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Archive for March, 2014

This is probably not going to be the most popular of positions to take, so I want to make clear that I am stating this position independently of any employment or volunteer connections I have to anyone, in any way, for any reason. I’m basically yelling this from the vacuum of space.

There has been a minor kerfuffle about the Speaker and Deputy Speaker’s trip to attend a parliamentary conference in South Africa, to which they bought their spouses (spice?) along with them. Some member of the Press Gallery asked about the appropriateness of bringing a spouse along at the taxpayers’ expense. I would have much preferred the speaker to stick to her original response, and say that the expense was in line with regulations, and that she would be happy to bring the policy to Legislative Assembly Management Committee for review.

I don’t just think this policy is about people being “entitled to their entitlements” as Mr Dingwall so pithily and unhelpfully put. There should be a suite of policies in place to help foster a healthy marital life amongst our elected legislators.  There have already been some reforms. Night sittings have been abolished, and part of the justification for why question period has been moved to Thursday mornings was to allow MLAs to depart if travel times were significant.

Being an MLA, or anyone in elected office, entails sacrifices. Constant public scrutiny is only the beginning (though I suspect, for some more media friendly politicians, this is part of the draw). MLAs have low job security – they have to submit themselves to the will of the people every four years. They often make a salary that is lower than potential earnings in the private sector – I’m not saying that MLAs are not paid comfortably, but that they are sacrificing potential earning out of a desire to serve the public. They work long hours – in addition to the standard bevy of meetings and sittings of the House, there are receptions and events that must be attended, and even when out in the community, people will come up and speak about the province. They spend a significant amount of time away from home – as one Tory Cabinet Minister stated, “Perhaps being away during the week made it easier to not deal with problems. Before you know it the marriage seemed unsavable.”

“Perhaps being away during the week made it easier to not deal with problems. Before you know it the marriage seemed unsavable.”

All of these factors can put a significant strain on marriages. The problem is significant. Federally, the rate of divorced members of the house has risen to 85% in 2013. This has increased from 70% prior to the last federal election in 2011. This is several times higher than the divorce rate for the population in general.  I have been unable to find statistics for the provincial legislature, but I would imagine that similar percentages hold. Also interesting to know would be the number of politicians who have divorced during their term of office.

Divorce is not a pleasant experience to go through (he said, demonstrating the insight and ingenuity for which he has become known). There are real costs associated with divorce and marital strife to the employer of the divorcee. Seeing how we, as the people of the province, are the employers of our representatives, this should concern us. We will get less engaged representation and less effective government if the people who are filling these posts are not able to perform at their peak. Anyone who has known someone going through a divorce can see first-hand the impact it has.

The strain politics puts on a marriage is not an insignificant problem, and has been covered not only in Canada, but also the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Studies for the private sector indicate that for every dollar invested in marital health on the part of the employer, between $1.50 and $6.85 will be seen as a Return on Investment. This is money well spent.

This is why I find it so infuriating when the media gets its knickers in a twist about the expenses incurred by Speaker Reid and Deputy Speaker Chouhan. The spousal flight allowance is a perk, yes, but it is a perk that I personally believe helps make a difficult situation for a marriage to endure slightly more bearable. Assistant Speaker Chouhan alluded to this when “he said he wanted his wife to travel with him because they had been apart in the spring, during the provincial election campaign.”

MLAs do an incredibly important, incredibly demanding job. The level of expense scrutiny is not the same as it would be for a publically traded organization. I wonder if any of the people who wrote in to the editorial pages of the paper are invested in any publically traded company, say, through their pension plan. I wonder if they are similarly up in arms about company executives travel expenses. While the situations are not entirely analogous, I feel that the expense rage that has been whipped up is largely a spillover from the somewhat more reasonable but moreso badly handled Albertan scandal that toppled Alison Redford recently.

Reid and Chouhan have done nothing wrong in this case. It is entirely reasonable that spouses be allowed to accompany Members when they are travelling. The question is where to draw the line. Is $5,000 per year too much? Ten thousand? This is for the Legislative Assembly Management Committee to decide, and I fervently hope they err on the side of preserving a job benefit that makes one of the most difficult challenges of the job – the struggle of maintaining a marriage – just a little bit easier. MLAs make sacrifices to serve, and time with their families is one of those sacrifices. Their marriages shouldn’t have to be.

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During the first half of the 20th century, any American in the South who wished to register to vote would have to come before the Board of Registrars. They would have to submit to the rules that were established by the local county electoral board, pass a literacy or civics test if the board deemed it necessary, and submit to a vote of the Registrars to approve their registration.

It seems like a simple enough process. However, this process was used to systematically disenfranchise black voters.

The purpose of the electoral board was not one of ensuring that as many eligible people were registered to vote as possible, ensuring maximum participation in the democratic process. Instead, the mandate was one of preventing the wrong kind of people from registering to vote. Byzantine and often capricious rules would be applied, inconsistently, and in clear denial of the constitutional protections that guarantee equal protection and application of the law.

Tragically, shockingly, depressingly, the same tactics are now being used in Quebec.

The leadership of Elections Quebec attempts to absolve itself of any responsibility by saying that the responsibility to pass judgement on the petitions for registration lies with the boards in the ridings, without entertaining the possibility that the boards in the ridings might collectively be engaged in actions that, when taken together, amount to voter suppression. A conspiracy to suppress the vote does not have to come from the top – indeed, it didn’t in the Southern United States. Corruption does not have to begin at the trunk and spread to the branches – the blight can begin at the extremities too.

The voter suppression in Quebec largely seems to hinge on the concept of ‘domicile’. This concept, which is outlined on the Elections Quebec website, seeks to ensure that only those who have their civil life within the province are able to participate in the election. While I have a problem with any restrictions beyond a residency requirement, the way the concept is defined, and the way it can be applied, can be incredibly dangerous. The concept is subjective – the idea that your civil life could be somewhere other than where you live is dubious at best – and if the Board of Revisors deems you to not be domiciled in Quebec, you have no recourse, no avenue for appeal. This is analogous to the literacy tests used in the South to disenfranchise black voters.

This parallel becomes all the more striking when you examine the capricious way in which the regulation is being applied. In an anonymous recording of an interaction with Quebec poll staff, one man who was trying to register to vote was denied because the elections staffer told him that if he had any doubt that the applicant was domiciled in Quebec, he did not have to register the applicant, without suggesting what additional documentation might be provided to prove his domicile. In a document issued by Elections Quebec, the subjective nature of domicile is clear. The document states “The more proof is provided, the clearer the person’s intention to establish domicile becomes.” There is no absolute way to establish domicile – no definite document that will concretely prove that a person is domiciled in Quebec, rather than merely residing there.

This is all in spite of the Quebec Civil Code itself, which states that “A person whose domicile cannot be determined with certainty is deemed to be domiciled at the place of his residence.” While this would suggest that the burden of proof would rest with the Board of Revisors to prove that the individual does not domicile where they live, the aforementioned document from Elections Quebec states that “It is up to the elector to prove change in domicile”, before going on to say that the board may deny to enter a person on the voter rolls if they do not fulfill whatever requirements the board feels like setting for them.

This situation is all the more infuriating because Elections Quebec seems to shrug off the actions of its agents as individuals each acting within their purview, without acknowledging that the sum total of these actions amounts to widespread voter suppression. It’s ironic that an organization charged with the administration of a process (voting) that only works by the cumulative individual actions of many disparate persons denies that the cumulative individual actions of Boards of Revisors in the ridings are adding up to a systematic disenfranchisement of voters to the distinct political advantage of the government.

To deny that there is a political motivation for the voter suppression is either incredibly naïve or disingenuous. These actions are being made to the clear benefit of the governing party. The Parti Quebecois made (anonymously) allegations that students from the rest of Canada were stealing the vote. They brazenly stated that there was a surge in Anglophone and allophone voter registration in certain ridings (as if this was some kind of problem in the first place), despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – indeed, in some of these ridings, the voter registration numbers are lower than they had been in 2012. The action was a cynical political ploy to stir up xenophobic fears while simultaneously affecting the disenfranchisement of a segment of the population unlikely to support the PQ.

Maddeningly, none of the articles that form the litany of voter suppression suggest there is any recourse. I would imagine that this could be resolved through the courts, but expect that the time remaining before election day and the legal costs involved would put this beyond the reach of many of the disenfranchised.

This absurd situation is undemocratic. It is unbecoming of Quebec and of Canada. It is an affront to our shared civil rights, and is a relic of history that should have stayed in the past.

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For the last midterm elections, I had the very good fortune of being in Washington DC, for the Rally to Restore Sanity. After looking at the American thoughtscape over the intervening years, I can pretty decisively say that the Rally’s objective has not been realized, and sanity is all too rare a commodity in America. We now approach another midterm election, with the projected results looking rather bleak for Democrats.

In one of his first looks at the Senate races ahead, Nate Silver says that there is a reasonable chance that the Republicans could pick up six seats (plus or minus five), and the Democrats have reacted by simultaneously disagreeing with their chances, and asking people to donate in part because of the analysis as posted. As such, Nate Silver is shocked, SHOCKED, that there is hypocrisy in politics.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com says that it’s hypocritical to criticize his analysis that says that the Dems may lose control of the Senate, while asking people to donate because of what the analysis shows right now. I don’t really begrudge the DSCC that they are raising money off of the statistical analysis and simultaneously raising money off of it. Showing someone some numbers and asking for money is not a complete endorsement of those numbers – indeed, the Dems are right in saying that 538 got several Senatorial calls wrong last election, most notably Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).

Neither is Mr Silver’s analysis an end all and be all of the election – there is still a campaign to run, remember. They have candidates to recruit, they have money to raise, and there still have yet to dig through everything the Republican candidates have ever said (or wait for them to say something) that may swing the vote. The statistical analysis is based on the best information available at the time, with models that build in historical trends, but does not anticipate such things as the “legitimate rape” comments of the last cycle.

As a Canadian, I’ve watched the polls in the last several of our elections, and I have been flabbergasted as to the ability of polling numbers to move by staggering proportions during the active campaign period. In British Columbia, Liberals came back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win a majority. In Alberta, the Wildrose rose and fell in spectacular fashion. Federally, the province of Quebec underwent an orange-flavoured sea-change within the course of a week. And in Quebec, (my now growing skepticism of polling in Canada notwithstanding) the Liberals appear to have made massive strides towards a majority government against their separatist opponents. In Canada, this short, active campaign is clearly delineated by the writ period. In America the period is somewhat more nebulous, but the fall campaigning season, after Labour Day, is a reasonable analogue. Within it, large and somewhat unexpected shifts can happen.

It makes the fundraising appeals by the Democratic Party all the more essential, and understandable. A week is an eternity in politics. There are a number of eternities to go until November.

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