Monday, 16 December 2013

Judicial Rebellion or Judicial Intransigence? Public Policy and its Judges

On CTV’s Question Period this past Sunday (Dec 15), Ontario’s Colin Westman pontificated in high-minded philosophical terms about his (now) very public disagreement with the Conservative government's policy which mandates a victim surcharge be applied during sentencing. Westman decried the policy as targeting 'broken souls' and resulting in severe harms such as poor children not getting a pair of skates or mortgages going unpaid. The surcharge may very well be unjust and, indeed, may impose a substantial burden on convicted criminals who are not well-off financially; it may also be terrible public policy. The problem, however, is that this policy is now law and Mr. Westman is a sitting judge.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Senate Abolition by Attrition: The Fool's Errand of Constitutional Idiocy

Few issues in Canadian politics have been able to capture the collective idiocy of politicians, pundits and the general public as the Senate. The Official Opposition -- the government in waiting, we're told -- entreats the public to help 'roll up the red carpet', claiming the upper chamber is simply not needed. Indeed, the common refrain from many is one of 'abolish! abolish!' as if by virtue of a simple gesture or utterance a populist consensus (inherently undemocratic) one can simply disregard a country's constitution. That the NDP with its questionable interpretation of federalism would fail to understand the inherently federal nature of the Senate (designed specifically not to represent individual citizens based upon population) is unsurprising.  The 'unelected and unaccountable' trope, too, is troubling as it places a premium on voting as the sole mechanism of legitimacy for any institution.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Reform Act and a Parliamentary Culture Shift

Michael Chong’s proposed private member’s bill – his Reform Act – has received considerable attention since it was first announced, attracting high profile praise from the likes of columnist Andrew Coyne and equal measures of dismissal from, of all places, the federal New Democrats. As Coyne rightly describes it, should even some of its apparently rudimentary measures come into force, the bill could be nothing short of the first shot in a growing salvo. It could be the tipping point in a much larger spate of democratic reform. Importantly as well it refocuses public attention away from the distraction that is the Senate, instead focussing on the genuine democratic deficit in the House of Commons. Yes, the Senate is unelected, but its abolition would contribute little if anything to enhancing our democracy. Something more necessary is required.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dumbocracy Botch: Democracy Watch's Civic Illiteracy Strikes Again

Democracy Watch and its feckless founder continue to display a profound and stunning inability to grasp the
basic workings of the institutions they seek to improve. For a group that vocally claims to promote basic civic literacy among the general population it continues to demonstrate that as an organization it lacks the collective expertise, wisdom and common sense to fulfill its own mandate. Indeed, the more successful Democracy Watch and its Canadian campaigns are, the more irreparable damage will be done to our collective understanding of how Canadian democracy actually functions.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

I’ve always been curious and more than a little perplexed by the phrase “I’m a fiscal conservative”. It’s confusing because it is most often expressed by individuals who vote (Progressive) Conservative and feel that what is a seemingly self-evidently contradictory action – yes, I’m pro-choice, no I’m not anti-gay – needs immediate explanation. “I’m a fiscal conservative” is an almost defensive posture.

It’s also fundamentally at odds with reality. Our big-C Conservative governments are rarely if ever fiscally responsible in the sense of responsible management of public funds. Federally the record is quite clear. The fiscally conservative party is actually the Liberal party. The last two Prime Ministers who managed to balance the budget did so because they both inherited a surplus from the previous government. In both cases they were quick to squander the fiscal breathing room.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Poppies, Politics and the War for Remembrance

It has become an almost inescapable reality that the history of Western states is bound up with their military heritage. The degree to which this is the case waxes and wanes as popular sentiment shifts and power changes hands. Britain, France and Germany are dotted with monuments to the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while the history of the United States is, perhaps more so than most other states, bound with war through the revolutionary origins of victory over its imperial masters in Britain. Closer to home, most cities in Canada are likely to have a Cenotaph or some memorial to the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918, subsequently expanded to include the Second World War, the Korean conflict and, most likely, expanded again to acknowledge peace keeping missions and the recent war in Afghanistan.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Parliamentary Reform from the Cheap Seats

Elizabeth May is perhaps the hardest working Member of Parliament. As a caucus of one, her entire party – its policy objectives, its visibility – depends on her ability to command attention in the House and in the media. However, for all the time she spends in the lower house, she still demonstrates an alarming lack of awareness about the institutions she is now apart of. Her frequently public musing offers a glimpse into a political theory that it is often at odds with itself and its intended aims.

Cabinet & Senate: An End to Government Bills in the Upper Chamber?

News that the current Leader of the Government in the Senate is stepping down is not surprising. A long serving veteran of the upper chamber, Marjory LeBreton is close to the mandatory retirement age and would not be able to serve in a theoretically re-elected Harper ministry in 2015. LeBreton has also been front and centre for the Senate expenses scandal, a role that has been largely unhelpful for the government in diffusing the situation.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Get Off Your Duff: Democracy Watch Continues to Fail Basic Civics

Recently the founder of Democracy Watch has once again been given a soap box from which to preach his unique brand of republicanism. An opinion piece in the Toronto Star unduly conveys that notion that he is an expert in his field. The problem is not that he is a republican – the idea of monarchy is morally repugnant and runs contrary to modern conceptions equity and fairness - but that he is consistently wrong when it comes to the subject. His sense of the Canadian Constitution – both as a text and the elements of convention that animate it – and the workings of the Canadian Crown are grossly inaccurate and detract from a serious discussion of the subject.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Partisanship and Parliamentary Politics

One of the recurrent criticisms of the Harper government is the extreme partisan nature of how it operates. It is certainly true that the current government has been more overt in its partisanship, particularly as a tool of control – both of the message and caucus – and as a means of combatting the opposition. This hyper-partisanship has clearly been problematic, sharpening the barbs hurled at enemies – real or perceived – and raising the level of rancor and vitriol, particularly in Question Period and in the form of attack ads. Indeed, partisanship and the Harper are largely synonymous.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Irresponsible Government: Holding the Third Party to Account

Accountability in Canadian politics is often a tenuous commodity. This is particularly the case in majority governments where the executive maintains both a firm grip on the House of Commons and the rules that govern it. The incumbent government is fond of using parliamentary rules and standing orders to curtain debate and speed bills through the elected chamber, making ample use of time allocation, closure and, perhaps most problematic, the use of omnibus bills. The ways in which a government can, if it so wishes, attempt to avoid accountability in the House are, as such, myriad.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Rathgeber Charade

The consensus building around the exit of Brent Rathgeber from the Conservative caucus this past week has settled somewhere between heroism and martyrdom. He has been applauded by the opposition and the pundit classes alike for his stalwart defense of parliament and the right of to the individual Member to be free from the shackles of party dominance. Rathgeber, in short, placed principle above party, parliament over politics. As Andrew Coyne of the National Post put it:
 This is what people of principle do, when they find themselves in a position their conscience cannot abide: They resign. This is what normal politics looks like.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Meanwhile In Ontario, a PC/NDP Policy Convergence

Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!
Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!              
What could be a more telling sign of a the coming apocalypse than the sight of two political polar opposites coming together in a policy convergence? The image of political cats and dogs - the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats - entering into a truce to fight a common foe is a jarring one. Of course, no such formal pact exists between the two parties which, at least on the basis of party constitutions and policy histories - have little in common. There is no agreement, no stated goal of detente to focus a combined effort on the Liberal government. It is an alliance of happenstance, not concerted cooperation. The convergence is the result of two far extremes which, if followed far enough end up intersecting and aligning on the other side. Two distinct sides of the political spectrum have reached the same conclusion by taking their own political brands to the same common denominator. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

(Dis)Order of Canada: Can Leonard Cohen Save the Senate?

In 1849 the Governor of the Province of Canada gave assent to the Rebellion Losses Bill, completing the process begun a decade early follow Lord Durham's famous report. With the passage of this legislation - the Governor allowing a bill he disapproved of to pass - responsible government was established in Canada (all due credit, Nova Scotia was first to that mark only shortly before). The point is that the powers of the unelected Governor to interfere with the will of the legislative assembly was ended. Over the course of decades, the residual powers of the Crown were further democratized, to be exercised on advice of the Prime Minister or Cabinet. The point is that the power of the Governor - now Governor General - were ultimately curtailed. The position is now apolitical and non-partisan, operating at a distance from the day to day of politics.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Seeing Red: Sober Second Thought, Abolition & Constitutional Reality

No less an authority than R. MacGregor Dawson - writing in 1922 - labelled the Canadian Senate as "the one conspicuous failure of the Canadian Constitution"1. Certainly evidence enough for many in the present to, with nary a thought given, advocate for outright abolition of the upper chamber, that 'unelected and unaccountable' body, the 'vestigial tail' of Canada's parliamentary democracy. The denunciations are as base as they are common. They show little deference to constitutional reality nor an understanding to the historic basis of the Confederation bargain. There is no understanding of the role the upper chamber played in the negotiations of 1864. What is more, they reflect a denial of the reality of contemporary Canada: a diverse, linguistically divided and highly regionalized federal union. The motivations of Quebec and the Maritime provinces are no less valid and, indeed, no less alive in the present. They have simply been compounded and thrown into starker relief by the geographic expansion of the country westward and with it a change in demographic power.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Remote Control: The Harper Broadcasting Network? Not Quite

It's been a busy week few weeks for conspiracy theorists and 'secret agenda' discoverers. The official opposition continues to insist that the Supreme Court is furiously at work in the Court's archives, shredding documents related to constitutional patriation. The tabling of the budget implementation bill (C-60) on Monday has, as usual, prompted a number of extreme reactions about the controlling nature of the Harper government, its overt plans to undermine democracy and it attempts to shape Canadian society in its image. The budget implementation bill moves us, yet again, one step closer to North Korea.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Lost & Finance: (re)Reading the AG

I'll walk a fine line with this post because it puts myself in the precarious position of defending - perhaps that's too strong a word, but there it is - the Harper Government. Much has been made of the 'fact' that the government has 'lost' over $3 billion dollars in counter-terrorism program spending. Indeed, this is somehow proof of economic mismanagement. The Twittersphere has, predictably, latched on by adapting the Prime Minister's recent gaff, admonishing Harper that this is no time to commit accounting.
The media dove headfirst into the shallow end of the pool - as usual - and taken one of only two acceptable paths when discussing Auditor General (AG) reports. The first: call it 'damning', note that the AG has 'slammed' the government and run with the story of gross mismanagement and lax accountability. The second: downplay, or omit entirely, those aspects of a report that are less harsh. Competent management is not newsworthy.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Two-Row Wampum: Two Centuries Too Late

One the recurrent themes of Idle No More protesters is the rhetoric of a ‘nation-to-nation' relationship between Canada and First Nations. This rhetoric grossly oversimplifies the complexities of the relationship that is in reality a complex interaction between one state and many nations within its borders. Indeed, Aboriginal Affairs note that there are 614 First Nations communities across Canada, encompassing every province and territory. This is possibly a conservative estimate.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Canadian Idle and the Strategy of Deference?

Certain claims, even by the simple act of being uttered, can have a devastating chilling effect. The clearest of these accusations is one of racism. A simple allegation even and especially if unfounded and often targeted on the basis of intellectual opposition, is enough to silence critics and terminate whatever semblance of discourse had to that point existed. One need only look to debates that rage over the Israeli-Palestinian to see the effect. Opponents questioning policy decisions of the Israeli government – not even the state, but the transitory government in power – can result in claims of anti-Semitism. These claims are used in order to preempt opposition, for instance to delegitimize Israeli Apartheid Week events.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Negotiating with Metaphors: the Chief and the King

There is a rich legacy of Aboriginal story telling, the use of narrative to inscribe important events in thought rather than in text. These range from creation myths to accounts of settlement and contact. They allow for the transmission of histories across generations and establish a link to the past. Indeed, oral histories have been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada as having a status comparable to the written text. In the context of agreements between First Nations and settler societies, these oral submissions become important points of verification considering the spoken agreement and the written text often varied substantially. We cannot dismiss narrative and, as John Borrows has reminded us through his own work, such approaches have important contemporary resonance and explanatory power.[1]

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Small Matter of Responsible Government

Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. While I’m not fond of the monarchy part – elevating individuals based on heredity being so very unseemly – I do respect how this confluence of ideas and historical institutions underpins our mode of government. As David Smith has forcefully explained, the Crown is the first principle of Canadian government[1], underpinning diffuse aspects as federalism and the judiciary. I also take solace in the fact that I can separate the Crown – the locus of power and authority of the Canadian state – from the monarchy – the manner in which we choose to represent and express that power.