Sunday, December 2, 2012

A left wing political rant

This post will assume you have read Two Liberals; a basic primer on Canadian politics as it related to the recent by-election in Calgary Centre, and you'll note I called the election results correctly. I wrote that on Oct 6. The Greens ran a better campaign than anyone gave them credit for, and did very well indeed. The Liberals did quite well too, just not quite well enough.

The Conservatives will be telling themselves that a win is a win, and they will carry on their right wingnut agenda. The voter turnout was abysmal, under 30%. Of that 35% voted Conservative, 33% voted Liberal, and 25% voted Green. Approximately 10% of the eligible voters cast their ballot for the Conservative.

Enough numbers. What does it all mean? The facile explanation is that the Greens and Liberals split the vote and allowed a weak Conservative to sneak up the middle. However, that does not account for voter dynamics here, and recall that "here" is a strange place politically. At the moment there are two breeds of "Conservative" here in Alberta. One is the long governing (and I mean really long, since 1972) Progressive Conservative party, and it's off shoot, the Wild Rose party, itself an amalgamation of two other right wing parties. These all thought and think that the PC party was too left wing, too soft, too elitist.

The Wild Rose party is quickly summed up as Tea Party wannabe's. They have a charismatic leader, who none the less can't quite connect all the dots in the party platform. She is walking a tightrope between the hard and harder wings of her party, and it will eventually consume her. In this sort of situation, the crazier guy wins even if it's electoral poison, as the Republican party recently showed.

There are many conservatives here that do not want to vote for a WR candidate running for the federal Conservatives, and yet cannot bring themselves to vote Liberal, let along the (ack, cough) NDP. For now the Greens are safe place to park a vote. So had the Greens not run a candidate, it is very possible that the same election result would happen, only with fewer votes. One cannot assume that all Green votes would go to the Liberal. Nor can one assume that had the Liberals not run a candidate, that all those votes would go Green. Some of the Liberal vote came from the NDP, and would have returned there.

Some pundits say that the Liberals and NDP need to merge to compete against the conservatives. (Go read the Two Liberal blog if you haven't.) These two parties are actually quite different. Much more different than the two conservative parties that "merged". A more accurate term would be a cave in or sell out.

The Liberals have a proud tradition of running Canada for much of it's history, generally as a centrist party, generally with the viewpoint that the government was there to do things for the people to make their lives better. Until quite recently, by and large they dealt very well with the various historical challenges of the 19th and 20th centuries. It would take a moderately serious study of Canadian history to understand where and why they didn't do so well.

The NDP grew out of the labour union movement, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party. They have often been branded as Communist by their rivals, since social democracy is a difficult concept. They are generally considered the most idealistic or utopian of the major parties, pushing for legislation that benefits ordinary working Canadians.

So where, then, is the common ground between the Liberals and NDP? While they have governed together, briefly, there was no formal coalition. In fact, there isn't much common ground. Even the backgrounds and history of the parties preclude that, the NDP coming from a union background, and the Liberals coming from a upper class and wealthy middle class background. In many Canadian towns and cities, an NDP supporter would be working for a Liberal supervisor or manager. Even the Liberal legislation that supports middle class Canadians doesn't go far enough according to the NDP.

Each party has it's own core of supporters that will not willingly give it up for another party. Too often they see the other parties as part of the problem. Elections in Canada are generally pretty civil affairs, especially compared to other parts of the world, but for the die-hard partisans it's all out war. Especially for the Conservatives. Even holding talks with another party about discussing the potential idea of holding merger negotiations would be seen as a betrayal.

Each party looks to the good side of the equation about why they should be the one to stick around and the other parties go away. The Liberals point to their history and overlook the recent corruption and incompetence issues. The NDP point to their recent electoral success and overlook the left wing kooks. The Greens point to the growth in their support and post-ideological platform, while overlooking their complete lack of experience at governance.

If one were to design political parties for Canada, one might well look at the last part of the 20th century as a model. The Conservatives centre and somewhat "right", the Liberals centre and somewhat "left", and some smaller other parties trying to carve out a place. Canadians haven't changed so much that the centre point has moved much, contrary to Harper's wet dreams. What has changed is the communication of smaller and more detailed points of view. People that might broadly agree with one of the parties on most things, except for one or two issues that are very important too them. ISSUES, in other words, and modern parties have been trying to exploit these as wedge issues.

That's the problem with governing in Canada, there is a wide divergence of thought, and the governing party generally has to govern toward the centre. The NDP has never been in danger of actually forming the government, though they have held the balance of power in some minority governments. This means they can propose some of the most unlikely legislation (a levy on iPods, centralizing/nationalizing the industrial sector and demonizing the private sector) without having to cost it out, or actually worry about enacting it. There is a reason they have only a small base of support; their success in Quebec is a historical anomaly dependent on people voting against other parties.

No, I believe the idea of merging the centre left parties is fruitless. Too much history and bad blood to overcome. There is too wide a divergence in political though to be summed up in just two parties. The world is a more complex place than just the left right political spectrum would have you believe.

What needs to change is the electoral system itself. The first past the post system is obsolete, and in Canadian politics produces perverse results. No, not perverse in the sense that Conservatives are perverted, though there is an argument to be made there. Perverse in the sense that the outcomes do not reflect the inputs. A strongish minority of votes can produce a very strong majority government. A minor party with small but consistent support across the country will get no seats, while a party with the same number of supporters concentrated in a smaller area will win seats. The name of those two results are NDP or Green, and Bloc Quebecois, respectively.

Since the current system favours the governing party, and it doesn't matter if they are Conservative or Liberal, it's going to be very difficult to change. There has been discussion of the Greens, NDP, and Liberals forming a one time alliance for the next election for the sole purpose of enacting electoral reform, and then going back to the normal state of politics. Great idea in theory, but I'm having difficulty imagining how they choose candidates for each riding.

Since we are talking about pie in the sky, let's talk about my pet pie in the sky dream for electoral reform. It's cheap and simple. I think that every ballot in every election in Canada needs to have a box on the bottom for "None of the Above". If one of the named candidates wins, all well and good. They take their seat and get on with the job. If "None" wins, the seat is declared vacant, and a by-election is called immediately. The parties have, say, a couple months to select new candidates, and we vote again.  We do it again and again, until the parties get the message, and a named candidate wins.

The message being is that Canadians are tired of having lying political hacks put up to purportedly speak and act for us, when in fact they say and vote how they are told to. The Harper Conservatives have taken this to absurd lengths. They've been burned in the past by fruit loop comments, so they have enforced strict message discipline. It leads to a central party attitude, not a Canadians and Canada first attitude.

Admittedly, the first couple votes might be a bit of a rocky process as we vent our spleens on the parties and the current porcine incumbents. We might want to have a transitional process where the first named candidate is named a provisional winner and takes the seat while the by election goes on. That would lead to some interesting discussions between the provisional winner, and the candidate from the same party. But that's good. Anything that promotes some squabbling and opportunities to go off message is good. The more off message messages there are, the more likely it is that some truth might emerge.

I'd like to look at a two tier pricing structure for signing up as a candidate. A regular Canadian signing up to be an independent should pay only a nominal fee to register with Elections Canada, and they get it back based on their percentage of the vote. Running as the candidate of a political party could be made much more expensive, and maybe they shouldn't get any of it back.  I suppose that would lead to candidates posing as independents but secretly having an affiliation with one of the parties.

With modern communication methods it's much easier for candidates to get out their message. They don't need the big budget national television campaigns anymore. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others are superb methods of spreading information. The candidates just have to be a bit smarter about their messaging. Hmmm, thats a real burden on the traditional party candidate, isn't it? Breaks my heart. Cry me a river. Send a complaint email to

Granted, the None of the Above is a broad brush that would tar some potentially good candidates. There ought to be a mechanism to allow independents and marginal parties to run the same candidates again. Of course the 3 main parties would not be allowed to recycle candidates; once a hack, always a hack.

Another alternative I like is where people can vote against candidates. The idea is that a ballot would be marked with a space to vote for a single candidate, or against all but two of the candidates. Voting against all but one is the same as voting for one candidate. In the simple form, at the end of the night each candidate would have a tally of votes for, and votes against. We look at the net vote and see who wins the seat. I can't fully picture how this would turn out in real life, but it would certainly be interesting.

In broad terms, I suspect the partisans will vote for their guy. Many other Canadians would vote against, falling into two groups. One group would vote against the lying venal and corrupt current parties, and don't care which of the minor parties takes their seat, figuring they can be voted out of office after they figure out how to pull the office reward levers of power. Another group of Canadians might vote against the independent fruit loop candidates that just don't understand the complexities of a modern political state, and against one of the lying venal and corrupt parties (the Conservatives, say) but doesn't care which of the center left candidates is chosen.

The trick to this option is deciding just how the ballots are to be counted, and the voting preferences parsed. Suppose one of the independent candidates and a party hack have the same differential, +2. Only the independent has 12 votes for and 10 against, and the hack has 10002 for and 10000 against. Which do we pick, and why? Maybe we could tie this in with the None of the Above system to determine which candidates can run again.

As you might imagine, I find it very difficult to choose how to vote in the current system. You've heard this rant before, that it's very easy to choose some reason to vote against a party or a candidate. In fact it's so easy that you run out of choices very very quickly. It comes down to how hard you need to hold your nose as you vote. I suspect this is the core reason for the dwindling voter turnout in successive elections. People don't want to think that hard, and prefer to avoid making the choice. Perhaps if they were allowed to vote against, voter turnout would increase.

In a more practical sense, there is support for the idea of changing our voting system. The devil is in the details, since each potential alternative has flaws. None produce a result that is exactly representative of the votes cast. Some are more or less complicated or difficult to explain. Any potential change usually gets lumped in with the potential of voting electronically and avoiding fraud.

The problem is that when there are many complex choices, it is easier to stick with the devil you know. If you look at the Australian Republicanism movement, there is general support for moving away from the monarchy. However when you compare the monarchy to any individual republican model, the monarchy wins.

Still, something has to change, somehow. We need to get Canadians more involved in our political system and governance again, and not just as election fodder. We need to make political representatives more accountable to the people they serve, not the parties. We need to control the amount of money going to the parties from entities such as corporations.

We need to have a way of holding national conversations about the issues of the day. What, exactly, do real Canadians think about running a dil-bit pipeline to the coast and having super tankers navigating a complex passage to transport it overseas? How do we balance the various concerns against the various benefits? How do we hold such a conversation without being held hostage by the rabid fringes? How do we conclude the discussions with a nuanced decision that the losing group(s) can accept as legitimate because they recognize the process, and had they won would have expected the other side to respect the decision?

It can't be a simple majority decision, because the Natives are going to get the shitty end of that stick every time, and they've had the shitty end of the stick so often, and for so long, on so many issues that we can't ignore their concerns. The vast majority of people in Canada simultaneously like to drive their cars fueled by gasoline, and heat their homes with natural gas or heating oil, and leave the environment pristine, or at least have the mess happen somewhere else. Ain't gonna happen. We need to grow up and recognize that. The current political system is a huge barrier in the way of that maturing process. It needs to change.

Yes, at last I got on my bike for 1.5 hrs, for a moderately hard workout. Felt good. The shopping was an ordeal, but that's another rant.

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