Tuesday, January 10, 2006

All Creatures Great and Small (book review)

All Creatures Great and Small

I've had enough of politics for a while. Watched the debate last night -- Steve Paikin is an excellent moderator, and kept the debate going smoothly. He really likes politics, and politicians, too, a rare sentiment these days.

I've just finished reading the first Herriot omnibus, a very pleasant book. I didn't read his books when they first came out, but I watched the TV series several times. It reran for years on PBS. So while reading the book, I saw the characters as portrayed on TV, which both helped and hindered, as some of the descriptions were at odds with the appearance of the actors. Never mind, it was a pleasant read, a series of anecdotes that add up to a portrait of the writer and his clients.

Herriot can be sentimental, he's at his best in straightforward story telling. He has a talent for the illuminating detail or remark. His courtship of Helen Alderson was expanded for the series; perhaps Herriot advised on some of the details of what he merely refers to: the long walks they took, the times Helen came along on his rounds, and so on. Herriot doesn' t pretend to be better than he is. He has a temper and self doubts. He doesn't let us in on his innermost thoughts very often, and when he does, we get a fair amount of his feelings for the Dales and their inhabitants. As I've said, these tend towards the sentimental, but his delight in the landscape, the people, and his profession is genuine, as is his regret for the passing of some of the old ways, tempered by his recognition of the value of much of the new. The book isn't exactly a page turner, but its anecdotal structure and plain style (leavened with a dry and pleasant wit) makes it a good bedtime book, one that one may put down and take up again without losing one's place. I will never read it again, but I will give it to someone who can appreciate its plain virtues and pleasures.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Politics: Accountability

     Listened to Rex Murphy's Cross-Canada Checkup on CBC today. The usual mix of rant, hope, trust, cynicism, and naive expectation that if only some pet reform were instituted, all would be well with the world. Well, at least with Canadian politics. Herewith some random comments.

     A caller from Alberta wanted politicians who represent us to be prosecuted if they make a promise that they don't keep, on the grounds that such a promise is a lie. The man has obviously never been elected to any office in any organisation. The first thing you learn when you are elected is that the largest part of the job is compromise. Usually, you simply can't do what you want to do, or what you said you would do when you want to do it, as there are always people who don't want you to do it.
     Besides, how can you tell whether a politician lied? There are still people in here in Ontario that claim that Harris did what he promised. Yes he did - but he very carefully changed certain key definitions before he did it. In my eyes, that amounts to a lie.
     For example, Harris promised to "increase classroom spending." Then he redefined classroom spending very narrowly, so that it amounted to about 50% of the total expenditure on schools, and increased that by 10%. However, he reduced spending in other areas, so that the net result was a decrease in overall spending of about 10%. But he kept his promise! I had predicted exactly this result when my senior high school class asked what would happen now that Mr Harris was Premier. I said: "Mr Harris will keep his promises, but he will first redefine terms so that there will be no actual increase in spending, and there might well be a decrease overall." What's more, Harris increased the provincial debt, a little fact that the NDP haters gloss over or even ascribe to the NDP (I'm sure not intentionally, it's just a slip of the mind. :-))
     The issue of recall is even thornier. Why should a majority of disgruntled voters have the right to recall an MP? What about the minority who want to keep him or her in office? What's their recourse? Why should they be deprived of what they consider a reasonable voice in Parliament?
     IMO many voters think that once a person is elected, that person is accountable directly to them. They forget the thousands of other voters, most of whom will disagree on at least one major issue, and many minor ones. They also forget that the MP is accountable to all the people, not just those who voted for him or her.

"MPs represent us, and must do what we, their constituents, want"
     There are several problems with this attitude, the most obvious being that an MP represents not only those who voted for him or her, but also those who didn't. Whose views should prevail? Especially when you consider that most MPs are elected with considerably less than half the total vote, and often with only about a quarter of the eligible vote.
     There is also the subtle difference between representing someone as a negotiator (the US model of legislators) and representing someone as an advocate (our model, also called "responsible government.") A negotiator tries to get what the client wants. An advocate tries to get what's best for the client, whether the client wants it or not, or even knows what it is. The fact is, we have to trust our MPs to do their best for us and the country as a whole. If you have a concern, write. MPs do pay attention to what their constituents put on the record.

"Proportional Representation"
It might or might not work. My problem is, that there are several systems. Would we have proportional representation nationally, or by Province? If the former, how would the parties ensure that the regions would be well represented? I foresee bitter fights within parties. If Provincially, we might get bitter fights within each province.
     And at what threshold of the popular vote would a party be entitled to a seat?1%? 5%? 3%? 10%? We have over 300MPs, so the threshold matters a lot. 1% of the House is 3 MPs, which could be a significant number when cobbling up a coalition.
     Some suggest that some mix of regional or local representation and national vote should be used. That would result in effectively two elections: one for the leadership and one for the local MP. But we tend to value our local MPs more highly than our national leadership (Illogical, yes, but there it is.)
     Many advocates for PR point to the many democracies that use it. The argument that "Everybody else does it" has never been a good one, as every parent knows. So I'm surprised that apparently sensible people use it.

"Why don't the candidates discuss issue X?"
     Because the party's polling has indicated that other issues matter more to more voters.