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.

 

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.

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas. A guest post by Drs. Crandall and Lewis

At this year’s CPSA Conference, Drs. Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis organized a roundtable on: “Practices, Objectives, and Innovations in Teaching Canadian Politics.”  I really wanted to attend this session but unfortunately, I was presenting a paper at the same time!  By all accounts, however, it was an interesting session and I was sorry to miss it.

Fortunately, Dr. Crandall and Dr. Lewis agreed to write the following guest post summarizing some of the ideas and discussions that happened at that session.  Enjoy!

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas
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By: Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis

Academics have many ways and opportunities to share their research: conferences, articles, books, etc. While teaching conferences do exist in Canada – the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education is holding its 34th annual conference this spring at Queen’s – and political science in the United States has a tradition of dedicating journal and conference space to teaching issues, the Canadian political science community has never engaged in ongoing outreach, networking or collaboration in teaching Canadian politics.

At a time when technology makes it so easy to connect, it seems an opportunity lost that university professors teaching similar courses often don’t have an accessible network for sharing resources. We know, for example, that every year there are more than a hundred people teaching an introductory Canadian politics course at the university level. While many of the topics covered will be the same course to course, the materials used, and their method of deployment will vary by professor. Inevitably, some parts of these courses will work better than others, and it seems in everyone’s interest that we share both our successes and our failures. This seems especially true at a time when courses are increasingly taught by sessional instructors who may be teaching a course for the first time.

With these points in mind, last month we hosted a roundtable on teaching Canadian politics at the Canadian Political Science Association’s annual conference at Brock University. The objective of the roundtable was to provide a forum for Canadian politics professors to discuss practices, objectives, and innovations in teaching, and particularly to discuss the development of an online teaching resource to share materials.

Attendance for the roundtable exceeded our expectations. About twenty people – a mix of graduate students and senior and junior faculty – came together to talk about teaching Canadian politics. People described their courses (size, content, materials, and technologies used) and some of the challenges they face in teaching. It was, we think, a great chance to share and learn.

Moving forward, we’d like to continue this conversation. Those who attended the roundtable expressed interest in developing a network to share teaching ideas and resources. Over the next few months, our plan is to start making this idea a reality. We’ll be creating a listserv to facilitate discussion, as well as an online resource that will include Canadian politics syllabi, links to online resources, and PowerPoint presentations.

Based on the conversations we had at CPSA, we think there’s considerable interest in this type of collaboration and we’re excited to see how it will develop. If you weren’t able to attend the roundtable, but are interested in participating, please contact Erin Crandall and we’ll add you to our email list. This will be an ongoing project and all ideas and suggestions are welcome. J.P. Lewis will be co-chairing the Teaching and Research Skills Development session committee for next year’s CPSA conference so any teaching workshop suggestions are also encouraged.

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.

CPSA and Graham White Conference

As many of you know, this last week was the annual CPSA conference. Attendance was low at just under 500 and panels were sparse. My audiences were 2, 7, and 2 respectively. Happily, the discussants were good this year and provided very useful comments (thanks Mario, Jim, and Jonathan!).

Heard a terrible presentation by Calgary’s mayor (more on this in a future post!) and some very “out of the box” ideas from Benjamin Barber. Luckily, Andy Sancton was on that panel as well and brought some much needed reason to the discussion! Continue reading

On Friday, I attended the Graham White Conference, or what Jon Malloy has been calling the “Whiteshrift”! Here’s the conference program, on Paul Thomas’s website:

http://pauledwinjames.wordpress.com/whiteconference/

It was a fun and interesting day. More on some of the presentations later, but here’s a photo of many of Graham’s current and former students, crammed into his prison cell, I mean office!

One thing I will say is that the mark of a full and rich career is the number and quality of people that surround the individual. It was impressive to see the range of people who showed up during the day, including many of his UofT colleagues, and many others. Also impressive were the presentations, especially by his former and current students. I was really impressed with the research and presentation styles of Jack Lucas and Paul Thomas. They are going to be major forces in the discipline!

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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.