Stockwell Day for Premier?

Thank you Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith. I needed that. In the midst of unrelenting bad news broken up only by worse news — pipeline debates, carnage in Syria, the federal government’s ongoing dismantlement of Canada’s worthiest accomplishments — a good laugh was just what the doctor ordered.

On the Straight’s website yesterday, Smith wrote a fanciful piece speculating that former Canadian Alliance leader and Jet Ski aficionado Stockwell Day might run for Premier of BC. Smith admits that this does not come from anything Day himself has actually said, and bases his thought experiment solely on reports of Stockwell sightings at dinners attended by pro-Liberal Party Fraser Institute directors. (Sometimes I wonder if journalists create drama just for drama’s sake. Yes, I know I’m naive.) According to Smith’s line of reasoning, the governing party is debating whether or not to debate a name change at its convention this fall, and there is a chance that this in turn could prompt a leadership review which Premier Christy Clark might not survive.

And who better to take her place and unite BC’s newly divided right than Flintstones-era prophet Stockwell Day?

After momentarily jumping atop my desk in celebration whilst giddily chanting “Hell yeah!” at the top of my lungs, I begin to worry that a “fully-Stocked” (har-har) BC Liberal Party might indeed reclaim political territory ceded to the upstart Conservatives. But then I remember who we’re talking about. This war-mongering, homophobic pro-lifer used to routinely create embarrassment for himself — whether by showing up at a press conference on the shores of Okanagan Lake in a wetsuit or reportedly expressing a belief that the Earth is 6000 years old and humans once coexisted with dinosaurs. Any Liberals silly enough to consider electing him as their leader would be demonstrating an uncommon eagerness to put the final nail in their party’s coffin. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is reason enough to support his re-entry into politics.

Of course, Day will never do it. Any suggestion to the contrary is nothing but a left-wing journalist’s wishful fantasy.

But is it a crime to dream?


Referendums: The Perils and the Possibilities


Direct democracy is to representative democracy what extra-virgin olive oil is to refined olive oil. The latter is more cost effective and, perhaps according to some, just as good. But to the connoisseur, there is no substitute for the real stuff.

In the fourth article of his ongoing series on democracy, Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin examines the real stuff in the form of Swiss referendums. Several national referendums are held together four times per year in Switzerland on everything from tax policy to constitutional amendments to international treaties. Direct democracy advocates all around the world look on enviously, and it is easy to understand why. Whatever it is that makes representative democracy good — equality, civic engagement, rule by the people, etc. — surely makes direct democracy even better.

In his Patterns of Democracy, Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart makes the somewhat counterintuitive argument that referendums, when initiated by citizens as they frequently are in Switzerland, can be used as a tool for consensus rather than blunt majoritarianism. Citizens’ initiatives allow a minority of the population (Switzerland requires a minimum of 50,000 to 100,000 signatories on such petitions) to make proposals or present challenges that would otherwise go unconsidered by elected lawmakers. More than 50 percent of voters must ultimately approve the initiative in the ensuing referendum in order for it to pass, but the key point is minorities now have a chance they would not otherwise have to persuade the majority. Salutin notes that Swiss laws live in “the shadow of the referendum,” and thus that lawmakers preemptively build broad-based compromises into their legislation in order to avoid challenge.

But does it always work out that way? How about the famous 2009 referendum in which the Swiss, apparently inspired by anti-Muslim xenophobia, voted to ban the construction of minarets? Far from consensus democracy, this seems more a case of that much condemned “tyranny of the majority.” Referendums, it is commonly warned, merely enable the violation of individual and minority rights.

Can this be guarded against? Is there any way to keep the good referendums while tossing out the bad ones? The most reliable protection against majoritarian tyranny is without doubt a strong written constitution backed up by judicial review, but the drafters of a constitution cannot possibly anticipate every future impingement upon individual and minority rights. What other options are there?

One source of inspiration is the Recall and Initiative Act here in British Columbia (the only Canadian province where such a law exists). Once the required number of signatures is gathered on an initiative, the proposed legislation is simply handed to the Legislature. By convention, it is commonly expected that a successful initiative will be put before the public in a referendum, but if they wish, lawmakers may simply choose to vote yea or nay on their own.

I personally believe that this procedure strikes the right balance, although not every other aspect of the law is reasonable. In giving canvassers only three months to gather the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters in every single riding, the bar is set way too high. It is no coincidence that since the Act came into effect in 1995, only one initiative out of seven attempts has passed the required threshold. For the initiative law to have a significant impact, the minimum number of signatures should be lowered or the amount of time set aside for gathering them should be increased. But the Legislature’s decision to retain a final say as a safeguard against abuse is a good idea (as are some of the campaign finance rules).

So let open-minded democrats the world over consider the advantages of Swiss-style direct democracy while remaining wary of the risks. In order to function properly, it requires careful institutional design and an informed and engaged citizenry. If these conditions are met, the reward is democracy as it was always meant to be.

Rick Salutin on Democracy, Parties, and Electoral Reform

Rick Salutin

“Democracy,” as Winston Churchill famously stated, “is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Less famously, he also remarked that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” (Please note: this second quote, it turns out, is misattributed. 4 January 2019)

Notwithstanding this somewhat anemic endorsement, those who live under democracy tend to quite like it. We often devote ourselves to attempts at strengthening the people’s rule. A recent effort in this vein comes courtesy of columnist Rick Salutin and his series on democratic renewal for the Toronto Star.

Salutin, in the second instalment of his series, places much of the blame for what ails Canadian democracy on political parties. According to him, parties “don’t exist to represent the views of the public, or even sections of it, or even their own members. Maybe they once did, or maybe not. But now they exist to win elections.” He describes historical bids to loosen their grip on power and notes the almost universal failure of such efforts “as if the system we have generates antibodies to invasive, democratizing forces and rejects them while bulking up the undemocratic elements.” His piece strongly implies that we should do away with parties altogether and allow MPs to represent their constituents without mediation, while lamenting that this is unlikely to ever happen.

My own position is somewhere between Salutin’s and the status quo. I am glad there are parties for two reasons. First, they serve as a kind of shorthand for voters. It is not reasonable to expect all people to conduct detailed research into the policy planks of each of their local candidates (even if perhaps they should be paying at least a little more attention than they currently do). Party affiliation allows voters to make reasonable assumptions about candidates’ values. Second, and more importantly, an MP’s membership in a party is a sign that he or she is capable of working with others and being held accountable. These are important virtues for anyone who seeks to govern.

However, it is hard to deny that in our current system, parties have far more power than they need. But rather than eliminating them, the solution lies simply in allowing more free votes in Parliament. I would not go so far as to say that no Parliamentary votes should ever be whipped, but why not make such a practice the exception rather than the rule? An increased number of free votes, in addition to allowing MPs to more directly represent the views of their constituents, would enable the House of Commons to more effectively fulfill its deliberative function. Debates might become opportunities for persuasion and give-and-take, rather than merely parroting the party line.

More surprising than Salutin’s critique of Canada’s rigid party system is his somewhat cooled attitude towards proportional representation (PR). While he confesses that he sits “on the advisory board of a group that advocates PR” and says that he would “still vote for PR, but in a sour frame of mind,” he appears no longer to be one of the “true believers” primarily for two reasons.

First, mere electoral reform does not go far enough. In his words, “I find it a little embarrassing that our main contribution to the global movement toward democratic renewal is an earnest effort to do so little.” Put another way, “Maybe the problem isn’t how parties are represented; maybe it’s parties . . . .” His second issue with PR is that it may actually exacerbate the problem. Parties, he says, “would wax even stronger under PR than they do now.”

While I can sympathize with Salutin’s first objection, I am not sure that I agree with his second. The tyrannical nature of parties is more a matter of political culture than institutional arrangement. But even disregarding this fact, there is no reason to believe that parties would hold more power over MPs under forms of PR that require voters to select individual candidates, like mixed-member proportional (MMP) and the single transferable vote (STV). In fact, it is possible that parties might become slightly weaker under STV or even open-list PR, as such systems require candidates of the same party to compete against one another for votes.

All this being said, Salutin’s article is a fascinating one and I encourage people to read it. If it begins a conversation that ends with a moderation of Canada’s antiquated system of party discipline, then I will find it hard to fault him for our minor areas of disagreement. I eagerly await all subsequent instalments in his series on democracy.

Friendly Canadian Input on the US Election

The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming. We are in a year that is divisible by four. I think we all know what that means. In a matter of months, our American friends will once again start hanging chads or whatever it is they do to hold a presidential election, and the entire world, as usual, will be watching.

I hope my southern neighbours (yes, we spell it with a “u” up here) will not take offence (with a “c”) if I offer a little advice. Barack Obama is without doubt a much better choice than Mitt Romney, but he is still far from ideal. For this reason, I recommend that American voters consider all their options in November and not hastily rule out third party candidates such as presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

This, of course, leads us to that perennial (or at least quadrennial) topic of political contention, strategic voting. In my quaint little Canadian elections, I have yet to fall victim to this temptation, for I question its long-term value. Yes, strategic voting can be a useful way to prevent the worst of the worst from taking power, but is that all we should aspire to? What incentive do Obamaesque moderates then have to take strong progressive stances without the pull of small third parties putting the fear of God in them and threatening to siphon off their votes? Even if the Greens and their ilk have no realistic shot at victory in the current election, they can have an excellent influence on those who do win.

So does that mean that strategic voting (or tactical voting, more accurately, keeping in mind the military distinction between tactics and strategies) is never justified? No. Sometimes there is so much at stake in a single election that the conscientious voter must temporarily abandon the long view.

So what is at stake in 2012?

One word (umm, give or take): health care.

With Obama’s health law no longer at risk of being tossed out by the Supreme Court, the fight is set to move onto centre stage of the election campaign. Mitt Romney has promised that if elected President, he will immediately kill Obamacare with an executive order, and while his constitutional ability to do so has been questioned, he probably does have at least some ways of sabotaging the young law with or without a compliant congress.

As I have argued in this space before, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, but it is a major step in the right direction. For the first time in American history, it is illegal for health insurance companies to deny someone coverage simply because he or she has a prior condition. Many an entertaining semantic tussle could be waged over whether or not this truly qualifies Obama’s law as “universal health care,” but whatever it is, this year’s election is the Republican Party’s last and best chance to destroy it. They know that if they don’t dispose of Obamacare before the benefits start to kick in over the next few years, they never will. Voters might discover that they actually like it.

So with the fate of tens of millions of uninsured Americans hanging in the balance, it is crucially important that Romney not be elected President. Does that mean that all progressives need to vote for Obama? Thankfully, no. The Electoral College is an archaic institution, but its one redeeming feature is that since only a few “swing states” decide presidential elections, most Americans can safely follow their hearts without risk of splitting the vote. Simply by browsing one of the web’s many electoral maps, progressive voters can devise informed voting strategies based on where they live.

But do not think that just because I wish to prevent the other guy’s election, Obama is off the hook. It is up to environmentalists, civil libertarians, and corporate accountability advocates (even if they live in swing states and wind up voting for Obama) to maintain — indeed, crank up — the pressure. From now until election day and beyond, the President must be lobbied, petitioned, and constructively protested until he agrees to make up for the shortfalls of his first term — chief among them the appalling lack of action on climate change. If Romney is the one to be sworn into the Oval Office, however, it will all have been for naught.

In summary: a vote for Obama in the swing states, a vote for Jill Stein in the safe states, and unrelenting pressure on all who wield power. That, my American readers, is a surefire formula for success. Now if only you would be so kind as to advise us on our own government problems.

Do you still do regime change?

Update 14/07/2012: This post has been republished here at