Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ottawa Centre: "Didn't you hear us last time?"

I think it is fair to say that a lot of people across Canada are scratching their heads this week, wondering what the point of this election was--what it accomplished.  I suspect there are actually some answers to those questions, but they will probably take time to emerge.  In the long view, this election may be thought of as a significant one, perhaps as the time when it became obvious that the structural divisions that befuddled the right for the past 15 years have now taken firm hold of the centre-left.  However, in the short run all that is immediately evident is that the Canadian electorate rejected the opportunity to make any major changes to things, and instead voted quite firmly for the status quo.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Ottawa area, where every single riding returned an incumbent MP.  Within the region, Ottawa Centre wasn't satisfied merely to produce the same outcome as the previous election.  No, we apparently did our darndest to produce the same vote counts as for the previous election.  Take a look...

2006 2008 Change
NDP 24609 25399 790 3.21%
Liberal 19468 16633 -2835 -14.56%
Conservative 15105 15065 -40 -0.26%
Green 6765 6348 -417 -6.16%
Marijuana 387 378 -9 -2.33%
Marxist-Leninist 69 95 26 37.68%
Communist 102
-102 -100.00%
Independent 121
-121 -100.00%
Rejected 324 266 -58 -17.90%
Total 66950 64184 -2766 -4.13%

Aside from a group of about 2800 Liberal voters who apparently chose to sit on their hands (the drop in total vote being remarkably close to the drop in the Liberal vote), the differences are in the noise.  Fewer than 800 votes changed hands (1.2% of valid votes cast), and they all went to the incumbent.

One could take that as a rebuke to the electoral process itself--or at least a rejection of the decision to call an election.  ("Damn it, we voted like this, and we meant it!  Now stop bothering us.") But the overall turnout remains pretty high in Ottawa Centre.  At 71%, it is well above the national average, at least.  So if Ottawa Centre voters are perhaps hide-bound traditionalists, they remain engaged hide-bound traditionalists.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Post-Electoral Numerology

This election has had the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history  What does that mean?  Among other things, it means that all of the major parties had fewer votes cast for them in this election than in the election of 2006--even those who increased their vote share.  Of the Federally-funded parties, only the Green Party saw an increase in absolute number of votes.

These two charts display the change of total votes received by each party.  First, as a difference from the election of 2006, and second as a trend over the past three elections.  If you are a Liberal strategist, that trend line should have you sweating profusely, and possibly muttering darkly about the end times.  That's a decline of 1.35 Million votes or 27% in four and a half years.  (Exercise for the reader: if these trends continue, when does the Liberal vote drop below that of the NDP?)  But really, nobody--except perhaps the Greens--should be taking solace in these numbers, if for no other reason than that the Quarterly Allowance payments under section 435.01 of the Canada Elections Act will decline commensurately.

The Conservatives can, of course, look forward to having the fact that only 22.2% of eligible voters supported them raised every time they try to claim to have a mandate to govern.  Jack Layton's concession speech on election night didn't include this number--but probably only because it wasn't yet known at that point.  He certainly emphasized the Conservative's minority status, and how this imposed a requirement to seek the consent of parliament.  It would be consistent with his usual practice to at least rhetorically acknowledge a similar requirement for the consent of the populace.

Many people are pointing at the results of this election as evidence of the need for electoral reform--typically with some kind of proportional representation system being held up as the way to re-engage the electorate.  It might work.  I'm not convinced.  The argument seems to turn on whether the resulting parliament would be more appealing to the current non-voter, which seems impossible to predict.  In any case, pure proportional representation reduces the voter's choice to selecting a party--which isn't all that helpful if none of the parties actually represent the voter's interests.  I think, if I had absolute freedom to construct an electoral system, I'd prefer to outlaw parties and put the emphasis on choosing specific representatives, personally.  For that matter, various reality TV shows demonstrate that it would probably be feasible to have direct voting on specific issues on a regular basis, which could render the representative moot.

However, before getting too side-tracked by a consideration of theoretical electoral systems, there are other questions to ask about how this one worked, particularly with respect to strategic voting.  Two questions I was asking myself on election night were: A) did the Bloc Québécois prevent a Conservative majority; and B) did the Green party split the "pro-environment" vote in any meaningful way?  To explore these questions, consider the following table.

Actual No BQ NDP + Green Liberal + Green Liberal + NDP Liberal + NDP + Green

Conservative 143 156 138 130 114 91

Liberal 76 110 72 98 155 179

NDP 37 40 46 33 - -

BQ 50 - 50 45 37 36

GRN 0 0 - - 0 -

Other 2 2 2 2 2 2

On the left are the actual seat numbers from this election, as of this morning.  The remaining columns are hypothetical results derived from the reported vote counts under various hypotheses.  

The first column--labelled "No BQ"--awards every seat won by the Bloc to which ever candidate came second in that riding.  One can argue about how accurate this is as a model of what the vote would be if the BQ didn't run.  Effectively, it assumes that the second choice of Bloc voters is not distributed significantly differently than the first choice of other voters, within each riding.  In fact polling data suggests that Bloc voters have a preference for the NDP as a second choice.  So this analysis may overestimate the Conservative seat count for this hypothesis, and underestimate the NDP.  But with that caveat, the result is that the Conservatives would pick up enough seats to reach a majority.  So, yes, there is some justification for a claim that the BQ prevented a Conservative majority.

The next two columns show the seat counts if all of the Green party votes were rolled in with either the NDP or the Liberals.  While there are a number of ridings that swing in this analysis, it isn't enough to substantially change the outcome.  In both of these scenarios, the Conservatives still win a minority government, with a gain in seats relative to the previous election.

By contrast, the last two columns demonstrate that if the NDP vote was rolled into the Liberal party (with or without the Green vote) it would be enough to convert the Conservative minority into a Liberal majority.  This is not at all surprising, since it amounts to introducing a two-party scenario into a first-past-the-post vote count.  The Conservatives are a lot more likely to win their seats outright that the other parties--they received more than 50% of the votes cast in 55% of the ridings they won, where the other parties did so in more like 20% of ridings they won.  But with only 37.6% of the popular vote, geographic concentration works against you; excess votes in a riding you have already won are of no use in winning other seats.

It's also not desirable, I would argue, to reduce the entire spectrum of possible electoral choice to Conservative vs. not-Conservative.  In fact, if it is necessary to do so in order to prevent the Conservatives from winning, this would seem to support the legitimacy of the Conservative victory.  Their mandate, however thin, does represent a functional coalition of votes that agree to support that platform; whereas the coalition one would have to assemble to defeat it contains some rather substantial policy differences.

Which suggests that there is little more to be gained by leveraging strategic voting against the Conservatives.  For another party to take power, without collapsing into a two-party system, they will have to pull votes from the Conservatives, or from the growing pool of non-voters.  


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

President Bush signs PRO-IP Act

President Bush signed S.3325, now known as the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act, or PRO-IP Act, into law on Monday Oct. 13, 2008.  This signature comes despite the bill still mandating the creation of an IP Enforcement Coordinator office within the White House--something the administration had previously characterized as "objectionable on constitutional separation of powers grounds".  As I have mentioned previously, one of the roles for this office will be to coordinate international pressure tactics, intended to promote an enforcement-oriented approach to IP law around the world.  The law will also authorize appropriations to fund enforcement activities at the local and national levels.

Beyond the creation of additional bureaucracy, the primary impacts of the law are: 
  • to increase the statutory damages and other remedies for civil counterfeiting cases; 
  • to prohibit the importation or exportation of "copies or phonorecords, the making of which either constituted an infringement of copyright, or which would have constituted an infringement of copyright if this title had been applicable"; and,
  • to add broad new forfeiture requirements, allowing the US government to seize "[a]ny property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part to commit or facilitate the commission of an offense" under criminal copyright infringement statutes.
The latter provision is troubling, since it is rather broad, and could on its face be interpreted as allowing the seizure of any and all communication infrastructure involved in distributing infringing material.  While it is perhaps unlikely that the US government would (or could) attempt to seize the entire network infrastructure, it seem likely that innocent third parties will suffer when shared resources are affected.

This bill was supported by the RIAA, the MPAA, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO.  It was opposed by Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Library Association, and at one point, the Bush administration itself.  However the most controversial aspect of the bill--a provision that could have diverted public resources into pursuing civil actions on behalf of (and to the benefit of) private rights holders--was dropped.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Brian McGarry has a bad day

“Do you think Brian wears a toupée? I know that's a shallow question, but...” I was sitting with Nik Maak—author of the blog Kill Everything—in the auditorium of Glebe Collegiate. An Ottawa Centre all-candidates meeting had just wrapped up, and he was talking about Brian McGarry. Nik doesn't particularly like Mr. McGarry. I shook my head, and maybe mumbled something. But, before I could really answer, he was continuing. “If Gilligan and Mr. Howell had a love child, that's him. You know. He's kinda goofy, but kinda mean at the same time.” (Or maybe he said “stern”. I don't really remember.) I reflected on this for a moment.

“Yeah, and there's a bit of a physical resemblance, too” I admitted. “I guess that's why I think it's his real hair. He seems like the kind of guy who would grow hair like that.” It seemed unkind to be picking on McGarry—he hadn't had an entirely successful evening, after all. But he brings it on himself. His performance that evening practically demanded mockery.

Mike Cassidy happened to be sitting behind Nik. Before the meeting started, I overheard him say “He's really one of the more decent Conservative candidates...” It was clear he too was talking about McGarry. I'm not sure whether he meant in this election, or compared to candidates Cassidy had faced before. He had been leader of the Ontario NDP before Bob Rae. Like Bob Rae, he moved on to federal politics; but unlike Rae, he stayed with the NDP. He won Ottawa Centre in the federal election of 1984 by a margin of 54 votes. Presumably he's seen his share of Conservative candidates. But you also have to figure that if Mike Cassidy is being sympathetic to a Conservative, that Conservative isn't seen as much of a threat.

* * *

The format for this meeting was odd. There were the usual opening statements, then two prepared questions: one from a student; one from a community association representative. So far so good. The community associations and high school were hosting, so you'd expect them to give themselves some kind of panel questions. It was the way the floor questions were handled that was odd. There were no microphones. Instead, students collected written questions, which were then read by the moderator.

The goal, we were told, was to keep things moving quickly—to avoid wasting time at the microphones—so as to get to as many questions as possible. I'd come with a vague plan to ask a question about ACTA, but I didn't have anything written down. I was just going to wing it. So I tried, twice, to write something out while simultaneously taking notes. It didn't really work. So my question didn't make it into the pool.

My question was going to be something like this: The Canadian government has been participating in negotiations to establish an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) for the past year. This treaty process has been widely criticized as being secretive, and undemocratic. Although the content of this treaty is unknown, it is rumoured to require member nations to divert public funds into the enforcement of private Intellectual Property rights, on behalf of rights holders—a proposition that was recently rejected by the Departments of Justice and Commerce in the US. In fact, Senators Leahy and Specter, authors of a bill that would have implemented such a provision published an open letter last week decrying the secrecy and the breadth of these treaty negotiations. When two of the strongest proponents of IP enforcement regimes, as well as most proponents of IP liberalization agree that the ACTA process is severely flawed, is it not time for the Canadian government to consider opening it up to a little public scrutiny?

It's too long, of course. I was working on editing it. Oh well. The thing is, you can probably predict what answers the candidates would have given, anyway. Still, it might have been nice to get them on the record on the subject.

Nik had a question too. He had brought his in written form, so was ready to toss it right into the basket when the students came around. His question, more or less, was why should we take seriously candidates who don't care to engage the electorate? The pointy end of that stick was directed at Penny Collenette, as much as it was at McGarry. Both of them begged off several of the “all-candidates” meetings, over the course of this campaign.

The moderator said she'd received more than 75 submissions. By the time Nik asked about McGarry's hair, we'd heard 42 of them. Nik's wasn't one of them. Somebody else asked a question about Conservative secretiveness and gag orders on local candidates, though. McGarry's response was adamant: there was no gag order on him. He'd answer any question, any time, with honesty and integrity. How this was going to happen when he'd elected not to attend six of the eight scheduled debates or all-candidates meetings in the riding wasn't clear.

To his credit, his campaign office was the only one that responded directly to my copyright policy questions. The response didn't really answer them—it was a canned statement about how “the Conservative government consulted widely with Canadians and stakeholders and delivered a made-in-Canada approach that struck a balance between protecting the rights of consumers while respecting the rights of creators and copyright owners” and how “[i]f elected, Brian will certainly ensure that your opinions on this matter are heard clearly from within the Government.” But it was a response. (For the record, I also received an invitation to a Policy Parlour discussion from Jen Hunter's assistant. I guess you could consider that a response, too.)

I'm still picking on McGarry. I can't help it. In response to a question about how to make communities more livable, most of the candidates talked about financial transfers to municipalities; McGarry talked about having been a school board trustee. When asked about the decline of voter participation, McGarry quite earnestly announced that he wasn't going to fine people for not voting. (Nobody had raised this possibility.) When asked what platform items might have to be delayed in the event of a severe economic downturn, McGarry's response was “I know what you want me to say: cut the arts! Well no way.” He then went on to talk about cutting four-lane highways. And when asked about whether he'd been interested in politics as a child, he went off on some tangent about how he used to be a Liberal, and how it was a shame he couldn't be one anymore. But the absolute topper has to be the question about abortion rights, to which he answered that one should “celebrate most cases.”

Time and time again, he kept saying things that were just plain weird. Things that left me scratching my head, wondering what he was thinking—why he would say that.

One thing I have to say, though: both Paul Dewar and Penny Collenette remarked on how respectful the evening had been. Collenette went so far as to call it a “new model for politics”. I suppose that as far as the candidates were concerned, it was reasonably respectful. But I didn't feel a lot of respect from the audience directed towards Brian McGarry. When he mentioned a hearing problem, while asking for a somewhat strange and hostile question to be repeated to him, there was laughter, and not the laughing-with-you kind. That seemed uncalled for.

After all, it clearly wasn't his day.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

ChoiceBot for the Canadian Election

Here's a fun toy: it's a ChoiceBot that has been set up for the Canadian election.  ChoiceBots are decision-assisting tools that help break down a choice into various questions where the alternatives are laid out so you can rate them.  In this case, the questions are various policy issues, and the alternatives are drawn from the party platforms.  It doesn't seem to have been updated after the release of the Conservative platform--a number of issues show "Not announced on party website" for them--but you can of course ignore the write-up that's presented and reflect on your own understanding of the policies and platforms.  Anyway, it's kind of fun to play with, and it might be useful for exploring second choices or other strategic voting questions (if you're so inclined).  Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Illegal election advertising in Ottawa Centre?

While out for a walk this afternoon, I came across a number of makeshift signs for John Akpata of the Marijuana Party, like the one pictured here.  This one is on the north side of Albert St., at the intersection with Preston.  There are others around.  As can be seen in the photo, the signs appear to be leftover Greg Laxton signs from the 2007 Ontario election, with Mr. Akpata's name painted on them, apparently by hand.

Because the signs are hand-painted, there's some variation, but generally the Green Party name, and in some cases the logo, are pretty recognizable.  So much so that my first thought when I saw one of these signs from a distance was "Why is Akpata trying to pretend he's running for the Greens?"  From up close, it's easier to see that these are old Laxton signs from the Green Party of Ontario, not the federal party.  So my second thought was that this was quite resourceful, and a good way to re-use the material.  But my third thought was to wonder if it was legal.

I don't think it is.  The Canada Elections Act requires that election advertising indicate who authorized it, and these signs do not.  (The statement of authorization by the Green Party of Ontario is obviously invalid, and I don't think anyone is intended to believe otherwise.)  So, depending on whether these signs were placed by someone acting on behalf of Mr. Akpata (or the Marijuana Party), or by a third party, they would seem to be in contravention of section 320 or 352 of the Act.  In either case, whoever put them up would be potentially "liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than three months, or to both." [Canada Elections Act, section 500(1)]

One of the reasons for this requirement is that there are spending limits for election campaigns.  If election advertising can't be traced to its source, it would be impossible to actually monitor campaign spending.  So while I strongly doubt that Mr. Akpata or the Marijuana Party have the means or the intent to try to violate the spending rules, it's not a trivial matter.  Other people or groups potentially do.  So it's possibly a shame that this kind of creative re-use of waste materials can't be encouraged, but the law must apply equally to all.

UPDATE: I asked Mr. Akpata for comment.  His response, in part, was: 
i am not responsible for the signs.  i did not do this, nor did i encourage nor comission any person to do this.  apparently some person took it upon themselves to show support to me as a candidate.  i will be forwarding this to blair longley "leader" of the marijuana party to see what if any action i should take.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thoughts on the Canadian Leaders' debates

Every time I watch one of these things I have to remind myself that for some voters, this event probably is the election campaign.  Our campaigns are short enough that if you're not a news or politics junkie, it's relatively easy to miss them.  (Well, most people would at least notice the signs, or some of the other advertising.)  The nationally televised debates are the one high profile event in the campaign.  If you're going to pay attention to anything related to the election, you're probably aware of them.

So the parties know they have a lot riding on them.  It may be their one chance to reach a potential swing voter.  And these days, it's all about the swing voter.  The leaders aren't speaking to their supporters.  Nor are they necessarily speaking to people who are familiar with the issues, the context, or the facts.  It's a tough job: you have to push your preferred message as much as possible while still presenting some semblance of answering the questions you've been asked.  And you have to react to what everyone else says.  All in real time.  I don't envy them.

In that sense, I think all of the leaders did a reasonable job in both debates.  They communicated some key elements of their platforms; they got in some jabs at each other; and they didn't screw up in any glaring ways.

Most observers seem to think that Stephane Dion had the most to gain (or lose) from last night's English language debate--particularly coming on the heels of what was perceived as a strong performance in the French debate.  Personally, I don't think he capitalized on the opportunity all that effectively.  He did a reasonably good job of appearing calm, confident, and (I suppose) prime-ministerial.  He did communicate pretty well in English--better than he often has in the past.  And he did a reasonably job of displaying empathy for voter's concerns.  But his defences against Mr. Harper's attacks on the accounting of the Green Shift financial numbers just didn't really seem entirely effective to me.  (Not that the attacks themselves were particularly subtle.  When Paiken specifically asked about this, the exchange can I think be accurately summarized as: It's a tax increase.  Not true!  Is so!  Is not!)  And with Jack Layton undermining his credibility with the occasional jab (the one about the 43 times the Liberals supported the Conservatives in the last Parliament seemed to land rather solidly) it just didn't seem like a performance that could really sway the vote in a large way.

Speaking of Jack Layton, he still reminds me of a used car salesman, but a little less so than in previous debates.  He wasn't quite as strident as he sometimes is.  But his sweater jokes weren't anywhere near as cutting as Elizabeth May's well-timed "Where is it?" in reference to the Conservative platform.  His attacks on Harper were generally the most aggressive, along with Gilles Duceppe.  That will work to his advantage, among some voters.  And he did a decent job of undermining M. Dion at the same time.  Ultimately I think he has to be reasonably satisfied with his performance.

M. Duceppe has little to gain or lose in the English debate, so he always gets to have a little more fun with it than the others.  But he just didn't seem to be quite on his game this year, compared to the last election.  He was more inclined to scrap with Harper than the others, and did force him to acknowledge a few things: that current Conservative manufacturing tax credits aren't refundable; that Québec really doesn't have its own UNESCO seat; and that the early justifications for the war on Iraq turn out to have been based largely on false information.  But he had help from Elizabeth May in eliciting the latter admission, and the UNESCO bit was really a non sequitur that didn't have a lot of impact.  And for much of the rest of the debate, it almost seemed like he was just going through the motions.  Still, his line about "I won't be PM, and neither will three of you" was a good one.

Elizabeth May definitely demonstrated that she deserved to be there.  She had reasonably policy-based answers to the questions and didn't hesitate to get into the cut and thrust, either.  Her line about the situation in Afghanistan being "too important to deal with in a history-free-zone" was a gem.  She was the only one who called Mr. Harper on the fact that he didn't really seem to have anything to say about the economy, despite his insistence that it be given extra time.  And, as I mentioned above, her "where is it?" was probably the best sucker punch of the whole debate.

Which brings me to Stephen Harper.  His style doesn't resonate very well with me, personally--he always seems to be arguing by assertion--but I think he did a decent job of seeming prime-ministerial.  He remained largely un-perturbed when the others attacked him, and he stuck to his message.  His response to most attacks seems to be to just say they aren't true, without offering any particular evidence; that seems weak to me.  Others must see it differently, since the talking heads on the various panels often seem to use it too, lately.  I think Mr. Harper's performance must have played well to his supporters, and he avoided any major gaffes.

Conclusion: Harper wins by not losing.  Dion loses by not winning.  Everyone else shores up their support, and maybe siphons some votes away from the Liberals.