brush with greatness

I have striven to elevate their eyes and minds from the little pedling muddy pool of politics beneath their feet to something more enobling, exacting and inspiring, calculated to enlarge the borders of their intelligence, and increase the extent and area of their prosperity.

A quote from Joseph Howe, cheerfully defending his penchant for championing big political ideas. His original spelling is retained.

 

It is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than to solve the wrong problem the right way.

A quote from pioneering telecommunication and computer science mathematician, Dr. Richard Hamming.

We just passed the 170th anniversary of the first Responsible Government. On February 2, 1848, the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, for the first time, selected the members of the Executive Council who would advise the colonial Governor. It was a big step. Much of this was due to the tremendous persuasive talent and good-natured perseverance of Joseph Howe and his campaign for Peaceable Revolution.

Last Thursday evening (February 1st), our Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, came to Edmonton to answer questions in a Town Hall forum at the Grant MacEwan downtown campus. To commemorate the anniversary of Responsible Government, I thought to attend.

Same night, the Oilers were playing Colorado in the new downtown Roger’s Place arena a few blocks away. I thought maybe not many people would attend the Town Hall. I was wrong about that. There were a few thousand people came to watch our Prime Minister do his show, and he did not disappoint.

He stood in the middle of the room surrounded by us in the bleachers, and he pointed to people in the crowd to ask him questions, and he answered smoothly and easily, politely and, I would say, honestly. Some of the questions were quite provocative, but he rolled with them and kept the audience entertained.

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Only a few questions were about policy. Most questioners prefaced with a story about how some level of government had made their lives miserable. After an explanation of the Federal role in their issue, the PM would outline and promote the related policies his government was following, and then close by asking the questioner to give his staff further details and he would see what could be done to address the problems after the public meeting. It called to my mind medieval petitioners gathering in their town square, each to ask their visiting sovereign to settle disputes or help with a charity or make a decision that would allow a local initiative to go forward. I wonder if that was the image he was going for?

(By the way, as one who was there, let me tell you that the Prime Minister’s joke about ‘personkind’ was appropriate to the moment, and a genuine crowd-pleaser. It broke up the monotony of an over-long non-question question. Shame on those who cannot laugh at so gentle a prod!)

I lost count, but I think there were something around 15 questions altogether.  I was not one of the people picked to ask a question. The very last question was indeed about policy. Someone asked about the now-dormant issue of electoral reform. To applause!

Our Prime Minister said that the public consultation process had somehow gone astray. In his judgement, the preferential ballot is the best approach, and yet proportional representation appeared to be the favourite option. He has serious reservations about proportional representation. He therefore acted in what he felt was the best interest of Canadians, and put the process indefinitely on hold. He understood that he was breaking an election promise, but felt it was the right action, and would stand by his decision.

Now, for people who analyze this stuff, it seems that proportional representation would help the NDP  and the Green Party the most, preferential balloting would help the Liberal Party, and the current First-Past-the-Post is best for the Conservative Party. And, not surprisingly, the system that favours a party turns out to be that party’s favoutite system, for a whole bunch of other quite unrelated and altruistic reasons. A cynical observation, but there it is.

At the same time, I find I can take Mr. Trudeau at his word. He has been told all the above by Liberal Party analysts. He knows on which side his bread is buttered. But, my gut gives him the benefit of the doubt on this; if he truly had a real problem with preferential balloting, he would have the integrity to stand against it. He doesn’t take that stand. And it is instructive to ask ourselves: why not?

He is an intelligent man. He should be able to see the wasted opportunity. He surely knows what a type 3 error is. I think the answer is simply that he is a man of his times.

These are the times when Democracy is a cool word devoid of meaning, the age of civic illiteracy. Preferential balloting has a satisfying symmetry to it. There’s no reason not to like it. Unless you happen to like better the also-satisfying pattern of proportional representation. (Or, for that matter, the 3E Senate.) You have your favourite colour and I have mine, and neither of us can be wrong. Except we are both wrong! The decision to be made is not about which colour is best, but how to survive through the 21st century. Without criteria, choices are just steps on a random walk.

Heck, these are the times when even an idea like Responsible Government is not well understood. It’s the system we have inherited, our own history, our own invention, but there was not a breath about Responsible Government in our Prime Minister’s answer about electoral reform: not to help justify his decision, not to reference as an ultimate goal, nor even as a stepping stone to something better.

And that was the last question answered. The Town Hall was over. About half the people started to leave and half headed down to the floor to try to get selfies with the Prime Minister. That seems to be part of his show. I did not go for a selfie, but as I left, I looked back and saw him there, smiling, with his many admirers, and it occurred to me that my wife’s observation about our Prime Minister, back when he was first elected, is true; he does have good hair, and the title for this post popped into my mind. As I eavesdropped in the crowded hallways after, the talk was generally favourable. People didn’t agree with him on everything, but they accepted the reasonableness of his answers.

I am satisfied that the Liberal initiative for electoral reform is halted. We leave in place our watered-down version of Responsible Government, a burr that will continue to bother us. But we did not go to the great effort to fix it incorrectly. Yes, civic literacy has not been rolled back, but if it is to ever be rolled back, that will take time. And that is what the indefinite freeze on Electoral Reform has given us. So, we did kind of solve the correct problem the wrong way!

I made a submission to the committee for Electoral Reform, back in October of 2016. Some in the committee may have read it, and it was then probably discarded because, well, these are the times when Democracy is hard to explain. My submission did not fit into any of the expected categories. The committee members were not looking for answers, they were looking for ways to justify decisions already made. That is kind of why the committee ground to a halt; they already all knew what their favourite colours were. However, there is a very very slim chance that there is a note about these ideas on a desk in a government office somewhere in Ottawa.

Prime Minister, if you happen to read this post, please go read the 7 chapters in this web site. (Start here!) You won’t learn anything you don’t already know; it’s just laid out in a way to make the patterns easier to see. I would consider it a coup – a second brush with greatness, if you will – if you left a comment or a criticism.

I guess I am one of the petitioners.

Oilers lost to Colorado that night, in overtime. What are the odds, eh?


I want to mark the passing of Dave Barrett, former Premier of British Columbia (no relation of mine), an interesting and inspiring man. You can read David Climenhaga‘s tribute to Mr. Barrett here.

Also, Robert Parry, one of the few real news people in North America, passed away this month. He founded and edited Consortium News, a great website resource for non-mainstream news of value.

 

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