Out in computerland, they talk a lot about “hitting the reset button.”
This implies getting rid of all the bad stuff that went before, correcting mistakes and starting over again. A new beginning, you might say.
The expression has crept into politics. The Harper government promised to “hit the reset button” on plans to spend — what? — $40 or $50 billion on F-35 fighter aircraft. The government has not said what, if anything, has happened in the months since it ostensibly hit the reset button. Perhaps the bright lights in the Department of National Defence are still labouring 24/7 to wrap their heads around the awkward concept that there are more suitable aircraft available at a (much) more reasonable cost.
Perhaps the government will tell us before the next election (in October 2015) what it is up to. It may be hung up on a dilemma: how to launch a new beginning without admitting past mistakes on the F-35 file. But let’s leave the Conservatives to rationalize their way out of that dilemma and move on.
With the election still 30 months away, there is time to plan new beginnings and present them to the electorate. With Thomas Mulcair of the NDP, Daniel Paillé of the Bloc Québécois and now Justin Trudeau of the Liberals, there are three party leaders in Ottawa who were not there in the 2011 election. Conditions exist for new approaches.
The first reset button to hit is whatever button controls the temperature in the capital. There is a meanness, even viciousness, that did not always characterize federal politics. Without wishing to wallow in nostalgia, things were different in the first Trudeau era. Pierre Trudeau was never lovable. He was tough and often aloof, but he commanded respect and loyalty. Robert Stanfield, the Tory leader, was intelligent, moderate and every inch a gentleman. NDP leader Tommy Douglas was the soul of integrity; he’s sometimes described as the “last honest politician in Canada.”
The past is gone, but the present can be changed and the future improved. Let’s start with an all-party commitment to eliminate attack ads. Just because American politicians wallow in them, it doesn’t mean we have to indulge in them in Canada. They may or may not work — and I have grave reservations about the efficacy of Conservatives’ current attacks on Justin Trudeau — but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they lower the level of politics for all participants. They squeeze out reasoned argument. They turn politics into a form of mixed martial arts.
As the level of discourse sinks, electors conclude that none of the combatants is worthy of their support, and voting turnout declines. The elimination of attack ads would help restore respect to politics as an honourable profession.
Another reset button is the transparency button. All politicians preach the gospel of openness. In opposition, Stephen Harper was an ardent advocate of open government. A Conservative government, he promised, would be an open book. Its policies and procedures would be transparent to all. Its ministers and officials would be held accountable for everything they did.
It hasn’t turned out quite that way. Today’s government is the least open since the Second World War (when there were grounds for opacity). Transparency is becoming a fiction (witness the deterioration of the Access to Information Act). And accountability is a joke (ministerial responsibility these days means ministers not doing anything that would embarrass the prime minister or his government).
Would it do any good to hit that transparency reset button? Sure. Let’s start with the F-35. The government could take the people into its confidence. After all, it’s taxpayers’ money. Why do we need new fighters? What role(s) would they be expected to fill? What planes has the government considered? Why did it choose the one it did? Not least, how much, honestly, will the darned machine really, truly cost?
Published a couple of days ago in the New York Times, this op-ed is pretty powerful compared to the usual stuff that appears on op ed pages.
I was one of the few that predicted that this bill would go through. It was a very reasonable compromise that should have made it through, but:
“I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.”
What are the consequences of not passing this bill?
“Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.”
I wish I could share the author’s sentiment on this last point but unfortunately, Congress rarely ever changes in the way she describes here, at least not so dramatically and so quickly.
Dr. Barry Kay appears on CTV News to talk about what the future holds for our local ridings in Kitchener and Kitchener/Waterloo. He expects the Liberals to be very competitive in our already competitive local ridings. Dr. Kay states, “Justin Trudeau will be help the liberal party, especially for younger voters…”
One of the most iconic scenes in American cinema comes from the 1955 Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch. It shows Marilyn Monroe, the love interest in the film, standing on a Lexington Avenue subway grate, trying to hold down the billowing skirt of her sexy white dress.
What does this have to do with Stephen Harper, you may ask? Well, maybe a bit.
In the film, the male lead, played by Tom Ewell, finds his eye wandering after seven years of monogamous marriage. (Enter the tempting Ms. Monroe.) It just so happens that Prime Minister Harper recently (in February) celebrated his seventh anniversary in 24 Sussex, and it is no secret that the affections of some members of his uncommonly faithful caucus are beginning to wander. The pre-Easter flap over abortion is one indication of caucus restlessness, and we are bound to experience more of that in the coming months.
How much longer? MPs wonder. How much longer will the ambitious among them have to wait for the leader to depart and give them a chance at the brass ring?
Ottawa pundits, weary of Harper, are asking the same questions, to the point of suggesting that the prime minister has some sort of obligation to inform his party whether he intends to hang around to lead into the next election, scheduled for October 2015. If he is going to leave, or so say the pundits, he should tell his followers now so that they can plan an orderly succession.
(Don’t pay too much attention to the pundits. The last thing Ottawa journalists really desire is an orderly transition. That’s boring. A wide open scramble among inflated egos makes much better copy, especially if the scramble spills a bit of political blood.)
There is no reason to suspect Harper cares about any of this gratuitous advice. The job of his Conservative MPs is to show up and vote the way they are told before lapsing back into silence. And Harper has never paid any attention to the opinions of the media; there is no reason to think he will start now.
But the polls are interesting. As might be expected, Harper leads when respondents are asked which of the party leaders has the best experience to lead the country, but he trails Justin Trudeau when they are asked to name the most inspiring leader. A Nanos poll last week gave the Liberal party a four-point lead nationally over Harper’s Tories. Given the hype surrounding Trudeau and the Liberal convention, that’s not particularly surprising, either.
Of potentially greater significance is the decline of the NDP, the official Opposition in Parliament, into third place on most indicators. The Orange Revolution seems to be over. For the moment, it appears that Trudeau is retrieving the youth and soft Liberal votes that went to the NDP in 2011. It’s not so much that Thomas Mulcair has been an inadequate leader. He’s done and been everything the NDP could realistically have expected. In the beginning, he suffered by not being Jack Layton; now he suffers by not being Justin Trudeau. But, hey, no one ever said politics was fair.
The competition changes as of this week. Now that Trudeau is officially the Liberal leader, he will be vulnerable to attack from both the left and especially the right.
He knows the attacks are coming and claims he will be ready for them. But he says he will not indulge in the negativity that characterizes Tory politics under Harper.
“The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone, one of respect for Canadians and their intelligence,” Trudeau says. “We don’t have to play by his rules.”
There’s a meanness, a nastiness, in federal politics these days, but no one is forcing anyone to play by Harper’s rules. After seven years, perhaps it’s time to scratch that itch.
The public’s visceral response to RBC’s foreign worker scandal is about more than the sullied reputation of Canada’s largest bank. It could well be a cautionary tale for Corporate Canada on the volatile mood of Canadians grown weary of post-recession cost-cutting and job losses at companies that are still turning healthy profits.
The Royal Bank of Canada was thrust into the spotlight for its decision to outsource 45 information technology jobs to iGate Corp., whose workers in India were reportedly brought to Canada under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program to receive training from the very RBC employees they were replacing. It is illegal for a company to bring temporary foreign workers into the country if it puts Canadians out of work.
After days of public outrage and negative headlines, CEO Gord Nixon issued an apology on customers’ log-in pages and in national newspapers Friday.
There was a time when life was so much simpler for critics of American foreign policy. For decades, they had a natural affinity for anyone in conflict with the United States.
It was much easier in those days to wrap oneself into a cocoon of sanctimony if one was hostile to the U.S. agenda. Since the decline of the Soviet Union, and with it the illusion of an alternate ideological construct to western free markets, it has become more of a challenge to lionize foes of the United States.
Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida, the Iranian mullahs, and Myanmar’s military are not particularly sympathetic figures. Nations like Russia and China still try to make common cause and find leverage in any regime that is hostile to the West, but the influence of these rogue governments is on the wane.
Dr. Thomas Hueglin is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. In 2009-2010, he was WLU University Research Professor, a significant honour that recognized his status as “one of the world’s top scholars on Johannes Althusius, a 16th/17th century philosopher who was concerned with alternative models of governance. Hueglin is also a well-published scholar in the related field of federalism; his research output incorporates four single-authored books, two co-authored books, three dozen book chapters, over two dozen journal articles and more than 80 conference papers or research talks delivered in 14 countries.”
Thomas was an early mentor for me at Laurier, providing me with advice about the university, the department, and publishing. As well, he has been a constant supporter of my crazy research and administrative/departmental ideas since I’ve been at Laurier. I am grateful to him for making me feel welcome at Laurier.
I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career
I had very good advice, actually, and no regrets. When I did not receive a postdoctoral scholarship, my PhD adviser Alois Riklin in St. Gallen, Switzerland, told me never to throw in the towel too quickly – I then got a different and much better scholarship that took me to the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, for three fabulous years. Once in Canada, I learned collegiality from Richard Simeon, Donald Smiley told me that I could not understand the country without traveling across the Prairies, and Ed Black gave me money to do so. I was in excellent hands.
The individual I admire the most academically
There are so many. One of them is the German political scientist Beate Kohler-Koch, who invited me to spend a sabbatical year at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research in 1997-98. Like no other academic I know personally, she combines profound theoretical understanding with hardcore empirical research. As one of the first and few senior female political science professors in Germany, she had to develop a very thick skin in a male-dominated environment. When I once dared to complain about her sometimes gruff attitude, she replied: I am sorry that my Prussian school teacher charm offended you.
My best research project during my career
Doubtlessly that was working for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It was not only the unique environment, with “Indians” in senior positions and “white folks” making photocopies and fetching coffee. I also learned so much about a world I knew nothing about, and it has influenced all I do and think about ever since.
My worst research project during my career
I once wanted to do a comparative study on concepts of, and attitudes towards treaty federalism in the European Union based on a totally delusional plan of empirical investigation. With Alan Fenna, I wrote theComparative Federalismbook instead.
The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research
Such experiences always happened when I discovered open-mindedness in personal conversations with people in the “mentor and giant” category into which I would hardly place myself. My PhD adviser Alois Riklin taught me how to think. A conservative and a Catholic, he accepted my eclectic leftish views as long as they were backed up by solid work. Similarly, Daniel Elazar took me under his wings even though his worldview was very different from mine.
The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance
Every story has a chance to be told. When my father died, I decided to write down all the family anecdotes, which I feared would be lost otherwise. To my surprise, what began merely as a collection of stories for my children ended up as a book publication, We All Giggled: A Bourgeois Family Memoir, published in the Life Writing Series of Wilfrid Laurier University Press. A local reporter asked me what I thought the appeal of the book might be to readers other than my own family. I replied that my hope was that it would encourage others to think of and write down the kind of stories that exist in all families. I do not think that it is much different in the academic world. Interesting research will inspire other interesting research.
A research project I wish I had done
For many years I have wanted to come up with a theory of federalism that is general enough to encompass the infinite variety of federal practice yet sufficiently concise to provide students of federalism with a more common language. In fact I am on it as we speak. Hope it does not turn out to be one of my delusional projects (see above).
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be
I never consciously decided to become a political scientist. I drifted from economics to political ideas and federalism because I could not handle numbers, and I mainly moved from degree to degree because I could never think of anything else. And since I hung around long enough, someone finally hired me for good. In a different life, I might have wanted to become a music manager, maybe in charge of cultural life in a large city. But that would have required organizational and schmoozing talents I do not possess.
The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be
I say idle no more. The fact that apparently more children are now taken away from Aboriginal families and put into foster care than at the height of the residential school system speaks for itself but is moreover symptomatic for the way Canada has been drifting away from respectability on many fronts: environmental protection, social inequality, urban sprawl and congestion, international reputation as a mediator and peace keeper…
The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be
Political science qua science is always in danger of disconnecting from the real problems and issues of real people. At a time when universities are in grave danger of being downgraded to the status of corporate service providers, political science like other academic disciplines needs to find a voice that maintains and reaffirms academic freedom and autonomy yet convincingly demonstrates that it can make practical contributions.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is
Looking for my first major postdoctoral research project, I almost accidentally stumbled across the early modern political theory of Althusius. I never really got away from Althusius. I tell my students with academic ambitions to choose their first major research topic carefully: it may haunt them for the rest of their careers.
The magazine, Northern Public Affairs, has published a special issue on devolution and economic development in the NWT. You can download this free special issue here.
Lots of good stuff in here from some of the main commentators on territorial and Aboriginal politics including Hayden King, Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, and Steve Kakfwi, among others.
A week from now Justin Trudeau will slip on his father’s old shoes (sandals perhaps) as the new national leader of the Liberal party. Everything will change. Or will it?
Will it be a watershed moment in Canadian politics — a fresh beginning for the proud Liberals? Or just a last kick at the can by a tired third-place party running on the fumes of nostalgia as it struggles to stave off irrelevancy?
The Liberals themselves don’t know, which makes this transition especially intriguing. They very much hope it is a new beginning. That hope was on display in Toronto on Saturday at their “national showcase” (a fancy label for an afternoon of political speechifying). It was especially evident the faces of the young people who have been drawn to the party in large numbers by Justin’s candidacy.
One would like to believe in that hope. One would like to believe that this time it will be different, that the party has moved on and learned from the false hopes and failed leaderships of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. One would like to believe that Justin is the real deal, that he actually can bring a younger generation of idealists and activists into the political mainstream. One would like to think the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson was missing something when he dismissed Justin’s Saturday speech, sourly, as “a barn-burner of a speech utterly devoid of substance.”
(I wonder many leadership speeches over the years, barnburners or no, could honestly be described as being chock full of substance. They tend to be safe, predictable and formulaic. Judged by that modest yardstick, Justin’s speech was better than most, I thought. But I digress.)
What can safely be said is that Justin has come some distance since he entered the leadership contest last October. He has progressed from being an attractive, articulate novice with a famous parent to a serious politician and a capable performer in his own right. His name helps, of course, but there is more to him than the Trudeau name.
His detractors find him light on policy. That judgment can be made of many opposition politicians. Why should any new leader lay out his ideas a full 30 months before the next election? That would give the Harper Conservatives far too much time to nuke them in attack ads. For the moment, Trudeau is better served by attacking Tory government policy. He does that with conviction.
Some veteran observers admit they are more impressed than they expected to be. Columnist Chantal Hébert assessed Justin’s performance during a two-hour session with the Toronto Star editorial board last Friday, comparing it to similar appearances she had witnessed by Jean Charest, Lucien Bouchard, Jean Chrétien, and Dion and Ignatieff.
“As measured on the scale of the editorial board performances of his Liberal predecessors, his [Trudeau’s] was substantively more solid,” Hébert wrote. “That suggests that by the time the 2015 election comes around some 30 months from now, Trudeau might have grown into a formidable contender.”
He possesses some of his father’s eloquence. “The truth is, Canadians want to vote for something, not just against somebody,” he said in his Toronto speech. “They want to vote for a long term vision that embodies our values, our dreams and our aspirations.”
No, he doesn’t offer much substance to that vision. But he does inspire hope — and that’s been a rare commodity in the Liberal party in recent years. Rare and precious.
Trudeau will succeed or fail on his ability to sustain that hope and to use it to inspire students and other young voters.
His ability to connect with young people is special. Pierre Trudeau had it. Jack Layton had it. Stephen Harper certainly doesn’t have it. That alone will make the Trudeau-Harper confrontation in the next election fascinating to observe. If Chantal Hébert is right and Justin develops into a “formidable contender,” it will be an election to remember.
Many Canadians, especially those from urban areas, have difficulty understanding the obsession with guns that apparently pervades the American political culture.
Unfortunately, we are reminded of this at disturbingly regular intervals, when mass shootings become sensationalized media stories. Apart from not appreciating, and indeed sneering at, the cultural differences that underlie the issue, we don’t understand the political constraints that seem to deny an easy remedy to the problem.
Passed in 1791, the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution was predicated upon the assumption that a “well-regulated militia” was necessary to the security of a free state. Some might think the world had changed in the intervening two centuries plus, but a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia vs. Heller, clarified that principle to suggest that the ownership of firearms was guaranteed for purposes such as self defence within one’s home. It did not, however, guarantee the right of an individual to semi-automatic weapons with virtually unlimited ammunition clips.
Dr. Kelly Blidook, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Memorial University, has written a new book called Constituency Influence in Parliament: Countering the Centre, which is available for purchase from UBC Press here. This book “examines the rules and conduct of Private Members’ Business [PMB] to assess the complex relationship between constituency representation and policy proposals. In contrast with most literature on Canadian politics, Blidook resurrects the relevance of Canada’s Parliament by examining what MPs do, why they do it, and what effect it has.”
Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Blidook about his book via email in March and April 2013.
Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?
Blidook: Well, of course, it just began as a research project. I guess I decided to pursue the research project because I was interested in both (1) understanding all the things that MPs do that we pay little attention to (PMB being only one such thing, but kind of a big thing) and (2) whether there is actually a meaningful link between constituent and MP. I like Parliament, and I found a lot of the research on it simply didn’t tell me much about these things, so the end result – sort of by opportunity and by luck – came out of digging at it in my own way for awhile.
As far as turning it into a book goes … it seemed a shame after years of work to only have 5 people read about it, when it could be turned into a book with an academic press so that 20 people could read about it. Plus my parents like it better as a book.
Alcantara: It’s so true! Academics seem to prefer journal articles for some reason, but parents and friends (and the general public!) like books! I think our parents and friends, at least, like being able to search for our books on amazon.ca or in the bookstore. So how did you decide to approach this topic, both in terms of theory and method?
Blidook: I basically wanted to tell a comparative story about the Canadian case. I started collecting the data early in the project because I assumed it would be valuable to dig deeply into, and I was given the time and money to do so. It was both an inductive and deductive process – they usually are if they are presented as deductive. I did assume early on that, other things being equal, all elected members have similar motivations and, given similar electoral systems, there should be a relatively consistent behaviour.
So it became an institutional rational choice framework, within which I used a large-n quantitative approach to determine what MPs were doing and how much effect it had. But really, it was adding in the qualitative interviews that made the project both tolerable and readable. Talking to people really does wonders.
Sorry, I get pretty caught up in the whole “method” thing. I’m increasingly amazed by how the most important rules of methods are not “rules”, but are about communicating a convincing story to the most important audience.
Alcantara: So what did you find? Did MPs share similar motivations? If so, did they share similar motivations prior to coming to Parliament? Or did the institutional environment of Parliament force a convergence?
Blidook:Well, I can’t speak much to the pre-Parliament aspects. The work really deals with the House of Commons, our electoral system, and how they shape behaviour. But, yes, MPs tend to act in “predictable” ways, in that they pursue symbolic actions to represent localized interests when electoral factors are a primary concern, and they appear to pursue more policy-oriented actions when they are able to focus less on the next election (and as a side-note to the latter – those actions do appear to matter in terms of overall policy-making). So to answer your question directly, the SMP electoral system leads to behavioural patterns that we see in other systems as well. But when you say it like that in a single sentence it sounds boring — reading about that sentence as an entire book is … not … boring.
Alcantara: So it’s the electoral system rather than the other institutional forces relating to Parliament and parties that is determinative of MP behaviour?
Blidook: Oh, sure … I’m glad you got me to clarify because it’s obviously not so simple. My story is meant to offset the common narratives by pointing to things that have been missed about Parliament, which are either due to the size of our radar screen or the perspective we’ve been looking from. But of course – political parties, executive dominance, the confidence principle, etc. – those things are all extremely important and they appear to account for the vast majority of MP behaviour. But their importance has, I think, been overstated to the point where the common view of Parliament is one where individual MPs don’t matter. My story is about how they do matter. Those big factors we are all aware of are not the only factors, and the ‘trained seal’ is not the only form of behaviour.
Alcantara: In what ways can MPs have a meaningful influence? And how are they able to exert that influence? The common assumption, as you say, is that MPs are “trained seals” that only exercise any real independence at the constituency level. Is that assumption wrong? If so, where does that power come from?
Blidook: Well, last week an opposition MP got the House to pass a bill instituting transgender rights, while the Prime Minister voted against transgender rights. Think about that.
The power question is a great one that I’m starting to answer in a bit more detailed manner now than I did in the book. I honestly think a lot of researchers in Canada have not really tried to understand it. I hear people say things like “MPs only have power if their party leader (or the Prime Minister) gives it to them.” Political scientists will actually argue that MPs (1) lack power, and (2) exercise power. I completely disagree that those two statements are compatible. What I know of power suggests that people try to attain power, and exercise it only if they attain it. However, if someone wants to work “giving away power on whims” into a plausible theory of power, I’ll listen to what they come up with. I’ll probably have questions.
So with that on the table, I’d say MPs exercise the amount of power that they actually have, and this amount is due primarily to the institutional structure, and their individual abilities to maximize that power. When MPs are supressed on one issue, they speak out on another. When an MP threatens to cross the floor, the leader often makes some concession to get them not to. If a group of MPs show they are uncomfortable, the party leader needs to decide whether to do something to keep those MPs happy or risk them doing something that could hurt the party or leader.
Sure, the power of each individual is quite small, but we’ve been treating it as though it is negligible for a long time, and there is unmistakable evidence that it isn’t negligible. So I think we need to stop describing power in simplistic and vague ways, and start looking at it closely, theorizing about it carefully, and determining more effectively who has it and how much.
This has been a long answer, I’m sorry. The last part I wanted to speak to was the specific form of power that the book talks about on policy impacts. MPs used to have very little opportunity to pass Private Members’ Business due to limits on the number of votable items and committee vetting, but over the Mulroney and Chrétien years MPs pushed for changes to the rules, and by the end of Chrétien’s PMship, each MP had an equal opportunity to have his/her item debated via a lottery and every item was made votable by default. This ultimately meant a lot of issues and policies could end up on the House floor and be voted upon, whereas in the past those items had to clear a lot of hurdles. That is a significant institutional change, and one that the executive had to take notice of because it would be charged with carrying out statutes that were passed. It had, I argue, some very significant ramifications. So basically we saw small rule changes that had notable implications for power distribution. MPs gained a small amount of it.
Alcantara: I agree with you on the power issue. Sometimes, it seems, we tend to gloss over concepts in favour of getting right to the presentation of our cool new theory, method, or result, yet I’ve always believed that concepts are the foundation on which all research rests. Bad concepts, usually means bad research, regardless of one’s theory, method, or results.
On the issue of MP power, isn’t it very much a fluid thing, though? Much depends, doesn’t it, on the personality of party leaders, rather than institutional structures? In the case of votable items and committee vetting for instance, it sounds like institutions are less important compared to the agency of MPs and leaders?
Blidook: It is certainly fluid, and it has fluctuated over time. Of course, this interview has taken place over a couple weeks now, and a few events over that period – the transgender rights vote, the committee deeming the abortion motion unvotable, the MPs complaining about being muzzled – have caused me to have a slightly different view of the power distribution than when we started. Power is in play in all these decisions, and it usually comes down to individuals making choices that could have longer term effects. Different leaders will, of course, make different decisions and be more of less successful based upon how those play out.
In turn, the institutions provide incentives and limitations. Realistically, agency affects intuitions and vice versa, and the distinction between both is blurry. But the point is that nobody holds a limitless, or a constant, amount of power. The amount of power anybody does hold is facilitated by past decisions and the institutional structures that have resulted. As long as we keep a SMP electoral system, and as long as parties don’t figure out how to run nameless, faceless avatars as their local candidates (though I’ve heard this concept might already be at an advanced stage behind the scenes), then MPs will have connections to small geographic regions that they depend upon for electoral survival.
That will inevitably have an effect on their behaviours. And as long as MPs have an element of freedom to express themselves or pursue policies in venues like PMB and SO31s member statements (this freedom has changed a good deal in the recent past), then those are venues where they will pursue individual interests. If those “safety valves” get plugged up or closed off, you’ll see the pressure released through other means, because the design creates it. Where and when it happens though will be the result of leaders and individuals doing things their own way.
Alcantara: Sounds like an interesting book! What are you working on next?
Blidook: I’m glad you think so – obviously I like it, but I’ve probably lost a bit of perspective in that area. The next book project is a broader look at power distribution – I guess I’ve already been talking about it in this interview a bit. The idea behind it is what I call “Party Creep” – which has two meanings. First, despite the ever changing balance of power between individuals and parties, parties have clearly crept into domains that were not theirs to begin with. This is partly due to individuals innovating to determine what they can accomplish in parliament, at which point parties – which are better equipped to attain and exercise that power – begin to capitalize on that innovation. Second, the fact that parties have done so is kind of creepy – or ‘cause for concern’. I was thinking of a “Goosebumps” themed cover when I first came up with it, but with zombies being popular right now, I can’t think of a better parallel than hoards of MPs with dark eyes closing in on a lone living MP who just wants to give his/her own personal SO31 statement. “Brains! Brains!” Anyway, maybe I should write it before I get too excited about a cover.
It was great to get to chat about all this. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks so much Chris.
The mini-revolt that Stephen Harper suppressed in the Conservative caucus may not have amounted to much last week, but it did raise a couple of important principles. They are conflicting principles.
The first is the principle that elected members in our system have the right to speak their minds and vote their consciences. They are sent to Parliament (or a legislature) to serve and to represent the interests of their constituents. But they are not mere delegates; they have opinions of their own; they are not witless mouthpieces for their voters.
The second principle is that when politicians make promises, they should keep them. If a party leader endorses a particular policy and the party wins election, the electorate is entitled to expect that the government will honour its election commitment. Continue reading →
The two principles came into conflict last week when the social conservative wing of the government caucus, led on this occasion by British Columbia MP Mark Warawa, tried by the back door to reopen a parliamentary debate on abortion. The device was a motion calling on MPs to condemn the practice of using abortion to determine the gender of newborns — presumably choosing males over females.
Sex-selective abortion is not a burning national issue in Canada. Most MPs, I suspect, don’t even know if it goes on here. But they knew enough to be aware that Warawa and his pro-life allies, including, prominently, Stephen Woodworth, the Conservative MP for Kitchener Centre, were using sex-selective abortion as a device, as the thin edge of a wedge to force a full parliamentary debate on the recriminalization of abortion.
The prime minister saw through the transparent tactic. He refused to allow Warawa to introduce his motion — an all-party Commons subcommittee had already decided it was “non-votable,” meaning it was ineligible for further debate. He reminded the Tory caucus of his election commitment not to reopen the abortion issue. He said allowing the motion would be tantamount to breaking that promise.
For the Conservatives, the abortion issue is like having a crazy old aunt who is kept hidden in the attic lest she escape and embarrass the family in front of visitors. Harper doesn’t have to be reminded how the leadership of Stockwell Day, then head of the Canadian Alliance, was destroyed by the Flintstone fringe of the old Reform party when it got its teeth into party policy on abortion and gay rights.
There are still Flintstones in the Tory caucus and occasionally they get out and grab attention. Although Harper was able to muzzle them last week, they will appeal to the speaker of the Commons, and he may let them out again.
But isn’t that what parliamentary democracy is all about? Shouldn’t MPs be free to speak their minds, no matter how controversial or unpopular the issue? Should leaders be able to silence their followers, even the Flintstones among them?
Elizabeth May, the Green party leader, made a valid point. “It cuts to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy,” she said. “We are not here as teams. The principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy is that we are here as representatives of our constituencies and our constituents. Incidentally, we are merely members of political parties.”
The principle is splendid. But how could a country like Canada be governed if MPs were only incidentally members of parties? How would government function? For that matter, how could the Green party survive if its members were free to vote in favour of more oilsands development, more clear-cutting of virgin forests, more pipelines across First Nations lands, or less regulation of air and water pollution?
In the case of abortion, Canada has not had an abortion law for 25 years — not since the Morgentaler decision of 1988. Most Canadians seem content with the situation. There is nothing to be gained from reopening the subject.
Prime Minister Harper says the door is closed — even the back door. Good for him.
The federal government has announced major changes to the comprehensive land claims process but what effect will these reforms have on the dozens of treaty negotiation tables that are currently stalled or suspended? To answer this question, we need to cover a bit of history on modern treaties.
In 1973, the federal government invited aboriginal groups that had never signed treaties with the Crown to negotiate what it called “comprehensive land claims agreements,” otherwise known as modern treaties. These agreements transfer significant amounts of land, resources and jurisdiction to aboriginal groups in exchange for establishing certainty and finality regarding the ownership of Crown lands.
For the federal government, negotiating comprehensive land claims agreements was necessary to address the uncertainty created by a decade of aboriginal protests and a Supreme Court decision that confirmed the existence of aboriginal title. A modern treaty, federal officials hoped, would clear the way for economic development by eliminating any uncertainty regarding the ownership of Crown lands. Aboriginal leaders, on the other hand, welcomed the opportunity to negotiate these agreements, seeing them as a potentially powerful tool for achieving economic prosperity and self-determination for their communities.
The federal Liberals are prisoners of past glories. Only now, as their leadership “race” ambles into its final weeks, are they turning some of their thoughts to their central dilemma, an issue that should have been front and centre since the 2011 election, if not earlier.
Their dilemma: as long as the Harper Conservatives control the right and centre-right — which they will as long as the economy remains the dominant issue among Canadians — there will not be enough room for both the Liberals and New Democrats in the rest of the electoral spectrum, the left and centre-left. Not enough room for two competing alternatives to the Conservatives. Not enough room for the opposition parties to differentiate themselves. Not enough electoral support, when split between two progressive parties, to bring down the powerful Tories, who are richer and better organized. Not to mention meaner and tougher.
Something needs to happen — if not a marriage of the parties of the left, perhaps some sort of common-law union. An informal coalition, perhaps. Or a voting-day “arrangement.” Or an “understanding.” You would think living in sin would be more attractive to opposition politicians than living indefinitely in Harperland. Continue reading →
Logic, however, doesn’t always work in politics. The New Democrats aren’t about to leap into bed with their nemesis, the Liberals, who for decades stole their best ideas and many of their supporters. The NDP believes it is still in the ascendancy. It scored its huge breakthrough in 2011 when it elected 103 members, including more MPs in Quebec (59) than the Liberals elected in all of Canada (34).
The NDP believes it doesn’t need any help. It thinks it can make Thomas Mulcair prime minister without the aid of the Liberal party or its core supporters. It would love nothing better than to rub the noses of both the Grits and Tories in an NDP victory.
Most Liberals are thinking along similar lines. The only one in the shrinking field of leadership candidates who advocates relations with the New Democrats is Joyce Murray, the candidate from British Columbia. And she is not talking about marriage or even a common-law relationship. She proposes a quick one-night stand; the two parties would combine efforts on election day in 2015, defeat Harper, then go their separate ways.
The other candidates weren’t buying Murray’s message when they met in Montreal on Saturday for their final debate. “It’s dangerous for the Liberal party,” said candidate Martha Hall Findlay. Justin Trudeau, who will be crowned leader on April 14, agreed. Liberal co-operation with the NDP would simply elect Mulcair, he said, adding, incomprehensibly, “I’m very worried that if we assemble a hodgepodge coalition or coming together or co-operation that actually removes choices from Canadians by forcing them to make an either-or choice, they will not believe we’re ready to govern.”
He did not explain how offering voters a choice between two clear alternatives (left or right) would be tantamount to limiting or removing choices.
The hard fact is too many Liberals cannot forget their glory years. They were Canada’s “natural governing party” for decades. Their Big Red Machine ruled the hustings. Now the glory may be gone but reality has not yet registered.
They are in third place in Parliament and in most of the polls. They can’t get from third to first, where the Harper Conservatives rule, without going through the second-place NDP. There are only two ways to get past the New Democrats. One way is to campaign against the NDP in the 2015 election, win most of the left/centre-left vote, and prepare to take on the Tories in 2019. The other way is to work with the NDP now, take down the Conservatives in 2015, and sort it out after the ballots have been counted — a coalition government of the left, perhaps?
Meanwhile, Stephen Harper watches while his rivals are unable to get their acts together. He should be the happiest fellow in Canada.
Back in 2006, when Stephen Harper was still in opposition and was campaigning for the keys to 24 Sussex Dr., he was all for open government. He was wedded to the principles of transparency and accountability.
Yes, sirree. A Conservative government would be different. The Conservatives would open all the windows; they would expose the entrails of government so that Canadians could see what they were getting for their votes and taxes.
The Access to Information Act would be made to work the way it was meant to. A Public Appointments Commission would be created to monitor patronage. And a Parliamentary Budget Officer would be appointed to serve Parliament as its watchdog over government spending. Continue reading →
Well, the Access to Information Act did not get fixed; it’s weaker now than ever. The Public Appointments Commission did not happen. But a Parliamentary Budget Officer — one Kevin Page — was appointed in 2008 for a five-year term.
A career bureaucrat who proved to be unafraid to speak truth to power, Page has done stellar work with limited resources. He informed Parliament that the cost of the Afghanistan war would be more than double the defence department’s estimate. He discovered that the government was low-balling the investment needed for First Nations education. And he revealed that the true cost those F-35 fighter jets will be double or triple the $16 billion claimed by the defence department.
You might think the people who created the post — the Harper Tories — would be delighted with a job well done. Or, if not delighted, at least supportive. You’d be wrong. In his five years, Page has been shunned by the Conservative establishment. He has been publicly abused by at least three cabinet ministers. He has been denied information he needs to do his job. Effectively, he has been sent to Coventry by finance department bureaucrats who resent an outsider, especially a non-partisan servant of Parliament, poaching on their turf.
Kevin Page’s five years expire next week. He was not offered an extension. The government is running newspaper ads inviting applications for a successor. The ads are misleading — not for what they say, but for what they fail to say.
They say the government is looking for a “strategic and innovative leader,” an “effective communicator” with managerial experience, integrity and the “ability to develop and maintain constructive relationships among senior decision-makers in a highly stressful environment.”
All this is undoubtedly true. The ad makes the Parliamentary Budget Officer sound like a very important person, which is true, and a powerful person, which is not so true. The new budget officer will only be as powerful as the Harper cabinet is prepared to let him or her be.
The government has classified the job as a GCQ-5, which is a mid-level position, the equivalent of a director-general in a department. Remuneration is not mentioned in the ad. It’s between $139,000 and $164,500, which is peanuts in the private sector for anyone with the professional qualifications the government is looking for; and it’s not much money in the public sector these days. In fact, it is less than government has been paying Kevin Page. He was an assistant deputy minister when he was appointed and the government let him retain his salary grade. It promised to reclassify the position upward, but never did.
Sonia L’Heureux, the parliamentary librarian, becomes the interim budget officer when Page leaves next week. Meanwhile, the search continues for someone who is prepared to sign on for five years of controversy, stress, occasional abuse and frequent non-support by the people who hire him or her.
Harper must regret ever promising a parliamentary budget officer. His people rue the day they chose Kevin Page. Now they are looking for someone, probably a civil servant, who will be cheap, compliant and not make any waves — until they can quietly phase out the watchdog.
As Page himself says: “I would not put any money on this office existing after five years.”