Archive for January, 2009

NDP goes for the throat

Only days ago, Jack Layton’s NDP remained in a technical coalition with Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals in Canada. Yet after the coalition was dissolved by Ignatieff supporting the Conservative budget, Layton has lashed out at the Liberals in a new round of radio ads:

“Some things just don’t change,” intones a woman in one ad.

“Another Conservative budget rubber stamped by another Liberal leader. It’s official: Michael Ignatieff failed his first big test as Liberal leader. He’s thrown his lot in with Stephen Harper.”

The ad portrays NDP Leader Jack Layton as the only political leader who can be trusted to look out for average families.

“Jack Layton’s the only leader strong enough to stand up to Harper.”

It’s not that surprising. Clearly the NDP were preparing for Ignatieff to dissolve the coalition which he had never had much love for, and the NDP’s long-term enemy, despite its rhetoric against Stephen Harper, is the Liberals. The NDP aims to supplant the Liberals as the main centre-left party in Canadian politics, and is aiming to tar Ignatieff with the same “weak-leader” brush as Stephane Dion.

In other news, this week’s budget also shows a shift for Harper’s Conservatives away from wooing Quebec voters. After their 2008 election strategy of winning seats in Quebec failed, and the role of the BQ in the stillborn coalition drove a wedge between the Conservatives and swinging Quebec voters, Stephen Harper has shifted his focus.

The problem for the Conservatives is that there don’t seem to be enough seats for them to win to form a majority. They already hold a vast majority in the Prairies states and a large majority in British Columbia. Outside of Toronto, they dominate Ontario, and hold a decent number of seats in the three Maritime provinces. With this impressive result, they only won 143 seats, twelve short of a majority of 155. So where can they win the remaining twelve?

There are only three options: Toronto, Quebec, and Newfoundland. While the Conservatives have room to grow in Newfoundland, the province is too small to have a significant impact. At the 2008 election, the Conservatives made a large push to win seats in the more conservative Quebec seats held by the left-leaning Bloc Quebecois. However, they failed dismally, remaining stuck on 10 Quebec seats. Since then Harper’s relationship with the second-largest province has fallen apart, with much of his ire at the possible coalition being directed at the legitimacy of the Bloc to engage in national politics.

This all comes back to the budget, where it appears that Harper has chosen to strip money out of the two provinces who have bucked the Conservative-voting trend, with the budget being opposed in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador for alleged cuts to funding to those provinces. In contrast, Harper is aiming at the so-called “905″ region around Toronto, named for the telephone area code for the outer suburbs of Toronto. The Toronto metropolitan area, despite the decline of the Liberals, remains almost totally represented by Liberals. There is a 35-seat block which jumps out at you when you look at the electoral map of southern Ontario. Within this block, only two NDP seats and one Conservative seat buck the trend. If only 12 of these 32 Liberal MPs can be toppled, Stephen Harper is on track for that long-sought-after majority.

In other news: The Globe and Mail today includes an interesting email discussion between a Liberal member and NDP member, dissecting the late lamented coalition.

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Canada on the brink

So Canada’s conservative government has brought down a budget, eight weeks after Parliament was prorogued to prevent a new Liberal-NDP coalition government being formed.

The NDP and the Bloc have clearly stated that they will vote against the budget, and have been joined by the Newfoundland premier Danny Williams, who actively campaigned against Harper at the 2008 election. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, is yet to announce whether his party will support the budget, and will make an announcement at about 3am AEDT. If the Liberals decide to vote against the budget, Harper will attempt to call an early election, with the alternative being a new Liberal minority government or Liberal-NDP coalition government.

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Iceland goes to the polls

The voters go to the polls in Iceland on 9 May to elect a new Parliament. The current government fell in the last few days as Iceland is buffetted by the winds of the economic crisis. The last election, in 2007, saw the centre-right government of the right-wing Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party lose ground. A new coalition government was formed with the centre-left Social Democratic Alliance.

For more on the upcoming election, our special Iceland correspondent Oz has more in comments:

The government of Iceland has resigned and the PM has asked the President to call a snap election. Talks are currently underway regarding the election date but the most likely appears to be some time in early May. The catalyst for the resignation of the government was the financial crisis, which has hit Iceland very hard and shredded their economy, predicted to shrink by up to 10% this year.

Now you’d expect the opposition party to capitalise on the current woes and strong anti-government sentiments, which have led to violent protests, but the irony is that Iceland’s two major political parties are in a grand coalition together, after the centre-right Independence Party’s (who achieved a plurality of votes) traditional partner, the Progressive Party got hammered. Due to the PR system, a coalition was inevitable and the conservatives chose to side with the main left bloc, the Social Democratic Alliance, rather then the radical Left-Green Movement.

The Left-Green Movement, as the third largest bloc in parliament, is the de facto opposition and has been gaining popularity at the expense of the major parties and by feeding on strong anti-market sentiments in Iceland.

A poll out last weekend put the Independence Party at 22%, down from 36.6% at the last election. The SDA were at 19%, down from 26.8% and the Left-Green Movement polled an incredible 32.6% up from 14% at the last election, making it potentially the biggest party in parliament.

The Left-Green’s were created when Iceland’s left-wing political parties got together in the later 90’s to create the SDA, which was viewed by some leftists as too conservative.

It’s policy platform is a mixture of traditional European socialism and Green values like environmentalism, grass roots democracy, non-violence and social justice.

So to explain my excitement – In a few months we may see the first environmentalist party forming government as a majority coalition partner anywhere in the world.

A few clarifications: the Icelandic Left-Green Movement isn’t affiliated with either the Global Greens or the European Green Party (which cover most parties using the name “Green”). The movement is rather aligned with the Nordic Green Left, who are considered to be more socialist in origin. It’s a bit like how Socialist Alliance calls its newspaper “Green Left Weekly”. There is another Icelandic environmentalist party which polled 3% in 2007.

Essential’s “Best PM” poll

Essential Research has produced a fascinating poll, asking voters who they thought was Australia’s best post-WWII Prime Minister. The poll put the 21st century Prime Ministers well ahead of their predecessors, with 28% saying John Howard and 20% saying Kevin Rudd, followed by Bob Hawke on 12% and Robert Menzies on 11%.

Of course, it’s complete rubbish. For a start, John Howard comes out on top, although 55% voted for a Labor PM. If you used preferences, likely Rudd would come out on top. The difference was that Whitlam, Hawke and Keating all got substantial support, whereas there was practically no support for Holt, Gorton, McMahon or Fraser, so more of the Liberal vote was concentrated with Menzies and Howard.

Read the rest of this entry »

2009 election preview: British Columbia

The Canadian province of British Columbia will go to the polls on May 12, 2009, to elect 85 members of the Legislative Assembly, and vote on a referendum to change the electoral system used in future provincial elections.

British Columbian politics is particularly unusual in Canada. The two major parties are the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, but they fill very different roles in the provincial political environment. The Liberal Party is the centre-right party, and has no affiliation to the federal party. Many BC Liberals are aligned with the Conservative Party of Canada. The NDP fills a more centrist role than in federal politics.

The Liberals, under Premier Gordon Campbell, have governed BC since the 2001 election, when the ruling NDP lost all but two of their seats, with the Liberals winning 77 of 79 seats. This was the culmination of half a century of volatile provincial politics.

BC’s peculiar political system dates back to the 1940s, when the major Liberal and Conservative parties formed a coalition to prevent the left-wing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor to the NDP, from gaining power. The 1952 election saw the coalition split and saw the fringe Social Credit League form a minority government. The CCF was in opposition with the Liberals and the Conservatives reduced to the crossbenches. Social Credit was founded to pursue the policies of social credit parties, who remained a fringe movement in most of the English-speaking world.

The party quickly broadened into a centre-right conservative party, with the CCF, then the NDP, becoming the main centre-left party, and the Liberals and Conservatives almost entirely disappearing from BC politics. This state of affairs continuing for the next thirty-nine years, with the exception of three years of NDP government in the 1970s. In 1991, the Social Credit party was decimated, not only losing the election to the NDP, but being pushed into third place behind the resurgent Liberals. The Socreds disappeared at the 1996 election, and the Liberals defeated the NDP in the 2001 election. 2005 saw a resurgent NDP gain ground but fail to unseat Campbell. The province has one of the strongest provincial Green parties, with the Greens peaking at 12% at the 2001 election, although they went back slightly in 2005.

The huge margin of victory in 2001 was followed by the Liberals carrying out a promise to create a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The body was made up of randomly selected citizens selected from all provincial ridings. After a period of examination of the various options available, the Assembly approved a variant of the Single Transferable Vote system used in Ireland and Tasmania (known in Australia as Hare-Clark). The proposal was taken to the 2005 provincial election as a referendum, and managed to gain 57% support, as well as majority support in all but two ridings. However the legislation required the referendum to win 60% support, and thus it was defeated. Gordon Campbell’s government has pushed ahead with their plans to introduce BC-STV, and will introduce another referendum alongside the election in 2009, again with a 60% threshold imposed.

British Columbia will also be voting using new electoral boundaries in 2009, and as part of the boundary review process the Commission proposed a set of boundaries to be used in an STV election. These boundaries combine single-member ridings together. For example, five ridings in eastern Vancouver will be combined to make Vancouver East riding, which will elect 5 MLAs as a group. I have converted these files to Google Earth and uploaded them to my maps page. However, I haven’t been able to find any calculations of the notional margins on new boundaries. I would appreciate it if anyone has information on that front.

The prospect of British Columbia adopting the Hare-Clark system is exciting for anyone interested in electoral reform. A successful implementation of BC-STV would not only influence fellow Canadian provinces, and the Canadian federal system, which also suffer from similar problems, it could also see an impact on the neighbouring US west coast, where relatively progressive regimes in California, Oregon and Washington have been the most eager to experiment with new electoral systems. The province of Ontario has already adopted BC’s Citizens’ Assembly model, with an Assembly proposing an MMP system similar to New Zealand, which was soundly defeated at a referendum in 2007. While this failed, victory in BC in 2009 would be a big step towards the end of First Past the Post elections.

Aging in office: inauguration edition

As a special pre-inauguration treat, for all of you staying up through the night, check out AOL’s slide show of “before and after” photos of US presidents at the beginning and end of their terms. In particular, check out Nixon, Reagan and Johnson.

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Ecuador goes to the polls

After my series of election previews, I’m not gonna add another one to the pile (although my British Columbia post should come out tomorrow). But at Not a Hedgehog, you can read the second post in a series examining the upcoming election in Ecuador in April. Enjoy.

Transition blues

I’m reading Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, which goes into the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1933. Alter in particular looks at the interregnum between the November election and the inauguration on March 5, the same date as every president was sworn in from 1789 to 1933.

Waiting four months to change administrations after a national election was a leftover from an earlier era, when it took months to communicate election results and make plans for a new administration, but as communications improved, and the need for a long interregnum declined, it became more and more of a problem, as lame duck presidents struggled to continue to serve while the new president-elect slowly took over the levers of power.

This particularly became a crisis following the 1932 election, as the economic crisis continued to worsen, yet disagreements between Hoover and Roosevelt crippled the ability of the government to do anything. It was worsened due to the spilling over of the Hoover-Roosevelt contest in the 1932 election. Despite losing decisively, Hoover was still determined to defeat Roosevelt by humiliating him and managing to tar him with his poor reputation while using Roosevelt’s electoral victory as a shield to achieve bipartisan policies. While the crisis is much worse than the current economic crisis, there are a lot of parallels with the current interregnum. Imagine how much worse it would be if the transition were to continue for two more months. Alter makes it clear, however, that unlike Obama, there were low expectations of FDR’s ability and plans.

The 1932 election was the last to be followed by a March 5 inauguration. A constitutional amendment passed in 1932 was ratified in the next term and implemented in time for the 1936 election, and FDR’s second inauguration was the first to be held on January 20.

Communications have advanced much further since 1932, and the day-to-day responsibilities of the presidency have increased, which must make us consider whether it is really necessary to delay the swearing in of a new president until January 20. After all, Westminster democracies like Australia and the UK tend to have a new government in place within a week of an election result becoming clear.

Of course, there are barriers in the US system to speeding up a peaceful transition of power to allow for an inauguration in, say, mid-December. The biggest problem is the US system of electoral regulation, which gives responsibility to local levels of government and gives lots of room for litigation and recounting. A simpler system of uniform elections conducted by a federal electoral commission exclusively would leave much less room for litigation and a speedier election resolution. For example, the Bush v Gore decision was handed down on December 12, 2000, which would have given Bush practically no time to construct an administration if the inauguration was speeded up. On the other hand, an election such as this is a rare occurrence, and it doesn’t seem necessary to postpone the inauguration in a clearcut case like 2008 because of the rare ultra-close election.

The US federal government also has a very different nature of bureaucracy from the traditional concept of the independent professional civil service in the Westminster system of government. Many more positions in much deeper positions within the federal bureaucracy are considered partisan positions, which would depend on the outcome of the election. Rather than simply appointing a few dozen ministers and parliamentary secretary, the incoming Obama administration is in the process of appointing thousands of Democrats to positions like Assistant Secretary roles and the US Attorneys, who are all members of the President’s party.

In addition, the system of parliamentary democracy has evolved the effective mechanism of the shadow cabinet, meaning that less time is needed to allocate portfolios to members of the cabinet. Obama had a much wider field of potential cabinet secretaries than Prime Minister Rudd had, and he did not have experience with these people in the way that Rudd had with his then-shadow ministers.

While these are all issues, it seems entirely possible that, in this modern age of communication, with improved streamlining of electoral processes and good internal planning, the period between election and inauguration could be dramatically shortened.

Hopefully, if I can be awake, I’ll be liveblogging the Inauguration ceremony. It will begin at 11:30am EST, which is 3:30am Wednesday AEST. President-elect Obama will be sworn in at 4am Wednesday AEST, which will be followed by his inaugural address and a parade through Washington, D.C.

Nationals experiment with open primaries

Via Pollbludger, a fascinating story in the Australian the other day has revealed plans by the NSW Nationals to trial using open primaries to preselect a candidate in a winnable seat for the 2011 NSW state election. All voters in the electorate would be eligible to cast a vote in the ballot to decide the party’s candidate.

It appears that the plan is to use the system in one of a number of traditional Nationals seats held by a rural independent, such as Dubbo, Port Macquarie or Tamworth. It appears a smart strategy to blunt the impact of rural independents, and in certain cases would prevent cases of popular candidates being defeated by party machinists. As van Onselen points out in the Australian article, federal member for New England Tony Windsor would have likely won the Nationals primary for Tamworth back at the beginning of his career, and would have remained within the party.

If such a model spread through politics, it would have a fascinating impact. MPs would be much less beholden to their parties and we would likely see a decline in party discipline. It could also have a serious impact on government ministers. Yet it seems unclear how a primary system can effectively work in a political system which isn’t strictly divided into two parties, and it is completely incompatible with any system of multi-member election system.

It would seem to be a step in the right direction, but it would make more sense to give more powers to “one vote one value” elections within the party, which would be a strong incentive to encourage more voters to join political parties, while avoiding the obviously silly concept of voters from the opposite end of the spectrum having a say over a party’s candidates. The Nationals have a very large membership base, and it would seem to be just as effective to give the power of preselection to a vote of all members living in the electorate. It would seem bizarre that Labor and Greens members in, say, Dubbo, let alone supporters of the sitting independent, could have a say over who the Nationals stand.

While an open primary system may not become the universal system of preselecting candidates, it is a good gimmick and can be useful for the Nationals in regaining momentum in country areas which have become disengaged from the party. The rise of maverick Nationals who are more concerned with the party’s independence than its coalition relationship, such as Barnaby Joyce and Brendan Grylls, would be encouraged by the rise of open primary preselections.

Update: That dangerous lunatic Tim Andrews has some unkind words to say about this post over at his blog. Check it out.

Frome by-election

The electors of Frome in South Australia went to the polls today to elect a new member of the South Australian House of Assembly to succeed former Liberal Premier Rob Kerin. Counting has concluded for the night, and was covered by Pollbludger and Antony Green.

While the final primary results are yet to come in, the Liberals polled around 40%, down from almost 48% in 2006. The ALP polled about 25%, ahead of independent Port Pirie mayor Geoff Brock. Pre-polls and postals are yet to be counted, and it remains unclear what happens, although some at Pollbludger are projecting victory for Brock.

William Bowe’s projection at Pollbludger projects Brock winning 51.3% of the two-party-preferred vote. Over at his blog, Antony Green says:

At this stage, it looks like the only chance the Liberal Party has of winning this seat is if after the postal and pre-poll votes are counted, Brock’s vote falls far enough that he cannot get ahead of Labor on preferences. If this happens, the swing to labor is not enough to deliver Labor victory. However, if Brock is ahead of Labor, then the preferences will flow more solidly yo Brock than the flow to Labor, and with the Liberal primary vote only around 40%, the Liberal party is in deep trouble. There are a lot of votes yet to count, but at this stage, there is a very real chance that Geoff Brock will be the new Independent Member for Frome. Quite and upset if it is the final result.

Watch this space.