Are referenda democratic?

June 29th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

It was a surprise twist in an otherwise boring CBC National News panel the other night. It was an argument over whether a referendum was really democratic or redundant in a representative democracy. While it was not the well respected At Issue politically expert panel, the argument held enough interest to mull over as we drifted off to sleep.

What the panel did not get to was the point that there are questions that a representative government is expected to answer and then there are questions that are the purview of the citizens. What cannot be denied is that parliamentarians are entitled to change their minds and that the citizens have the final say in any matter.

In the example of the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the initial decision to join the European Union was made by the UK parliament and the more recent vote to leave was by referendum. Both votes were legal. In effect, parliament ruled in the legislation enabling the referendum that the referendum would decide. And any parliamentarian who did not understand the risk involved in a referendum deserved what he or she got.

While there seems to be an opinion that a question on a plebiscite need not be binding on parliament, a referendum is considered final. It was why Prime Minister David Cameron had no option but to resign when his foolish offer to hold a referendum on leaving the EU blew up in his face.

Canada’s experience with referenda is no more joyful. In recent memory, the ill-considered Charlottetown Accord Referendum, and provincial referenda in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have all failed. And that is not because Canadians dislike referenda. They take them seriously.

But Canadians also seem to want clear, straight-forward questions. If you ask them if they want to change how they vote, for example, you need to do a thorough job of explaining the alternatives. The people want to vote on it but first they need to understand it.

And it would be quite awkward for the Trudeau government to attempt to make material changes in how Canadians vote without a referendum or plebiscite. That horse has left the barn based on provincial precedents.

What is really amusing in the current Ottawa referendum argument is that the Conservatives are arguing for a referendum because they think that the voters will turn it down. The supposedly democratic Liberals are arguing against a referendum because they also think their vote reform will be shot down. Which begs the question: why bother?

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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PSST, there’s cider at a few grocers.

June 28th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

The Province of Ontario slipped that in when we were not looking. They are allowing the few grocery stores selling some beer to also sell apple cider. And we are talking the hard stuff here; not your baby’s apple juice.

The announcement from Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office was all socially responsible, quiet and designed to cause no waves. Mind you what waves might be raised are a ho-hum for most Ontario voters. It just might be the hallmark of the Wynne government that anything they find worth doing is to be done very slowly. It is like a form of water torture, the drips are few and far between and they tend to catch you off guard.

And yet it seems the stupid things they do that they tend to ballyhoo. Take selling off of Hydro One to investors. Every penny that electricity prices rise for the next dozen years will be blamed on this silly so-called Liberal government. Yet they are very proud of that decision. They think it impresses people into thinking they are good managers.

But when they quickly dumped the planned Ontario supplement to the Canada Pension Plan, they gave up all pretense of doing something for Ontario retirees. The suggestion with the Ontario plan was to keep our seniors’ heads above water as inflation ate away their pensions. We have to pay for those higher Ontario electricity rates you know.

The only really good news in this is that locally produced cider will have a better chance to be noticed in grocery stores than in the Liquor Control Board emporiums of dullness and bad merchandising. While the very few grocery stores that have been licenced (at what cost and why?) by the government will increase a bit with time.

All we have seen in stores we have found selling beer to-date (and not in our city) are dull and unappealing grocery end-aisles displaying warm beer. Beer and cider are much more appealing purchases when retrieved from a cooler. Just thinking about the refreshing coolness of a modest glass of beer or cider when you get home from grocery shopping can make the entire experience more pleasant.

If Premier Wynne and her cabinet had an ounce of sense, they would have had every grocery store in Ontario promoting Ontario-made cider. It is from Ontario-grown fruit and made by Ontario craft producers Gee, does that mean Ontario jobs?

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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Scotland the brave will carry on.

June 27th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

You have to admit that there might just be more smarts in Scotland and Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. With a 62 per cent vote to remain with the European Union, Scotland is unlikely to go the route of Brexit. And if the only way to remain is to separate from the United Kingdom, so be it. When they recently voted to stay with the UK, there seemed little reason to separate; now there is.

The situation in Northern Ireland is quite different and needs a separate discussion from what is happening in Scotland. And before you accuse Scotland of having a ‘neverendum referendum,’ it needs to be realized that most Scots were of the opinion that Brexit would be defeated. They were even more surprised than the English bookies by what has happened.

There is of course a great deal of anger building on the continent of Europe. Nobody likes to be rejected. Imagine how people feel in London which also voted strongly to stay. It will take a lot of that bloody English stoicism to carry on through this mess. There was a great deal of that in that brief news conference in front of Downing Street by Prime Minister David Cameron.

It should be an important opportunity for the European Union to deal more effectively with the need for reform. The serious lack of leadership in the European Union has been met so far by the German and French leaders. That can hardly continue if there is not to be more countries fleeing the cloying morass of dealing through the European headquarters in Brussels.

It is particularly amusing that Canada’s parliamentarians are studying vote reform when it is so obvious that proportional voting and single-transferable voting are causing much of the problem for Members of the European Parliament (MEP). The lack of direct election and knowing your MEP has certainly contributed to the parliament’s problems and lack of effectiveness. Who knows if Canada’s parliamentarians will pay attention?

If there was no other reason for Scotland and Northern Ireland to depart the United Kingdom, it is the prospect of Brexit drum-beater MP Boris Johnson succeeding the departing David Cameron. A populist Conservative Johnson has delusions of his role in life and will not be happy to lose either Scotland or Northern Ireland from a less influential (diss)United Kingdom.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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What’s Jason Kenney doing? And who cares?

June 26th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

Yes, the Conservative Party of Canada is having a convention in a year or so to pick a new leader. After all, the party could hardly allow temporary leader Rona Ambrose time to get comfortable at Stornoway. So far, it is a very thin field of applicants. Though what would you expect when the leader in 2019 could get his or her head handed to them by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Nobody thinks the bloom will be off Justin that soon.

The real leader is waiting to be discovered in the lead up to the next leadership convention circa 2021.

You have to admit that Stephen Harper’s former minister of everything, Calgary MP Jason Kenney, could be having fun. He is the most relaxed he has ever been in the past ten years. And he can afford to keep the news media guessing. Maybe it strikes his funny-bone. Maybe he is just feeling perverse. Whatever, it must be fun to turn the tables on the media.

Can you imagine the problems the media have in turning in more than 500 words of copy on the suspected contestants for the Tory leadership? And that would be with Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong, Tony Clement, Kellie Leitch, Erin O’Toole(?) and Lisa Raitt combined.

Of course, they can do more than 500 words on why Doug Ford, Peter MacKay and Kevin O’Leary are not in the race and probably never will be.

And that leaves the heir presumptive, Jason Kenney. After all the time he spent understudying the Hair, Kenney has to be taken at least half seriously.

But in the meantime the question has come up about uniting the right in Alberta and defeating the upstart New Democrats in that Ark of Conservatism. That might just be easier said than done. You have to remember that the Conservative Premier and Wildrose leader who last tried to do that are no longer on the Alberta political scene. Jason Kenney might not be in good enough fighting trim to take on the Wildrose. And never assume that Wildrose would not be above suggesting that Mr. Kenney’s possible sexual orientation needs to come out of the closet. Those people know their bigots like good golfers know their divots.

But the real problem for the Conservative Party is that it is bleeding support among both the rationalists and the fanatics. Without the heavy hand of a Harper or a Manning on the helm, the party is at the mercy of populists and extremists. It has to find some direction.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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Is there life after Brexit?

June 25th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

While Babel-0n-the-Bay was urged to produce a morning line on the Brexit vote, the decision was made that it was far too close to forecast. And it was. Along with the disappointment of the morning after, the in-box contained a 1900-word diatribe on our ‘pompous’ Brexit commentary. Never has 400 or so words of comment produced so much vitriol.

It is freely admitted that the Brexit commentary was far too casually handled and poorly edited. We all need a good editor. And it is also admitted that this ignorant colonial can never get the names of Great Britain, the United Kingdom and its various subjects and components right but who cares that much? Canadians learn all that stuff in grade school and quickly forget about it. You have to also swear allegiance to the Queen when you join the Canadian Air Force but you forget about it after you leave.

We were also accused of taking liberties in using the royal ‘we.’ In years of teaching writing to business people, the point was always made that only a child writing to mommy from camp starts sentences with ‘I.’ The point is that mommy cares about you; people receiving a business letter from you do not. If you write about what others care about, you will get their attention.

Obviously we did that with this gentleman. He told us he was annoyed as hell. He disagreed with our opinion. Oddly enough, that is also our objective. While reasonably confident in our opinion, we do like to receive comment from readers to keep us on our toes. This gentleman showed us how angry older men can get. He wanted to put a trapdoor under our toes and a noose around our neck.

He sees corporatism as the problem and the neoliberalism of the politicians as the support structure that maintains the corporatism. A former Brit, he sees his adopted country of Canada as being ruled by foreign corporations and decries our politicians’ desire for mounting numbers of free trade pacts. He just does not recognize that the problem is more about political laziness and carelessness than plotting.

The writer sees Babel-on-the-Bay’s ‘lordly’ take on Brexit and the Brits as an example of our failure to understand that everything was going down the drain for the average person in the UK. Frankly we also read a lot of bigotry and ignorance in the scenario. The entire fiasco could not have been better directed by England’s famed Boulting Brothers.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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On curiously confused commentary.

June 24th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

Not being a regular reader of the right-wing National Post, we are not as familiar with commentator John Ivison. He appears to be a believer in conspiracy theories. In his commentary of June 22, he wrote of Linking pipelines to planes and CO2. According to Mr. Ivison, it all appears to be a dastardly Liberal conspiracy.

Ivison explains that the conspiracy starts with the campaign promise of Justin Trudeau to dump the Lockheed F-35 and hold an open competition to replace Canada’s aging F-18 fighters. This has changed as it now involves dumping the open competition and sole-sourcing Boeing Super Hornets as an interim replacement for the unlikely F-35. The next step in these gyrations is to give Bombardier the billion dollars it currently needs in exchange for the Quebec government pulling back on its objections to the Energy East pipeline through that province.

British Columbia is also supposed to get a piece of this action in that the feds would contribute another billion to the new hydro project in that province to carry the electricity to Alberta to lessen that province’s reliance on coal for electricity. The quid pro quo here would be the acceptance of the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline for bitumen to cross the Rockies.

What makes the theory questionable is that Lockheed is supposed to have threatened 2400 Canadian jobs by saying that they would pull back on the high-tech offsets due to Canada in their deal. Since many of these jobs are committed under different arrangements with defence spending in the two countries, Boeing could more than make up any differential.

And while the lack of competition is bad, at least the two-engine Super Hornet is much better designed for Canada’s defence needs. The F-35 is best designed if we always go to war along side our American allies.

What does not make sense is that it is simply too Machiavellian to consider a confidential deal between the Ottawa Liberals and the Quebec City Liberals. These are not the same type of Liberals and nobody on either side wants secrets between them. Secrets are something to be used not kept.

There might be some trust between the Ottawa Liberals and the Victoria, B.C. Liberals but tying the solution to Premier Notley’s green-house gas emissions in Alberta is too much of a stretch.

While Mr. Ivison weaves a good story, it is not a sure thing that he is hitting on all cylinders on this one. Mind you, the story seemed par for the course in the National Post.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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Donald Trump supporters discovered.

June 23rd, 2016 by Peter Lowry

It has been written numerous times that the measure of a person’s intelligence is based on how much they agree with you. And having a political science professor agree with this political apparatchik is doubly gratifying. You have to admit it is a rare occurrence. Too often we get into the typical argument with political scientists between theory and application.

And that was why a recent news release from Brock University caught our eye. (You might be surprised at the number of news releases you get every day when you are writing a political blog.) Published in the June 20 edition of New Political Science, Professor Stefan Dolgert has written a paper entitled The Praise of Ressentiment: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Donald Trump.

Despite the hackneyed title (probably written by Brock’s PR department), Professor Dolgert is right on in his use of the French ‘Ressentiment’ to describe Trump’s target group of supporters.

‘Ressentiment’ goes beyond the resentment of the English word as it embraces the anger and frustration that you often find in lower class, less educated, middle-aged men. And this is the core support of Donald Trump. He appeals to their misogyny, bigotry, anger and frustration. Trump is their leader and they accept anything Trump says.

Dolgert correctly asserts that there is little to be gained among this group in correcting Trump’s wild claims. These people are on automatic in the sense that they accept and grow what ideas he feeds them.

And should the Republican National Convention in Cleveland attempt to dislodge Trump as their candidate, these are the potential storm troops of the ensuing riots. And there will be lots of people in Cleveland who are willing to take them on. Frankly, the convention organizers could save time by having the National Guard ordered out before the convention starts.

The only disappointment with Professor Dolgert’s theories is that he considers the opposition to Trump is wasting its time trying to correct Trump’s rhetoric. He thinks the ‘left’ should create its own stories about who is to blame for the ills of society. That could only work if there is an essential truth to the stories.

And besides, Trump’s bombast is already losing steam. He fired his campaign manager the other day who was letting Trump be Trump. His campaign is at a serious point. He has no real organization. He has to capitulate to the Republican Party and let it run his campaign or be an also-ran.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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Pennies for a pension plan.

June 22nd, 2016 by Peter Lowry

Did we all forget how conservative Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau can be? As MP from one of the most conservative electoral districts in Toronto, he is considered a Member from Bay Street, not Main Street. He proved it for all to see when he bargained improvements in the Canada Pension Plan down to the lowest common denominator. And what made it the complete farce was how Ontario’s finance minister cut and ran, after letting a planned, stronger Ontario supplemental plan be gutted by cheapskates.

Sure Morneau won provincial approvals. It was made cheap so the provincial finance ministers could easily agree. Of course Quebec stood back but they will probably have the Quebec Pension Plan provide Quebecers with the same pennies as the rest. Manitoba’s new finance minister had to go home to have the deal checked by mathematicians.

But the Ontario Liberal government got what it wanted. The Ontario Liberals were faced with heavy up-front costs to duplicate the Canada Pension Plan structure and proceed with the Ontario supplemental plan. The idea all along was to transfer the plan to the federal government when the time was right. With the Trudeau government in power in Ottawa the way was clear to toss the ball to the feds.

But Ontario retirees in the future will have to wait longer for less. Forgetting the present retirees who are watching their pensions eaten away by inflationary heating, eating and investment-defeating markets is the hallmark of the Wynne government.

And you can guess who the real cheapskates were at the negotiating table. It was British Columbia and Saskatchewan who kept complaining that their provinces could not afford any increase in fees or payouts. It is hardly that these finance ministers were worried about the needs of their citizens. They were just giving the usual knee-jerk conservative reactions. It was the same as the federal Conservatives who claim that Morneau and the provincial finance ministers have taken a drastic step that they will come to regret.

The truth is that Canada is behind most advanced countries in spending just over five per cent of gross domestic product on public pension funding. The average spending of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries is around 9.5 per cent of GDP.

Bill Morneau will expect kudos at the next cabinet meeting on how fast he moved on winning acceptance of his plan. Actually the speed was all a favour to the Ontario government which needed to get to work if it was going to have to go it alone.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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BREXIT is not a breakfast cereal.

June 21st, 2016 by Peter Lowry

It is supposedly friendlier to call it “Brexit” than it is to refer to it as telling the European Union to “Get stuffed.” Yet it is amazing how the polyglot peoples living on those beautiful isles have been squabbling on and off since the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Most recently our Scots cousins had a go at telling the English to bugger off in a hotly contested referendum. Knowing our Scots ancestors, we could correctly forecast that one. They are not only parsimonious but they are cautious of change.

But in this referendum to leave the EU, it is the forces of anti-immigration conservatism that are fighting the more liberal forces for growth. This is almost impossible to forecast. We might hope that clear heads prevail but whether you ignore the pollsters or believe them, this vote is just too close.

Listening to a pro-Brexit Brit cabinet minister the other day, he made the mistake of saying that Britain still had the Commonwealth to support them. That seemed to be whistling past the graveyard (‘ignoring the obvious’ for those not understanding the American idiom). There is no Commonwealth any more. It might be a club of cronies but it is no economic unit.

There are thousands of jobs in the British Isles with Canadian companies that are only located there for access to the European Union. No ready access across the Channel will end those jobs. And the economic impact will hurt Canada as well as Great Briton. And then you look for Canadian help?

The economic impact of a pro-Brexit vote could be an economic disaster for the entire world. The EU has to have the third leg of the leadership stool. And that has been Great Briton. Without the balance brought by the Brits to supporting the EU along with the French and the Germans, the union could fall apart. And it would be criminal for Brit bigotry over the refugee crisis in the EU to be the destructive force.

All we can do from the West is hope beyond hope that common sense prevails. We might not be able to convince the bigots and the ignorant that leaving the EU would be very foolish and destructive but we have always respected the average person on the street when it comes to voting. They will figure it out.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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Vote Reform Primer: FPTP.

June 20th, 2016 by Peter Lowry

The following is an updated primer on First-Past-the-Post voting from the Democracy Papers of 2007. This is the fourth of the vote reform series.

First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting is an electoral system that we have known for hundreds of years. While some people tell us that FPTP is flawed it is hard to pin these people down to exactly what is wrong.

We should start with the misconceptions about FPTP. A vote under this system is never wasted. It is not wasted when you vote for someone who loses, nor is it wasted when the person you vote for already has enough votes to win. All votes are counted and all votes are important to the candidates.

The one complaint that is considered valid is that in a large field of candidates, a winner can be declared with a plurality rather than a majority. With Internet voting today, we can have inexpensive run-off elections to determine the majority choice. This is much better than preferential voting where the voter numbers the candidates as 1, 2, 3, etc. While an attempt at making the party representation more representative of the actual vote, preferential voting tends to over-inflate the winning party’s representation.

But it is the simplicity of FPTP voting that is its most important feature. It is your best guarantee of democracy. It reflects the concept of one person-one vote. It is the easiest system with which to vote and the simplest to count. There is no ambiguity.

One of the most important benefits of our FPTP system is that we are voting for people. You can vote for a specific party if you wish but it is the person who will represent you in the parliament or legislature or council. That person is responsible to you and your neighbours. They are there to take our concerns to the seats of government. They are your advocate.

It is important to always remember that government is there to serve people. You will find that when things are going well and people are complacent, they tend to be more casual about voting. If you want to increase the voter turn-out just have the government make some mistakes that annoy large groups of voters.

Your individual vote for your candidate is your direct contact with government. Other systems where you only vote for a political party, you are part of a large mass of votes for the party you selected and you lose all connection. Nobody has to deal with your concerns or your ideas. FPTP guarantees you that your representative will be able to present individual bills or by-laws of direct interest to constituents.

FPTP has been able to withstand real and imagined criticisms for many, many years. It is a system that has served us well. It works.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me