Entries in canada (8)


Elections for Naifs and Cynics: A primer

A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I described a blunt taxonomy of political attitudes. I suggested that everyone falls somewhere on the line (which is a continuum) between political naifs, at one extreme, and political cynics, at the other. My primary claim was that naifs believe that politics is fundamentally about devising and implementing good policy. Cynics believe that it is about acquiring and exercising power. 

While virtually no one is a pure cynic or unalloyed naif, I think there is no doubt that the distinction does articulate two clear approaches to understanding how politics does, or ought to, function. I also think that understanding whether a given columnist is coming at things from one side or the other can be a useful heuristic for understanding the argument that is being made. 

At any rate, the original post gets tweeted and mentioned on social media fairly regularly by people whose work I respect and admire, so it suggests to me that I'm not the only one who finds the schema useful. We're into the election season now, so I took some time to sketch out an election primer for naifs and cynics. There's obviously a lot more to say, so I might see if this post can be expanded over the course of the campaign. (I'm also happy to take requests or suggestions for other ways of expanding the analyis). 

Some Guiding Principles

1. Everyone is a naif about their own political committments.

2. Everyone is a cynic about their opponents' political committments. 

3. Everyone is a meta-cynic about politics. That is, both cynics and even naifs are more interested in appearing cynical (or naive) to members of their tribe (of cynics or naifs) than they are interested in actually adhering to cynical or naive principles. 

4. We could all stand to be a bit more cynical about politics, and more naive about our meta-political committments. 

Ok with that on the table, let's get started.

Elections for Naifs

What is an election? For naïfs, an election is the opportunity for a national debate. As Andrew Coyne puts it, an election is “a conversation among the voters”, the outcome of which is a collective decision about what policies we should like our government to implement over the next four years or so.

The writ period is the time we have set aside for this conversation: the media deploys its resources to cover and facilitate that conversation, people open their doors to candidates, the pundits weigh in on how that conversation is going and try to help improve it. On this view, the longer the writ period the better, because the more time spent deliberating and debating, the sounder will be the reasoning that ultimately prevails.

Platforms: The most crucial element in an election for naïfs is the party platform. This is the document that lays out the policies the party promises to enact once in power. Ideally, the platform advances a consistent package of evidence-based policies, properly costed out, with a sincere and credible plan for how the money will be raised and the policies implemented.

Debates: For naïfs, debates between leaders play a key role in the election to the extent to which they are able to facilitate and amplify this national conversation, focused on the various party platforms. Debates should be about the substance of major issues – Defence, Foreign Affairs, Health Care, the Environment – such that voters are left enlightened and informed with respect to the choice they face. By the same token, naïfs dread talk of the “knockout blow”, the largely fictitious moment when one leader completely pwns another, destroying his candidacy with one snappy line.

Polls: Naifs tend to decry polls and the effect they have on the nature of the conversation among voters. Polls, according to naïfs, reduce elections to “horserace politics” or a “popularity contest.”

The Vote: The ballot box is the moment when the naïve voter gives his or her verdict on the outcome of the national conversation. By casting a ballot, the naïve voter chooses one candidate over the rest, or one party over the others, in the aim of giving that party a mandate to enact its platform.

The electoral system should aggregate these votes and translate them into seats in parliament in a manner that reflects the proportion of votes received. Power, that is, should be proportional to support. A party that gets 15% of the votes should get 15% of the seats, which should then translate into 15% of the power that the government exercises. A majority government should only be installed if a party indeed receives a majority of votes.  Hence the strong support amongst naïfs for electoral systems that involve proportional representation, and the source of the strength behind the slogan “make every vote count”.


Elections for Cynics

What is an election? For the political cynic, an election is what Schumpeter described as a competitive struggle between elites for the peoples’ votes. It is first and foremost a mechanism for the orderly transfer of power and the cycling of elites; or if you prefer, an election is an instrument that allows the people to throw the bums out (and replace them with a new set of bums).

The writ period is the time we have set aside for this competition to play out. The role of the media is largely to heckle, to cheer and jeer, and to analyse, much like fans in the sporting arena. For cynics, a longer writ period serves to demonstrate certain things about the relevant players – their stamina, their resources – but as that arch-cynic Kim Campbell put it,  "an election is no time to discuss serious issues."

Platform: Cynics don’t put much stock in party platforms as statements of policy. For the cynic, the party platform is more like an online dating profile than it is a curriculum vitae. That is, the cynic doesn’t much care if the policies are ideologically consistent, properly costed out, or have coherent implementation strategies. Rather, the platform is how the party signals its leadership of a political tribe. The platform is ultimately how the party defines its market niche in the competitive struggle.

Debates: Cynics find debates useful to the extent that they allow voters to evaluate which set of elites they will entrust with the business of governing. And so the cynical voter will be less concerned, during the debate, with the details of policies and their implementation. Instead, the cynic looks for how the debates signal leadership traits such as competence, coolness, and charisma. The sparring nature of debates is appealing to cynics precisely because it provides the opportunity for these traits to reveal themselves. If a party leader does suffer a “knockout blow,” for the cynic that signals much about that leader’s ability to handle the pressures of high office.

Polls: Cynics love polls, precisely because the election is a popularity contest. Following polls is like following the announcer’s call of the Preakness or the Belmont -- it’s a gauge of how the race is going, and we all get to cheer on our favourite political tribe.  At the same time, polls allow parties to evaluate their progress and adjust their strategies accordingly. Public polling allows voters to calibrate their own voting strategy in light of where the electorate seems to be headed. So for example, if a cynical voter is hell bent on throwing out the current set of bums no matter what the cost, she might change who she plans to vote for by looking at which opposition party the polls say has the best shot at winning.

The Vote: For cynics, voting is foremost an exercise in tribal support and affiliation. The cynic votes for the party whose brand or identity they find most appealing, regardless of platform specifics. At the same time, for politically disaffected cynics the major function of the election is to enable democratic control over the cycling of political elites. As noted in the previous section, the cynical voter might then be inclined to vote strategically: It will matter more them that “their side loses” than “my side wins”.

Because political power is indivisible and rival, enabling the cycling of elites is the crucial function of the electoral system. Its effectiveness is to be measured by how well it accomplishes this, not by how it allocates seats or apportions power. In a society marked by deep diversity and profound disagreement about the proper goals of the government, an electoral system that that allows power to be gained and controlled by a workable plurality of voters might be not only acceptable, but even welcome.

Homework:  Read the Liberal Party's recent Real Change manifesto, and try to place it on the naive/cynical continuum. Once you have done that, try to give that placement a cynical interpretation. That is, ask yourself what political tribe are the Liberals trying to appeal to with this manifesto.  


Two concepts of secularism and Canada's two solitudes: A limited defence of Pauline Marois

There is a lot that divides anglo and franco in Canada: Leafs vs Habs, Corner Gas vs Tout le Monde en Parle; Air Farce vs Juste Pour Rire. But nothing says “two solitudes” more than the distinct approaches to secularism you’ll find in Quebec and in the ROC.

The depth of the mutual incomprehension was revealed recently during the Quebec election campaign, when Parti Québécois  leader Pauline Marois released a platform item called the Charter of Secularism, which would forbid public employees from wearing any religious symbols while at work. So, no turbans or hijabs or kirpans or that sort of thing. On the other hand, a crucifix necklace would be ok, as is the crucifix that hangs in the legislature in Quebec City.

According to Marois, the new charter (and its notable exceptions) would serve a dual purpose. First, it would assert the principle of the neutrality of the state. And second, it would affirm the particular place of Catholicism in Quebec’s history.

"Wanting to take a step toward ensuring the neutrality of the state doesn't mean we deny who we are," she said while campaigning. "It simply means we are at a different moment in our history.

For this she was given the standard moralizing treatment the Anglophone media traditionally reserves for Quebecers at home and Republicans abroad: From the Globe and Mail: “On tolerance of minorities, Pauline Marois is showing the opposite of leadership.” From the Toronto Star:  “PQ’s ‘secularism’ masks European-style intolerance”. (According to the Citizen’s Robert Sibley, Marois’ problem is not that she is intolerant, but that she isn’t intolerant enough. But that’s another argument).  The upshot is that when it comes to asserting both state neutrality and Quebec’s Catholic origins, Marois was seen in the ROC as a hypocrite at best, but more likely a rank xenophobe.

Here’s a more charitable interpretation of the Charter of Secularism: It expresses a philosophically legitimate approach to the question of the proper relationship between church and state, albeit an approach that may no longer be appropriate to the challenges that Quebec faces in dealing with minorities.

There are two broad theoretical versions of the secular state (taken from Charles Taylor’s essay, “How to Define Secularism”). Each affirms the idea of a neutral state, but the form that neutrality takes is shaped by the problem it is designed to solve.

On the first view, the goal of secularism is to control religion, to “define the place of religion in public life, and to keep it firmly in this location.” As Taylor points out, this doesn’t need to involve any overt repression, “provided various religious actors understand and respect these limits."

On the second view of secularism, the point is not to control religion narrowly understood, but to manage the entire spectrum of comprehensive worldviews. These include organized religious outlooks, but also encompass vague types of spiritualism, scientism, atheism, and competing philosophical doctrines such as utilitarianism and deontology. All of these have differing (and possibly incompatible) notions of the good, and will hence come into conflict in the public sphere. The point of the neutral state is to find a way of accommodating and mediating between all of these worldviews.

 Let’s call the first secularism “French,” and the second, “English”. They correspond, more or less, to the forms the emerged out of post-Enlightenment France and England, and they are responses to the distinct challenges religion posed to each society. For France, secularism was a response to monolithic and heavy-handed Catholic authoritarianism. In England, secularism was part of the liberal tradition that sought to mediate between multiple competing worldviews.  

You can see the downstream effects of both these challenges in the way France and the UK approach secularism today. France continues to treat it as a way of controlling religion by purging it from the public sphere – hence the 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools (sound familiar) and Sarkozy’s 2011 ban of the burqa and other face coverings.

For its part, the UK has fully embraced the interpretation of secularism – usually called “multiculturalism” – as a device for allowing the maximum amount of freedom that is compatible with the same degree of freedom for others.

It doesn’t take a great imagination to see how these two conceptions of secularism have been transposed into the Canadian context. The ROC is a fairly typical multicultural state, again with a few tweaks and variations from the sort found in the USA, the UK, and Australia. For its part, Quebec has pretty much copied the French approach, with a slight difference: Quebec still sees value, and little harm, in permitting Catholic symbols in official and public spaces.

But (goes the objection), isn’t this “slight difference” a major problem? Isn’t Marois’ proposal to allow the crucifix to remain in the legislature a sign of her profound bad faith?

I’m not so sure. Montreal is one of the most secular and irreligious cities on Earth, but its residents go about their business in the shadow of a giant cross that glowers down at them like a stern bishop. But no one takes it seriously, any more than anyone takes seriously the crucifix in the national assembly. The reason rests in the big difference between the French Revolution and Quebec’s: The complete absence of violence here in the New World. Quebec’s was a Quiet Revolution; there were no beheadings, and there was no need to strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest. All Quebecers had to do to shuck off the church was take control of their education and health care systems.

This is an important point: Quebecers don’t see any need to ban Catholic symbols from public space, not because they are hypocrites, but because those symbols are no longer a threat. That battle has been fought and won. But the symbols of other, foreign religions are seen as a threat to the secular order, hence the perceived need to control their use.

If this sounds like special pleading, consider a comparable case: the ongoing public funding of a separate school system for Catholics in Ontario. By any reasonable standard, the separate school system is an affront to liberalism, multiculturalism, anglo-secularism, whatever you want to call it. There is simply no rational justification for it, apart from the fact that it’s in the constitution. But when Conservative leader John Tory ran an election campaign a few years ago promising to even things up by allowing funding for all religious schools, he was mocked into political oblivion. Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s ongoing defence of the status quo is far more hypocritical than Pauline Marois’ charter when it comes to consistent secularism.

This is not to say that when it comes to French versus English secularism there is nothing to choose, that each is a matter of local taste mixed with historical happenstance. Each form of secularism was an institutional response to a specific threat, and each served their respective societies quite well. But looking to the future, we can’t say that each is equally suited to the challenges that they face. In particular, the French/Quebecois model is overly focused on the threat of religion narrowly understood.

Neither France nor Quebec are in any danger of being taken over by a single religion – they are not about to revert to theocracies. The real problem is the same one confronting every other major industrialized democracy, viz., the challenge of managing deep  and irreconcilable diversity. Spending time and energy and capital trying to keep each new religious group in its place is political and cultural wack-a-mole. Instead, they should concentrate on putting in place programs and policies and institutions that will allow the fantastic diversity that their societies have to offer to co-exist.

If the rest of Canada has better policies, and better practices, it is largely thanks to historical factors that are none of our doing. If we insist on taking credit for them while making invidious comparisons with Quebec, the least we could do is make sure that we’ve purged our institutions of all inherited biases.




Sir Lovesalot, or, the rise of conspicuous honour



With his horse, Coeur-de-Lion, the French-Canadian Vincent Gabriel Kirouac is spending the summer dressed as a knight. Why?

“I’m crossing Canada on horseback dressed as a knight, to remind people of the values of long ago, such as devotion,” he said.

“All the values of the knight.”

The ancient code of chivalry is an interesting list of virtues, a mix of the anachronistic ("serve the liege lord in valour and faith"), the mildly sexist ("To respect the honour of women"), the ridiculously noble ("To despise pecuniary reward"), and the wonderfully sublime ("To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun"). For the most part, it is completely incomprensible to the modern mind. 

When I give my authenticity spiel, at some point some one usually asks where I think the culture is going next. So we had conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, the conspicuous rebellion, then conspicuous authentiticy. What next? I usually try to weasel out of a serious answer ("Just like the present, but moreso" is my usualy reply). Or I suggest that if I really knew, I'd be investing in that thing and would soon be rich. 

But if I had to bet, I'd say we are headed for a fairly reactionary period. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Neo-Victorian movement, for example, where a return to 19th century values amplifies the already-huge steampunk culture. The hipster-Christian trend is part of that, I think.

But perhaps something else is afoot: a return to pre-modern attitudes towards chivalry, honour, and loyalty, fed by the twin streams of relentless cultural nostalgia (and its obverse, irony) and the growing crisis of masculinity. I would put the Trudeau-Brazeau fight (and the remarkably complex set of responses to it) in this trend. 

And then there is Vincent Gabriel Kirouac, knight-errant. If the public reaction to his -- ok I'll say it -- Quixotic journey across Canada is any indication, there's a niche here ready to be exploited. Dare we call it "conspicious honour"? 


Electoral Fraud and Canadian Law

We're in the middle of an electoral fraud scandal here in Canada -- full details can be found here and here. But I have yet to see a full explanation of what laws are involved, and what possible punishments might be in order for whoever is caught. 

I'm no lawyer, and if anyone has more insight on this please send me an email. But I've been poking around the Canada Elections Act and it looks like article 482.b of the elections act is the key clause:

482. Every person is guilty of an offence who

  • (a) by intimidation or duress, compels a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election; or

  • (b) by any pretence or contrivance, including by representing that the ballot or the manner of voting at an election is not secret, induces a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election


And if I read the punishments right under Section 500 (5) It looks like this is punishable by either summary conviction or indictable offence -- with the latter punishable up to $5k in fines and five years in prison:

(5) Every person who is guilty of an offence under any of subsections 480(1) and (2), sections 481 to 483, subsections 484(3), 485(2), 486(3), 487(2), 488(2) and 489(3), section 490, subsections 491(3) and 492(2), section 494, subsections 495(5), 496(2) and 497(3), section 498 and subsection 499(2) is liable

  • (b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine of not more than $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years, or to both.
But what's a bit more interesting is what happens if the person convicted is either a candidate or an agent of a candidate and they are convicted of an "illegal practice" under s. 482b. If I read Section 502 correctly, anyone so convictedcan't sit as an MP or hold any government appointments for five years:

Consequences of illegal, corrupt practices

(3) Any person who is convicted of having committed an offence that is an illegal practice or a corrupt practice under this Act shall, in addition to any other punishment for that offence prescribed by this Act, in the case of an illegal practice, during the next five years or, in the case of a corrupt practice, during the next seven years, after the date of their being so convicted, not be entitled to

  • (a) be elected to or sit in the House of Commons; or

  • (b) hold any office in the nomination of the Crown or of the Governor in Council.

The Fur Trade in Canada

This press release makes me unreasonably happy:


YELLOWKNIFE (November 22, 2011) The GNWT is doubling the number of fur pelts trappers can claim under the Grubstake program, from 200 to 400 pelts per trapper. This enables the most productive trappers to receive additional start-up funding in the fall of 2012.

“The increase to the pelt threshold is in direct response to requests from our productive trappers,” said Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, David Ramsay. “Wild fur from the Northwest Territories is in demand from buyers around the world, and this increase will provide eligible trappers with funds to defray a portion of their start-up costs at the beginning of each trapping season. It will also stimulate increased production of wild fur.”

Under the Grubstake program, a payment of $5 per pelt of any fur-bearing species is paid to all trappers who ship at least 20 fur pelts to auction, now to a maximum of 400. This payment is in addition to the guaranteed advance and prime fur bonus that are paid to eligible trappers through the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Furs Program. Grubstake payments occur in the fall prior to the start of the new trapping season and are based on production from the previous year’s fur harvest. 

Trapping season in the NWT runs from October to June, the period when fur is most market-ready. Trappers who participate in the program must have General Hunting Licenses or be land-claim beneficiaries. Fur can be brought to the wildlife officers at local Department of Environment and Natural Resources offices to be entered into the program.

Through the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Furs Program, the Government of the Northwest Territories works in partnership with NWT harvesters and the fur industry to support and promote the traditional fur economy. In the 2010/11 fiscal year, the program invested $121,709 into the NWT trapping industry.


For more information, please contact:

Alayna Ward

Manager, Public Affairs and Communications

Industry, Tourism and Investment

Government of the Northwest Territories



Ai weiwei: Who is afraid of the Chinese government? 


My column in this week’s Maclean’s magazine (no link yet) is nominally about the contrast between the impotence of shock art in the West versus its all-too-threatening status in China. But mostly it was an excuse to get on the record some facts about the what is, effectively, the kidnapping and detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government.

The government has put forth a  list of reasons for his arrest, including pornography (for this picture), plagiarism, and according to this story in the Guardian today, tax evasion. No one takes these claims seriously; it’s fairly obvious Ai is being persecuted for marrying his art with social activism (especially leading investigations into corruption and a cover-up surrounding the Sichuan earthquake).

Ai’s arrest has raised a great deal of alarm in parts of the West. Among the people or organizations that have expressed public concern and requested his release: The US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, US state department spokesman Mark Toner, UK foreign secretary William Hague, the EU delegation to China, German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. In addition, Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie have expressed their solidarity with Ai.

On April 18th, a group of about 100 members of the Toronto art community took part in the 1001 Chairs demonstration outside the Chinese consulate, and called on the “Prime Minister and our Minister of Foreign Affairs to express concern over the treatment of Ai Weiwei”. To no avail:Among those who have said nothing in public: Canada’s ambassador to China David Mulroney, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, departed DFAIT minister Lawrence Cannon, new DFAIT minister John Baird, and Heritage Minister James Moore. Brock professor of political science Charles Burton has posted a few items on his blog about the Ai Weiwei case.

After 43 days without any contact, Ai’s wife was allowed to visit him for 20 minutes on Monday. Her account of his condition does not sound great. As Burton and others have pointed out, this is not an isolated case: a disturbing number of people have disappeared in China since the Tunisian-inspired “Jasmine” revolution  began a few months ago. Also, Hong Kong street artists who have been stenciling in support of Ai have similarly been arrested.

(Props to Marina Galperina of Animal New York for keeping tabs on this).


Canada: Nation of fraidy-cats

In Canada,  "the tinfoil hat that was once the mark of the conspiracy theorist and the anti-state paranoiac is now thoroughly mainstream garb".

That's from my latest column for Maclean's magazine.



Politics and Authenticity Week (Win a copy of AH!)

My friends at Samara have been running a "guess who said this" contest this summer, using quotations from the exit interviews they did with former Canadian members of parliament. The prizes are usually classic books in Canadian politics, but this week they're offering a copy of the Authenticity Hoax to the winner. You don't have to be Canadian to enter, though it probably helps. Here's the quote:

In keeping with the theme of the book, this week’s quote comes from a former House Leader, reflecting on one of the less enjoyable elements of his 13 years in politics:

“My favourite saying is that 'I don’t like politicians.' And I don’t think I ever did enjoy politicians’ company. I still don’t that much. Some I do, but a lot I don’t.”

To enter, follow this link.