Quebec, Referendums, and Formulas for Secession

A percent signNational unity is back in the news after the NDP tabled a private member’s bill yesterday, a bill that would repeal the Clarity Act and set the bar for Quebec sovereignty negotiations at a mere 50 percent plus one in a clearly worded referendum.

We all know what that means. The NDP, it will be claimed over the coming days and weeks, is “in bed with the separatists” and willing to “tear our country apart” for partisan advantage. There is nothing those treacherous socialists won’t do to preserve the Faustian bargain that won them Quebec in 2011!

Never mind that one can with perfect consistency oppose Quebec separatism while at the same time supporting Quebec’s right to separate if that is what its residents choose (so far they haven’t). And never mind the disingenuousness of those who scream and rage at the prospect of a 50 percent plus one threshold for “destroying the country” while not uttering a peep about the routine formation of majority governments with less than 40 percent of the vote.

No, never mind any of that. The real issue comes down to the following question: is a simple majority of votes in a referendum enough to bestow legitimacy upon Quebec’s decision to secede? The answer, as is so often the case, is “yes and no.” It’s complicated.

The common federalist demand for a “clear majority” before agreeing to entertain the notion of secession (while rarely defining the threshold at which numbers become sufficiently clear) is understandable. If 51 percent of Quebeckers vote to separate, what happens if they change their minds after a year or two, as marginal majorities are wont to do? Would their new sovereign government offer them another referendum? Would the winning percentage still be 50 plus one? Would the rest of Canada even want them back? Such a low bar for secession could make things messy and unpredictable.

On the other hand, in the case of a virtually split province, why should the system be biased in favour federalism rather than separatism? Why must the supermajoritarian burden rest solely on the shoulders of sovereigntists? Simple majority rule has its faults, but surely minority rule is even worse.

There are no easy answers to this problem. What is needed is some kind of compromise, something that will satisfy both federalists and sovereigntists. I would like to humbly submit, as a possible candidate for such a compromise, what with characteristic appellative inspiration I call the “three-referendum rule.”

What I propose is that the Quebec provincial government, should it see fit to do so, hold a series of three referendums over the span of a decade — one every five years. All three referendums would, in the same unambiguous language, ask Quebec voters if they wish to form a separate country. Fifty percent plus one would be the necessary threshold for victory. If a majority votes “yes” in the first referendum, Quebec would remain a part of the Canadian federation for the time being, but would receive greater autonomy therein. If a majority votes “yes” a second time, Quebec’s autonomy would increase still further. And with a third “yes” vote, ten years after the first, Quebec would finally achieve the status of independent nation-state. If, however, any of the three referendums fails to produce the requisite simple majority of “yes” votes, the whole procedure would be sent back to square one.

While I believe this three-referendum rule to be the fairest secession formula on offer, there are undoubtedly some difficulties involved as well. It would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment in order to be put into effective use, and the nature of the stages of Quebec autonomy within the Canadian federation would need to be spelled out in detail. Furthermore, this secession formula must not be imposed unilaterally by one party on another. There has to be broad agreement by everyone involved — federal and provincial, federalist and sovereigntist — before the three-referendum rule can be put into practice.

And what if there is no such broad agreement? Then we must fall back on imperfect solutions. Even in the absence of three referendums held in five-year increments, approximations can be made. The principle of self-determination requires that decision makers glean whatever information they can to determine the will of the people of Quebec.

And a referendum, even just one, in which a simple majority of Quebec voters sends a message to the rest of Canada — well, that’s a pretty strong expression of the people’s will.

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Chimpanzee Literature

Author photoI appear to be becoming somewhat of a literary one-hit wonder (defining “hit” rather loosely, of course).

While most of my short stories continue to suffer delays and rejections (ain’t that the name of the game!), “The Assembly of Equals” has just received publication for a third time today — now in a lovely little e-zine called the Mad Scientist Journal. Please do give it a look-see if you have not done so already.

And fret not, politicos, for this fictional piece about a primatologist who forms a democratic assembly with the group of chimpanzees she is studying, and the difficulties she encounters along the way, features no shortage of satirical political commentary.

Israel’s Election Results and the Prospects for Peace

Yair Lapid

Yair Lapid

Well, that wasn’t quite as bad as I thought.

Sadly, Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly remain prime minister of Israel after his Likud party and its electoral partner Yisrael Beiteinu won a plurality of seats in Knesset elections today. But their share has gone down sharply since the last election. Even Habayit Hayehudi, an extreme right ultra-nationalist party that was widely expected to place a strong third or perhaps even second, suffered an upset with a fourth-place finish.

The Knesset now appears to be split almost in half between the right wing on one side and the centre, left, and Arab blocs on the other, which means Bibi will have to reach outside his comfort zone if he wishes to form a workable coalition. And the first door he will most likely knock on is that of Yesh Atid, which surprised everyone by coming in second ahead of Labor.

Yesh Atid, a centrist party I did not even mention in my post on the Israeli political landscape last week (I did not expect them to do so well), was formed only a year ago by popular journalist Yair Lapid as a place for Israelis who are frustrated by the traditional parties. As conditions for entering a governing coalition, Lapid has mentioned eliminating the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service and peace talks with the Palestinians, and while I am doubtful that I would agree with all of his positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is at least nice to see that he takes the issue more seriously than Netanyahu.

Finally, the Arab parties all maintained their presence in the Knesset —┬áHaneen Zoabi, for instance, will be returning, despite vicious and anti-democratic efforts by her opponents — while both Meretz and Labor, the Zionist left parties, improved on their 2009 election results.

I am still not holding my breath for any sudden breakthroughs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the makeup of the new Knesset is at least considerably better than the projected worst-case scenario of continued unchallenged dominance by the rejectionist right. While it won’t be easy, it is conceivable that peaceniks in Israel and Palestine might have something to work with.

Update 24/01/2013: This post has been revised slightly upon the release of the final election results.

Playing to the Left: Joyce Murray and the Liberal Leadership Race

Joyce Murray

I still have nothing to say about golden boy Justin Trudeau. For the life of me, I cannot seem to form an opinion of the man one way or the other.

Nice hair, I guess. But meh.

In the wake of yesterday’s Liberal Party of Canada leadership debate, Joyce Murray is the candidate I would prefer to write about. Something interesting has happened in her case: a decade after having presided over massive provincial environmental spending cuts as Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection in one of the most right-wing governments in BC history, she now appears to be presenting herself as both the green and the left candidate in her party’s leadership race.

She claims to favour carbon pricing, protecting the BC coastline, Idle No More, pot legalization, quotas for women in cabinet and other appointments, and — perhaps most interestingly — targeted electoral cooperation with the NDP and Green Party for purposes of defeating the Conservatives and bringing in proportional representation, a strategy I have gone on record before as supporting.

These developments do not come entirely out of left field, so to speak. Long before she entered provincial or federal politics, Murray co-founded a reforestation business with her husband, and she wrote her MBA thesis on climate change in the early 1990s back before Al Gore had become a movie star.

The unreformed cynic in me cannot help but wonder which Joyce Murray it was who sold out her principles for political gain: the one-time provincial cabinet minister or the modern-day federal Liberal leadership candidate? Is she really a moderately progressive eco-capitalist or a heartless, cost-cutting reactionary?

Don’t ask me to sort out the identity issues of today’s typical politician. All I can say is that I like the policies Murray is now coming out with, and these policies are probably not wholly ephemeral. When contenders say things during leadership campaigns, they will usually water down their commitments later on during general elections, but they cannot abandon them altogether. Party leaders will always be reminded by their bases of the promises that got them such cushy positions in the first place — and pressured accordingly.

Take Mitt Romney. (Please!) By natural inclination (to the extent that the man has natural inclinations), Romney is a fairly centrist Republican. Yet he was pulled so far to the right by the primary season nut jobs of his party that by the time the Presidential election came, though he tried to tone himself down somewhat, he was stuck having to pretend to foam at the mouth over Obamacare despite having introduced a virtually identical health care plan at the state level while Governor of Massachusetts.

In other words, if Joyce Murray becomes Liberal leader based on left-of-centre promises, she will only be able to drift so far to the right come 2015. Plus, she clinched the apparent support of Lloyd Axworthy, one of Canada’s best Foreign Affairs ministers, and a major force behind the International Criminal Court and the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines. With friends like him, Murray must be doing something right.

All this being said, my soft endorsement of Joyce Murray for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada (yes, that is pretty much what this post is about) is not a particularly enthusiastic one due to her checkered past, and I reserve the right to flip-flop over the next three months. Deborah Coyne, for instance, showed uncommon courage in uttering the terrifying words “carbon” and “tax” during yesterday’s debate. (I swear I saw Justin cross himself as she said it.)

So perhaps my mind is not yet fully made up.

Fanatics, Zealots, Warmongers, and Peaceniks: Israel’s Crowded Electoral Landscape

Haneen Zoabi

Haneen Zoabi

Due perhaps to my Jewish identity and my family’s history, Israel tends to be the country whose politics I follow most closely apart from Canada’s and the United States’. Nevertheless, there is a giant gulf separating numbers one and two from number three. My understanding of Israeli parties, personalities, and issues is far from perfect, and when I observe the campaign leading up to the January 22 elections to Israel’s Knesset, I do so as an outsider.

There is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that I feel very passionately about, as I strongly believe in Palestinian national aspirations, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a just peace to the decades of bloodshed. But there are other issues too, issues regarding which I have less information: the 2011 social justice protests against high housing costs that have bestowed renewed importance upon socioeconomic matters in Israel, the perpetual debate over the role of religion in society and the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

Notwithstanding these few gaps in my knowledge, regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am compulsively prone to the projectile expression of opinions. They will also know that I display unnatural excitement towards elections of all kinds. So despite my acknowledged dearth of expertise, I would like to say a few things about Israel’s many political parties and to discuss my preferences — my endorsements, if I may put it that way — for the benefit of any Israeli readers who happen to be curious. Therefore, I hereby offer a non-exhaustive list of parties, divided into categories, presented in order from those I like most to those I like least.

(Any readers looking for more information on Israel’s political landscape can find some here and here.)

Arab parties

If I had the right to vote in Israel’s election this month, I would most likely choose Hadash, Israel’s communist party. While predominantly Arab, Hadash boasts a significant minority of Jewish members and supporters, thereby lending itself a certain binational street cred. And while I am not personally a communist, I recognize that Hadash tends to take exceptionally progressive and enlightened positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The party has also become known for its strong stances on the environment.

Balad, another secular left-wing Arab party, would be my second choice. Though Balad is more explicitly nationalistic, while Hadash officially expounds Marxist internationalism, both parties demand an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and equality for Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Israeli political establishment’s endless efforts to persecute Balad and its Knesset members — such as the inspiring Haneen Zoabi — if anything, makes the party even more deserving of support.

Unfortunately, neither Hadash nor Balad does particularly well in elections.

Zionist left parties

Within the Zionist mainstream, the choices are not all bad. Meretz, a small social democratic party with some experience in coalition governments, is the traditional choice of left-wing Jewish peaceniks.

Considerably closer to the centre is Labor, one of Israel’s two major historic political forces. Labor has tended to be ever-so-slightly more open to peace and compromise than its opponents on the right. Currently, it is focusing primarily on socioeconomic issues in the wake of the recent social justice protests, but voters looking for truly courageous leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian file are advised to skip over the Labor doves who appear to come by their dovishness with such reluctance.

Centrist parties

A new arrival in the increasingly crowded centre, Hatnuah was formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and benefited from several defections from across the centre and left, including two high-profile former Labor party leaders. It presents as the main plank of its agenda the pursuit of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Kadima, creation of hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Livni’s one-time home, appears to be just about on its way out of the Israeli political scene. If I had to choose between the two, I would say the right one is headed into oblivion.

Right-wing parties

In the graveyard of unrepentant racists and warmongers on the Israeli right, the most moderate option is incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a party that supports free market economic policies, can’t quite make up its mind on the two-state solution, and has never met a war it didn’t like. Partnering up in a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, led by downright fascistic ethnic cleansing advocate Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is almost guaranteed to win a plurality of seats in the coming elections.

Farther down the right side of the spectrum are a variety of small ultra-nationalist and fanatical religious parties (Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism). With an expected Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu victory, at least some of these parties are guaranteed spots in the governing coalition.

Which means things will probably get a whole lot worse before they get better.