Sunday, May 17, 2009

Responsible government

James Travers in the Star complains that Harper is acting on the basis of a referendum or presidential style of government, whereas Canada's constitution provides for a system of responsibility to Parliament, and beyond Parliament to the people. Partly Travers talks about Cabinet making a lot of spending decisions with no discussion in Parliament--a long-time trend. He also discusses the issue of what happens when a government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons--or a Prime Minister concludes he is certain to lose one. The strict Westminster answer: Parliament re-gains its full right to identify a government that can form a majority, and/or win a confidence vote. The new government may or may not have campaigned as a party or coalition in the most recent election. The person who serves as the facilitator of the process of changing governments is the unelected Governor General or, at the provincial level, Lieutenant Governor. The somewhat newer, probably distinctively Canadian answer is: anyone who has served as Prime Minister for more than a very short time can have an election when he/she wishes.

This is probably a follow-up to a news conference announcing a new book of academic articles. Harper gained seats in the last federal election, but still fell short of a majority. The Liberals lost seats, and the NDP held their own. Harper recalled Parliament very quickly, probably thinking he would intimidate the other parties even more than before, and so he had no fear of losing confidence votes. He won a kind of vague confidence vote on the Speech from the Throne, then had his Finance Minister give a kind of update, and said he would call for a confidence vote on that. To virtually everyone's surprise, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois (yes, a separatist party with seats in Ottawa) announced their willingness to form a coalition that could win confidence votes and govern. If they stuck to their resolve, Harper would be unable to win a confidence vote.

Harper made it clear that if he lost a confidence vote, the only acceptable alternative would be another election--no letting the Governor General, and then Parliament, choose a new group to support. Harper assumed rightly that most Canadians regarded it as outrageous to have another election so soon. Also the widespread perception was that Harper had won, and it was unfair to let the losers take office. What Canadians miss in these debates is the old Westminster doctrine: a group that can hold the confidence of Parliament is the winner in the only sense that counts. Harper persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament for a few months, the Liberals quickly changed leaders, the new leader said he did not support the coalition, and Harper has now survived a few confidence votes. The Governor General did not explain her reasons for granting the prorogation, which was at least as unprecedented as it would have been to let the coalition try to win a confidence vote.

The famous precedent is King-Byng in 1926. In the 1925 election, the Conservatives won both more of the popular vote and more seats than the Liberals, but still failed to win a majority of seats. Liberal leader Mackenzie King, reduced from a majority to a minority, decided not to resign, but to try to win a confidence vote. The minority Parliament lasted eight months (partly because King was able to get just enough votes for an adjournment at one point), and then King asked for a dissolution and another election. Governor General Lord Byng refused, and gave Conservative leader Meighen a chance to win a confidence vote. Meighen's government was defeated almost immediately, and in the ensuing election King succeeded in making the "interference" of a non-elected official, appointed by the British Crown, a major issue. King won, in more ways than one; his understanding that a Prime Minister can ask for and get an election at any time seems to have become the accepted Canadian view.

There was also an important precedent in 1957-8. Louis St. Laurent was Liberal Prime Minister, with majorities, from 1947 to 1957, easily defeating a series of Tory leaders. Diefenbaker became Tory leader in 1956, and won a a narrow victory in the 1957 election (June 10), with a minority government. The Tories went from 51 seats to 111, the Liberals from 169 to 104, the CCF (precursor to the NDP) won 25, Social Credit 19.

Though the Liberals had a slight lead in the popular vote, Louis St. Laurent resigned rather than attempt to form a coalition with the other opposition parties to continue governing. Lester Pearson became Liberal leader on January 16, 1958. Four days later Pearson gave his first-ever speech in Parliament (he previously had a long career as a diplomat in External Affairs), and suggested that since the economy was showing signs of strain, and the country was not ready for another election, Diefenbaker should resign and let the Liberals take over. Diefenbaker responded in a two-hour speech that provided the basis for his standard stump speech in the upcoming election, on March 31. Diefenbaker won one of the biggest majorities in Canadian history. It is not clear he ever actually won a confidence vote in his time in a minority.

Pearson obviously meant that the Liberals might have governed with a minority, provided they got support from one or more other parties. It might even be true that the Liberals had a better chance of winning confidence votes, over the course of several years, than the Tories did. Pearson in a way was taking the “Byng” position—Parliament should have a chance to support a government that might last. (Of course it was silly—even contemptible—to ask a Prime Minister to just give up). Diefenbaker, despite his long opposition to Mackenzie King’s policies, and his adherence to British traditions, took the “King” position—that it was the prerogative of a Prime Minister to get a dissolution of Parliament whenever he wanted it. Ever since the King-Byng controversy, Canadians have tended to say the King position is correct in Canada—unlike any other country with a British-style government. When Diefenbaker adopted the King position, and then won a huge majority, this seemed to confirm it.
If the King position is correct, Harper can have his election whenever he wants it.

A weird historical note: Bob Rae drafted the wording of the motion that defeated Joe Clark’s minority government in 1979 (there was really no question of the Governor-General turning to anyone else—Clark waited for months to recall Parliament, quickly provoked a confidence vote on a Budget, lost, asked for an election, and got one); Rae was one of the two partners in Ontario’s accord in 1985 (two parties in second and third place persuaded the first place party to step aside after losing a confidence vote--there was no need for the Lieutenant Governor to take action)—and it was probably Rae’s idea; and last fall Rae was one of the leaders of the proposed Coalition in Ottawa.

Governors General have almost never explained their reasoning in moments of crisis. Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General, now says she would not have let Paul Martin have an election if his Liberals had lost a confidence vote anytime within the first six months after the 2004 election. Martin was actually defeated more than two years later, and at that time there was no question there would be an election. Partly this seems to be because more time had elapsed since the last election. One would think that the actual results of the most recent election would also be a factor: is the trend in favour of one party? The answer would be yes for Harper both in 2005 and in 2008.

The prorogation probably wasn't a bad idea, but it could be a very bad precedent; it might seem that prime ministers can not only get elections when they want them, but postpone confidence votes as well. Some explanation from the present Governor General, Michaƫlle Jean, would have been helpful.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Charles Lamb

Here I go again, reading old books.
This time it's Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia, first published 1823.

I have a colleague who is struck by the word "notional," which people in government sometimes use. Is your branch actually going to spend $50 million? The answer might be "notionally." But what does this mean? Not quite in reality? Virtually, except that virtual reality now refers to something digital?

One essay, "On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century," contrasts a kind of old-fashioned comedy with what is more up to date in Lamb's time. The old-fashioned kind would create an artificial world in which there was plenty of sinning, but it was all pure fun. No one got hurt, even in the terms of the play, and the play was a real recreational outlet, free from concerns as to whether it would have a good or bad effect. Lamb claims that in more recent years, a kind of heavy moralism has taken over (we would probably say "Victorianism").

"We must love or hate--acquit or condemn--censure or pity--exert our detestable coxcombry of moral judgement upon everything…. [the] specious plausibilities [of a villain], which the pleasurable faculties of our fathers welcomed with such hearty greetings, knowing that no harm (dramatic harm even) could come, or was meant to come of them, must inpire a cold and killing aversion."

Lamb even says the "good" character was often revealed to suffer from self-satisfaction, or perhaps the sin of pride, from which the "bad" character was mercifully free--but in the more recent literature, good must be good, and bad must be bad.

All this to prepare for a long sentence:

"Oh who that remembers Parsons and Dodd--the wasp and butterfly of the School for Scandal--in those two characters; and charming natural Miss Pope, the perfect gentlewoman as distinguished from the fine lady of comedy, in this latter part--would forego the true scenic delight--the escape from life--the oblivion of consequences--the holiday barring out of the pedant Reflection--those Saturnalia of two or three brief hours, well won from the world--to sit instead at one of our modern plays--to have his coward conscience (that forsooth must not be left for a moment) stimulated with perpetual appeals--dulled rather, and blunted, as a faculty without repose must be--and his moral vanity pampered with images of notional justice, notional beneficences, lives saved without the spectators' risk, and fortunes given away that cost the author nothing."

This is subtle and thoughtful writing. The old plays were artificial, but somehow true. (The villains had "specious plausibilities"; until recently "specious" meant superficially attractive or plausible, but not necessarily false. In the Federalist Papers there is a line that a certain argument is specious, but nonetheless false.) The new moralistic plays are in a way more realistic or natural, but false. The morality is "notional."

"A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People" is funny and true. Married couples with children expect everyone to find their children fascinating, but not too fascinating. Wives are jealous of any friends the husband had before marriage. "Of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis"; out and out beggars have a certain dignity about them that is lacking in people doing menial work, trying to be thrifty, and expecting sympathy. Lamb says it doesn't bother him if the beggars are actually accumulating a certain amount of wealth. This is not the view of a middle-class taxpayer. (Lamb was pretty much always poor enough that he had to work for a living, but he was raised a gentleman with aristocratic tastes and ideas).

In "Imperfect Sympathies" Lamb admits that he is "a bundle of prejudices," and he "cannot like all people alike." Then comes a somewhat politically incorrect discussion: he doesn't like Scotchmen or Jews. He expects the feeling is mutual in both cases. Of the Jews he says:

Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side,--of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate, on the other, between our and their fathers, must, and ought, to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe it can run clear and kindly yet; or that a few fine words, such as candour, liberality, the light of a nineteenth century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion.... I boldly confess that I do not relish the approximation of Jew and Christian, which has become so fashionable.... If they are converted, why do they not come over to us altogether? Why keep up the form of separation, when the life of it is fled? If they can sit with us at table, why do they keck at our cookery?

Leo Strauss wrote somewhere that the kind of anti-Semitism which decent people in general should be concerned about (and of course anti-Semitism is not a good name for it) is really "inordinate dislike of Jews." This implies there is such a thing as an ordinary, every day, quite acceptable dislike of Jews; and Lamb may provide an example.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ex-Prime Minister Mulroney

Or, as Reagan called him at least once (mixing him up with a then-former Prime Minister of New Zealand), Muldoon. Here is a guy who is capable of getting himself in trouble by means of his big mouth and stupid behaviour. It's amazing his face looked so good into adulthood; surely some healthy individuals, in any schoolyard or bar, would be itching to punch him out.

He's finally admitted that he took three bags of cash, at three different meetings, from a sleazy lobbyist named Karlheinz Schreiber. Schreiber has said it was $100,000 each time, for a total of $300,000; Mulroney says $75,000 and $225,000. In thousand dollar bills. A few days after he left office as Prime Minister. Obvious question: was he being paid off for something he had already done for Schreiber's clients, which would indicate he had corruptly steered the business of the Government of Canada in return for a bribe? Or was he being paid in advance for work that he had not yet started? He says the latter.

What seems clear is that he hid the money away, telling no one about it such as his accountant or any business associates, and did not declare it to Revenue Canada (which has had different names since) for six years. It's surely not tremendously unfair to say he acted like a crook taking bribes.

Perhaps what is most awkward for Mulroney is that he had been accused for years of taking bribes while in office--especially when a big order of planes for Air Canada (at the time a Crown Corporation) went to Airbus, which had been lobbying hard for it, and Boeing screamed that the fix was in. When the RCMP asked for bank records from Switzerland, to see if Mulroney or others had taken bribes, they stated more or less as a fact that Mulroney had committed criminal acts. Since there was no proof of that, Mulroney sued and won over $2.1 million.

Here is an account of Mulroney's testimony on Day One of a public inquiry. Excerpts:
Easily the strangest part was Mulroney’s overall attempt to frame the issue: that the reason he went to such absurd lengths to cover up his involvement with Karlheinz Schreiber — the wads of $1000 bills, the safety deposit boxes, the not declaring it on his income taxes etc — was because of all the “innuendo” about his alleged involvement in the Airbus affair, as peddled by Stevie Cameron, the fifth estate etc. And of course, the “scarring” experience of being named in the letter of request to the Swiss.

First problem: Cameron’s book didn’t appear until late 1994. The first fifth estate broadcast on Airbus was in March of 1995. The story of the letter of request broke in November 1995. Mulroney took the first payment in August of 1993, and the last, if memory serves, in December 1994. He was so scarred by innuendo in 1995 that he was taking cash in 1993. Uh-huh.

Second problem: Even if there was chatter earlier than that, it still doesn’t make any sense. You’re so worried that people might believe you had taken bribes from Karlheinz Schreiber while you were Prime Minister that you take wads of cash from him after you were Prime Minister? Of all the people on this earth that you could find to take wads of cash from, you choose him?

Third problem: There’s privacy, and then there’s just plain skulking about. Mere embarrassment or concern for reputation might explain why he would be shy of talking about his dealings with Schreiber. But envelopes of cash? Safety deposit boxes? No receipts, no invoices, no expenses, no tax returns, no paper trail of any kind? And you perform this ritual, not once, but three times?

There are indications that Schreiber was transferring Airbus money to Mulroney, or attempting to--but there seems to be no proof that Mulroney ever got it. Some of his Mulroney's closest associates, as they moved to the private sector, definitely got some of this money--perhaps by promising that they could deliver far more in Ottawa than even they ever believed they could. Mulroney seems to claim he knew nothing of all this.

In 1996 Mulroney swore under oath that he had never had much to do with Schreiber. He now says that since the inquiry that year was all about Airbus, he correctly limited his answer to any possible dealings with Schreiber about Airbus. This did not include the $300K or whatever.

Finally, at least for now: there is a good chance the only reason Mulroney ever mentioned the $300K to Revenue Canada was that the CBC had reported on TV that Schreiber had withdrawn that amount from a Swiss account, and it seemed only a matter of time until it was revealed who got the money. Mulroney's response? He didn't watch the show.

A few months before Mr. Mulroney made his disclosure [to Revenue Canada], the CBC's the fifth estate revealed that Mr. Schreiber had made $300,000 worth of cash withdrawals in 1993 and 1994 from a Swiss bank account with the codename "Britan." However, Mr. Mulroney testified that he didn't watch the show.

Under questioning from his lawyer, Guy Pratte, he said at that time he wasn't speaking to Mr. Schreiber, but kept tabs on him through mutual friend and former revenue minister Elmer MacKay. "I heard from Elmer MacKay, that he, Elmer, had picked up that Mr. Schreiber was musing that perhaps I had an income tax problem. I had no income tax problem, but I got the impression that Mr. Schreiber was going to see if he couldn't create one."

It's unlikely Mulroney will ever face criminal charges, but I would like to see the Government of Canada get back our $2 million. The money was paid on the basis that it was an outrageous smear, a libellous attack on a public figure's reputation, to say he took bribes over Airbus. To say the least, it now seems clear that any intelligent observer might conclude he took bribes over something, so the RCMP statement was not a grotesque smear at all.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

State of Play

An enjoyable movie. One big twist: it's not a case of a big corporation organizing street crimes as part of a big conspiracy after all. Just an ordinary ambitious politician, maybe a bit more corrupt than usual. Does this mean that with Obama in office, and getting along famously with corporate big-wigs, there is less to fear from these big-wigs after all?

Russell Crowe plays the aging hippy--ace reporter with no life outside of work. A bit stale, but he does it OK. Ben Affleck, for a change, doesn't kill a movie. Rachel McAdam, from London, Ontario, is a pleasure to watch. The Crowe character actually says to her character something like it would just be creepy if there were something romantic between them. That's a switch from the Hollywood cliche that any aging actor, no matter how wrinkled and decrepit, can be the romantic lead with any female (adult), no matter how young and beautiful.

Blue Jays, Oh My!

Back to back wins against Oakland on the West Coast. Today, someone named Brett Cecil (his second start in the big leagues) on the mound, 8 innings, 6 strikeouts, 2 walks, no runs. Jays got 13 hits, 8 of them from four players, and a total of five runs--three from a home run by Alex Rios.

The day before, Brian Tallet had an excellent game as a starter.

First place in the American League East, best in the AL, best in the majors. I know I should knock on wood (pause to knock on own skull), but this could be for real. Different people have been contributing in different games, and the performance certainly goes far beyond Doc Halladay. Of course, we're still less than one-quarter into the season.

After a day off, the Yankees come to Toronto. Doc vs. A.J. Burnett, who was with Toronto for several years, and picked a perfect time, with his contract expiring, to have a great half-season last year. This year he's won two of his six starts, giving up 22 earned runs and 15 walks in just over 37 innings. ERA over 5. Doc: 6 wins and ERA 3.28 in 7 starts. Bwahahahaha.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Things I've Learned from Anthony Watts' Blog

Here's something fairly recent (a guest post) on Watts Up With That.

Things I've recently learned from this great site:

1. Antarctic ice isn't shrinking, and it has not done so in recent decades. Some of it is splitting and cracking, which might be consistent with cooling and becoming more brittle. In any case, there are lots of photographic records of Antarctic ice splitting, then new ice forming quickly due to the frigid temperatures.

2. Arctic ice shrank in 2007, but it is basically back where it was. There is tremendous change from season to season, and from year to year, in Arctic ice: much of it usually melts in the summer, then forms again in the winter. Most Arctic ice is over water, whereas most Antarctic ice is over land. The Franklin expedition was trapped in Arctic ice in some freakishly cold winters. The North Pole has been ice free in the summer at times--even early in the twentieth century (before man-made CO2 could have been a factor). Even when the ice shrank in 2007, this may have resulted from the ice being pushed by the wind to warmer latitudes where it could melt, as opposed to melting in its usual cold spot.

3. There was a long-term trend of rising levels in the world's oceans, but weirdly, this trend has slowed or stopped just when the IPCC model of global warming would have it accelerating. The Maldives are no more under water today than they were decades ago.

4. Mountain glaciers are retreating in various parts of the world, often widely separated from each other. Surely this is a global trend? But: Kilimanjaro and others have been retreating since before man-made CO2 became a factor. A recent study indicates that there are cycles, rather than one clear trend, and northern hemisphere glaciers are on a different cycle than southern hemisphere ones. There have been times of retreating glaciers in both hemispheres, but there have also been times of retreating glaciers in one hemisphere, advancing glaciers in the other.

5. Surface temperature, for what it is worth, has not gone up since 2001--exactly the period when the IPCC model should have been proving itself through noticeable temperature increases. Man-made CO2 is definitely up, but it may simply not be a good match with any other specific factor in regional or global climate. The twentieth century was warm, and it saw a dramatic increase in man-made CO2, but even within that century the match was far from perfect, there have been warmer periods in history when there was virtually no man-made CO2, etc. Anthony Watts has a lot of fun with the fact that surface temperature readings depend on weather stations, many of which are ridiculously unreliable or biased.

The heat and drought in Australia's recent summer did not set records, and they seem to be cyclical; by contrast, the cold that is part of the fall now underway in Australia is setting records. North America has had two cold winters in a row, the UK has not had a 30 degree day in summer since 2006, etc.

6. This latest: heat in the oceans should be a better test of the IPCC model than mere temperatures there, or on the surface. The IPCC model would predict a steady increase in ocean heat; any departure from that into some kind of cyclical pattern would require at least a substantial revision of the model, and a period of prolonged continuity in ocean heat would probably prove the model wrong. There has been a period of five years (2003-2008) of no increase in ocean heat.

Heat is not temperature. "Two liters of boiling water contain twice as much heat as one liter of boiling water even though the water in both vessels is the same temperature. The larger container has more thermal mass which means it takes longer to heat and cool." I think this bears on the whole quest for specific local temperature readings that are unusually high. A specific spot on the surface may be unusually hot without affecting in any noticeable way the total heat of the earth.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Russian female tennis players

I'm honestly trying to stay away from crazy conspiracy theories, but here's someone who thinks it goes way beyond coincidence that there are so many Russian female tennis players, looking a lot alike, playing in the same style, getting into the top 20 players in the world.

How often has there been two players from one country getting into the top ten? These Russians are basically from an area around Moscow.

Cloning seems a but much, but: sperm donation from the same top player?

Via Six Until Me/Grand Rounds.

Kaus again

Chrysler and Fiat: perfect for each other. Funny.

Of course Kaus is questioning whether Obama or anyone around him know what they're doing. If one or two of the automakers was allowed to go through a true bankruptcy, then there might be some sales for the survivors. Toyota has had a poor quarter, which has caused their past year to go south. Mr. Tata, who may be a major player in the First World some day, has had trouble building the capacity to meet the demand for his cars in India.

Then there are M&M utility vehicles in India.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The U.S.-Mexican Border and Flu

This is nice, from a conservative who I guess is pro-immigration. The gist is that certain rabid radio conservatives are idiots.