Can’t Get Crazier Than That

It seems I get myself in a knot every federal election, and this one is no different, unfortunately.

Federal party leaders

For the uninitiated to Canadian politics, it’s important to remember that we do not vote directly for the Prime Minister; we vote for a member of parliament for our electoral district, with each candidate representing a particular party. As such, francophones better name the current “season”: they refer to it as les élections (plural), for there are in fact 308 distinct races across the country. And the leader of the party that has won the most races is the first to be called by the Governor-General to form a government and gain the confidence of Parliament.

When one party wins more races (or “seats”) than the sum of all the other party race victories combined, we end up with what is called a majority government. But in the previous three federal elections (2004, 2006, 2008), the first-place party has won fewer seats than all other parties combined. Thus we end up with a minority government, or as the British call it, a hung parliament. In order to maintain the confidence of Parliament, the government must have either a formal coalition with another party (or other parties) in the House of Commons, or an informal case-by-case “alliance.” The Liberal minority elected in 2004 and the two subsequent Conservative minorities have operated under the latter scenario.

In my mind, this explanation doesn’t seem terribly difficult to grasp, unless voters get into that “damsel in distress” mindset I decried in my previous post.

I’ve written and researched extensively the perverse effects of having 308 “elections” in what is called a first-past-the-post system (FPTP) like ours. The worse effect is that all the votes cast for losing candidates in a given district (named “riding” in Canada) amount to nothing. The only votes that count are the votes that elected the winning candidate in any given race, and the only thing that counts when forming a government is which party has won the most races.

When there are more than two viable winners in a given race, there’s a very high risk of what’s known as “vote splitting,” where the sum of the second- and third-place finishers may be somewhat or considerably higher than the total of the first-place finisher. In some ridings, the same first-place winning party consistently gets more than 50 percent of the votes, so if that winning party happens not to be your party, you can vote for your party in good conscience yet not expect anything in return, like “winning” your election. On the island of Montréal, there are assured seats for the Bloc and assured seats for the Liberals, with only a few seats liable to swing.

But that was until this election campaign.

A week is an eternity during a campaign, thus what seemed like an obvious outcome 10 days ago may not be so obvious now and may not end up being the outcome on election day in a week. For instance, nobody saw coming the rise of the NDP, especially in Québec. In fact, if some small-sample polls can be relied upon, the NDP may be polling first on the island of Montréal. But is this a real change of heart that will materialize in the privacy of the polling booths next week? Or worse, will this lead to the kind of vote-splitting, this time on the centre-left, that gave the Liberals three consecutive majorities from 1993 to 2000 and this time would lead to a Conservative majority?

Chantal Hébert is by far one of the most respected political commentators in Canada. I have rarely if ever disagreed with her analyses because she merely calls it like it is; whoever pulls a good or a bad political stunt, regardless of party affiliation, she points it out. A few weeks ago, before the sudden rise of the NDP, she suggested that the Liberal stronghold of Mount Royal across the street from me (for which PM Trudeau was the MP and has always been Liberal) could turn Conservative given their strong Jewish candidate, the heavy representation of the Jewish community in the riding, and the Conservatives’ strong stand in defense of Israel. Similarly, on my side of the street in the riding of Westmount–Ville-Marie, I had no worry until a few days ago about voting NDP since I figured the Liberal will get in no matter what. But what if all the NDP votes this time come at the expense of the Liberal but not in sufficent number for either to win the riding? Then the Conservative candidate could sneak up from behind.

Other more partisan commentators, like Liza Frulla on RDI’s Le Club des ex, don’t believe that there’s such a thing as strategic voting — at least not enough to warrant much discussion of it. I’m not so sure, though. If I were in Moncton where the Liberals and Conservatives are very close, I’d probably vote my second choice, namely Liberal. In Halifax, I’d stick to my first choice. But right now, in Westmount–Ville-Marie, am I in a position where I could re-create the 1988 vote splitting that gave Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives their second (albeit reduced) majority? Is this riding so deeply Liberal red that I needn’t worry, or is an orange tsunami sweeping over it as in all of Montréal? It’s hard to imagine tony Westmount ever going NDP, but then there’s neighbouring Outremont which nobody before 2007 could have imagined being NDP.

I hate having only one vote and how that vote won’t count if I choose a losing candidate. More than ever before, we need a mixed-member proportional system in this country. We’ve had too many “wrong winner” elections or crazy results in the past decades both federally and provincially — and by that I simply mean that too many governments have been formed despite not reflecting or downright contradicting the popular vote.

1979 PC minority
35.89% of the popular vote gave Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives a minority with 136 seats, but 40.11% of the popular vote gave Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals only 114 seats.

1984 PC majority landslide
Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won 50% of the votes but got 75% of the seats in the House of Commons.

1988 PC reduced majority
Vote splitting between the Liberals and NDP, who together got 52% percent of the vote in what essentially turned out to be a referendum election for or against free trade with the United States (with the PCs for and the other two strongly against), gave the two parties only 126 seats against the PCs 169 seats won with 43% of the vote.

1987 New Brunswick Liberal sweep
Frank McKenna’s Liberals remarkably earned 60% of the popular vote but was rewarded with 100% of the seats in the provincial legislature.

1998 Parti Québécois majority
With nearly 1% less of the popular vote, the incumbent Parti Québécois formed a strong majority of 76 seats against the Liberals’ 48 seats and the ADQ’s single seat.

The examples of over-rewarding the winning party abound. No party earning less than 50% of the popular vote should ever have a legislative majority. Simple as that.

A Spring of Discontent

So, here we go again!

Canada Votes 2011

Given that I started this blog in December 2002, I am now looking forward to commenting on the fourth federal election since aMMusing has been around. That’s a lot in a parliamentary democracy that used to yield majority governments that could remain at the reigns of power for up to five years. But, unlike other people, I am not complaining about having to go to the polls yet again; I have far too many other things getting on my tits during this election campaign.

In no particular order…

Heavily on my tits are the people who complain about having to go vote again. That totally slays me. We currently have people dying in massive civil unrest throughout northern Africa and the Middle East (not to mention the sad, sad situation that’s been going on for months in the Ivory Coast) to obtain or uphold the fundamental right to vote in order to effect significant change for citizens, and people here are complaining about a detour of at most one hour (depending on where one lives) in order to cast a ballot. It’s sickening, puerile, and quite frankly ungrateful and I can’t bear hearing it any longer.

Having said that, I understand that, for many people, elections in Canada seem like an exercise in futility. Some argue that the differences between the two parties most likely to form a government — the incumbent Conservatives and the Liberals who were outsted in 2006 — are not terribly significant, or that, in the end, all politicians are cut from the same cheap and crappy cloth and have only their own interest at heart. But that kind of facile cynicism and intellectual laziness also gets on my tits. It makes it sound like we’re a nation of damsels in distress, car broken down alongside the highway, hoping some knight in white armour will come along to save us. Many, it seems, are quite happy to simply pick only one or two items that suit them from the smorgasbord of promises laid out by the party leaders while ignoring all the other items that are fundamentally bad for everyone else, including themselves.

In my very first days of blogging in 2002, I linked to the Political Compass. website. Eight years later, the CBC / Radio-Canada made available an adaptation of it called Vote Compass, developed by the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. What emerges from either tool is that almost nobody can be 100 percent aligned to a single party or political view. That said, both tools have had their share of criticism for being biased: the former for skewing to the left, and the latter for either favouring the Liberal party or suggesting that staunch NDP supporters would in fact have a better political home with the Green Party.

As a matter of fact, I’m one of the many who leans NDP who got Green as my result on Vote Compass, with NDP second and Conservative the furthest away from my core political values. But, a SINGLE word in a question can make all the difference. In my case, the word “violent” in the statement that “Violent young offenders should be sentenced as adults” made all the difference and — gasp! — placed my squarely among the Conservatives’ camp! Remove the word “violent,” however, and my answer might be sufficiently different to place me back into my more traditional political house. But for sake of argument, let’s say that this matter was very important to me and I agreed with that statement (with or without the word “violent”) as well as one other position embraced by the Conservatives (whatever that might be), wouldn’t it behoove me to look at the party’s other positions to ensure that they more or less aligned with my beliefs in other matters? I don’t agree at all with the NDP’s position on Afghanistan, but in the final analysis, I find more pros than cons in that political house, including on policy matters that would either not benefit me or cost me more.

Meanwhile, setting aside the bogus argument that all politicians are crooks, voters can be forgiven to some extent for believing that their vote doesn’t really count. I’ve said it many, MANY times at aMMusing that I believe that’s partially a derivative of our antiquated first-past-the-gate system that leads to false majorities and literally leads to millions of votes nationwide not yielding a seat in Parliament, or each seat won “costing” far more votes to one party compared to the others. It kills me that mixed-member proportional (MMP) schemes have been rejected in two provinces, in large part because they’ve been presented as “SO complicated” and “SO unsexy” (by its name). Again, friggin’ damsels in distress! Can’t wrap their pretty little minds around having two ballots to fill out instead of only one. Poor dears.

So here I am now, living in a federal riding that withstood the Progressive Conservative tides of 1984 and 1988 and remained Liberal. Here, the Liberals could run an inanimate object as the candidate and it would get in. That means I can vote NDP (as 23% of us did in 2008) and not worry about splitting the left-of-centre vote and consequently giving the seat to the Conservatives. Similarly, if I lived to the east of where I am now (e.g., either the riding where the Village is [and also Torn’s neighbourhood] or the riding where Cleopatrick lives), I could do the same since they’ll go Bloc Québécois no matter what and not give the Conservatives the seats. However, if I lived in the Québec City area and the race in my riding were between the Conservative and the Bloc Québécois, you could bet your right nut (or tit) that I wouldn’t hesitate to vote BQ even if I am not in favour of Québec sovereignty. In short, strategic voting — that is, voting for one’s second choice to prevent vote splitting in favour of the candidate and party one completely opposes — is only a factor in places like my hometown of Moncton as well as other parts of the Maritimes, the “905” area code surrounding greater Toronto, the city of Vancouver and Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and the region around Québec City. And, of course, there’s an underlying assumption that the Conservatives would keep the ridings they already hold.

In that sense, there is SOME validity to the claim that one person’s vote doesn’t make a difference. But that’s a systemic problem. Interestingly, mere weeks after the 2008 election, the Conservatives threatened to do away with the per-vote subsidy to parties and nearly brought down the newly elected government in the process. Now, it is being clearly stated as an objective of the Conservatives should they be re-elected. Instituted by the Chrétien Liberals in 2003, this policy is:

  1. fair,
  2. proportional,
  3. credited for giving some value to votes that may not have yielded a seat in Parliament (e.g., the Green Party with its nearly 1 million votes in 2008), and
  4. intended to limit reliance on funding from well-financed lobbies, corporate interests, and unions.

When fierce opponents of the Bloc Québécois (especially outside Québec) find out that the subsidy represents 80% of the BQ’s funding, they become outraged and argue that Canadian taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidizes “traitors.” The argument falls apart quickly, though, when one considers that ALL parties reaching the 2% threshhold of popular vote nationally receive this $2 per vote subsidy, and last I checked, voters in Québec are still Canadian voters during a federal election. Moreover, the Bloc existed for 13 years without the subsidy. I repeat: I still don’t have an affinity towards the Bloc’s main plank, which is full sovereignty for Québec; however, in its 20 years of existence, the Bloc has managed to support legislation that has benefitted not only Québec but the rest of Canada as well. Yes, the primary focus of Bloc MPs is on Québec, but people I know who have met with Bloc MPs on various matters such as post-secondary education have reported that they are extremely well-prepared and do their job as MP right.

On a totally different register: My tits start to bleed when I hear that Harper’s Conservative government fell on a motion on non-confidence over the budget.

It. Did. Not.

The government fell on a motion of non-confidence due to being the first in Canadian history to have been found in contempt of Parliament. But the opposition is too damn feckless to make this the big deal that it is. And at that point, my tits go from bleeding to falling off my chest.

The result: Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff may very well be committing political suicide before our own eyes. Damsels-in-distress voters may buy into the argument that seven years of minority governments is enough, so let’s realize Mr. Lego Hair Harper’s wet dream of a Conservative majority. (I apologize for the truly revolting image created by the juxtaposition of “Harper” and “wet dream.”) And next thing you know: the 60 percent of us who will have opposed this nasty, divisive, secretive, dishonest, American-style conversatism will enter with great dread a very unsettling political Dark Age.

Harper’s “Tea Party North”

Census formIn the wake of all the chatter over the Harperites’ elimination of the mandatory long-form from the 2011 census, I have been thinking a lot lately about how Harper’s Conservatives have seemingly been getting away with dismantling the Canada the majority of us know and love despite his minority standing in the House of Commons. This article by Frances Russell Murdoch published on The Tyee puts into words, in a way I never could have, how the census debacle is only the latest manifestation of the Harper government’s implementation of the hard-right agenda that centrists and left-leaning Canadians feared so much prior to the rise to power of the Reform/Alliance Conservatives.

Taxes are not inherently a bad thing; mismanagement of tax dollars is. Having the state dictate to me where I can or cannot smoke or who I can or cannot f*ck is a bad thing, but having a state upon which I can call upon should bad luck befall me is a good thing. Meanwhile, it slays me to see, economic recession notwithstanding since the pattern began well before the recession struck, how these Conservatives, like Mulroney’s in the 1980s and 1990s or the U.S. Bushites of the 2000s, have made a porridge of the country’s finances (i.e., mismanaged tax dollars) to the point that, like Obama in the U.S., it will take another party longer to fix than it took these asswipes to break.

It breaks my heart to see Canadians and Americans alike fall for empty populist buzz phrases without realizing the negative long-term consequences. The left is not without its fault, but looking at the last century in both countries, it is clear that progressive policies have improved the lot of the majority far more than so-called conservative policies.

Celebration or Protest?

gaypride_flag1June marks the beginning of another season of Gay Pride celebrations in major Western cities. On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York City occurred, marking the moment when gays and lesbians stood up against persecution, thus the usual choice of a date in late-June to commemorate the event. But over the years, as Pride events have become more mainstream and commercial and akin to a circuit party, the date choice can range from June to September in different cities, as in Sin City North, for instance, where it now happens in mid-August.

The fact we use the word “celebration” today is telling of the shift that has happened over the years with regard to this commemorative event. Thus, I’m glad that former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray reminds us that the event, not that long ago, used to be a protest. It’s hard to imagine that a mere 20 years ago, it was imperative for some to be secretive about their sexual orientation for fear of losing their job. Thus, some would avoid the event at all cost in order not to be associated with it in any way.

Indeed, much has changed for the better HERE since I was in my 20s, so the term “celebration” may not be totally out of order. What’s more, I now live in perhaps the most tolerant, if not downright accepting, city in North America with regard to being gay. As well, for my employer and my colleagues at work, my being gay is a non-issue. I never fear of losing my job or my apartment over it, just as I don’t for loving coffee too much or having blue eyes. But it never escapes me that our cities and my country are still oases. Too easily we forget there are places on this planet where being gay is an offense — sometimes criminal, and in extreme cases, sometimes punishable by death.

Even among ourselves, though, we don’t speak with a common voice, and thus don’t form a cohesive community. To be blunt, the only thing I have in common with the vast majority of the guys who hang out in the Village is that we prefer to kiss guys, and even there, there’s a wide array of preferences. (Some don’t like kissing!) So, when it comes to Pride, there are many who can’t stand seeing scantily clad people or adherents to whatever fetish parading down the street, as they not only can’t identify with them but also, in some cases, take offense. “That is not me,” they say, and they resent that others might think they’re anything like them. That’s because, in reality, they aren’t, and it’s way too facile for anyone to accuse them of self-hatred or inward homophobia. For the life of me, I can’t comprehend how a gay guy can be on the socially conservative side of the political spectrum and I would definitely say loud and clear that “he’s not me.” That doesn’t make me self-loathing. He might be, but even that is a cheap shot.

The reason I wish Pride today had more of a protest element is that we don’t have to stray too far from our oasis to find deep resentment and hatred for the gains that have been made in the last 20 years. I don’t know if and how that can be changed. In Canada, where the legal front has been reasonably taken care of, there’s one thing left to protest: ignorance. But elsewhere, there’s that and much, much more. Thus, isn’t it selfish of us to be resting on our laurels and setting aside the notion of protest?

So, what about le chiac asteure?

Eloge du chiac Part 2I ended my previous post wondering HOW the participants of the original Éloge du chiac “still identify themselves as French first and foremost.” It turns out that Part 2, which is more than three times the length of the original Éloge, doesn’t totally answer that question. Granted, there is a shocker in finding out that the proudest self-proclaimed Acadian Chiac 40 years ago, who went on to become very militant in his early adulthood, has basically given up the cause today. But as I think about it, I realize that my question was largely irrelevant and revealed more about my preconceived notions of what this documentary would be about. In fact, Part 2 goes much further in that it examines what the state of chiac is today, namely how it has morphed, how it’s perceived, and how it ties into the notion of identity.

I think it’s fair to say that, although it still has a distinct sound and still contains many so-called archaic words — like harde instead of “linge” (clothes) or éloize instead of “éclair” (lightening) — it has sadly (at least to me) become more “franglais.” But as one of today’s teenagers in Part 2 muses, perhaps the fact that a form of “chiac” still exists is enough to resist a complete abdication to English. It’s still a resistence of sorts.

A shortened version of Part 2 airs on Radio Canada in the Atlantic region on Sunday, October 18 at 7:30 pm.