Tag Archives: Canadian Politics

This is why you hate politics

I’m the King of the Castle; you’re a dirty rascal. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear


A zero-sum-game is a game of winners and losers. For every winner, a loser; for every loser, a winner.

A zero-sum-game is a game of gains against losses, of distribution, of competition, of conflict.

I gain X at your expense. My gain of X is balanced exactly by your loss of X.

By necessity, a zero-sum-game is an attempt to gain advantage over others, employing tactics and power.

In a zero-sum-game, we are not all in this together. We are divided. Our interests are not the same.

The reality is that most people live their day-to-day lives playing a non-zero-game. We seek win-wins. We are not in conflict with our friends, our families, our neighbors.

We prefer harmony over conflict, co-operation over competition. We negotiate and share and look for the greater good.

Life in a healthy human community is not a zero-sum-game, but politics is a zero-sum-game.

You belong to Party X. I belong to Party Y. One of us must defeat the other.

A vote is a unit of marginal utility. We compete for votes.

My 51% of the votes does not give me 51% of the power, or the authority, or the right to govern and to legislate. I get it all. Your 49% of the vote gives you 0% of the power.

In everything other than politics, we seek to make the pie bigger. We want to ensure everyone gets a slice, and that we deal with others as much as possible in a spirit of fairness, respect, and co-operation.

In politics, I must win and you must lose. We cannot share. We are in conflict. We can not cooperate. The values and morals of ordinary human life do not apply, and must not apply.

A zero-sum.

Money, politics, and marketing research

Money and politics. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

In the 2011 federal general election, 61.1 percent of the 23,971,740 eligible voters of Canada voted.

A majority government was formed by 39.62 percent of this 61.1 percent.

Here is a graph of the historical trajectory of voter engagement.

Voter Turnout

39.62 percent of 61.1 percent is 23.79 percent. Under ¼ of eligible voters in Canada elected a majority government in 2011.

As voter engagement declines, mobilizing voter engagement becomes an increasingly valuable commodity.

1,323,927 votes separated the majority party and the official opposition—or 9% of the actual vote and 5.5% of the eligible vote.

In markets where small margins determine big outcomes, targeted campaigns are required. Targeted marketing campaigns require enormous market research.

Market research is expensive.

When you realize that everything depends upon mobilizing the 5.5% to capture an elusive 9%, the value proposition becomes clear. The rules governing money and campaigning noticeably change.

For example:


What is the value of a vote? This is the $125-million dollar question, and it has an answer.

The value of a vote depends upon the likelihood of someone voting for you.

Those who will never vote for you, no matter what, have low value—because they cannot be bought.

Those who will always vote for you, no matter what, have low value—because they don’t need to be bought. Money spent on either of these categories is wasted.

The most valuable voters are undecided. They are disengaged, low information voters. They are swing voters. They are waiting to be persuaded. They can be bought. In all likelihood, they must be.

They are the elusive 9% who determine everything. They are all that matter.

Money, marketing, and modern politics.

What difference does it make what Michael Ignatieff says?

Michael Ignatieff

In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell observed that “if one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.” By his reckoning, nationalism is a matter of sentiment mixed with a desire for power and prestige; “swayed by partisan feelings … there is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed.”

There are several passages that Barbara Kay may have had in mind when she concluded, in her essay “Michael Ignatieff hands Quebec separatists an unexpected gift,” that “Professor Ignatieff has just cheerfully thrown us all under a bus for the pleasure of adding colour to an international interview. Orwell was right about intellectuals.” One concerns war propaganda that he noticed being spread about by academics. Observing the credulity of certain intellectuals, the author of Animal Farm and 1984 dryly observed that (I am citing this from memory) some notions are so absurd that only an educated person could believe them. There is also a passage, again from “Notes on Nationalism,” which comes to mind: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe [these follies]: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

It’s dangerous for any writer to quote Orwell, more dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism, and most dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism in an article about nationalism. I know what I’m talking about: I lived nearly a decade in Quebec, and in that time I absorbed the lesson that a rational, dispassionate discussion of separatism in Canada is a rarity. Orwell’s essay is saturated with the cautionary observation that in such matters “no unbiased outlook is possible” and that the best one can hope for is an “essentially moral effort” to struggle against our own loves and hatreds.

I labour this point because, having listened to the Ignatieff interview , I was surprised at how measured it was, when juxtaposed with the partisan reactions. It is objectively true that Canada, since 1980, has undergone political decentralization. It is furthermore objectively true that fiscal and monetary policies uniquely bind Quebec to the federation. Less certain are Ignatieff’s claims that the two solitudes have nothing to say to one another, and that Canada is on a path logically tending to separation, but what affront is there in considering these possibilities as possibilities?

Only the affront to sentiment, and the power-and-prestige contests with which readers of Orwell are well familiar, stand in the way. Accordingly, Heritage Minister James Moore attacked Ignatieff’s statements as “arrogant, irresponsible and narcissistic,” while NDP leader Thomas Mulcair noted his own opportunity to pander, accusing the Liberals of obstructing his party’s past efforts “to give real meaning” to the recognition of Quebec nationhood. (More note should have been taken of this loaded declaration.) The Quebec premier, stumbling in the polls, reassured federalists while invoking the destructive intentions of the PQ leader, Pauline Marois. Soon everyone had their partisan speaking points on the podium, each declaiming over the others. Could it really be that there are only two solitudes in this country?

Kay’s central assertion that the former Liberal leader had “just handed [the] separatists a metaphorical bunker buster,” may have fallen short of the truth. By the time the sunlight had arrived to Canada’s shore, everyone was armed. The fury however overlooked the inadmissable fact that no one much cares what Mr. Ignatieff thinks and says. During the last federal campaign I had argued that this was a shame, and that the Liberal leader was himself largely responsible for it. Despite having thought a good deal about topics like war, foreign policy, nationalism, and terrorism — and despite having written numerous books on these and other topics — Michael Ignatieff dishonestly campaigned as if he were the down-home, plaid-and-ballcap type he most clearly is not. As a result, he bored everyone even more than he might have had he actually talked ideas. But for the purposes of nationalism, his not-so-outrageous speculations had to be dangerous and potent. The man who proved himself capable of sinking a political party had to be seen as capable of sinking a country also. This is a case of folly, the swallowing of which I don’t recommend. If Mr. Ignatieff possessed the power to direct the fate of a nation, he would not now be back at his other day job, leaving behind the also-rans of the Liberal Party of Canada.

If Mulcair can’t hold the NDP’s gains, the merger whispers will begin

The rise of Thomas Mulcair brings Canada one step closer to a settling of its parliamentary landscape. This former Quebec Liberal, whose one-time boss was a former Progressive Conservative, will henceforth parry with the Liberal interim leader — a former NDPer — and the Conservative Prime Minister, previously of the Canadian Alliance, which not long ago went by the name of the Reform Party.

The preceding highlights the fluid, and in some cases opportunistic, character of recent Canadian politics. Mulcair’s candidacy invoked the familiar weighing of purity against pragmatism, a debate concerning whether one should advance the candidate who can win, rather than the candidate who is authentic. Given that the victor has among his assets deep-pocketed campaign contributors and experience in Quebec and a notoriously combative style, it appears pragmatism has won this time around. Refusing to cut a self-serving deal, Nathan Cullen has won the war of principle by foregoing what the author and politician Nicholas Flood Davin termed, in his 1876 satire The Fair Grit, the “buncombe struggle” — in which contestants “out-vie each other first in professions of purity, and then out-do each other, as far as it is possible, in acts of corruption.” Under Davin’s formulation, “In Opposition all is virtue; in power all the reverse.”

In a slightly modified form this principle, long familiar on the Social-Democrat left, demands of virtue and authenticity the rejection of compromise for the purpose of achieving political power. Considered from the perspective of expedience, however, Mulcair is impressive: a serial first-placer, he is chronologically second only to Phil Edmonston on the list of winning Quebec NDP candidates. (If one puts aside by-elections, Mulcair becomes the first NDP candidate to win a Quebec seat in a general federal election.) Regarding the second criterion, authenticity, there are skeptics and detractors. Judy Rebick asserts that “the NDP has elected an old-style patriarchal politician [who is] more of a liberal than a social democrat and who will move the party to the right, especially on international issues including free trade and Israel, two issues at the centre of Harper’s agenda.” As John Ivison notices, [“Thomas Mulcair’s challenge is to prove he is no political opportunist”] and Rebick discloses, Mulcair must now navigate a sea roughened not only by external challenges, but by internal rivalries and hostilities.

But let’s return to the theme of fluidity. I was in the East Block office of Senator Di Nino, and in the course of our conversation he produced a framed copy of the December 2003 voting card sealing the Progressive Conservative – Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance merger, signed by all involved. The Senator’s recollections made me mindful of how far, and in such short time, the Reform Party came from being an amateurish western grievance club (my wording, not his) to forming the Government of Canada. Along the way, the movement got a makeover — think Preston Manning — and learned to speak in a language comprehensible east of Winnipeg. In other words, another case of purity yielding somewhat to pragmatism, to the inevitable disappointment of some. Imagine where conservatives would be today, if their representation was parceled amongst two or three inter-warring parties.

Observers have been tempted to recommend a similar effort on the left, thereby forging a united opposition to the Conservatives. While there are no indications that a discussion along these lines has occurred, or even will occur, the NDP shall now be forced to divert precious resources into a fight with the Liberals for dominance. Bob Rae’s provincial record, brought fresh to the mind in recent attack ads, arguably makes him appear “more NDP” than the NDP. In any case, you must have noticed how similar is the diction of Mr. Rae to that of the Occupy movement, which is a tactical inconvenience if you are Mr. Mulcair. Should both remain long in leadership, there will hardly be an environmental niche sufficient to nourish them: something must give way. The New Democrats are well positioned to seize the Liberal party’s traditional ideological niche, just as they’ve occupied their traditional seats in Quebec. Mulcair’s chief problem is that the Liberal Party of Canada will soon sort out its internal affairs, and once it has done so it will be back to reclaim its lost territories. The party is too well-monied, too organized, and too much a feature of Canada’s political establishment to be kept down for long. In the short time he has, the NDP leader must apply his attention, not to defeating Harper, but to the long-term goal of holding recent and tenuous gains which the Grits are certain to contest.

If this turns out to be a draining and inconclusive battle, the topic of merger will arise. The ideologically pure will of course have none of it; nonetheless, there are reasons to suspect the years ahead will not be kind to these two parties. In his article, “A budget, a leadership race — and a nation split up the middle,” Andrew Coyne identifies the natural resource industry, demographics, and Quebec separatism as the three “fault lines” of current Canadian politics. Each of these three will doubtless present itself politically as a zero-sum prospect, posing winners against losers and fracturing the country more deeply along regional lines.

To get at the spoils, the parties have positioned themselves accordingly. An intriguing insight of Coyne’s piece is the unpredictable ways in which the politics of regionalism may intersect with the politics of resource extraction and demographics and fiscal federalism. As the loyal opposition, the NDP has an opportunity and a responsibility to take bold stands on these issues. Yet if Coyne is correct, the deepest fault lines are going to run straight through the NDP (and until recently, Liberal) territories. Quebec, for instance, has proven itself to be an especially fickle fair-weather friend. Looking ahead through Coyne’s lens, the political landscape is as fluid as it appears in the backward glance at the beginning of this essay. A sort of political climate change is underway. Interesting times are ahead, and one has to wonder if either the New Democrats or the Liberals are preparing.

The objective economic case against Granny and Gramps

In the days and weeks following Prime Minister Harper’s Davos speech, there’s been ample commentary, provoked by the following:

“As I said earlier, one of the backdrops for my concerns is Canada’s aging population. If not addressed promptly this has the capacity to undermine Canada’s economic position and, for that matter that of all western nations, well beyond the current economic crises. Immigration does help us address that and will even more so in the future. Our demographics also constitute a threat to the social programs and services that Canadians cherish. For this reason, we will be taking measures in the coming months. Not just to return to a balanced budget in the medium term, but also to ensure the sustainability of our social programs and fiscal position over the next generation. We have already taken steps to limit the growth of our health care spending over that period. We must do the same for our retirement income system.”

To some ears this prefigured a budgetary assault on grandma and grandpa, the spiteful Harperites ready to press every layabout 65 to 67- year-old into forced labour, for the greater good. Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, was sufficiently stirred to report that It’s All Good, People. According to his math, the cost of Canada’s pension system will indeed rise, from the present 2.2% of GDP to 3.2% in 2036-37. Even further down the road, about seventy years ahead, costs will return to current levels. The reason, as any fool could guess, is purely demographic: there are today proportionally more old people — the baby boomers — than there are going to be in the next couple generations. Any balancing of this will probably have to be made up through immigration levels, birth rates being unlikely soon to change.

If you read Harper’s Davos speech, you’ll see it’s all there: the changing demographics, immigration, the need for reform. Even the fiscal soundness of the pension system is affirmed. The fortunate thing about demographics is that you can make decent predictions decades ahead. A big whack of young people today is a big whack of retirees in future. The Prime Minister has only said what demographers well know. Yet for some reason folks are bracing for the pension sky to fall, even though the Prime Minister acknowledges the fiscal soundness of the system and polls show overwhelming public resistance to OAS reform. Curiouser and curiouser.

Reading about this issue I was reminded of the first Canadian universal welfare program, the so-called “baby bonus.” Introduced after the Second World War, this modest monthly stipend was designed to encourage and assist anxious young families in the years following war and economic depression. I well recall my mother’s occasional references to this state allowance, when the topic of the family budget would come up. To be sure, that was a different time — but the baby bonus and the OAS are I think connected in several respects. Both are inherently matters of demographics, and both derive from the egalitarian logic of a previous era, the universality of social programs and benefits partaking of an “all in the same boat” ethic which itself followed logically from the collective sacrifices and efforts of the war.

After a generation, the seams of that wartime and depression ethic were giving way. One of the most vigorous attacks on universality, specifically in relation to senior benefits, was penned in the U.S. by the British journalist Henry Fairlie. In a 1988 New Republic piece called “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation,” Fairlie attacked the powerful retiree lobby and outlined the case for means testing and needs-based benefits. He was probably right to do so, the American entitlement system having uncoupled itself from fiscal logic. A similar discussion has yet to occur in Canada, for both fiscal and political reasons. Fortunately for Canadians, pension policy appears so far to have been informed less by the American-styled politics of interest group pressure and vote-seeking and more by objective economic analysis. That’s how it should stay.

The Niqab in Living Colour

IN AZAR NAFISI’S book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” the act of removing the veil is a metaphor for transitioning from the world of black-and-white into colour, and of shedding the state-imposed self to be liberated into one’s authentic, willed identity. “Black and white” is itself a good description of the cruel and stupid absolutism imposed upon Iran by the Velayat-e faqih, its antithesis colour indicating the actual and liveable world of vibrant diversity: irony, dialectic, humour, uncertainty, skepticism and multiplicity — whether in literary, moral, or political matters. In the “clash of civilizations,” the West is on the polychromatic side of the ledger against the monochrome despotisms.

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The Problem with Identity Politics

It wasn’t long ago that one would hear it said the world will be a different place when women are in charge. But then came the masculine regimes of Indira Gandhi — from whom a politician as dirty and ruthless as Richard Nixon recoiled — and Margaret Thatcher. From then forward, the essentialist claim that female leadership is distinct from its male counterpart could be put forward only with laboured qualifications and irony.

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The Sponsorship Scandal Still Matters

One of the very few politically  insignificant legacies of the Sponsorship Scandal is that ever since I have been of a sympathetic disposition toward the then Minister of Human Resources Development, Jane Stewart. She more than any politician — and here I include Paul Martin, who clearly was designated by the early-retiring Jean Chrétien as the bag holder — was bespattered by the ill-will which finally brought to an end what seemed the inevitability of Liberal rule in Canada.

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