Stephane Dion’s Shiny New Voting System

Stephane Dion

Did I read that right? Did Stephane Dion — former head of the Liberal Party, almost Prime Minister of Canada — just come out in favour of proportional representation? Better late than never!

Well, that’s not entirely fair. Dion has shown a willingness to consider electoral reform in the past, as he did by backing the resolution in favour of alternative voting at his party’s most recent convention (not proportional representation but still not bad). Earlier on as party leader, on the occasion of his non-competition agreement with the Green Party’s Elizabeth May in 2007, he promised to explore different electoral options if he became Prime Minister.

But now, in the National Post and, in more detail, in a publication of the Quebec think tank The Federal Idea, Dion is supporting a specific alternative much more forcefully than ever before. One that, on the spectrum between proportionality and plurality/majority, clearly leans heavily towards the former.

So what exactly does Dion propose? What he calls the proportional-preferential-personalized vote, or P3. It would achieve proportionality by enlarging ridings across the country to elect between three and five MPs each. The seats would be distributed to parties roughly in proportion to their respective shares of the vote in each one of these ridings. Sadly, the resulting proportionality would only be partial because of the relatively small size of the multi-member districts. There is a well-known correlation in proportional voting systems between district magnitude and proportionality (although, interestingly, the opposite is true in non-proportional systems). Dion prefers this “moderate” proportionality to the “pure” stuff we see in Israel and the Netherlands (a somewhat confused distinction, but I’ll let it slide).

P3 would also be preferential. In selecting their parties, voters would not simply choose their favourite and leave it at that. If they wanted, they could rank their second and third and fourth choices as well. The smallest parties — those that do not have a large enough share of votes to win seats — would be eliminated and their second-choice votes distributed to other parties. This procedure would continue on to progressively larger parties — redistributing third- and fourth- and fifth-choice votes if necessary — until the only parties left are those with enough support to win seats.

Finally, although voters would primarily be choosing parties, P3 would also be personalized in the sense that they would have the option of selecting a favourite candidate running for their first-choice party. Seats would be distributed to individual candidates on the basis of these selections.

(The faint of heart are advised to please skip the next paragraph.)

To my ear, Dion’s proposal sounds a lot like open-list proportional representation — just with smaller-than-usual electoral districts and a slight preferential element (slight because the vast majority of ballots’ second and third preferences would likely not come into play). I see no reason to prefer P3 to any of the other proportional systems commonly recommended for Canada, such as mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) or the single transferable vote (STV). All three should be just as good at achieving local representation, but MMP surpasses P3 in terms of proportionality and STV surpasses it in terms of preferential and personalized features. In fact, with the institution of the alternative vote for constituency elections, MMP could surpass P3 by all three of its signature criteria. And a simple threshold, something included in most MMP systems, could help it elude concerns about instability due to the proliferation of smaller parties.

Nevertheless, what Dion proposes is in almost every way far superior to the first-past-the-post system Canada is currently stuck with. It is, on balance, a reasonable proposal from a reasonable person. On those few occasions when Dion still makes his way into the news, I cannot help but wonder what could have possessed the Liberals to give him up as their leader. He is green, he is thoughtful, and he is committed to democratic reform. I would take him any day over his right-wing predecessors Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, or his warmongering heir Michael Ignatieff.

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Oliver’s Twist: So Long Federal Environmental Oversight

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — yes, the one who labelled environmentalists foreign-backed radicals — announced a major overhaul today in how environmental assessments will be conducted in Canada. Not surprisingly, the government is limiting the ability of environmental groups to take part in public hearings, shortening the length of reviews, and generally streamlining the process. Put another way, public and regulatory oversight of resource development is being slashed.

What I find most interesting, however, is that Oliver seems to be trying to take the federal government out of the environmental assessment game. With the exception of “major economic projects” and other matters judged to be of national importance, the feds will now be leaving assessments to the provinces in hopes of avoiding any costly duplication of efforts. And so we find ourselves in the midst of the classic debate: which level of government — federal or provincial — is better at protecting the environment? Some argue that the provinces are the appropriate venue, because they are closer to the people most intimately affected by environmental problems, while others counter that provinces are also closer to those who stand to profit from resource exploitation.

In my opinion, both sides miss the point. Whether the feds or the provinces have more power on the environment is not nearly as important as how they interact with each other. In the introduction to an environmental policy anthology she co-edited, UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison distinguishes three different approaches: unilateralism, rationalization, and collaboration.

Under unilateralism, both levels of government put environmental protections in place on their own and without regard for the other, resulting in inevitable duplications. A more cooperative approach is rationalization, under which the two levels divvy up responsibilities, so that some environmental questions are treated as federal jurisdiction and others as provincial. Most cooperative of all, collaboration involves the feds and the provinces getting together to agree upon and draw up the rules jointly.

What we see with Minister Oliver’s announcement today is not a decentralization of environmental policy — or at least not just that — but a shift in Canada’s environmental assessments from unilateralism to rationalization. Of course, everyone loves a little cooperation, but we might as well ask what we are losing in the process.

The greatest strength of unilateralism is frankly that it tends to produce the best results. If either a federal or a provincial government happens to be a bit weak on the environment at any given time (something that all jurisdictions can be, depending on who is in office), the planet will at least have the regulations of the other to fall back on. Unilateralism offers up some friendly jurisdictional competition to ensure that the best policies rise to the top (a conservative principle if ever I’ve heard one!). It provides a guarantee that whichever level of government is most committed to the environment is the one that will carry the day.

But what about those costly duplications? Everything in government has a cost. The question is whether we are getting good value for our money. Politics, as is often observed, is about choice. So what do we prioritize? Sustainable resource development, healthy ecosystems, and the best possible environmental assessments? Or corporate tax cuts, prisons, and F-35s? The Conservative government has made its position clear.

I wonder where most Canadians stand.

On Israel and Apartheid

Message on a wall at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Last month, university students and activists around the world marked Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of lectures and protests designed to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians. As usual, the condemnations were heavy and hyperbolic. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, obscuring the purpose of the events, used the opportunity to urge “all Canadians to reject anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, discrimination and intolerance.” In 2010, Ontario legislator Peter Shurman commented, “The use of the phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ is about as close to hate speech as one can get without being arrested, and I’m not certain it doesn’t actually cross over that line.”

To equate the mere mention of the phrase “Israeli apartheid” with anti-Semitism is just as absurd as charging Islamophobia whenever someone rightly accuses the Saudi Arabian government of gender apartheid. Surely it should be possible to discuss issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their merits rather than just scoring points with debate stopping allegations.

Israel’s more rational defenders tend to point out that contrary to how South African blacks were treated under apartheid, Israel’s Arab citizens are allowed to vote, run for office, and participate in the judiciary. But this red herring neglects the most appropriate target of the apartheid analogy, the Occupied Territories. Despite being forced to live under Israeli sovereignty for more than four decades, the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have no citizenship rights whatsoever. They are ruled by Israel without the benefit of being able to elect their rulers. And in a striking throwback to the original spirit of apartheid (which literally means “apartness” or “separateness” in Afrikaans), Palestinians are barred from the notorious “Israeli-only” roads, reserved for settlers, that criss-cross the West Bank.

In Israel proper, even though the apartheid analogy begins to break down somewhat, the system still might be termed “apartheid lite” on account of what is widely regarded as the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs. Yes, they do have de jure political equality, but they are subject to endless racial profiling and chronic municipal underfunding. The semi-governmental Jewish National Fund bars Israeli Arabs from leasing or buying its landholdings. And while Jews like me, even those who have no connection to the country, have the right to travel to Israel and immediately claim citizenship under its Law of Return, Palestinian refugees — many of whom were born in what is now Israel before being expelled in 1948, many of whom still have the keys and deeds to their houses — have for decades been denied their own right of return.

All this being said, the term “Israeli apartheid” may now have outlived its usefulness. The analogy remains essentially apt. In fact, many veterans of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, such as Desmond Tutu, have noted the similarities. Sadly, however, it is not enough to be right. Israel’s apologists seem to be winning the public opinion war (at least in Canada), and reliance on the “apartheid” label may be doing the Palestinian solidarity movement more harm than good. Due perhaps to the habitual insularity and PR myopia of the activist left, Palestinian supporters have allowed their foes to disingenuously define anyone who applies the word “apartheid” to Israel as an irrational extremist.

So in the interests of effectively engaging those who currently sit on the fence, the time has probably come to think up some new rhetoric. Or better yet, to forgo flashy rhetoric altogether and just let the facts — which are damning enough on their own — speak for themselves.

Update 11/05/2012: This post has been reprinted here on rabble.ca.

What Obama Should Say If His Health Bill Loses in Court

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform bill, had its three days in the Supreme Court last week, and by most accounts it did not go very well. Nothing is certain until the Court delivers its ruling in June. But if it does declare the bill unconstitutional, this is what — in my yes-we-canniest of dreams — I would like to hear the President say:

My fellow Americans,

The Supreme Court issued a decision today that I don’t think was right. It declared that Congress does not have the Constitutional authority to compel Americans to purchase health insurance.

I personally believe that this “individual mandate” was a crucial part of the health care law. It’s not there just because I think it’s good for Americans, just because Washington fat cats like me know what’s best for everyone. It’s there because health care reform requires insurance companies to provide coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions. Without the individual mandate, people would only bother to buy insurance once they got sick, insurance companies would go out of business, and the entire industry would collapse. The individual mandate was never about big-government paternalism; it was about protecting private enterprise.

But you’ve all heard these arguments before. I won’t repeat them. Nor will I reprise the regrettable performance I gave during the emotional aftermath of the hearings last spring, and complain of judicial activism just like conservatives do whenever they lose a case. The Supreme Court justices are good people who were just doing their jobs.

What I will do in the face of the legal lemons I have been handed is make lemonade. I will propose an alternative foundation for universal health coverage. And to my political opponents who have accused me throughout my Presidency of orchestrating a government takeover of health care, I’ve got news for you:

You ain’t seen nothing yet!

If there is any sector in our economy in desperate need of government intrusion, it is those profiteers of death, those deniers of coverage to the sick and the poor, in the health insurance industry. So here today, I am announcing that I will stake my entire re-election campaign on the pledge to enact a single-payer health care system for America.

I have always preferred single-payer to the compromise on a compromise we actually wound up with. Also known as “Medicare for all,” it would be funded entirely through taxation, and would therefore not require the individual purchase of insurance policies. As in most other industrialized democracies, health coverage would be automatic, rendering the mandate unnecessary and sidestepping any Constitutional objections.

Of course, Republicans will scream “socialism,” just like they always do. But before you get swept up in their vintage red-baiting rhetoric, please consider what kind of health care plans they will offer up instead. I can tell you right now what Republicans will give you, whether in the House, the Senate, or the Oval Office: more of the status quo. A country in which, despite its riches, 50 million people lack health insurance, and tens of millions more are inadequately covered; in which people are forced into bankruptcy — or worse, into early graves — by medical bills; in which your friends, your relatives, your neighbours, your co-workers, live one unlucky diagnosis away from destitution.

If a drop of socialism in our capitalistic sea is what it takes to right this wrong, then slap a beard on my face and call me Fidel. Some things are more important than political labels. I believe that most of you understand this, and if the Republicans don’t, then it is up to you to teach them on November 6.

Thank you. And may God bless . . .

Et cetera, et cetera.