Monday, January 30, 2006

The Harper majority

Fed up with Liberal Party scandals and with the bickering of a minority Parliament, Canadians awoke on January 24 to find they had voted 172 Conservatives into office – enough to give Prime Minister Stephen Harper a comfortable majority and a solid mandate. Change was not long in coming. After the House repealed same-sex marriage and substituted civil unions, and after the Senate bowed before the will of the elected representatives, the Supreme Court surprised many by upholding the legislation in a 5-to-4 decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice McLachlin noted that “While equality demands that all citizens be entitled to the same rights and responsibilities, no one has a right that the O.E.D. redefine any of the words of our language.” (The apoplexy of Jack Layton, leader of an obscure socialist group called the N.D.P., led one wag to comment that the letters stood for New Dictionary Party.)

Although Harper had promised not to initiate legislation on abortion, a number of Tory backbenchers were eager to introduce a private member’s bill to outlaw abortion except where the mother’s life was at risk. The Prime Minister, fearing a public backlash that might threaten his legislative agenda, scrambled to persuade his members to postpone such a bill until a more opportune time. Hardly had abortion been put on the back-burner before bills surfaced to bring back the death penalty, to ban contraception, and to introduce flogging for petty theft. (“I would have had an easier time running the country with a minority”, Harper is reported as saying.) Again the Prime Minister succeeded in postponing consideration of these issues, but he threw his increasingly restless crew a bone: the Accountability in Broadcasting Act dismantled and privatized the CBC, the majority of the assets becoming the core of what is today Fox North.

The election of a separatist government in Quebec in 2007, and its announced intention to hold a referendum on independence in January 2010, on the eve of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, opened a chasm between Ottawa’s right-wing and socially conservative policies, and the left-wing and socially liberal policies of Quebec – a chasm exacerbated by the deepening North American economic recession. By early 2009, after the inauguration of President Jeb Bush and with depleted U.S. forces in Iraq increasingly hard-pressed by the Insurgency, Harper accepted Washington’s offer to repay 75% of the softwood-lumber duties owed Canada in exchange for the deployment of 10,000 Canadian troops to southern Iraq, to replace the departed British forces. (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, the P.M., quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, told Parliament in reference to the pledge he had made during the 2006 election campaign.)

The separatists’ triumph in the 2010 referendum and the federal government’s refusal to negotiate had momentous consequences. Riots and the breakdown of civil order in Quebec called for urgent measures. Canadian troops in the streets of Canadian cities? “Just watch me”, said the Prime Minster. But with Canada’s best units in Iraq, the situation in Quebec was growing unmanageable. Ottawa called on Washington. The 10th Mountain Division, whose home base is Fort Drum, in upstate New York, was now invited to fulfill what had been its prime mission all along: to restore stability in the U.S.A.’s northern backyard.

The rest, as they say, is history – or, rather, Manifest Destiny. Our glorious nation now stretches from the Rio Grande to the North Pole. Stephen Harper, who always wanted an elected Senate, was twice elected to the Senate himself – from the great state of Alberta – only to be threatened with assassination by fanatics of the so-called Canadian Liberation Front. These terrorists and their ilk are looked upon with well-deserved revulsion by the vast majority of citizens in our northern states. What little support they have comes from abroad, from the enemies of America and their propaganda mouthpieces, including one Don Cherry, who lives in self-imposed exile in Sweden, from where he delivers his scurrilous monologues by satellite radio, urging the “Canucks” and “Maple Leafs” to “hit ’em hard”. The Bill to Outlaw Ice Hockey and Other Un-American Pastimes, currently before Congress, will make it easier to send the likes of Mr. Cherry to the penalty box for a long time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Robbie Burns

Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, was born January 25, 1759. I'm proud to say that my grandfather, as a founding member of the Vancouver Burns Fellowship and as Hon. Secretary of the Burns Statue Fund, was instrumental in having the statue of Burns erected in Stanley Park. The unveiling took place on Saturday, August 25th, 1928, and was attended by Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain -- an appropriate tribute to a poet who was a champion of liberal and socialist ideals.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Déjà vu

  • Conservatives - 124 seats (36.3% of votes)
  • Liberals - 103 (30.2%)
  • New Democrats - 29 (17.5%)
  • Bloc Québécois - 51 (10.5%)
  • Greens - 0 (4.5%)
  • Independent - 1
There were few surprises. The Conservatives got fewer seats than most expected, and the Liberals held on to somewhat more. But all in all, the pollsters and pundits got it right. Even the Tory surge in Quebec detected at the end of the campaign panned out on election day.

A small increase in support for the NDP over 2004 translated into another ten seats, but once again the party fell just short of gaining a balance of power. Oddly enough, that’s not good news for Stephen Harper. The balance of power is not the power to defeat the government all by yourself, but the power to sustain it by yourself against other Opposition parties. Because the NDP, unlike the Liberals and the Bloc, doesn’t hold a balance of power, Harper has one fewer potential partner to turn to in getting his legislation passed, and to play off against the other Opposition parties. For example, while devolution of power to the provinces might meet stiff opposition from Liberals and New Democrats, Harper will find an ally in the Bloc. If certain tax-cutting measures were opposed by the Bloc and the NDP, Harper might garner support from the Liberals. But if the Bloc and the Liberals unite against Senate reform, the enthusiastic support of the NDP will not be enough.

In practice, things are trickier: Conservatives and New Democrats together have 153 seats, two short of a majority; Liberals and the Bloc together have 154 seats, one short. Then there’s the Speaker, who doesn’t vote except in case of a tied vote. Normally, the Speaker comes from the party in power, but there’s speculation that Kingston-and-the-Islands Liberal Peter Milliken may win the job again. Throw into the mix newly elected Independent member André Arthur, controversial Quebec City ex-talk-show host, and a few months from now it could be déjà vu all over again.

Pet peeve department: Once again, the usual misleading blather about the alienated West has been trotted out. In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, the culprit was Roy MacGregor, with his piece “The West Is In with a Vengeance”. The article is all about Alberta. Alberta is not identical with western Canada. “The West” as an identifiable whole is a media myth. Vancouver and Victoria are closer to the Danforth in Toronto than to Conservative Alberta, which sometimes seems like the far side of the Moon. In last May’s B.C. provincial election, the combined NDP-Green vote exceeded 50%. Even parts of Alberta aren’t part of Conservative Alberta. The real split, insofar as there is one, is between urban Canada and rural/small-town Canada, not between East and West.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Home stretch

The election campaign is entering its last weekend, and all indications are that we're headed for a minority Conservative government, with each of the three Opposition parties holding a balance of power. In claiming the other day that the Tories had dramatically widened their lead, and now claiming that their lead has dramatically shrunk, The Globe and Mail and CTV are guilty of irresponsible journalism. Given the margins of error in their Strategic Counsel polls, there's no reason to believe there was any shift toward and then away from the Conservatives. The fact that the second result is in line with what other polling organizations have been reporting in recent days suggests that the first result was an anomaly. Whatever the truth may be, and whatever the results on Monday, The Globe and Mail and CTV had no justification for making a mountain of speculation out of a molehill of questionable information.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Public and private

I’ve just finished reading A Return to Modesty, by Wendy Shalit. The book, which was published in 1999, when Shalit was 23 years old, is subtitled “Discovering the Lost Virtue”. Shalit is concerned much less with modesty in the sense of being humble, than with sexual modesty. Contradicting what seems to have become conventional wisdom, she argues that the prevalent promiscuous, anything-goes attitude in fashion and behaviour has done girls and women more harm than good. At the same time, she insists that the virtue of modesty she champions is quite different from – indeed, is the opposite of – prudery, which is actually akin to promiscuity.
Whether she decides to have scores of men or none, promiscuous and prudish women in some sense embrace the same flippant world view, which one might call the nothing-fazes-me world view. As types, they represent two sides of the same unerotic coin, which flips over arrogantly and announces to the world when it lands: “Ha! – I cannot be moved.” Modesty is prudery’s true opposite, because it admits that one can be moved and issues a specific invitation for one man to try.
Shalit is fazed by much of what passes for sexual liberation these days, and she doesn't mind admitting so. She can’t stand the nothing-really-matters, who-cares, whatever attitude that signifies the abandonment of dreams of lasting, respectful, intimate relationships. Modesty, for her, is a matter of asserting one’s dignity. Dignity requires a private, personal space, access to which is limited.
Everything is public because there is no longer any private realm. Our dignity is in our secrets. If nothing is secret, nothing is sacred. In a way, then, this peculiar human armor of modesty protects us against the illusion that we could ever be truly known by strangers.
Although Shalit does not explore the matter at length beyond the relationship between the sexes, the assault on privacy is to be seen everywhere: in people babbling, even shouting, into cell phones on the street or in shops, oblivious to the sensibilities of those nearby; in boors blasting music from their cars; in people walking around in public in what could easily be mistaken for their underwear or their pyjamas; in the unprecedented and widespread use of vulgarity and crude language in conversation and the media, including many blogs, which often include intimate details of the author’s life that formerly, if written about at all, would have been securely locked away in a diary.

One mistake here is to imagine that public space is where anything goes because, after all, it’s not private. But consider: while I may have the right to toss my garbage into my back yard – at least as long as the neighbours don’t have to see it or smell it – I certainly don’t have the right to toss my garbage into a public park. The public realm is public because it is where everyone interacts, and where therefore one must respect the sensibilities and private spaces of others. So I want to modify Shalit’s claim that today “Everything is public because there is no longer any private realm.” It’s not a matter of public versus private. The assault on the private realm is simultaneously an assault on the public realm.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Spring thaw

Spring has come early for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. The political ice, which seemed to be frozen solid throughout the first half of the election campaign, has cracked and is melting. Suddenly, a slew of polls give the Tories a significant lead over the Liberals. The income-trust fuss may have been the last straw, with many more people deciding that the Liberals really do need to be sent to their room for a time-out. But more than that, Harper has done what he didn’t manage to do in the 2004 campaign: give voters some reason to believe that he has a positive programme, and is not simply the devil we don’t know.

The Prime Minister’s headline-grabbing proposal in last night’s debate, to amend the constitution to get rid of the notwithstanding clause, seemed like a desperate attempt to draw Harper into the same-sex marriage morass, where Martin could pose as the defender of human rights. Harper’s reply, to the effect that the constitution as it stands strikes a reasonable balance between the role of the courts and the rights of Parliament, hung Martin out to dry on that one. It’s time to start getting used to saying the words “Prime Minister Harper”. But before you get too comfortable, take a look at his cabinet, helpfully chosen for him by Rick Mercer.

David Turner, who was poised to knock off Liberal cabinet minister David Anderson and win Victoria for the NDP in 2004, told me his victory slipped away in the last three days of the campaign, as many potential supporters voted for Anderson to stop the Tories. This, I must note, was prime stupidity on the part of these voters, since the race was between Anderson and Turner, with the Conservative candidate a distant third; all they did by voting Liberal was defeat their first-choice candidate. In other ridings, where the real fight was between Conservative and New Democrat, it was worse, with the upshot of ignorant attempts at strategic voting being the election of Conservative candidates. Liberals will be hoping for a similar reprieve this election. They’ve just pulled out negative attack ads. Will those potential NDP supporters freak out again at the prospect of a Harper victory? Perhaps not. If they have become reconciled to the prospect of a Conservative victory, they may opt to vote for their first choice and send more New Democrats to Ottawa.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

What the polls do and don't say

“Poll Points to Tory Victory” says the headline in the The Vancouver Sun, referring to the latest Ipsos Reid figures. The Sun reports that the Conservatives now have the support of 35% of eligible voters, compared to 31% who back the Liberals. “How Harper Fashioned His Lead” is the The Globe and Mail’s headline. The paper tells us that, according to Strategic Counsel, the Conservatives have a two-point lead over the Liberals, 33% to 31%. But are the Tories really ahead, and do the polls even say they are ahead? We have to look past the headlines and read the fine print.

The fine print is all about the margin of error. Although news organizations invariably tell us the margin of error for polls, they do so only as an afterthought, and only after invariably misleading us with the headlines. Neither Ipsos Reid nor Strategic Counsel actual claims that the Tories are ahead of the Grits. Based on a sample of 2,004 people interviewed, Ipsos Reid gives a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Strategic Counsel, based on a sample of 1,500, gives a margin of error of 2.5 percent points, 19 times out of 20. What Strategic Counsel is saying is, “There’s a 95% probability that the Conservatives have the support of somewhere between 30.5% and 35.5% of voters and that the Liberals have somewhere between 28.5% and 33.5% of voters.” The Conservatives could be as low as 30.5% and the Liberals could be as high as 33.5%. That’s a large overlap. And even that is assuming that this isn’t one of the one-in-twenty polls that, though done correctly from a methodological standpoint, gives a wonky result outside the margin of error. Even the Ipsos Reid poll, which has a smaller margin of error, and which the Sun would have us believe puts the Tories up by 4 percent, does nothing of the kind. That poll, again with a 95% probability, puts the lower limit for Conservative support at 32.8% and the upper limit for Liberal support at 33.2% - a small overlap, but an overlap nonetheless.

It’s a mistake to think that if one party’s reported lead over another one is greater than the margin of error, then it must really be in the lead. Even leaving aside the 1-in-20 possibility for an outside-the-margin result in a properly conducted poll, it must be remembered that the margin of error applies to the figures for both parties. So if there’s a 2.5 percentage-point margin of error, and one party is reported as being three or four percentage points up on the other, there’s still an overlap. It's not clear to me that a piece called “Understanding Polling and Margin of Error”, at the Canadian Opinion Research Archive, isn't guilty of “innumeracy” in this regard. None of this means that the Conservatives aren't probably ahead of the Liberals now, but it's far from sure.

For new poll results and some interesting seat projections, check out the Hill and Knowlton Election Predictor. Remember, though, that (1) party support is spread very unevenly across the country, a fact that has huge implications for who wins how many seats, (2) smaller sample sizes for regions or provinces mean that poll results at these levels have to be taken with a very large grain of salt, given the large margins of error involved, and (3) large differences in voter makeup and attitude from riding to riding, combined with three- or four-way voting splits, mean that knowing how the parties actually do stand in a province wouldn’t tell us much about how a particular constituency is likely to go. The Election Prediction Project looks at things riding by riding, though in a pretty unscientific way.