Weather and Politics (January 22, 2006)
Two things I did not anticipate for January in Kingston: A federal
election, and having to remove my coat to cool off while bicycling.
Weather (or où sont les neiges d'antan?)
I didn't expect to be able to bicycle at all in the winter, since I
expected the roads to be icy and dangerously narrowed by snowbanks.
Instead, the two feet or so of December snow have vanished,
except for a few tough icy rinds, and we're back to shuttling Chaya to
daycare in her bike trailer. Some nights it has not even been
dipping below freezing. It's like an unending late fall, with the
days getting longer. Meanwhile, Europe has been having a Canadian
winter. The natives here complain about the weather. It's
too slushy. They want the streets properly frozen.
Skating is a big deal in Canada. Skating rinks are an essential
public service, and municipal governments are judged in their
effectiveness on their ability to keep them well maintained, and in
their social conscience on making them available to the poor. In
this, they are like the swimming pools in German cities, or railway
bicycle storage in the Netherlands. Or prisons in the US...
The Market Square in Kingston (soon to be renamed the Springer
Market Square, according to a backroom city council sponsorship deal
which is now the topic of legal action) has had a cooled outdoor ice
rink installed, open 12 hours a day every day, and several parks have
had wooden ovals installed, which they hose down at regular intervals
and let freeze, if the weather is cold enough. Whereas middle
class men in the US are always off to their basketball leagues, here
they go play hockey at midnight, because that's when they were able to
get the ice free.
We're just about to have a federal election. In a direct way I
should perhaps be concerned, since Canadian universities are
essentially all public, and it sounds like the universities here (as in
France) are seen as a political constituency of the left.
Academics still whisper of Conservative Mike Harris's reign in
Ontario with a horror one might expect from a Ukrainian survivor of
Stalin's 1932-3 famine.
I'm still not sure I truly understand the party political landscape
here. It took me a while to recognize that the Liberal party is
the closest thing to a moderate center party, though their policies
overlap fairly well with the US Democratic party; or rather, what one
imagines the Democrats would be if they were not shell-shocked by five
years of political scorched earth from the Bush administration, and the
devolution of "liberal" to a cuss word in the national lexicon.
To the left of the nominally leftist Liberals there are two major
national parties, the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc
Québécois (Bloc). Of course, while the NDP is a
fairly standard European-style social-democratic party, the Bloc is the
federal arm of the Quebec separatists, a delicate balance which is
maintained only by the almost superhuman lack of irony or humour, which is de rigueur in the sovereigntist upper echelons.
The presence of multiple parties makes explicit what is hidden in a
two-party system like in the US: that the political preferences of a
significant portion of the populace are ignored. It is baffling how so
many parties can survive in the absence of proportional representation.
Common sense tells you that first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting
encourages a race to the political center, with only a lunatic fringe
voting alternative parties. Regional parties can do well -- FPTP
rewards an intermediate level of concentration of support: You need
your supporters bunched enough to form a majority in individual
ridings, but any percentage above 50%+1 is wasted. The Bloc has
it exactly right, with about half the vote in Quebec and zero
everywhere else. In the 1994 election their Quebec vote
translated into only 12% of the popular vote, but 70% of Quebec's
seats, and 17.5% of the total seats.
Ideological third parties are another matter, and it's hard to see how
the NDP gets so many people (17% in the last election) to throw their
votes away. Between them, the NDP and the Greens had 20% of the
votes, but only eked out 6% of the seats. Yet, their voters keep
coming back. It must have something to do with the confusing
relationship between provincial and federal parties. While the
federal NDP has trouble gathering enough votes in one place to win a
parliamentary seat, at one time or another the provincial party has
held the premiership of six provinces, and it currently forms the
government in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, prairie provinces that would
seem, to a naive observer, inhospitable to a leftist party.
Going into the election, the main issue seemed to be, which party was
going to take the responsibility for toppling the government, and so
forcing a vote-weary public (the last election was less than two years
ago) to listen to an election campaign over Christmas, and turn out to
vote in the dead of winter. The early election was provoked by
10-year-old scandals, going back to petty corruption from Liberal
disbursement of federal funds to oppose the Oui
on the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. (I have long thought
that it is a sign of a healthy political system, when the scandals are
incomprehensible to outsiders. I was in Germany when the economics
minister was forced to resign over the "letterhead affair": a letter
that was sent, on ministry stationery, praising (to potential
investors) the minister's cousin's "invention" of a chip that people
would carry around and use instead of a coin as the deposit for a
supermarket shopping cart, as a "pfiffige Idee"
("neat idea"). In Italy, they get scandals that don't require
complicated explanations: Mafia boss funding politicians, for instance.
In the US, you get the president imprisoning people without a
trial, and torturing them, and you wonder why it's not a scandal.)
Prime Minister Paul Martin had promised elections next spring,
but all the opposition parties felt that an earlier election would be
in their interest. In the end, the three opposition party leaders
prodded each other like a schoolboy gang to work up their courage, and
to make sure that none would back out at the decisive confidence vote.
When the campaign started in December, the conventional wisdom said
that most people were fed up with the Liberals, but that they would
vote them in again, because, well, who else could they elect? The
voters of Ontario (fully one third of the seats in the House of
Commons) certainly weren't about to turn the government over to a
cowboy neocon from Alberta. As soon as the campaign got under
way, though, the polls showed, a rapid drop in Liberal support, and it
never came back. Part of the reason is simply credulity
exhaustion. Political campaigns are theatre, depending on willing
suspension of disbelief, particularly as regards the rarely fulfilled
campaign promises. But when, after his party has been in power
for 12 years the Liberal leader comes out with a promise to eliminate
the "landing fee" (the fee for permanent resident status), or to modify
the constitution to eliminate the possibility of overriding the
protections of the Charter of Rights (the "nothwithstanding clause"),
or promises to fix the public health insurance system ("Medicare"), all
you can think is, why is he coming up with this now?
If this issue is so important that he feels we need to elect him
to get it done, why didn't he take it up in the last twelve years?
The Conservative Leader Steven Harper has the credulity problem in a
different way. Unlike their US counterparts, Canadian parties don't
slaughter their standard bearer when an election goes wrong.
Thus, Harper has been around a while, and the differences between
this (moderate, reassuring) campaign, and the last (crazy right-wing)
are both conspicuous, and hard to explain away by whatever personal
growth and change of heart a person goes through in the course of 18
months. So it's tactical, and those who want to chuck out the
Liberals (even if they just want to do it for the Liberals' own good,
to give them a chance in opposition to work out their problems) have to
pretend that it might be heartfelt. When he is criticized for
having defamed Canada, and said (in a speech to a right-wing US think
tank) "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense
of the term,” his defense is, simply, that he hasn't said that in
The most striking difference between Canadian and US election campaigns
is in the scale. For instance, after a rally in the Conservative
heartland of Alberta, the Toronto Star reported "Mr. Harper then
returned to his standard stump speech. The Conservative Leader was
clearly buoyed by the presence of a large crowd at the rally, numbering
more than 600 people." 600 people. More than 600 people.
George Bush turns that many people away from his campaign rallys,
for wearing insufficiently supportive t-shirts.
Another difference was in the debates. The presence of four
candidates on the stage, all of whom obviously dislike one another, did
spice up the proceedings, particularly as the hapless prime minister
got whacked from the left and from the right. But most impressive
to an outsider was that there were an equal number of debates in
English and in French. Obvious, when you think about it, but still
astonishing to an outsider that you can't lead a major political party
in Canada without speaking two languages. And not just grin and
say "Dónde es la cerveza?" at a campaign stop in El Paso, but
hold one's own in a two-hour political debate. I won't exaggerate
the intellectual achievement this represents, but I am convinced that
having to speak about your politics in two different languages
militates against absolutism and ideological inbreeding. Some of
the worst excesses of the Bush presidency might have been avoided if
GWB had been forced to think how his speeches would sound in another
language, even Pig Latin. At the very least, he would know why
most of the non-English-speaking world considers him a dolt. (Of
course, we know what happens to a US politician who speaks French.
For an analysis of the anomalous role of the French language in
US politics, see here.)
One other important distinction between US elections and Canadian: In
Canada, federal elections are not left to be run by local politicians
with whatever funds are left in the kitty after the Halloween party.
There is a fiercely nonpartisan branch of the civil service,
Elections Canada, that has complete responsibility for the election,
from the polling machinery to the counting to the statistical
presentation of the results. (The Chief Electoral Officer is
appointed for life -- or rather, until retirement at age 65 -- by
Parliament, and his electoral independence is so rigidly guarded that
he is banned from voting himself in federal elections.) The data
on their website are wonderful, including amazing maps of past election results.
Of course, bilingualism in Canada is concentrated at the top. If
you move up in the civil service, you have to be able to speak either
language with your subordinates. Sophisticated middle-class
parents send their children to French-immersion schools, starting in
kindergarten. Beyond, that, though, one is surprised at how
little bilingualism one encounters. Anglophone students, for
instance, do not take well to the suggestion that they read a paper
published in French. I was quite surprised that the local CBC did
not broadcast (or even significantly acknowledge) the French-language
debate going on in nearby Montreal. To hear it we had to turn to
the Internet. And at that, the francophones don't hear CBC, they
hear Radio-Canada, and it uses entirely different (and, at least for my system, less reliable) software for Internet broadcasting.
Quebec separatism is a mystery impenetrable to outsiders. Not the
existence of a separatist movement -- God knows, nationalist sentiment
has reasons that reason knows nothing of, and the "advantages" of
housing one's nation in an independent country cannot be measured in
currency reserves -- but the manner with which they go about it.
The thing is, the separatists refuse to be drawn out on the details of
what Quebec independence actually means. The 1995 referendum
question was stupendously vague:
you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a
formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership
within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the
agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
One wonders whether the goal is not separation, but a kind of
constitutional blackmail. The separatists are promising, in essence, a
new referendum every ten or twenty years, until they win. The
referenda have a ratchet quality: As the PIRA said in its message
to Margaret Thatcher after its 1984 Brighton bombing failed to kill
her, "Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky
once. You have to be lucky always." What happens, then, when the
separatists get lucky? Do they envision a completely sovereign
country, with border controls between Hull and Ottawa? Will people need
passports to travel from Montreal to Toronto? What about
citizenship -- do they envision current citizens to become dual
citizens of Quebec and Canada? If not (and it's not clear why
Canada would accept this) how should people choose their citizenship?
What happens to the national debt and national assets, not to
mention the civil service and the military? If they really want
sovereignty, you would think they would want to hash out these
questions before voting.
Maybe the intended effect is not a sovereign Quebec, but rather
interminable negotiations, with a referendum-backed threat of secession
strengthening the Quebecers' hand. Even without a Yes vote, the
memory of the last referendum and the threat of the next one help keep
the concessions flowing from Ottawa.
It was to avoid, at least, the vagueness of the 1995 question, that
doesn't even specify whether the result of a Yes vote is actually
supposed to trigger secession or just negotiations, that the
federal parliament passed the stupendously unclear "Clarity Act". This
law states that for a future referendum to be recognized by the federal
government, it would have to pose a "clear question" and pass by a
"clear majority", neither of these terms being defined in the act.