Wednesday, December 5, 2012


This afternoon in Ottawa, there was a minor altercation in the House of Commons. Following a contentious debate, including some attempts at minor political maneuvering on behalf of the NDP, Conservative house leader Peter Van Loan reportedly gave NDP leader Thomas Mulclair the finger, and then berated the NDP with a series of expletives. The NDP called his actions "unparliamentary," while the Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner suggested that such an exchange had no place in the House of Commons.

Of course, that kind of depends on who you ask. The idealist view may be that the House of Commons is a place of debate among gentlemen, where mutual respect and the spirit of cooperation transcends party politics. Traditionally, however, this has not been the case at all.

The reality is that the House of Commons has long been a place where grown men gather to yell, threaten, mock, and generally behave like children. Anyone who has ever watched a remotely contentious debate has probably been amazed at the way the MPs all yell over one another, and refuse to respect the system in place to determine who has a right to speak. They chant, intentionally stray off topic, ignore questions, and generally act no better than a group of fifth graders in an assembly if all the teachers left the room. The House of Commons is truly an appropriate name.

This is nothing new, either. In 1971, Pierre Trudeau was accused of saying some inappropriate things to opposing MPs (he claimed what he said was "fuddle duddle" but nobody believed him). The incident was recently brought back up in the media after his son, Justin Trudeau, also used some inappropriate language in parliament.

Many of these incidents are now public record. Transcripts from the debates in the Canadian House of commons are archived at, though the majority of the debates are dry as bone. Mixed in with the mind-numbingly dull speeches, however, are nearly one hundred and fifty years of insults.

Even Sir John A. Macdonald, the great man without whom this country might well not exist, was as bad as anyone. While verbal insults flew wildly around parliament in Macdonald's days, there are also stories that he occasionally needed to be restrained to keep from physically assaulting opposition MPs.

The only difference, I might argue, is that at one time these disruptions and poor behaviours were truly crimes of passion by men who cared about serving the country. Today, they seem more contrived to make people believe they care. Also, the insults in Macdonald's days were both more clever and more original. Today's scandals are boring by comparison.

Update: The Star has published a list of some of the more recent incidents. However, the best ones, in my opinion, are those from the earliest days of parliament.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For: Mergers and Pure Proportional Representation

Unlike the Ford news I wrote about the other day, most Canadian's probably aren't aware of the results of the by-election in Calgary Centre this past week. In summary, the Conservative candidate was able to win with a mere 37% of the vote, as the traditionally viewed as left-of-centre parties (Liberal, Green, and NDP) split the remainder of the vote.

In yesterday's Calgary Herald, Andrew Coyne argues that problem for these parties isn't vote splitting, but rather that the political system itself is flawed. While I can agree with some of what Mr. Coyne says, he unfortunately uses some logical fallacies to reach a flawed conclusion. The largest hole in his argument is his stance on mergers.
If vote-splitting is a delusion, the solution most commonly proposed to it, merger or coalition, can hardly be less so. You cannot simply add together the votes cast for two parties, and expect the same number to be cast for a third party made up of the first two, merely because it is not a fourth party. A certain number of voters, offered the choice of the merged party and the party they were presumed to have voted against, will revise their preferences.
Thus the primary beneficiary of a merger or coalition of the parties of the “left” would be the Conservatives. A great many voters, particularly in the Liberal party but also among the Greens and NDP, do not regard themselves as being on the left. Whatever it is that causes them to vote for these parties, it does not fit into such crude ideological pigeonholes. If forced to choose between the merged party and the Conservatives, some might very well vote Conservative. 
Of course, Mr. Coyne is making a huge leap in logic by proclaiming the Conservatives to be the winner of a potential merger. In the Calgary Centre example, the Liberals, Greens, and NDP combined to accumulate 62.1% of the vote. Thus, in order for the Conservatives to benefit from a merger, more than 12% of voters would need to change their vote to Conservative, rather than vote for a combined entity of the opposition parties. That also assumes that the new amalgamated party would be unable to attract any attention from the Conservatives' existing stable of voters. While it is certainly not impossible that more than 12% of voters could shift right, rather than align themselves with an amalgamated opposition, it is also far from a given that such a shift would happen. It's impossible to say, partly because we don't really know what would happen, but also because we don't really know what the new amalgamated party would look like, and where they would fall on the political spectrum.

Not only that, but Mr. Coyne is willfully ignorant of the recent and obvious precedent for the success of party mergers. The current governing Conservatives represent an amalgamation of the former Progressive Conservative party and the Canadian Alliance. Since the formation of the Canadian Alliance (neé Reform Party of Canada), and the destruction of the Progressive Conservatives by Brian Mulroney in the late 1980s, the political right in Canada had been hopelessly fragmented, to the point where it embarrassingly lost the official opposition status to the regional sovereignist Bloc Quebecois.

The prospects of a right wing government in Canada were bleak. The Liberals may as well have been running unopposed. However, the "Unite the Right" campaign, which was ultimately successful in 2003, bore fruit almost immediately. By 2006 the newly united Conservative party was in power, and they haven't relinquished it since.

So how can the left in Canada not look to that example? Well, it's not quite that simple, and I think this is where Mr. Coyne draws his somewhat misguided point from. The Canadian Alliance was a splinter of the Progressive Conservatives. While they were separate for over 15 years, and their ideologies differed somewhat, which has led to some friction in the post amalgamation era, the two parties shared the same roots. At their heart, they agreed on a lot of issues, because the original members of the Reform Party of Canada had been Progressive Conservatives for a reason. There was a lot of common ground.

The other side isn't quite so cut and dry. The Liberals and NDP both have long histories with very different origins. They also, historically, have not been nearly as close in ideologies as the two parties which now comprise the Conservatives. While they have moved a little more to the left recently, in perception if not reality, the Liberals have traditionally been a centrist party. The appeal of the Big Red Tent was that everyone is welcome, even those with some right leanings. Why else were they able to govern through most of the Cold War? Even the Diefenbaker years were a stroke of pure luck on the part of the Progressive Conservatives; they threw him against the wall and were as surprised as anyone when he stuck. Despite the conservatism, combined with the fears of Soviet spies and nuclear strikes that dominated the 1950s, Canada did not feel the need to turn to the Conservative Party.

The NDP, meanwhile, have arguably moved closer to centre from the left. Still, though they're less intrinsically associated with socialism these days, the NDP are not a centrist party. A merger with the NDP would mean the Liberals are openly embracing the left wing. Whether they intend to be there or not, they will become the leftist party in the minds of the Canadian people. Can they win from there? Absolutely, this country can easily support a two-party system in which power ebbs and flows from one to another, just like the United States. However, they will never experience the same levels of political dominance they have experienced since 1896 (remember, prior to poor Stéphane Dion, only one man in Canadian history had been leader of the Liberals and not been Prime Minister) without the ability to plant themselves firmly in the centre. Is that a worthwhile trade-off?

And to anyone out there hoping for an NDP-Liberal merger in order to combat the current right-wing dominance, be careful what you wish for. How many Canadians look to the American two-party system and feel like that is something we want here? While no party but the Liberals or Conservatives (or some combination of the two) has ever governed this country, the other parties still play a role. They have votes in parliament, which is particularly important in the case of minority governments. I suspect that at some point I will end up writing about this at length, but one can look to the King-Byng affair of 1926, or the 2008 constitutional crisis in Canada, to see how critical the other parties can be.

Returning to Mr. Coyne's piece, he ends by suggesting that Canadians would benefit from a Pure Proportionate Representation system, where one votes for a party and the seats are divided by vote percentage. Unfortunately, there are a few easily foreseeable problems with a PPR system. Firstly, it offers a platform for dangerous minority groups. While a party running on a platform of solely anti-French sentiment would likely never come close to winning a seat under our current First Past the Post system, under a PPR system, they would need less than a third of a percent of the popular vote for a seat (that would have been about 45,000 votes in the 2011 election). Of course having a single seat does not give a party much say in government (just ask the Greens) but it does give them a platform to make their voice heard.

Secondly, a PPR system would eliminate the potential for independent, un-affiliated candidates. While that might seem like no great loss to many, independents are an important part of the political process. They allow Canadians an outlet if they became truly fed up with party politics, and force parties to refrain from becoming dogmatic to the point where they estrange their constituency.

PPR also eliminates local representation. If you are from PEI today, you vote a representative to Ottawa who is charged with looking out for your interests, as well as the country's. Under a PPR system, there is no guarantee that any MP would be from PEI or care about PEI. That applies to any local constituency in Canada. In this country we vote for people to represent us, they simply usually come with party labels attached. That's why crossing the floor is permitted. Under a PPR system, we would no longer be voting for people, we'd be voting for platforms. That reduces Canadians' participation in the political system by adding another layer of distance between the politicians and the people, making it easier to justify voter apathy.

First Past the Post has its flaws, but it has also served us well for nearly 150 years. Personally, I don't understand the desire to do away with the system every time the results are unfavourable to a given group. I don't know if there is a system that would be perfect for a country as large and diverse, and frankly, there is a ton of global precedent for danger when changing political systems (start that list with the Nazi rise from the Weimar Republic). For all those who are upset about the vote splitting at the moment, I urge you to be patient. Things will change in their own time in this country, they always do, but at the end of the day if we don't take radical action, we don't have to fear radical problems.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Two Robs Don't Make a Right

Anyone paying much attention to the news lately is probably aware that Rob Ford, the Mayor of Canada's largest city, Toronto, was kicked out of office by a superior court judge this week after violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest rules. There has been a lot of rhetoric in the media about the seriousness of the conflict itself, or the fact that a judge chose to remove a democratically elected official, but the heart of the argument is that Rob Ford contravened the conflict of interest rules, and the punishment is mandatory removal from office.

However, Ford is hardly the first Canadian politician to make some seriously dubious ethical decisions, on the record. Another famous Canadian politician named Rob, Sir Robert Laird Borden, did something far, far worse: he rigged an election. And yet Borden is remembered largely as a Canadian hero. There's a high school near me that is named in his honour. So why is Borden a hero and Ford a villain? Are we killing Rob Ford over a minor offence, or are we misjudging Borden's legacy?

You probably know the story of Ford by now. Prior to being elected Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford was an outspoken city councillor. During his tenure as councillor, Ford raised around $3000 for his personal charity using city letterhead. That was a no-no, so Ford was ordered to return the money. City council had a vote on whether to enforce the judgement, and decided not to. That was all fine, it was really a minor issue and normal procedure. Here's where things get sticky for Ford. First of all, he showed up at the council vote on whether to enforce the judgement, and spoke on his own behalf, stating that he would have to pay the money out of pocket because it had already been spent, and he didn't feel that was right. That's strike one.

Then, Ford made the monumentally stupid decision to vote as a city councillor, on whether he should be made to pay the money out of pocket. That's strike two.

Then, in court Ford claimed he hadn't read the councillor's handbook, didn't know the conflict of interest rules, and claimed that his voting on the issue did not represent a conflict of interest in his opinion. That's strike three, and the judge called him out.

Regardless of whether he read the rules or not, most people know that voting on a measure that impacts you significantly and directly is a conflict of interest. That's pure common sense. There is no way around the fact that Ford voted on an issue in which he had a conflict of interest, which has serious ethical implications even if it wasn't explicitly banned by law in Ontario. However, what is perhaps even more horrifying is the notion that Ford didn't even read bother to read such important rules when he took office. If he isn't aware of that rule, what other ethical or legal obligations might he be ignoring?

In the past week I've heard a lot of people argue that removing him from office was unjust because it wasn't very much money, or because it was for kids, or because he was raising it for charity. These are all red herrings. The decision had nothing to do with the amount of money, how it was raised, or why it was raised. It had nothing to do with the initial judgement that Ford must repay the money. The problem is that Ford spoke on and voted on a measure that affected him directly and financially, full stop. In Ontario, the punishment for such actions is removal from office. Since Ford made it clear he was wilfully ignorant of the law, the judge had no other choice.

You can make your own judgements on Ford and his effectiveness as Mayor. Personally, I'm not a fan at all, but that is certainly up for debate, unlike his violation of the conflict of interest rules. Now that I have severely buried the lede, however, I can move on to the second player in this contextual comparison. I can now begin to assail the character of one of Canada's heroes.

Sir Robert Laird Borden was the eighth Prime Minister of Canada, following Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but most people can only really name three who came before him. Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, and Tupper all served briefly following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald but their terms as Prime Minister are largely footnotes in Canadian history texts.

Borden was a highly respected Nova Scotian lawyer before being elected as an MP for the Conservative party in 1896. In 1901 he was named leader of the party, and in 1911 his party defeated Laurier's liberals and Borden became Prime Minister. Borden's first term was dominated by the outbreak of the First World War, a crisis which he largely led Canada through admirably. Had he stepped down at the end of his term, Borden would likely deserve his sterling reputation.

From the outbreak of the war, Borden committed Canada to standing by Britain's side, sending troops and supplies to Europe. However, volunteers to go to war soon slowed, and the war dragged on well beyond expectations. During a visit to the front lines, Borden was incredibly moved by the determination of the troops and the devastation to which they were exposed. He promised to do everything within his power to help the troops.

Borden was undoubtedly a man of his word, and he took action to bring about the promised support. In 1917 his government passed a measure allowing them to conscript Canadians into the army. Conscription was naturally unpopular among many Canadians, but it was particularly unpopular in Quebec where the war was seen by many as a conflict that had nothing to do with the Quebecois. The prospect of conscription put a major dent in the popularity of Borden's party, and with an election that year things were not looking good.

In order to improve their chances in the coming election, Borden's Conservatives decided to try and recruit talent from the opposition. The newly formed Union party included numerous former Liberals and would have been a formidable force alone in the election. However, Borden and his party were not content to stop there. They passed a series of laws blatantly designed to assist them in the upcoming election. Notably, they granted the vote to female relatives of soldiers, who were likely to vote in favour of the war effort, and they passed a law allowing them, as the sitting government, to funnel votes from overseas soldiers into the riding of their choosing in order to boost their standing in highly contested ridings.

In short, they rigged the election. I'll say that again: Borden and the Union party rigged an election.

Regardless of the motivations, I do not believe there is ever any reason to justify rigging an election. Borden violated the fundamental principles of Canadian democracy and (potentially) ruled against the will of the people. What he did was unethical on an unprecedented scale in this country.

So why is he a hero? Unfortunately, dear reader, here is where you discover, after suffering my winding build up, that I am a fraud. I have no answer to this question, only theories. In fact, I'm not sure there is a good, obvious answer to this question.

The popular theory is that because it was World War One, the ends justify the means. Borden did what he had to do to get the country through the war, and though what he did might not have been right, the cause was noble enough that it was worthwhile. Unfortunately, I don't buy this one. First of all, this is the First World War we're talking about here. WW1 was not the noble cause of the world fighting the evil empire as it was in World War Two. Though it is rarely taught this way in Canadian schools, the First World War was largely caused by the petty squabbles of some childish European powers, with the British and the French as much at fault as the Germans.

Putting that aside for a moment, the notion that the Canadian government needed to rig an election in order to avoid chaos, or support the troops is also fundamentally flawed. As Mackenzie King would ably demonstrate during the Second World War, leading the nation through crisis was doable without violating the will of the people. In addition, if the Canadian people spoke and indicated through a fair election that they did not want to support conscription, then no matter how noble the cause, Borden had no right to put his will above the majority. He was operating without a legitimate mandate.

So obviously there is more at work here than the popular theory. Something else has kept Borden's reputation in a positive light. Some of that, I believe, is likely related to his background and demeanour. As I said, Borden was a highly respected lawyer, prior to entering politics. Borden was smart, dignified, and demanded respect even from his opponents. For comparison, not much of that applies to Rob Ford.

My pet theory, however, is that the Conservative party has tried to preserve his reputation because they need their heroes. Consider the past of Conservative leaders for a moment. Despite his flaws, Sir John A. Macdonald undoubtedly tops the list of great men who led that party. Beyond him, however, current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a leader perhaps most notable to this point for his own attempts to manipulate the political system, is the only man who could claim to be close to Borden, a man who rigged an election, for second on that list. Certainly there are few who look fondly upon the full tenures of Mulroney, Diefenbaker, or Bennett. Those are not the names to be trotted out to build support. The Conservatives need Borden to be a hero who can compete with the likes of Laurier, Pearson, and Trudeau. They have no one else.

It's not a popular opinion, but I can't justify the hero treatment of Borden. He did some good things for Canadian independence from Britain, and he could have done a far worse job of leading and representing the country during the war, but Borden also divided the nation along English and French lines in a way which has been a problem to this day. And on top of that, he rigged an election. That is unforgivable in my mind. To answer my earlier question, Rob Ford deserved everything he got this week, and Robert Borden deserved far worse. We may remember him a hero, but a hero he is not.