Monthly Archives: June 2004

If you thought parliament was dysfunctional before…

Now it’s time to govern. Oh dear.

I’m not against minority governments in principle. The late Senator Eugene Forsey, a constitutional expert though a man of the left, thought they had many merits. As his daughter Helen reminded Citizen readers a week ago, he thought they could restore influence to ordinary MPs, generate real debates in Parliament, and were less able than majorities to head recklessly in a bad direction. In the past, Canada has had several left-Liberal minority governments that were, in those terms, highly successful: first William Lyon Mackenzie King with the Progressives in the 1920s, then Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau with the NDP from 1963 to ’68 and 1972 to ’74. But have we chosen one this time?

In one sense, “we” have not done anything. The final tally shows Liberal support at roughly 37 per cent, Tories at 30, NDP at 16, Bloc at 13 and Greens at four. Yet not one single voter, let alone all of us, cast 37 per cent of our ballot for the Liberals, 30 per cent for the Tories, etc. If we were one gigantic but not very intelligent entity, a sort of political stegosaurus, we could be accused of rejecting the Liberals’ combination of arrogance and corruption with fiscal prudence by jettisoning the fiscal prudence. Yet even that may well overstate the Parliament that just resulted from the cumulative effects of our individual voting decisions. Continue reading

Strategic voting is hindered by the new election law

The 2004 election definitely calls for strategic voting. Not because it’s this election but because it’s an election. All voting is strategic. The question is whether your strategy is good, bad or ugly.

For instance, what could be more strategic than trying to vote someone into office? Admittedly, there are many ways such a strategy could fail. But it is important to distinguish between a strategy that is unlikely to succeed because your situation is difficult (pulling your goalie in the last minute of a Stanley Cup Game 7 when you are down a goal) and one that is unlikely to succeed because it is stupid (voting for Bob Rae).

Even not voting is a strategy. It relies on the calculation that you are unlikely to receive sufficient benefits from it to justify the energy required. I think it’s a mistake. For one thing, it’s hard enough to control politicians when they know we do care enough to vote. For another, anyone in the habit of making such a calculation is likely to benefit simply from the exercise involved in transferring his or her bulk from the couch to the voting booth and back again. But a bad plan is still a plan. (Even the calculation, as an economist might phrase it, that habitual heavy consumption of adult beverages will yield sufficient utility to offset any costs incurred by not realizing an election is even going on.) Continue reading

Our guardians need guards, too

There was a time when no one would call satisfactory any political philosophy that could not answer Juvenal’s classic question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Unfortunately, we have since had so much progress that we have trouble just understanding it, even if it is asked in English: “Who shall guard the guardians?”

In any political system someone must have ultimate authority. But since it is a fundamental principle of justice that nemo judex in causa sua (“no one shall be a judge in his own case”), there is a seemingly insoluble difficulty in establishing a just political system. People like Saddam Hussein don’t encourage discussion of such issues. But even Hitler and Stalin believed, at least ostensibly, that history would be their judge. And I suppose it was. But given the cost in human life and misery, one naturally prefers a more immediate mechanism. Which is why, in democracies, ordinary people get to decide if their government stinks.

Proper democracy is based on majority rule. But not untrammeled. The people can veto policy but not initiate it. Democracy’s answer to Juvenal is: The government guards the public good, and the public guards the government. Continue reading

The lesson of large mutant orange cauliflowers

If you ask me, the leaders debates would have been greatly improved by the presence of a large orange cauliflower at one of the podiums. Cynics might say they would have been greatly improved by almost anything, including a sudden loss of electrical power in the hall. But I am in earnest. And no, it’s not science fiction.

Of course a large orange cauliflower would not have interrupted constantly, espoused a philosophy directly contrary to its old one, urged the destruction of the country, or persistently accused its opponent of wanting to buy “aircraft carriers” it knew were the same multi-purpose helicopter-capable supply ships it had promised to purchase in a speech at CFB Gagetown in mid-April. But nor would any number of other inanimate objects.

Large orange cauliflowers offer far more direct merits. You see, after a mutant orange cauliflower appeared on a farm north of Toronto in 1970, food scientists set about breeding ones that didn’t taste worse than the standard white kind (surely not that big a challenge) and now they are all the rage in chic New York restaurants. Whereas, in 1970 the federal government was paying half the cost of medicare and now… Compare and contrast, as they say on college exams. Continue reading

Some kind words for rhetoric

If you watched the federal party leaders debates you may have felt as though you were subjected to “a bunch of rhetoric.” If only.

Rhetoric nowadays implies “city talk:” slick, plausible and either dishonest or a desperate attempt to cover one’s own confused ignorance. As Neil Postman put it in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, “we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech — most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it … rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.” From Demosthenes to Aquinas, it enjoyed, and deserved, a glowing reputation.

If rhetoric were mere trickery, I would still defend its study; every card player should notice when someone slips an ace up a sleeve. But even honest persons assured of never falling in with rogues will find it helpful when exchanging ideas in pursuit of truth. Continue reading