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Monthly Archives: February 2017


Populism and Electoral Reform in Canada

Preston Manning told conservatives today that the way to prevent US-style anger and resentment from corrupting Canadian politics is to listen to the people who have real grievances – to give them a voice and engage them in the political process. Notice that giving people a voice and engaging them in the political process was a major argument in favour of proportional representation. Is Manning a supporter of proportional representation?preston-manning

I am reading a piece at the Project Syndicate website called the Anatomy of Populism. The essay brings together much of the best thinking on Trump’s populist appeal and the growth of populist movements in many countries. The consensus seems to be that Manning is right: people who feel left out are vulnerable to demagogues who intensify the divisions in society. It can be seen as disease of democracies: elected politicians have a hard and time-consuming job just governing, but if they are governing then they are simply not there listening to the people they are supposed to represent.

When Mr Trudeau breaking his promise on electoral reform he essentially said he didn’t want to give certain sectors of society a voice. Although he got elected by criss-crossing the country convincing people he was listening, in practice he chose to exclude the voices of some Canadians from the political process.

The result is that groups expressing minority views may try to take over mainstream parties. Harper succeeded in Canada and the Tea Party succeeded in the US. Trudeau’s decision is laying the groundwork for a Canadian Trump. Trump , in my view, is laying the groundwork for what is increasingly being described as an “illiberal democracy.”

An illiberal democracy is a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties.

So Conservative hero Preston Manning is lining up with many of the most thoughtful small “L” liberal thinkers of the day while our Liberal Prime Minister is preparing the ground for a populist revolution. As my mother used to say, “Who’d have thunk it?”




I’m a Northerner: I Get It.

From the Sudbury Star: ‘I’m a Northerner. I get it’ — Sudbury MPP

I loved Glenn’s empathetic line about the pain caused by the high cost of electricity. He went on to promote (and take credit for) some good and showy ad-hoc policies to reduce the pain for lower income Ontarians.

1297642412922_originalNot cutting off electricity for poor people in winter is good. It should have been our policy long ago. It is just a politically-motivated very temporary patch, however. It doesn’t solve the real problem – the same poor people will be in the same position next year and they will probably not even be able to pay for their electricity once winter ends.

The policy shifts a debt from some consumers to the local electricity distribution companies. The unpaid bills have not gone away – they been temporarily hidden in various public accounts.

That suggests that Glenn doesn’t really “get it” at all. The electricity alligator will be back to bite him once the snows disappear.

Electricity rebates for low income households are another patented Glenn Thibeault touch. These rebates are a generous transfer to poorer Ontarians, something most of us probably agree with. What Glenn doesn’t seem to get is that they are costly to manage and inefficient. It is not a good way to subsidize poor people, it actually undermines the electricity pricing system, and it discourages carbon-reducing changes. Their only virtue is that they may reduce the political pressure on Glenn and the government. Glenn may feel the pain but, when it comes to developing good policies, he doesn’t really “get it.”

The right policy – and I did explain this to him during the election campaign (please ask him whether he remembers.) is to sell electricity at its true cost. Give poor people money if they need it, but don’t use the electricity system to do it.

Naturally politicians are afraid to charge the real price for electricity, and they are right to be afraid. Governments have fallen because consumers don’t want to pay the real cost of electricity (or health care or roads).

Even so, the electricity pricing system is seriously warped. For example, the province has a part-time excess of electricity at the current prices. That means the prices are too high. It almost certainly means that the government-negotiated producer prices are too high. Past governments made some bad deals, as it turns out, although at the time they may have seemed pretty good. Any normal business would have to take the loss and reduce its price to sell the surplus. Supplying electricity is not a normal business, however.

For many years the Province forced the electricity system to collect money to pay off debts incurred by previous governments. A decision 17 years ago to divide Ontario Hydro into several different companies resulted in a multibillion-dollar stranded debt and a new charge that’s still on all electricity bills.

This “stranded debt” stemmed from the 1999 breakup of the province’s giant electrical utility, which had $38.1 billion in debt, mostly from building nuclear plants in the 1970s and ’80s. Major mistakes were made by previous governments – primarily huge overruns in building nuclear plants that were caused largely by political dithering and changing plans. These losses would normally be written off in a private business – the company would go bankrupt, shareholders would lose value and a new buyer would begin selling electricity without the debt. The province can’t just go bankrupt and make the debt disappear.

So rather than simply add this stranded debt to other provincial debt, finance ministers decided to the exploit their monopoly power and collect the debt from electricity consumers. It made a certain kind of sense, since the debt was incurred on behalf of electricity consumers. Justified or not, however, the stranded debt has been one important cause of excessively high and distorted electricity prices. (The charge was eliminated for households in 2016, but will continue for others classes for a while)

Debt is debt. It doesn’t matter which debt account it is recorded in — except for one purely political fact: the debt is partially hidden in the electricity system. That means rather than paying for the debt out of taxes, the province could pay indirectly by making consumers pay through electricity charges.

That was a mistake economically. It meant electricity prices were too high, we lost some manufacturing jobs, poor people suffered unnecessarily and it was much harder to shift from fossil fuels to electricity, which we must do and will inevitably do.

Subsidies for green power are another politically motivated charge that should probably not be added to the bills, whether they were good policy or not. The subsidies were part of a plan to promote new industries, not a necessary cost of supplying electricity. They should have been charged to the Ministry of Industry and Innovation, or whatever it was called a the time.

Today Glenn’s politically motivated relief for consumers are actually slowing down the process of adapting to the 21st century. They won’t solve the problem of high electricity prices and they won’t solve – or even really help the problem of poverty in Ontario.

It isn’t enough for Glenn to show he understands our pain. He has to show he understands the system he is supposed to run. So far, it doesn’t look like he gets it at all.



Justin Trudeau’s Electoral Reform Betrayal – and his Stupid Justification for It

I actually felt injured when Justin Trudeau reneged on his electoral reform promise. I’ve tried to figure out why this particular broken promise felt like a betrayal when other broken promises, lies and stupid mistakes I have seen over the years just annoyed me.

In part it is because, even though I voted for – actually ran for – another party, I had drunk the Koolaid. I was suckered, at least a bit, by the promise of a different kind of politics. I was also taken in by my own optimism about this country of ours.trudeau-voting-jpg-size-custom-crop-1086x731

We have one of the most successful countries in the world. We have a political system that works better than most. On many, many occasions Canadians have acted in way that inspire admiration and even trust in the goodness of other people. I don’t think Canada or Canadians are perfect – I have worked for opposition parties for much of the last 50 years.

But I expected integrity from the members of our new parliament because I see this country of ours as a place where people value honesty, generosity, inclusiveness and fairness and I thought that the revitalized Liberals reflected some of the character of the country.

Mr Trudeau kept his promise to undo Harper’s plan to raise the age of benefits for seniors. That was a a bad decision, I think, and politically motivated, but it was a promise kept.

It certainly appears he is on his way to bringing in a national price on carbon. That is an important and correct decision that took some political courage. Now I wonder if Mr Trudeau has the guts to push that policy ahead. The liberal party ate a previous leader who had similar ideas. Trudeau has shown now that he will cave under party pressure. To genetically engineer a metaphor, the wolves will be gathering in the back rooms.

The promise to end the first-past-the-post system was a good promise. It would have made our system just a bit more democratic. In truth we have a very limited form of democracy with seriously outdated institutions. Electoral reform wouldn’t have fixed those problems. But it would have given us a sense that we can make the system better. The Real Message in the Trudeau turn is that changes that threaten anyone with power are going to be left for the next generation.

Mr Trudeau seemed willing to run the risk of getting a system that wasn’t quite the system he wanted, and I admired that commitment to democracy. When it came to action, however, he put in a genuinely flakey performance and then reneged on his promise.

And then he justified the betrayal with obviously stupid arguments. He began telling Canadians that proportional representation would give us a system in which radical minority parties would hold the balance of power – Kelly Leitch would have a party, and Canadians wouldn’t like that. We would give a platform to morally unacceptable voices and get a dysfunctional government.

Perhaps he didn’t notice that the USA, with a solid two-party system and clearly unproportional voting just got a distasteful and dysfunctional government. I happen to think Canada got a distasteful and dysfunctional government under Harper. I know that the Germans elected Hitler with a system like we have now.

Perhaps he didn’t realize that as the center party, the Liberals would probably control most future governments. As the most politically bisexual party, they would be able to form coalitions with either the Conservatives or the NDP. Furthermore, proportional representation would be most likely to split the Conservatives into several parties. The Kelly Leitch Party would be a godsend for the Liberal Party under proportional representation.

Trudeau’s arguments are nonsense. They are not supported by the data, and not endorsed by the majority of political theorists. They are the kind of self justifying nonsense a little boy might go for when caught in a lie.

I do feel betrayed by Mr Trudeau. It will take quite as while for me to trust anything he says. I won’t be the only one with trust issues going forward, and that is not good for any government. Oddly enough, Conservative governments have set the standard by carrying through on election promises. Mike Harris did a lot that I thought was wrong. So did Mr Harper. But they did earn a reputation for keeping their promises. Mr Trudeau threw away that trust this month.

He also threw away my trust in my local MP, Paul Lefevbre. Paul is now saddled the label of `party hack’ because he has to defend a leader who breaks his promises. The circle of people who will talk honestly to Paul got a bit smaller and Canadian democracy got a bit weaker, all because Mr. Trudeau broke a promise he should have really tried to keep.

McEwen School of Architecture Students are Thinking Hard About Sudbury’s Downtown

Students in each year at the McEwen School of Architecture take on a project. This year the Third Year Studio is about designing an Event Center for downtown Sudbury. Saturday morning the class presented preliminary research and started in on the design process for three sites.

In the process of collecting facts about the downtown, the students ran into a surprising barrier: The City of Greater Sudbury. Apparently the City of Greater Sudbury charges anyone – including students — for any data it provides. It is hard to imagine a dumber policy for a city that hopes to attract people and grow. Council is charging students who want to provide free design services to the City.

The City’s practice is the opposite of open government. Democracy depends on public access to information. Good government depends on an informed people, and when data is freely available, the people get involved in solving problems for the City. Instead of attending the event and learning about the downtown, council members, whether they know it or not, are collaborating in hiding the truth from the citizens of the region. The truth may be utterly boring, but charging for data this way is a guarantee of poor government and could be a way to hide serious mistakes or even crimes. The City is out of date and out of touch about making data available.

One of the details that the students did turn up is that 40% of the downtown is covered by roads and an additional 23% is used for parking. This is far more than comparable cities, apparently. Not surprisingly, the City also spends a larger share of its budget on roads than comparable cities.

It isn’t surprising that the department with the most money runs the city, and that goes a long way to explaining how Council got conned into wasting $150 million on the Maley Drive Extension.

But getting back to the weekend event, in the afternoon the students started to work up three different downtown sites. For each site about 20 students will work up designs as their term proceeds. To start, each group gathered around a big table with a huge map of the downtown core. Ironically, the only building missing from the map provided by the City was the new School of Architecture itself.

The studio instructors led brainstorming sessions about the features of the site and the way the site relates to the downtown and the requirements of an Event Center. A number of locals threw in history and raised issues about the three. Watching students taking on the problem, asking questions, throwing out suggestions, making notes — deeply engaged and thinking hard — it was clear we were seeing a crash course in how to make Sudbury better.

The sites they have decided to look were the current Arena site, the parking lot across the tracks at the west end of Larch and the Rainbow Center. We won’t see the result of their work for a while, but there is no question that the best thinking going on about Sudbury’s downtown is happening in the McEwen School of Architecture right now. It really is a shame that Council members are not participating in the process.


When Winter Comes Can Spring be Far Behind?

If you are thinking about American President Donald Trump, consider the following two pieces. The first is Lewis Carroll’s prophetic poem, the Walrus and the Carpenter. It starts quite nicely:

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech. “

You notice the language of a political campaign in these lines.

“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach: :

the Walrus promised, but it all ends on a sour note:

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.”walruscarpenter

The second piece I think you will like is a bit more cheerful. “Why Millennials Will Reject Trump” https://www.project-syndicate.org/…/america-generational-di….

Economist Jeffry Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University, explains why he thinks the Age of Trump is already on the way out. “There are at least three big differences in the politics of the young and old,” he says. First, the young are more socially liberal than the older generations. Second, the young are facing the unprecedented economic challenges of the information revolution. Third, compared to their parents and grandparents, the young are much more aware of climate change and its threats.

Sachs provides some evidence for each of the points. I want to repeat these facts, because they bear on Canadian policy:

“In a June 2015 survey, 60% of 18-29 year-olds said that human activity was causing global warming, compared with just 31% of those 65 and older. A survey released in January found that 38% of American survey respondents 65 and older favored fossil-fuel expansion over renewable energy, compared with only 19% of those 18-29”.

I find these numbers encouraging. There are Canadians who think that Trump’s win has turned the tide against carbon pricing. The the evidence seems to show is that Trump’s regime is just a storm surge, and not the tide of history. As Sachs puts it, “Trump’s political success is a blip, not a turning point.”

And that reminds me of another encouraging piece: in Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley asks, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”