Tag: Politics

Hey Young Woman! Canada’s Senate needs you!

Canada’s Senate, that life-tenured repository of appointed political loyalists, ex-journalists and random washed up celebrities, got in the news recently after Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed three failed conservative MP candidates, including two who had resigned from their life time senate appointments to run. While all this is unethical and just serves to perpetuate the plutocracy and the welfare state Canadian politicians have set up for themselves, it is clearly the PM’s sole prerogative to do this. He would have done these appointments regardless of majority/minority. The PM knows that the median voter will only turf him in the event of obvious corruption, or a recession, not for riding roughshod over parliamentary procedures, or being divisive, or any such “subtle” issues.

There are calls to reform the senate to make it more relevant, and Stephen Harper has made noises about introducing legislation that will limit senators’ terms and provide for an elected model. The article is short on detail on exactly what the election process will look like.  But let’s look around for some examples, of course rule out the UK House of Lords, sorry, no point discussing hereditary peers!

  1. The American Model: Good god, no. The US Senate is unrepresentative and broken. It assigns two senators to each state regardless of population, and has procedures like the filibuster, anonymous secret holds, etc that are severely undemocratic. Just read George Packer’s devastating report in the New Yorker and you’ll run screaming from this option. Anyway, they have too much power, that’s the last thing we need. The Australian model is somewhat similar (though it uses the single transferable vote or STV for voting).  and is unrepresentative.
  2. The Indian Model. India’s Rajya Sabha. It is elected by the State’s MLAs through a regionally population weighted formula using a Single Transferable Vote multi-member list. Members are voted to 6 year terms. It has has a small percentage of appointed members meant for prominent scientists, artists, etc. The Rajya Sabha does not have equal powers, it cannot initiate appropriations bills, or reject them (only send them back). Also, in the event that the Rajya Sabha (assembly of “rulers”) disagrees with the Lok Sabha (the assembly of the people), there is a joint session, in which the Rajya Sabha, limited by number to 250, is always outnumbered by the Lok Sabha (not more than 552), and would generally lose. This has only happened three times, so in general, the Rajya Sabha serves as a rubber stamp body, and a place for politicians who aren’t up for an election campaign. However, members of the Rajya Sabha can be part of the cabinet, or even be PM. Most famously, India’s current PM Manmohan Singh is from the Rajya Sabha and has been there since 1991. The only time he ran for the Lok Sabha in 1999, he lost.  The Indian model is better than the US model, but I am not too keen on having PMs that have never been directly elected, there’s something wrong about that.

It appears that the original intent of Canada’s senate was to be an unelected body of people which provided sober, non-partisan review of House of Commons legislation. Given that the Canadian senate recently rejected climate change legislation Bill C-311 (with much rancour and little debate) after it had been passed by the House of Commons, this premise is dead. The voting was entirely on party lines, rejected democratically passed legislation, and debate was anything but sober. The current political system will only serve to make any Canadian Senate increasingly partisan (not always a bad thing, partisanship is honest). Voting will not change this much, even if the voting is based on proportional representation, which appears to not be too popular with the status quo. Why have a senate that once again prioritizes the voices of the elite, especially if we don’t intend the senate to have equal power? What to do?

Lottery Democracy, that’s what! Let’s randomly pick, based on provincial weighting, a certain number of people out of the elector pool, to serve in the senate for a fixed term, say 4 years or so. Also, since the current system biases towards age, let’s put an age restriction as well, younger than 35! Obviously, the pay has to be good enough, and the work has to be part time. The current senate sits for anywhere between 50-90 days in a year. Let’s pick a small enough senate, say a total of 50-100 senators, one minimum per province/territory,  then weighted by population. Let’s make most of the senate proceedings online friendly, so most voting, discussion, etc can happen by video conferencing, with 2-3 weeks per year face time in Ottawa. This way, the work is part time, and can be worked around jobs/children, etc. The pay will have to be good enough for the senators to afford good day care, etc.

What powers would we give this senate? The power of a second voice, nothing more. If the senate does not like a legislation, it sends the bill back for discussion. If the Commons chooses to pass it unchanged, have a joint vote. The number disparity between the Commons and the Senate would ensure that the Commons gets primacy, unless the bill is so egregiously divisive, and voting so close that a joint session produces a different result.

What are the advantages of having a randomly picked “young” senate?

  1. Age – Provides valuable policy experience and job training to someone just starting their career, not a sinecure and pension to someone finishing theirs off. At the end of 4-5 years, you get someone who has lived public policy. Obviously, a lot of training and civil service help will be needed, just like for MPs currently.
  2. Elitism – Since we will get a randomly selected senate, there are fewer White male middle aged lawyers.
  3. Representativeness – This provides a direct democracy element to our governance.
  4. Orthogonality – The senate is picked using rules completely different from the Commons, so we will get a different set of people.
  5. Ego and power – Being a politician means wanting to be one, and all the compromises that come with it. I am not a politician basher, many of them want to do good. But having a vote for people who did not have to raise money, or are not beholden to any special interest groups (in theory) provides a good complementary view.

I am under no illusion that this senate will be less “partisan”, whatever that means. We have strong biases whether we acknowledge them or not, and the senators will vote with these biases. That’s okay, politics is about making choices. But we can design senate rules to mitigate party affiliation and conflict of interests.

Obviously, just like jury duty, people could have an option to refuse for the right reasons, but there should be no other restrictions. If you’re eligible to vote, you’re eligible to be picked regardless of your past history. Will there be a few slackers, yes, but look at the current senate/house of commons, there are some who make you wonder… We also have people in the Senate appointed in 1979, clearly time to leave after 30 years!

So, hey young woman, you sitting in the corner pondering your next move, would you like to be a senator?

Image courtesy – Flickr – Andresrueda used under a creative commons license.

Canada's only proposed Carbon Targets in Danger

Bill C-311, Canada’s Climate Change Accountability Act, is back in the “news” (no silly, not the media, who have more important things to worry about). I had written about this before the Copenhagen meeting. This bill sets Canada up with greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that would put Canada in a respectable mainstream position, 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. But the Conservatives, in one of their classic legislative gambits, have forwarded the vote for April 14th, Wednesday. If the bill doesn’t pass here, it’s dead, and 4 years of countless committee readings, and multiple votes to pass would be wasted. And Canada will not have any climate change legislation whatsoever.

Serious business, isn’t it? Climate Action has more, including what you need to do (I know, short notice, that’s apparently how important decisions get made around here).

The Liberals hold the key. It was they who voted with the Conservatives the last time to scuttle the pre-Copenhagen vote. As of writing this post, no official word from the Liberals on their position.

A call to Michael Ignatieff’s office, (613) 995-9364 gives me little hope of passage. I was told that the MPs had met, that Mr. Ignatieff would not be voting (apparently, because it’s a private member’s bill, leaders don’t vote, weird). Also, the official position of the party is that because it is a private member’s bill, that every MP would be free to vote on their “conscience”. Given that the Liberal party could not even defend women’s health in a recent whipped vote, I wonder where their conscience is on this.

A call to David McGuinty’s (the Liberal Environmental Critic) Office, (613) 992-3269, elicited the rather helpful response that they would not be commenting on their stand till after the vote.

Of our local MPs, both Denise Savoie (NDP) and Dr. Keith Martin (Liberal) will be voting to preserve the bill, they are on record saying this at a forum on climate change last week. Of course, Gary Lunn (Conservative) is not part of the equation here, pointless.

So, call, call and call away, the Liberals need to hear about this. They don’t appear to understand the most basic rule of opposition politics, you get no points for supporting the government, except from pundits in the mainstream media. Only if you inflict some defeats on the government will the people of Canada take you seriously.

David McGuinty – (613) 992-3269
Michael Ignatieff – (613) 995-9364

As always, remember that it is the Liberals that will be blamed for this bill’s demise, we all know the Conservative position on climate change. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois have voted repeatedly to pass this legislation. It is Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals who will stand in the way of Canada’s environmental progress.

Canada and Climate Change Regulation – Politics as Usual

Weasel (from wikipedia)

*Weasel picture courtesy wikipedia

“We need to hear more about the American position, the European position, the Chinese position” before considering the bill, McGuinty told CBC News.

CBC

With that rather weasely statement, Canada’s Liberal Party signalled that it will support a further delay in a vote that would set realistic limits on Canada’s Greenhouse gas emissions. I was too angry yesterday to write a decent post about it, but hey, as my partner often says, “Anger is a positive emotion”. So, here goes.

What is it?
Bill C-311 – The Climate Change Accountability Act. aims to set binding emission targets for greenhouse gas emissions (excluding land use, land use change and forestry) for Canada. Here’s the a short sentence from the preamble:

this legislation is intended to ensure that Canada reduces greenhouse gas emissions to an extent similar to that required by all industrialized countries in order to prevent dangerous climate change, in accordance with the scientific evidence on the impacts of increased levels of global average surface temperature and the corresponding levels of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases;

Okay, ending a long sentence with a semi-colon, strange, but there it is, a very clear and concise statement of fact intending for Canada to set realistic targets for GHG reduction

What are the targets?
25% below 1990 levels by 2020, 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This is in line with IPCC recommendations (pdf) (See page 776, thanks Climate Progress) to stabilize temperature rise to < 2°C and GHG concentrations to 450 ppm CO2 eq.
Hansen, other prominent scientists and activists at 350.org have a more ambitious target in mind, 350 ppm. In comparison, proposed legislation by John Kerry and Barbara Boxer in the US senate would reduce GHG emissions by 20% from 1990 levels, and 80% by 2050. So, this bill proposes targets that are in line with what the world’s greatest polluter (per capita, historical) is proposing and current official consensus. There is a lot of small print in the exemptions, agriculture is a big one on the US side and land use and forestry appear to be a rather significant omission on the Canadian side.

Bottom Line: The targets are exactly what is recommended by the IPCC, are reasonable and in line with what our biggest trading partner has proposed. They need to be strengthened in the near future, but are good for now.

What it doesn’t do
It does not establish a mechanism to bring about these reductions, only specifies that the government come up with scientifically sound interim targets and an emissions reduction regulatory strategy, be it emissions trading, or carbon taxes, etc. That’s fine, given Canada’s balance of powers and separation of province-federal powers, it would be best for an executive approach to regulation writing.

History

Bill C-311 is not new. An identical version passed the House of Commons in 2008 and was stymied by an election call. Since Canada has a bicameral legislature, the bill needed to be passed by the Canadian Senate as well and the election blocked this vote. Right now, it needs a vote to get out of committee and on the floor of the House.

So what happened?
Well, the NDP wanted to get the bill out for vote. The Bloc Quebecois supported them. The Conservatives, in a delaying tactic, wanted to extend the committee study period for another month, citing a “need for more expert testimony”, the Liberals agreed with them and the bill is stalled for now. Why? It is all politics.

The Politics
This is where the story gets interesting, and epitomizes everything that is wrong with Canada’s current political system! Canada is currently (since 2006 and 2 elections on), run by a minority Conservative government. Minority governments work very differently in Canada compared with typical parliamentary democracies such as India, Israel, etc. There are no coalitions, no alliances, especially now since the Conservative party is well to the right of every other party in Parliament. Canada has four other prominent parties, the Liberals, a centrist, business friendly party that has previously governed, the NDP, a left leaning union friendly party, the Green party, an environmental issues and good governance driven party (no seats in parliament), and the Bloc Quebecois, a regional party based in Quebec which wins seats only in Quebec.

For the Conservative party to pass legislation, they need the support of one other party. Of course, to stymie legislation, they can use various parliamentary procedures. This is why C-311 is a private member’s bill, the government, which is vehemently opposed to any meaningful climate change mitigation regulation, would not bring something like this up for vote.

The NDP would like to be responsible for meaningful regulation on climate change as it is in line with their stated principles and also neatly aligns with their desire to be seen as a serious opposition party, and as a party capable of governing at the federal level.

The Liberals, well, they ran their last election on a radical restructuring of the Canadian tax system called the Green Shift. This envisaged a reduction in personal income taxes combined with the establishment of a carbon tax. The Liberals lost the election, and have been a lot more cautious about bringing up environmental issues. I happen to believe that the loss was primarily due to poor election strategy, a leader with the charisma of a freshly painted wall, and a flawed electoral system that allows for too much vote splitting, “wasted” votes and is unrepresentative. But, the media has run with the “it must be the environment” meme, and currently view any environmental legislation as a vote loser. This is in direct contradiction with polling data (pdf) that indicates the opposite to be true.

Anyway, the Liberals appeared to be getting back into the energy game. Their dear leader Michael Ignatieff (@m_ignatieff) recently tweeted about a revolutionary new clean energy plan, which seems sensible enough and forward thinking. Also, the Liberals supported this identical bill last year, and until recently. Here’s the NDP with a collection of helpful quotes from the Liberals on C-311:

“Parliamentarians don’t know where this country is going, as a sovereign nation state, on climate change. The really good news and the good faith behind Bill C-311 is helping to prompt a timely debate of where we’re going in advance of the important Copenhagen negotiation.” – David McGuinty, Environment Committee, June 18, 2009

“[Bill C-311] has been reintroduced under a new MP, a bill that was put forward in the last Parliament by the leader of the NDP. As such, it really has no material changes compared to its predecessor bill.” –David McGuinty, Hansard, March 4, 2009

“It’s very simple: we won’t be taken seriously until we are serious about the environment.” – Speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, October 13, 2009 – MIchael Ignatieff

Unfortunately, the price for success against the government in this half-assed minority government situation is likely an election! Opinion polls indicate that an election held today would likely result in very much the same situation as the last time around, maybe even an increased near majority for the Conservatives.

Nanos_Oct22_poll_291448artw

Image courtesy Globe and Mail

The Conservatives (in blue) have a solid lead over the Liberals (Red) and the NDP (in orange) apparently have a 20% ceiling. In a normal parliamentary system, this would mean an alliance between the NDP and Liberals to win the election pretty handily (note that the votes would not additive, but there is a conservative vote ceiling around 40%). But as long as electoral reform is off the table, and the extremely hidebound Canadian mainstream media does nothing other than bemoan the lack of electoral participation while roundly condemning any alternative that would increase such participation, we are stuck with ths situation in which a Conservative government takes this country slowly rightward where it really does not want to be taken, given that solid majorities are against said conservative policies.

In Conclusion
Canada dithers again on climate change. To the core supporters of the Conservative party, this is as should be. However, for the majority of the country, for the international reputation of the country, and for the political system as a whole, this is an unacceptable delay. The Liberals win no friends by being indecisive and showing no leadership. The NDP is stuck with no amount of “responsible” opposition work giving it any traction in the polls, the political intelligentsia of Canada would not accept an NDP ascendancy. The political system does not reward cooperation. So, we remain stuck, a country of many beautiful words and very little action.

Happy Friday!

* – I like weasels!

The Big O

obama
And so, it goes, the US shows the western world how to elect a minority candidate. Amazing, and truly transformational. There will be plenty of time for politics and what will happen next, but tonight, amazing. The US, after a few years, finally has a better president than Canada!

Dole Begone

Facing a close re-election race in North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) recently released an ad attacking her opponent Kay Hagan, falsely accusing her of being “Godless.” The end of the ad shows a photo of Hagan while a woman yells, “There is no God!” Watch it:

via Think Progress » Elizabeth Dole ad falsely suggests opponent Kay Hagan is ‘Godless.’

Dear fellow Tar Heels:

Please give this inept, ineffectual, incompetent excuse for a senator the retirement she so richly deserves.

Sincerely,

The Olive Ridley Crawl

Of course, she yelled “Godless” in my face, I’d say, “Yeah”!! But as we know, atheists are not very popular…

Corporate tax cuts, solutions to credit crisis top PM's agenda

The Conservative tally and their wins in all regions of the country will give them enough power in the Commons to press ahead with their economic agenda, which, among other things, includes $50 billion in corporate tax cuts and possibly big-buck solutions to easing the credit crunch. The party also promised in the campaign to enact a tougher crime package aimed at young offenders in particular.

Corporate tax cuts, solutions to credit crisis top PM’s agenda

Yes more tax cuts is always the answer, and lock up the kids!! Don’t pay any attention to crumbling infrastructure, or increasing homelessness or the inadequacy of funding for the healthcare system. Just cut taxes for the rich, worked out very well for our Southern neighbours!

Under the current system, the Conservatives will need to really screw up to lose power. They are the only right of centre party in the country, and under our unrepresentative and unresponsive system, one will need a big percentage point swing towards the Liberal, or a complete collapse of the NDP, or the other way around to change the reality. Alternatively, a split in the conservative vote as existed till a few years back.

My neighbouring riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands is clear indication of vote splitting, and other major problems with our election system. The conservative candidate won by about 2500 votes with the Green Party candidate drawing 6500 votes and the skinny dipping candidate who pulled out of the election, but did not withdraw his name won 3500 votes, how about that! Atleast voter turnout was more than 50%.

We need any system other than a first past the post I can win with 60% of the electorate voting against me system.

Vote Strategically for the Environment

via Vote For Environment / Voter Pour l’Environnement.

This site wants you to vote strategically to avoid splitting the anti-conservative vote on the assumption that all things being equal, the conservatives are much worse for the environment than any of the other parties. This is not really how you want an election to be decided, but a party that represents the minority of Canadians should not get a parliamentary majority simply because of a flawed voting system.

I would heartily endorse a preferential ballot system for us. How does this work?

Instant-runoff voting (IRV) is a voting system used for single-winner elections in which voters have one vote and rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first preference rankings, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes redistributed to the voters’ next preferences among the remaining candidates. This process is repeated until one candidate has a majority of votes among candidates not eliminated. The term “instant runoff” is used because IRV is said to simulate a series of run-off elections tallied in rounds, as in an exhaustive ballot election.

Under this system, if you like the Green Party the best because of their environmental policies, but know they cannot win, you can still vote for them. Just have the liberals/NDP as the second choice. It is overwhelmingly likely that if you like the Green Party policies, you like the policies of the conservatives more than the policies of the liberals or the NDP. With our current system, that’s exactly what your vote will say. Your vote for a Green Party candidate in this election is essentially a vote for the Conservatives.

In the absence of the preferential ballot, or instant runoff voting, using web 2.0 methods to vote strategically is the next best thing, and a great idea!

James K. Galbraith – A Bailout We Don't Need

Is this bailout still necessary?

The point of the bailout is to buy assets that are illiquid but not worthless. But regular banks hold assets like that all the time. They're called "loans."

With banks, runs occur only when depositors panic, because they fear the loan book is bad. Deposit insurance takes care of that. So why not eliminate the pointless $100,000 cap on federal deposit insurance and go take inventory? If a bank is solvent, money market funds would flow in, eliminating the need to insure those separately. If it isn't, the FDIC has the bridge bank facility to take care of that.

James K. Galbraith – A Bailout We Don’t Need – washingtonpost.com.

Makes a lot more sense to me than “Give me 700b today or I’ll blow up your economy” line fed by the same administration that gave you “give us the unfettered right to wage war or you’ll be eaten alive by mushroom clouds”.

Palin's E-Mail Practices and Accountability

McCain's vice-presidential pick apparently used the accounts to communicate with key aides about government business

ABC News: Experts Don’t Yahoo Over Palin’s E-Mail Practices.

If I were to use my gmail account for official company business, I would get into all kinds of hot water. Many companies would consider it a serious violation of policies and procedures. Yet Americans want these people running their country? No standards whatsoever.

What's the matter with Canada?

But beneath the calm exterior, Canada’s political system is in turmoil. Since 2004, a succession of unstable minority governments has led to a constant campaign frenzy, brutalizing Canada’s once-broad political consensus and producing a series of policies at odds with the country’s socially liberal, fiscally conservative identity. Canada is quietly becoming a political basket case, and this latest election may make things even worse.

What’s the matter with Canada? – By Christopher Flavelle – Slate Magazine

I don’t necessarily agree with the whole “basket case” assertion, it is a fundamentally strong country with a broad consensus on what the country should be.

The current set of political parties is rewarding a minority set of policies (the conservatives) by fragmenting the majority centre-left of centre consensus between 4 different political parties, none of which will talk to each other. This is not exactly new, the conservatives only merged their parties a few years back.

The liberals suffer from Dion’s non Englishness, he gets little traction from the English media (no idea about the French, I don’t know any). He’s not that charismatic, nor does he orate well in English, and so like the American election, it is all optics. The liberals also seem to have no understanding of what it takes to win a modern election. The conservatives get in the news all the time, their ads are all over TV, the liberals seem to be MIA.

Harper on the other hand is “strong”, strength of course being defined as sounding decisive and declaratory, even though he usually just sounds alarmist and hyperbolic all the time. Somehow, this is interpreted as leadership. I guess the only good quality of leadership is being loud.

Dion also made a gamble by selling something called the Green Shift, a carbon tax, to increase efficiency in energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the tax is designed to increase efficiency in a country notorious for its very poor efficiency (27th among the 29 OECD countries in energy use/capita), it is being demonized as a tax that will destroy the country (just like every other environmental regulation destroyed every other country). It is also bad timing, as energy prices have soared recently, and Canada’s economy sputters to a halt due to falling resource prices and the American housing market bust (destroyed the BC lumber industry). The last thing people want to hear is “tax”, even though the middle class will get more than sufficient rebates to cover any tax increases. The liberals seem to have overplayed this hand. Elections are never won on environmental issues, too easy to attack.

The conservative pitch thus far has only been to attack Dion while offering some incremental changes. But as Harper is flirting with a majority, this Toronto Star editorial asks the right questions.

While Harper is presenting himself as a kinder, gentler Conservative these days, in the past, as a Reform MP, head of the National Citizens’ Coalition and leader of the Canadian Alliance (successor party to Reform), he staked out quite radical positions. He has called Canada “a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term,” has denounced the “moral nihilism” of the Liberals and the left for opposing the Iraq war, has suggested building a “firewall” around Alberta, and has called for “market reforms” for health care, “further deregulation and privatization,” and “elimination of corporate subsidies.”

With a Conservative majority in sight, it is fair for Canadians to ask Harper whether he still holds these views and would implement them once in office. And if the answer is No, Harper should use the remaining four weeks of this election campaign to tell voters just what he would do with a majority.

The media lets Harper get away with sounding “presidential”, his proposals are very vague, and that is worrying. It is clear, however, that from an environmental standpoint, he will be a disaster. A combination of a slowing economy and reduced social support programs (conservatives hate safety nets for regular people) will be bad for the not so well off Canadians. We shall see what happens in a few weeks.