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The Breakdown

by Archives February 10, 2009

Accountability, whats that?

Tensions over the Conservative budget gave way to an unprecedented breech of parliamentary discipline last week when the Liberal MPs of Newfoundland and Labrador broke rank with their party and voted against budget. The doctrine of party discipline, wherein MPs are required to vote with their parties, is among the most firmly entrenched conventions in our parliamentary system. The standard punishment for breeching party discipline is being kicked out of the party, no questions asked.
The incident was orchestrated by Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, who called changes to the equalization formula contained in the budget a direct attack on him and his province. The province is slated to lose approximately $1.5 billion in provincial transfers under the proposed changes.
Williams has been an outspoken critic of Stephen Harper’s for many years now. During the 2008 election he ran an Anybody But Conservative – or ABC – campaign in Newfoundland that led to the Conservatives losing every race in the province. Apparently, on the Rock when the Premier speaks, people listen.
Rather than getting into a confrontation with Williams, Ignatieff allowed the dissenters to vote against the budget. It was a dangerous move for the fledgling leader, allowing dissent to flourish so openly in his caucus and bowing down to Williams’ bullying could be construed as signs of weakness. There are also questions about a double standard – Newfoundland MPs were allowed to break rank on this vote, but would MPs from Ontario, Quebec or any other province been granted the same reprieve?
But this isn’t a question about the Liberal party, the province of Newfoundland or its Premier – it’s about accountability. In our system, party discipline makes MPs more accountable to their parties than the people who elect them.
In Canada, we use a system of representation by population, seats in parliament are distributed by blocks of about 100,000 or so citizens. We elect individuals who then go to Ottawa to represent us.
The alternative to this is a system called proportional representation, or PR, in which people vote for parties and seats are allotted based on what percentage of the popular vote each party receives.
It is crucial to understand the difference between these two systems. The easiest way to conceptualize it is to imagine a ballot. In our system ballots are a list of candidates that changes from riding to riding, in PR every ballot across the country would be a list or parties that look the same.
To put it in perspective, and please bear with me, in the last election the Conservatives won 143 seats with 38 per cent of the popular vote, the Liberals 77 seats with 26 per cent, the Bloc 49 seats with 10 per cent, the NDP 37 seats with 18 per cent and the Greens won no seats despite receiving seven per cent of the popular vote. If we’d been using a PR system, the results would have been 117 seats for the Conservatives, 80 for the Liberals, 55 for the NDP, 30 for the Bloc and a decent 21 seats for the Green Party – a marked improvement over zero.
In this fictional parliament, the Liberals and NDP would have been able to form a coalition without having to call upon the Bloc – a party who’s existence hinges upon our current system – the Greens would be represented in parliament and party discipline wouldn’t prevent MPs from fulfilling their obligations to their constituents.
This isn’t a call for the implementation of a PR system, it is an attempt to reshape the way we understand our system. Recent issues in Ottawa, specifically the coalition and the dissenting Newfoundlanders, are discussed in the public sphere as if we voted for parties rather than individuals; this simply isn’t the case. If we’re going to use a system of representation by population, then we need to be realistic about what that entails. We need to let our MPs represent us and our interests, confidence or no confidence. This is the only way we can realistically hold them accountable for their actions.

The agreement no one seems to care about

“Buy American” clauses in the stimulus measures being proposed south of the border had the alarm bells ringing on Parliament Hill. There were talks of a potential trade war, but don’t go calling up Viceroy Gunray and his droid army just yet.
Voices on both sides of the aisle voiced their concerns over the protectionist, urging the government to work to get the measures nixed. The provisions, which stipulate that any projects funded by stimulus money must use only American made materials are a direct violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Despite championing the treaty, the Americans have never seemed too keen on defending NAFTA when it wasn’t in their best interests to do so. The softwood lumber dispute is a very recent example of this. By imposing illegal tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, the American government sucked $5 billion out of the Canadian lumber industry. Our government did everything in its power to get the money back – they used every dispute resolutions mechanism available to them and won every time – but could not get the Americans to budge. Eventually Prime Minister Harper settled for 80 per cent of the lost funds, leaving $1 billion on the table in the process.
We shouldn’t have been surprised, however, that the stimulus budget contained protectionist measures. The point of stimulating an economy is to protect it. What’s the point of handing out public money if that money is just going to manufacturers in China, or Canada for that matter.
That these questions are still coming up indicates that NAFTA is far from being flawless, once we accept this the next step is to decide how to move forward. The theory behind free trade is that if we make something but another country can make it cheaper, we should get it from them to increase the overall efficiency of the system.
It is exactly this kind of talk that gets labour worrying, and for good reason. We could probably make everything cheaper with third world slave labour, but where does that get us? For the average worker, the overall efficiency of the system isn’t a major concern, that’s the kind of thing the boss – man worries about.
Now the notion of free trade in North America isn’t a bad one. It need not even threaten our workers if done for the right reasons. But when economic efficiency is the cornerstone of a trade agreement, the result is a deal like NAFTA under which the proverbial boss can outsource his manufacturing to labour markets with lax regulations.
The cornerstones of any trade agreement ought to be sufficiency and sustainability. This means provisions that raise labour standards for everyone involved rather than lower them. This means provisions that create an open and viable market for all manufacturers, rather than giving preferential treatment to certain sectors. This means provisions that benefit everyone involved, not just the biggest players. North America is a diverse continent that can, if it is allowed to, sustain and support everyone who lives in it, but only once we come to understand that we’re all in it together and are ready to bargain in good faith.

Can’t we all just get along?

Quebec Premier Jean Charest made a special visit to France last week where he was honoured by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Charest was made a Commander of France’s Legion of Honour, the country’s highest decoration. Much to the chagrin of Quebec Nationalists, Sarkozy praised Charest for his contributions to France and Quebec’s shared values, making a poorly veiled reference to the fight against sovereignty.
Since the controversy that arose after France’s Charles de Gaulle said “Vive le Québec libre” on a state visit in the 1960s, the country has taken an official stance not to meddle into Quebec’s issues.
Sarkozy, who’s not known for his modesty, threw that position out the window in honouring Charest. Sovreigntists, who celebrated de Gaulle’s interference, lambasted Sarkozy for interjecting where he wasn’t wanted. It was a questionable move on Sarkozy’s part, but it is wrong-headed to be selective about when and where foreign politicians should be allowed to meddle in our affairs.
France and Quebec have always had an interesting relationship; the province is all that is left over of the once vast North American colony of New France. Quebeckers, and especially sovereigntists often refer to France as the motherland, but France is not to Quebec as England is to Canada. After loosing on the battle for the new world on the Plains of Abraham, France left Quebec in the dark for the better part of the next century, leaving the Brits to deal with the leftover soon to be French Canadians – but you don’t see any license plates “remembering” that.
The British could have given the lingering French colonists a much worse deal than they did, and granted things were difficult for a while. Try to find a cultural minority anywhere on the planet that wields more influence than Quebec. English Canada hasn’t always been as nice to Quebec as they could have been, but Quebec hasn’t been the easiest nation to accommodate.
At times it seems as if we’re being held together by chance alone, but we haven’t split up yet and we’re probably all the better for it. Sarkozy was right in saying that now isn’t the time for new divisions. Canada and Quebec have a lot to gain from each other logistically, economically and culturally, if we can only put our differences aside long enough to admit it.

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