Thursday, August 28, 2008

Harper chose fall election over principle

Stephen Harper seems about to force an election on Canadians on completely bogus grounds.
And, at the same time, he's breaking a key promise from the last election campaign.
Harper has launched a blizzard of phony excuses over the last few days to try and justify an election.
But really, this is just about political opportunism. It's exactly the kind of abuse of power Harper promise to end in two election campaigns. Once the Conservatives won, as part of his commitment to improve democracy, he followed B.C.'s lead and established four-terms for governments.
"Fixed election dates prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage," Harper said. "They level the playing field for all parties."
So the Conservatives passed a law. The next election was to be Oct. 19, 2009.
But Harper's law is full of holes and now he's decided short-term political advantage isn't so bad after all.
The Liberals don't have much money and aren't really ready for an elections.
And things could get worse for the Conservatives, especially on the economy, by next fall.
So Harper looks ready to call an election. He's tried to come up with justifications, but the arguments are empty, and kind of insulting.
Parliament has become "dysfunctional," he says, whatever that means. There has been "impasse" on a range of issues, the prime minister complains. The Liberals have different policies than the Conservatives.
It's all apparently just too much.
Except there is no deadlock. The Conservatives haven't been stopped from governing. Their budget and tax program passed. Crime bills have made their way through Parliament. The Conservatives have made changes in ministries and at least a start on increasing military capability.
Even the commitment to keep fighting in Afghanistan until 2011 was reached in a way that suited the Harper government. For a minority government, the Conservatives have had a pretty free hand, thanks in large part to the Liberals' disarray.
There has been lots of bad behaviour and partisan jockeying, particularly in Parliamentary committees.
But the Conservatives have contributed their share to the shabbiness; the Prime Minister's Office gave committee chairs a manual on how disrupt and delay things to make sure that nothing would come out that embarrassed the government.
Those are peripheral. The main point is that the Conservatives have been able to govern. They have never lost a vote on a significant bill, let alone a confidence vote.
It's possible they have felt constrained by being a minority government. Harper hinted at that this week, saying that even if an election produced another minority government, the party in power will have a "mandate to proceed and to proceed quite aggressively for some period of time." (That might make some voters nervous.)
But this is the Parliament that Canadians chose - Conservative minority, with strong counterbalancing forces. Harper has shown no reason to ignore the will of the public.
It might be better if Harper took a more candid approach, and just said he decided he'd made a mistake in giving up the political advantage by committing to fixed election dates. The Liberals are weak and it's a good time to try for a majority, he could argue.
Harper mentor Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary political science professor, thinks the goal is more strategic. The Liberals are having trouble raising money. An election would be expensive. Another leadership race, if leader Stephane Dion got dumped, would require more fundraising and divide the party.
As long as the Conservatives keep win at least minority governments, they could plunge the Liberals into years of hard times.
The parties are all pretending to be ready and eager for an election, though that's not likely too.
The big losers are the Canadian people. The election will cost some $200 million, a fair chunk of it from taxpayers. And there is no indication the public is looking for a chance to pick a new government.
Footnote: So what would the election be about? Mostly, it seems likely, about how bad the other guys are. Harper will talk about Dion's carbon tax and say he's too free-spending. Dion will say Harper has forgotten ordinary Canadians and is too right-wing. It won't be pretty.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

STV and the legislative goon show

Sometimes Gregor Robertson had this slightly dazed expression on his face in the legislature, like someone who has shown up at a party, realizes he's the only sober person in a crowd full of rowdy drunks and isn't sure how long he has to stay.
Carole Taylor had a different look, sitting serenely at her desk with an expression that hinted she wasn't even prepared to acknowledge the party-goers dancing in the koi pond in their droopy underwear.
David Cubberley's look - a half-embarrassed smile - suggested he'd decided to be a good sport about the whole weird business.
All three were keen on being MLAs in 2005, when they were first elected. And barely three years later, they've had enough. None of the three is running again.
That should worry us. It suggests that our style of politics, and in some part the abusive, stupid things that go to often in the legislative chambers, are driving sensible people from the job.
Robertson was billed as a rising NDP star in the 2005 election. A youngish, good-looking, earnest guy who had started a successful wholesome juice business - he was a dream candidate.
But he never made an impact, at least a public one. And it certainly looked like he found the legislature foolishness somewhere between inexplicable and repugnant.
Taylor made much more of an impact as finance minister. She just refused to participate in the foolishness and acted like a serious, courteous person who had an important job to do. And as a result, did it well. But only for one term.
Cubberley, a NDP MLA for the Victoria area, should have thrived in the job. He'd spent years in government on the policy side and more than decade as municipal councillor. But he didn't last either.
All three had good reasons for not running again, as did the other MLAs packing it in.
And there are lots of drawbacks to the work, from long hours to the required adherence to the party line, often dictated without much consultation.
But still, the legislature itself - especially question period - is both part of the problem and a symptom.
It is really appalling most of the time. Shouting, insults, bad questions and worse non-answers. Most days, at least some MLAs act out in ways that get them kicked out of a Grade 6 class. Almost none of them would act in the same way around the kitchen table or at a meeting back in their ridings. It's irritating or embarrassing, depending on the day.
And it's got to be demoralizing for a sensible MLA.
It doesn't have to be such a horror show. In fact, after the 2005 election - perhaps because there were so many new MLAs - the tone wasn't bad for a while. But things deteriorated in time.
Which leads, in a roundabout way, to the referendum, to be held at the same time as next May's provincial election, on changing the way governments are elected in B.C.
This is a repeat of the 2005 referendum. A majority of voters - 58 per cent - wanted to change to a single-transferable-vote system of proportional representation.
But the referendum law required 60-per-cent support. The proposal failed.
Premier Gordon Campbell, to his credit, said that because the results were so close, the public should get another chance to vote on the change in May.
It will take a separate column to look at all aspects of the STV option. But one huge advantage is that candidates' qualities and reputations would become more important. It would not be enough to be a New Democrat in a traditionally left-leaning riding; you would have to be seen as the best representative from several NDP candidates.
And that would mean, I hope, a different kind of legislature - one where the loud and obnoxious no longer felt at home.
Footnote: Some of the enthusiasm for electoral reform might have faded since Campbell launched the project in 2001, after the second straight election that produced wildly unrepresentative results. This time, however, the yes and no sides will both have provincial funding to make their cases.