Stephen Harper had an extremely unstable cabinet, shuffling ministers around regularly and often making appointments that were questionable at best. Remember the environment minister who was a climate change denier in his spare time?
This isn’t unique to Mr. Harper. Patronage has been the method by which most of the top positions have been chosen in Canadian politics for most of our history. For some people, this has been a consistent concern, particularly when Prime Ministers make terrible choices like the example I gave above. But the vast majority of Canadians don’t really care. I’ve often seen them claim with an indifferent shrug of their shoulders that those ministers must have been chosen for a reason. There’s a general feeling of trust that a mostly male, arbitrarily appointed Federal Cabinet is probably somehow qualified to do the job. When they prove themselves to be unqualified by doing a bad job, they’re judged individually on the merit of their work, not collectively on the reasons they got the position the first place, and the country gets on with its day.
Introduce gender parity as Justin Trudeau just did, and suddenly people come out of the woodwork and decide they give a MASSIVE shit about merit-based minister selection.
Prime Ministers overlook qualified female candidates in favour of their friends all the time and few even notice, but introduce even the slightest chance that an even slightly better male candidate may have been overlooked in order to make the cabinet look more like the actual Canadian population, and suddenly it’s a problem. No one even stops to consider that maybe we have gender parity not because Trudeau is throwing out qualified male candidates, but because he’s actually bothering to consider female candidates in the first place, something that previous PMs rarely seemed to do.
Few people have bothered looking at how qualified the new ministers are: they see a news headline about gender parity and jump to the conclusion that most of them must be unqualified because they must have been chosen on the basis of their genitals alone. It’s assumed that men got their position because they’re qualified, and that women or minorities got it to fill a quota. The widespread assumption that men are automatically more qualified results in more qualified women being turned down in favour of less qualified men all the time. It’s a problem that Justin Trudeau set out to overcome, and he seems to have succeeded.
Everyone is suddenly clamouring for merit-based appointment over representativeness-based appointment, but hiring is more than a simple, objective checklist that can be equally applied to anyone and everyone to come to a 100% guaranteed best conclusion. I’ve done this kind of appointment work before, where you’re given way too many qualified candidates for a limited number of positions, and have to find a way to organize them into those positions. In these processes, things like representativeness and interpersonal ability/circumstances become really important. You’re putting together a team that has to work cooperatively to effectively represent and serve a diverse social landscape.
When you go into this kind of process, you create an image in your mind of how you want the group to look as a whole once it’s formed, and then balance that against how you want each individual position to look. Sometimes you get lucky with the perfect group and the perfect candidate for each position, sometimes you have to make small sacrifices to one in order to improve the other, and that’s okay. Attempting to apply complete objectivity to people’s so-called “merits” to pick the exactly most “qualified” person for each position would overlook an important fact of humanity: humans are not work experience robots, and you can’t slot them into positions in the same way you would choose which smart phone to buy or which accounting software to install for your business. They’re complicated, and their ideas, work ethic, interpersonability, and yes, even their representativeness, all matter. Those things are all part of their “merits”. If you’re looking at specific work experiences alone, you run the risk of creating a dysfunctional and incapable team.
People complain about representativeness being chosen over qualifications, but when it comes to a representative body like a federal cabinet, representativeness is a qualification. This should go without saying, but a cabinet that’s more representative of the population will do a better job of representing the population. Ministers do more than just lead their individual ministry, they also do a lot of team work to create policy, and an unrepresentative cabinet cannot hope to make representative policy.
It’s also worth mentioning that in a government where policy is determined by a team and ministers have access to massive support and staff structures, underqualification does not have to be the end of the world. Most of Harper’s cabinet ministers were woefully unqualified for their specific positions, but Canada kept chugging along.
Look, I’m no fan of Trudeau. I have many misgivings about him and the Liberal party, and I don’t trust them any more than all of you nay-sayers. However, forced gender parity in the cabinet is not the massive problem all these people seem to think it is. If anything, it’s a step up from the “appoint your old, white friends and a token minority or two” system used by previous PMs, because at least this one is relatively representative of the population. So stop your complaining. If you’re bothered about a specific minister’s lack of specific experiences, then be critical in that way, but don’t jump to the conclusion that the ministers must be unqualified just because Trudeau had the audacity to actually seriously consider some female candidates for once. Try to treat our gender-equal cabinet the same way you treated the mostly-male one: judge them individually on their level of experience and the quality of their work, rather than assuming they just got the job because they happen to have a certain set of genitalia. If you were fine with previous ministers getting their position because they were white men who were chummy with the PM (and all evidence suggests that this could be the only reason many of them got it) then you have no right to complain about the possibility that this time around, maybe some were more strongly considered for a ministry because they were women.
Strategic voting refers to voting for the candidate most likely to beat the one you don’t like in order to make your vote count for more. There are all sorts of websites set up to try to make this kind of voting as easy as possible for you. However, a really good voting strategy involves a little more complexity than just choosing the most popular lesser evil.
Some time ago, I stumbled across a Facebook post claiming (either on the post or through a shared article, I can’t remember now) that Aboriginal cultures and languages were dying a natural death, that their inferiority/primitiveness/etc. meant that they could never survive and be useful in our modern world, and that all the efforts being undertaken to keep these cultures and languages alive and functioning were a waste of time and energy (I could say the same about social Darwinism). A young woman of Aboriginal heritage responded in a justifiably irate, hurt, and defensive way. She was basically just told that she was destined to die due to her inferiority anyway so there was no point in trying to protect or preserve her. It’s horribly dehumanizing to have such ideas hurled coldly at you by strangers over social media, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she were to tell me that she has to endure that kind of thing on a regular basis. The original poster, predictably enough, came back on the defensive, told her all the ways in which she was wrong to think she was worth keeping around, using every racial stereotype, sweeping generalization, and piece of misinformation about Aboriginal cultures available in society’s racial arsenal to belittle her pain and anger.
In my own frustration at this person’s inability to conduct a simple Google search, in my horror at his lack of empathy towards the woman he was talking to, and in my inability to refrain from compulsively correcting anyone and everyone when I think they’re wrong, I gave all his misconceptions a lengthy debunking, and after a bit of an exchange he began to relinquish some of his previous viewpoints. Although he still refused to acknowledge how terrible his original comments had been, and wouldn’t entirely let go of his careless and dehumanizing attitude towards Aboriginal peoples, at least he was listening more and being less defensive. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a start. A few days later, he private messaged me to thank me for explaining everything so thoroughly, to say that I had given him a lot to think about and that his opinion was beginning to change, and to ask how I had learned so much and where he could go to do the same.
This seemed like quite a victory. How often does one manage to change the mind of someone else over social media, over an argument in a comments section? And if I had to change anyone’s mind about anything, I was glad to encourage someone towards greater tolerance and a desire to learn more. It wasn’t until much later that I thought of something that really should have occurred to me right from the beginning of the exchange.
When I started my political science degree, I could see the terrible conditions faced by Aboriginal peoples in this country and wanted to help fix them. I had grand visions of coming up with some genius solution that would end their troubles for good. To that end, I tended towards classes and chose research projects directed at learning more about Aboriginal history, politics, and policies in Canada. If you know me personally, and you’re thinking, “I didn’t know she had goals like that”, it’s because I never talk about it, because in hindsight it feels pretty stupid and offensive and like most people, I hate having to admit that I’ve done or thought something stupid or offensive. As I learned more, and spent more time listening to Aboriginal voices on the problems they uniquely face, it became apparent that as a white person it really wasn’t my place to take centre stage and play the part of some kind of saviour, and the idea that I could do such a thing was silly and naive at best. I simply lack the cultural, societal, and political experience and context required to truly understand the full extent and causes of the problems, and therefore to determine and implement the most appropriate solutions to them. I do, however, possess the ability to learn, listen, and empathize. I discovered that in order to really make a difference, my efforts were best spent listening to and supporting Aboriginal people as they attempt to explain their problems and implement solutions. Though this may be a supporting role rather than a lead one, that doesn’t make it small or unimportant or not worth doing. However, white people are so accustomed to having a highly valued voice, the idea of taking a back seat on an issue often doesn’t even occur to them, and when they’re asked to, the request can seem strange, unappealing, or even threatening (even though it isn’t in reality). This is a serious barrier to real progress on issues of inequality. Good people who could be making a positive difference are actually contributing to the problem by digging in their heels, refusing to listen and understand their part in the whole thing, and thereby holding back any progress that could be made.
When that fellow from Facebook asked how he could learn more, my answer to him was that I did so by going out of my way to put myself in situations where I could read and hear the perspectives of Aboriginal peoples and those who study their culture, their history, and their current circumstances. And that’s what bothers me so much today about my exchange with him then. Listening to Aboriginal perspectives is exactly what neither of us did during that conversation. An Aboriginal perspective was offered almost immediately, and he shot it down just as quickly. And instead of supporting her perspective and encouraging him to be a better listener, I offered my own and was readily accepted while her participation in the conversation gradually decreased and finally ceased altogether.
It shouldn’t take a white voice to educate white people on Aboriginal issues when so many more experienced voices are so widely available. Although I would dearly love to go on a debunking spree, complete with amusing gifs, to whitesplain the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to those fellow (mostly white) Canadians who’s negative and dismissive responses have been so frustrating and disappointing to me, I’m not going to. I would be making the same mistake now as I did back then, and while my lengthy debunking wasn’t necessarily wrong, I hope you can understand how that whole situation was extremely problematic. If you want to know which opinions need debunking, Google them yourself. Or you could, just, you know, actually read the Commission and take the time to think it over before jumping on the defensive. This is a time for listening, empathizing, and supporting. Your needs and desires can take a back seat for a little while without your world coming to an end, so get over yourself and try to spend some time listening and attending to someone else’s needs for once. It’s not actually as difficult or as scary as you think it’s going to be. Take the recommendations seriously and consider ways in which you can contribute. It’s really not going to hurt you, and it can make a world of difference to someone else.
I appreciate you reading to the end and listening to my story, but my story isn’t the one you should be listening to right now. Take the time to explore some perspectives less familiar to you, and do so with an open mind, a respectful attitude, and a restrained ego.
Our good friend Jim has called an election for the 5th of May. Since I’m a political science bachelor with a lot of non-politically-minded friends, I thought I’d actually make an effort this year to observe, dissect, interpret, and publish the goings-on of this provincial election in the hopes of making it seem a little more convenient and easy to understand, and a little less intimidating or overwhelming, for those friends.
I should state at the outset that I’m not a fan of the Progressive Conservatives, and that is definitely going to show in this series of posts. I’ll try to give them fair treatment, but I can’t guarantee anything.
So how does this whole thing work, anyway?
In order to make an informed vote, you need to understand how both the political system and the electoral system work. Not understanding them may lead you to cast a vote that doesn’t actually match what you want or need from the government. How can that be, you ask? I’m going to start with some voting 101 to get you up to speed.
For my busier friends out there, here’s a TL;DR summary:
1. Parties vs. Representatives
Most elected representatives in provincial politics (known as MLAs) belong to a party. Parties work as a team to set goals and get things passed in the Legislature. Sounds nice in theory, but it gets a bit weird in practice.
In Canada, party members have to vote together. If a representative wants to propose something, the rest of the party has to agree with them or it won’t happen. Decisions are often made behind closed doors between party members, and then brought to the legislature for a vote. MLAs rarely act alone on their own initiative, but pass everything through their party first. Once the party has made a decision about something, everyone has to vote in favour of it, regardless of whether or not they personally think it’s a good idea. It helps parties stay organized and consistent, which is good, however…
Imagine: everyone in your riding wants to increase corporate taxes. Literally every person.
If your MLA’s party also wants to increase corporate taxes, then your MLA can vote in the Legislature to increase corporate taxes.
However, if the party disagrees, then your MLA must vote against corporate tax increases, even if every single person they represent wants them to vote in favour.
If they refuse to follow the party and vote the way their constituents want them to, they run the risk of being kicked out of their party. They won’t lose their seat in the Legislative Assembly, but they may as well have. Because the MLAs in parties work as one, without a party affiliation your MLA is on their own most of the time so it’s very difficult for them to get their voice heard.
With Canada’s party system, the Premier is not chosen by a direct vote of all Albertans, but by the party with the most seats in the Legislature. Each riding has a seat, and elects a MLA to represent them. Whichever party can win the most ridings gets the most seats, and therefore gets to run the show. They decide amongst themselves who from their party will be the Premier, and they can change that person at any time without any input from Albertan voters.
Important note: Our entire system works on a first-past-the-post basis. This basically means that you don’t have to have the most, you just have to have more than anyone else. In terms of leadership, this means that you don’t have to have the most seats in the legislature to have control of the government, you just have to have more than any other party.
A majority government happens when the party in power has a majority of the seats. That party can basically do whatever it wants because it has a majority of seats and, because all party members must vote together, a majority of the votes.
A minority government happens when the party in power has more seats than any other party, but doesn’t have the most seats overall. This means that even though they control the government, the other parties can out-vote them if they work together.
Voting also works on a first-past-the-post basis. A candidate doesn’t have to have the most votes to win, they just have to have more votes than any other candidate. Seems to make sense, but there’s actually a huge problem whenever you have more than two candidates. I’ll show you:
Candidate 1 got 30% of the vote
Candidate 2 got 70% of the vote
Candidate 2 wins.
Candidate 1 won 25% of the vote
Candidate 2 won 20% of the vote
Candidate 3 won 22% of the vote
Candidate 4 won 23% of the vote
With 10% being spoiled ballots (meaning they were blank, illegible, etc)
Candidate 1 wins with only 25% support.
4. Making a decision
So how do you make a decision on how to vote? There are lots of strategies you can look at implementing, but I’ll tell you right now what NOT to do:
DO NOT vote based only on the party. Many people always vote for the same party regardless of which candidate is running in their riding, and this is a mistake.
DO NOT vote based only on the candidate. Some people want a particular person that they like to represent them, which is nice in theory and a good strategy in some places, but in Canada this is also a mistake. Voting can’t be that simple because of that party system I explained earlier, which is why it’s so important to understand how it works.
Deciding how to vote is a tricky balancing act between a candidate’s qualifications and promises, and the actions, policies, and promises of the party they belong to. A particular candidate might seem really competent and have great ideas, but if their party is going to ignore those ideas then you might have to settle for a candidate you like less that belongs to a party you like more. On the other hand, you may love a particular party, but if the candidate running for that party in your riding is an incompetent boob, a lot of important on-the-ground work might get messed up if they win, so you may have to vote for a better candidate from a party you like less.
How you balance that will depend on what you care about. If you care about local matters, like how your constituency office is run and how issues are dealt with in your riding, then you’ll want to give more consideration to the quality of the candidate than to the quality of the party. If you care about provincial matters, like the budget, or public policies and laws, you should give more consideration to the quality of the party, rather than the quality of the candidate.
You can also simply vote against the party/candidate you like the least. Lets say you despise the PCs (as I do). You don’t care who wins in your riding, as long as it’s not the PC candidate. You’d want to look at various polls and other predictions to determine which candidate seems most likely to win over the PC one, and then vote for that candidate in the hopes that others will have the same idea and your collective votes will push that candidate over the threshold they need to beat the PC one.
AND THAT CONCLUDES VOTING 101!!!!! Contact me if you have any questions, and I shall endeavour to answer them.
In following posts I will attempt to break down each party’s platform into easily digestible little bits so that you don’t have to do any reading yourself (because no one really wants to read through a party platform – booooooooring!), and also give a review of some candidates’ histories, qualifications, and promises. Can’t guarantee I’ll get around to all candidates, as there are many, but I’ll start with those in Edmonton and Calgary and work my way out from there!
Voting 101 – Condensed
Most MLAs belong to parties, and must vote the same as the rest of their party as if they belonged to an all-powerful hive-mind. Failure to follow party lines often results in permanent exile from the party.
Our main Provincial leader, the Premier, is not elected by Albertans, but chosen from among the party members of whichever party has the most seats in the Legislature. And I don’t mean the most seats in general, I mean the most as in: more than anyone else has. They can have less than 50% of the seats and still control the government.
This is called first-past-the-post, and it’s also how our voting system works. When you vote, the candidate you vote for doesn’t have to get the most votes, they just have to get more than any of the other candidates. In an election with 98 candidates, if 97 candidates each got 1% of the vote, and one candidate got 3% of the vote, the candidate with 3% would win. That’s right. A candidate with only 3% voter support could represent you!
So to recap: A candidate can win with less than 50% support, their party can control the government and decide the leadership with less than 50% of the Legislative Assembly seats, and they have to agree with their party’s crappy legislation at all times no matter what.
How does one vote in this messed up system?
Compromise: balance your decision between the candidates you like and parties you like. If the candidate is great but their party sucks, settle for a less good candidate in a better party. If the party is great but the candidate sucks, settle for a less good party but a better candidate. If you care about local matters, like how your constituency office is run, give priority to the quality of the candidate. If you care about provincial matters, like the budget and public policy, give priority to the quality party.
Take down your enemies: if all you care about is stopping those motherf***ing PCs from taking office a-F!@#$ING-gain (or any other party/candidate you hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns), figure out which candidate is most likely to beat them and vote for that candidate. Remember, they don’t have to have the most, they just have to have more than the person you hate.
Oil prices were considerably lower than expected last year and left Alberta with a pretty significant deficit in the budget. What to do about it?
The Government of Alberta recently released a fun application where you get to decide. Go through the budget, take a look at the various options for cuts to expenditures and increases to revenues, and decide for yourself.
As you begin on the main page of the link posted above, you are greeted with the opening message: “Alberta is planning its budget for 2013-2014, with the goal of reducing our deficit. Difficult decisions have to be made – what choices would you make?” In going through these ‘difficult decisions’ I learned a number of important things about budget setting and decision making.
1. The decisions you make will be based heavily on the things you know.
Under Advanced Education, the option exists to cut the operational budgets of post-secondary institutions by 3%. Being an involved member of a post-secondary institution in Alberta, I know how dramatic an effect this will have. For the University of Alberta, a 3% cut to the operating budget after several years of continued cuts will not ‘streamline operations’ or ‘create a more efficient system for managing business’ because there is nothing left to streamline, especially for faculties that don’t have large corporate donors, like the Faculty of Arts. They are already operating with the bare minimum. Tuition will be increased, non-academic staff will be laid off, and professors who retire won’t be replaced. It’s not a good situation for the U of A.
However, a 3% cut to Alberta Innovates corporations, something I know almost nothing about, doesn’t seem too bad. 3% isn’t that much, after all…
2. Some things just aren’t worth considering.
Seriously, some of the proposed cuts in this budget exercise are absolutely ridiculous. Sometimes, you need to consider the utilitarian value of a decision. How much will I gain by this, how much will they lose? If they are losing a lot, and I am gaining next to nothing, why even consider it in the first place?
For example, under Culture you are given the option of eliminating the Francophone Secretariat. This decision will save you a measly 1,311,000, while causing considerable harm to government relations with the Alberta Francophone community of around 70,000 or more and limiting their access to political participation. A million dollars might sound like a lot to your wallet – perhaps it’s more money than you will see in a lifetime – but you have to consider it against the entire deficit, and the entire budget. Using the numbers given in this budget exercise (after putting the price of oil at $73/barrel on the assumptions page) that sum only represents about 0.06% of the 2 billion dollar deficit, and about 0.003% of the 42 billion dollar expenses.
Even more ridiculous is the option under Intergovernmental to cut funding to Aboriginal economic capacity programs, which would save $230,000. That’s it? Are you kidding me? Once again, this is a choice that could seriously degrade the province’s relationship with Aboriginal governments, and could make it more difficult for them to create and maintain programs that improve their economic and social lives. This cut represents (once again, using the numbers given in the budget exercise) 0.01% of the deficit, and 0.0005% of total expenses. What’s the point? We could give them an extra $230,000 without it making an appreciable difference to overall budget outcomes, so why was this cut even mentioned in the first place?
3. Your personal biases matter.
When the option came up under Energy to eliminate funding for bioenergy programs to save $66,000,000 I checked it off without even reading the description under the ‘Learn More’ tab. I won’t go into why I have such an extreme bias against bioenergy (that is worth an entire post on its own, and you may get to see that post in the future), all you really need to know is that because of that bias, I was immediately willing to destroy all funding for this area. As you go through the budget yourself, what sections do you have biases for/against, and how do they affect the decisions you make?
4. The government’s biases matter.
It was interesting exercise, going through all of the ‘Learn More’ tabs, because it gave me a bit of an idea of what the government sees as being really important. For example, under Agriculture the option to eliminate agricultural income support programs warned that food prices could go up, farmers could cease operations, and the economics of an ‘an industry that directly employs 2.5% of all Albertans’ could change dramatically. There was no attempt to put a positive spin on this option, as there had been in the option to cut post-secondary operational budgets (see above).
However, under Healthcare the option to cut dispensing fees for prescription drugs tells us that the system would be streamlined and money would be saved, and then gives us some basic information about how the dispensing fee system works. It doesn’t mention any of the possible negative side effects of making this cut.
There is no set formula for the information found in the ‘Learn More’ tabs. Some of them speak of huge negative impacts (like in agriculture), some tell us the cut could possibly have a negative impact but don’t commit quite as strongly to the idea (post-secondary education), and some make it seem like money can be saved without any serious effect on the department in question (healthcare). As we saw with post-secondary operating budgets (above), the possible consequences of a particular cut are not always outlined with total accuracy in these Learn More tabs, so it becomes necessary to ask yourself, “why is this particular cut being portrayed differently than another one?” before making your own decisions on what to cut and what not to.
5. Taxes aren’t that bad.
By introducing a 2% sales tax the government would gain about 2 billion dollars in revenue, pretty much solving the deficit problem. Remember back when the federal sales tax was 7%? Was it really that bad? Because that’s all Albertans would be paying. We would still be paying less than every other province (territories not included because their government/taxation systems are somewhat different), the end difference for the average Albertan would not be a massive one, and the deficit would pretty much disappear without any cuts to expenditures. Why do we fight the implementation of a tiny tax that could prevent the programs we are proud of in this province, like our healthcare and education systems from being degraded due to budget cuts?
Another revenue increase we could consider here is introducing a second tax rate on incomes over $250,000/year, which would see income over $250,000 taxed at 14%. According to the ‘Learn More’ tab, only 1% of Albertan’s would fall into this new tax bracket, but it would create an additional $500,000,000 in revenue. Further, because this would be a progressive tax bracket, people making $249,000/year will be taxed at 10% as usual, and people making $251,000/year will be taxed at 10% for the first $250,000 and at 14% for the 1,000 they made after that. That way, advancing into a new tax bracket doesn’t mean you will have less money in your pocket after the taxes are taken off, it just means you pay a small amount more out of every dollar you earn after the first $250,000. Not a bad system, all things considered, and Alberta would still have some of the lowest income tax rates in North America.
6. Dealing with the deficit doesn’t have to involve any ‘difficult’ choices.
Without cutting any expenditures (except for funding to bioenergy programs), raising the flat income tax rates, introducing higher corporate or fuel taxes, or reintroducing healthcare premiums, I not only solved the deficit problem but created a $0.4 billion dollar surplus. All it took was the introduction of a second tax rate, something that most provinces/states that have income taxes have had in place for a long time already, as well as the introduction of a very small sales tax.
Why hasn’t this been done yet?! I guess there is always the concern that a provincial sales tax will kill support for the Conservative Party. However, as a body that is meant to represent what’s best for the people, a slight increase in select taxes to maintain the quality of life in the province might have to come at the price of a slight drop in the polls. Your job isn’t to keep yourselves in power; your job is to do what’s right for the people who elected you.