Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Lesson in Civics

Adam Radwanski writes in this morning's Globe and Mail that Michael Ignatieff has finally fallen into Stephen Harper's trap:

Mr. Harper has been setting this trap ever since St├ęphane Dion’s ill-fated attempt to take power 2 1/2 years ago. Now, Mr. Ignatieff has wandered straight into it. He has 11 days to find his way out.

Oh, that wily Stephen Harper! National party leaders, writes Radwanski, are not supposed to be civics professors:

If the two men were being graded by civics teachers, Mr. Ignatieff would indeed be winning. His explanation of how another Conservative minority would work – the need for Mr. Harper to gain the confidence of Parliament, the possibility that a failure to do so will lead the Governor-General to turn to Mr. Ignatieff instead – is grounded in parliamentary conventions. Mr. Harper’s insistence that only the party with the most seats can govern, and anyone else attempting to do so is usurping the will of the people, is an open defiance of those conventions.

But the leaders are not being judged by civics teachers; they’re being judged by an electorate looking for a reasonably concise explanation of what its options are. Mr. Harper is providing that, however misleadingly. Mr. Ignatieff is not.

His column is a measure of how cynical political punditry has become in this nation. But there are occasional glimmers in the gloom. In this morning's Vancouver Sun Craig McInnes asks, "When did compromise become a dirty word?" He notes that:

Because of the low turnout in the 2008 election, Harper has been governing with the express consent of just 22 per cent those who could have voted for his party. If he gets similar support this time and a similar number of seats, to continue governing he will have to seek the support of a Parliament in which a majority of MPs were not sent to Ottawa by their constituents to keep him in office.

Harper says, unlike Ignatieff, he won't compromise with the other parties to get their support. Given the compromises the Conservatives have made in the past five years to stay in power, that seems unlikely unless Harper is trying to force a confrontation. More to the point, what benefit is there to Canadians when a party with only minority support insists it has the right to impose its views on the majority without taking theirs into consideration?

Mr.Harper maintains that, even though a majority of votes cast would not Conservative, those voters would be losers.That notion is more than just wrong, McInnes writes:

Beyond the legal position, if we believe that a country with disparate cultures and traditions can thrive under a common government, the notion that compromise and seeking consensus is un-democratic or un-Canadian, is simply offensive.

Mr. Harper doesn't get it. Neither does Mr. Radwanski.


rww said...

Mr. Radwanski seems to believe in the premise that right wingers have relied on forever - the idea that the people want simple answers to complicated questions. Only the people can prove him wrong. It's time.

ck said...

The fact that Harper and Radwanski (who thinks it's 'healthy' that Harpercons are considered 'mainstream')don't get it really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, does it?

I was trapped in my mother in law's car earlier this week hearing how Harper must have a majority so he can govern without any opposition picking on him. She says she's tired of the 'fighting'. She says it's 'worse than American politics'. Cute! IN her mind, and no doubt in the mind of others, we need a dictatorship to have peace.

Owen Gray said...

I, too, have relatives who believe Harper is what this country needs, ck.

Those who don't like the "bickering" in the House of Commons should remember the price which Italians paid eighty years ago to ensure that the trains ran on time.

Owen Gray said...

It is, indeed, time, rw. The disaster capitalism agenda can only succeed if the levers of democracy have been disabled.

Mr. Harper has been steeped in the tenets of disaster capitalism. The antidote is democracy. That remains what this election is all about.

Anonymous said...

Harper/Radwanski get it very well.
If you want a two party system, make sure first past the post stays, voters will then waste their votes on candidates they've been persuaded to believe can't win.

If Iggy wants to continue to 'educate' the voters than he needs to discuss that. Gerrymandering is almost complete and we will have less democracy, not more. Is Iggy for that? So far he hasn't made that clear. Until he does I don't trust him. The FPTP forces strategic voting and that is what is so tiresome in Canadian politics.

Owen Gray said...

During the Ontario referendum on PR, I came out for the status quo, because I felt that -- as proposed -- there was no guarantee that your member of the legislature would be from your riding.

In other words, PR would put yet another nail in the coffin of Responsible Government. But -- because we seem to increasingly be in minority government situations -- we now are faced with the winners being elected by 22% of the population.

There has to be a better way of doing things.

Colette Amelia said...

sad state of affairs indeed when people believe such tripe. I don't care what kind of fairy tales that they believe...Harper is an economist and only he can get us out of the recession! He didn't see it comming and had already put us in a weakened state before it hit and his "fixes"were short sighted, did nothing to strengthen us for the future of high oil prices, declining biosphere, aging and declining population.

There were many not only in Germany but around the world that were fooled by Hitler as well...

This country will indeed won't be recognizable when Harper is done with it and heaven help us all!

Owen Gray said...

Ir is most important, Colette, that Canadians understand how important this election is. It is anything but unnecessary.

Annie said...

Thirty years ago I unsuccessfully lobbied a local MPP who, having lost his portfolio, was leaving politics. He admitted that he strongly agreed with my issue, but stated that he could do nothing: "the decision" had been made in Queen's Park. In a few years, he opined, the general public wouldn't remember the first thing about it.

He added that although the voting public is not stupid, they are intellectually lazy. They don't pay close attention to issues, they don't bother to research facts, and they have astonishing memory lapses from one election to another.

It does seem many political acts are based on those sorts of assumptions about the electorate. Mr.Radwanski may have been correct in arguing that people want simplistic answers to complicated problems instead of thoughtful explanations. It's quite possible Mr. Ignatieff made a mistake in outlining how a parliamentary democracy works.

We'll have to await the election results to know.

But it was, nonetheless, a fine thing to hear Mr. Ignatieff speak as if he has respect for me as one parson in his audience, an attribute I have yet to divine in Mr. Harper.

Owen Gray said...

Respect has to be earned, Annie. But, sometimes, it must be demanded. The difference between Harper and Ignatieff is that Ignatieff respects this country's democratic conventions.

Mr. Harper has no respect for those conventions. He is an Ayn Rand acolyte who will blow up the building if he doesn't get his way.

The only way to avoid that tragedy is for Canadians to demand the respect to which they are entitled.

Kirbycairo said...

I respect you opinions Owen but I think you are wrong about PR. The idea that you have representatives who come from your area is absolutely no guarantee of responsible government, and history has demonstrated that time and time again. Even the most basic forms of PR are, I think, a better guarantee or so-called responsible government.

But of course some forms of PR are better than others and I think for doubters such as yourself a mixed model is probably better. But the present system is so dramatically undemocratic that any form of PR is better and the one proposed in Ontario was in fact a mixed model if I recall so I think your support of the status quo is really a missed opportunity.

By the way, I see you are a retired English teacher. My book on Coleridge and Charles Lamb comes out next month. It is entitled Humble Men in Company. If you have an interest in those writers you might want to see it.

Owen Gray said...

I take your point, Kirby. My original objection was that I didn't want the parties to control members. I wanted those members to be responsible to their constituents.

You can argue -- accurately -- that members are controlled by their parties now.

That said, most parliamentary democracies have some kind of proportional representation. It's time for Britain and Canada to move in the same direction.

Our eldest son has been arguing your case for sometime. I've come to the conclusion that you're both right.

I have loved Coleridge's poetry since I first read The Ancient Mariner as a kid. I'm familiar with some of Lamb's stuff -- particularly on Shakespeare. Sounds like your book could be a very interesting read.

Kirbycairo said...

Hello Owen

Let me just clarify what I was saying about PR. The problem lies with what I think is a misunderstanding about representation. It seems to me that when we look at the present system MPs are often elected with less than 30% of their actual constituents (when we take into consideration low voter turn out in particular). Now, given party discipline and partisanship, that MP is really only representing a very small portion of his or her constituency. (Some MPs, are of course, better than others)

But the truth is that in our system many people are simply unrepresented. My MP (one of the worst Conservatives), Pierre Poillievre, knows my feelings about him and his government and feels, I am sure, no need to be responsible or accountable to me.

Now, even in the most basic PR system, a party represents all of those who voted for it anywhere in the country. This ensures that no one who voted (except a handful who voted for a very small party and failed to reach the threshold) remains unrepresented. And more complex models of PR include some representative constituent seats.

Thus, it appears to me that arguments against PR hold little water. I have never voted for a winning MP and have never felt represented. At least under PR I could feel partly represented.

By the way my book is available for preorder here

Owen Gray said...

If Pierre Polivere is your representative, you have my deep sympathy, Kirby.

I'm no constitutional expert, but if a mechanism can be designed to hold MP's responsible to their constituents between elections, individual voters may have some say in what their representatives do -- perhaps a recall system, such as that which is presently used in Wisconsin.

I'll take a look at your publisher's website.

Kirbycairo said...

I grew up in the states and I think recall mechanisms end up only favouring the right-wing in the present political atmosphere.

I think that in a system that was not so infected by money and capitalism then personal accountability to particular constituents would be a more important issue. But in a system that is so infected by the power of money and corporate media, then I think the bigger issue is the opening up of political discourse. In the days of Marx people thought that all you would need was a vote and the people would unseat the rich and powerful. But today people are convinced that there is only a very narrow room for manoeuvre and so they actively vote against their own interests. This is one of the primary problems that PR would seek to address.

Individual accountability of particular representatives, and recalls, etc. would only be meaningful once you had a very informed and active citizenship. And you can only get that by a) taking the money out of the electoral system and b) by radically opening up the field of political discourse. PR can help point 'b' directly and hopefully in the long help point 'a.'

Just some thoughts.

Owen Gray said...

Thomas Jefferson believed fervently in an informed citizenry, Kirby. Without truly educated voters he knew that democracy couldn't survive.

As an old teacher -- who used to teach university bound freshmen how to argue and how to spot logical fallacies -- I'm beginning to wonder how well I did my job.

Anonymous said...

rww: I think Mencken was the one who said that for every complex problem, there is a simple solution... and it's wrong.


Collette: Many were fooled by Hitler. But it's important to remember that Hitler never captured more than 40% of the popular vote. (Well. His party did much better after it was the only one on the ballot).

But I promised myself I'd try to avoid Nazi analogies.

My point is only that the in nominally democratic systems, the will of the people is easily distorted, and often doesn't determine the outcome.


kirbycairo: Mr. Gray knows that I agree with you about PR. I'm starting to think, however, that we are missing the point when say we need to reduce the power of money in the electoral process.

I'm starting to think that the problem isn't with the power of money per se. The problem is that the power of money has been and continues to become so unequally distributed.

A PR system would probably be more successful at mitigating those wealth-related distortions.


Owen Gray said...

I agree that the power of money is unevenly distributed.

I just saw a seat projection based upon the numbers of a Wilfred Laurier professor.

If he's right, it would appear that the uneven distribution of wealth doesn't bother a majority of Canadians.