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

Politicians struggle to evade the taint of morality

Apparently we’re not supposed to discuss moral issues during an election campaign. Which only leaves immoral ones, I suppose. Or perhaps amoral. Would it be wrong to ask why?

Once, politicians feared the taint of immorality. Now they fear the taint of morality. It’s not completely clear to me whether they’re trying to persuade us that they don’t know right from wrong or just that they don’t care. But they do seem determined to convey that in any event it’s not going to matter; when politicians in any party are caught holding moral views they hasten to assure us they wouldn’t dream of acting on them.

It’s not completely clear what a moral issue is either. A headline in Monday’s Citizen said “‘Moral’ issues blow Liberals, Tories off track,” and the scare quotation marks suggest the headline writer wasn’t sure. At first I thought it meant sex, since the story started with the topics of abortion and gay marriage. But then it threw in the death penalty, so we had the end as well as the beginning of life. And when it added bilingualism into the mix, I became completely confused. Continue reading

A mixed record for the Gipper

Paul Martin says we will remember D-Day long after the participants have passed on. Perhaps. But let’s practise on an easy one: Let’s try to remember, four full days after his death, what Ronald Reagan did and didn’t do. He drastically reduced the Soviet government, but not the American one.

Mr. Reagan inspired strong passions during his presidency, not all positive. But when he died his hapless 1984 electoral foe, Walter Mondale, said “Although we were political adversaries, I always liked the guy. I think he had this ability to create a sense of optimism in our country, and I think that was a very valuable contribution.” He was saluted as a “statesman” by Mikhail Gorbachev and Jacques Chirac. And Democratic presidential contender John Kerry said, “Now, his own journey has ended – a long and storied trip that spanned most of the American century – and shaped one of the greatest victories of freedom. Today, in the face of new challenges, his example reminds us that we must move forward with optimism and resolve. He was our oldest president, but he made America young again.” It sure beats Paul Martin’s “There is just no doubt that the United States would be a very different country if it hadn’t been for Ronald Reagan. It may well be that the Cold War would have been very different if it hadn’t been for Ronald Reagan.” (As vague as Inspector Dreyfuss’s verdict on Jacques Clouseau, “he’s an extraordinary man,” but without the deliberate double entendre.) Continue reading

How a decades-old law has neutered our parliament

Isn’t it strange that we’re not discussing sex-change operations?

No, really. A week ago the Citizen reported that the Ontario government was denying plans to reinstate public medical coverage of them. And you can see why it might be a bit embarrassing to resume paying for a procedure that is, frankly, a little on the exotic side right after walloping the populace with a big tax hike you lied about during the election and delisting mainstream procedures such as physiotherapy and eye exams.

This being Canada, an ex-democracy, the predictable next step was for the relevant minister to deny having a policy on the subject, an opinion on it or, heaven forbid, jurisdiction over it. By day’s end, CFRA reported, “Health Minister George Smitherman says the province’s courts and human-rights tribunal” would settle the issue. When exactly did the people’s representatives lose even the ambition to control the public purse? Continue reading

A taxing issue for our cities

Allow me to interrupt the glowing promises of politicians and wall-to-wall coverage of polls with an actual issue. As a public service, to insomniacs and voters alike, I’d like to suggest that cities should get to raise more taxes.

More taxes?!? Yes. Paul Martin was actually right in a recent bloviation: “our municipalities are the most underfunded of the three levels of government, and they have the least amount of say, when the policies of other governments have an impact on them.” Or, in English, cities need more money and power.

At Confederation, our five biggest cities held just one-in-14 Canadians, and infrastructure was mostly railways, canals and really bumpy roads between places where people lived. The cities’ limited taxing powers were sufficient to their limited responsibilities especially as, in those benighted days, citizens were thought capable of such prodigies as managing local school boards all by themselves. Continue reading