Revisiting the Debate: Canadian and Comparative Politics

Last summer, I wrote a blog post lamenting the decline of Canadian politics.  I worried about whether the “big” departments would continue to prioritize and hire scholars to teach and write about Canadian politics.  I complained about the push for a “comparative turn” in Canadian politics, directing some worry towards a volume that many of my friends, mentors, and colleagues put together at UofT on this very issue.

Although UBC and McGill have not advertised any Canadian politics jobs recently, UofT has this year, as has Queen’s, which are welcome signs.  But the debate continues! Recently, UBC Press announced the publication of a new volume entitled, Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics, edited by some of the best, young, Canadian political scientists on the scene today (of course, I may be biased since all were at UofT when I was there and all are friends or at least acquaintances but still!).

The following below is a message from one of the editors, Luc Turgeon (assistant professor of political science at University of Ottawa), commenting on my original blog post and his new co-edited book.
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Dear Chris –

 

I promised you last year I would eventually write a rejoinder to your blog entry “Political Scholars fiddle while Rome Burns”. I apologize for taking so long!

 

In that blog, you lamented the assault on the study of Canadian politics. You pointed to the gradual replacement of Canadian scholars by comparative ones in political science departments throughout the country and to the growing promotion of the “comparative turn in Canadian political science”, rather than a focus solely on Canada. In this year’s presidential address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Alain Noël was similarly very critical of the “comparative turn”.

I share many of your worries about the future of our discipline. And I could not agree more with you “that political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics”.

 

It might seem strange that I share some of your critiques of the “comparative turn in Canadian politics” considering that I recently published a co-edited volume entitled Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadians Politics. Whereas the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science explored the ways in which Canadian scholars contribute (or not) to comparative politics theories, our book explores the ways in which the comparative method allows us to better understand Canada.

 

In our book, while promoting the potential benefits of the comparative method to the study of Canadian politics, we also acknowledge three potential limits or problems with what your present as “embracing the comparative turn”.

The first one is simply that our discipline cannot and should not be reduced to a subfield of comparative politics. Normative and critical perspectives on Canadian politics have been and are still central to our discipline. Moreover, some of the main contributions of Canadians to international political science and comparative politics have been the result of our interest (some might say obsession) with normative issues raised by the country’s struggle over national unity and debates about Canadian multiculturalism.

 

The second potential problem is that a focus on comparison can lead us to dismiss case studies or Canada-centred studies. As discussed in the introduction of our book, such case studies are crucial to explore under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and also to inductively develop new theoretical perspectives. Moreover, as Alain Noël stressed in his presidential address, comparative politics privileges a positivist epistemology. The object of social science inquiry is not always to explain, but also to interpret or to criticize. In such case, a comparative strategy might not be useful in light of the researcher’s intentions.

 

The third problem is that it can give a relatively distorted view of the history of our discipline. The main strength of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is that it documents, I believe, a real shift in the 1990s and 2000s as the number of cross-national studies of Canada increased significantly. The different contributors also artfully explore the way Canadian political scientists have been “givers” or “takers” when it comes to theories of comparative politics. These are important contributions that should not be dismissed.

 

I find problematic though the idea that, somehow, Canadian political science was before the 1990s “introspective, insular, and largely atheoretical”, to quote from the The Comparative Turn‘s blurb. While Canadian political scientists were certainly preoccupied by national unity concerns, they engaged with theoretical debates in international political science and used some of those approaches to illuminate the Canadian case. Just to give an example from our book, political economy in Canada was influenced by and engaged with theoretical perspectives such as British neo-marxism and the French regulation school.

 

Many of the critiques of the “Comparative Turn”, whether fair or not, came down to the fact that it gave the impression that our first objective as students of Canadian politics should be to contribute to the international comparative scholarship. The first objective, critiques responded, should be in fact to better understand Canada.

I believe that the comparative approach to the study of Canadian politics can contribute to the revitalization, not the cannibalization, of the study of Canadian politics. In order to do so, we must first recognize that the comparative approach is one of many other approaches that can help us better understand Canadian politics. We must also acknowledge that in order to contribute to the study of Canadian politics, our students need to know better the history of our discipline, and not only the most recent comparative theoretical approaches.

 

Comparison can play an important role in the study of Canadian politics. It allows us to overcome a number of potential pitfalls: making erroneous normative claims about aspects Canadian politics, exaggerating Canada’s specificity or uniqueness, neglecting the country’s internal diversity (which brings the important of comparative provincial or local studies), and over-emphasizing the centrality of certain factors in explaining different political phenomena.

 

More importantly for the study of Canadian politics though, the comparative method and continuing engagement with the comparative literature can leads us to ask new questions about our country and explore aspects of Canadian politics previously neglected or overlooked. As Stretton argued in the late 1960s, the function of comparison is perhaps less to simulate an experiment than to stimulate imagination.

 

Ultimately, one of the main merits of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is to have contributed to a debate about methodological approaches to the study of Canadian politics. We need to pursue that reflection. There are a number of methodological approaches in fact that have not been sufficiently explored in the study of Canadian politics (life history, political ethnography, different experimental methods, etc).

 

More than a decline of Canadian politics, I see a renewal. The national unity crisis of the post-1970s had a defining impact on our discipline, contributed to the intervention of many political scientists in the public sphere and influenced their research. What I see today are a number of political scientists exploring previously under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and using different platforms to disseminate their findings. In most cases, those who adopt a comparative perspective do so not because of some sort of misguided belief in the superiority of comparative approaches, but because they think that such approaches allow us to gain important insights about our country.

 

Luc Turgeon

 

I’m a big fan of Luc Turgeon, both as a person and as a scholar.  The first time I met him, we clashed in the Sidney Smith lunch room over the value of Canadian political science. I was a very junior PhD student and Luc was one of the rising stars in the department.  I don’t remember who argued what but I do remember we had a vigorous debate and that I must have been losing because some of my colleagues began to inch away from me as the debate continued!

Luc’s letter sounds promising.  I like the nuance he provides in terms of the contributions and relationship between Canadian and comparative politics.  How many political scientists in Canada, however, agree? Maybe this book will spur a much needed debate in Canada political science departments.  Will the anti-Canadianists listen?

 

Politicians face tough times too

Published Feb. 18, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury.

Anyone who harbours the delusion that politicians lead a soft existence might take a look at the dilemmas that some leading political figures are facing.

Let’s start with Quebec where Premier Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois, clinging to a weak minority since September 2012 — and having procrastinated as long as possible — will bring down a budget on Thursday. The budget is widely expected to open the door to a general election this spring. That would be a real gamble. When Marois won in 2012, she did so with just 32 per cent of the popular vote, down three per cent from the previous election, when the PQ lost to the Liberals. But the way the vote split in 2012, she actually gained seven seats, to 54 in the 125-seat National Assembly.

While recent polls suggest Marois is within reach of a majority, if she falls short — if she loses or returns with a second minority — her leadership days would surely be over. But if she gets her majority, life will not be so comfortable in Ottawa. Quebec would be back on the national agenda.

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Let’s move on to Ontario, skipping lightly over Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford will continue to be a national embarrassment until the people throw him out next fall. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her minority Liberals are in trouble as all signs point to an Ontario election this spring.

Unable to shed the baggage of the Dalton McGuinty years, she has lost whatever momentum she enjoyed in the early months of her leadership. She has failed to demonstrate that she leads a party with new ideas and new priorities. Her government has become almost indistinguishable from the McGuinty Liberals who led the province for a decade, growing old and tired (and careless) in the process.

No one expected Wynne to win two byelections last week, in Niagara Falls and Thornhill, and the Liberals did run poorly in both, including Niagara Falls, a former Liberal seat. Tory leader Tim Hudak saved a bit of face by hanging onto Thornhill in suburban Toronto, but NDP leader Andrea Horwath emerged as the only winner by capturing blue-collar Niagara Falls.

Now — lest anyone think it is only politicians in power who confront dilemmas — Horwath, the leader of the third party, has to decide whether she will continue to prop up the minority Liberals or to force an election that she almost certainly can’t win. Another Liberal minority would be one outcome — so no change. A second outcome, even worse from the NDP perspective (but possible, the polls say) would be the election of a right-wing Conservative government headed by Hudak, a mini-Mike Harris. Howarth will be stewing over that dilemma until the Queen’s Park budget comes down.

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper doesn’t have to fret about an election just now, but he does have worries. After 20 years in politics, 10 as Conservative leader and eight as prime minister, he finds himself leading a government that has grown old, tired and increasingly arrogant. It is going the way of the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government of three decades ago. And it seems at times unable to cope, incapable of making decisions on such practical issues as the ordering of military hardware — search-and-rescue aircraft, new fighter jets, Arctic patrol ships, an icebreaker, naval resupply ships and maritime helicopters.

It tabled a budget last week that landed with a dull thump, destined to be remembered only for the rift it exposed within the cabinet and caucus over family income-splitting for tax purposes.

Worse, a new poll last week had some terrible numbers for the Tories. Nanos Research reported that 55 per cent of Canadians would not consider voting Conservative. The 36 per cent who said, yes, they would consider voting Tory, left the Harper party well behind the leading Liberals and the NDP, although still ahead of the Green party’s 27 per cent.

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

Public Opinion and Crime

For over forty years, public opinion polls have been asking Canadians questions about crime policy, perceptions of crime, and attitudes towards the criminal justice system . During this time over 700 questions about crime have been asked by Gallup, Pollara, Ipsos Reid, Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey, the Canadian Election Study and Environics Institute. LISPOP associate Dr. Steve Brown and I have assembled these questions in an archive and are using them to track changes in the public’s views about criminal justice matters over the past few decades.

For more on how shifts in public opinion towards crime can influence policy, please visit smartoncrime.ca. Here, I will focus on how public opinion towards crime in Canada has changed over time.

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Steve and I examined three primary groupings of questions related to:

  • Concern about crime;
  • Justice system attitudes; and
  • Attitudes towards crime policy.

Concern about Crime

Questions in this category tap into perceptions of crime rates, feelings of personal safety and fear of crime walking alone at night. Results show that since the early 1990s, concern about crime has been falling in Canada. One trend goes a slightly different direction: the number of people who felt crime was this country’s most important problem rose until 1997, and then has been falling steadily. This number never rises above 5% of respondents.

crimeconcern

Concern About Crime

Results show a pattern that mirrors that of Canada’s crime rate. The crime rate has been falling steadily since the early 1990s, and results demonstrate an increasing number of people believe crime problems are getting better.

Canada Crime Rate

Crime Rate

Justice System Attitudes

Assessments of criminal justice institutions show a similar pattern. The chart below shows the percentage of people expressing dissatisfaction with elements of the criminal justice system.  Dissatisfaction rose in the 1980s, but has begun to fall since the early 1990s. (Note: More than one line with the same title represents different surveys asking a question on the same topic).

Dissatisfaction Levels for Selected Justice Institutions

Dissatisfaction Levels for Selected Justice Institutions

Dissatisfaction levels with the police are much lower than for the other criminal justice system institutions, ranging between 10% and 25% over the last 40 years.  Although the pattern of variation in these levels seems less tied and less responsive to the crime rate than it is for the other institutions, dissatisfaction levels did peak similarly in the early 1990s and has generally fallen thereafter.

Attitudes Towards Police

Attitudes Towards Police

Attitudes Towards Crime Policy

In the 1970s and 1980s, increasing numbers of survey respondents expressed a desire for more severe sentences towards criminals. Similar to other criminal justice system attitudes, the numbers supporting harsher sentences peaked at about 75% to 85% of respondents (depending on the question wording). These numbers then started to drop in the early 1990s. Today, substantial majorities of Canadians still support harsher sentences although the levels have dropped to about 70% of respondents.

Attitudes Towards Sentencing

Attitudes Towards Sentencing

Since the early 1990s attitudes towards the criminal justice system have become more favourable, concern about crime has dropped and the number of people expressing a desire for harsher sentences has declined. This change in opinion corresponds with a steady decline in crime rates in Canada.

Attention to shift to Supreme Court

Published Nov. 11, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is back in control, sort of.

The Senate has been put back in its place. The three wayward Conservatives, Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, who went out of their way to make life miserable for the PM, have been cast into outer darkness, their paycheques terminated (but, oddly, not their health or life insurance nor, it seems, their pensions). The clumsy coverup concocted by the prime minister and his staff has been swept into a black hole reserved for fables that no intelligent person would buy.

With the Commons off for its weeklong Remembrance Day recess, attention will shift to the Supreme Court of Canada, which has set aside three days this week to hear lawyers argue the nitty-gritty of the Harper government’s constitutional reference on Senate reform. The court’s task will be complicated less by the pyrotechnics on Parliament Hill than by the inexactitude of the reference itself.

After roughly two decades of hemming and hawing, the Harper party still doesn’t know what it wants to do with the Senate or what role, if any, it wants the upper house to play in the life of the country. Back in its Reform days, the party thought it wanted a serious upper house, elected and effective. As the prospect of attaining office increased, however, the Conservatives, as they had become, lost their ardour for a real Senate on the U.S. model. Why share power with a second house?

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After forming the government in 2006, they did introduce bills to tweak the Senate, but never made a serious effort to pass them. At first, they blamed opposition obstruction. These days they are blaming the courts for thwarting reform — this without even waiting for the Supremes to hear arguments this week.

The reference invites the court to choose from a smorgasbord of options: from outright abolition of the Senate (which appears to be Harper’s new default position); to retaining the red chamber but eliminating its powers; to limiting the terms of members to eight years or to nine years or to 10 years or more (take your pick); to authorizing federal and/or provincial referendums to nominate senators; to repealing the requirement that senators own $4,000 in “real property” in the province they represent.

But (Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin take note) there is no mention of the thorny issue of residency: are senators required to actually live in the province they represent, or it is good enough to own a second residence there? The Supreme Court is not being asked that.

It is being asked about amendment procedures. Abolition of the upper house would likely need unanimous consent among the provinces. Lesser changes might require use of the 7/50 formula (seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population). A relatively minor reform (such as term limits) might be accomplished by Act of Parliament alone.

The Supreme Court hearings may divert attention from the expenses scandal, but the respite will be temporary for the government. The RCMP is still investigating the expense claims of the trio of Tory senators, plus newly retired Liberal Mac Harb. The auditor general is reviewing the expenses of all senators. And Duffy and Wallin have lawyers primed to fight their suspensions in court.

More important, crucial questions will still be waiting for Harper when Parliament resumes in a week’s time, and Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair will be there to ask them.

Why did the Prime Minister’s Office tell Duffy it was OK to claim his P.E.I. cottage as his principal residence when everyone knew he had lived in Ottawa for years? Why did the prime minister assure Parliament that he had seen Pam Wallin’s expenses and they were consistent with other senators’? Why was Nigel Wright unceremoniously downgraded from Loyal Lieutenant to Great Deceiver?

Finally, what did Harper himself know and when did he know it? As I have noted before, this is not Watergate, but it has a similar smell.

Nigel Wright supporters begin to break silence

Published Nov. 4, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

It has taken a long time, but gradually people who know and respect Nigel Wright are speaking out in support of the man they admire, a man they believe has been treated abominably by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

After initially praising him, Harper has turned with a vengeance on his former chief of staff, making him a scapegoat for the political embarrassment the prime minister has suffered, and continues to suffer, over the Senate scandal.

Wright’s admirers, of whom there are many in business and in politics, were hesitant to come to his defence. Perhaps it was because they were intimidated by the prime minister. Perhaps it was because they all know — and will say as much privately — that Wright made a serious error in judgment when he wrote that $90,000 cheque for Senator Mike Duffy; they did not want to add fuel to the fire by speaking out. Or perhaps it was because Wright, an intensely private person and a devout Anglo-Catholic, did not ask them for support, not even after Harper publicly accused him of deception.

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He could have returned to Toronto last May after he resigned from the Prime Minister’s Officer, or was dismissed (depending on which Harper version you choose); a millionaire, he has a home there; his old job at Onex Corporation (where he was managing director) is waiting for him; and his church, St. Thomas’s, where he has been an extremely active parishioner, is in the heart of the city, in the Annex district close to the University of Toronto.

Instead, he stayed in Ottawa, still living in the condo he purchased when he joined the Prime Minister’s Office three years ago, still rising at 4 a.m. to run 20 kilometres before reporting for work at dawn. These days, “work” is in an Ottawa soup kitchen, helping to feed the homeless. He also apparently spends quite a lot of time talking to his lawyers while he waits for the RCMP to wrap up its investigation of the Senate mess.

What is he going to say? Some of the people who know him suspect he is preparing to even the score with Harper by revealing everything he knows about the Senate scandal, the so-called “bribe” to buy Senator Duffy’s silence, and Harper’s involvement the affair.

Others say no. They see Wright as a true believer in the Conservative party and still, despite all, a Harper loyalist. They don’t think he would lie to the police, but they also don’t think he (unlike Mike Duffy) would volunteer anything that might bring down the prime minister.

The silence of his supporters began to crack last week. In Calgary at the Conservative convention, two ministers, Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay, praised Wright’s integrity and ability. Peter White, a Bay Street director and Tory power broker since the days of Brian Mulroney, made his feelings very clear: “I did not like the way the PM described Nigel’s activities the other day in the House. Poor old Nigel, he’s being pilloried in the media and having his reputation destroyed. You couldn’t find a man with greater integrity than Nigel Wright. … (He) hasn’t got an enemy in the world that I know of … He’s a very wonderful man. It’s a shame to see this happening.”

In Toronto, people who know him from his work at St. Thomas’s church all say he is a straight arrow, honourable and committed to public service. One suggests Wright may have a “misguided martyr complex and believes he has to die for The Boss (Harper).” Others recall that during Wright’s days as an exceptional undergraduate at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, classmates could not agree on where he would end up: as chief justice of the Supreme Court or prime minister of Canada.

Carol Kysela, who worked with him at St. Thomas’s, admires the man but not his Conservative politics. Yet, she says, “Nigel would make one heck of a lot better prime minister than Stephen Harper.”

Let’s bring Ottawa’s political staffers out of the shadows with a code of conduct

Published Oct. 28, 2013, in The Globe and Mail.

A number of recent government controversies have highlighted the role of the “political staffer,” such as the current Senate scandal, the gas plant cancellations in Ontario, the B.C. Liberals’ “ethnic outreach strategy,” and various interferences in freedom of information requests.

But who are these political staff? Who hires them? Who pays them? What is their purpose? And to what extent can Canadians hold them accountable for actions that breach the public trust?

Broadly defined, political staff are hired directly by elected officials and are paid from the public purse. There are about 90 political staff working in the Prime Minister’s Office, with approximately 375 others providing political advice to cabinet ministers. Their purpose is to assist government ministers in a variety of ways, but key to their task is the provision of political advice to the minister on policies or actions under consideration.

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Loyalty runs just one way in Harper’s Ottawa

Published Oct. 28, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

“I’ve had quite a few colleagues say we wish we could vote with you, but we have to kind of go with the flow” — Conservative Senator Hugh Segal on the Harper government’s effort to rid the upper house of Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau

Hugh Segal is the leader of the doomed campaign for “due process” in the Senate expenses affair. In any other democratic forum, convictions would not be handed down until the facts were gathered and the accused had a chance to present a defence.

But not in the Senate affair.

The prime minister wants all three senators executed — that is, expelled from Parliament — right now, without benefit of trial. He does not have the constitutional power to fire senators, but he insists the Senate suspend the troublesome trio, without pay, this week — before the Conservative faithful assemble in convention in Calgary on Friday.

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For the government, fear of political embarrassment vastly outweighs principles of fairness and justice. The Harper people are determined that no niggling little issues, such as due process, will detract from the hosannas of praise and support they expect in Calgary. It is to be a highlight of Harper’s career, an opportunity to demonstrate how much he is loved by his followers.

He will get his wish. Conservative senators, who are a majority in the upper house, will, as Segal suggests, swallow their doubts and “go with the flow.”

The Senate is a go-with-the-flow kind of place. It is not a chamber of independent or sober second thought today, if ever was. It’s a place where prime ministers dump underachievers and reward loyalists.

Harper appointed Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy for their partisan value — Brazeau for his profile in the aboriginal community, Wallin and Duffy for their willingness to trade on their media celebrity to raise money and attract votes for Conservatives across the country.

Wallin and Duffy kept their end of this sleazy deal. They were much in demand at Tory functions. Yes, they got into trouble with their expenses, but they are not alone in that among members of the two houses. At least they could claim they were loyally following the mandate given them by the PM.

Did anyone take Wallin, for example, aside and tell her she could not charge her political travel to her Senate account?

Did anyone take Duffy aside and tell him his cottage in Prince Edward Island did not qualify as his principal residence? (In fact, they told him the opposite.)

Nobody in the Prime Minister’s Office or the Senate noticed, or cared, until senatorial spending became a public issue. Harper, who seems to value loyalty above all other political qualities, could have come to the defence of his three senators. After all, they had been doing his bidding. They were loyal to a fault.

But loyalty runs just one way in Harper’s Ottawa. Instead of defending his three appointees or trying to explain their problems or helping them out of controversies that were at least partly of his making, Harper chose, in Wallin’s words, to throw them under the bus.

His faux outrage over Senate abuses last week may ring hollow to Ottawa insiders, but it plays well to the Conservative base.

Delegates to the Calgary convention this weekend, will believe him if he tells them he was blissfully unaware of Nigel Wright’s $90,000 bailout of Senator Duffy, that he would never have allowed it if he had known, and he was so appalled that he had to throw Wright under the bus, too.

The crowd in Calgary won’t look for holes in Harper’s story. They will applaud his toughness. They want to believe that Stephen Harper still adheres to Reform party principles, that he is a true conservative who opposes big government and its spending ways, a blue-collar democrat, a Tim Hortons kind of guy who stands resolutely against elitism in all its forms.

They may be wrong, but Harper will not disabuse them.

Explaining the Emergence of Indigenous-Local Intergovernmental Relations in Settler Societies: A Theoretical Framework

Authors: Jen Nelles and Christopher Alcantara

Published October 2013 in Urban Affairs Review.

Abstract: There has been growing interest among practitioners and academics in the emergence of intergovernmental relations between local and Aboriginal governments in Canada. Initial research has focused on describing the nature of these relations but has yet to develop any theoretical expectations regarding why some communities are more likely to cooperate than others. We addresses this lacuna by developing a theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of cooperation between Aboriginal and local governments. After identifying a set of variables and specifying how they are likely to affect the propensity of communities to cooperate, we conclude with a discussion of how future researchers might use this framework to investigate cooperation and noncooperation between Aboriginal and local governments in Canada and in other settler societies.

Attack ads and mixed martial arts

Published Apr. 22, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

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.

This seems to be an opportune moment to hit a few other reset buttons. Continue reading

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?

LISPOP Associate discusses biggest challenge facing the federal Liberals?

Published Jan. 20, 2013, on CTV News.

LISPOP Associate Chris Cochrane discusses the first of five Liberal leadership debates. He discusses the challenges for the Liberal candidates and the party. One of the biggest questions to ask is how the less dominant Liberal party will position themselves against the Conservatives in the future.

Watch Here