenever we find something that might vaguely resemble a public good.

I do think there is a public goods rationale for (i) non-partisan voter mobilization; (ii) maintaining the ‘information commons’ around elections in ways that require more than simply telling voters where and when to vote; and (iii) ensuring a fair political playing field. Chris rejects (i), but accepts (ii) and (iii). I’ll readily grant his scepticism about a strong centralized solution for (ii) and (iii). Indeed, if it can be shown that there is an effective and efficient way to provide the goods in question without an agency like Elections Canada, then I’m fine with that. It’s a technical question.

I am tempted, however, to respond to that scepticism by asserting a subsidiarity principle, and if you accept subsidiarity, then it seems as though federal elections invite a federal regulator, with the necessary powers at the federal level. An obvious analogy is policing and intelligence: there’s a reason the OPP doesn’t do CSIS and RCMP work, and vice versa.

Having said that, a contrasting analogy is securities regulation, and it’s interesting that here Canada does go a very different route than most big industrial economies: we don’t have an equivalent to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for example.

I suppose one could make the case that we do just fine in Canada without an SEC-styled federal agency. People make that case, certainly. Others have concerns. Still others note that, in the U.S., the SEC isn’t powerful, independent, and effective enough to actually do it’s job, and so the solution is not to go the Canadian route, but to make a better regulatory agency.

It probably won’t surprise any readers of this exchange to learn that I sympathise with the latter complaint, although here as in elections, I’m not wedded in principle to a centralized solution. Again, it’s a technical question.

So, I guess I’m agnostic on the question of whether or not there might be a (uniquely Canadian?) approach to providing the public goods required for fair elections—one that doesn’t need a federal agency like Elections Canada. Of course, if you already have such an agency in place then there may an efficiency rationale for simply going that route, by reforming and empowering that agency, rather than gutting it.

Again, however, that’s an empirical question, and I’ll happily concede that there might be a plausible case for trashing Elections Canada and instead trying a decentralized approach that manages elections through a bunch of different offices and agencies.

I’ll note, though, that the Poilievre and the PMO have not made anything like that case, and are instead pushing for less regulation on campaign spending and content, higher costs of entry to the political game, and more diffuse enforcement and investigatory powers. These are all initiatives that seem to mitigate against Chris’s optimism that we do things differently up here, and that we can rely on the status quo arrangement to maintain the informational commons around elections.

In short, then, I think I share some of Chris’s reservations in principle. I simply don’t trust this government not to screw things up.

Fair Elections Act Debate: One More Once!

Loren and I agree that the state should have a role in elections.

Where we fundamentally disagree, I think, is on this point:

“I don’t want Canada sliding further toward the U.S. in this respect, so I think we have a compelling interest in sustaining a credible non-partisan state agency [e.g. Elections Canada] to balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics.”

I agree with him that there must be some sort of mechanism in place to “balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics” but I don’t think it should be Elections Canada.
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First, we need to consider “the excesses of partisan politics” argument in terms of degree (e.g. a continuum). In Canada, we don’t suffer from the excesses that exist in the U.S. and so an expanded role for Elections Canada doesn’t make sense, nor do I think there is any credible or even anecdotal evidence that Elections Canada in its current role has created this situation or would be able to correct it in the future.

Second, don’t we already have mechanisms in place that do a pretty good job of correcting partisan misinformation and hyperbole in Canada? We have national, regional, and local newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations that cover elections with summaries and analysis. We have academics in Canada who are constantly in the media, giving interviews, providing seat projections and analysis of polls, and writing op eds and commentaries on twitter. We also have many independent pollsters, pundits, and think tanks, all of whom regularly provide analysis of issues, policies, and elections. So why do we need Elections Canada?

Third, why all of this hullabaloo over the information/motivational role of Elections Canada in particular? I agree with Loren that there is “a public interest in leveling the playing field of campaign spending and media access” but that’s not the job, nor should it be the job of Elections Canada! It’s the job of Parliament to pass laws and regulations on these issues, and for the police and the judicial system to enforce them.

In any event, I don’t think Canada will turn into the U.S. because of the Fair Elections Act. I don’t think Elections Canada with its present powers can prevent the type of hyper-partisanship and partisan hyperbole that critics are worried about, nor do I think Elections Canada should have the necessarily large amount of power that would be needed to actively prevent those types of activities from occurring in the future. I do agree that the Canadian state, along with civil society, should work together, no question, to provide information and motivation. But I just don’t see why it should be Elections Canada in particular.

Still More on the Fair Elections Act: What Kind of Informational Role for Elections Canada?

In his latest post, Chris argues against the state treating voting as a positive right, and he asks whether, if my worries about alleged partisan pathologies are persuasive, we should “be asking Elections Canada to do much more than it actually does”?

I suspect Chris means the question to be rhetorical (‘no, of course we shouldn’t!’), but frankly I’d take the gambit here and answer yes: a genuinely Fair Elections Act would empower the agency and expand its mandate, not gut it and consign it to a very narrow (merely procedural) informational role. Continue reading

(Then again, I also like the idea of Statistics Canada taking a regular and reliable census, and now we don’t have that either, so I’m not holding my breath.)

Does the state have an interest in mobilizing voters in non-partisan ways? I think yes: there’s something morally desirable about the kind of democracy you get when citizens think of voting not only (or chiefly) in partisan terms, but also as part of a greater civic project.

That isn’t to deny the importance of partisanship in democratic politics: I agree with Chris that partisan difference is important, even desirable. Still, democracy should be more than partisan conflict. We need to recognize that, even when we disagree (sometimes passionately), we are still part of a shared public project that is worth maintaining. I worry that, in the U.S., a widespread sense of politics as a shared project is increasingly precarious. (I don’t agree with Michael Sandel on much, but I do on this.)

I don’t want Canada sliding further toward the U.S. in this respect, so I think we have a compelling interest in sustaining a credible non-partisan state agency to balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics.

My moral stance can be disputed, however, just as Chris suggests. If you follow the tradition of, say, Joseph Schumpeter and William Riker, then you’ll emphasize the “liberal” over “democracy” in “liberal democracy,” and you’ll worry about the state pushing people to exercise their rights. The state’s job is simply to affirm and protect those rights, not nudging people one way or another.

So let’s grant that point, for the sake of argument: the state may have an interest in socializing young citizens to take seriously their (negative) right to vote, and also in informing adult citizens about how, where, and when to exercise that right. There is no compelling interest, however, in trying to encourage citizens actually to vote. As Chris puts it, “the role of the state with respect to voting is to protect the ability of citizens to participate freely in elections,” not to nudge them toward participation.

Still, even granting that view, the vision of democracy behind the Fair Elections Act seems unjustifiably restrictive in how it understands the kinds of information that the state might have an interest in providing.

Remember Poilievre’s succinct rationale for his proposed reforms?

There are two things that drive people to vote: motivation and information. Motivation results from parties or candidates inspiring people to vote. Information (the “where, when and how”) is the responsibility of Elections Canada.

What I don’t understand is why we should limit the informational role of Elections Canada to little more than pointing to polling stations and announcing election dates. Even on Chris’s protective and procedural account of democracy, why isn’t there a state interest in correcting the informational pathologies that we know are likely to arise from partisan mobilization strategies during campaigns? Why isn’t there a public interest in leveling the playing field of campaign spending and media access?

So, is citizen participation (sometimes) a public good? I think so, but even if you reject my moral grounds for that position, there is still a compelling ‘public good’ rationale for the state doing more than simply providing the “where, when, and how” of voting, and doing so through an effective and credibly non-partisan agency like Elections Canada.

If we take the negative right of voting seriously, then we should also care about the substantive, rather than simply procedural, features of the informational environment in which voting takes place. Since we know that partisan actors have a clear incentive to distort that environment, why not empower a non-partisan agency to maintain the quality of the informational commons?

This line of reasoning also supports keeping investigative and enforcement powers within the same agency that maintains the informational commons within which citizens exercise their right to vote, and bolstering, not weakening those powers.

So, I think someone with Chris’s view of liberal democracy has reasons to reject my moral argument for a state interest in mobilizing voters, but not for rejecting a state interest in maintaining a certain kind of public sphere: not only an unbiased informational environment, but also a fair playing field for varied partisan and non-partisan players.

That demands more than simply telling voters where, when, and how to vote.

Of course, if you think that personal rights always trump these kinds of public concerns, then you get the current U.S. system, where any serious attempts to regulate campaign contributions, or to police the volume and content of political advertising, are now considered violations of free speech.

I’m not convinced Canada should strive for such a system. Indeed, I think it would be a disaster (even if we seem to have been stumbling in that direction for some time). By gutting Elections Canada so decisively, and bolstering the financial clout of established parties in funding campaigns, it’s pretty clear that Poilievre and the PMO want to move us in just that direction, however.

That should trouble all of us.

Citizen Participation is a Public Good?

In Loren’s latest post, he argues:

“I want a non-partisan government agency charged with important information and mobilization roles not because I think they can do it best, but because I think citizen participation is a kind of public good, and I’m not especially fond of how that good is provided when we leave it to partisan interests and underfunded NGOs.”

In one sense, I kind of agree with Loren that citizen participation is a sort of public good and that the state should have a role in ensuring that citizens have the opportunity to participate in public policy, or in this case, elections. But the million dollar question is what should that role actually entail? Continue reading

The federal minister believes that the role of Elections Canada should be purely informational. Many of my colleagues, on the other hand, argue that it should be informational AND motivational.

Why? Because we (they?) can’t trust partisan interests and civil society to provide these public goods (specifically, unbiased information and sufficient motivation).

Maybe they are right. Maybe we should distrust partisan interests and civil society and the messages they transmit during elections.

But what does that have to do with Elections Canada?

If we take these criticisms seriously (e.g. “cynical hyperbole and factual distortions aimed to placate the base, then exquisitely refined grassroots campaigning to win at the margins”), then shouldn’t we be asking Elections Canada to do much more than it actually does?

For instance, if we are worried about informational distortions, then shouldn’t we be asking Elections Canada to also provide factual and neutral summaries and commentaries of political campaign messages, press releases, speeches, political platforms, and the like, as they are released during election campaigns? Shouldn’t we also be demanding that Elections Canada conduct and publish its own public opinion polls during the pre-writ and post-writ periods, or at least commentaries of the accuracy of those polls? That might help us avoid situations like what happened in the 2011 federal election when those darn biased and underfunded pollsters failed to predict the orange wave in Quebec!

Unless there is evidence to suggest that Elections Canada can have a significant impact on motivating people to vote (e.g. beyond a 1-2% bump), I don’t think it’s the right tool or body for accomplishing this goal, nor do I see a moral justification for the various activities that critics want Elections Canada to continue to provide. Certainly there may be a moral justification for state to be involved, but Elections Canada in particular? I don’t see it.

I also think there’s value in partisanship and partisan differences. Indeed, partisan posturing is what makes Canada’s democratic system work and why jurisdictions with consensus government structures are not so enamoured with non-partisan systems (talk to someone from the Northwest Territories)!

Finally, given the state of democracy in Canada, at least when it comes to the ability of citizens to exercise their right to vote, I tend to think of the right to vote in Canada as belonging to the category of “negative rights” rather than “positive rights’. In other words, I think the role of the state with respect to voting is to protect the ability of citizens to participate freely in elections, and more specifically, to vote how they please without any undue coercion.

In short, I don’t see what all the fuss is with this particular part of the Fair Elections Act. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before! I’m hoping someone will convince me soon.

Motivating Citizens: Who Should Mobilize Voters?

In a reply to my recent complaints about the Fair Elections Act, my colleague Chris Alcantara asks three very good questions: has Elections Canada been successful in their mobilization efforts? Should they even be trying? And should the state even be involved in promoting turnout in the first place?

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Poilievre and the PMO clearly think the answers are “no!” across the board.

In selling the Act, Poilievre cites declining turnout over the past decade as evidence that “public advertising and outreach campaigns of Elections Canada have not worked,” and insists that “Political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than our government bureaucracies.”

That view has considerable intuitive appeal, but as a political theorist I have some reasons for thinking that the result is an unattractive view of democracy.

We know that partisan mobilization strategies work: indeed, the last few rounds of presidential campaigning in the United States show us just how sophisticated and effective partisan mobilization efforts can be. It also revealed important moral shortcomings of that approach: cynical hyperbole and factual distortions aimed to placate the base, then exquisitely refined grassroots campaigning to win at the margins, getting out those committed voters and whichever independents and ‘leaners’ can be swayed, state by state, district by district, door to door, twitter sub-network to twitter sub-network.

To be sure, the game theorist and data nerd in me marvels at this sophistication (and notes the employability it might portend for some of our students, even possibly for me if Laurier decides to fire all the tenured Arts faculty someday soon, perhaps to better finance a new wave of administrative positions).

The political philosopher in me, however, wonders if this is the most desirable model for democracy? Partisan strategists playing elaborate chess games, with a few scrappy NGOs playing chronic catch-up, struggling to correct the inevitable distortions or outright lies in various target markets, and struggling to motivate citizens with non-partisan appeals.

What do we know, empirically, about partisan versus non-partisan mobilization efforts?

There have been some interesting field experiments in the U.S. addressing just this question, and the findings, while modest, are suggestive: face-to-face canvassing works (although it isn’t the whole story by any means), but whether partisan versus non-partisan messages make a difference isn’t at all clear, with social pressure being important, and the content of implied social norms seeming to be decisive.

So, the evidence isn’t at all clear on Poilievre’s claim that partisans are best-positioned to motivate voters. No doubt they are the most interested parties, and if they follow some of the emerging research in the US, perhaps they too will move toward non-partisan social pressure cues, emphasizing gratitude and high voter turnout (these seem to be the specific framing strategies that work well in the burgeoning experimental literature). But even if partisan actors are going door to door canvassing, other partisans are the most likely to be implicated in factual distortions, cynical manipulation, and gross simplification of complex policy issues.

All part of the game, perhaps?

If we settle for this as the limit of our democratic aspirations, then I suppose so. I prefer to think we might be able to do better.

But how? Why trust a government agency to mobilize voters? Isn’t Elections Canada more likely to waste money appointing political friends and famous faces to fluffy (and expensive) “expert” panels? (I’m not a conservative or libertarian, but I think their respective complaints about this panel are pretty much right on the mark).

I want a non-partisan government agency charged with important information and mobilization roles not because I think they can do it best, but because I think citizen participation is a kind of public good, and I’m not especially fond of how that good is provided when we leave it to partisan interests and underfunded NGOs.

You could, of course, strive to regulate those partisan interests more aggressively, but that would involve strengthening Elections Canada’s regulatory and enforcement powers over things like advertising and campaign contributions, which strikes me as not a very promising route for reform. Certainly the current government shows no interest in going this route. The current act, after all, wants to increase campaign spending limits, constrain third-party advertising (without any regulation on the spending or content of party advertising), remove the enforcement officer from EC, and doesn’t add any investigative powers (to compel testimony, for instance).

Or perhaps we could better fund those NGOs and other non-partisan voices, so as to level the playing field for political voice and correcting partisan excesses?  Again, that seems to be something best suited to an agency like Elections Canada, and insofar as the current mandate of EC involves such programmes, the Act wants to diminish that role (no more support for progammes like StudentVote, for example).

I’d certainly like to see an Elections Canada that can, with sufficient oversight and transparency, develop in-house expertise to engage in both information and mobilization programmes, but can also contract out that work to reputable non-partisan groups who can do the job cheaper and better. I’d like to see them have the funding, independence, and expertise to investigate bad behaviour, enforce regulations, and ensure a level political playing field during elections. I wish the Fair Voting Act were tailored to reform Elections Canada into such an agency.

The Fair Voting Act, as it stands, doesn’t do this. As is so often the case with this government, they insist on bundling together uncontroversial ‘housekeeping’ initiatives with dubious, ill-considered changes (along with some obviously partisan stuff that should have stayed in the dark recesses of Harper’s imagination). They then ignore any and all critics, including a range of experts, instead lashing out with political attacks.

Taking stock

Published Apr. 14, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record

Politicians by nature are not the most introspective of creatures. They do what they think they have to do, or what their leaders tell them to do. It is a rare politician who pauses to ask himself or herself why they are doing it, or to question whether it is the right thing, or best thing, for the country they serve.

That said, members of Parliament have an opportunity this week and next week to take stock. The sudden death of former finance minister Jim Flaherty shocked everyone on Parliament Hill and far beyond. Here was a man who had worked too hard for eight years in the service of the Harper government. In the process he destroyed his health and, suddenly, he was gone before he could even start to enjoy retirement. Many of his former colleagues from all parties, most of whom genuinely liked and respected the feisty little Irishman, are asking themselves whether it is all worth it.

Parliament has become a very nasty place. Back when, I spent 15 happy years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery covering the Hill. I barely recognize the place today. In those days, the House of Commons was a rough and tumble arena, but respect for the rules and the firm hand of the Speaker prevented it from becoming what it is today: a place where blind partisanship, vitriol and personal attacks have taken over. In those days, there was no Pierre Poilievre and no Orwellian “Ministry of State for Democratic Reform” — for which those of us who were there might, in retrospect, be grateful.
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The Commons is not sitting this week or next as MPs take an extended Easter recess. The break will not only enable them to say goodbye to Jim Flaherty — his state funeral is on Wednesday — but also to reflect on the sort of Parliament they want to return to.

Radical change is not in the cards, but MPs could take a few baby steps. On the government side, they could stop parroting the absurdly partisan and abusive lines written for them by the Prime Minister’s Office. On the opposition side, they could tone down the outrage; not everything the government does is wrong, badly motivated or an affront to democracy.

They could take a balanced approach to legislation. If a piece of legislation would make a bad law, they should expose its flaws (or, if on the government side, admit its flaws), then withdraw it or defeat it. If a piece of legislation would make a good law, they should applaud it and pass it.

The so-called Fair Elections Act is the place to start. This is Poilievre’s baby, conceived in the Conservative war room and handed to the young minister by the prime minister. The act surely has critics. Among other things, it’s being called the Unfair Elections Act, an Assault on Democracy Act, an Act to Perpetuate Conservative Governments (Forever), and Stephen Harper’s Revenge Against Elections Canada.

There are many things wrong with the Fair Elections Act, but I’ll mention just two. First, it is unnecessary. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the existing Canada Elections Act. It act has given Canada some of the fairest and most honest elections in the world. Canadians are the first people other nations call for when they need international election observers. Our rules work.

The second thing that’s wrong is that the Fair Elections Act is thoroughly bad legislation — retrograde, badly motivated, poorly crafted and appallingly partisan. It would discourage turnout by making it more difficult for some (mainly non-Conservative) groups to vote (the poor, homeless and students). It would politicize enforcement by transferring authority over the rules from the public servants who are custodians of the act today to the agents of the party in power.

Jim Flaherty has reminded us of the fragility of life. Do we need Pierre Poilievre and his Fair Elections Act to remind us of the fragility of our democracy?

Why Elections Canada? Or Why Loren’s Latest Post is Somewhat Puzzling

My colleague, Loren King, in his latest post continues the “pile on” of the so-called Fair Elections Act and the beleaguered Minister of Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre.

He disagrees with Minister Poilievre’s following points: a) that it is up to parties and candidates to inspire people to vote; b) Elections Canada should be limited to communicating basic information, rather than trying to mobilize people to vote.

Loren’s argument is that “Citizen motivation to take part in their democracy shouldn’t be left to partisan forces. Sincere and informed civic participation is a public good, and there is no inconsistency (indeed, there is considerable virtue) in having Elections Canada involved in both informing voters and encouraging them to take part in public life, especially voting.”
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I agree with some of Loren’s points, but I don’t understand this obsession from academics with defending Elections Canada’s role in mobilizing people to vote. The way it’s framed in most cases, it seems like it will be the end of the world if Elections Canada’s is not allowed to hold voting celebrations or to engage in social media campaigns to get out the vote! The basic message seems to be: “No Elections Canada = the death of democracy and the end of voting as we know it!”

Maybe I’m becoming an old curmudgeon, or maybe Daniel Kahneman’s book is starting to push me to more frequently engage my system 2 thinking in situations when system 1 has been oh so dominant in the past!

But, consider the following (to which I have no answers of course!):

First, is there any evidence that the activities that Elections Canada engages in actually produces increased voter turnout?

Second, is Elections Canada the most effective means for motivating people (more specifically, adults!) to vote? Or, would this task be better left to political parties and civil society actors (like Fair vote Canada) to mobilize the vote?

Third, how active should the state actually be in promoting voting turnout among adults? I agree that the state should be active when socializing youth in schools. Informing and educating students about the roles and duties involved in being a Canadian citizen is exactly the job of the state and it should be actively working hard to foster habitual voting among Canada’s youth (especially when the evidence suggests that habitual voting continues into adulthood).

But I admit, I’m not so sure that Elections Canada in particular should have this role.

Loren says that “there is considerable virtue” in having Elections Canada involved in motivation and information. I’m curious about what he means and I hope he will explain soon in his next post!

Pierre Poilievre’s Mistaken View of Democracy

Late to the party here (but I did sign the letter). I don’t have much to add to the excellent public commentary about this misguided act, but there is one point that hasn’t received enough scrutiny, and I think it’s important.

In his public attempt to defend a frankly poor piece of legislation, Pierre Poilievre, Minister for Democratic Reform, asserts the following:

“There are two things that drive people to vote: motivation and information. Motivation results from parties or candidates inspiring people to vote. Information (the “where, when and how”) is the responsibility of Elections Canada. … The Fair Elections Act will require Elections Canada to communicate this basic information, while parties do their job of voter motivation.”

This strikes me as interestingly wrong, betraying a misguided moral vision of what democracy is, and what it could be. Continue reading

Citizen motivation to take part in their democracy shouldn’t be left to partisan forces. Sincere and informed civic participation is a public good, and there is no inconsistency (indeed, there is considerable virtue) in having Elections Canada involved in both informing voters and encouraging them to take part in public life, especially voting.

We shouldn’t drive a partisan wedge between motivation and information in the way Poilievre so breezily suggests. To do so is to accept a cynical and, frankly, antidemocratic view of Canadian politics.

Think about voting. It is, most of the time and for most people, apparently inconsequential: as political scientists have (in)famously noted, it cannot be justified merely by expected gains associated with the very real costs of becoming informed and showing up at the ballot box. And yet it is a vitally important act, one that citizens routinely undertake regardless of the apparent waste of time and resources.

Whatever voting is, then, it isn’t merely a rational act, or a result of partisan haranguing. It is something far more valuable.

In a thoughtful recent commentary, Peter Loewen gets this point exactly right:

“If the decision to vote is really important, it is because it is a small act that tells us something about individuals’ values. It is like so many other democratic and civic acts: small in isolation, grand in aggregation. Seemingly trivial, but in fact deeply revealing of what an individual values and wants. Good societies are made up of these small acts.”

That profoundly important act is not something we should trust to partisan voices. It is the sine qua non of a healthy democracy, and as such, it deserves better than the partisan fate that Harper and Poilievre have in mind.

 

A CAQ government? Stranger things have happened

Published Apr. 7, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record. 

People may not recognize the name of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a 19th century French politician and revolutionary, but they will have heard of his famous comment: “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”

It’s like that in Quebec today, provincial election day. The electorate is moving — the pollsters and pundits detect the movement — but where the people are heading, where they will end up, and who will lead them is almost anyone’s guess. The situation reminds me of the 2011 federal election and the New Democratic Party’s “Orange Wave,” led by the late Jack Layton. The NDP came of nowhere, literally, to capture 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats in Parliament (and 103 of 308 nationally).

A surge of that magnitude may not be in the cards today, but something is happening. To the extent that there is consensus, it is that the campaign has been all-round nasty and the governing Parti Québécois is in deep, deep trouble. Premier Pauline Marois has led the worst campaign, muddled and off-message, anyone has witnessed in many years. The tumbrels will roll for her if she fails to win a majority; they will roll even if she manages to cling to another minority. Her self-designated successor will have to wait a long time before he will be able to crown himself President Péladeau (or perhaps he would prefer Emperor Pierre Karl the First) of a sovereign Quebec.

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It is a reflection of the PQ’s disastrous campaign, that the polls seem to be pointing to a return of the Liberals, out of office for just 18 months, still scandal-plagued and now led by the thoroughly underwhelming Philippe Couillard (he makes the late Liberal premier Robert Bourassa seem charismatic by comparison). But no one has the faintest idea whether it would be a Liberal majority or minority.

The polls this past weekend are little or no help. A Léger Marketing survey, published Sunday morning, put the Liberals at 38 per cent, nine points ahead of the PQ. Given the way support is split among the other parties, those 38 points could produce a Liberal majority. (A new projection by ThreeHundredEight.com, a poll aggregator, gives the Liberals 69 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly.) Or it could give the Liberals a minority — or nothing.

The huge unknown is the young Coalition Avenir Québec, which occupies the centre-right of the spectrum — conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social ones. Led by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, the CAQ is the only party with any momentum. While the PQ and the Liberals have been frozen in place or slipping slightly, the CAQ has kept moving ahead. As of Sunday, it had reached 23 per cent, up eight points since the third week of March.

The trend is what has Quebec politicians excited — and worried. The CAQ could end up with just a dozen seats, or it could end up in power. (It won 19 seats in the 2012 election that brought Marois and the PQ to office.) In this election, it has managed to keep out of the mudslinging between the PQ and the Liberals; it has sensed the public mood by declaring a 10-year moratorium on referendums; and its leader, Legault, is seen to have out-performed his opponents in the televised leaders’ debates.

Written off early in the campaign, the CAQ has surged in the past two weeks. “When you look at polls, what’s important are trends,” Legault said the other day. “There is a possibility that we will form a majority government, the CAQ, according to the trends.”

The CAQ is certainly the spoiler in this election. But a CAQ government, majority or minority? An impossible dream? Perhaps. But perhaps not. But when the electorate starts to move, no one knows where it will stop. Let’s not forget Jack Layton and 2011.

Growing Interest in Municipal Politics

There appears to be increased interest in municipal politics. This is possibly due to a combination of Rob Ford’s antics as well as the coming Ontario-wide municipal elections. But it may also be due to some recognition that a lot of politics is now taking place at the municipal level.

Opinion-Policy Nexus has posted blog entries that cover various topics related to municipal politics. Here is a summary of the most recent:

  • Dr. Zachary Spicer, a post-doc at the University of Toronto, sheds light on homeowners as a particular segment of the electorate that is more likely to vote in local elections, and thus, more likely to weigh heavy on decisions made at the municipal level.
  • Dr. Robert Williams, Professor Emeritus at University of Waterloo, provides some commentary on electoral reform at the municipal level.
  • Dr. Christopher Alcantara, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of LISPOP, was interviewed by CBC Radio on the role of municipal-level political parties and the specific (and contentious) topic of Light Rail Transit for Waterloo Region.

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Interest may abate after the municipal elections, but there are reasons to believe otherwise. Over several decades, municipalities have acquired more and more responsibilities. Naturally, more and more researchers, students and commentators, not to mention voters, follow with greater awareness of the impact municipalities have on people’s lives. Also, municipalities are now more closely tied concrete issues that have typically animated “higher level” politics, such as employment and taxes. All of this suggests local politics will play a larger part in our general political discourse.

Why fixed election dates are unnecessary

Published Apr. 3, 2014, in The Ottawa Citizen.

In the rest of Canada, much of the coverage of the Quebec provincial election has focused on the possibility of a PQ majority government and the spectre of another referendum.

Lost in this coverage, however, is the fact that in 2013, the PQ government passed a fixed election date law that set the next provincial election to occur on Oct. 3, 2016. Similar to what the Stephen Harper government did in 2008, the PQ “violated” or at least circumvented this law by calling a spring election to coincide with favourable polling numbers. According to some observers, this was problematic because such a strategy supposedly and unfairly improves the re-election chances of the incumbent government.

Political experts have long argued that the election-timing power gives prime ministers and provincial premiers a powerful advantage at election time. The solution, they argue, is fixed election-date legislation, and indeed, the federal government and almost every provincial government across Canada, with the exception of Nova Scotia, has passed this type of legislation.

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Home Values, Homevoters and Municipal Politics: A Guest Post from Dr. Zachary Spicer

The following guest blog contribution is from Dr. Zachary Spicer, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, University of Toronto.

Ontario’s municipal election campaigns are well underway. Over the next seven months, candidates will present platforms and reach out to residents to earn votes. One particular group of voters, however, is prized above all others: homeowners.

Homeowners vote with higher frequency, are more vocal about local politics and are uniquely incentivized to insert themselves into municipal government. Simply put, home ownership changes how one views the political world. To understand why this is we need to examine what effect owning a home has upon an individual.

When one has a concern related to their municipal government – perhaps a pothole, poor garbage pick-up, or high tax levels – they have two options. They could either try to change the situation – e.g., complain to their local councilor, start a petition, vote or run for office themselves – or they could choose to move out of the municipality, altogether. These two options are referred to as “voice” and “exit” – a conscious choice to either stay and try to change things or move to another municipality that better represents your needs.

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Such decisions are not always easy. The choice to leave, of course, depends on the severity of the concern, but some may be attached to the community through their work, family or friends. Picking up and leaving may not be feasible. However, the largest factor keeping one tied to a particular municipality is whether or not they own a home. Owning a home increases the chances of homeowners using “voice” instead of “exit.”

Owning a home limits mobility. The transaction costs of moving are higher because one must disinvest prior to leaving – the prospects of selling a home for lower than one purchased it certainly factors into such calculations. As such, homeowners try to shape municipal conditions to better suit their own preferences as opposed to leaving and seeking out a municipality that better represents those preferences. This behaviour can dramatically change the type of issues that are discussed during elections, the candidates that are elected and the policies that inevitably get passed by any new council.

Thirteen years ago, William Fischel introduced us to this group of municipal voters. He called them “homevoters” in his seminal book, The Homevoter Hypothesis. His idea was simple: concern for property values influences the attitudes and behaviours of homeowners towards municipal politics. Owning a home, Fischel contended, provides a unique level of incentive and motivation to be active in local politics.

The purchase of a home is the largest investment that most people make in their lifetimes and Fischel argues that a desire to maximize property values and protect their investment from uninsurable risks related to municipal politics makes homeowners uniquely interested in the public policies of local government. Simply put, you can insure your home against things such as fire or flood, but you cannot insure it against unaesthetic development or fluctuations in local taxation rates that may negatively affect its resale value. This, Fischel contends, provides additional motivation for those who own a home to play a role in shaping their local politics.

Those who own a home participate in municipal politics at higher levels than renters. They vote and discuss local politics more often. Outside of election season, they are more likely to volunteer for municipal or community boards and contact their councilor and other local officials. Simply put, homevoters are more engaged in community life.

To illustrate some of Fischel’s argument, lets examine voter turnout. This information comes from a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban Affairs that was co-authored by Mike McGregor and myself. In the model below, we use data from the 2008 General Social Survey (GSS) administered by Statistics Canada. The GSS contains information from over 20,000 respondents on a range of social issues. Central to our purposes is that it contains information on voter turnout at the municipal, provincial and federal levels as well as information on homeowners and a number of important control variables.

GSS data reveal that municipal turnout among renters is 55.9 percent (n=4,113) compared to 71.5 percent (n=13,599) for homeowners. However, a lot of different factors can co-vary with homeownership. Figure 1 displays vote probabilities from a logistic regression model that controls for several widely known correlates, such as gender, age, income, education, ethnicity and region. It also considers a variable that controls for the amount of time respondents have lived in their community. We also consider models of provincial and federal turnout.

Source: General Social Survey, Statistics Canada, 2008.

Source: General Social Survey, Statistics Canada, 2008.

As is apparent, homeownership displays a positive and statistically significant relationship with voter turnout in municipal election. The probability of voting in municipal elections is 13 percentage points higher for owners than it is for renters. We do see, however, that homeownership increases the probability of voting at the federal and provincial levels as well, but nowhere is it greater than at the municipal level.

So, what sort of policies do these homevoters want to see in place? Anything that will enhance the value of their property. Within a general context, they embrace lower levels of taxation, projects that will beautify neighbourhoods, and initiatives that ensure their access to local officials. Within a particular context, they will vociferously defend neighbourhoods from unaesthetic development. Politicians that can embrace these goals are likely to be supported.

Local politics is oriented towards these types of demands and focus on homeowners and tax rates. We often hear the word “taxpayer” substituted for the words “citizen” and “voter” by municipal politicians – an implication that only those who own a home pay property taxes and count in the electoral process. Toronto’s Rob Ford has this down to an art, but newcomers to Toronto’s mayoral election campaign are starting to use the phrase as well. Even social-justice icon Olivia Chow repeatedly refers to “taxpayers” on the campaign trail.

Due to the prominence of homevoters, we are likelier to focus on taxes than social housing during election season. Homevoters ensure our policy discussions are focused on protecting and enhancing property values. As such, the dominance of homevoters narrows the political agenda during elections. Opening it back up is a challenge, but not impossible task for savvy municipal voters.

Trudeau shouldn’t expect big boost from ‘star’ candidates

Published Wed. Mar 26, 2014, in The Star.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s move to block the nomination of Christine Innes in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina has filled the political news recently. He took the step, according to Ontario campaign co-chair David MacNaugton, because the Innes campaign was using “intimidation and bullying on young volunteers.”

More specifically, according to some party officials and critics, Trudeau’s decision was really about protecting star candidate Chrystia Freeland, a celebrated author and journalist, who last year beat NDP and fellow star candidate Linda McQuaig in the by-election for the riding of Toronto Centre.

Leaders and party strategists have long recruited and protected star candidates for a variety of reasons. They assume, for instance, that these individuals make excellent cabinet or shadow cabinet ministers. They also assume that star candidates attract all sorts of positive attention from the media. But the main reason why leaders and strategists are so attracted to these individuals is because they assume that these candidates can significantly increase their party’s vote share at election time.

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First Nations communities should explore municipal partnerships

Published on Mar. 27, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

It’s no secret that many aboriginal communities across Canada are underserviced and underfunded.

Media reports over the last several years have highlighted the lack of adequate funding for on-reserve education, clean water, housing, and health services, among other things.

Earlier this year, a story surfaced about a house fire on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan. Commentators noted how a lack of financial support from the federal government for proper training and equipment had directly contributed to the death of two young boys. As a result of that tragedy, First Nations’ leaders have called for the federal government to increase funding to on-reserve communities for proper fire protection services.

In many ways, these demands make sense. Aboriginal governments frequently lack the fiscal tools to raise sufficient revenue to pay for these services, and so federal and provincial money is crucial to building healthy and safe aboriginal communities.

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Sulky children usher premier out of office

Published Mar. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Politics is a thoroughly miserable profession.

It treats many of its practitioners, not with the deference or respect they may merit, but with cruel contempt. Too often, the career of a politician is, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

Alison Redford discovered this in the weeks leading up to her resignation as premier of Alberta. It wasn’t really a resignation so much as it was a political assassination. She was assassinated by her own party, by her Progressive Conservative caucus. Caucus members didn’t like her style. She had won the leadership in October 2011 with almost no caucus support (only one MLA voted for her) and went on to capture a majority government the following year.

Notwithstanding her success (or because of it), her caucus resented her – partly because to them she was an outsider, partly because she was a pinker Tory than most of them, and partly, I believe, because she was a woman who had succeeded in a province where politics is still played by old-boy rules.

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She treated her followers like professionals instead of what they were: a bunch of sulky children whose little noses were out of joint. She didn’t stroke them enough, make them feel important enough, or invite them home for dinner often enough. And she didn’t keep them busy enough – too busy to waste time plotting her assassination.

She made mistakes, but they were not mistakes of government policy (Alberta continues to be one of the best-run provinces), nor were they mistakes of political strategy (she trounced the right-wing Wildrose party in the provincial election two years ago).

The mistakes were more personal – travel expenses and the use of government aircraft. It was entirely reasonable that she should fly to South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, with whom she had worked in the 1990s. But she should have paid attention to the cost of the trip. That $45,000 should have set off alarm bells. In the end, she reimbursed the treasury, but the damage was done.

She stood accused of being a wastrel with an overweening sense of entitlement. As we have seen with the Senate expense scandal, relatively small amounts can cause large damage: for Mike Duffy, it was $90,000; in Redford’s case that $45,000 left her vulnerable to attack by people who didn’t like her for other, less commendable reasons. She became the target of a nasty (and brutish) smear campaign.

Caucus members bitched about her leadership style. One MLA complained that Redford had a short temper and was not a “nice lady.” So the poor aggrieved fellow quit the caucus. Caucus members spread false tales that Redford had abused a member of her staff – an allegation that turned out to be without foundation.

The damage was done. Governments’ poll numbers often crater at the mid-point of their terms (as Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives could attest today) and Redford’s were no exception. Support for the Alberta PCs dropped to the 20 per cent range, Wildrose was re-energized, and, after 43 unbroken years in office, the Tories panicked.

In Ottawa, the federal Conservatives’ poll numbers aren’t all that much better these days, and, although there is anxiety, there is no panic. There is no sense that if they don’t push Harper off the Peace Tower right now, Justin Trudeau will become prime minister in October 2015. He may or may not win that election, but the Tories know time is on their side. Panic won’t help. They have time and the tools (lots of attack ads) to right the ship.

Alberta’s PCs have even more time, until spring 2016 before they have to face the electorate. When they do, it will be with a new leader – a male, surely. Ironically, they will be up against a Wildrose party under the leadership of, yes, a woman, Danielle Smith. Unless the old boys in Wildrose get to her first.