Weird governments

A new video about countries with odd political systems.

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Rigged Reform

Rigged Reform

When it comes to reforming our decrepit political institutions, many Canadians are desperate enough to endorse any proposal slid under their nose. As usual, it pays to read the fine print.

Justin Trudeau is getting a lot of good press at the moment for a booklet of “fair and open government” proposals he released last week, as part of a slow rollout of his 2015 election platform. The 30 initiatives tackle a variety of different realms, all clearly calculated to salve specific anxieties about the supposed authoritarianism of the Harper government. As useful repairs to what we used to call Canada’s “democratic deficit,” however, most are worse than flawed — they’re actively destructive.

The most glaring sin is hypocrisy, in the form of a backwards-forwards attempt to institute a more competent, meritocratic governing class while not sacrificing any tenants of liberalism along the way.

“Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have allowed ideology to trump common sense, good policy, and evidence about what works,” asserts the introduction to a chapter labeled “Evidence-based policy.”

“A Liberal government will ensure the federal government rebuilds its capacity to deliver on evidence-based decision-making.”

Fine, whatever. But a few pages later, we are told with equal fervor that “A Liberal Cabinet will have an equal number of women and men” and the federal bureaucracy will be rigged to ensure “more Indigenous Peoples and minority groups are reflected in positions of leadership.”

Now, the Public Service Employment Act already mandates government to pursue a civil service that is “representative of Canada’s diversity” (which the Public Service Commission has expanded into a sprawling and detailed policy of its own), and anyone who follows the cabinet appointment process knows things are already heavily slanted towards gender balance uber alles. Prime Minister Harper’s cabinet, for instance, is around 30% female though only about 18% of his parliamentary caucus is.

It’s in this context that Trudeau promises to place his thumb even harder on the scale, and push an already rigged system towards even stricter quotas. Since it’s not just the Conservative Party who find women generally unrepresented in their parliamentary caucus (only ten of the Liberals 36 MPs are female), such a promise would almost certainly sacrifice executive branch competence at the alter of identity politics.

Things get even worse when it comes to the Supreme Court, where Trudeau says all future appointments must be “functionally bilingual.”

Like everywhere else in the Canadian public sector, bilingualism is already a criteria considered when prime ministers evaluate Supreme Court judges, and by law, three of the nine must be from Quebec, which unto itself guarantees the court a bilingual faction considerably larger than the 17% of the Canadian public who claim fluency in French and English. I’ve written extensively about Canada’s enormously anti-democratic cult of bilingualism, and the collision course it runs with inclusive, representative government. Precisely how Trudeau expects a lawyer in an English-speaking province to complete law school, serve a substantial career on the bench, and learn all his profession’s terms and jargon in a foreign language is an mystery his sheltered Ottawaified mind has not shown signs of being able to comprehend.

This progressive paradox of demanding fixed answers within a supposedly “more open” political system appears in numerous other corners of Trudeau’s package of promises.

He promises more “free votes” in Parliament, yet qualifies that they cannot be on questions that involve “significant budgetary measures,” campaign promises, or anything Trudeau deems contrary to the “shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

An earlier promise that future Liberal Senators would be selected by an expert panel is downgraded into said panel merely helping “advise” the prime minister.

A vague promise is made to ensure “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system” though changing the way Canadians vote will not be subject to a national referendum, unlike every prior proposal of the sort. As Kelly McParland noted in the National Post, should the Liberal leader be elected prime minister, “the system Trudeau wants to dump would be the basis of his power to impose a new one of his choice.”

That there are problems with Canada’s present political system does not make it axiomatic that every proposed reform is an objective improvement. Since fashionable progressives like Trudeau view government as a tool whose worth is measured by its ability to generate specific outcomes, they are not the sorts of people from whom we should expect meaningful change over how these outcomes are decided.

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The era before Pokemon

Published a new episode of 1 Up and At ‘Em, a retro gaming show made by me and my pal Max. This one is all about the games made by the Pokemon people before they were the Pokemon people.

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How to get smarter

I made a new video offering some personal advice on how to learn things better.

Do you have any good tips?

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Blasts from the past

Blasts from the past
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Gilles Duceppe, the longtime boss of the separatist Bloc Quebecois who resigned in 2011 following a landslide defeat for his party in that year’s federal election, emerged from the grave this week to reclaim his old job. In a surprise overnight coup, the party announced Wednesday morning that the obscure and unknown Mario Beaulieu, who had been elected Bloc leader almost exactly a year ago, would be stepping down immediately so the old boss could be installed in his place. Duceppe had opposed Beaulieu’s election in 2014, openly mocking his hardline rhetoric (which included spouting slogans from the 60s-era French-Canadian terrorist group the Front de Liberation du Quebec) as vulgar and unelectable.

Duceppe’s return to head a party he led for over 14 years represents a great many things. Most notably, it concludes an era of chronic instability in the post-2011 Bloc, which has seen an astonishing five leaders in as many years, thanks to persistent difficulty in scraping up a capable successor to Duceppe.

Having shrunk from 49 seats to four in 2011, the party proceeded to lose three more members in the years that followed — one via purge, two through defection. They’d be down to a single MP if not for Claude Patry, an NDP legislator who defected into the Bloc in 2013, thereby capping their net loss at two.

Ignored by the press and stagnant in the polls, these desperate times called for desperate measures. Duceppe may have led the party to its worst-ever defeat, but in 2004 he also led it to its best-ever showing (or at least a showing tied for best-ever), which was certainly more than could be said of the never-elected-to-anything Monsieur Beaulieu.

On the other hand, in reviving a leader who contested six of the seven elections of the party’s lifetime, the Bloc now looks more than ever like a personality-cult, a sort of more successful version of Elizabeth May’s Green Party in which a gaggle of disparate interests are held together by the sheer magnetism of a compelling personality. Duceppe is fast approaching 70 and even leaders-for-life can’t dodge expiration dates forever. If the Bloc’s greatest existential weakness is its lack of a succession plan, it’s hard to see Duceppe’s return as anything but a rescheduled judgment day.

It’s premature to say how much of a wrench Duceppe 3.0 will be in the delicate machinery of Canada’s other parties, but early reports suggest Thomas Mulcair’s NDP has the most to lose.

For the last few weeks Canada’s papers have been filled with breathless coverage of a narrow NDP lead in the national polls, a lead that is, at least in part, heavily dependent on an enormous, 20-point lead in the province of Quebec.

The NDP’s near-sweep of that province in 2011 was unprecedented and unexpected, and barring a follow-up election for context, most political observers still struggle to describe exactly what it meant.

In abandoning the Bloc, did Quebec’s NDP voters express a sort of born-again loyalty to Ottawa?

Were they genuinely interested in making the NDP’s anti-separatist boss prime minister of Canada? Or were they merely electing a slew of largely unknown and inexperienced NDP MPs to express a fresh flavor of French-Canadian disregard for the understood purpose of federal politics?

Or perhaps it was something more utilitarian in its parochialism? Was the NDP, the only party in 2011 other than the Bloc with a Quebec-born leader, simply deemed the most trustworthy steward of Quebec interests in Ottawa?

If the latter is true, then Mulcair may have much to fear from the return of a Bloc leader who vows to be “the voice of a party that is Quebec first, Quebec all the time!” (his emphasis). Duceppe certainly poses little threat to Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives, who have now more or less stopped seeking votes in the left-wing province in favor of doubling-down on a centre-right agenda of lowering taxes and jailing criminals that’s proven to play well in Anglo Canada.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, meanwhile, have cause for optimism at the sight of Mulcair’s NDP and a reinvigorated Bloc competing for a shared base of alienated, self-centered Francophones. Ranked third choice in the province, a vote split among anti-establishment, uber-nationalist progressives could produce more than a few come-from-the-middle wins for a party that’s neither. No Liberal prime minister has ever been elected without a strong Quebec delegation, but this strength can be supplementary so long as enough seats are won elsewhere.

Canada’s majority looks on as an exotic minority decides its priorities. As usual, their answer could be decisive.

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Food in video games

In this video, I look at some interesting trivia about the depiction of food in video games over the years.

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A new project: 1 Up and At Them!

I’m really excited to post this video. My pal Maxwell and I have been working on a video game YouTube chat show for a while now, and today we released the very first episode. The production values are really high, and I feel like this longer format gives us a lot of opportunity to share a lot of really fun, geeky insights about stuff.

Anyway, please give it a watch, I’m sure you’ll really get a kick out of it.

More episodes to come!

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Subliminal pictures

In this video, we look at subliminal messages in movies and TV shows. They’re real, but not terribly effective.

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Chong’s Reform Act simply shifts power from one tiny clique to another

Originally published in the Huffington Post, December 2, 2013

In our last federal election, a grand total of 5,835,270 Canadians elected the prime minister. A new bill before parliament will give a mere 81 the power to remove him. That might be dramatic political reform, but certainly not in the direction of more democracy.

Now, before some fuss-budget rushes in, yes, I know that, technically speaking, Canadians don’t really “elect the prime minister.” We merely elect MPs on the understanding that if we vote in enough from one party, that party’s boss will run the country. Technically speaking, Americans don’t elect their president either, they just elect members of the electoral college on the understanding those guys will install whoever wins the popular vote (in most cases). In both countries, political systems that were initially designed to be exceedingly complex have now streamlined their operations to uphold a single simple principle: what the voters want, they get.

A motion to be introduced by Tory backbench MP Michael Chong, however, proposes giving the inner elite of Canada’s political parties the power to overturn the public’s clearly expressed preference for who should be PM. Under the terms of his grandly named Reform Act, if, at any moment, just over 50 per cent of the MPs of the prime minister’s party vote to turf a democratically-elected PM, out he goes. Though the bill wouldn’t take effect until after the next federal election, just to give a sense of the numbers we’re talking here, 50 per cent-plus-one of all current Conservative MPs is just 81 people.

The intended purpose of this reform is to recalibrate Ottawa’s power imbalance by ensuring, in the excited words of the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, “party leaders would serve at the pleasure of caucus, and not the other way around.” As in, if the PM could be impeached by his own MPs at any time, maybe he wouldn’t be quite so mean and bossy to them, dictating which abortion bills they can and can’t introduce and whatnot. That’s a noble motive. The degree to which MPs are routinely bullied, humiliated, and puppeteered by the PM — to the point where even the supposed “most independent” MP still votes with his government 99% of the time — is indeed a national outrage, and a stain on Canadian democracy. But it would only be spreading the stain further to allow MPs, in the pursuit of humbling their boss in Ottawa, to effectively veto the wishes of their bosses back home: the voters.

It really says something about the unambitious nature of so-called “democratic reform” movements in Canada that the only scheme a supposed crusader like Chong can devise to lessen the power concentrated in the hands of a small clique — in this case, the courtiers of the Prime Minister’s Office — is to concentrate power in the hands of a different small clique — in this case, a tiny gang of MPs.

The same sort of small thinking is present in the second half of Chong’s reform proposal — this idea that MP candidates should be exclusively nominated by their party’s riding association, and not merely installed lightbulb-like by the party leader, as is so often the case today.

A party leader is one guy. The candidate selection committee of your standard party riding association comprises around six. In the event the committee decides to bring a contested nomination to a vote of all party members within the riding, the number of eligible voters will usually be a couple hundred at best — and many of these will simply be the friends, staff, and family of the candidates themselves (and perhaps a hoard of so-called “insta-members” wrangled from some ethnic or religious community presumed to be good at bloc-voting). In any case, formal membership in political parties is so rare in this country it’s been estimated that only about 1 per cent of Canadians could even vote in riding elections if they wanted to. So it’s one man or one percent, take your pick.

There are better options. Canadians shouldn’t have to choose between tyrannical prime ministers whipping submissive MPs on the one hand, or the stupid madness of Australia — where voters have no idea who they’re electing to run the country because it’s so easy for ruling parties to change the prime minister mid-term — on the other. Nor should we have to pick between having our MP candidates parachuted in by Ottawa versus having them selected by a couple dozen third-cousins in some $40-an-hour banquet hall.

What the Canadian political system actually needs is what Canadians constantly tell the pollsters they want — a comprehensive weakening of Ottawa’s smothering party system, full stop. My favoured method of achieving this, as I outlined in a previous column, would be to turn Canada’s parties into open, public utilities rather than closed, private corporations, and thereby grant all citizens — not just card-carrying “party members” — the right to vote in their local MP nomination elections and national party leadership races, just as Americans do in Congressional and presidential primaries. If the goal is to liberate MPs from the party bosses while also ensuring those party bosses are democratically accountable, this strikes me as the most sensible solution — simply remove the partisan middlemen between our politicians and the public they serve, not merely swap one style of middleman for another, as Mr. Chong suggests.

Such Americanizations might represent a break with how our parliamentary system is “supposed to work,” according to those Anglophilic nostalgists who refuse to contemplate any political reform that some other white Commonwealth country didn’t dream up first. But chances are reforms of this sort would work for Canada, and that’s probably what’s most important.

 

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Debate rules

In this video, I attempt to engage with the sticky topic of who should or shouldn’t be allowed to participate in political debates. In both Canada and America, the rules seem to be evolving by the day.

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