Friday, April 29, 2011

In Memoriam: John T. (Jack) Saywell, 1929-2011

I was saddened this morning to learn that Jack Saywell, the widely-acknowledged founder of York University's history department and an emininent legal and constitutional historian, passed away last week. Saywell has been a hugely influential presence in Canadian political and legal history circles over the past six decades. His most recent major monograph, The Lawmakers, is essential reading for understanding the role of the courts, particularly the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in the evolution of Canadian federalism. A recent tribute to his influence, Framing Canadian Federalism, was recently co-edited by Penny Bryden and Dimitry Anastakis.

Our understanding of Canadian history is richer for the contributions of Jack Saywell. He will be sorely missed.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

NDP in Quebec: Who are these prospective MPs?

With all the excitement/panic/drama surrounding the apparent NDP wave in Quebec, it's fair to wonder who might suddenly become the new crop of MPs from Quebec if polling data translates into seats in the House of Commons. I, for one, am very curious. Here in Guelph, the NDP ran fourth in the 2008 election, and even today, a week before the election, there is still no candidate bio on the website for the local candidate, Bobbi Stewart. I have no idea from the website who she is, other than the election preparedness chair for the local riding association.

If that's the case in Ontario, it's no surprise that speculation is rampant about the Quebec crop of candidates for the party. The Globe and Mail has started digging, and has turned up at least a handful of university students. I'm not surprised at all. When I volunteered for the local NDP candidate in Outremont in the 2004 election, I was rather surprised to discover that the entire provincial campaign was being run out of a single office on St. Laurent Blvd, and that most of the candidates for the province were in fact the campaign management team, based almost entirely out of Montreal, many of them university students, and most of them under thirty years of age. A quick glance through the list of candidates seems to indicate that this is again the case in at least a sizeable number of ridings.

As a person who genuinely would love to see the NDP replace the Bloc as the choice of Quebec voters, I'm hoping that some of the blue seats in that province will turn orange, and that the newly elected MPs will do a good job. It's just that nagging memory of the ADQ surge to become the official opposition in Quebec in 2007 that has me a little concerned of what could happen when a series of placeholder candidates suddenly become MPs.

Let's just say that I'm hopeful, yet concerned...

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Orange Revolution in Quebec: The NDP in la belle province

I'm somewhat surprised by the latest CROP and Ekos polls coming out of Quebec, showing the NDP cruising into first place, and the Bloc vote steadily falling. But as I'll get to later in this post, there are good historical reasons to explain this trend. In the immediate context, to understand better why this is occurring, I'd strongly recommend reading Vincent Marissal in La Presse this morning, although the unilingual among you (ETA: or to be more accurate, those who can only read one of our two official languages) could get a slightly more negative appraisal of the cause of Layton's rise by reading Jeffrey Simpson's column in the Globe yesterday. Taken together, what emerges is that Layton personally is quite popular in Quebec, he fared very well in the leaders' debate, and, more importantly, the NDP in Quebec is running on the soft nationalist platform, endorsing an application of Bill 101 to federal institutions and an asymmetric vision of federalism.

Whoa! What's that you say, in English-speaking Canada? The grand old party of federal government control and centralization is advocating more powers for Quebec? What's up with that? Well, gentle reader, how about a brief history lesson...

It has been a rough and complicated ride for the left in Quebec over the last 80 years. The CCF, founded in the Depression years, encountered a Quebec ready for change, as decades of provincial Liberal dynasties were about to be cast off. However, in a province still heavily dominated by the Catholic Church, a socialist party was viewed with suspicion. And then things got worse, when Maurice Duplessis seized control of the would-be-progressive Union Nationale from his co-leader Paul Gouin and set about implementing his conservative vision for the province. For the left, this was disastrous, especially once the "loi de cadenas" or Padlock Law was passed in 1937, allowing the provincial government to lock down premises being used to promote bolshevism, a law widely used against unions and left-wing organizations. The arrest of Fred Rose, a Montreal-area Labour MP on charges of supporting communism in the wake of the Gouzenko spy affair in the mid-1940s didn't help matters.

Fast forward three decades, and Quebec's political Quiet Revolution led the provincial Liberals of Jean Lesage into office as the modernizers and pro-government intervention party. At the national level, Lester Pearson and then Pierre Trudeau's Liberals offered a safe option for left-wing Quebecers. Quebec's political culture opened up to government intervention and social programs. Indeed, the time should have been ripe for an NDP breakthrough in the province. However, in the 1960s, the party was seen as the standard-bearer for nationally-run social programs, which sold well to its constituencies in other parts of the country, but left them high and dry in Quebec, where the provincial government was fighting for more autonomy over social and cultural programs (including the Quebec Pension Program of 1964-65).

As Canada slipped into the 1970s, support for left-wing initiatives - support for unions, social programs and government intervention - were all growing in Quebec. But then things get derailed for the NDP. The Union Nationale collapsed, and the standard-bearer for all things progressive became the sovereignist Parti Quebecois, which promised a dynamic, interventionist, progressive - and largely independent - Quebec. Ever since the mid-1970s, a sizable chunk of the left-wing vote in Quebec has also identified with the sovereignist option, with many seeing the greatest potential for these policies outside of a more (small-c) conservative Canada. Quebeckers have come to love their social programs - witness the provincial daycare and drug plans. And so, in election after election, many soft nationalist, left-of-centre voters, particularly francophone ones, have supported the PQ at the provincial level, and later the Bloc federally (although the Bloc also attracts a lot of more conservative voters from rural Quebec who used to support the Creditistes and the ADQ). If you track the Bloc's positions on a lot of social issues at the federal level, they consistently end up left-of-centre. Heck, the CBC's who-should-you-vote-for tool pegged me, a Trudeau federalist, as a potential Bloc voter.

And so, under Jack Layton, the NDP has adopted a new strategy. While outside Quebec the party continues to champion a strong federal role in social programs, within the province they speak of accommodation and asymmetrical federalism. They embrace Quebec's protective language laws and sing the song of the soft nationalist. It helped with the Outremont breakthrough, and appears to be selling well in this election, when Duceppe has not been in his best fighting form. And talk of coalition government does sell very well in Quebec. So in these respects, an NDP surge in the province should not be seen as all that surprising (although it's understandable why are surprised given this long history), but long overdue, especially given that active support for separatism is quite low at the moment.

The big questions are as follows: a) Will this support hold until election day and be concentrated enough to yield more seats in the province? and b) Will the NDP's core voters in other parts of the country continue to support Layton and his party despite these promises made in Quebec, if and when they become more aware of them?

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Election 2011: Thoughts on "Truthiness" and Evidence-Based Policy

Just a quick post today to link to a blogpost I was invited to contribute to's Decision Canada election website. In it, I reflect on recent Conservative changes to programs such as the long-form census and the court challenges program which have undermined evidence-based policy-making and a rigorous democratic culture.

I'm marking exams at the moment, which explains the lack of new posts since the weekend, but I shall return!

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

James Moore: How far back is going too far back?

In the interests of a bit of non-partisanship, I'm going to call out the Liberals today for a tactic I find distasteful that was used in BC. Liberals in the riding of heritage minister James Moore have released a column that he wrote in a student nespaper over a decade ago, which questions the issue of regulating late-term abortions. Effectively, the local Liberals are all but accusing him of secretly harbouring an anti-abortion agenda, despite a long record of pro-choice statements, and generally being one of the most socially liberal members of the Conservative caucus (with a stellar record on gay rights, for example).

The article in question was written twelve years ago! I shudder to think that someone would dig out pieces that I wrote as a high school journalist or even an undergraduate (when I was deeply in the closet) and take them for my current opinions. People's views change over time, and when a clear record of speaking and voting on issues a certain way has been established, I do think it's reasonable to let people make a break from their past. This is not to say that individuals who have gone quiet on an issue, or release ambivalent statements should be given a free pass. But when a clear pattern of voting and speaking a certain way is established, it seems petty to attempt a "gotcha" attack, especially when there are so many other ways to confront a candidate's actual established positions.

More to the point, Moore's position on this issue hardly paints him as a wide-eyed radical on the abortion question. Although Canada's laws on abortion were struck down by the courts in 1988, the Supreme Court did rule that regulation of abortion was permissible, but not using the procedural mechanisms that were in place under the 1969 legislation, which violated the principle of equal access. Moreover, the main reason that Canada doesn't have an abortion law now is because efforts to pass such a law failed in the Senate, partly because social conservatives considered Kim Campbell's legislation to be too permissive. The procedure /is/ internally regulated by a number of medical authorities at the provincial level, covering the particular types of cases that Moore addresses in the quotes cited in the Globe article. Indeed, one could make the case that clear legislation on when abortions are fully legal might make it easier for women to procure them in provinces such as New Brunswick, where access is notoriously difficult because of these internal regulations.

I think this particular case of going after Moore for this article is petty politics and something that both the local party organizers in BC should have been above, and that the Globe shouldn't have descended to reporting on. Frankly, there's plenty to attack in the current actions of Moore's Conservative benchmates and leader without having to stoop to digging up mud on his pre-office actions of over a decade ago.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

U of Guelph votes will count!

Elections Canada has released a Solomonesque public statement on the University of Guelph voting controversy. Of greatest interest is the fact that the student votes will be counted, and are considered to have been cast in a manner that respects the Canada Elections Act. The short version of the statement is that it appears that this special ballot station, although it was not centrally approved by the Chief Electoral Officer in advance of the election, is something that has often been done in a number of circumstances and was organized by the local Elections Canada Returning Officer. Such special ballot stations are usually pre-approved before an election. Similar on-site special ballot collection initiatives will not, however, be permitted for future cases during this election. Voters may, however, obtain individual special ballots from their riding's returning officers.

The statement treads a careful path between the competing party interests, staying away from explicit commentary on the other allegations (the alleged attempted box snatching, partisan material near the polls, the scrutineer question), and focusing on the central issue of whether the votes will count. For now, this is what needed to be addressed.

I remain, however, very concerned that amidst concerns about perceived irregularities, it was not until after the casting of ballots had taken place that active Conservative efforts were made to have the students' votes set aside. The details of this special ballot were well-publicized in advance in Guelph and around the university. Heck, the President of the university publicly offered to have his face painted Avatar-blue if enough students took part! In the absence of serious issues that might actually have led to actual fraud, all parties should be thinking in terms of encouraging youth votes, rather than actively cancelling them.

To any students/youth reading this post: Keep up your efforts to have your voices heard and votes counted!

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Guelph Conservatives continue to try to exclude youth voters

It's really quite mind-boggling to think what must be going through the thinking processes of Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke's campaign team. First, they make a point of keeping members of the U of Guelph vote mob away from Harper's rally. Then, he failed to turn up at this week all-candidates debate at the university. And now, in a move that I find jaw-droppingly stupid, his agent is trying to exclude the 700 votes cast at a special advance ballot held at the university yesterday. According to the article in the Guelph Mercury, such special advance polls are routine to try to encourage voter turnout among segments of the population that often have lower participation rates. Certainly youth qualify, with a less than 40% turnout in the last election.

I hope this incident gets nation-wide coverage. The Conservative Party of Canada doesn't want students to vote, and will take special measures to exclude their ballots. This is absolutely reprehensible, and yet completely unsurprising in light of how this campaign has gone to date. For shame.

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Post-debate musings

One of the nice perks of being bilingual is that you can watch Canada's political leaders debate in both languages without having to listen to their interpreters. I watched both Tuesday's English-language debate and Wednesday's French-language debate. Here are a few impressions:

1) Format: I liked how the format allowed for more one-on-one interactions. I was less pleased that camera positioning allowed, if not encouraged, leaders to not speak to each other but to talk straight at the camera (or to Canadians). Harper, in particular, often seemed like he was delivering an infomercial script. Alas, I think it probably worked for him, with the two hours serving as free advertizing time, rather than time for thoughtful exchange. As so many have said, the location and set were a disaster, from the acoustics to the decor. As I have also said before, Elizabeth May should have been in the room, especially in the English-language debates.

2) Questions: I'm just not a populist, and I thought the questions from "average Canadians" was an irritating contrivance. Many were still the questions that the media would have posed, but framed in a more awkward and partisan tone. Also, it's notable that not one of the questions in the French-language debate came from a francophone outside of Quebec (where over 1 million of them live), only 1 of the 12 Canadians came from a younger voter, and none came from a person who was a visible minority or an aboriginal Canadian.

3) Leaders:
Harper played it cool, almost reptilian (although I wouldn't go so far as to call him a kitten-eater). He stayed out of the mix in both debates, keeping his calm, and being thoroughly dismissive of the other leaders. He also dodged direct questions, which might have irked undecided voters. I think he fared fine in the English debate for what he needed to do, but he was thoroughly unimpressive and disengaged from the French-language debate. His outspoken contempt for the debate format itself, which he referred to as "bickering" or "chicanes" was all part of his strategy to prompt people to view politics as irrelevant and distasteful. I thought Ignatieff scored a good point in the English debate (and again in French) by reinforcing the necessity of democracy.

Ignatieff had some good moments in the English language debate, particularly around the issue of engagement with voters and healthy debate. But he did seem a bit hostile and unable to articulate the Liberal vision. Clearly his handlers spoke to him, because I thought he was really on his game in the French debate, repeatedly articulating Liberal promises (such as the learning passport) and generally seeming more relaxed. He also learned to address the camera more often. He also made a constant point of returning back to the original question, which might be a useful strategy to sway the undecided vote.

Layton probably read well in both debates. In the English debate, he was the voice of moral authority and concern for the working class, as is so often the role of the NDP. In French, he almost seemed impish, with a gleam in his eye as he called out the other leaders on a variety of issues. He seems more clever in French, somehow, and less dogmatic. He also avoided repeating his line about crime "and all that bling" being appealing for the young, which was embarrassing.

Duceppe was Duceppe. I think his English this year was not as strong as in 2008, for whatever reason. All he had to do was attack the other parties, knowing he will never, ever win government at the federal level. I appreciated having him there to attack Harper on issues like the would-be coalition of '04, but I find his presence in federal politics to be an irritant at best. I will be curious to see how his performance read for the soft-nationalist core in Quebec. Ignatieff tried to argue that constitutional issues were not the big priority for voters, and I'm not sure whether Duceppe has managed to convince Quebecers that this is the priority issue he needs it to be.

And now we proceed to another two and a half weeks of campaigning. Will there be an Easter surprise? Stay tuned!

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Voter engagement. (or Week 2 wrap-up)

Last week, just before the beginning of my second- and third-year Canadian history courses, I played the following Rick Mercer clip:

Youth voting has plummetted over the past couple of decades, and falls well below the national average. Indeed, Canadian voting rates on the whole have been declining in recent elections, leading many to ponder the causes of the decline and to propose solutions. Some of those proposed solutions relate to making voters feel more informed about the issues (perhaps via leaders' debates), and others about re-working the entire process so that individuals feel their votes matter more (such as electoral reform in the direction of a form of proportional representation). I was therefore pleased to see that a group of students from my own university attracted extensive media attention for their "Vote Mob" rally when Stephen Harper swung through Guelph.

However, the past week has not been encouraging in terms of the signals that some of our politicians and media outlet owners have sent about voter engagement - or at least about engaging certain types of voters. The Vote Mob rally got so much media attention at least in part because of last week's string of incidents involving students being ejected or barred from Conservative rallies. Although Harper's team has since backed down, the early signals from his team was that non-Conservatives were not welcome to hear the Prime Minister speak. The use of Facebook as a method of screening out voters, rather than engaging them, was not quite how most people probably envisioned the potential of social media to draw in voters during an election.

Indeed, I'm still rather disappointed in the failure of some parties to make full use of a now relatively-old medium for engaging voters - particularly the iPhone and Blackberry-toting youth demographic. In my own riding, Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote is on Twitter (and responded promptly to a question I had about a lawn sign - I'll admit my own leanings in this election), while the local NDP candidate (whose party I voted for in the last federal election) Bobbi Stewart still doesn't even have a candidate bio on the Guelph NDP's website! It hardly draws people in to vote for a candidate when a basic internet search doesn't turn up information about you!

And then today, we learned an important lesson about voter engagement. Because the first game of the first round of hockey playoffs, involving the Montreal Canadiens, has been scheduled for this coming Wednesday, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe asked to have the date of the French-language debate changed, a request now granted by the broadcast consortium. I can understand the logic of both the request and the decision. Lots of Canadians (not including me) are Habs fans, and will want to watch the game. Rescheduling the game opens the possibility that they might tune in to both the French-language debate and the hockey game. I might not like the fact that hockey will trump politics for many potential voters, but I recognize the realpolitik underlying the decision.

But if you're one of the over 937,000 voters who supported the Green party in the last election - the only party, incidentally, to increase its total number of votes from 2006 to 2008 - or one of the many young voters who might want to hear what this party's leader has to say in an exchange with the other party leaders, you're still out of luck.

The lesson from these decision-makers for Canadians: It's more important to engage hockey fans in the electoral process than environmentalists, youth or Green supporters.

Tune in next week for commentary on polling trends, debates and the fate of the nation (after I get a big stack of exams graded).

P.S. - Although my blogging has been irregular and will likely continue to be so, you can follow my efforts at pithy commentary on Twitter. Follow me at @mhayday.

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