A Moderate Shift in Canadian Voting

The parties’ seat distribution matters for the four years between elections, and this past election generated a significant shift in seats. The popular vote will also matters for those four years as the parties try to align their policies with their understanding of the voters. After that comes the 2015 election, where seat distribution will be meaningless and popular vote will once again mean everything. So let’s not forget the popular vote in our collective, well-justified consternation around seats.

Here’s the popular vote from 2008 and 2011:

These changes may have tipped a lot of first-past-the-post riding outcomes, but in themselves they are moderate shifts.

I’ve read a few articles from a range of politicos stating or implying that Canadians must broadly support the Conservatives’ conservative politics, given that they “just won the election” (see here for a fresh example). Yes, but without the actual support of the actual majority of voters, and with little improvement over their last lukewarm endorsement. And if you believe the post-election focus-grouping, even the people who voted Conservative aren’t especially motivated by conservativism. This will be a trying four years, parliamentary process being what it is. But the left won’t be any stronger through those years if it forgets that it represents the significant majority of Canadians’ values. That’s not a trivial factoid, that’s a baseline fact.

And how about that “historic collapse” of the Liberal party? From 26% to 19%. A shift of one voter in 14.

If you follow the parliamentary trend over the last few years you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve seen a entrenchment of conservative values in Canadian politics, and now a massive re-arrangement of centre-left party politics. I think what we’ve seen is parties luffing their sails in the fickle winds of minority politics, some slight shift in Canadian voting, and very little shift in actual Canadian values. Those votes and those values are what will matter in the long run, even if the short run is a sorry mess.

See previously: Plus Ca Change

Half A Chance At A Centre-Left Coalition

It’s a ridiculous time for speculation, given that the one poll that really matters is actively underway, but I’m going to speculate anyway. I’ve got four ifs and a hopeful then.

  • If Harper doesn’t get a majority.
  • If the NDP comes in number two.
  • If the NDP and the Liberals have more seats together than the Conservatives, without the help of the Bloc.
  • If the NDP calculate that the public opinion cost of spearheading a coalition wouldn’t be too high.
  • Then we could have an NDP-led centre-left coalition within weeks.

I’d assign about 2/3rds likelihood to the #1 if. The best two polling aggregation and modelling sites are both projecting 143 seats for the Cons, 12 short of a clear majority. Polling and modelling sometimes gets it wrong, but not usually very wrong right before an election. Especially if multiple models are coalescing on the same projection.

#2 if is probably 2/3rds likely as well. Even the more cautious threehundredandeight.com is projecting the NDPs in a strong second place. Given that the numbers were getting higher right up until the last poll left the field, that could mean that the final results could look even better.

#3 is hard to tell, but let’s say 1/2 chance. tooclosetocall.com says yes, threehundredandeight.com says no.

#4 is probably 3/4s likely. The Liberals made a choice to underwrite Harper’s very effective framing of coalitions as back-room deals to elect second place leaders. They probably had to. But the NDP never bought that message, and they’re better placed to lead the charge on re-framing. And if they do form a relatively stable two-party sans-Bloc coalition, it would likely give them a full four years to prove to the suspicious Anglo masses that coalitions are a boring, practical arrangement.

I’m not sure how to boil those probabilities into a single mathematical likelihood, because they’re all correlated with each other. But generally I’d say we’ve got a one out of two chance of a wonderful outcome here.

The alternative could be terrible. Who says Canadian politics are boring? OK, nobody lately.

Also worth noting: the first major act of a re-elected Conservative party is presumably to re-introduce the same budget that partially triggered the last dissolution. If a coalition is to be formed, that will be an obvious moment for it. If it happens, it could happen in a matter of weeks. Another wildcard: even if a coalition meant a second-place Liberal party very publically going back on their word and allying themselves with the nasty Bloc, they might still go for it. I’m not sure it would be stable or play well in the inevitable next election, but it would be hard to resist.

Oh boy.

A Lefty Website for Strategic Donation

Swing33.ca links to the donation pages of 33 candidates that could be key to the outcome of the upcoming election. The idea came from Mitch Anderson, who rents a desk beside the desk I rent, and who has an op-ed in the Tyee today explaining. I helped build it.

We’re not fans of the Harper administration, and we’d like to do something to boost the prospects of the leftist (and centrist) Canadian parties. There’s 308 ridings in Canada, but not all of them are likely to switch sides in 2011. Of those that are in play, not all are being seriously contested by a Conservative candidate. We had a look at the results of the last election and spreadsheeted out the ones where Conservatives came close to winning or close to losing. There are 33 ridings where there was less than a 5% difference between the Conservative and the top non-Conservative candidate. That’s our list. If you’re going to donate to a political campaign (and Mitch argues there’s good reason to), then you might want want to target it at campaigns that are likely to decide the number of Conservative seats in the next parliament. That goals feels important right now.

We did simple-ish math to pick out those ridings, and it’s not a perfect system. We’re using recent history as a guide and history doesn’t sit still. We’ve already spotted a couple of districts where local conditions have changed since 2008 such that the best contender probably isn’t the one Excel picked. Saanich — Gulf Islands is the most obvious to me. (Donate to the Greens there, not the Liberals like the site says.) A commenter at the Tyee has already called out Esquimalt — Juan de Fuca as another flub.

We’re considering aggregating that kind of localized knowledge, and/or bringing in contemporary polling data and providing an alternative curated list. Time is the limitation. In the meantime we didn’t want to make it any harder to understand what the site was about by adding exceptions to our algorithmic approach.

In sum: if you or someone you know can be convinced to pony up some cash to help facilitate a good outcome in this year’s election, Swing33 could provide some reasonable guidance for giving that donation the most impact. The Conservatives are far better fundraisers than any of their competition, so give it some thought. Links to the donation pages of 33 likely candidates are just two clicks away.

Canadian Mining Is Hijacking Congo Debt Relief

July 15th: See below for an update

50 years ago today Congo DRC gained independence from Belgium. Since then the government has taken on massive debt eagerly offered by rich northern nations and institutions. Debt relief is held by some to be one of the most effective actions available to rich countries to facilitate improved governance in the global south. To that end, the International Monetary Fund was about to forgive its substantial portion of Congo’s debt, but that action is being actively blocked by a single country: Canada.

Why in the world would we do that? Apparently, we’re using debt forgiveness as a bargaining tool to force Congo to re-activate the operating license of a Canadian mining company. The company is called First Quantum, and the Congolese government recently revoked their right to operate three expensive copper mines after a review of mining practices. The mines are now being transferred to another international mining group, Highwind Properties. The Harper administration previously made a similar move to prevent that transfer when the Paris Club of Congolese debt holders considered abandoning their debt.

At the G20/G8 conferences, Prime Minister Harper claimed that the transfer of the operating licenses violated the rule of law and is framing the blocking of debt relief as stand for orderly governance. First Quantum has a dubious record in Congo. In 2000 a UN panel pointed out that international mineral development contributes directly to the brutal and ongoing conflict in Congo, and identified First Quantum as one of a group of companies failing to abide by OECD standards designed to lessen that conflict. Since then a Canadian-influenced second panel absolved First Quantum under a more lax set of criteria.

I don’t know much about how First Quantum currently operates in the Congo, or how Highwind Properties would operate, or what the specific motivations of the Congolese officials were who transferred the mines from one to the other. But I do know that Canadian mining companies have a bad record for environmental and human-rights choices in developing countries, and the available evidence suggests that First Quantum’s earlier Congolese operations may have lived up to that reputation. If First Quantum is indeed innocent of operational abuses, then I don’t doubt Canada can pursue their corporate rights in any number of international trade negotiation venues. Blocking an effort at debt forgiveness, in Congo DRC, on the Congolese 50th anniversary, in favour of a single Canadian mining corporation, is a despicable move.

Update July 15th:

The IMF and World Bank went ahead with the debt relief program, with Canada abstaining from the vote. I wonder what the status of the Paris Club debt relief action is?

“The decision comes despite opposition from Canada, which abstained from voting over Congo’s expropriation of Canadian company First Quantum’s rights to one of the world’s largest copper mines.

The Canadian company has taken its case to the International Court of Arbitration in Paris, and Canada’s objections had for months delayed announcement of the debt relief.”

But the World Bank and IMF announced Thursday — the day after Congo marked 50 years of independence from Belgium — that they will support $11.1 billion in relief under the program for heavily indebted poor countries and $1.2 billion under a multilateral debt relief initiative.

World Bank, IMF support $12.3 billion debt relief for Congo despite objections from Canada, SF Examiner/AP

Mayor David Miller On Behalf of Canada

That’s Toronto mayor David Miller accepting two (!) Fossil of the Day awards on behalf of Canada today at the Copenhagen talks. Photo from friend Heidi, who is attending Copenhagen promoting a program on adaptation in Africa. Not every Canadian presence is about stalling collective action. Go mayor Miller. Go Heidi.

Math-Checking the Carbon Pledges

President Obama today announced that he’ll be going to the Copenhagen climate talks, and that he’ll be taking an emissions cut pledge with him. That would be a 17% cut from 2005 levels by 2020. It’s great to hear a US leader setting quantitative targets.

There are a few caveats:

  • the President doesn’t get to pass laws and congress hasn’t committed, so it’s not clear how he can make a unilateral pledge
  • he’s going to the start of the talks, rather than the end, which is when all the rest of the leaders are supposed to hang out

I’m happy to look past those. Setting targets and filling in the details later beats nothing, and what the hell ever happens at leader’s photo-ops anyway? But there’s one more

  • that’s a 17% cut from 2005 levels

When countries announce emissions reductions, they almost always either baseline them against 1990, or some time in the last few years. If they pick 1990, it’s because they’re serious and they want to use the same standard that’s been in play since the days when the Kyoto Treaty was being formulated. Using 1990 means you can compare it against everybody else’s reduction commitments, since they’re all using 1990 levels as well.

Except for that second group, who will use a recent year, like 2005 or 2006. Some time just long enough ago that emissions data is firmly on record, but recent enough that the proportional calculation includes all the increases in emissions that have gone on since we were supposed to get serious about reductions back in the ’90s. Obama has chosen to be in that second group.

How about Canada? We’ve pledged (also without saying how we’re going to do it) 20% cuts from 2006 levels. Second group. Short bus.

Hard to sort out what all those numbers mean: 20% vs. 17% of two different emissions levels, 1990 vs 2005 vs 2006. Luckily, Stephen Wolfram’s massive ego begot Wolfram Alpha for exactly this sort of operation.

So, Wolfram Alpha, if the U.S. cut its greenhouse gas levels to 17% of what it emitted in 2005, what proportion of the amount emitted in 1990 would that be?

If Wolfram’s data is correct and the U.S. followed through on this current pledge, by 2020 the nation would be emitting 97% of the greenhouse gases released in 1990. That’s a 3% cut against 1990 levels, to compare with the 20 to 30% the European Union has pledged, for example. Keep in mind, by 1990 we had already realized that greenhouse gas levels were too high to maintain a stable climate. And by 2020 we will have had yet another decade of destabilization. I’m still glad he’s setting targets, we may well need to take a few baby steps before we start walking somewhere useful. But that’s not fully reassuring, yet.

What about Canada? Environment Minister Jim Prentice is tickled that Canada and the U.S. are “harmonizing” their responses, regardless of their quality. He’s pointing out that the targets are oh-so-close to each other. Great! But if we want to use the 1900 baseline, just how close our targets are would depend on how we compare with regards to relative increase in emissions since then. Let’s check.

Unfortunately, Wolfram Alpha’s greenhouse emissions data only goes up to 2005, so we’ll have to fudge the Canadian calculation a little and run it against 2005 data instead of the 2006 that the government is using in their calculations. That said, here goes:

That’s 100.3% of our 1990 emissions (assuming again that the data is correct). Very close to the U.S. commitment, yes. We’ve just very classily managed to commit to nudging our emissions commitment a teeny bit higher than the 1990 amounts that were scary back then.

Canada to World: Plan On Us Failing on Climate

The whole world is looking for leadership on climate change. Canada is being very clear on this subject: it ain’t us.

Climate change laws years away: Prentice — Nov 17th, CBC

Harper will only go to climate conference if other leaders do: aides — Nov 15th, Canwest News

Canada can’t cut emissions in isolation from U.S.: Prentice — Nov 13th, Edmonton Journal

What Prentice and Harper have to say in the above articles is what every politician wants to be able to get away with saying: we don’t want to be the first ones to move. We want to wait and see how things shake out before we commit ourselves. Lately Canada has been impressively vocal about our insistence on being on the wait-and-see team.

If everyone plays the game that way there will be no sufficient action taken, ever. What is needed is for a few players to decide that since there must eventually be a collective response, they might as well just act as if it was happening, and do something brave with the confidence that they will eventually be backed up. To lead, as it were. Once some countries are out front, then those that have been waiting to see what will happen can fall in behind. Presumably that leading action is going to come from relatively democratic, uncorrupt nations whose policy is meant to reflect the long-term will of the populace, and who by-the-way bare the greatest physical responsibility for stripping everyone of a predictable climate.

In other words, Canada should be leading. I guess we get points for being transparent about our complete failure to step up to that position. At least other countries can plan ahead around our pending failure.

Tar Sands Day

There’s protesters occupying two dump trucks at the Albian plant, hanging a banner off Niagara Falls, and picketing the Canadian embassy in Washington. All this to celebrate Prime Minister Harper’s visit to President Obama. Let’s hope this activity marks some kind of tipping point in continental awareness of the tar sands and their special place in the canon of global-scale environmental mistakes.

Here’s a couple of reasons why:

  1. Tar sands don’t threaten habitat, they replace it. They’re huge. Never mind for the moment the release of toxic byproduct into the Athabasca or the apparent increase in disease incidences in downstream first nations towns, the tar sands are actually a hole in the surface of the earth. I would suggest looking at them in Google Earth, but the tar sands are also one of the few places on earth where the very topography of the planet is reshaped on a fast enough schedule that Google Earth’s elevation data is necessarily out of date.
  2. (and this is the big one) Tar sands is perhaps the most climate-destabilizing method of taking petroleum out of the ground that humans have invented. It takes a lot of effort to get those hydrocarbon chains out of that greasy black gunk. Effort means energy. We put energy in to get the energy out. The exact figure of how many barrels of oil you get out for each barrel worth of energy you put in is hard to come by, presumably because it’s so politically fraught. Pembina institute says the production of tar sands crude dumps about 3 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as other Canadian sources of oil, which is hardly a high standard. Oil prices will continue to climb as availability shrinks, so burning up some non-renewable resources to get some more of them faster will continue to be an economically feasible trade-off (as long as we don’t require the petro companies to cover the wider costs generated from climate destabilization). We have to decide for ourselves that environmentally, socially, this is not an acceptable trade-off. Today seems like a good day to make that call.

Write your government! If you’re in Canada, Dogwood Initiative has some tools for you. In the States swing by Rainforest Action Network. Canada sells the tar sands as a politically stable, domestic source of precious petroleum. Let’s demonstrate that having domestic oil means that it isn’t politically stable, because people here still have some say in how and when their dirt gets dug up.

A little Q&A:

Tar sands or oil sands? Kinda like notebooks or laptops. If you’re in the industry or directly engaging with them you say oil sands, otherwise you say tar sands. Both sound ugly and are.

What about the ducks? Yes, a whole bunch of ducks died when they landed on the giant tailings pond in the Aurora site, were coated in petroleum by-product and sank. 500, oh no wait, 1606 of them. In fact, Syncrude picked today to plead not guilty in the court case, even as they apologize and re-iterate the un-acceptableness of the duck’s deaths and their firm commitment to preventing further loss of duck life. 1600 ducks is sad, but not the issue. The simple presence of the pit mines will have driven down the local population levels of of animal and plant communities by plenty more than 1600. Who knows what the tar sand’s contribution to planetary climate de-stabilization will do to populations of species world-wide. I think the thing about the ducks is that they’re a clear symbol of identifiable harm, so we’re all hung up on them.

Can you occupy a dump truck? Occupation is normally reserved for buildings, it’s true. But these dump trucks are bigger than my house.

We’ve Chosen Not to Know What is Causing Salmon Decline

This is painful: It looks like we may not have the data needed to explain the pacific salmon collapse because of politically motivated cuts to research, going back perhaps 30 years. It’s hard enough to understand ecosystems even when we have resources to do the science.

No answers in B.C.’s sudden salmon collapse — Canadian Press, in the Globe and Mail

This has been a frustrating tale for a long time now. The government refuses to take on the research, disregards or even deliberately interferes with non-gov scientists who try to do it on their own, and then dismisses criticism from non-scientists by pointing out that there’s insufficient scientific proof. It may be that fish farms aren’t to blame for this round of salmon decline, so it’s somewhat ironic that the media is picking this moment to wake up to the sea lice story. Of course there’s no knowing what the cause is either way. And now that the fish farms are well established and oceanic temperatures and acidity levels are likely to remain unstable, it will be hard or impossible to set up well controlled experiments to find out.

John Cleese’s VHS-Era Pitch for Proportional Representation

In 4 days BC votes on the provincial government, and more importantly on whether to become the first major jurisdiction in North America to bring in a proportional representation voting system.

I have the same worries about proportional representation that I’ve always had — de-localizing politics, reducing the transparency and hence accountability of the voting mechanism. The Single Transferable Vote system proposed mitigates the de-localization concern substantially, but definitely makes my head hurt when I try to imagine how exactly a given set of marks on a ballot would translate into somebody getting elected or not.

That said, I still have the same hopes for a proportional representation system: the de-dumbing-down of politics, eliminating the lowest common denominator and forcing us to actively and openly negotiate multiple, openly expressed values to reach workable political compromise. Enfranchisement of non-centrist views, maybe even a general re-engagement with politics. First-past-the-post is just a ridiculous way to vote.

So I’ll be voting for STV with bells on. I’m looking forward to it. If you’re still on the fence, you could go to the pro-STV people and watch their videos, or the anti-STV campaign and watch theirs. But what I really recommend is to watch the video that first got me interested in proportional representation. Here it is: John Cleese on why 1980s Britain should really consider proportional representation.

Basically the same system, basically the same conversation, 20 years later. But I think this time we’re going to do it.

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