Federal Election 2015 – Part 3

This is a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2.  After discussing the conservative record in part 1 and the opposition platforms in part 2, I’d like to share what conclusions I’ve reached

My first comment is the source of hope and consolation; after reviewing the Liberal, NDP and Green positions, I found that I’m pleased with the majority of all three platforms.  Should we end up with Liberal or NPD government (or, I suppose, in theory a Green government), I’ll be content with the election.  That said, even though there are major overlaps, I do believe there are real differentiators between the three opposition parties.

The differentiator for the Liberals, as far as I can see, is that they are the only opposition party with a comfortable, cooperative relationship with corporate Canada.  Their trade policy, which focuses on continued liberalization of trade through agreements, is a stark contract with the NDP/Green skepticism towards such agreements.  I’m of the opinion that the natural stance of a government should be in opposition to corporate interests, purely from a perspective of power: corporations have substantial power and the best interest of the public is served by an attitude of opposition (though not necessarily antagonism).  I feel the Liberals are the least likely (of the opposition parties) to take this stance. I do not expect the Liberals  to make major changes to the oil sands or pipeline projects, even with their fairly strong focus on environmentalism.  I also feel their environmentalism is the most technocratic of the three opposition parties, a position that I’m very skeptical about.   To their possible benefit, the Liberals seem like the most pragmatic and least ideological party.  This is unsurprising, since they’ve tried to embody that central, large-tent pragmatism frequently in their political history.

The differentiator for the NDP is their ideological commitment to labour and social democratic principles.  While I can’t always  point it out directly, I sensed this ideological bent all through their lengthy policy document.  I’m mostly happy about this, since I tend to philosophically agree with many planks of such an ideology.  Keeping with my comments in the previous paragraph, a reasonable part of an attitude of opposition to corporate power involve the support of labour.  I’m not at all certain what labour movements should realistically look like in the 21st century, but I would be happy to have a government with more sympathies towards such movements.  I do worry that the NDP’s ideological commitments make it a less flexible governing party, particularly when there are strong reasons with good evidence to act counter to that ideological tradition.  Choices in energy and industrial development, for example, need to be motivated by good science and economic analysis as well as the interests of generally (small-c) conservative labour movements.

The differentiator for the Greens is their audacity.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, I think an effect of their status as a somewhat fringe party is that they are much less afraid of presenting the more extreme version of a political position.  In the news today, for example, Green positions were announced in support of completely removing tuition from public universities and cancelling vast portions of existing student debt.  Their economic and environmental policies are similar to the NPD (and, to a lesser extent, to the Liberals), but more extreme; the GLI (Guaranteed Livable Income) is an stronger version of the social welfare position of the NDP.  In general, I’m happy that they exist to voice these ideas.  I think we desperately need parties with more ambitious vision — hopefully, the better and more feasible of their ideas percolate into the political mainstream.  However, I’m not sure it makes them a good choice for actually forming a government.

All that said, my inclination is to vote NDP.  I admit, it’s not a particularly strong preference over the other two opposition parties.  It’s also somewhat informed by the electoral reality of my riding, which nicely leads into a discussion of strategic voting.

I’m in favour of strategic voting, but always with great dismay that is it necessary in our political system.  My riding, in particular, is a riding where historically Liberals, NDP and Conservatives have all had significant support.  If the goal of defeating the conservatives is stronger than my preference between the Liberals and the NDP, then it behooves me to vote strategically.  The NDP came second in the previous election (the Conservatives won the seat) and the provincial election likely indicates some increased willingness to support the NDP, so that seems like the strategic vote.  As it happens, this coincides with my likely choice, as stated above; if I’d decided that I had a small preference for the Greens or the Liberals, I likely would still be voting NDP for strategic reasons.

Some other random comments on the election and the campaign:

First, something positive.  At least in the cross-section I made, this campaign is a huge improvement over the two previous in terms of vision.  In the 2008 and 2011 elections, I felt that almost no party was presenting any kind of holistic vision for what kind of country we want Canada to be; instead, the campaign was a serious of unrelated special-interest announcements.  While the news does seem to still be driven by such announcements, I was able to find a much stronger sense of purpose behind the opposition campaigns.  My guess is that this is partly driven by reaction to the conservative record, which has been very minimal on vision.  In particular, the indifference and/or hostility of the conservative government towards the workings of democracy (prorogation, omnibus bills, dominance of the PM’s office, onerous voting legislation) seems to have inspired the opposition parties to sound the call for democracy.  This is a positive development.   Similarly, I expected to be more frustrated about a tax code/tax cuts focused campaign, as I was in 2011.  I was pleasantly surprised to find relatively little in the way of tax code campaigning in my search through websites and platform.

In contrast, something negative.  At all the party websites (though only marginally at the Green’s), I was shocked by how much the election is driven by the identity politics of the leaders.  Vast portions of the websites are devoted to bios of the leaders and even the policy is introduced as “Tom’s plan” or “Justin’s vision”.   Throughout these three parts, I’ve intentionally referred to the parties instead of metonymically using the leader’s names.  I really don’t want my election to be about the personality of the next PM — I want it to be about the style of government and legislative agenda of the next governing party.

The websites also seem very focused on social media.  Aside from this blog (and I really have no idea how much readership it has), I don’t participate in much social interaction on the internet.  I’m curious how important social media is to the campaign.  I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it is the most important avenue of communication (which which explain the website focus).

I find the length of the campaign entirely unnecessary.  I’m not sure what the strategic reasoning was behind the timing of the call; perhaps it was just the conservatives hoping to outspend the opposition over 11 weeks.  In any case, as with most people I’ve talked to, I don’t feel the length of the campaign serves the interests of citizens at all.  I intentionally ignored the campaign as much as I could during August and have only returned to it in order to write these posts.

I’m trying not to follow polls, for two reasons.  First, I don’t want to obsess for weeks and weeks about the polling trends.  I don’t feel such an attitude towards the campaign is particularly healthy for me — I would much rather simply read the platforms, write these posts, rethink my positions in response to feedback from my friends, and make a voting decision.  Second, I don’t trust the polls at all.  In particular, I’m very curious how pollsters are collecting their data.  I’m not sure how available cell-phone lists are to phone pollsters.  (I haven’t received a single polling call to my cell, for example).  If phone polls are still limited to land-lines, that is a ridiculous sampling bias.  Even if polls are using cell-phone data and/or social media, I have great doubts about their ability to consistently find reasonable cross-sectional samples.

Lastly, I’m pleased about the likely prospect of a minority government of some kind.  Given that I see a lot of overlap between the Liberal and NDP positions, I’m very hopeful that a minority parliament would lead to development of these overlap priorities, most of which meet with my approval.  I also like the style of minority parliaments, even with the risk of collapse and earlier elections.  Should any kind of proportional representation legislation be tabled and pass, I imagine that minority parliaments might become the norm; I would be quite content with that reality.

Federal Election 2015 – Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1, where I evaluated the record of the last ten years of Conservative government.   In this part, I’m going to consider the pros and cons of the platforms of the three major opposition parties: Liberals, NDP and Greens.  I went to the website to look for platform details, which was a much more miserable that I expected.  Most of the websites are very light on content and very focused on the identity politics of their leaders.  If I were to rank the websites, the Green easily win; they had easily located policy, multiple links to more specific content, and a reasonable navigation.   The Liberal website, with its miserable navigation and buried platform details, comes a miserable second but only because the NDP and Conservative websites are so terrible.  For the last two (NDP and Conservative website), I was simply unable to find a detailed platform whatsoever, even after putting up with the wretched navigation.

The Liberal Platform (after navigating the thoroughly ridiculous and frustrating website), has five planks.

  1. Growth for the Middle Class.  This plank focusses entirely on tax cuts, which already frustrates me.  Tax cuts tell me nothing about how you will to actually govern in a way that help the middle, or any other, class.    Tax cuts are not what the middle class needs; we need vision, policy and leadership.  That rant aside, the plank does argue for a more graduated tax, the one tax policy I am happy to see.
  2. Fair and Open Government.  This plank is excellent.  It focuses on access to information, oversight for agencies including national security, empowerment of watchdog offices, fairly reasonable Senate reform ideas, and a rejection of the questionable practices of prorogation and omnibus bills.  Whether a Liberal government would live up to a platform is something I have skepticism about, but, as written, this is almost entirely great.
  3. A New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy. Immediately, the decision to couple environment/economy as one of five planks appeals to me.  The realization that these are often (but not exclusively) competing interests that need to be explicitly balanced is appreciated.  Unfortunately, the first half of the plank fails to live up to that realpolitik of balance.  It argues, with platitudes and and a naive trust in technology, that green energy and green jobs solve the problems of environment and economy.  While some green industry is helpful and should be strongly supported, what I’m looking for it a realistic discussion about necessary hard choices, such as the future of the oil sands project and our societal reliance on oil.  This plank ignores that discussion and tries to pretend that we can have our cake and eat it too.  The second half of the plank is more positive, with reasonable initiatives to protect fragile landscape and oceans, increasing the authority of environmental oversight groups, and looking to science and evidence-based argument for environmental policy.
  4. Education and Economic Opportunity for First Nations.  This is a brief plank with lots of bolded large dollar figures combined with boilerplate language about preserving culture.  Frankly, I have no idea how to solve the challenges of the First Nations of Canada.  I see nothing terribly new in this plank and worry that it might just repeat the mistakes of the previous governments.  Again, I don’t have a good insight here on what we ought to do.  That all said, the fact that this issue makes a whole plank, one of five, in the platform is encouraging choice of focus.
  5. Canada and the World.  Strangely, on the website, this is the only plank which doesn’t have a downloadable PDF, thus forcing me to deal with more of the infuriating website.  Moreover, the website sections have, essentially, no real information.  In addition, this section seems to focused entirely on North America, and even there almost entirely on Canada/US relations.  Nothing on the style of international governance across the world, no criteria for involvement in peacekeeping or military operations, and no commentary on global trade treaties.  The only comment on trade is a commitment to reduce trade barriers.  This makes me nervous, not because I’m committed to a policy of protectionism, but because reducing trade barrier must always be balanced against the necessary regulation, oversight and protections we need.  Focus on one without the other, as in this platform, is problematic.

The NDP website is even more infuriating to navigate than the Liberal one was.  As I mentioned above, I was unable to find any downloadable platform.  After a pile of digging, I discovered that a detailed “Policy Book” was taken down at the end of August; apparently, a replacement election-ready policy document is due to arrive sometime later in the campaign.  I found an archived version of the Policy Book, which informs these comments.

If the Policy Book were actually a campaign platform document, I would praise it for its scope and attention to detail.  Its organized into six sections plus an appendix on Quebec’s national identity.  Since there is so much detail, I’ll comment on some highlights and general tone of each section.

  1. The first section is a broad collection of policy on industry, the economy, taxation and finance.  Some of the content is non-specific boilerplate (protect shareholder’s rights, targeting tax incentives towards job creation, provide incentives for innovation) which almost any party and any voter would approve of.  These sections basically tell us nothing.  However, the majority of the content is quite specific to the labour-influence social democratic perspective of the party.  I like most of these points, include these examples: dedication to progressive tax structures, skepticism towards privatizations and P3 projects, specific improvement on consumer protections (particularly in the financial sector), support for cooperatives such as the Wheat Board, commitment to rail travel development.  My reservations come mostly from the obvious ideological bent of the platform; I would like a government which is capable of transcending its ideological roots when good evidence points to policies in conflict with those roots.  Lastly, the commitment to balanced budgets is in this section.  The language here is surprising, but I expect it’s meant to counteract the (mostly ridiculous) idea that a socially democratic government is obviously a poor economic steward.  While I realize that it’s naive to expect from a platform-like document, I wish this section made the explicit point that a commitment to balanced budgets along with increasing government spending means that higher taxes are required.  I’m fine with higher taxes — I think I should be taxed at a higher rate to allow worthwhile social democratic government programming — but I wish there was a more direct, honest connection here between balanced budgets and higher tax rates, instead of just a commitment to balanced budgeting.
  2. The second section is on sustainability.   There is a fair bit of non-specific boilerplate here as well.  In the more substantial sections, I really like the explicit coupling of environment and the economy, realizing that one can’t be discussed outside of the other.  I support the sections on renewing environmental protections, water rights, food security, public transport, and reducing fossil fuel subsidies.  The promotion of clean energy is terribly vague; I don’t really see any vision of how we tackle the enormous problem of weaning our society off oil.  That concern makes this whole environmental section seem naive.  As much as I appreciate the focus, again I want a bit more honest discussion of the necessary difficult decisions that environmental policies imply.  Lastly, I’m disappointed by the antagonistic stance towards nuclear power and GMO food.
  3. The third section is focused on social programming, including health, education, justice, housing and poverty.  There is a lot of overlap with provincial jurisdiction on many of these issues, but I’m comfortable with the recognition that the federal government has input and influence on these important social concerns.  The priorities throughout this section are excellent.  I’m also particularly pleased to see a social vision for the country clearly laid out, with housing, elimination of poverty and access to education as strong foci.  My only disappointment is the relative naivety of the section: these are immensely difficult challenges that require difficult decisions about how we structure our society.  I see here a positive vision without a realization of the scope of the challenge.  Finally, there are two points under justice which I am extremely pleased to see.  First, there is a balance of the rights of both victims and prisoners, thus humanizing our prison population.  Second, there is a liberal approach to enforcement and sentencing, including discretion for judges and decriminalizing marijuana.
  4. The fourth section is on foreign policy.  There’s lots to like here.  I like the defence/peacekeeping vision for our military; the focus on aid and human rights driving our foreign policy decisions; the support of working through international bodies such as the UN; and changes to immigration/TWF policy driven by care for our non-citizens.  There is a section here on trade agreements, which deserves some attention.  First, I like the explicit statements that free trade agreements must not trump our own ability to protect our workers or environment.  What I’m unsure about is how that protectionist attitude actually plays out in trade agreements.  Neither the Mulroney PCs, Chretien/Martin Liberal, nor Harper Conservatives have been particularly protectionistic in trade agreements.  Since we haven’t really seen protectionism since free trade agreements became a reality, I really don’t know how to evaluation the cost/benefit analysis of NAFTA or the other 11 free trade agreements listed on the government’s website.  I am concerned about the potential for these agreements to cede control to international corporate interests, thus I’m mostly happy to see the protectionist language in the NDP platform.  However, I’m open to the possibility that a great deal of good is done by allowing international trade and I wouldn’t want that unilaterally destroyed by a skepticism towards any international agreements.
  5. The fifth section is on governance.  Some excellent stuff here, though very similar to the Liberal platform.  The obvious contempt of the Conservative government for parliament, oversight, and democratic principles makes these sections very welcome.  I have no further comments on most of this other than general approbation.  However, a couple specific planks are quite interesting.  I’m not sure that abolishing the Senate is the best mode of parliamentary reform.  I am pleased to see proportional representation clearly stated as a goal, though I feel reform of the voting system might be a more reasonable and achievable first priority. I’m very pleased to see a commitment to First Nations self government and land claims.  Lastly, I’m intrigued by the asymmetrical federalism approach to Quebec and currently undecided about its wisdom.
  6. The last section is on human rights, with subsections on children, women, LBGTQ, disabilities, first nations, and veterans.  I’m in general agreement with basically all of this and happy to see it here.  Points later in the section include supporting the funding and independence of the CBC as well as a commitment to net neutrality, both of which are met with my strong approval.

The Green Party website is by far the most reasonable of all four parties and had an easily locatable complete PDF of the platform.  Well done, Green Party!   Moreover, the PDF is a full 184 pages of policy!  I’ll see how much of it I can get through.  As for the website, there are fourteen platform sections with links to greater policy detail on each page.  I’ll focus on responding to those fourteen points instead working through a giant 184 policy overview (though I must reiterate my pleasure in its existence and findability.)

  1. Sustainable economy. This focuses on a commitment to funding green energy instead of traditional oil/gas. I’m in supported, for sure, but my previous concerns hold here as well: where’s the realization of just how dependant we are on oil/gas and how to manage the difficult choices required?
  2. Healthcare.  Focus here is on a national pharmacare program and the health difficulties of an aging population demographic.  I quite like the former: I don’t see why a single-payer pharmacy program can’t have the same advantages of our existing single-payer health care.  On the later, I appreciate the realization of the scope of the problem and there are some good ideas in the specific policy.  However, I feel that immediately after stating the demographic challenge, the response is unreasonably optimistic about it all working out though preventative measure and good choices.
  3. Housing.  There is a strong focus on housing-first programming, which seems excellent.  The overlap with provincial/municipal jurisdiction exists here as well, but the federal government has some visioning and funding role to play on housing, so I’m alright with it.
  4. Climate Change.  The Green Party strategies include promoting green energy and a carbon pricing scheme (also part of the Liberal and NDP platforms, though I didn’t talk about it previously).  There are good ideas here, though again the section is lacking in discussion of the major societal challenges of reducing oil dependence.
  5. Fairer Tax System. There are many ideas here which I support, including the focus on progressive taxation; reversing the dropping corporate taxation; and explicitly taxing externalities such as pollution.
  6. Investing in Small Business.  This phrase itself is perhaps the easiest commonality to find in all four major party platforms — everyone loves investing in small business and supporting the middle class.  There are some good ideas here, but nothing substantially different from what everyone promises every election.  (I hate the phrase “reducing red tape”).
  7. Democratic Reform.  The focus here is on proportional representation, but they also mention voting systems, which I appreciate.  Empowering individual MPs and eliminating party whips is also interesting; I’m not sure how this would work, but I’m intrigued.  I’m skeptical enough about party politics to be inclined towards movements that spread power around to the individual MPs.
  8. Tomorrow’s Technology, Today’s Jobs.  This is mostly about our poor record for R&D investment, particularly for environmental technology.  I’m for investment in R&D, particularly if it’s coupled with a trusted role for government scientists.  However, I remain generally skeptical about technology as the solution to all our environmental problem — this is a sociological problem that we can’t magic away by technology.
  9. Green Transport.  There is great stuff here: urban renewal for active transit; support for rail travel and transit;  and reducing car reliance.  This section gets close to the important discussion about the radical changes required in the set-up of our society.  However, it doesn’t talk about how to enact these changes over the strenuous objects of a car-addicted population.
  10. Pipelines.  The websites states a bold and straightforward opposition to basically all oil shipping.  A noble goal, but again, lacking in discussion of how to get our society to the point where it can enact and handle such a substantial change.  That said, the Green party is (unsurprisingly) the only party which takes the environmental challenges of the oil industry as seriously as they need to be taken.
  11. Freedom and Civil Liberties.  This focuses on opposition to bill C-51, which I’m very happy to see (the opposition, that is).  A focus on civil liberties in desperately required in all discussion of policing, intelligence agencies, and terrorism.  I’m also strongly in agreement on the priority of empowering police oversight.
  12. Canada’s Global Role.  I like the realignment of military actions towards UN work and peacekeeping.  A foreign policy focused on aid and poverty-reduction is also appealing.
  13. Secure Retirement.  This overlaps with the plank on health, focusing on a single-payer pharmacy plan.  I’m not really sure on the details (and the links to more information seem to be malfunctioning on this page).  The plan seems well-intentioned but I have no idea how it all works out.  In particularly, it seems to ignore the serious challenges of paying for all this health care.
  14. Ending Poverty.  I appreciate the general commitment to the welfare state and extending it with a General Living Income guarantee.  There’s lots of social and financial claims about the returns of GLI program.  As much as I want to believe, I’m skeptical and need to see more evidence that this GLI would accomplish all that it promised.  That said, I love the vision and focus on the need to directly and substantially support the financial vulnerable portions of our population.

In part 3, I’ll compare the three opposition parties and try to draw some conclusions.   I’ll also work through some miscellaneous remarks and ideas on the election and the campaigns.

Federal Election 2015 – Part 1

I’m going to use the next three post for work through my thoughts on the federal election.  Be aware — this will be a lengthy read.  It will be split into three posts.

I’m going to try to limit by desire to preface, but I will make one important point: the federal government has a much smaller effect on the economic strength/weakness of the country than any campaign rhetoric would seem to imply.  Government economic policy is about positioning.  The major causes of economic change are corporate and international, from resource pricing to international stock market health to international warfare.  Our federal government has the responsibility of finding the best position for us to weather the inevitable economic storm which comes our way.  As such, they deserve neither full blame nor full credit for the state of the Canadian economy at any given time.  This is not to say that economic policy decisions are unimportant; they are perhaps the most important actions of the government.  This is just to say I assign limited blame and credit for failure or success, economically.

The Conservative Record:

Since we have a decade of rule, including a majority term, evaluation of the Conservative Party comes down to their record.  Regardless of how they campaign and what they promise, we have a good idea of how they govern.  The first question of the election is: do they deserve to continue?

Points in Favour:

  1. Management through the 2008 Recession.  I’m no economist and, really, have no idea what’s the best policy for managing the effect of a global recession.  As best as I can tell, the Conservative record is mixed here.  I do, however, want to give them credit for choosing to support infrastructure spending during the recession; I could easily have imagined that an ideologically commitment to balanced budgeting could have preventing them from pursuing this program.  In addition, by some economic metrics, we weather this 2008-2011 storm better than most.  As in the preamble, blame and credit for economic performance is tricky at best.
  2. Tax Free Savings Account.  Regardless of the current debate about size and limits of TFSAs, these seem like a good vehicle for promoting savings.  In the interests of full disclosure, part of my approval of TSFAs is surely based on their usefulness to our particular financial situation.  I directly benefit from their existence.  Personal advantage aside, they seem like a good tax policy decision.

I don’t really have much more in this section.  I’m sure there are many relatively small and specific actions, such as increasing the protected area included in Nahanni National Park, which would meet with my approval.  However, I’m trying to stick to broader and more substantial policy decisions in this post.  I’m willing to hear from those more positive on the Conservative record: what has been praiseworthy about their government?

Points Against:

  1. Management through the 2008 Recession.  I feel justified putting this in both sections.  The focus on traditional resource industries, particularly oil, mostly like contributed to our current and future vulnerability.  An ideological commitment to banking deregulation, particularly after the US causes of the 2008 recession, seems very foolish.
  2. Attitude towards parliament.  The use of procedure, particularly the ability to prorogue to avoid undesired motions and debate, is undemocratic and shows a contempt for the parliamentary system.  Having the technical authority to close down parliament doesn’t give ethical justification for doing so.
  3. Commitment to warfare in Afghanistan.  While our involvement in the Afghanistan conflict was due to actions of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, the Conservatives repeatedly recommitted to a deeply problematic military campaign.
  4. Census reform.  I can think of three possible justifications for simplifying the census, as was accomplished in the summer of 2010: cost, privacy, or fear of information.  On cost, I feel the importance of census data justifies the cost.  On privacy, again, I feel the importance of census data justifies the imposition and gathering of private data (with appropriate measure of security and guarantees of anonymity).  On fear of information, which many have claimed is the real unspoken motivation, I am, of course, desperate disappointed in any government which seeks to suppress information.
  5. Attitude towards science and silencing of government run scientific inquiry.  On the same theme of suppressing information which is inconvenient to their agenda or ideology, I am deeply disappointed with the Conservative record towards science in general and its own scientists in particular.  In particular, weakening of environmental regulations, prohibiting publication of scientific research done by governmental scientists and cutting funding to various public interest research departments are all strikes against the Conservative record.
  6. Policy on Crime.  I’m strongly opposed to the entire Tough-On-Crime agenda.  in addition to the policy decisions, an environment of antagonism and cruelty has been fostered in the entire criminal justice system.  This gets in the way of attitude and programs that help actually rehabilitate criminal and reduce recidivism.  As far as I can tell, the whole program both dehumanizes criminals and makes the rest of us less safe.
  7. Rhetoric on terrorism.  The Conservative government has adopted, wholeheartedly, the very problematic us-vs.-them rhetoric of terrorism.  This language is actively harmful to our society: it justifies racism, breeds contempt for religious minorities, argues for disastrous international military actions, and undermines civil rights.  The ideological decision to envision Omar Khadr as a terrorists instead of a child soldier and the ensuing harm (and wasted resources) is the most clear exemplar.
  8. Human rights, in particular, bill C-51.  Coming out of the rhetoric mentioned in the previous point, this is a deeply problematic bill.  While it remains to be seen how it plays out in functional jurisprudence, the bill has the potential remove important rights of communication, free speech, protest and association.  It’s attitude towards information and privacy is also deeply troubling.  Bill C-24 is equally troubling in how it authorized the government to deny citizenship rights, particularly towards ethnic and religious minorities targeted by the rhetoric of terrorism.
  9. Drug policy.  I’m strongly in favour of the broad suggestions of the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy: treat drug problems as a public health concern instead of a criminal justice concern.  The Conservative record on this has been the exact opposite.  In addition to the problematic criminal justice policy, there are two other notable examples where I am deeply disappointed in the Conservative policy.  The first is their obstruction of the now-legal use of medical marijuana.  The second is their opposition and legal action against Insite Drug Injection Site and similar programs, programs which are easily justified in terms of decrease criminal activity, increased health for the users and increased safety for the community.
  10. International policy.  I object to the general militarization of our foreign policy and participation in bombing missions.  I’m also deeply disappointed in the rhetoric, for example, in the oversimplified pro-Israel stance or the skepticism about the US-Iran nuclear agreement.
  11. Market driven policy.  I’m nervous about the simplistically pro-market ideology of the Conservative government, as evidenced in their opposition to the Wheat board and other purchasing cooperatives or their blanket enthusiasm for international free trade agreements.  I don’t always know what the best decisions are on such complicated economic issues.  However, my judgement is that this government is driven by corporate interests and ideology of market freedom instead of carefully considered evidence-based reasoning issue by issue.  As such, I don’t trust them with the very important economic decisions such as negotiating free trade agreements or managing agricultural and resource economies reasonable.
  12. Focus on tax deductions as major policy and campaign priorities.  This government has made it clear that it feels the best method for interacting with citizens is through the tax code.  I object to this focus, first because it adds to the complication of the tax code.  Second, because it is done as an alternative to actually government programming.  For example, I would be much more in favour of a system to fund, develop and support child-care facilities as opposed to simply assigning a greater tax deduction targeted at child-care.
  13. Simplistic support for the oil industry.  I realize that the oil industry is not going away.  However, I’m disappointed by unconsidered and supportive the approach of the conservatives towards oil extraction.  In particular, the willingness to ignore the environmental costs of to the Athabasca watershed, including its social implications for the inhabitants of Northern Alberta, is very troubling.

Points where I lack information:

  1. Environmental record.  I’ve heard many vague criticism of the Conservatives environmental record and I’m skeptical, given their ideological commitment to business, about their ability to prioritize environmental impact.  That said, I’ve not done the research into the specific environmental decisions of the Conservative government.
  2. Regulatory record.  As with the environmental record, I’ve heard many criticisms and I have ideologically driven skepticism, but I haven’t gone through the specifics.
  3. Aboriginal issues. Again, I haven’t done my research here.  For the most part, though, I trust the voices of those affected and will listen to them for support and/or criticism of the Conservative government.

Unsurprisingly, my answer to the question is: no, they don’t deserve to continue governing.  What, then, are the other options?  I’ll be back with two more parts.  In part 2, I’ll discuss my opinions and impressions of the oppositions parties platforms and in part 3, I’ll share my conclusions, voting decision, and miscellaneous thoughts.

Book Review: Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong is a historical survey of religion and violence.  I was drawn to the book when it was announced last year, having previously read Armstrong’s History of God.  I have great respect for Armstrong’s ability to capture the broad currents of religious history, so I was very interested what she would make of the difficult and important topic of how religion relates to violence.  The book did not disappoint: it is an excellent popular treatment of the subject, deep in its investigations and amazingly ambitious in its scope.

Armstrong’s major thesi seems to be this: the relationship between religion and violence is complicated; don’t over simplify.  In particular, she is writing against the popular polemic coming from Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. el, that religion is the primary source of violent behaviour throughout history and violence is reduced by reducing religion.  (This of course is not a new thought; Armstrong mentions version of this polemic as early in the modern period as the modern definition of religion, specifically the secularism of the French revolutionaries.)  Her consistent argument throughout the book is that religion has been invoked both for and against violence as long as religion has existed and that all religion wars and conflicts also have political, social and economic causes.  From my perspective, this is a completely sensible and almost painfully obvious thesis; however, I can appreciate the need for  a popular book to speak against the aforementioned polemic.

Even though I’ve just presented her thesis as `almost painfully obvious’, there are many subtleties explored in the book. Among these is the observation that the machinery of cities/states/nations/empires absolutely requires violence.  This idea is presented in the first part of the book dealing with ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China.  She recognized the non-violent themes in the great sages of the Axial Age: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, the Greek Philosophers and the Hebrew prophets, among others.  Most of these non-violent teachings morphed into official religions of kingdoms and empires, all of which used them to justify their status quo of violence.  Typically, I’ve viewed this as empires co-opting and perverting religion.  Armstrong would mostly agree, but gives some thought to the reasons and mechanisms.  Particularly through the example of Maurya Emperor Ashoka in India, Armstrong makes the observation that the leaders of these empires may have consciously realized that their entire political structure was completely impossible without its systemic violence.  The only alternative they could imagine to the domination of empire was the anarchy of constant fighting between hundreds and thousands of local princes, warlords and thugs.  The choice in early human history (and perhaps in all of human history) may not be violence/non-violence, but which kind of violence.

This part of the book is where Armstrong leans most strongly toward the thoughts of René Girard.  She mentioned Girard explicitly at the very start of the book and end the last paragraph with Girardian language; however, I was hoping for more explicit interaction with Girard throughout the book.  There is a strange and powerful Girardian thesis that the original idea of sacred was violence made holy through a scapegoating processes saving early communities from their own destructive in-fighting.  I was fascinated by this idea when I read Girard last year and  I was hoping Armstrong would deal with it explicitly.  I was mildly disappointed on this score.

Armstrong writes as a very broad generalist, a style which I found somewhat unsettling in this book as in `History of God’.  She covers huge swaths of human history in a 400 page book; by necessity, she summarizes everything.  I’m much more accustomed to reading something in detail on a particular topic; the constant summarizing feels strange and often superficial.  While I’m sure that historians and theologians could argue with the necessarily simplifications of almost every summary, I appreciate the goal of trying to talk about currents and trends throughout many eras and locations of human history.  It seems to fit her goal of writing a holistic and accessible work (though even at that, the focus is almost entirely on Europe, the Middle East, Persian, India and China).  The overall effect of getting small pieces of stories and summaries from thousands of years of human history is a powerful effect.  It’s also has a very useful humbling effect in that it remind me how little I know about all the many details, events and causes of human history.  Impressively, this is accomplished without the tone of the book feeling distant or patronizing; many, many names are mentioned without giving the sense of name-dropping to establish authority.

The later half of the book focuses on modern and contemporary examples, particularly the recent history of Islam, terrorism and jihad.  This isn’t surprising given her goal to address the current of thought which blames the religion of Islam for much of the violence of the modern world.  Armstrong does excellent work giving just a brief introduction to many recent violence histories; enough to remind us that the simplistic narrative of our newswriters and politicians are not necessarily well informed, that much of the violence of the middle east cannot be understood without also considering secular movements, economic exploitation and colonial repression.  Moreover, she reminds us that Islam (like all major world religions) has inspired great peacemakers as well as reprehensible warmongers. Religion and violence: it’s complicated.

Alberta Election Results: Expectations

As I’m sure you are all already aware, in amazing and ridiculous fashion, Alberta has elected an NDP majority government.  I’m in the camp of people that is generally quite pleased by this result.  However, I have a bunch of thoughts on expectations going forward.

Primarily, I wish to manage my expectations.  Electing the NDP is not going to bring any utopia to the province of Alberta.  (Nor, for those who were disappointed, is the NDP going to bring distopia to the province of Alberta.)  Moreover, many of the progressive policies that I might hope for from a centre-left government will not necessarily be enacted.  I am quite hopeful, but I’m not expecting the world to change overnight.

I do expect taxation to change and to be pleased about it.  (Our election campaigns in the last ten years, both provincially and federally, have focused heavily on taxation more so than I generally think is healthy, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time).  I expect the NDP to raise corporate tax levels and move in the direction the PCs started this spring away from flat tax structures.  I wonder if they will consider sales tax; I wouldn’t put it past them but I don’t necessarily expect it.  I expect the provincial share of personal income taxes to also rise somewhat.  I think these tax increases are probably reasonable and necessary, but I am particularly looking forward to more progressive tax structures.

I expect the oil industry to survive and oil production to depend almost entirely on international demand, not NDP policy.  I can hope for more stringent environmental oversight of the oilsands, but I’m skeptical about how much the new government will be able to accomplish. I do expect less government support for large pipeline projects.

I expect corporate Alberta to rattle sabres, threaten leaving, and then mostly continue on with their business as usual.  I expect this NDP government to make modest (but only modest) inroads with higher corporate taxation, higher oil royalties, and more public oversight.  I believe it is incumbent on democratic governments to take a moderately antagonistic stance towards corporations, simply for the reason of power.  Corporations are great concentration of power and influence and their interests of profit are usually in conflict with the interests of the greater good.  Government ought to serve the greater good and act as a control to corporate power.  Perhaps my greatest disappointment with our previous government was how much it bought into the myth that the interests of the corporations are the same as the interests of the province.  There is overlap and, given how our society is structured, we need corporate activity; but identifying our interests with the corporations is sheer nonsense.  I’m encouraged that this government will be less likely to buy into this myth.

I expect mistakes.  The caucus of MLAs is very inexperienced.  Even assuming all of them are reasonable, well-intentioned and capable (in general, a dangerous assumption in politics), due to sheer inexperience, mistakes will be made.  I hope they will not be disastrous.  Though the new NDP will almost certainly lack the entitlement of the PCs, there will also be corruption, some of which will lead to scandal.

I expect budgeting will be very difficult.  Modest tax raises do not necessarily address our infrastructure deficit and the reality of lower oil prices.  The NDP have many costly goals.  I’m very curious to see how they try to balance it all.  For selfish reasons (since I work in the post-secondary education sector), I hope for the strengthening of funding to universities.

Lastly, I have no idea what to expect about the political climate going forward, particularly how Albertans will feel in four years at the next election.  I don’t know if this result represents a serious re-alignment leftward or just a call of protest.  I don’t know if this will actually unify the centre-left Alberta Party/Liberal/NDP block behind the NDP as the single progressive voice.  I don’t know what the future holds for the PCs and the Wildrose are and how they will vie for representing the conservative voice.  I’m sort of excited to find out, even with all my skepticism and hesitance.


Elections and Tribalism

I’ve been reflecting on our provincial election, which has resulted in these thoughts. Though I’m not a huge sports fan, I follow enough and am emotionally engaged enough to care about who wins in particular settings (realistically, mostly in tennis). At some level, I realize how completely ridiculous this is. It is bizarre that my emotional state of mind can be effected, sometime quite substantially, by whether or not some overpaid young person hits a yellow ball more consistently and accurately than another on a particular day halfway across the world. But I have identified with the fate of particular players; they are my players, I am their fan. I am pleased if my players win and disappointed if my players lose.

For the purposes of this little piece, I’m going to use the term `tribalism’ to refer to the emotional attachment to the success of a particular team against another. Team, of course, can be interpreted very, very broadly here. In other blogs I read, the term is used as a criticism of religious; a religious tribalism seeks the cultural domination of its particular brand of religion. One of the main things I hope to learn from religion (through a theoretical understanding I borrow from Ken Wilber) is precisely the opposite of identifying with a team of any sort. Instead, religion should seek to break down the barriers between people. In religious development, a person’s sense of who ‘their people’ are should be expanded in greater and greater circles until it encompasses the entire human race.

There is a temptation to view a democratic election as a kind of sporting event, which leads to tribalism of political parties. A political party, much like a religious group, breeds group identification. One a party is `our team’, we want our group to win, campaigning is strategy, points are scored, and so on.

Elections as sporting events and party affiliation as tribalism are problematic. The point of an election is not that my party wins. Rather, the hope (idealistically) is that representatives are chosen who will make the best decision for the governance of the community. (I would add a slant towards the more vulnerable and at-risk portions of the community, which I realize is a political position in itself). I realize that a simple response is just this: “I believe that my party has the best representatives.” I’m sure most voters believe this, and most party affiliations begin for precisely this reason: because we believe the party has the best approach to governance. But if identification with a party become emotionally strong enough, it become the primary goal. This is where, as far as I can observe, it become problematic.

Several observation lead me to this reticence towards party affiliation. Parties change and morph, both quickly with leadership changes and slowly over the demographic shifts of generations. Loyalty to a party which began out of simple agreement with their principles can override the need to reconsider those principle. This is where the emotional tribalism of party affiliation becomes problematic; when emotionally connected, it’s much harder to reconsider loyalties.

Party affiliation and tribalism also make cooperation much more difficult. I my vision of a healthy democracy, parties and subgroup of parties should be cooperating frequently; basically, anytime there is a share set of values, principle or goals. Our political system should encourage party cooperation for the purpose of good governance. The adversarial nature of tribalism in politics make this cooperate much more difficult, and our governance suffers for it.

Parties often tend to govern differently from how they campaign. I don’t necessary think this is a huge problem, since the details of governing are infinitely more complicated than the simplicity of campaign slogans and promises. However, a huge part of the difference between campaigning and governing is the fact that power changes people. Most parties and leaders, regardless of their original motivations, govern at least partially to maintain power. That impulse is often at odds with the general good, particularly for vulnerable populations. This is the old adage that power corrupts: in my experience, this adage holds true and most people fail to take it serious enough.

I don’t expect salvation from political leadership. Simplistically stated, I tend left-of-centre (as much as I detest the left/right dichotomy in political discussion and analysis), but should a left-of-centre party win my provincial or national election this year, I don’t expect radical change. I hope for marginal change in a positive direction. That kind of limited and reticent optimism is difficult start to build a enthusiastic party endorsement and I am grateful for it.

In particular to the Alberta election, lacking a strong party affiliation is particularly important. There are four somewhat left and centre/left parties in this current election: the Greens, the Liberals, the Alberta Party and the NDP. Identifying tribally with any of them is counterproductive, since the success of any particular group depends greatly on the position in their individual riding. (The problems with the current voting system are a subject for another time). Party identification prevents necessary cooperation between these groups to try and work within the current electoral system. The same can be said of Wild Rose/PC cooperation where their priorities overlap, as well as PC/Liberal cooperation over the broad centre of the political spectrum. As noted before, cooperation between parties should be a hallmark of a healthy democracy, but it is seen an anathema.