Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Voting Systems – be careful what you wish for

March 25, 2017

There are numerous voting systems, none without bias. It is just that the bias favours different groups and so explains who supporters and opponents are. The recent Dutch national election reveals how proportional representation (PR) can work, and the implications if Canada chose a similar system. At present, the federal government has decided not to make changes. While criticized for reneging on an election promise, the government should be congratulated for retaining the status quo.

The Dutch example

The Netherlands adopted PR for its recent election. It works as follows. The country is treated as one constituency with 100 members elected according to the number of votes received by a party. There were 28 parties on the ballot and members elected for thirteen of them. It will take a coalition of four or five parties to achieve a majority for legislation to be passed.

A Dutch voter has no member representing her or his district if the voter has an issue to discuss. Maybe this works with a population of 17 million in a relatively small homogeneous land area, but I doubt whether it would in the widely distributed and varied Canadian situation. A voter in Newfoundland, Quebec and BC for instance would each want to be able to contact someone familiar with conditions in their location. This is one reason why a constituency system is more suited to Canada. There are others. It is possible to have a mixed system with some members elected in constituencies, and some chosen from a list of candidates proposed by parties. How the latter are chosen to be party representatives raises all sorts of issues.

In Canada it is sometimes thought that only the existing parties would run candidates if PR was adopted. This is unlikely as the case of the 28 parties on the Dutch ballot reveals. Under PR, The NDP and the Greens would have collected more seats, and the Liberals fewer seats in the 2015 Federal election, but only assuming that no other parties had formed and were on the ballot, an unlikely event.

With the existing first past the post Canadian system, you can end up with members elected with less than 50 percent of the constituency vote, but it seems to have worked out pretty well over the years not only here but in the UK and a number of other countries, …….and in contrast to the system south of the border where creation of an electoral college to elect a president and gerrymandering of Congressional districts have subverted representation.

When Provinces have held referenda on changing the Canadian voting system, there has been no strong support for change. Maybe the voters are smarter than those supporting change. To repeat, there is no unbiased voting system. Each favours some groups at the expense of others both in electing members and in the passage of legislation. A main check of the existing system is elections required at certain dates or with the defeat of the government.

A Real Global Problem

March 7, 2017

The Environment

There is a problem with the environment which does not depend on conflicting opinions based on computer driven models as is the case with global warming. It is air pollution, clean air or whatever you call the ghostly daytime scenes in cities like Beijing, Delhi and now London.

The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people died from air pollution in 2012 which was about one in eight of all deaths in the world that year. It confirms that air pollution is the world’s largest environmental health risk. Most of the deaths are due to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

London’s air pollution today is similar to that of the 1950s which was due to coal burning power stations and coal used to heat homes. Today a main reason is the use of wood burning stoves for heating. The pollution is visible and a health hazard.

Environment Canada publishes an Air Quality Health Index and on most days there are no problems similar to those found in the cities of some other countries. As a global issue it is large and visible where it occurs.

 

What does populism mean?

February 22, 2017

Populism is a loosely defined term which seems to refer to actions taken by any group within a society which is fed up with conditions affecting them, low wages, unemployment, refugees, immigration and so on.

It is used to describe the reasons for Brexit in the UK, terrorism/racism/immigrants and unequal income distribution in the US, and refugees and related conditions in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Italy and even Germany.

In Canada, according to Wikipedia, populist movements describe the Social Credit and the Reform Party in Alberta, Creditistes, the Union Nationale and PQ in Quebec, the federal Liberal party under Prime Ministers Mackenzie and Laurier, labour parties leading up to the CCF and NDP, and support for various premiers of Ontario.

This seems to be rather all inclusive referring to any time when a group in society becomes activated and organizes politically. It merely describes contemporary political conditions. A recent case of populism today would be Ford Nation in Toronto, where one segment of the city feel that they are taxed for the benefit of another. The Ford brothers used this to their political advantage.

It does not seem to be a useful term unless the reasons for it are given.

Cultural Appropriation

February 15, 2017

The Shattered Mirror

February 8, 2017

 

 

The Shattered Mirror – News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age proposes increased bureaucratic input and public funding for a sector rocked by new technology.

What Uber has done to the taxi business and Airbnb to accommodation, has invaded all forms of media including news reporting and distribution. Daily newspapers are haemorrhaging advertising revenues and many have been forced out of business, or to adopt different means of distribution. Many other sectors are affected by technology such as education with the offerings of online courses. Existing suppliers fight back to maintain at least some semblance of the status quo, often lobbying governments for increased support. Ultimately new technology usually wins and a new breed of entrepreneurs rise to fill any gaps to provide the desired goods and services.

The process is part of Schumpeter’s stages of creative destruction which benefits consumers, and those producers who adapt. Those who lose appeal to the government for support. Such is the case for The Canadian Public Policy Forum’s latest report The Shattered Mirror, News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age which examines how technology has affected traditional news media. It argues that the public is poorly served by the new digital news providers and that democracy is at risk with, for example, the reporting of fake news.

Since the 1950’s numerous reports have examined the Canadian media including news. They include:

1951 Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts Letters and Sciences (Massey Report).

1961 Royal Commission on Publication (O’Leary Report)

1970 Special Senate Committee Report on the Mass Media, (Davey Report)

1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers (Kent Report)

1982 Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (Applebaum Hebert Report)

2006 Senate Report on the Canadian News Media (40 recommendations and 10 suggestions).

 

All recommended measures of protection and support to which The Shattered Mirror adds its contribution. Written by a person who has had a distinguished career in journalism, this almost assures that the recommendations will include further government support for the industry. It succeeds in this regard. It would be the same if dairy farmers were asked for advice on supply management or academics on university funding.

The report contains thirteen proposals. Many require additional administration of funds and rules which in total would require both added bureaucratic overhead and time spent by firms to qualify for the funding.

Two proposals provide the tenor of the report and the tortuous process that would be required to comply with the provisions.

  1. In the proposal to extend provisions of Section 19 of the income tax act to other media. Producers of eligible news will be required to show that: (Recommendation No.1).

At least 75 percent of editorial payroll and 75 percent of their eight most highly paid employees are Canadian individuals or personal-service companies.

At least five percent of the company’s revenue generated in Canada is spent on editorial operations, with a significant amount for civic-function journalism.

 

  1. Creation of a fund managed independently from the government (Recommendation No.5).

Creation of the Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund would provide financing for digital innovation, especially in its early stages, and be directed at those operators who produce civic-function journalism at the national, regional and local levels. To qualify, enterprises would have to be Section 19-compliant and deliver original news on digital platforms that are refreshed at least once a week. The fund would cover a maximum of 75 percent of the cost of a project. The ability of applicants to attract support from other partners would factor into the grant decision.

 

Proposals regarding the CBC fail to note shrinking audiences especially for English language television. CRTC Annual Monitoring Reports (available online) show the CBC’s share of the English language television market fell from 13.2 percent in 1994 to 7.5 percent in 2000 and to 5.1 percent in 2012. While government financing has remained around $1bn, this segment of its mandate has been shrinking, so that on a per viewer basis the funding has been increasing.

If the CBC is to survive, consideration should be given to it being funded only by government and not selling commercials. The latter puts it in competition with private broadcasters, allowing it to use public funds to buy programs like major sporting events. In the UK and Australia, the public broadcaster is funded almost entirely by government, with far less angst being created between public and private broadcasters. A government owned broadcaster, if one is needed, can devote its attention to its public service mandate and have a far lesser concern for audience size.

 

The Shattered Mirror focuses on the importance of civic-function journalism defined as the coverage of elected officials and public institutions, from legislatures, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies and city halls to school boards and supporting public services. That is important, but in a globalized world coverage of what happens outside Canada is increasingly important. Much of this can be accessed online from websites and blogs run by people whose judgement I personally respect in different news related fields, and superior to many traditional news sources. In broadcast media, my preference is for The Agenda on TVO and the PBS Newshour. In both instances the anchors are informed but do not insert their own opinions, unlike what prevails with the CBC and CTV.

There is much more to comment on in the report. As it stands it argues the case for supporting more of the same with increased bureaucratic input. It deserves further discussion.

Cultural Diversity

January 28, 2017

Does protection promote cultural diversity?

In 1997, I was invited to be a member of the Cultural SAGIT (Sectoral Advisory Group for International Trade for the Canadian government). Mostly the members were drawn from the different cultural sectors such as print, audio-visual and live performing arts. Lawyers advising these groups were members as well those representing industry and employee organizations. Each represented a lobby group and did so forcefully. In addition bureaucrats, mainly from Heritage Canada, were in attendance to record the views of the members.

As the lone academic unassociated with any cultural sector, unless you count education, but with an interest in public policy, I found the expressed viewpoints interesting, but almost unanimously concerned with either continuing or increasing financial support and protection for the cultural industries. Subsidies and protection should be maintained or increased was the general tone of the discussion. In international fora France and Canada were strong supporters for continued protection while the US opposed it. I questioned the protectionist viewpoint.

All this took place while two events were occurring. One was a series of trade negotiations where cultural protectionist policies were being challenged by some countries, especially the US, as in the case of subsidies and content policies for the audiovisual sector, especially for film and TV.

The second was the influence of technology on both the production and distribution of cultural content. Audiences for over-the-air programs distributed by established public and private radio and TV networks were declining as new online delivery services were being created. The latter expanded viewer choice, and with the internet allowed audiences to select content from all over the world. At the same time print newspaper distribution and associated advertising were declining and have continued to do so.

In the case of public broadcasting, for example, while financial support was maintained audiences were shrinking. Thus on a per viewer basis the subsidy was actually increasing. For example the federal government has maintained its subsidy to the public broadcaster at around a billion dollars per annum while with declining audiences, especially for English language television, it means that on a per viewer basis the subsidy has increased. It costs more to service Canadian TV audiences. Meanwhile those in favour of public broadcasting still argue for either maintaining or increasing the subsidy. CRTC Annual Monitoring Reports (available online) show the CBC’s share of the English language television market fell from 13.2 percent in 1994 to 7.5 percent in 2000 and to 5.1 percent in 2012.

Technological change has also affected the print media with a sharp decline in the distribution of hard copies of books, newspapers and magazines and the ability of consumers to obtain content from an expanding array of online content providers from around the world.

Within the past two decades, the developments have been so major that the ability to protect the cultural industries in the traditional ways – a combination of public ownership, restrictions on foreign ownership, Canadian content requirements and subsidies to Canadian producers – has lessened. Protectionist policies no longer work. Technology has undermined them.

The Cultural SAGIT members were presented with these changes, which became more pronounced with time, but chose to ignore their impact arguing that it would, or might, be possible to perpetuate the protectionist policies by negotiating in UNESCO an International Agreement on Cultural Diversity. This came about in 2005 with the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

How the Convention has worked out will be the subject of a future posting. Much is posted on the UNESCO website, but often outsiders are unable to open certain pages related to this Convention.

The Promise of Canada by Charlotte Gray – A review

November 7, 2016

I would strongly recommend this book to all diplomats posted to Canada, as well as to all Canadians posted abroad who need to understand the history of their country. In fact, the same is true for all Canadians who, if like me, may think they know how Canada evolved but would be pushed to identify all the relevant factors. Charlotte Gray has done this in a brilliantly researched and written way.

I came to Canada from the UK over sixty years ago and have lived here ever since, except for a period of study at the London School of Economics. Two years after arrival I became a landed immigrant and after a further thirteen a citizen. My children and grandchildren are all Canadian by birth.

Charlotte Gray arrived in 1979 and has become a superb chronicler of the evolution of Canada over the past two centuries. In my time here, I have not fully appreciated what was going on around me, but now I do, as she has skillfully authored an account of the country’s evolution from the time of politician Sir George-Etienne Cartier (1814-1873) to rapper Shad (1982- who is new to me).

It requires an enormous amount of skilled research (using both secondary sources and interviews) to develop these materials, and still more to integrate them into an intelligent portrait of a country which has grown in both size and numerous other ways.

Canadian literary blue-bloods have rightly given the book outstanding reviews. Rather than add to these, I will try to outline several things I have learned or have come to appreciate about Canada.

  1. One starting point to understanding Canada is geography, both its relation to other parts of the world, and what goes on inside. As for the latter, there are very few people in Canada in terms of population density or persons per square km. In 1961, the figure was 2/sq km and in 2015 4/sq km. Comparable figures for other countries are Russia 7 and 9; US 20 and 35; China 70 and 146; Singapore 2541 and 7829. Canada is largely empty.
  2. By far the majority of Canadians live in urban areas,18 million (about 60 %) in the ten largest metropolitan areas as of 2011. A light map of the country shows most of these people living close to the US border, while large swathes of the country are drenched in darkness.
  3. The rural population expects preferred treatment and often has difficulty in making its voice heard. The continuation of such measures as supply management for dairy products shows that in some instances this occurs.
  4. The diverse regions in which Canadians live include the Maritimes, Central Canada, the Prairies, British Columbia and the North. The economic, cultural and social character of each has meant that it is often difficult to get agreement on things that affect the whole country, and explains why parts, especially French Canada, from time to time toy with separation. Holding the parts together is a continuing challenge for federal politicians.
  5. All Canadians are immigrants who have arrived at different times. The original settlers came out of Africa about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, travelling up to and through today’s Russia, across the land bridge to Alaska and down into North and South America. Later settlers, the ones most often covered in history books, came from Europe, especially the French, English, Dutch and Spanish. The arrival of each changes the lives of those already there, and does so for migrants arriving today.

It is how Canada has and continues to respond to these geographic and demographic factors which has influenced how the country has and may evolve in the future. Charlotte Gray’s detailed portraits of nine Canadians from different walks of life, politician, policeman, artist, academic, lawyer, and vignettes of five others (journalist, business, mayor, rapper and pop artist) provides the reader with an outstanding introduction to understanding Canada today and how we got here from there.

What future for news?

October 2, 2016

My gold standard for news reporting use to be the BBC. While still highly rated, PBS Newshour for news and Charlie Rose for interviews now top my list. In Canada, I tune into Steve Paquin and The Agenda on TVO for interview programs. The CBC and CTV are not priorities for me. Although both have some excellent individual reporters, the news programs have political slants. What the Newshour team, Rose and Paquin have is a thorough knowledge of the issues, a willingness to present opposing viewpoints, and to suppress their own opinions on the issues under discussion.

 

Their competitors in the print but especially radio, TV and online media focus, for commercial reasons, on making the news entertaining in order to attract audiences. It’s understandable, but it comes at a price for the quality and authenticity of the news content. Fox News in the US and Sun Media in Canada are illustrative of the adulteration of news and informed views on particular issues.

 

The internet is another means of delivering news content. There are now umpteen web sites offering both general and specialized news stories and opinions, so that audiences have an overwhelming number of options including Tweets and Facebook. These range in quality from good to mediocre to awful, with an increasing number in the last category. So how does the reader/listener/viewer choose? Consider the situation.

 

An audience member works with one ironclad constraint…. there are 24 hours in the day, and only a fraction of these will be allocated to consuming news along with sports, recipes, videos and competing items of possible interest contained in various media. When someone suggests downloading another App, my reaction is why? It may be useful, such as say Uber, but it is likely to divert me from other priorities that I have, and which have to be fitted into the 24 hours. Each has to make their content decisions.

 

What role does the government have in providing news? Each year the federal government allocates about $1bn to CBC/Radio Canada some of which is used for collecting and distributing news and news-type programming in both official languages for radio and television. The public broadcaster also sells advertising which puts it in competition with commercial broadcasters, a continuing cause of tensions. Note, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation use a different funding model.

 

The circumstances which gave rise to public broadcasting no longer exist, so that the Canadian federal and provincial governments will have to decide its future. There is no shortage of news sources for Canadians and in my view no need for public support. The audience share of CBC English and French language television programming has been declining, so that unless it is servicing some essential (in someone’s view) market niche, the funds could be better spent elsewhere. What Uber has done to taxi services, the internet has done to distributing many types of media content.

Clumping Along

September 16, 2016

Sixty days to the US presidential election presents a period of uncertainty. Whichever candidate wins, the issues that propel this election will remain. Countries including Canada are far from immune from the outcome and may well be sideswiped by what follows.

My observations at this point are:

1. The US has a first class economy and a third class political system. A danger is that the latter will undermine the former. Respect for the economy is shown by the fact that many if not most people want to hold US dollars, visit the US whether to work there as legal or illegal migrants, do business and study there. It has some of the best universities in the world.

2. The political system was designed to be first class and to address the weaknesses of the Westminster system that prevailed at the time of independence when George III reigned. It has become sclerotic as voters and politicians have learned how to play the electoral process and the steps needed to pass and implement legislation. Elizabeth Drew describes this well in The New York Review of Books August 16, 2016, “American Democracy Betrayed”. I recommend that it be read.

3. Clinton and Trump or Clump, the two candidates reflect different aspects of this political train wreck. Clinton is viewed as having been for the past quarter century an insider and part of the forces that shaped the malfunctioning politics. Trump is seen as a political outsider without the Clintonesque scars, but someone who benefited from the gravy that the political system produced and still produces for some. Thus there are many voters who don’t want to support either candidate and may turn to the two third party candidates.

4. While the winning count of 270 electoral college votes seems to favour Clinton at this stage sixty days out, the voters could upset these predictions. They did that when it came to the Republicans choosing their candidate Trump, out of seventeen contenders.

5. After election day the issues that gave voters the Clump choice will remain, and until a way is found to revise the underlying conditions the US political system is likely to stay either broken or severely damaged.

6. Many Canadians seem to think they are separate and isolated from Clump on one side and Brexit in Europe. I doubt this is the case. How this will all work out is a mystery to me.

The Idea of Canada – a review

June 21, 2016

David Johnston, The Idea of Canada, Letters to a Nation (Penguin 2016).

A challenging topic is addressed in an interesting and highly readable style. The contents certainly justify the title, which should be required reading for all foreign diplomats posted to Canada, and probably all Canadian officials posted abroad. Although not written as a history of Canada, it is one, with morsels of the historical record in each chapter. Each is written as a letter to some Canadian or foreigner past or present who has excelled in some manner. Many could be expanded into a chapter for understanding some aspect of Canada.
The Idea of Canada could also be used in school and university classrooms for the presentation and discussion of Canadian history, a subject woefully under-taught at the moment, judging by what students today seem to know about their country. It would also require that teachers having a better knowledge of Canada, which I fear may often also be missing. My understanding of the country is vastly improved by this book. Especially how the parts fit together and how values have emerged.

The author’s hero is Samuel de Champlain (1574 – 1636), one of whose skills was to learn about coping with all aspects of the environment, from those already living in what was to become Canada. (Note, these natives were themselves immigrants from earlier years as humans moved out of the African continent. All Canadians are immigrants of some generation. I am one from 1956). As an individual, Champlain achieved on land and sea with the limited technology available, at least by today’s standards, what NASA is achieving in exploring space supported by vast amounts of public funding.

Foremost in David Johnston’s life is his family, especially six womenfolk and twelve grandchildren, who continue to educate him. Through their lives and work they provide linkages to various aspects of Canada, especially those related to current conditions.

In the letters the author has written to a wide variety of persons, the combination of people, places, values, and events become both summarized  and intertwined, providing material for understanding Canada’s history. Few are able to take these pieces and fit them together so that the jigsaw becomes a comprehensible picture of a society, and what can be viewed as a nation. The author has done this.

The sections of the book are entitled What Shapes Me, What Consumes Me, and What Inspires Me. Summarized in each section are topics such as education, caring, innovation, philanthropy, volunteerism, and support for families and children. Many of these are in letters written to Canadians who have won awards in one of these areas.

Readers will have their own “aha” moments. One of mine was p.179  “…I’m a regular churchgoer, I tend not to get caught up in the doctrinal aspects of religion. To me church is a way to connect with friends and neighbours to get a sense of the views of others…..” (Though both my grandparents were vicars, I am not a regular churchgoer, but I understand how the various aspects of religion may satisfy individuals and contribute to societal wellbeing, as does club membership).

It would be easy to extend this review, but I recommend that readers read the book themselves, find out what interests them, and use it for discussion purposes. Each chapter is short, well written, understandable and thought provoking….easy to pick up and put down.