Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Election Season

Election Season

Here we go again. It's election season, and we are stuck in a steady stream of elections for at least the next year. The provincial NDP refused to accept the Liberal budget, and Kathleen Wynne called an election in response, so we are going to the polls on June 12 (EDIT: Not the 16th). Then comes Ontario municipal elections on Oct 27, for which campaigns are already underway. If I remember correctly, the federal Conservatives will call their election in 2015 sometime. We are all in for a lot of politicking and campaign shenanigans.

I ought to be grateful. I was sick and tired of election campaigns by 2012. After Catherine Fife's NDP victory (!?) in the Kitchener-Waterloo provincial byelection, I thought for certain that the provincial Liberal government would fall quickly, throwing us into yet another election campaign. But then Dalton McGuinty stepped down (!) and Kathleen Wynne won the subsequent Liberal leadership race (which probably should not get an exclamation mark) and then her premiership lasted an entire year (!!) before things fell apart. We have not had to put up with an election campaign for almost two years.

I am grateful, I guess. But I am not enthusiastic about this election campaign, or really any election campaign. The system is rigged, and once you see the rigging you cannot unsee it. The election outcome is not fixed, but it is not fair, either.

This entry is going to be even more of an incoherent mess than usual. Thoughts and reactions to these elections have been swimming around in my head for weeks. I have been trying to get this blog entry out for weeks, but I keep getting stuck. Maybe that is a sign that I should take the hint and stop writing about elections -- or better yet stop writing, period -- but instead I am going to blurt out what I have and hope there is something of worth that comes out.

Stephen Woodworth

On May 1, I went to a debate on CETA (the "Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement" between Canada and Europe) being put on by the local chapter of Fair Vote Canada. The debate was between Kitchener MP Stephen Woodworth and Angelo DiCaro, an economist working for Unifor, the super-union result of a merger between the Canadian Auto Workers and some other big union I forget (ETA: the other partner was the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada). Woodworth was arguing in favour of the agreement (it will open up Europe's markets to us! it will give us two great trading partners in the US and Europe! it will create jobs!) and DiCaro was arguing partially in favour and partially against (it will not create that many jobs! this is just the template that the US will use to negotiate its trade deal with Europe! the resolution mechanisms are undemocratic and unaccountable!).

I guess the debate was typical of free-trade arguments. As such it missed aspects of trade that never get discussed (how does a country grow local industry, and is that a worthwhile goal? is there a fundamental conflict between local identity and trade? in what ways do trade deals increase exploitation by distancing us from accountability?). CETA has not been in the headlines, and unlike the 1988 free trade deal with the United States it has not been grabbing headlines. Attendance was poor, which was a real shame. Mostly, I went because Stephen Woodworth was one of the participants, I was not disappointed.

I have written about Kitchener Centre MP Stephen Woodworth before. To the extent he is famous in Canada, he is famous for proposing legislation that would call into question the point at which a fetus is defined as a human being under the law. This is not a new tactic, and they have a name: "personhood amendments". A personhood amendment was put on the ballot in Mississipi in 2011 (but was voted down!), and this year will appear on the ballot in Colorado and North Dakota. The strategy is simple: once fetuses have full protection as human beings under the law, then abortion, emergency contraception and maybe regular contraception can be defined as acts of murder.

Woodworth's private member's bill failed to pass, so he recently made a slightly different attempt; rather than mentioning fetuses, he simply proposed that all legislation should apply to all human beings equally. This was "Private Member Motion M-476". In an interview with the CBC, Woodworth vociferously disclaimed that this legislation was directly about abortion, and instead pointed to various end-of-life scenarios. I hope nothing bad happens to Woodworth, but if something terrible was to befall him or a loved one, he is welcome to live out his life as a human vegetable, but I am not happy that he wants to extend this dictate to the rest of us. Fortunately, it appears that this motion has been stalled.

In the eyes of many pro-abortion activists, these attempts to advance an anti-abortion agenda make him a supervillain. He may even have "nuisance" status within the Conservative Party, because his boss Stephen Harper has conspicuously not supported Woodworth's private member bills, and has stated that he does not wish to reopen the abortion debate while he is Prime Minister. On the other hand, Woodworth might be a secret relief to the Prime Minister, because in proposing this kind of social-conservative legislation Woodworth demonstrates to the socially conservative wing of the Conservative party that they have not been wholly abandoned.

I do not particularly like abortions, but if I am to be drafted into this ideological war it is on the pro-abortion side. I too find Woodworth's private members bills sneaky and underhanded, and I do not support them. They do not acknowledge that the underlying motivations are less about human rights and more about outlawing abortion, and they do not acknowledge that they are part of a larger strategy being carried out by the anti-abortion movement.

Having said that, I have always had some respect for Stephen Woodworth, and my respect for him increased as a result of the CETA debate. During the debate he was thoughtful and civil. As far as I can tell, he went beyond the Conservative talking points to discuss the nuances of trade in the agreement, and even conceded a few points to his opponent. He frequently referred to his opposition of the trade deal in 1988, which might have been a rhetorical device or might have been an admission that his views have shifted.

Stephen Woodworth reminds me of Andrew Telegdi. Both of these politicians were affiliated with their political parties (and thus held to party discipline) but both of them have enough backbone to stand up and advocate for what they believed in.

This is not to say that I support Woodworth wholeheartedly. He might have some backbone, but he still plays by the Conservative playbook, which is reprehensible. His attempts to re-open the abortion debate while denying that goal is two-faced and dishonest. He has been conspicuously absent as the Conservatives have worked to tighten up borders and make life much more difficult for refugees. He is definitely a politician.

However, I think I would prefer him as my MP to the one who represents me now. It feels bizarre to type that out loud, because we are pretty far ideologically, and I clearly oppose some of the things he advocates. Nonetheless, I feel that he is a more competent, more responsive, more accessible and maybe even more representative politician than others in his position. And he seems civil, which is a quality that has been really lacking in federal politics. If more politicians upheld the levels of civility he appears to uphold, then maybe our parliaments would be less toxic and our cynicism towards electoral politics would be diminished. Maybe.

On the other hand, it really aggravates me when otherwise thoughtful, civil people repeat baldfaced lies and talking points when campaigning for office. So maybe I will hate Woodworth again when he is campaigning. To some degree, I dislike him for being duplicitous when campaigning for his private members bills.

It is worth mentioning that he was not obligated to participate in this debate. He knew full well that the audience would be hostile to his point of view, and he acknowledged that during his opening remarks. If the organizers of the debate are to believed, then Woodworth actually went out of his way to travel from Ottawa to Kitchener to be there. I think that counts in his favour as well.

Cathy MacLellan

By far, the most interesting tidbit to come out of the CETA debate was delivered right at the beginning. Longtime Green candidate Cathy MacLellan moderated the debate, and in introducing her Fair Vote Canada organizer (and local Liberal Party member) Sharon Sommerville made a disclaimer/announcement: that Cathy MacLellan was seeking nominaton for the federal Liberals.

Wow. Just wow.

I have written about MacLellan before. I have long maintained that she is a really strong candidate. My opinion is biased because I have a tendency to support the Green Party, but I have consistently seen her perform well in all-candidates meetings, and she has been a strong advocate for issues (such as refugee concerns) locally. On the other hand, in 2011 I wrote a rather irritated response to a piece she put up on her website, in which she claimed that voting for her as a Green candidate would count for anything significant. Although I feel guilty about a few aspects of that response (I have not given $10 to the Green Party to compensate for the lost $2 vote subsidy, and the 60% reimbursement for campaign expenses does make a big difference), I stand behind the central premise of that article: Cathy MacLellan is a good candidate; it is a shame she cannot get elected; and that asserting that she could somehow win the riding is deeply misleading given the realities of first-past-the-post.

Now she is attempting to seek the nomination for the local Liberals, which changes the calculus dramatically. On the one hand, it is awful that the local Greens could lose such a strong local candidate. I think that MacLellan represented the Green Party well: she understood the party platform, and brought a pragmatic attitude to its policies that (in my opinion) is sorely needed. On the other hand, if she runs for the Liberals she has a chance of actually be elected to office. Even as a Liberal, I think having Cathy MacLellan as a member of parliament would be a big improvement over the Conservative MP we have now.

There is no question that this is risky. The big victory for MacLellan would be if she can draw votes from Liberal voters, Green voters, and other voters who see that she is a strong candidate. That combined support might win her the riding even if Stephen Harper is successful overall.

The big failure would be if nobody trusts her. Green voters might boycott MacLellan because she abandoned the party. Liberal voters might see her as a traitor who cannot be trusted to remain with the Liberals after she has been elected. The gambit could be seen as a personal ploy for power instead of an attempt to avoid splitting the vote locally. And if Justin Trudeau's popularity as Liberal leader plummets, then so does MacLellan's chances for winning the seat, because most people vote for party leaders, not local candidates.

Clearly, Liberals campaigning on environmentalist issues does not seem to work well overall. Poor Stephane Dion got clobbered for advocating his Green Shift. Dalton McGuinty's Green Energy Act has remained a juicy target for his political opponents to attack. Although I continue to believe that the Green Party represents more than environmentalist concerns, that perception is not widely held, and it is conceivable that voters would punish MacLellan for coming from an environmentalist perspective.

If MacLellan wins the nomination (which is not guaranteed) then she has a difficult tightrope to walk. My own preference would be that she maintain the integrity, in-depth knowledge and Green values that she demonstrated in previous campaigns. I would prefer that she acknowledge her previous candidacies with respect, while maintaining that she genuinely has switched alleigances to the Liberal Party (which, as a "big tent" party should be able to make room for her). I also would prefer that she acknowledge the realities of first-past-the-post, and the extreme difficulty third or fourth-party candidates have in getting elected.

Overall I think I support MacLellan running for the Liberal Party, and if she wins the nomination and I am still in the riding I would be inclined to vote for her. That support is not absolute, however:

Otherwise, I probably would vote for her as a Liberal, and I would encourage others who would be inclined to vote for the Green Party to do so as well. Unfortunately, the $2 subsidy is dead, so our votes for smaller parties count for nearly nothing. Moreover, I am pretty upset with the federal Conservative agenda. They have done a great deal of damage both domestically and internationally, and I do not support our local MP being elected for another term.

Admitting this is really irritating, however. It clearly capitulates to the injustices of our voting system. It means I would be voting for MacLellan because she is running for a party that could be elected, and I would be voting for her in order to kick the existing Conservative party out. Furthermore, I think that the federal Green Party has been doing a great job. Elizabeth May may only have two seats in parliament, but she has been a force for transparency and unrelenting opposition to the federal government's agenda. She (or her party staff) pores over proposed legislation and identifies the problematic parts, and then she advocates changes despite knowing full well that her proposals will be ignored. I am so happy that Elizabeth May has been elected, and I want to see the party succeed. Voting Green locally helps in a small way (because it demonstrates that Green Party support exists across the country) but -- barring miracles -- it does not help get Green Party members elected. As sad as it is to admit, our best chance for getting a Green member of parliament elected locally is to vote for Cathy MacLellan as a Liberal.

At the end of the day, the goal is not to use the Green Party (or other smaller parties) as farm teams for the big tent parties. The goal is to be able to vote without playing strategic voting games, so that if we support the Green Party we would be able to vote for the Green Party. Under a mixed-member proportional system, we would be able to make our preferences even more explicit: I would be able to vote for the federal Green Party with my party vote (thus supporting Elizabeth May's work as party leader) while voting for the best candidate locally (which could be Cathy MacLellan or somebody else). But we don't live in a Canada with a mixed-member proportional (or any other kind of proportional) voting system. What is the best decision we can make under this unfair system? I have come out strongly against strategic voting in the past, but this feels different somehow, because instead of holding my nose and voting for the candidate/party I disliked the least, this would be one of the few opportunities I would have to vote for somebody I think is a strong candidate and would make a good MP.

Here comes a disclaimer of my own: since the CETA debate, MacLellan wrote me concerning my 2011 blog entry, and I have corresponded with her about her proposed candidacy. (Apparently, part of the nomination process involves Googling your name to dig up dirt others have written about you.) She confirmed that she is seeking the federal Liberal nomination, and I expressed some of the concerns I wrote about above. I guess I have a conflict of interest in this situation and you should disbelieve everything I write as partisan hackery, because I am strongly considering giving some money to her nomination campaign. However, I am not willing to join the Liberal Party as a member, and I also intend to keep my promise from 2011 and give some money to the Green Party as well.

Losing Faith in Democracy

A few months ago I listened to a remarkable program on The Agenda. It was an interview with Daniel A. Bell, a Montreal professor at a Beijing university. The interview consisted of Bell speaking eloquently about how Chinese politics is different (and superior) to Western politics, and how American democracy is broken because any old person can get elected (as opposed to people with the most merit, as in China).

Whenever I start worrying about the degree to which our political systems are broken people start throwing Winston Churchill quotations at me. But there is little question in my mind that our democracy is pretty broken, and there seems to be a growing trope that Chinese authoritarianism has it better. Left-wing environmentalists like the Chinese government's ability to make sweeping policy changes that address climate change, as opposed to North American dithering and NIMBYism.

This narrative is not surprising, I guess. China is an economic power, and economic powers get to dictate their narratives to the rest of us. I selfishly want my voice to be heard, and do not like the idea that my life should be unilaterally dictated by a government official. Certainly, China has all kinds of environmental problems (such as terrible pollution in its cities) in part because NIMBYism does not have a voice. But I do not think that this counternarrative to Western democracy is going away.

And I do not think we are doing ourselves any favours in defending democracy. More and more I feel disenfranchised and left out:

It is telling that the level of government does long-range planning the best happens to be the level which has the least turnover and the lowest voter interest. I am speaking, of course, of municipal politics, especially at the regional level. Nobody knows what regional councillors do, so their campaigns remain obscure, and they usually win election after election after election. In response, they put into place far-reaching plans that will have impacts over decades, which probably makes sense since they will still be in power decades later.

It is also telling that (officially, at least), municipal politics is not based on party affiliation. From what I can see, municipal politicians are much more willing to cooperate with each other than in our dysfunctional provincial and federal systems. At this point I suspect some of you would throw the case of Mayor Rob Ford back at my face, but I assert that this is the exception that proves the rule; drug usage aside, his mayorship has been dysfunctional and partisan in a way that many find astonishing, but which would not be that far removed from federal or provincial politics.

Unfortunately, thanks to Winston Churchill we cannot even admit this brokenness. As far as we are concerned, there are no alternatives, which gives licence to assorted corrosive forces in society to make our political system worse and worse (hello robocalls). But we should not be so smug, because for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union this democratic narrative is under real threat.