Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Democratic experts in the house!

The House of Lords, that is.

I know, technically it’s an unelected chamber of dough-bellied pseudo-noblemen, prominent party donors, erstwhile celebrities, landowners, retired CEOs, corrupt media barons, and other millionaire chieftains of ill-gotten gains.

I know, yes, it resembles the Canadian Senate, if only the Canadian Senate were swollen four times the size and was packed with hereditary peers as well as legions of power-addled cronies of the political elite. And wearing wigs.

But, they know what democracy is all about. They’ve just defeated the government in the arena of electoral reform, pushing through a new requirement on May’s referendum on the Alternative Vote. Now, any potential “yes” vote will only be binding if 40% of the public take part.

Where did 40% come from? 40 might be a meaningful number in the Bible, but there’s nothing especially elegant or natural about how it relates to elections.

No, what we have here is an arbitrary obstacle thrust up to further discourage the prospect of real democratic reform, proposed in a somewhat cowardly fashion by Lord Rooker, who styles himself as an “Independent Labour” peer. So, this new spanner in the works of democratic reform isn’t officially coming from Labour’s high command – it’s just an independent! A free-spiriting Lord!

Perhaps it’s too much to wish Labour were genuinely enthusiastic and progressive on electoral reform, but at the very least, I wish they could be honest about where they stand, instead of smuggling their secret dedication to first-past-the-post into the debate via a nominally independent, unelected, silly-wigged Lord.

Turnout thresholds may appear to legitimise referendum results, but the appearance is false. Demanding a turnout threshold essentially means counting fictional votes non-cast by the non-voting. Anyone who doesn’t vote in May’s referendum is assumed to be a silent defender of the status quo, and are counted as such. Sure, it’s entirely likely many non-voters are content with the status quo. But, unless they’ve gone to the ballot box to explicitly say so, a democratic system shouldn’t move to assume what they think. As I’ve said before, non-votes are not votes. Nothings are not somethings.

If we had the same 40% turnout threshold on general elections, it would be quite a sight should an election fail to bring 40% of us to the ballot box – not an unlikely occurrence at some point in our lifetimes. Would it mean the election results would be annulled, and we would keep the previous government in place for a further five years? Or, how about 10?

In fact – what’s wrong with forty?

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Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , ,

What transparency looks like

It’s easy being left-of-centre in Britain until you start comparing David Cameron with Stephen Harper. Suddenly, you find yourself saying strange things like “Wow, thank god we’ve got Cameron!”

Case in point: transparency. While Harper’s entire political career has been built on the campaign rhetoric of “accountable government,” he nevertheless roosts in the PMO as among the most opaque, secretive, and undemocratic Prime Ministers the country’s ever been afflicted with. He’s Nixon with a migraine.

Cameron’s liberal strand of Toryism may be anti-state, but his professed faith in public self-organisation has translated into some evidence of actual accountability. Departments and ministries are now compelled to release virtually every significant expenditure to a public gasping for knowledge about what’s happening to our finances.

The result, as David Eaves writes so brilliantly in the G&M today, is the manifestation of an actual accountable government.

“Spending data for every British ministry on anything over £25,000 (about $40,000) [will] be available for anyone in the world to download. The initial release of information revealed thousands and thousands of lines of data and almost £80-billion (about $129.75-billion) in spending. And starting in January, every ministry must update the data once a month.”

For Canadians, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is but a distant example of a world that a truly transparent government could – and should – create. In contrast, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seem stuck in a trap described by Mr. Maude in his opening sentences: “Opposition parties are always remarkably keen on greater government transparency, but this enthusiasm mysteriously tends to diminish once they actually gain power.” Canada’s Conservatives have been shy about sharing any information with anyone. Afghan detainee files aren’t shared with Parliament; stimulus package accounts were not emailed to the Parliamentary Budget Office, but uselessly handed over in 4,476 printed pages. Even the Auditor-General is denied MP expense data. All this as access-to-information wait times exceed critical levels and Canada, unlike the United States, Britain , Australia and New Zealand, languishes with no open-data policy.

Couple this with some of the more compelling initiatives in the British media itself to aggregate and measure spending plans, campaign promises, and delivery timetables. The Guardian today released its mammoth Pledge Tracker, a downloadable and perusable spreadsheet that takes coalition government pledges and tracks their progress, whether they’ve been dumped, delayed, who in cabinet has said what about them, and how to track them down.

So, in the UK, there’s a chicken-and-egg question regarding government accountability. Britain’s media culture nurtures relentlessly investigative journalism – to the point of harassment as regards celebrity, but also to the point of a carnivorous criticism of bad government, and that’s extremely healthy for the state of British democracy. Would Cameron have unleashed so much data if he felt confident no major newspaper would ever seriously chase him up on his warm promises of yesteryear?

Almost certainly he wouldn’t. Indeed, critics of Cameronian transparency say he’s only staging gargantuan, barely-manageable data-dumps that are very difficult to grasp and scrutinise. The task of sifting through and understanding the hundreds of thousands of line items is left to independent think tanks and newspapers in the confidence that the very act of transparency may make the political point, and that few will bother to craft criticisms of what they discover in there.

Either way, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of what the Reformers could conceive of back home.

You can say a lot of things about David Cameron. He’s slick and insincere. He’s shallow, big-headed, and fundamentally out to lunch regarding how to address inequality, poverty, opportunity, Britain’s place in the world, and the British public’s place in its own country. What you can’t say, though, is that he’s an obsessive partisan consumed with nothing more than winning the petty feuds inside the bubble of government.

On balance, I’m slightly nauseous but secure in saying that, compared with Harper, Cameron is a treat and a half.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , ,

Labour’s wobbles and grumbles

The Labour Party riven by factions? Say it ain’t so. But new eruptions simmer, and it does not bode well. It bodes badly, actually.

The self-styled Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, is, unsurprisingly, at the heart of some of this. He clearly isn’t coping brilliantly with life outside the cut-and-thrust of cabinet level politics. His unhelpful, gossipy moaning about the problems with Labour leader Ed Miliband today is probably one part bitterness that Ed pipped his brother to the post, and two parts a longing to just get in front of cameras again.

As I sit and realise that I actually sympathise with Peter Mandelson, I begin to worry that my heart must have finally been replaced with a cindered hunk of lunar rock. I agree that Ed’s been remarkably swift to lead Labour into total drift, and would be totally despondent if they fought an election with him still leading.

Miliband’s bizarre shadow cabinet, defying prediction with Alan Johnson as the chancellor’s opposite number, smelled to me like Ed was trying a bit too hard to appear “his own man,” mixing it up on his own terms, and furthermore, confident enough to appoint a “Davidist” to just about the biggest role in his caucus. O.K., maybe a kind of cackhanded move to foster new unity, but itself not a bad idea. In its execution, however, it’s contributed to a shadow cabinet that is mostly incoherent. Ed and Alan disagree on the most fundamental approaches to economic governance.

Miliband’s showing in PMQs is not very authoritative either, by his own admission:

“Look, you’ve got to be who you are. If I think of what I’ve done – I’ve done a reshuffle to put a team around me that I think is a very good team and I have taken on Cameron in prime minister’s questions in a way in which I am reasonably content. You don’t win every round of it but all of those things are important for a leader of the opposition.”

Reasonably content? I would have thought humourless and withering, unfortunately. It seems unfair, but there remains this huge gulf between his stated aspirations to instigate all kinds of profound change, and the meek, splashless way in which he goes about his arguments. The power to convince is just absent.

So, there’s my agreement with Mandelson. The problem with any recent intervention from Mr. Darkness, though, is of course his position and his motivation. As a party elder, he shouldn’t be so clearly thrilled to wave dirty laundry around whenever he feels he isn’t being listened to, either by the party or by the papers. I don’t know if he can even tell which he’d prefer to influence anymore.

It’s the job of the media (including stupid blogs) to play this kind of game, criticising parties and leaders if they’re asking for it. But it’s not the job of one of Labour’s senior statesmen to do it, whether in documentaries or memoirs or random cold calls to the Telegraph. Labour’s got to fix itself, and Mandelson could have a helpful hand in it if so inclined. But please, leave the kvetching to the rest of us.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , ,

Gilles’ secret world tour

Trying to find evidence that Duceppe’s been on a sovereigntist publicity drive in Europe isn’t easy. Unless Google is broken, not a single British source has covered his visit to Scotland this week, excepting 1) an announcement from the University of Edinburgh, where he gave his actual speech, and 2) well, Polygonic. Which is a British source, after all. 🙂

Google searches for “gilles duceppe barcelona” and “gilles duceppe scotland” reveal nothing other than Canuckistani media covering his trip.

In their solitude, the Globe and NP seem quaint through the high drama with which they introduced Duceppe’s international tour. But it’s maybe a typically Canadian anguish. Outside the Ottawa conversation, no one has noticed a thing. Is that good, or bad?

More than complaining that Duceppe is using the Canadian taxpayer’s dime to trumpet separation, perhaps the concern should be that he’s using the taxpayer’s dime and hasn’t managed to provoke a single peep of interest in the condition of Canadian unity.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, UK, , , , , ,

Tories vs Republicans

An interesting sketch of the widening abyss between American Republicans and British Tories – two strands of conservatism that barely recognise each other anymore. The UK currently has a Conservative PM that, for all his fiscal draconianism, expresses only the barest of social-conservative principles as compared with the Tea Party, or the Reform Party up north.

Where would Harperites fit on this spectrum? Or is that just too depressing to contemplate?

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, British Conservatives no longer echo Ronald Reagan’s view that government is the problem not the solution.

But the important point is this: Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan shared a governing philosophy: ideology and pragmatism. Ideology was great for speech-making and letting people know what you thought, pragmatism was necessary for governing. As American and British Conservatives drift apart, like Gondwana and Pangaea, it seems that American Republicans have let go of their pragmatic inheritance.

Without pragmatic respect for what previous governments have done, can they really be considered “conservative” in the true meaning of the term?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , ,

I’ll show you happy

The UK’s coalition government plans to introduce a Gross National Happiness index to better understand how public policy interacts with the social soul. British public opinion so far seems to range from the confused to the outright skeptical. “How much is this nonsense going to cost?” is one of the refrains.

I’m amused in a way (though I don’t know how measurably) that the initiative should raise so many eyebrows. Many have long argued that GDP measurements only tell one particular kind of tale, and that they don’t tell a particularly convincing story of how well off people really feel. Singapore, for example, may have one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs, but few would argue they enjoy one of the world’s highest or healthiest standards of living.

Bhutan, on the other hand, the nominally impoverished Himalayan kingdom that invites the pity and probably misplaced goodwill of materialist Western aid workers, is actually already one of the happiest places on Earth.

The Bhutanese themselves famously pioneered the measurement of national happiness to bolster their own case that the country is a great success story in terms of enabling people to lead enjoyable lives, which is the best thing any set of state institutions can ever really aspire to do. The Gross National Happiness index aggregates social and economic indicators across a range of areas, including psychological well-being, use of time, community vitality, health, governance, and environmental sustainability, among others.

The Guardian, ironically, decides instead to give some credit to the UK’s decision to Canadian pioneering in the area of happiness measurement.

Canadian statisticians and researchers also poll subjective wellbeing across the country, but the data have thus far not attracted much policy attention.

Indeed. In fact, the entire prospect of data gathering has not attracted much policy attention in Harperian Ottawa. Sigh.

But I’m happy with the UK’s effort to get to grips with this. All the happier if I get surveyed myself, which will suit their purposes quite well. So, yes – if there are ulterior political purposes underlining it, though, they’ll want to try to avoid sending out the happiness questionnaires during Tube strikes, rainy days, or after any English sporting devastation on the world stage. Which doesn’t leave a lot of time.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, UK, , , ,

Dear NDP

I like you guys. I’d like you to take a record-breaking number of seats in a federal election, which does not seem unreasonable at the moment.

But what any pollster – or a Grade 3 student who gets arithmetic – could also predict is a hung parliament. And that, rather than tolerate minority governments ad infinitum and the fractious brinkmanship parliaments they engender, stable coalition government may well be coming to Canada.

Not that I distrust you’re prepared for that. But in advance, may I ask to kindly to please not cock things up this badly. If one senses a whiff of power, one must ensure one has 1) watertight authority over the departments and ministries they will oversee, and 2) a secure sense that election pledges are achievable.

NDP supporters, like Lib Dem supporters, are hugely idealistic, and that’s an asset. It’s also a vulnerability if the base, post-election, sees neck-breaking volte faces.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , ,

The atom that wouldn’t split

Gilles Duceppe is courting European powers in support for his fantasy republic. Not sure that visiting Catalunya and Scotland with an independence drum to beat is going to especially endear the Spanish and British overall, but hey, solidarity has a price.

Duceppe points to one of his key principles here: “the indivisibility of the province.”

Sorry to split hairs, but if you can split Canada, you can certainly split Québec. You could even split Montréal. You could go on and split Outremont and Côte-St-Luc and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

I used to live in a block of flats on Boul. Décarie that I thought would make a stunning republic. A lovely garden to grow our veg, and a gym in the basement we could rig up to generate human-powered energy. And my national anthem would be the greatest song that ever took to air: the theme song from Star Trek Voyager (tell me that would not sound wicked after taking Olympic gold).

The “indivisibility” assertion is not uncommon among aspirant dividers. The moment that the Kosovar microstate split from Serbia, it unfurled a flag depicting a map of the new territory. The message being: these precise borders outline the very shape of our national heart. We will defy the merest snip with all kinds of merciless fury.

Lending sympathy to internal minorities doesn’t seem to be a major attribute of the great patriots. Goose and ganders, you guys. Goose and ganders.

Conversely, interesting news from Scandinavia. CO2-Art blog recently turned up this news:

When asked what they thought of the idea of creating a common Nordic state, 11 percent said they were “very favourable” and 31 percent said they were “favourable,” according to a poll conducted by the Oxford Research institute on behalf of the Nordic Council.

Over 40% support to unify five states with five languages? That’s incredible. They say that unity would allow for a better resourced social democratic system, and a better capacity to support the high quality of life they enjoy. Surely sentiments like that, if nothing else, put the sovereigntists to shame.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, UK, , , , , , , , , ,

The war on poppies

Dismayed but unsurprised to read another example of the Royal Canadian Legion attacking the distribution of white poppies. It cuts into their fundraising, and more importantly for them, it cuts into their desired philosophical monopoly on how we are supposed to reflect on war.

PEI’s Legion boss Jim Ross says of the white poppy campaign:

“To denigrate a symbol of the remembrance of people who died for this country certainly is emotional.”

The Legion are now threatening to sue the White Poppy campaign – for what, a breach of trademark? Maybe I’ve forgotten what Remembrance Day is all about, but I didn’t think it was about petty sectarian battles against people in the community who grieve the fallen in a different way.

The white poppy has been in manufacture and distribution since the 1920s. Now distributed by Quakers (those nasty Quakers!) and Whitepoppy.org in the UK, the British Co-operative Women’s Guild had originally launched it as a pacifist symbol – not as a means to “denigrate” their husbands or their own families lost in war, but to (and this is where I thought Remembrance Day was rooted all along) always keep close to heart the horrors of war, and to protest diligently against any leader who might trivialise the horrors of war through hasty eagerness to employ it.

The red poppy, originally launched as a fundraising tool for veterans of the First World War, has its place in 1) filling the gap in the state’s woeful absence in caring adequately for the soldiers it’s sent out to war in the first place, and 2) to honour their service and remember its magnitude. That is all good. There is no opposition presented by a white poppy, which laments lives lost in conflict and wishes for a future free from war. I’m certain the majority of veterans wouldn’t disagree with those sentiments.

But the Legion, along with a lot of people confused in a fog of patriotism, see the white poppy as a meanspirited affront to their own remembrance sentiments. It isn’t. We have to be clear that disagreeing with war is not the same thing as wishing our own troops dead. It’s wishing that no more should die.

So, if you can get a hold of one, please do! There’s a Facebook page about it, and while you can certainly get white poppies from here, there may be local distributors near you as well. The Facebook page folks will probably know more.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, UK, , , ,

Arm for an arm

Not normally a big fan of Simon Jenkins’ superwise pontifications, I was still glad to see him lunge at the taboo here, especially considering we’re approaching Armistice Day. Question: Why should Britain have an army?

As for the threat of a conventional attack on the British Isles by another state, we can only ask, who? The threat is so negligible as to be insignificant. It is like insuring one’s house for billions of pounds against an asteroid attack. Is the attack to come from Russia, or France, or Germany, or Ireland? Defence pundits to whom I put this crucial question look down their noses, as if it were impertinent or undergraduate. They murmur that one can never know.

Armies with nothing to do tend to distort the purpose for which they were formed. They become institutionalised. They coalesce into a wide constituency of veterans, territorial and political supporters, above all, equipment suppliers.

He doesn’t quite get to the question of where we’d be if every country in our global friendship group took his advice to abolish their armies, of course. But anyhoo… one of the points I think he’s making is that Britain may well face some real threats in the form of terrorism or natural disaster, but that these threats fall more squarely under the remit of a beefed-up Home Office than a Ministry of Defence.

There is an injustice in how public funds are spent across departments that most often benefits Defence. The armed forces, certainly in the UK, enjoy this aura of noble mythology and vainglory that you dare to tarnish at your political peril. But around the world, from Canada to the UK to almost anywhere you like, defence departments continue to enjoy an inflated and illegitimate immunity to the “value-for-money” credo. The UK has ringfenced its development funding, for example – but every penny of humanitarian aid and every capacity building project in the developing world is now under increasingly rigorous scrutiny. Measurable impact is paramount. Every action must have a clear and positive outcome.

No one sets such terms to the Armed Forces. Value for money? How do you measure the “value” of a multi-billion pound nuclear arsenal that has absolutely nothing but hypothetical (thank god) applications?

You don’t – because Defence Ministries trade in fear of the unknown. Could Russia invade the Canadian Arctic? Better get a bunch of these puppies.

To criticise it is to invite sustained pantomime outrage from the spending government. It’s to let yourself get framed as the reckless anti-patriot softie versus the Noble Protector. With terrorism and cyberwarfare as the genuine threats we face, though, it seems like the thing a Department of Defence is best able to defend is itself.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , ,

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