I have a soft spot for Duff the reporter

Published July 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Let me begin with a confession. I have a soft spot for Mike Duffy. Not for the Conservative hack he chose to become, nor for the self-important senator (Old Duff) that he morphed into as he shilled for the party at fundraising events.

As a journalist, I cannot excuse the hatchet job he orchestrated on Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, an honourable man who struggled in English, near the end of the 2008 election campaign. A nasty, partisan job, it helped tip that election to Stephen Harper and secured Duffy’s appointment to the Senate.

The soft spot dates to an earlier time, when Duffy was a simple reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery who climbed the ladder by virtue of hard work, shrewd instincts and raw ambition. He was good. He got to know more key players on Parliament Hill than other reporters and, as a result, he broke more stories. He was the go-to reporter for many MPs.
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I watched him move from private radio to CBC radio to lead parliamentary reporter for CBC television, then on to stardom at CTV and celebrity status as host of his own shows. He earned his success, but it went to his head. He adored the spotlight. He left the press seats for the playing field in the political game that fascinated him. And he chose the Tories because they offered the best route to what he really wanted: that seat in the Senate.

Now the RCMP has charged him with no fewer than 31 criminal charges related to his Senate expense claims. The 31 charges amount to prosecutorial overreaching. The police undoubtedly hope to intimidate Duffy into pleading guilty to two or three of them, meanwhile demonstrating to their political masters and to the public at large that they have left no stone unturned in their investigation.

This is going to be a difficult prosecution for the police and government lawyers. Some of the charges are clearly redundant. Some are based on the quicksand of Senate expense rules, which tend to be vague and ill-enforced and which, over the years, have depended on an honour system among senators.

Duffy is accused of using his Senate expense account for personal travel and travel to political events on behalf of his party. Senators are not supposed to do that, but, if Duffy did, he wouldn’t be the first. These relatively small expense items account for 18 of the 31 changes.

The crux of the case is the residency issue. The Constitution and enabling legislation stipulate that senators be resident in the province they represent. That means they must own at least $4,000 worth of property in that province. The requirement is woefully outdated. These days, a parking space might satisfy the legal requirement.

Everyone, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, knew when he appointed Duffy that he had lived in Ottawa for decades. But he owned a cottage in Prince Edward Island and that seemed to satisfy the residency requirement. Members from beyond the National Capital Region are permitted to claim accommodation expenses when in Ottawa on Senate business. Usually, that means a hotel room.

In Duffy’s case, he unwisely claimed expenses for his house in Ottawa. That claim passed inspection by the Senate for a few years, until an outside auditor raised a red flag. Duffy was ordered to repay $90,000. He didn’t have the money. To cut a complicated story short, that’s why Duffy arranged to accept the $90,000 from Nigel Wright, the PM’s chief of staff, who tried to protect Harper from further embarrassment by writing a personal cheque for Duffy.

Harper got angry. Wright lost his job. Duffy got suspended from the Senate. Now, among the 31 charges, he is accused of corruptly accepting a $90,000 bribe from Wright. But Wright is not accused of offering a bribe. Go figure.

Clearly, Mike Duffy is the author of his own misfortune. It’s a misfortune that makes him as much a victim as a villain.

How will historians judge Harper’s reign?

Published July 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Stephen Harper has been prime minister since February 2006. They have been eventful years, but some day — if not next month or next year or a year or two after that — the Harper era will come to a close.

The prime minister may decide enough is enough and choose to retire while the cheers of his grateful party still resonate on Parliament Hill. Or he may lose an election (the next one is due in October 2015) and leave before he is pushed. Or he may stay too long and be pushed.

He may opt for a soft landing in boardroom Canada. Or he may do what other former leaders have done: lend their name to the letterhead of a big law firm to open doors for corporate clients — in other words, become a pricey lobbyist. Or he may hire a scribe to help him write his memoirs (and settle scores), as Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney have done and as Dalton McGuinty is doing now. Or Harper could hold his nose and appoint himself to the Senate of Canada, an institution that he may hold in low esteem, but which still pays a living wage with benefits and expenses.
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However it happens, the Harper years will end. When that happens, the Harper legacy file will be passed from the pundits, pollsters and political scientists to the historians. What will their verdict be?

Will they place him in the upper tier of prime ministers, with John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King and, perhaps, Robert Borden and Pierre Trudeau? Will they put him in the mid-range along with Mulroney (Airbus scandal aside) and Chrétien? Or will he find himself sharing the bottom shelf with the likes of John Diefenbaker?

His advocates will draw attention to his handling of the Canadian economy since the market meltdown of 2008. True, Canada weathered the storm better than most, and no Canadian banks collapsed, but how much of that survival was due to the wise stewardship of the Harper government and how much was due to laws and regulations put in place by previous administrations? That’s a question for the historians to ponder. They may note that the Canadian economy has not rebounded as quickly as the Americans’, that the country is still bleeding manufacturing jobs, and that the national unemployment rate remains unacceptably high. They may or may not be impressed by the various iterations of Harper’s “economic action plan.”

Their verdict of the Harper government’s performance on the world stage is likely to be more definitive. Canada lost more than a seat on the UN Security Council; on Harper’s watch, it has lost influence everywhere, most notably in the Middle East where, since the days of Lester Pearson, Canada had played a significant role. Foreign Minister John Baird’s hectoring tone is more irritating than effective. Harper’s little punch-up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be good politics domestically (although I doubt that), but it is silly and irrelevant internationally.

At home, historians may observe that the political atmosphere has changed for the worse on Harper’s watch. Confrontation has replaced co-operation on many fronts. This is a government that picks fights with the courts, the opposition and even the Senate. It no longer holds first ministers’ meetings with the provinces; Harper either doesn’t respect the premiers or want to share a national stage with them, or he doesn’t think he needs their support for most things he wants to do.

He tried to get away with disenfranchising thousands of voters with his ill-named Fair Elections Act. His administration thinks it can somehow make prostitution go away, no matter what the courts and the Charter may say. Sometimes his ministers seem more incompetent than arrogant. They can’t figure out how to bring competition to the wireless sector. They can’t organize a proper, open procedure for the purchase of new aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Historians may be less than impressed.

Did byelection results send PM a message?

Published July 7, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Federal byelections can be quite dramatic, harbingers of political upheaval to come. We saw that back in 1978 when the tired Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, backed into a constitutional corner, was forced to call no fewer than 15 byelections, all held on Oct. 16 that year. The Liberals’ worst fears were realized as they took a beating everywhere, winning just two of the byelections, both in Quebec. Seven months later, the Grits were out of office and the Tories, under Joe Clark, were in (briefly).

In March 1989, Deborah Grey won a byelection in the Alberta riding of Beaver River. Her victory, by a wide margin over a Progressive Conservative, signalled the arrival of the Reform party and the beginning of the disintegration of the Tory base on the Prairies. Seventeen months later, in August 1990, a Quebec union organizer, Gilles Duceppe, captured Laurier-Sainte Marie in a byelection. He ran as an independent because he did not yet have a party to belong. But that party, the Bloc Québécois, was soon created by defectors from the Liberals and Tories; in 1997, it became the official opposition in Ottawa.
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There were four federal byelections last week, two in Ontario and two in Alberta. They did not offer the drama of the contests mentioned above. The Conservatives retained their two Alberta seats and the Liberals held theirs in Scarborough-Agincourt. The only change came in the inner city Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina, Olivia Chow’s old seat. It has been an NDP-Liberal swing seat, and this time it swung back to the Liberals, with city councillor Adam Vaughan as their high-profile candidate.

But more happened last week than met the casual eye. The exceptionally low turnout masked some revealing movement. The Liberals gained strength everywhere while the Conservatives lost vote share, even in the two Alberta seats that they won. The Liberals took an aggregate average of 21 per cent of the vote in the four ridings in the 2011 general election. In last week’s byelections, they averaged 41 per cent. The Tories, meanwhile, collected an average of 38 per cent in the byelections, down from 50 per cent in 2011.

The NDP’s share dropped from 24 per cent to 15, while the Green party held steady at 4 per cent.

It would be foolish to read too much significance into the byelections. The results, however, do reflect the same trends as the national polls. The Liberals retain the momentum that has kept them in first place in the polls since Justin Trudeau became leader 14 months ago. Conservative support is stagnant, at best. Some cracks are appearing in their base, even Fortress Alberta.

Their negative attacks on Trudeau’s maturity and ability have done the Tories no good and may have hurt their cause.

For the New Democrats, the 103 seats and official opposition status they won under the late Jack Layton, is as good as it will probably get. Despite the stellar parliamentary leadership of Thomas Mulcair, they seem destined to slip back to their accustomed third place, as the 60-odd per cent of Canadians who reject Stephen Harper’s Conservatives mostly choose the Liberals over the New Democrats as their default government. For Elizabeth May and her Greens, the numbers suggest more of the same — a fringe party clinging to one or two seats in Parliament.

There is nothing at this stage to indicate that any party has enough support, or momentum, to elect a majority government. Anything can happen between now and October 2015 when the next election is scheduled, but as matters stand, a minority government is a real possibility.

For Justin Trudeau, a minority Liberal government would be a huge breakthrough and a personal vindication. A minority Conservative government would be, for Trudeau, a smaller breakthrough, but a victory nonetheless — and an opportunity to continue to build. For Harper, reduction to a minority would signal the end of the road after nine years as prime minister.

My Thoughts on the Aboriginal Title SCC Decision: Part 2

The National Post today (Wednesday July 2) printed my op ed on the impact of the recent SCC decision on Aboriginal title.  They haven’t posted a copy on the website yet and I’m not sure they will (the Canada Day holiday has played some havoc with the publishing schedule!).

So, just in case they don’t publish it online at some point, below is the raw, un-copyedited version of the op ed.  I hope my much more legally-informed and inclined colleagues (I’m looking at you guys, Macfarlane and Baker!) will tell me whether I’m right or wrong?
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Headline: A recipe for Indigenous Paralysis?

Of all of the dispute resolution mechanisms available to Indigenous peoples and the Crown in Canada, the judicial system is probably the worst of the lot.  Rarely do judicial decisions create harmony and compromise between two parties.  Instead, they frequently produce winners and losers and all of the negative feelings that come with being labeled as such.

Canadian judges have long been aware of this fact, which partly explains why it took them so long to clarify the exact nature of Aboriginal title in this country.  Previous to this decision, Canadian courts had urged Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders to negotiate their disputes rather than litigate them.  This recent decision, however, dramatically changes this long-standing message from the bench, with potentially dire and unintended consequences.

One of the key mechanisms for addressing the Aboriginal land question in Canada has been the treaty process.  Although far from perfect, Aboriginal groups have been working with the Crown to negotiate comprehensive land claims agreements to facilitate economic development and empower their communities to exercise their autonomy within the broad legal framework of Canada.  Remember that the Supreme Court had previously refused to clearly spell out the nature of Aboriginal title, and so it made sense for Aboriginal groups to negotiate with the Crown.

This new decision, however, radically changes the incentives facing Indigenous people.  Now, we are likely to see Indigenous groups across Canada abandon negotiations in favour of simply asserting their title and sovereignty to all their lands.  Why bother negotiating a modern treaty, which involves giving up Aboriginal title in exchange for a mixed bag of ownership rights to a much smaller portion of Aboriginal lands, when you can exercise something akin to fee simple ownership over all of your traditional lands right away and without the time and expense of negotiating a treaty?

If Aboriginal groups choose this path, then the Crown will have to decide how to react.  Will it radically reform the treaty process to bring Aboriginal groups back to the table? Or will it seek confrontation by pushing the “compelling and substantial public purpose” angle to push development forward despite Aboriginal opposition?  Given the track record of this federal government, I think the latter strategy is more likely and Canadians should brace themselves for years of protests and confrontations.

A second unintended consequence of this decision, and one that I think is just as important as the others, is that it potentially empowers individual Indigenous citizens to hold not only the government of Canada accountable for its actions, but their Aboriginal leaders as well.  Aboriginal title now means something akin to fee simple rights, and which is collectively held by the Aboriginal community.  This also means, among other things, that Aboriginal groups may also face potentially powerful restrictions on how they can use their lands now and in the future.  According to the Supreme Court, lands held under Aboriginal title cannot be used in such a way as to threaten their future use by future generations.

What this means in practice is that even if an Aboriginal government grants its consent to a major economic development project, an individual band member could successfully sue to prevent that development from occurring on the basis that the project threatened the future use of the community’s lands.

It is also possible that band members might use this new definition of Aboriginal title to thwart other land use projects besides resource extraction, such as building casinos and even housing subdivisions. A band member might successfully argue that building a multimillion dollar casino will prevent future band members from using that particular plot of land for traditional cultural practices, like hunting and fishing.

There’s no question that this decision is a “game changer.” What’s unclear is exactly how the game has been changed and for whom.

Christopher Alcantara is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, was published last year by University of Toronto Press and was a finalist for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize.

 

Does Canada really need fighter jets?

Published June 30, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Canada does not need fighter aircraft! Buying them would waste upward of $45-billion.” – C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, former deputy minister of national defence, letter to the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2014.

Someone in the addled world of Ottawa should pay heed to Buzz Nixon. He knows whereof he speaks, having been the deputy defence minister the last time the government went shopping for fighter aircraft. It was on Nixon’s watch that the government of the day (Trudeau Liberal) decided in 1977 that it had to replace Canada’s aging war planes — the single-engine CF-104 Starfighter, based in Europe with NATO (and known among pilots, unfondly, as “The Widowmaker”) and the twin-engine CF-101 Voodoo, based in Canada and assigned to continental defence under the NORAD umbrella.

The policy-makers of Nixon’s day wanted several things. They wanted one aircraft to replace both the Starfighter and the Voodoo; that would help to keep the price and operating costs down. They wanted an off-the-shelf model with proven capability. They wanted an aircraft with two engines for the sake of reliability and pilot safety on long-distance patrols across the North and over the oceans off our coasts.
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With a budget of roughly $2.4 billion, Nixon’s people went shopping for 130 to 150 new fighters. They organized a competition. Six aircraft makers from the United States and Europe made pitches, offering a total of seven models. By 1978 (things moved more quickly in those days), the government had a short list of three aircraft from which it selected the McDonnell Douglas Hornet, which became the CF-18. It ended up buying 138 of them for $4 billion (prices in the military sector have a quicksilver quality); that works out to about $9 billion in today’s dollars.

Fast forward a generation. The CF-18, which proved to be an excellent choice, is nearing the end of its service life. Since it came to office in 2006, the Harper government has been stewing over a replacement.

It doesn’t know what it wants. Not having a thought-out defence policy, it doesn’t know what sort of military aircraft Canada may need for the future. It doesn’t even know, as Buzz Nixon suggests, whether Canada needs fighter aircraft at all.

Common sense suggests that the policy come first, then a determination of the need — if any — for fighter aircraft, then a competition be held to select the aircraft that would best serve the policy objectives. Not knowing their own mind, the Harper Conservatives listened to all the vested interests who whispered (or shouted) into their ear that Canada not only needed new fighter aircraft, but it needed the most sophisticated and expensive warplane in history.

That would be the F-35 Lightning, a single-engine stealth fighter by Lockheed Martin in the United States. It was the choice of the U.S. administration and of what former president Dwight Eisenhower once denounced as the powerful “military-industrial complex” in that in country, which also operates as a potent lobby in Canada.

The Harper government listened and agreed to buy 65 F-35s for a price that it told Canadians would be $16 billion. There were two problems. At the time, the F-35 did not yet exist; the evolution from artist’s concept to fighting machine would be fraught with delays, production problems, performance issues — and wild price inflation (to $45 billion in Buzz Nixon’s informed estimate).

Two years ago, the Tories ordered a review of its F-35 commitment. That review apparently led right back to the F-35, without any competition to confirm the wisdom of the choice. It was reported last week, however, that the prime minister has removed the fighter aircraft decision from the cabinet agenda in order to give ministers more time to digest information and to think about it.

Theirs could be a watershed decision for the country, especially if they address two fundamental questions. First, does Canada really need fighter aircraft? Second, aren’t there much better uses for $45 billion?

The Supreme Court of Canada’s Recent Decision on Aboriginal Title: A Victory for Aboriginal Citizens?

The Supreme Court of Canada released a new ruling on Aboriginal title today.  I am not a legal scholar and so I will leave it to my more learned colleagues to talk about the legal implications and to correct my legal interpretations, but here are some thoughts!

Overall, the decision is important and significant because it advances a number of important legal principles relating to Aboriginal title (the SCC ruling gives a nice summary of the jurisprudence beginning with the Calder decision).

One contribution of this legal decision is that it clarifies and greatly expands how Aboriginal title is to be established and recognized in Canadian law.  Rather than “small, individual settlements” or “fishing rocks”, the SCC’s decision actually allows for the recognition of broad swaths of connected lands as belonging to Aboriginal people! This is a major victory for groups without treaties and gives them significantly more leverage in comprehensive land claims negotiations.  That in of itself, will be interesting to see especially in terms of how that will play out in B.C. (sounds like a topic for a future academic paper! Who’s game?!)
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It also clarifies the nature of ownership that Aboriginal title entails. Briefly, according to this new SCC ruling, Aboriginal title confers upon its owner something akin to fee simple ownership. The main difference, however, is that Aboriginal title is a collective right, not an individual one. As well, due to its collective nature, Aboriginal title means that those lands cannot be used in a manner that renders such lands as unusable by future generations.

This is a significant legal clarification, I think, because it somewhat restricts the ability of Aboriginal governments to provide their consent to massive economic development projects that could do serious harm to community lands.  Basically, this legal decision empowers Aboriginal citizens to check their Aboriginal governments should those governments give their consent to projects that could potentially and significantly harm their lands for future generations.  A significant legal development indeed!

Other than that, the decision also provides stricter guidelines regarding the duty to consult and accommodate, specifying two paths for doing so: acquire Aboriginal consent (subject to the constraints I mention above) or ignore Aboriginal consent if the Crown can show that it has a compelling and substantial political purpose that does not violate its fiduciary duty to Indigenous people.

Anyway, a very interesting decision from the SCC.  For me, the most surprising and unexpected implication of this ruling is the potential empowerment of Indigenous individuals and citizens to hold Aboriginal AND Canadian governments accountable for their decisions involving lands held under Aboriginal title.

What does history teach us about politics?

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

The deep thinkers who serve the various political parties in Ottawa have been scratching their heads over the same question: what does the election of Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government in Ontario imply for the federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015?

The short, easy answer is, “probably not much.” The election is 16 months away. One week can be an eternity in politics; to travel 16 months into the political future requires a time machine rather than a calendar. Anything can happen in 16 months, and almost certainly will.

Who would have predicted 16 months before the June 1968 election that Lester Pearson would resign as Liberal leader and prime minister, that he would be succeeded by a new recruit, Pierre Trudeau, and that a strange phenomenon, dubbed Trudeaumania, would propel the Liberals to a majority government? Who would have predicted 16 months before the stunning October 1993 election that Canada would gain its first female PM and lose her almost immediately as the majority Progressive Conservative government disintegrated, retaining only two seats in the whole country as a separatist party became the official opposition, just a pair of seats ahead of a new protest party, Reform, which replaced the Tories as the voice of the West?
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Who would have predicted 16 months before the May 2011 election that an “orange wave” would sweep Jack Layton’s NDP into the position of official opposition, reduce the Liberals to third place and, in the process, hand Stephen Harper and his Conservatives a majority government? And, finally, who would have predicted 16 months ago, when Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberals, that he would lead them to the top of the opinion polls and keep them there for 14 unbroken months, right up to the present?

If history teaches us nothing else about politics, it is that the only safe response when contemplating events many months in the future is: “I don’t know.” But political thinkers and practitioners, such as pollsters and pundits, hate those three little words. Have you ever heard Stephen Harper admit, “I don’t know?” I thought not. Doubt has no place when it comes to political forecasting.

That said, we all look for threads or clues to reveal the future. Some analysts probing the Ontario election results have noted the tendency of voters in the province to play a balancing game. When the Liberals are in power in Ottawa, they like to balance the scale with Conservatives at Queen’s Park. And vice versa. This balance-of-power theory suggests Wynne’s victory bodes well for Harper’s Tories, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, while it bodes ill for Trudeau’s Liberals.

Other analysts see in the Ontario vote a rejection of Tim Hudak’s right-wing agenda and an embrace of Wynne’s centre-left approach. If that sentiment carries over to the federal election, it would to play to Trudeau’s advantage and to Harper’s disadvantage in the province where national elections tend to be won and lost.

Having already admitted I don’t know, permit me to offer a couple of observations. First, there is growing arrogance in Harper’s Ottawa — a my-way-or-the-highway attitude — that I don’t think sits well with the sort of Ontarians who voted for Kathleen Wynne. Second, Wynne didn’t win just because she positioned her Liberals as the only choice on the progressive side of the ledger. I think she won because she projected an air of authenticity that neither of her opponents could rival. Hudak seemed driven by narrow political expediency, while Andrea Horwath, the NDP leader, tried to transition from social democracy to conservative populism. Neither worked.

By comparison, Wynne came across as the real goods. When she talked about equity, she did so with conviction and passion. She was believable. Voters are pretty good when it come to spotting the unbelievable. At least, they are in Ontario.

Will this have any bearing on the 2015 federal election? Perhaps not. Sixteen months is more than an eternity in political time.

Too many strings attached to aboriginal funding

Published June 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Among the cacophony of aboriginal voices demanding to be heard in this country, there seems to be at least two dominant and recurring themes.

First, if you are going to pursue an activity that directly affects aboriginal interests, then you need to engage in meaningful consultations with those communities. Second, if you want to fix the deplorable living conditions found on many native reserves, then you need to provide adequate funding.

This funding must be comparable to what exists for non-aboriginal communities, and it must be provided with “no strings attached.”

For many Canadians, these demands may seem odd and unsettling. However, there are several good reasons why governments and societal actors should take them seriously.

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On What Types Of Causes Should Political Scientists Focus?

Most positivist political scientists look for causal relationships inspired by Hume’s diction that we can only ever infer that A causes B to the extent that we observe A and B occurring together at the same time. So, as much as common parlance usually cautions against inferring causation from correlation, it’s actually a pretty important criteria in assessing causal relationships. Of course the difference between scientists and common parlance is that, when faced with a correlation, most scientists spend a lot of time clarifying that correlation before declaring it causal, i.e. they ensure that A in fact occurs before B temporally speaking and they try to determine whether there are any unobserved, third variables that make the correlation spurious. So, when scientists say a correlation is causal, it’s usually worth paying attention, much more so than when your astrologer notes that your birth was correlated with the ascendancy of Jupiter, or whatever.

I raise this because political scientist Salomon Orellana has published a new book on the relationship between parties, party systems and governance. One of his findings, outlined in a blog post at the Monkey Cage, is that there is a relationship between the number of parties in a party system and the incarceration rate in a country. In short, he finds that two-party systems tend to adopt more punitive, rather than rehabilitative, corrections policies. Continue reading

One of his graphs is here:

Relationship between legislative fractionalization and incarceration.

Clearly, there is a negative correlation there between the fractionalization (a measure of the number of parties in a party system) and the number of prisoners a country incarcerates. I have no reason to doubt Salomon’s evidence, modelling or reasoning about the possibility of unobserved control variables, so I’m fine to see that as a causal relationship.

But look at the United States! Orellana correctly identifies it as an extreme outlier, writing that: “although the American two-party system certainly does not explain everything about the U.S. incarceration rate, the country would nevertheless benefit from the presence of a “consistently heard” dissenter that can help break the vicious cycle of pandering.”

Later, Orellana concludes with this comment, calling for a reform to its electoral system.

Regardless of how reform might be implemented, the important point remains: the high rate of incarceration in the United States has roots in its electoral system. More political parties could ultimately mean fewer people behind bars.

I won’t dispute the second part of that statement – giving more access for third parties could reduce the incarceration rate – but I do dispute the first part of that sentence, that the high rate of incarceration has its roots in its electoral system. Here, Orellana is practicing good positivist social science, and it’s a great example of how good positivist social science can walk right into big problems. Namely, he is privileging the causal correlation that he has identified as the primary causeof his outcome of interest. One of the most important features of social life that complicates the positivist tendency to think about causation in correlational terms is that most outcomes are not determined by one single thing, but they can be determined by many different things.

A different way of assessing causal relations in empirical (note that I did not say positivist) social science is to look not for correlations but for the structures and mechanisms that underlie and create observed regularities. This is premised on a realist view of social science which has deep roots, but you can get a flavour of it by reading Daniel Little’s blog Understanding Society or by reading books like George and Bennett.

The thing that these scholars continually drive home is that correlations are usually only the starting point for empirical social science research. It’s more important to look under the hood of regularities and directly examine the structures and mechanisms (realists have those two words on auto-complete in their word processors) that create them. Doing this type of research is more loyal to the subject matter because human society is an open system where conditions at time 1 do not determine conditions at time 2. By contrast, Hume’s vision of causality, and the one that inspires most positivist social science, was developed very much with closed systems, such as the solar system, in mind.

Realist-inspired empirical research on this specific question would look at Orenella’s identified correlation, accept it as causal, and then looked at that glaring outlier and wondered about what structures and mechanisms caused such a deviation from the observed relationship.

I had the good fortune of taking a really amazing course on the contemporary political economy of the United States with Prof. Phil Wood at Queen’s University and his interest in the politics of prisons led me to some fascinating literature seeking to do what Orenella is *not* trying to do, namely, to explain the reason for the United States’ truly exceptional incarceration rate. Reading that literature gets you very quickly to the interaction between structures of racial inequality and the importance of the southern United States in shaping policy. A short version of this narrative speaks about the migration of African-American populations from the south to the north in the World War II era, leading to the creation of urban ghettos and difficult ethnic politics between non-white and black populations, and then the emergence of the New Right in the south and west of the United States amidst a backdrop of stagnating wages since the 1970s.

Orenella is probably right in his diagnosis: if there were a third party, or more attention to a third party paid, the incarceration rate would probably drop a little. But I think he is dead wrong when he states that the “primary root” of the American outlier is in its electoral system. He is only assigning it such an important role because, I suspect, as a solid positivist social scientist, he is thinking in terms of correlations, rather than structures and mechanisms.

I will close by simply saying that this is not just an arcane matter over which social scientists quibble. This matters for making good recommendations for policy-makers and for making our own choices as citizens. Orenella recommends modifying the party and electoral systems to give more attention to the margins. I recommend looking harder at the underlying structures of this problem, particularly the racial dynamics such as racist attitudes and institutional relationships between the US’ ethnic minorities? I wonder what is easier? There isn’t a clear answer to this, but I will note that the two-party duopoly has been more or less permanently for around 50 years. Since that time we have had massive transformations in people’s attitudes toward minorities, policies of managing ethnic diversity and the legal structure that governs ethnic relations. That might provide a hint as to what is actually easier to change.

LISPOP on Global News: Ontario election seat projection

Published June 10, 2014, in the Global News.

LISPOP’s latest seat projection was mentioned in an article by Andrew Russell which suggests the Liberals could pick up 47 seats, the Progressive Conservatives 41 and the NDP 19. Full article available here.

Barry Kay in Hill Times: Tories, Libs trying to knock NDP off their ethical ‘high horse’ over free partisan mailings: pundits

Published June 9, 2014, in the Hill Times.

Dr. Barry Kay was mentioned in a Hill Times article which discusses how the federal Tories and Liberals are trying to knock NDP off their ethical ‘high horse’ over free partisan mailings. Full article can be round here.

The Candidate Effect: Does the Local Candidate Matter?

Authors: Jason Roy and Christopher Alcantara

Published June 2014 in Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties

Abstract: This paper considers how the quality of the local candidate affects vote choice. Specifically, we address three questions: Does the quality of the local candidate influence vote choice? What impact do individual-level differences have on the relationship between vote choice and local candidates? Finally, what is the potential magnitude of candidate effects in terms of change in vote support? To answer these questions, we analyze data gathered from an online voting experiment. Our findings suggest that a local candidate can influence vote choice significantly, but that such effects are tempered by political awareness and partisanship.

Here is also an op-ed that Dr. Alcantara wrote on the topic of local candidates affecting vote choice.

Reforming Election Dates in Canada: Towards an Explanatory Framework

AuthorsChristopher Alcantara and Jason Roy

Published June 2014 in Canadian Public Administration

Abstract: Since 2001, ten governments in Canada have passed fixed election date legislation. The typical assumption in the literature is that governments did so as a way to address public concerns about the undemocratic nature of calling and timing elections. This argument, however, does not explain the timing (that is, when the legislation was passed by each jurisdiction) of this policy change. We approach this puzzle deductively by applying the theoretical insights of multiple streams theory to the Canadian experiences. Our findings suggest that although all three streams were important, the political stream is crucial for explaining the timing of the legislation.

Here is also an op-ed that Dr. Alcantara wrote on the topic of fixed election dates.

What About a Minority Government?

As we enter the final days of the Ontario campaign, there is an unanswered question that might be central following the June 12 election.  If no party is able to form a majority of 54 seats in the 107 seat legislature, who will become premier and how will the government be formed?  Conservative leader Tim Hudak has already declared that he will not participate in a coalition, but there is plenty of wiggle room in his statement, and he can claim that circumstances have changed, particularly if he falls just short of 54 seats.

Perhaps a more pertinent factor in sorting out the future of a minority government is the huge policy cleavage between Hudak’s austerity plan to cut government positions in his quest to create a million jobs, and Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath’s positions.  It is difficult to imagine the NDP or Liberal caucuses supporting Hudak unless he jettisoned his key platform planks.

The protocol of the process suggests that following the election, the premier will make a recommendation to the Lieutenant-Governor as to who should form the government.  If the Liberals win at least a plurality of seats, she will recommend herself.  However, if Wynne falls a few seats short of the Conservatives, the situation becomes more delicate, and negotiations with the New Democrats will be critical.