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.

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.


Peer Review and Social Pyschology: Or Why Introductions are so Important!

Inspired by my colleagues Loren King and Anna Esselment, both of whom regularly make time in their busy schedules to read (I know! A crazy concept!), I’ve started to read a new book that Chris Cochrane recommended: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.

I’m only in the first third of the book, but one of the main arguments so far is that when human make moral (and presumably other) judgements, we tend to use our intuitions first, and our reasoning second. That is to say, frequently we have gut feelings about all sorts of things and rather than reasoning out whether our feelings are correct, we instead search for logic, examples, or arguments to support those gut feelings. Haidt effectively illustrates this argument by drawing upon a broad set of published research and experiments he has done over the years.

At the end of chapter 2, he writes:

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“I have tried to use intuitionism while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers … think about morality, politics, religion, and each other …. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgement until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going.”

I found these first few chapters, and this paragraph in particular, to be extremely powerful and relevant to academic publishing (and other things!). If humans tend to behave in this manner, (e.g. we frequently rely on gut feelings to make moral judgements and we frequently try to find reasons to support those feelings), then the introduction of a journal article is CRUCIAL, both for peer review and afterwards. On the issue of peer review, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a referee report that was extremely negative, yet failed to: a) clearly show that they understood my argument; and b) demonstrate logically why my argument is wrong. I always blamed myself for not being clear enough, which is probably half true! But the real story is that sometimes my introductions were probably ineffective at connecting with people’s intuitions, and so these reviewers found reasons to reject it.

The lesson here, I think, is that introductions matter! You can’t ask or expect readers to withold judgement while you present the theory and evidence first. Instead, you have to find a way to tap immediately into their intuitions to make them open to considering the merits of your argument.

Political Action and Political Consequences: Are they Linked?

Christopher Alcantara raised a very important question, and an empirical one! Do group op-eds have an effect on political outcomes? The question is framed within the fields of public opinion and public policy. On the one hand, he is correct. Public opinion is not easily swayed by such communications. Op-eds, editorials, columns, and the media in general do not yield a strong influence on public opinion, other than to affect the priorities people attach to various issues. To paraphrase Cohen: the media doesn’t change how you think about an issue, but it can change what you think about).

Those with strongly formed opinions, the “partisans” among us, are especially resistant to media messages that contradict their views. And while there are members of the public who can be swayed, chances are, they are not reading such op-eds.

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On the other hand, the media has been shown to affect the policy agenda. Policy actors have been shown to respond to media attention to an issue, and sometimes, this media-policy dynamic is stronger than the public opinion-policy dynamic. The process is not simple and clean, however. Conditions that lead a media communication, such as an op-ed, to have any sort of influence over the policy agenda are varied: the framing of the op-ed, what is being primed, the issue domain, tone, placement, and so forth. These elements form part of the so-called “second level” agenda-setting research program, which looks at how a media communication, such as an op-ed, structures an argument, and how those structures can yield an affect.

So op-eds (or group-authored op-eds) hold some potential to affect the policy agenda. Here, we are talking about the media-policy nexus, and the media-policy nexus may have less to do with the psychological variables familiar to those who study public opinion. Instead, consider variables from the domain of group politics. Here are some:

  1. Group coherence. A group with factionally divided members will struggle to gain “respect” from state decision makers, and thus, demands from such a group can be safely ignored.
  2. Viable equilibrium point. Does the op-ed help the various stakeholders (both state actors and the broader policy community) move towards some equilibrium, i.e., a solution?
  3. Group organization. An op-ed may be just one tactic of a broader strategy or campaign. A group may have prepared a more elaborate and carefully considered campaign that includes other actions as well, and together, these may wield more weight.
  4. State actors’ openness. You can shout as loud and clear as you like, but at the end of the day, is there anybody listening? Groups that wish to influence the policy process need “access” to the key decision makers. State actors unwilling to give any a group a proper hearing effectively limit that group’s potential to influence policy.

This is not an exhaustive list of variables. But it does offer a way to begin a more systematic examination of the potential of media items such as op-eds. Maybe they are completely useless. Or maybe they can grab the attention of implicated state actors within a particular policy community, who then, for whatever reason, respond to the “challenging group” (to use Bill Gamson’s words).

In sum, the potential ability of an op-ed to influence policy decisions would have to be examined in light of what we know about the public policy process. It’s not a straight-forward communication-influence dynamic. It is heavily context dependent.

Professors, Elections Canada, and the Harper Government: Do Group Op-Eds Matter?

Early last week, the National Post ran a letter drafted by a small group of Canadian university professors (you can tell who the original letter writers by the order. Just look at where the alphabetized list starts and any names above it were the main writers), and signed (and edited) by a larger number of professors (including some of the most distinguished, senior, and smartest academic minds in Canada).

Several days before the letter ran in the Post, a draft of the letter hit my desk asking for my signature. Ultimately, I didn’t sign for a number of reasons. The main reason I didn’t sign was that I didn’t agree with all of the contents in the letter. There are parts of the “Fair Elections” bill that I agree with, other parts that I didn’t, and other parts that I simply wasn’t sure about. The timeline for signing the letter was tight and didn’t really give me much time to think these issues through.

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Another reason why I didn’t sign was because, quite frankly, I’m not sure how effective these types of op eds are. If you have a chance, you should check out the comments left on the National Post page about the letter. To be succinct, they are nasty! There’s all sorts of anti-elitist rhetoric about professors being overpaid and narrow-minded (with some anonymous commentators regaling readers about their bad experiences at universities). Others claimed that professors are all Liberal-NDP supporters, or are at least ideologically aligned with those political parties. We are also experts with no real knowledge, apparently, who hide behind our PhDs and “peer review” to stifle dissent, etc.

To be fair, there were some defenders of professors (thank you!), remarking about the important expertise and knowledge that the profession have to offer. But the dominant discourse was negative.

In my view, it seems group letters bring out a certain amount of dissent towards the profession. Have a look at op-eds written by only one or two professors at a time; occasionally, you do see one or two anti-professor rants, but rarely very many. When we write these group letters, however, there seems to be many of these comments. So, do group-think letters actually help or hinder our ability to communicate with and affect public opinion and public policy?

In terms of public opinion, my sense is that these letters are not effective. Recent research suggests that most people have gut feelings about various issues or things, whether it be politics, religion or food, and then they search for justification for their gut reactions. (Frequently, I’ve been wondering whether the same phenomenon is at work in academic peer review?!) And so I think op-eds are built exactly for this type of behaviour. People don’t change their minds because of op-eds. They use them to feed their gut reactions.

How about public policy? Do these op-eds affect public policy? Well, I’m pretty sure Harper won’t be convinced by these types of letters but I do know that civil servants, including deputy ministers, scan op-ed pages for ideas. So maybe these letters will ultimately push civil servants to act in a way to thwart these reforms?

For me personally, I have yet to sign one of these group-think letters. Instead I’ve treated the op-eds that I write (and sign) as knowledge dissemination tools, trying to link current events either to my research, or the research of others.

But maybe I should have signed! I’ll guess we’ll see when the next letter gets circulated.

Canada’s aboriginal communities should explore digital currency

Published Mar. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Recently, the news has been filled with stories about Bitcoin, a type of open-source digital currency that basically functions like money, but without any of the usual regulatory strings attached to regular currency.

Bitcoin is not managed by any government or central bank, but instead is controlled by all of its users in the marketplace. Much like regular money, the value of Bitcoin depends on a number of factors, including supply and demand, and the security of the currency and of the market.

Digital currency offers a number of important advantages. The primary one is that transactions occur directly between purchasers and sellers without having to go through a third party. As such, digital currency transactions are fast and cost substantially less in terms of processing charges and fees.

Recently, the Oglala Lakota Tribe in the United States became the first aboriginal group in North America to launch its own digital currency, the MazaCoin. Much like Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, MazaCoins can be owned by anyone and can be used to purchase goods and services from any person or business that is willing to accept MazaCoin as payment.

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To Accept or Not Accept the Canadian State? The Situation Facing Aboriginal Women

Last week, the Globe and Mail published the following headline and newstory:

“Fear of retaliation stops native women from filing rights complaints, commissioner warns”

According to the story:

“What we learned,” wrote Mr. Langtry in his annual report released Tuesday, “is that for many of them, particularly in remote communities, the Canadian Human Rights Act is meaningless. They are unlikely to seek its protections, they say, for a number of reasons, including fear of retaliation.”

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But lawyers working in the area of aboriginal justice said the Canadian human-rights regime can be somewhat ineffective on reserves where chiefs and council members don’t view themselves as being accountable to outside legal regimes.

Some aboriginal women told the human-rights commission they fear that the mere act of lodging a complaint against the police or powerful members of their communities will leave them without access to important health and social services or could lead to intimidation and acts of violence.

“Truth be told, some leaders are offenders of violence against women,” one of the native women told the commission. “It’s so entrenched, many women live in fear. That is our sad reality, and it’s tough.”

One of the big conundrums for students of Aboriginal policy in this country is what should the role of the state be with respect to Indigenous communities. A popular position among Indigenous scholars is that the Canadian state should have little to no role and there are good reasons why they have taken this position. You don’t need to be a scholar to come to this conclusion! All you have to do is look at the Indian Act, residential schools, Canada’s history of treaty-making and implementation, to understand why some Indigenous people would be suspicious and wary of the Canadian state.

On the other hand, it is stories like these ones that convince me that sometimes there is a role for the Canadian state. In the ideal world, Indigenous communities are able to manage and solve these problems themselves. Indeed, many Indigenous cultures, traditionally speaking, were led by women, or at least had very strong gender equality and/or equity. But, due to a variety of factors, including colonialism, that tradition has been lost and replaced with something much more sinister and violent. In those situations, I wonder whether the ends justify the means? In other words, it may be that the only option available in the short term is protection from the Canadian state, either in the form of legal mechanisms or legal actors.

Cryptocurrency and Indigenous Sovereignty: A New Tool?

Forbes magazine reports that the Lakota Nation has created its own cryptocurrency called, MazaCoin, which is now the official currency of the Lakota Nation. According to the report:

“Standing on the banks of the Little Bighorn River last year, a son of the once-mighty Oglala Lakota Tribe made a promise to continue his ancestors’ fight against the United States. Only this time the war wouldn’t be fought with arrows or bullets, but with QR codes and cryptography.”

It’s an interesting idea on a a whole number of fronts. For those Indigenous communities interested in capitalism, but also increasing Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, the cryptocurrency may be a useful tool, especially if a large number of Indigenous groups adopts one common cryptocurrency as their main currency.

It would mean economically freeing itself from the confines of the Canadian/American economy, and generating all sorts of investment revenue to engage in economic development.

The idea has a lot of merit and there has to be an article to be written here somewhere! I better get on it!

The truth is, the Tories are worried

Published Mar. 3, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Prime Minister’s chief spokesman went into high dudgeon when reporters asked why opposition leaders and MPs were excluded from a reception for Aga Khan at Massey Hall in Toronto last week – an event hosted by Stephen Harper and paid for by the taxpayers of Canada.

“Those trying to cheapen the event by flinging baseless partisan accusations should be ashamed of themselves,” Jason MacDonald wrote in an e-mail. “We won’t dignify these partisan attacks with a response.”

Come, come, Mr. MacDonald. It’s your boss who has mastered the mechanics of petty partisanship and raised it to an art, at least in the eyes of the Conservative faithful. It’s your government that barred opposition representatives from Foreign Minister John Baird’s mission to Ukraine. It was one of your MPs who refused to allow Liberal MP Irwin Cottler, a former justice minister, to attend an Israeli charity event during Harper’s visit to that country.

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It’s your government that is using the cynically misnamed “Fair Elections Act” to strip Canada’s chief electoral officer of the power to investigate election cheating – because whenever he has found cheaters they have happened to be Conservatives. And it’s your party that is trying to squeeze the last drop of electoral advantage by exploiting divisions among minority-group Canadians.

Perhaps instead of accusing others of “flinging baseless partisan accusations,” Mr. MacDonald, you might come clean with the public. Try being candid. Why don’t try saying something along the following lines:

The  Harper government is sorry if we seem sleazy, petty or vindictive. But the truth is, we are worried, very worried. Our Tory universe is not unfolding the way we want. We’re starting to get frightened.

We  thought we  could bury the Senate expenses scandal in a black hole somewhere, but Thomas Mulcair and his media lickspittles wouldn’t let us. We thought we could demolish Justin Trudeau with attack ads exposing him as all hair and no substance, but that didn’t work either. Not only  are  the Liberals outgunning us in the polls, Canadians tell us they like this Trudeau kid better than our great leader,  the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper. Increasing numbers of you are telling pollsters that you even think the Liberals could do a better job than we do when it comes to running the economy. Can you believe that?

We are not asking for pity, but did you see the poll that the Manning Centre in Ottawa put out the other day? That’s “Manning” as in Preston, the founder of the Reform party, from which we Harperites sprang. So these Manning Centre people are our people and every year they have Carleton University’s André Turcotte measure the state of conservatism in Canada. The numbers this year are not pretty. They are gruesome. As Prof. Turcotte put it in his presentation, they are heading in the wrong direction.

The number of Canadians who call themselves Conservative is shrinking. In British Columbia, 33 per cent of respondents identified themselves as Conservatives in 2012; today, that  number is down to 20 per cent. In Ontario, the decline in the same period is from 35 per cent to 25.

What’s worse, the people are not embracing our toolkit of enlightened policies. Prof. Turcotte found the Liberals are tied with us on the question of ability to deal with the economy; both the Liberals and NDP are ahead of us on questions of managing health care and unemployment; and even the Green party leads us on ability to deal with poverty and the environment.

What’s more, 93 per cent favour increasing (not reducing) the investigative powers of Elections Canada while 92 per cent think party leaders should be made more accountable to their caucuses. Our prime minister may not be amused by that.

As the professor says, the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. If it continues, we could all find ourselves unemployed in October 2015. Is it any wonder we seem frazzled these days?