On Being “Walled” In by Risk-Averse Politicians

November 16, 2015

So, Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan wants Prime Minister Trudeau to “suspend your current plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year and to re-evaluate this goal and the processes in place to achieve it.” Is this the spirit that built the West? I don’t think to-day’s people of Saskatchewan are nearly that risk-averse, any more than were their ancestors.

Just how risk-averse do we need to be, in the present circumstances? Just how risk-averse are we? The fact of 129 deaths in Paris last week stimulated the CBC into a corporate paroxysm that has not yet run its course, and our newly-minted Opposition, and many others, into pleas for more lethal violence for our war on lethal violence in Iraq and Syria. The fact of two (2) deaths of soldiers in Canada earlier this year caused Parliament to ratchet up “security” to new records on the draconian scale. The imagination of similar danger arising from among 25,000 hapless Syrians agitates Premier Wall into nervous correspondence. Clearly the appetite for risk-aversion remains keen, at least in some circles.

Keen, but perhaps a trifle selective. The fact of 3,500 to 4,000 deaths annually in Canada by suicide evokes some gentle hand-wringing, but not much pouring of energy and money into a war on lethal despair and its causes. The fact of 2,000 to 3,000 deaths annually in motor vehicle accidents does not stimulate us to ruthless pursuit of lethal bad driving or ruthless anything,—just the usual routine persistence, not accepting these deaths but taking them in stride,—nor the 700 to 1,100 deaths from workplace accidents, nor even the 500 to 700 deaths from homicide. That’s 8,000 deaths per year, on average, arising from deplorable, often preventable phenomena that do not cause the CBC to foam at the mouth, nor columnists to rage, nor Parliament to pass draconian new laws, nor Premier Wall to write minatory letters, nor Canadians as a whole to set aside our humane and generous instincts.

A few years ago, after I was unexpectedly thrust into the task of managing a family counselling agency, I learned of a school of therapy called “Solution Focused”, invented by the late Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As I remember, it counselled according to three guiding rules.

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Before he can convince me that our system of security is so “broke” that it cannot manage the speedy arrival of 25,000 waifs of the mad world, Premier Wall is going to have to show me more deaths than two, in this country, or even 129 in France. Right now I am prepared to believe that our police and security services do very well against potential terrorist acts, and will stay so prepared even if we suffer a tragic episode or two. I accept these as risks of modern life, as we all do in the face of suicides, traffic accidents, industrial accidents, murder, and the rest. They are causes for persistent dedicated effort, but not for panic.
  2. If you try something that works, keep doing it. I think that we, here in Canada, in the face of our statistical evidence, must conclude that our approach to the threat of “terrorism” is working. Either that, or the threat itself is very small. We do not need to direct more energy to that threat, but could reasonably apply the same levels of commitment, singleness of purpose, skill, energy, time and money to other threats that have proved numerically much more significant. Go for it, Premier Wall! You and your colleagues have my full support for an all-out assault on the causes of suicides, mangled corpses in cars and work-places, and murders of all kinds.
  3. If you try something that does not work, don’t keep doing it. Do something different. Premier Wall and his hench-voices would have us keep doing it, perhaps even do more of it, if we can merely imagine that some day it might not work. Never mind the facts, just give us the dire possibilities: we’ll act on those. At what point may we begin to call this cowardice?

No, Premier Wall! say I. Bring on the 25,000 Syrians, as we did before—speaking of something that worked—for the Hungarians in their need, and the Vietnamese boat people in theirs, and the Kosovars in theirs, not to mention the settlement of Western Canada in earlier times. And let us also not forget the continuing disgrace and shame of our deplorable brushing aside of Sikhs, Jews, and others when they called to us out of their darkness.

And as for addressing something that’s obviously not working, how about ramping down the violence in the Middle East, or at least, if we can’t do that, ceasing to be part of it. Ground the bloody planes. Find a better way. That would be doing something different, indeed.

Faced with insanity, don’t join in. Become Solution Focused. Take a deep breath. Take two. Think. Remain sane. Remain humane.


A Plea for Sanity and Moderation in Response to Violence

Letter to the Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister, November 16, 2015

Respected Sir:

I believe, as do many others, that when dramatic events such as the attacks in Paris take place, voices of sanity, moderation need to be heard. I intend that mine should be one of them. We are already hearing plenty of the other kind, not to mention the disgraceful act of criminal violence in Peterborough.

Based on what I know of you and your hopes for the government you lead, I believe that your own instincts will be towards sanity and moderation in response. I hope you know that a great many Canadians, myself among them, will support you fully and as loudly as we can, as you try to work things out along those lines.

In principle, I believe your wish is correct, that Canada should stop bombing people in Iraq and Syria. Bombing people, whoever does it and for whatever reason, is always an act of barbarism. It is like capital punishment: it is never a moral response to any situation. It is done for reasons of revenge, frustration, weakness, and the desire to wage war without taking much risk. It is a despicable way to fight, and I wish we were not fighting that way in Iraq and Syria. The sooner we can stop, the better.

On the other hand, if NATO decides to fight that way in support of the French, then we might well be stuck for the time being. But our advice should be to find a better way. If we end up having to go along with our allies, so be it, but I hope we will find a way that is not despicable.

ISIS is not the only force for barbarism that we need to purge from the world. We don’t get very far that way if we act barbarously ourselves. Waging war in the proper way and for the proper cause is not barbarous, although always mournfully regrettable and an admission of failure. I hope you will be able to find a better way, not only consistent with our international obligations, but also with morality.

Somebody recently referred to our bombing in Iraq and Syria as an important “symbolic act”. I do not believe in killing people for symbolic purposes. If we have to use killing for purposes of symbolism, then our imaginations have become impoverished indeed. We can, we must, learn to do a lot better than that.

I will support any efforts that Canada might make to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the Middle East. I do not believe that a state of continuous warfare and the violent cultivation of hatred can do the job.

Domestically, I hope that we will not over-react or listen to the voices of hysteria. We have all the tools we need in our police and security forces to respond to criminal risks and acts, perhaps even too many. We do not need further measures of repression. We simply need to use the ones we have.

And, most emphatically, I continue to support your plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year end, or at least to approve them. The attacks in Paris should not change our resolve to help those people, which is based on humanitarian generosity and a practical recognition that we are rich and resourceful enough to welcome them, and we should do it.

Thank you.

Concerning Electoral Reform: First-Two-Past-the-Post

Our newly-minted prime minister, Mr. Trudeau, has promised that 2015 will be the last election conducted on the old first-past-the-post system. I am sure I do not have to explain why I support that resolve: it is abundantly evident that first-past-the-post is a very bad system now that we have four credible parties, five in Québec, and would be just as bad if we only considered three. Reform is long overdue. But what kind of reform?

I would like to propose two general principles:

(1) That the system chosen should be simple enough for the vast majority of electors to understand and use. People should be absolutely clear about how to vote and what use is being made of their votes. This is the great strength of first-past-the-post. Everyone understands a simple race. Unfortunately the job that we are electing people to do, and their lines of accountability nowadays, are not simple at all. The simplicity of the present system becomes much more questionable, once we get beyond election day, which we do very quickly, in one day, as a matter of fact. Fifteen-hundred days, or thereabouts, lie ahead.

(2) That the direct connection between the person of the MP and the geographic constituency should be maintained. I believe the voters should appoint their representatives directly, and not through the intermediation of a party. Parties now choose candidates, but they do not decide who gets the job. It would be a long step in a bad direction if they did.

Regardless of the technicalities (and I recognize there are many) I think there could be problems — perceptual if not practical — if someone were messing around with the votes after the polls close, beyond simply counting them. All forms of preferential voting or ranking have this disadvantage. Of course, reassignment of ranked votes can take place in a perfectly honest, mechanical way, but would people believe it? And what happens if a substantial number of people don’t trust the voting system, or even understand it?


This system, I think, would work exactly as the present one does, from the point of view of voters. I am not suggesting that each voter would vote for two candidates. One voter, one vote. One constituency, two MP’s.

For voters in cities, the doubling of the size of constituencies would make no apparent difference. Candidates may not live in their urban constituencies now. The change would be apparent in rural constituencies, but I am not sure it is hugely significant. I think I would be just as well represented, perhaps even better, by two members from different parties, even if the area and population they are representing is twice as big.

People in huge northern constituencies might object to this idea, quite validly. It won’t strain the system if those constituencies stay the way they are, and won’t hurt the rest of us if they too have two MP’s. I have lived in the north, and know the difficulties. I would not want do anything to increase them, or give people reason to believe they had been increased. 338 MP’s; 350? 360? What difference does it make?

I recognize that larger constituencies would increase the costs of campaigning, thus building in an advantage for those candidates and their parties who are well organized and do a good job. Is it really a disadvantage, to us voters, to see how well these people can organize to do a large, important job? Are we really worse off if that job is made even larger?

I will perform detailed analysis on the recent election, and up-date the analysis for 2011, as soon as I have time. Not too long I hope. To see the earlier, preliminary analysis of 2011, click on the category “Electoral Reform” and it will pop up right below this one.

A Fable for November 4th

In the high and not so far off times, there dwelt a land of many sovereigns, ruled by a Grand Vizier, who was appointed periodically in a roundabout way by the sovereigns themselves. Long had this custom been assiduously cultivated, yielding in the course of time some twenty-two Grand Viziers, numbered from GV-1.0 through to GV-22.2 (not to be confused with GG-28.0, an entirely different official of a particularly arcane nature), according to the inspired collective wisdom of the sovereigns.

Came the day when the sovereigns were again called upon, either to confirm the appointment of the present Grand Vizier with his accompanying Vizi-Gang, or to appoint another. And lo, on that day, on that single, even signal day, did the sovereigns in their inspired collective wisdom summarily demote GV-22.2 and VG-22.2, appointing GV- and VG-23.0 in their stead.

Great was then the intellectual and verbal turbulence among the scribes of the land, as well as among the various gangs and their followers, concerning the reasons for the down-fall of the Twenty-Twos (and others) and the Up-Rise of the Twenty-Threes: the strategies and tactics, the cuts and thrusts, the errors and omissions, the sayings, the doings, the promisings, the affirmations, the denials, the associations, that may or may not have contributed to such a dramatic re-casting of the scene. Some said ‘twas caused by this and that, others by these and those, and great was the scribbling on the screens and pages, and mighty the perturbations of the waves of the air. All this was, however, only vanity and a striving after wind.

The true explanation was quite simple: the sovereigns, in their collective wisdom, which truly can be inspired, however inscrutable may be its ways and workings, had decided that GV-22.2 had been bad for the common wealth, and that it was time for a change. For it is the job of the sovereigns to see the situation whole in its entirety, not in the grubby little fragments so dear to the analytical customs of the scribes and subterranean toilers in the various gangs. There is a sublimity that shapes their votes, rough-chew them how they will.

Demoted indeed were the Twenty-Twos, but not cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, although weep and gnash their teeth they did nonetheless, and copiously.  For according to another part of the custom (speaking of arcane), the sovereigns appointed them to the role of Oppozo-Gang, to be led by a Grand Oppozier, whose jocund task it would be to inform the sovereigns from day to day concerning the job performance of the Grand Vizier and his Vizi-Gang, yea, even more, as commonly interpreted, to pronounce to the sovereigns from day to day that these appointees are doing a reprehensible job and are in sooth most disadvantageous to the common wealth.

Let us be clear: the sovereigns, that is, the bosses of those whom they have appointed to govern the land, believe that they (the appointees, I mean) will be most effectively stimulated to superlative performance through the diligence of a highly paid and opulently housed official, complete with gang, striving from day to day to convince them (the bosses, I mean) that their appointees are doing a lousy job.

Full seldom does such a method of motivation appear in learned text-books on such matters, I wean, but I suppose we must accept the wisdom of this practice as being inspired on some level, perhaps as inscrutable as the rest. For such is the custom.

But lo, the sovereigns are in fact the bosses, as they have so firmly proved, and could if they chose instruct the Grand Oppozier and his gang, who are also under appointment in equal fashion, and perhaps even instruct the scribes although that is a more complicated business, in the following manner: “We have made our decision. We have appointed a new Grand Vizier with his Vizi-Gang, and we demand that you give them time to learn how to do their jobs. We will decide how much time when we begin to see how well they learn.

“For they are our servants, as you are, and we demand that you so bear yourselves as to make our government work well. We are wiser and more mature that you are. We know the job of Grand Vizier to be most difficult, with many complexities and pressures, and we do not harbour unreasonable expectations from inexperienced people. We do not require instant miracles. We do not require absolute freedom from mistakes. We have had too much experience with truly incompetent and self-interested grand viziers and their gangs. We demand that you give this one the opportunity to prove that he can be what he says he wants to be. For we have decided that this approach will be in our best interest.

“We, your sovereigns, have appointed you, we pay you, to be the opposition to our government, not its enemies. That is a difficult job that you too must learn to do properly, and we will cut you sufficient slack until you have shown us how well you can learn.”

And if the sovereigns were to instruct in this manner, would many among the oppozers and the scribes know what they meant? Would many listen? Or is this tale also nothing but vanity, and a striving after wind?

Thoughts on the Morning of Election Day: End of this phase of my blog: Excelsior!

Monday, October 19: Election Day

Well folks, here’s hoping: a minority parliament, with all parties prepared to try to make it work. I do not expect them to give up their differences of opinion. I expect them to negotiate in good faith, and not to exploit the situation for partisan advantage.

The business of the country must get done, and expeditiously. We have tried a series of short-term near-dictatorships, to that end. And now look at the mess we are in. Let’s try something different.

For too long we have allowed our legislators and governors, at all levels, to manipulate the political system for their own partisan advantage. Let them use it for our advantage, for a change. And if they cannot agree on where that advantage lies, then let them negotiate, issue by issue, in good faith, and with an understanding that they must come to an agreement (which is not the same thing as agreeing) with whatever urgency the situation requires.

In other words, a Parliament of Creative Negotiators, not a hung parliament.

Professor Pam Palmater of Ryerson University participated yesterday in a panel discussion on CBC Radio, and said a wise thing. She said that October 19th is not nearly as important as October 20th. That’s when the work begins.

On Election Day, I wish to repeat two ideas that appeared earlier in this blog:

First, that we will be governed by the mind-set of the people with the power, and not by any catalogue of details they may have spoken or published during the campaign. The latter are clues to the mind-set, but not definitive. By “mind-set” I mean something wider than “values”, although values are important.

Second, when systems are failing, the supervisors of the system have to take some responsibility for its failure. True, the participants are responsible too, in this instance, quite significant responsibility. But if our political system has been failing, then we have to take our share of the responsibility, and the media on which we rely for our information have to take theirs. And taking responsibility means doing the work to make that effective.

And that, for us, the people, means ceaseless agitation: writing to our MP’s, MPP’s-MLA’s-MNA’s, municipal counsellors, and our news media, telling them what we think and what we want them to do. It means being engaged, being involved, and being prepared to invest the time and effort necessary.

The recent election campaign has made me resolve to do that better than I have in the past. Tomorrow the work begins.

Anything I write to politicians and journalists will appear also on this blog.

All the best to all my readers, and many thanks for your interest.

From Four Make One: The Muddle Party Platform

Thursday, October 15th

One of my correspondents, a dear friend and colleague, referred the other day to the current election as “epic”. I will examine that proposition in a minute, but first I must report on my excursions into the Platforms (or rather the Platform documents) of the four parties running in this constituency: Conservative, Green, Liberal, and NDP.

First, a few technicalities. I am reading all of these in PDF form, on my desktop. I also have them in text form, for more detailed textual analysis, if required. If Marshall McLuhan is correct, that “the medium is the message”, then that is my medium. The following table gives a few statistics, to set the stage.


The first thing I noticed is that none of them, even the Conservatives with their exceptionally talented typographers, has figured out that a PDF is a computer-screen document, and that computer screens are oriented landscape, not portrait. Tablets can be either, of course, but anybody reading one of these things on a tablet had better have good light, and good eyes. Wow! The bigger the screen, the better. The second thing is that they are all full of good stuff, and if you put them all together, with all their differences and contradictions, eliminated a few silly ideas put in there for the delectation of the various “bases”, and edited out the rotten prose and jargon, you would have a really good Muddle Party Platform.

In other words, we shouldn’t have to choose only one of these platforms, but rather have the best of them all together. And isn’t that what Parliament is supposed to be about? These documents cry out for an evenly balanced parliament of minorities, in which everything has to be negotiated. In the realm of political ideas, survival of the fittest sounds like a good principle to me. Who says that the best government for us will come from some kind of “winner”? I think that government by an unfettered “winner” is good primarily for the winner. If these Platforms are anything to go by, we lose a lot of really good stuff, under that system.

I like what happens when you put all four of the “first words” together, in a slightly different order:


Vision, for what guides us; Growth (of all kinds, not only economic), for what we want; Building, for how we achieve it; Protection, against threats to what we value. Of course, the whole thing is more complicated, but these are first words, not whole text. Put together, I think they make a good statement.

I think it highly likely that what we will get, when the tumult and the shouting die, is a government that actually provides some form of feasible muddle of all these ideas. The alternative to muddle is ideology, and we have had enough of that. Muddle is good. Muddle is stability. Muddle is democracy.

If the polls are anything like correct, it appears we may even get a beautifully muddled parliament. What a gift! Go for it, electors of the land!

But can an election producing such a result be “epic”, in any sense? The campaign, on the contrary, has been rather a squalid affair, for the most part, in its pandering to prejudice; simplistic messages; puerile rhetoric; obsession with the leaders none of whom, except for Elizabeth May, is a terribly interesting person — the other three sleek, cowering, timorous mouseketeers (in their ideas, not their personalities) are not epic figures by any stretch; schoolyard taunting; petty manipulation of appearances; etc.

And will the results be epic, if the same spirit pervades our 42nd Parliament? Alas, not likely. Political, social, and economic life will go on pretty much as before, with perhaps some new faces and a little adjustment at the margins, of almost no significance to the great issues that a gnawing away at our foundations: degradation of the places we live and need for life (a much larger phenomenon that just climate change, important as that is); the tribalization of society (predicted 50 years ago by Marshall McLuhan); the erosion of economic civilization by obsessive consumerism and financial speculation; degradation of the common wealth; etc. And these things will go on happening, not because our leaders and political systems are deficient, but because we, collectively, cannot summon up the sense and the will to tell them to shape up, reform their methods of discourse, and look after our true interests instead of their own.

Elizabeth May and the Greens, despite the turgid verbosity of their Platform, come the closest to understanding and advocating for the kind of radical changes we so desperately need. Does this mean people will vote for them? If we are lucky, they will in a few constituencies.

We are fortunate here in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. We have three candidates we can honestly vote FOR, which is more than I can say for their parties, taken individually. Our current (Conservative) MP is arguably an unworthy representative; our most vital imperative locally is to vote against him. I think the “strategic vote” (bad term—it’s not strategic at all, but tactical in a negative way) is going to go Liberal.

I have reached the point where I really don’t care who wins, as long as they win with a minority. Because then they will have to sit down and negotiate a government for us, instead of imposing one on us. And we can influence the negotiation, by speaking up while they jaw. But that process, however healthy, is not likely to address the huge issues. For example, I suppose we might dream of a better short-term climate change policy coming from it, but that benefit would be only marginal. Addressing climate change itself is an entirely different matter, so much beyond the control of the Government of Canada by itself, as to make its policy almost totally irrelevant. The problem of climate change lies much deeper, not in the way our governments act but in the way our people live, and the huge forces that win power and profit from encouraging them to go on living that way. That whole story is epic all right, if a tale of unmitigated gloom can be epic.

A story of the people actually fighting against those forces and electing governments who would take up arms against them, would be epic indeed, and I would like to see it. But I don’t see much hope that it will start soon, and it’s certainly not being fought for in this election, at any level.

Still, I am full of hope, for a muddled minority government doing the best that it can in an imperfect system, country and world, with much interesting conversation along the way.

Speaking of muddle, I am wondering about a phrase that caught my eye as I skimmed through the Conservative document, referring to Canada’s “fragile economy”. I thought these guys had been in office for nine years. Could we not expect them to have done something in that time to make our economy less fragile? Perhaps had they done that, their party could have made their first word something positive. I know something about economics, and I think the Conservatives’ ideas on that subject are not muddled, but belong in the silly bin.

Searching for the Muddle Party

Thursday, October 8th

By the end of my most but not very recent post, I had worked my way around to the Muddle Party, whose name I have not yet seen on any election posters in my part of the country. The idea runs thusly: If we seek a political ideology of Balance (à la Henry Mintzberg, of www.mintzberg.org or Stephen Leacock (whose ideas have been characterized (by Gerald Lynch, in Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity, which I am now reading) as a “middle way” but which are, I believe, more of a “both-and” way)), then the content of our thinking must be perpetually muddled, while the one hand waits upon the other hand like the poor cat in the adage (not Shakespeare’s adage, but a different one). Our ideas about how to make a decision or arrive at a policy, our ideas about “process”, that is, may be abundantly clear—experience, research and negotiation tumbling forever onward, ad infinitum—but our ideas about content must be muddled, and muddle, in this context, is a Good Thing.

Since the Muddle Party has not declared itself, I must try to find one that deserves the name.

My cousin Pat Cowan recently wrote to the Prime Minister, arguing at length as follows: Either Ms. Ishaq wearing her niqab is a victim of male oppression, or she is a free adult exercising her right to decide her own religious practices. If the former, then the barriers to her full citizenship are the result of that oppression, and the government’s and our solemn duty is to support her in removing them, not by forcing her to take off the niquab, but by making it irrelevant to her citizenship. If the latter, then the government’s and our solemn duty is to support her choice under the rubric of religious freedom. All this, of course, assuming that her choices do not harm anyone else. The last time I heard, Ms. Ishaq only wants to wear the niqab, not strike anyone with it.

Since the Conservative party’s exploitation of her and her situation, whatever it may be, for political ends is clearly one of the most vicious electoral tactics ever seen in this country, completely contrary to the kind of amiable muddle necessary for our political health, I fear that we cannot award the honourable title of Muddle Party to that one.

The other three are a different matter. How delightfully muddled are they all, which makes deciding among them a severe task indeed.

The Liberal Party has always been muddled; it has been one principal source of their strength. “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” There’s a finely tuned statement of muddle if ever there was one. But of the right kind. Mr. Trudeau recently told us, quite correctly, that our political opponents are also our neighbours and we should treat them accordingly: a most admirably muddled statement of our responsibility to people with whom we do not agree, and one which he seems willing to accept for himself. A muddle to live by, in these times when others suggest that disagreement makes you an enemy.

The NDP, struggling between the desire to remain social democrats while attracting Liberal voters and also, they hope, some Conservatives of the western populist variety, have become acceptably muddled too, but I fear Mr. Mulcair does not wear the coat comfortably, and it shows. Personally, I think that social democracy is quite acceptably muddled as it is, and that trying to mix its muddle with Liberal muddle makes, not for the right kind of muddle, but for simple obscurity and confusion, which is not the same thing.

As for the Greens, I am not sure about them. I think that Elizabeth May herself is well muddled, in the Liberal tradition, with some unmuddled thoughts about Nature thrown in. Whether that makes her, and the Green Party, muddled in the right way is a question worthy of discussion but, in this election, a moot one because she remains the strong leader of a weak party, and thus marginal.

I don’t need to talk about the Bloc, because they do not factor in my voting decision.

I will not vote Conservative, because I think their local candidate is not a worthy representative of the constituency, and because I find so little in their approach that I can support, and so much that I deplore. I may vote Liberal. I may vote NDP. I am struggling to make that choice a positive one. I will not, this time, vote Green, for the reason stated. If Elizabeth May were running here, I would vote for her like a shot.

The next step, for me, is to read the full platforms of the two parties that remain, for me, in contention. I will write again when I have done that.