Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Referendum

In ten days there will be an election in Ontario. But this time around there will be more than just an election. On the same day, Ontarians will be voting in a referendum which could radically change the way elections are conducted in this province. And, because Ontario is Canada's most populous province, that decision could have ramifications for the whole country. Experiments -- like medicare, which began in Saskatchewan -- often begin in the provinces and are later adopted and adapted in Ottawa.

The referendum gives the voters of this province two ways of choosing representatives to the provincial legislature. The time honoured way -- what is generally referred to as First Past the Post -- could remain as the the option voters feel most comfortable with. Essentially, it operates on the principle that the candidate with the most votes -- regardless of how many candidates compete -- wins the right to represent the voters of his or her district, or riding.

But this time, voters are being presented with a second option, which was formulated -- not by political professionals -- but by a Citizens Council, whose purpose was to discuss electoral reform. What the Council is proposing is called Mixed Member Proportional, which (as the name suggests) is one type of proportional representation.

The decision confronting voters is not easy, because there are strong arguments for each option. But before considering each option, a brief review of Ontario's electoral history is in order. There are three major political parties in Ontario: the Progressive Conservative Party, whose positions are, generally speaking, to the right of centre; the Liberal Party, whose policies are generally to the left of centre; and the New Democratic Party, whose policies are further to the left of the Liberals. It was a New Democratic government, for instance, which brought in a single payer health care system in Saskatchewan.

In the last seventeen years, Ontarians have elected governments from each of the three parties. The problem is that all three governments were elected by less than fifty percent of the popular vote -- around forty-five percent of all votes cast. When we elected a New Democratic government seventeen years ago, they won with approximately 37% of the popular vote . But this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, this pattern goes back farther than just the past seventeen years. Even though the Progressive Conservatives held sway in this province for forty-two years before voters began a wholesale shuffle of governments, the fact is that the last time an Ontario premier received over fifty percent of the popular vote was over seventy years ago.

Because, under the present system, majority governments can be elected with less than a plurality of the popular vote, and because some see certain political victories -- like former premier Mike Harris' triumphs in the 1990's -- as brutal exercises in unbridled and unwise power and policy, Mixed Proportional Representation has a large constituency.

Essentially, under MMP the number of seats in the legislature would rise from the present 107 to 129. In an election, voters would cast two votes -- one for a candidate in each of 90 ridings and one for the party of their choice. The remaining 39 seats would be assigned by each party, based on the total popular vote each received on the second ballot. To qualify for an assigned seat, each party would have to receive a minimum of 3% of the popular vote, or about 150,000 votes.

Ironically, one of MMP's staunchest defenders is the conservative columnist, Andrew Coyne. "Supporters of the status quo," Coyne writes, "cite its tendency to produce stable majority governments. But these aren't majority governments. They're legalized coup d'etats." Moreover, under the present system, says Coyne, new parties can't get any traction. He points to the Green Party, which in the last federal election received 660,000 votes but not a single seat. As things stand now, writes Coyne, "The winner is not the candidate who receives a majority of the votes cast, but simply the one who comes in first place. With four candidates, it can be done with as little as 25% plus one of the vote. The other seventy-five percent of the voters are rewarded for doing their civic duty with . . . bupkis." This is not an argument to be dismissed lightly.

But, piling irony on irony, the liberal columnist, Ian Urquhart -- and his paper The Toronto Star -- have come out in favour of the present system. Under the new system, Urquhart writes, "the number of parties in the Legislature would multiply . . . and the political consequences could be quite unpredictable." As an example he points to New Zealand, which in 1993 adopted MMP, the same system now being proposed in Ontario. "Now New Zealand has eight different parties in its Parliament, including a Maori party, one that opposes more Asian immigration, and another that wants a hard cap on government spending." Trying to knit together a governing coalition composed of such divergent views could be difficult. Then Urquhart ends his argument with a touch of hysteria: "So we might end up with another Mike Harris who becomes premier with the support of a pro life party and/or a northern party that is against gun control and for logging in provincial parks."

It is most unfortunate that Urquhart has stooped to this bit demagoguery. For his side, despite its obvious flaws, has the better argument. The real problem with the new system is that the political parties would appoint the thirty-nine members whose seats would be assigned proportionally. A bedrock principle of responsible government is that representatives are directly responsible to the people who elect them. The new system makes these representatives responsible to their parties, not to the electors in each riding.

The other flaw in the MMP proposal is that it assumes that parties are static organizations whose policies and, indeed, whose principles do not change. People forget that the Conservative Party which Mike Harris headed was not Bill Davis's Conservative Party. When Davis retired, a core of former students from the youth wing of the party, steeped in the economics of Milton Friedman and the neo-conservatism of Irving Kristol -- and inspired by the success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan -- assumed leadership positions in the party hierarchy. When Harris retired, the party (under John Tory) returned to positions much more akin to those which Davis, whom Mr. Tory had worked for, favoured.

And political parties come and go. Remember the United Farmers of Ontario? Or the Progressive Party? Or Social Credit? Or Les Creditistes? More importantly, the party name does not guarantee a consistent set of principles. The Liberal Party of British Columbia does not operate on the same principles which defined the federal Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau. The names stay the same; but the platforms depend on who is in charge at a particular juncture in history. Those who are in the wilderness today may be at the centre of power tomorrow. Stephen Harper springs readily to mind.

Therefore, despite its flaws, the present system is preferable to a well intentioned, but less desirable, alternative. And while I have decided to reject MMP, I do agree that changes are needed. To begin with, as the supporters of MMP insist, we need more seats in the legislature, so that populations within ridings are more equitable. Perhaps, now that we have set standard election dates, we should have a provincial census a year before each election. It is worth remembering, too, that it was the Harris government which reduced the number of seats in the legislature from 130 seats -- one more than MMP proposes -- to 103 seats. They claimed that the province could not afford 130 politicians, so they configured Ontario's provincial ridings to the corresponding federal ridings.

The best way to safeguard a democracy is to ensure that there is a direct link between the people and their representatives. In the end, we get the politicians we deserve; and we have to take responsibility for the choices we make.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Premature Burial

There should be no attempt to guild the lily. Stephane Dion and his party took a drubbing last week in three Quebec by-elections. The results have prompted some commentators to predict that the Liberal Party of Canada has outlived its relevance. Writing in the Globe and Mail last week, Jeffrey Simpson declared, "For more than a century, and up until recently, the Liberal Party formed the sturdiest political bridge between French speaking Quebec and the rest of Canada. . . Now that bridge has collapsed."

Having lost all three elections, there are some inside the party who would like Mr. Dion's head served up on a platter. The rumours of a coup did not take long to materialize. But Lawrence Martin, also writing in the Globe, warned Liberals -- particularly supporters of Michael Ignatieff -- to think again. Quoting Shakespeare's Iago -- not an altogether appropriate allusion -- Martin counselled patience: "How poor are they that have not patience. What wound did not heal but by degrees?"

For, any fair analysis of the three elections should not just concentrate on Dion's weaknesses (of which there were several) but on the strengths which the other two parties brought to the contests:

To begin with, even though Outremont has been a Liberal bastion for seventy-five of the last eighty years, the fact is that the NDP had a star candidate in Thomas Mulcair. A former minister of the environment in the Liberal government of Jean Charest, Mulcair is a household name across the province. His positions are considerably to the left of Charest -- who, one should remember, ran as a Progressive Conservative when he was in Ottawa; and, as his recent tax cuts confirm, is more of a centre right politician than Mulcair. Perhaps Mulcair's resignation from Charest's Liberals was inevitable. Mulcair also owns a political pedigree. He is, after all, the great grandson of a former Quebec premier, Honore Mercier. Add to that the fact that Jack Layton is no stranger to Quebec politics -- he was born in Montreal, graduated from McGill, and his father was, like Charest, a Quebec member of Brian Mulroney's cabinet -- and it becomes clear that, at least to some degree, Quebecers could look at the former as a native son and at the later as -- at least -- a returning prodigal son. Mulcair was the perfect candidate to challenge the Liberals in Outremont.

In the other two ridings -- both rural -- the Liberals were doing battle in old Union Nationale territory. Until the advent of the Bloc Quebecois, these ridings were strongly nationalistic but also strongly conservative. So it should have surprised no one that, when these electors were presented with a federalist and a conservative option -- something that had not been available to them since Bouchard persuaded most of the Conservative Quebec caucus to follow him out of the party -- they returned to their roots.

As Chantal Hebert wrote in The Toronto Star, the story behind these three elections is about ex-Bloc voters fleeing to the NDP and the Conservatives. That is why Gilles Duceppe has drawn a line in the sand. He says he will not support October's speech from the throne unless the Bloc has concrete input into government policy. If Stephen Harper does not reciprocate, there will be an election. Duceppe is betting that Harper's capitulation to his demands -- or an election -- is the best way to stop the hemorrhaging of voters from his party.

It all adds up to something that happens every generation or so in Canadian politics. The old log jam between Federalist Ottawa and sovereignist Quebec has -- for the time being -- been broken.The entire political landscape in Quebec has changed in the last decade. The question is, have the Liberals taken notice?

First indications are that they have not. Mr. Dion was elected because of his integrity. He was untouched by the sponsorship scandal and he had the reputation of a boy scout. In fact, Paul Martin had pushed him out of his cabinet; and, even though Dion was the author of the Clarity Act, and he was the party's chief salesman for the legislation, he had no ties to Alphonso Galliano and other Liberal bagmen who so generously distributed federal money to party supporters. Dion was a policy master who carried no scent of corruption. Unfortunately, he is an awkward politician whose shrillness alienates members of his own party, not to mention the ordinary citizens of his province.

There has always been a tension in Quebec between proponents of social democratic policies and those who favour small "c" conservative government. Until recently, the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois have been able to unite these two polar opposites under the banner of Quebec Nationalism. As that nationalism wanes, the NDP has decided to play to the social democrats; and the Conservatives have played to those who favour limited government -- while at the same time, appealing to Quebec nationalists by proclaiming that Quebec is "a nation within a nation." Mr. Harper and his party will come to rue that policy. Anyone familiar with the history of Quebec knows that it will come back to bite them.

For the time being, however, the Liberals under Dion are stuck in the middle, not appealing to either segment of the population. But the Liberals still have one historical asset on their side. They are the only federalist party to elect French Canadians as leaders. From Laurier to St. Laurent, through Trudeau, Chretien and Dion himself, they have consistently alternated English and Quebecois leaders. (Quebcers always saw Paul Martin, from Windsor, as a Franco- Ontarian. The Conservatives, under Brian Mulroney, came close to choosing one of nous autres.)

French Canadians have always been acutely aware that they are an island in an anglophone sea. And in any federal election they have always asked, who will best look after our interests? They might not have always agreed with everything their leaders did. They were unhappy with Laurier when he reached a compromise between Protestants and Catholics over public education in Manitoba. And, even though Trudeau had imposed the War Measures Act, they knew every time they saw both languages on the back of a cereal box that he had brought them into the centre of the Canadian political system.

The challenge facing Dion and the Liberals is to prove to Quebecers that "Canada's natural governing party" is the best party to look after their interests. The sponsorship scandal struck at the very foundation of that conviction. Instead of brokering their place in the federation, Quebecers still feel that the Liberals played them for fools. The scandal did immense damage to the Liberal brand. And, while they were trying to recover, the political landscape shifted under their feet. Any recovery will require the party to acknowledge those truths. And it will also require that a man who is not a natural politician heed the advice of those in the party he does not trust -- the back room strategists. If Dion and his party do these things, their predicted demise -- as Mark Twain once quipped -- will have been "greatly exaggerated."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Delusional Presidency

When the dust has cleared and historians start to get their heads around the Second Bush Administration, they might -- in their search for primary sources -- turn to Jack Goldsmith's book, The Terror Presidency. Goldsmith is a conservative legal scholar who teaches at Harvard. But, in October 2003, he was appointed to head the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Council. Shortly after assuming his post, he determined that several of the administration's previously written legal opinions rested on "severely damaged legal foundations," because they were "sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the president."

When Goldsmith sought to withdraw some of these opinions, he encountered stiff resistance, particularly from David Addington, who now serves as Dick Cheney's chief of staff -- and who has advanced the novel argument that Cheney is not a member of the executive branch of government. As Goldsmith tells the story, when he sought to withdraw the so called "torture memos," which interpreted the Geneva Conventions as allowing certain interrogation techniques like water boarding, Addington was furious. The fact that the United States had prosecuted water boarding as a war crime for one hundred years was irrelevant. "The president has already decided," Addington told Goldsmith, "that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections. You cannot question his decision."

And therein lies the essential delusion of the Bush presidency -- in a time of war, when the nation's security is at stake, a president has full authority to do as he chooses. Congressional and legal oversight -- which would allow for second guessing -- be damned.

That essential delusion has, in the case of Iraq, led to a series of other delusions. The first was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The second was that the United States could bestow democracy on Iraq. The third was that the so called "surge" would buy Iraqis "breathing space" to achieve national reconciliation. The latest delusion, as was apparent last week, is that if the surge does not promote "top down" reconciliation, it will promote "bottom up" reconciliation -- with Anbar province serving as exhibit A for the defense. But, as many reporters who have been on the ground in Iraq will tell you, that reconciliation began before the surge was conceived.

Goldstein resigned his position nine months after he assumed it, presumably because the powers that be were not heeding his advice. And his advice was that there was a template for the way presidents should exercise power in wartime. That template was established by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, two presidents with some experience of conducting a war. Instead of relying on what Goldsmith calls "the hard power of prerogative," the second president Bush would have been wiser to practice "the soft factors of legitimization -- consultation, deliberation, the appearance of deference and credible expressions of public concern for constitutional and international values -- in dealing with Congress, the courts and allies."

The irony, of course, is that the first President Bush understood and practiced this template. It is tragic that, while the father provided his son with a "teachable moment," the lesson was lost. Obviously, the second president Bush has -- as the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne once phrased it -- "learned much amiss."

On Thursday, Mr. Bush announced that the thirty-one thousand soldiers in the surge would be home by the time he left office. He did not note that the joint chiefs have told him that the armed forces does not have the manpower to sustain the surge. Instead, he claimed that the reduction of troops represented a "return on success" -- meaning that there will be the same number of troops in Iraq when he leaves office as when the surge began. Clearly, Mr. Bush holds fast to his delusions.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Bitter Gardener

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has had a lot of time to brood since he left office in 1993, as the upcoming publication of his memoirs makes clear. It is not unusual for politicians to use their memoirs as an opportunity to settle old scores. But, in an interview with CTV last week, which preceded the release of his eleven hundred page magnum opus, Mulroney 's vitriolic recollections of his two arch political enemies made headlines.

Mulroney's animus for his one time law school chum, Lucien Bouchard, should surprise no one. The story -- that if Bouchard showed up at his funeral, Mulroney had instructed his wife Mila to ensure that the traitor was escorted to the door before the obsequies commenced -- has been circulating in the media for years.

What did stun many Canadians, however, was his bitter attack on Pierre Trudeau. He blamed Mr. Trudeau for scuttling the Meech Lake Accord, which Mulroney had carefully crafted with Canada's provincial premiers. But he went further than that. Referring to Trudeau's anti-war activism in the early forties -- when Trudeau was barely out of his teens -- Mulroney fumed, "This was a man who questioned the allies when the Jews were being sacrificed; and when the great extermination program was on, he was marching around Outremont on the other side of the issue."

One can understand Mulroney's disgust with Trudeau. Rex Murphy -- who argued last year that Trudeau deserved the accolade The Greatest Canadian -- wrote this week in The Globe and Mail that Trudeau's condemnation of the Meech Lake Accord, "blistered where it didn't demean, and only ceased to scorn when it turned to deliberate and scathing ridicule." Murphy conceded that "Mr. Trudeau in full snarl was a terrifying spectacle."

But Mulroney's condemnation of Trudeau in the forties does not consider Trudeau's actions in the context of either time or place. Mulroney neglects to mention the 1944 election in which conscription dominated the debate -- and in which Mackenzie King's campaign slogan was "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." Quebecers have historically been loathe to enter what they see as foreign wars. The same dynamic is currently at work as the Royal 22nd Regiment fulfills its mission in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Trudeau was not the only prominent French Canadian who opposed Canada's participation in the war. Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, as a young man, was on the same side of the issue -- a decision which both admitted later was misinformed.

But Mulroney misses the larger point of Trudeau's wartime activities: Trudeau saw Quebec nationalism from the inside; and, in the larger world, he saw the consequences that kind of nationalism had when it was allowed to play itself out on the world stage. Trudeau learned from the experience; and it left him with a passionate commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism. Most important of all, however, it is hard to accuse the man who was prime minister during the October Crisis of 1970 of a lack of "moral fibre."

Mulroney's take on Trudeau also puts in relief his failure to see Lucien Bouchard for who he was. After all, Bouchard began his political journey as an ardent supporter of Trudeau. But, as Lawrence Martin traces that journey in his book, The Antagonist, Bouchard soon deserted Trudeau for Rene Leveque's vision of an independent Quebec. By the early 1980's, Bouchard returned to the Federalist fold to become Mulroney's ambassador to France. But Bouchard joined the separatist camp yet again when he founded the Bloc Quebecois in 1991 -- after breaking with Mulroney over Meech Lake. He subsequently left the BQ to become the premier of Quebec under the Parti Quebecois banner. He has since resigned that position to sit as a private citizen in magnificent isolation. If Mulroney had really understood Quebec Nationalism, he would never have made his Faustian bargain with Bouchard.

For in the end, Trudeau did not kill Meech Lake. Mulroney did that himself by setting in motion what Peter C. Newman called a "bloodless revolution." In his book, The Canadian Revolution, Newman argued that in the decade between 1985 and 1995, Canadian attitudes underwent a profound shift: Canadians traded their traditional deference to authority to open defiance of it.

"Deference to authority," wrote Newman, "the root attitude that separated Canadians from the earth's less timid mortals, had at long last come into open disrepute. As the Mulroney years rolled on, and the attitude toward their namesake shifted from simple derision to blind hatred, Canadians set out to challenge that most painful of paradoxes: that in a functioning democracy like Canada, people get the politicians they deserve. By the early 1990's this sentiment became too painful to endure."

Thus, when Mulroney told Canadians that Meech was a good deal, they simply didn't believe him. And, when the 1993 election rolled around, even though Mulroney had retired and the hapless Kim Campbell had taken his place, the party which had rolled up the largest majority in Canadian history was reduced to two seats in the House of Commons -- and its popular support stood at 7%.

Mulroney's tirade against Pierre Trudeau is simply an attempt to shift blame. No amount of name calling will obscure the fact that Mulroney's poor judgment is at the root of his attacks on both Trudeau and Bouchard. The good news is that Canada survived Mulroney, and so did Trudeau. And, even though Trudeau could be withering in his criticism, as Marc Lalonde reminded reporters last week, Trudeau's reaction to Mulroney's assault on his reputation would probably be something like his reaction to the discovery that, on one of his infamous White House tapes, Richard Nixon had referred to Trudeau as "a son of a bitch." When asked to comment, Trudeau quipped, "I've been called worse things -- by worse men."

The harvest from Mr. Mulroney's garden tastes distinctly sour.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Woe to the Witless

Michael Ignatieff sent the image makers of his party into fits of apoplexy last week, during the annual gathering of the Liberal caucus, which is held every year before the fall session of Parliament. It seems that the entire caucus -- meeting in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland -- boarded a ship, named the Atlantic Puffin, to do a little whale watching. Unfortunately, the whales refused to put in an appearance. When a reporter expressed his disappointment at not seeing any whales, Ignatieff tried to see the bright side of things. He took a couple of minutes to wax rhapsodic -- tongue in cheek -- about the bird which gave the boat its name.

"The puffin is a noble bird," said Ignatieff, "because it has good family values. They stay together for thirty years. I'm not kidding. They lay one egg and they put their excrement in one place. They hide their excrement. . . . They flap their wings very hard and they work like hell. This seems to me a symbol of what a party should be."

The strategists in the party were horrified. They immediately had visions of Conservative attack ads, featuring clips of Ignatieff commenting on the virtues of hiding one's excrement. Given past ads which the Harper government has run against Stephan Dion, they were not conjuring up imaginary chimeras. But sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to laugh at him.

And, as Susan Delacourt wrote in Saturday's edition of The Toronto Star, Mr. Dion seems incapable of using humour in his defense or in a counterattack.. He "isn't able to arouse crowds to anything but polite laughter," she wrote, " and usually that's a line that has been written for him." As for the Prime Minister, Delacourt noted that, before he was elected to the cat bird seat, he was known to do "good spirited impersonations of Liberal cabinet ministers and some gentle pokes at his own party's foibles." But,"Harper's idea of a joke now is to say something mean or dismissive about his opponents. He also thinks it's funny to make a joke about the media almost every time he appears at a press conference." She concluded that "humour seems to have gone out of fashion in Harper's Ottawa."

The editors of The Globe and Mail have suggested that the Prime Minister learn to "lighten up." But The Globe's own Jeffrey Simpson has noted that among the many adjectives -- like "sober, serious, self assured, intelligent, controlling, decisive, cold, formal and, sometimes, imperious" -- which accurately describe the prime minister -- "humourous" is not one of them. "No politician who has a clothing and makeup adviser, as Mr. Harper does," writes Simpson, "will ever 'lighten up.'" So it would appear that, while both leaders of Canada's governing parties are "intelligent" (in an academic sense) neither has much of a sense of humour. That's a pity.

Over the weekend, my wife, our youngest son and I visited Sir John A. MacDonald's former residence in Kingston, Ontario. MacDonald was Canada's first prime minister and, as my son commented -- laughing as he did so, "Canada's most famous drunk." But he was also renowned for his sense of humour. My favourite MacDonald story is about the day MacDonald encountered one of his political rivals on a narrow sidewalk which both were trying to navigate. "I will not yield to a liar and a drunk!" huffed his opponent. MacDonald -- stepping off the sidewalk -- replied, "But I will!"

MacDonald's time was much like our own. Slander was standard political practice; and liquor fuelled most political discussions. But with his supporters and his rivals he managed to build a country which -- by land mass at least -- is the second largest in the world. He knew how to use humour to dissolve tension and outrage. Today we have a surplus of both. What we need is more humour.