Thursday, March 31, 2011

Debates, Debates, Let's Have More Debates!

Most of my current students are too young to remember the now infamous election debate clashes between Brian Mulroney and John Turner. So I like to show them the Free Trade Clash from 1988 or the patronage kerfuffle of 1984. Both debates were widely acknowledged as game-changers for their respective campaigns, with Mulroney the winner of '84 and Turner in '88. Ever since those debates, pundits have longed for a return to this clear-cut era where there were fewer candidates on the podium, and thus a greater chance of a knock-out blow, or certainly longer periods of direct confrontation. (Lest I be accused of the sin of omission, both debates also featured NDP leader Ed Broadbent, a solid debater in his own right).

And so here we are in the same position as we were in 2008, debating whether Green Party leader Elizabeth May should be allowed in the Consortium-managed leadership debates. (Is it just me, or does Consortium sound vaguely ominous and evil.) And even if she isn't allowed in, should we perhaps also have an Ignatieff vs. Harper one-on-one debate, since most experts think these are the two most likely candidates to form the next government? Herewith, my two cents.

As a supporter of some variant of proportional representation, I support May's inclusion in an all-leader debate. Given that the Greens won over 900,000 votes in the last election, about 6% of the total vote, under pretty much any system of proportional representation or mixed-member proportional system they would currently have seats in the House of Commons. The fact that they do not hold an elected seat is the excuse being advanced by the Consortium for their exclusion. To my mind, the fact that our first-past-the-post system is an antiquated electoral model that ill-reflects actual voting patterns is not a valid excuse to exclude the Greens. This position, incidentally, is supported by Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former chief electoral officer for the country. It is a decision which only benefits those who are the current victors under the status quo. Moreover, if the Bloc, which doesn't even run candidates in three-quarters of the country's riding, is permitted in the national leaders' debates, then the Greens, which run in all ridings, definitely should be included.

That's my ethical, principled position. Now for the other side, which is how I feel as a television viewer. I found the five-leader debates of 2008 to be tedious and long-winded. Too much time was taken up with the initial series of statements about each issue, and then a number of, to my mind, tedious and dreary question exchanges between pairs of candidates who agreed with each other. The Dion-May and Layton-Duceppe interchanges, in particular, tended to drag on. With five candidates, and a limited time frame, there is not much opportunity for the front-runners to confront each other, but the time allocated to each exchange is not reflective of the relative standing of the parties in the polls (and, presumably, viewer interest). With this in mind, I'd love to see a series of one-on-one exchanges, such as the one that Michael Ignatieff was proposing to Stephen Harper. I think many voters might find these more compelling to watch, as they would allow for more sustained and direct interaction between the leaders. So by all means, I'd support having these types of exchanges in addition to the all-leaders forum.

Finally, with respect to the events of the past couple of days, I think Michael Ignatieff was smart both to propose the one-on-one debate with Stephen Harper, and to avoid the snare of accepting this encounter in lieu of the all-party debate. Ignatieff is going to be counting on soft NDP and Green support in this election, and will need to avoid looking like he is disdainful of those parties. But nor will I be surprised if Harper does not cave on this issue. It's to his benefit to limit the number of chances that the opposition leaders have to take him on directly. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't back the inclusion of the Greens in the debate. Every minute that Elizabeth May gets on stage is one less that Layton and Ignatieff have, which only hurts them. The front-runner could have afforded to appear to be magnanimous, and it probably would have helped him in the long run (although perhaps not Gary Lunn).

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Roger Abbott. A Canadian comic genius passes away.

I just found out that Roger Abbott, star of the Royal Canadian Air Farce, has passed away at the age of 64. I feel a bit like I've lost a funny uncle. Air Farce was a huge part of my political education as a teenager, and my life is richer for Abbott's humour.

I often get asked where I developed my interest in Canadian politics. Roger Abbott and Air Farce were a huge part of it. My dad introduced me to the radio show when I was eleven, and we used to go to the annual Toronto tapings at Massey Hall. I also used to record the show off the radio every weekend, building up a rather sizeable library of past episodes (which I just digitized) that I used to listen when I went to bed. I could recite many sketches from memory. I always got the impression that Roger Abbott, along with Don Ferguson, were at the core of the show. They always did the voice overs for the repeat episodes and the new CDs and the announcements for the Frequent Flyer club (my magnet is still proudly displayed on my fridge). The fact that I have a rather quirky and cynical approach to Canadian politics was probably largely due to their antics.

Canadian politics and Canadian humour was made much richer by Roger Abbott's contributions. He will be sorely missed. Thanks for all the laughter!

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Too early for a post on strategic voting?

In a historic vote today, the Canadian government was found in contempt of Parliament. It's a shame they couldn't have also been found in contempt of the Canadian people, of logic, of sound policy-making and in contempt of a host of other principles that I hold dear. But I digress.

Unfortunately, the polls show that a sizeable proportion of the Canadian electorate doesn't care what Prime Minister Lego-Hair does, they still plan to vote for him. This means that we're likely to see a variant of the 2008 election, with nailbiter races across the country. It'll be particularly bad in my neck of the woods, southwestern Ontario, where Canada's Action Plan signs have proliferated in an effort to win votes for the Conservative contemptuous government.

So what is a left-of-centre voter to do? Is it even possible to vote strategically? Should you vote for the best party, or the least objectionable of your non-Conservative options? Do you vote for the well-intentioned local candidate or the party? Do you try to read the proverbial tea leaves and cast your ballot for the candidate who might be best positioned to beat the local Conservative?

There will be better-informed posts on the issue of strategic voting as the campaign unfolds. But here's my two cents. In many ridings across the country, your preferred non-Conservative candidate might well be a complete no-hoper to win. In many cases, an opposition party might have won a squeaker race in your riding the last time around, beating the local Conservative, but it might not have been your preferred party. In those cases, I would urge you to vote for the opposition party that is best positioned to beat the Conservatives, whether they be a NDP or Liberal incumbent MP, or the Green, NDP or Liberal challenger who stands the best chance of unseating the local Conservative. Inform yourself before you vote - look at the results of past elections in your riding to see how the parties have historically fared. Strategic voting, to my mind, means voting a certain way only if there is a high probability that one party's candidate is the only one likely to defeat a certain candidate.

So if your riding is usually a toss-up between the Liberals and the NDP, with a Conservative no-hoper, then vote your conscience! If all the opposition parties fared equally well last time around in your riding, then pick the one you like best and hope they come out on top. But if the last race was a nail-biter between the Conservative and a candidate from another party, and your top priority is to defeat Harper, then I'd urge you to hold your nose and vote for that party, even if it's not your absolute favorite. For me, this means I'll probably be voting Liberal here in Guelph, even though I haven't voted for the federal Liberals since 2000. (I probably would have in 2004 if I had been living anywhere other than Outremont - but Jean Lapierre was simply too horrible to contemplate supporting.) If I lived in another part of the country, say Edmonton-Strathcona, I'd be urging my Liberal friends to vote NDP. It's only in the really close races that I'm urging this type of voting strategy. But to my mind, any of the parties outside of Quebec are better than Harper.

Fingers crossed, we won't be in this same mess six weeks from now, or at least, the mess won't be any worse.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brooke Jeffrey, Divided Loyalties: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1984-2008

As I write this review, Canada appears to be on the eve of an election call. It thus seems fitting to reflect on elections and campaigns past. For the past two weeks, I’ve been making my way through Divided Loyalties, Concordia political scientist Brooke Jeffrey’s account of the internal dynamics of the Liberal Party of Canada from the end of the Trudeau era to the selection of Stéphane Dion as leader in 2008. Unfortunately, there is little being written these days by academic historians about party politics, particularly with regards to the most recent decades, and so Jeffrey’s account is a welcome addition to the literature.

In some respects, Jeffrey’s account echoes Stephen Clarkson’s The Big Red Machine which effectively chronicled past Liberal success at campaigning from the left, and governing from the centre or centre-right. In detailing the internecine warfare of the Liberal party during the years of the Turner-Chrétien and Chrétien-Martin feuds, Jeffrey, a former research director for the party, is clearly sympathetic to the Trudeauvian left-wing camp of social liberals in the party, and generally critical of the business liberal camp that followed Turner and Martin. Yet despite this bias, she generally provides an engaging and perceptive account of why the party has encountered its various difficulties in the past three decades – and why it succeeded when it did. Although this is a weighty tome (at 621 pages), it is written in a largely accessibly manner, and is filled with proverbial palace intrigue to sustain reader interest.

Perhaps the most interesting analytical angle put forth by Jeffrey is that the split within the Liberal party was not only the highly publicized business vs. social one, but that the more important, and perhaps less easily reconcilable, division was over conceptions of federalism. In her view, the party has succeeded most when it endorsed a Trudeauvian centralist approach to federalism and put forth a vigorous defence of national social programs as a central aspect of its nation-building program. It is during these periods, she argues, that the party is closest to the beliefs of its core supporters, and that it fares best at the polls. However, she is dismayed at a growing trend, often endorsed by the business liberal camp, and particularly under Martin and his followers towards decentralized and asymmetrical federalism. Jean Lapierre, the Liberal-turned-Bloquiste-turned-Martinite is subjected to particularly vigorous criticism – and not undeservedly, in my opinion. It’s noteworthy that she believes both current party leader Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae to fall within the asymmetrical federalism camp – one which she believes does not tend to lead to a sufficient degree of Liberal voter engagement and support.

There is much in Divided Loyalties for the policy wonk. A former researcher for the party, it is not surprising that Jeffrey devotes such attention to the development of various party platforms and policies. At points, the level of detail regarding key personalities may become moderately overwhelming for those not intimately familiar with the party, but these sections are nicely interwoven with the overarching narrative of major constitutional and political events. Implicit in her argument is the idea that the party desperately needs a strong set of well-articulated and presented policies to maintain voter support, which she contends has been lacking since the end of the “Red Book” era.

There are some frustrating elements to the book. Jeffrey had access to many party insiders, MPs and Senators, and these interviews inform much of her analysis. However, many interviewees insisted on confidentiality, with the result that the book has as many anonymous “senior party officials” and “caucus members” as a series of Jane Taber columns. These insights are valuable, but the lack of attribution is frustrating for the historian. Although most of the book is incredibly detailed, this level of detail and analysis tapers off sharply almost immediately after Martin’s departure. After reading detailed analyses of the conventions won by Turner, Chrétien and Martin, it was surprising that the 2006 leadership race was scarcely touched upon, and the roles played by Ken Dryden, Scott Brison and Martha Hall Findlay barely mentioned. Given that the book was published late in 2010, it is also somewhat disappointing that the 2008 federal election was relegated to a footnote. Although academic publishing timelines may partly explain this omission, it was particularly upsetting given that the footnote referred to Jeffrey’s own published work with another press.

After 621 pages of detail and analysis, I had also hoped for a more satisfying general conclusion and broad-based reflection, rather than the two paragraphs that Jeffrey provides. That said, her contention that the party requires a more concentrated effort at regrouping and rethinking its priorities and policy directions, and that it needs to stop fighting and tearing itself apart in public, is highly instructive. Alas, if the polls don’t turn around quickly, I fear we will soon see a repeat of the electoral campaigns described in Divided Loyalties, with Liberal insiders, caucus members and “senior party sources” calling publicly for the leader’s head, rather than trying to pull together for the duration of the election.

I hope to be proven wrong.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Wild election predictions

I haven't blogged nearly as much about contemporary politics of late as I did when this blog got started. In no small part, it's because I've found both federal and provincial politics to be rather depressing, and largely without policy initiatives to inspire me. I've also thus far refrained from most of the election speculation that has been running rampant. But since a former student asked me last night for my thoughts about what is increasingly looking like an election train pulling out of the station, here's my wild speculation on the outcome of such an election.

Best case scenario (from my perspective): Another Conservative minority. Some shuffling of the deck in terms of Conservative-NDP-Liberal seats, but overall more-or-less the same ratios in the house, and no major Bloc losses.

Worst case scenario (from my perspective): A Conservative majority. Bloc stays constant. NDP and Liberal losses, particularly in Ontario.

Why do I think this? I don't think that voters are nearly as outraged about the various contempt scandals facing the Conservatives as they were about Adscam in the Martin years, and Harper has wisely (from a strategic standpoint) decided to try to put out the fires rather than throwing more fuel on them (launching an inquiry, declaring his outrage, and stamping about like a ninny). Most Canadians, frankly, don't even understand the finer points of what his government has done wrong, and probably don't care, because they're so disenchanted with all politicians right now. And so, the major election issue that the Liberals and NDP are banking on, I think, will fizzle. Neither of their leaders is particularly beloved, and I don't think that will change either. I hope to be proven wrong on this. (And sorry, Elizabeth May, but the Greens are going to be totally marginalized this time.) But with the Conservatives able to spend way more money on advertisements than the other two parties, I think they'll get to set the narrative this time.

What are the outcomes of these scenarios. Well, the big one is that Iggy gets shown the door in both cases. (Jack will be allowed to stay if he wants to, because nobody is going to launch a coup against a leader recovering from medical treatment.) After that... well, my suspicion is that the Liberals then crown "Premier Bob", and let him go down in flames in Ontario in the following election. And then we might actually see some renewal in that party.

Thus endeth a really, really pessimistic and bitchy post. Do you see now why it's better to have me posting about historical issues?

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In Memoriam: Olive Dickason (1920-2011)

This blog isn't going to become a chronicle of the passing of people who have played roles in my career as a historian, (political blogging will likely resume when the writ is dropped, if not sooner) but it nevertheless came as a bit of a shock for me to learn that path-breaking Métis historian Olive Dickason had passed away last weekend. History blogger Christopher Moore has a nice tribute to her at his site, and there are many other aboriginal and governmental groups who have posted similarly glowing assessments of her life and career.

My own contact with Professor Dickason was rather fleeting, but still important to me. She was an emeritus professor at the University of Ottawa when I was a graduate student in the late-90s, and although she wasn't offering any courses at the time, a friend of mine was starting her PhD work with her. I met her and we had a few brief conversations at various departmental socials. My research does not usually head too far into aboriginal history, but Professor Dickason nevertheless played an important role in my career. Twice in my early teaching career - once at Concordia, and once at Mount Allison - I was asked to teach courses on Canadian First Nations History. Olive Dickason's textbook Canada's First Nations, which is still widely used and now in its fourth printing, was a lifesaver to a young post-doc who was wildly out of his depth. She had a huge impact in the field of Canadian history, especially on aboriginal and Métis history, and will be greatly missed.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Working on recent history - some reflections

In my professional life, I usually find myself researching and writing on topics that deal with the last fifty or so years of Canadian history. This sometimes leads to people thinking that I'm not a historian, but a political scientist. It also means that I often have access to living subjects for my research, and can interview or contact people who lived through the events I'm writing about to gain their insight on issues. I can tap into rich oral histories for information, perspectives and details about the past that aren't always found in the documentary or archival record.

One of the consequences of this, however, is that I'm often made all too aware of the passage of time in the course of my research. I will often be speaking with someone connected to my research, and have them mention that a given person would have been perfect for me to talk to, except that they passed away a couple of years ago. Pierre Trudeau, whose career was so central to my research interests, passed away mere weeks before my comprehensive exams as a PhD student. Senator Ron Duhamel, who I interviewed about his involvement in Franco-Manitoban education for my PhD, passed away a few months after we spoke.

Today this was driven home to me yet again. Just two months ago, I posted a query in a couple of places, including this blog, seeking contact information about people who had been gay writer-activists for a textbook reader that I'm collaborating on. Many people replied to my queries (queeries?) on Facebook, Twitter and here, allowing me to tap into the diverse networks of current and former activists, many of whom are still in close touch with each other. I also got a lot of help from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Unfortunately, in the course of these inquiries, I found out that one of the authors, Chris Bearchell, had passed away from breast cancer only a few years ago. Today, I found out that Herb Spiers, co-author of the "We Demand" manifesto from 1971 and a prominent gay activist, passed away on March 2nd. Only a few weeks ago the permissions researcher for my textbook had been in touch with him, shortly after he had been in hospital.

My apologies for what might seem like a rather melancholy post. I consider myself lucky, as a historian, that I often do get to speak with people who were involved in the events of history, and share in their memories. The conversations that I have had with these people are almost always incredibly rewarding and thought-provoking, and often much fun. Many people have been incredibly generous in sharing their stories with me. But the flip side is that the relative short duration of human lives all too often crops up in unexpected ways as I conduct my research.

Thanks, Herb, for your life's work!

Addendum: Although I never had the opportunity to speak to Herb Spiers directly as part of my own research, he did share many of his experiences with the ACT UP Oral History Project.

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