Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

A Primer On Canadian Politics

Another election is coming in Canada, and a few American Twitterers (is that the proper noun) are interested in what’s going on up here, so I thought I’d put out a quick primer on Canada’s electoral system, how things work here, what’s going on, and what might happen in the election. To the best of my ability I’m going to try to frame this as a comparative piece to the USA’s political system to try to make it more understandable for our cousins to the south.

So, where to begin…?

Canada uses a multiparty parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. The Parliament consists of two chambers: first the elected House of Commons, which consists of 308 seats. Each of the 308 Members of Parliament are elected by voters to respresent their electoral district, which is called a “riding”. For example, I presently live in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, which covers a large but fairly sparsely populated geographic area of the Province of Nova Scotia. I’ll actually probably reside in another riding by the time the election happens, as the dates being batted around are May 2nd or 9th, and I’m moving on May 1 to take up residence in the riding of Halifax West. The second is the Senate, an appointed body of 105.

Theoretically each riding is supposed to represent a comparable, proportional amount of the population of Canada, but in practice that’s not quite accurate. Prince Edward Island, for example, is home to about 0.5% of the population of Canada, but has four electoral ridings – more than double what they should have proportionately. Ridings are modified as needed, which usually gets at least some hackles raised about gerrymandering, but such is the nature of our system.

There are several major differences between the Canadian and US political processes. Canadians, first of all, do not vote for anywhere near as many people as Americans do. Since our legislative and executive functions are fused, we vote solely for our Member of Parliament. Whichever party wins the most seats is customarily invited to form a government by the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative in Canada. That party’s leader then becomes Prime Minister and forms his cabinet to run the show.

There are no fixed election dates in Canada. A government may serve for up to five years before an election, but in practice it’s rarely longer than four. At a time of the government’s choosing – or sometimes not (I’ll explain below) – the Prime Minister pays a call to the Official Residence of the Governor-General at Rideau Hall to request Parliament be dissolved and an election called. This is known as “dropping the writ”.

Another difference: Senators in Canada are appointed, not elected. This is a rather controversial topic in some circles, but I don’t see any significant Senate reform on the horizon in Canada. The Senate of Canada is called the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought” and rarely originates any legislation. It also rarely interferes with legislation from the House of Commons. When it passes a Bill, it then goes to the Governor-General for Royal Assent, which makes it law. While theoretically a Governor-General can refuse Royal Assent, it just doesn’t happen, since the G-G is an appointed position, and is primarily ceremonial.

There are four major political parties in Canada holding seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party Of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, held the largest plurality of seats after the last election, but not a majority. This situation is referred to as a “minority government”, because the governing party doesn’t have sufficient votes in the House of Commons to pass whatever it wants, therefore it must work with opposition parties to get things passed. The Liberal Party of Canada, led by Michael Ignatieff, is the second largest party and is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe is the next largest. The BQ is something of an enigma. They only run candidates in the Province of Quebec, and their platform is mainly built around furthering the interests of a sovereign (read: independent) Quebec. Finally, there’s the New Democratic Party, lead by Jack Layton. Interestingly, in terms of “spectrum”, the parties start on the right with the Conservatives and move consistently to the left, the NDP being social democrats.

Back to the minority government issue – when there’s a minority government, they are vulnerable to something called a motion of non-confidence. That is to say, they serve as the government so long as they have the confidence of the House of Commons. If the opposition parties see fit, they can bring down the government by voting against anything deemed a confidence measure. Budgets (“money bills”) are always confidence measures. Lately, PM Harper’s used confidence measures as a form of political brinkmanship with the opposition Liberals. Today, the 40th Parliament found Stephen Harper’s government in contempt for failing to disclose information related to some big ticket purchases, and passed a motion of non-confidence, ending the second minority government of Mr. Harper.

And so, in about a month, Canadians will go to the polls to elect another Parliament. For now, it looks like there will be very little change to the composition of the House of Commons, meaning Harper will return as Prime Minister, still with a minority. It is for this reason that there’s some debate likely about the wisdom of an election when there’s going to be no change. There is, however, a possibility that the Liberals, the Bloc, and the NDP could agree to form a formal coalition which would have more seats in the House and could present themselves to the Governor-General as being most suited to lead. This would likely make Ignatieff the Prime Minister, but whether that will actually work/happen is doubtful, because the idea of anyone colluding with the Bloc Quebecois to get power isn’t particularly palatable. It was suggested in 2008, when Harper used a procedure called prorogation to stave off a confidence vote that he was almost certain to lose. At the same time, his party ramped up attack ads on the idea of a “coalition with socialists and separatists”. There was much controversy. In 2009, a second prorogation happened, with some speculation that it was to deflect attention from inquiries into the handling of detainees in Afghanistan, but with the “official explanation” being that it allowed politicians to participate in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

This is just a starter piece. Please comment with any questions or gaps you see and I’ll work to build it up a little more!

Musings on the Upcoming Election

You know, if the Conservatives keep talking like they do, all the polls suggesting they’ll be returned to power in the election that seems a certainty now that the budget has been introduced and neither the Liberals nor the NDP will support it may be wrong.

I’m a proud Canadian and all, but you have to be pretty delusional to make the assumption, as some Conservatives have, that an election would somehow jeopardize the global economic recovery.  It’s absurd to think that the normal course of democracy in Canada could somehow cause major economic woes when we represent about 2% of the global economy.  It is even more absurd (and frankly ominous) when a government suggests that going to the polls is somehow inappropriate when there’s all sorts of stuff going on in the Middle East.  Tragically, I’ve read so many news articles about the whole thing that I’m not able to find the direct quotes.  The thing is, I think Harper played this beautifully.  He tossed a few (mostly empty) goodies to the NDP and made his budget look rather centrist, which then allows him to take a direct run at the Liberals.  They’ll keep up their attacks on Michael Ignatieff (who is, in my estimation, no more likely to be Prime Minister than Stephane Dion was last time around), and on the party in general for forcing an election “no one wants”.  Frankly, I doubt many people do want an election to be honest, since it seems that unless the plan really, really backfires during the campaign, we’ll probably be left with more or less the same Parliament, with a few seats changing hands, but Harper still PM with a minority government.  We’ll spend $300 million on an election that essentially doesn’t really accomplish anything.

And we’re still left with problems.  The provinces are mostly broke, New Brunswick seems to have been first off trying to grapple its woes, my home province of Nova Scotia is still playing stupid politics over things like ferry subsidies, and the federal government still has a massive deficit mainly attributable to the global economic crisis that started in 2008 and its efforts to stimulate the economy.  Thing is, they wouldn’t be in such a bad fiscal position if they hadn’t made two stupid decisions – GST cut #1 and GST cut #1.  Cutting the federal sales tax took billions in revenue out of the federal government’s coffers while offering no substantial benefits to Canadians, save for some smug satisfaction that a vilified (but ultimately, fair) tax was being cut.  Cheering these two cuts was probably the most idiotic political move many Canadians made.  Didn’t I blog about this at some point, how little a difference it made to my life as a fairly high earning person.  The “working families” who thought it was so great probably saw little or no benefit.  In fact, most get a quarterly refund cheque to offset what little they pay anyhow.

I can’t figure out who I’d vote for.  Lately, Canada’s been beset by a cast of mediocre politicians leading parties with mediocre ideas.  In fact, the only leader who seems to have any charisma is Jack Layton, and unfortunately that won’t overcome my view of their party’s ideas as either ridiculous, unrealistic, or loathsome.  So they’re not an option.  I think I’ll probably vote Green again if they put out a well spoken candidate… not because I particularly endorse their platform, but because I think it’s not a bad idea to discuss other ideas, because none of the mainstream parties seems interested in doing so.  Frankly, if any party gets up and admits that to fix the budget they’ll put the GST back to 7%, I’d probably vote for them, not because I want to pay more tax, but because I understand that I have to pay at some point, and I’d just rather get on with it.

On Nuclear Power

With the recent developments at the Fukushima I & II plants and apparently I just read another plant, lots of discussion unsurprisingly about nuclear energy. I’ve found the subject fascinating since I was a kid and first saw the National Geographic article about the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster of April 26, 1986.

I grew up on the other side of Toronto from Pickering, which is home of the eight-reactor nuclear power station. Just east of Pickering sits the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station which houses another four reactors. So I was even more fascinated. Being the geek that I often am I studied a fair but on how nuclear power works, the risks and so on. I even considered a fee years ago going back to school to learn to be a nuclear operator at one of those plants. I’ve worked with a couple of them through the military and learned even more specifics about how it works.

So here’s my opinion on the matter. Nuclear power obviously has risks – when accidents happen they are spectacular. But they are also extremely rare. The Level 4 accident at Fukushima for example is only the third major accident in something like 40+ years of civil nuclear power production, the others being of course Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. TMI was really fairly minor, because even though the core was destroyed during the incident, relatively little radiation escaped into the environment, and the long term effects were fairly minor.

Chernobyl is the usual point of reference for nuclear accidents employed by anti-nuclear folks, but the reality is that it is a rather far-fetched comparison. When I had someone really explain to me what caused the catastrophe at Chernobyl, and why it’s basically impossible to have something like that happen at any modern Western-designed plan (or any of the new Russian designs either), I come to realize that I still see no problem with nuclear. Well, that’s not true. There are problems, but the risks are manageable.

Most opponents of nuclear energy demand clean, renewable energy as an alternative. The problem is that there currently exists no such technology, except hydroelectricity which still has its share of environmental impacts. Wind and solar energy are simply not able to meet base load requirements so it is more useful to compare nuclear energy to those sources. In particular coal is what I would happily see replaced by new nuclear plants. I suspect that burning massive amounts of coal causes much more damage to human health than nuclear even accounting for accidents. Coal-fired plants spew a myriad of pollutants into the air, including mercury, other heavy metals, and of course greenhouse gases. The industry’s defense of “clean coal technology” is just a classic greenwashing case.

So let’s consider the main problems of nuclear energy, though I’m not going to be able to go into much linked detail because I’m punching this out from my iPhone, I just want to prompt some thought and maybe a little bit of discussion.

The main problem that gets highlighted, of course, is the possibility of catastrophic accidents. Modern containment designs abate the risk of the kind of disaster that happened in Chernobyl. In Japan, even though the outer structure has been destroyed, the actual vessel containing the fuel is intact, though some fission products have escaped. It of course remains to be seen what the final outcome is. The fact is that disasters of this magnitude are very rare and health concerns need to be weighed against what fossil fuels do, not against theoretical clean alternatives which do not yet exist.  The reality is that both Three Mile Island and what’s been happening in Japan so far seems to show that good containment structures work.  The reason Chernobyl was such a disaster had to do both with some major design flaws in the reactor itself, and a complete lack of any sort of containment.  When Chernobyl’s operators, who were conducting an unauthorized test of the reactor’s behaviour at very low power, set the conditions for a dramatic excursion, there was nothing at all to have any chance of containing the massive steam explosion they created.  One could argue that even if there was, it may have been blown apart anyhow, but then we still have to default to the point that what they were doing, which caused the disaster to begin with, was not normal operation.  Wikipedia has a very thorough article about what happened at Chernobyl which explains it well.  My friend Jeff, a nuclear operator at Pickering NGS, explained it well to me though, and I’ll try to summarize it.  Basically, what they wanted to do was see how the cooling system would react to the reactor running at very low power.  To do so, they added a large amount of “reactivity poison”, essentially a substance that absorbs neutrons, the “bullets” which actually split uranium atoms in the reactor.  They then got a call to power up Reactor 4 from the grid control station, and to do so they had to pull every single one of the control rods (which are sort of like the brakes on the reactor) completely out of the core in order to get it going.  Normally this never happens – but because there was so much poison in the core they had to literally pull out all the stops.  Problem is, as the neutron absorber does its job eventually it become saturated, which is precisely what happened – the reaction sped up at an alarming late, and when the operators dropped in all the control rods in a panicked effort to shut down the reactor, a design flaw in the rods actually sped it up, making the reactor jump far beyond its capacity, vaporizing all the coolant and creating a massive amount of steam under pressure that heavily damaged the fuel channels and then caused a second, massive explosion that blew the top off the reactor somewhat like a champagne cork.  It spiraled through the air and crashed back down, smashing the core, which was starting to melt down already.  Then all the graphite moderator started to burn. And so did the roof of the reactor building, as it was made with bitumen.

Much was learned regarding the design flaws, and the reactor design was massively improved with retrofits.  Some RBMK-type reactors still operate in Russia, but only with some major improvements from lessons learned after Chernobyl.

See why something like that isn’t likely to happen again?

The second common concern is about waste. Yes. Nuclear reactors produce ware in the form of spent fuel and also various other forms of low level waste. But the volume of spent fuel is a lot less than many people think. The plant I used to work very close to, Pickering, has been around for something like 35 years. All of the spent fuel it has consumed in its entire life is stored on site.  First it’s cooled for a few years in a massive pool, then it’s put into “dry cask storage containers” which can be stored in outdoor compounds indefinitely.  As for LLW, most of it can be simply landfilled in specially designed facilities.

There is of course a need to have a long term repository for waste storage, but things like salt caves and other deep repositories will work reasonably well especially given how well we can pack the stuff – with technologies like vitrification.

Fission reactors using uranium aren’t the be-all and end-all of the technology. There are other fuels – particularly thorium – and designs, and eventually there might be commercially viable fusion reactor design. Canada was involved in research into a project called Iter, but pulled out which is too bad. That has a lot of potential.

So in summary, nuclear isn’t so bad in comparison to realistic alternatives but you need to do a bit of homework to understand it first.

On “Fox News North”, Mostly

I’ve been busy as all hell lately and keeping on updating this blog has been difficult. You can partially blame the incredibly frustrating WordPress iPhone app for that too, because it’s been pissing me off to know end to get really into writing something and then have it crash on me. No autosave feature? Really? That’s what we’ve been reduced to in this day and age?

I’ve got one post I’ve been tinkering with since January 22, one that’s now pretty much worthless, and now I’m going to try to bang something out in 30 minutes or less because I’ve got stuff to do tonight to prepare for the weekend, I’m off to Toronto to take care of some business and have to pack and so on.

There’s been so much ridiculousness in the world lately. I was paying so much attention to the events that started in Tunisia and have spread throughout the Arab world that I lost track of some of the developments in my own country, which have been rather disturbing as I catch up on them.

Last year, the Canadian media giant Quebecor/QMI, which owns Canada’s Sun chain of newspapers and a large stable of local newspapers including the one in my old hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, decided to apply for a license to start up a cable news channel, Sun TV News. They wanted it to get special treatment to essentially force cable companies to carry it. It was pretty clear given the slant and (lack of) journalistic quality of its other media outlets what it was going to resemble, and it didn’t take long before it was being referred to as “Fox News North”. Quebecor is run by the Péladeau family, one of the most powerful families in the country, and fairly obviously supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada. Furthering the controversy was the fact that the chief spokesperson for Sun TV News is a guy by the name of Kory Teneycke, who before taking the job happened to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Director of Communications. What a job to have before becoming a lobbyist, no? Eventually he departed, only to return later. Quebecor decided to press on with their effort to launch the channel as a Category 2 channel, meaning that carriers are not required to carry it, they may choose to.

It all gets intriguing though, when the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (which basically regulate everything from telephony to internet to licensing TV and radio stations) announced they wanted public feedback on a law that would soften existing laws about false news, basically making it legal to make false or misleading statements in the news media so long as they weren’t going to cause a danger to the public. Essentially, it would be okay to report just about any bullshit you want if it wasn’t a direct threat to public health and safety. Not surprisingly, Canadians responded with outrage and the CRTC promptly declared the idea DOA, and expressed some sort of relief, because, not shockingly, it has emerged that they were basically directed by a Parliamentary committee to study the change. Now, who would want to be able to report false or misleading news? Whose agenda would that serve?

It only gets more ridiculous when my former Member of Parliament, Dean Del Mastro, Parliamentary Secretary to The Heritage Minister, told a CBC interviewer that the changes were being studied because apparently his constituents were complaining to him about “attacks on free speech”. Maybe I’ve missed something, but when did being able to report false news become a free speech issue to most Canadians? Oh, right. Never. This, by the way, is the man whose great legacy to his riding is an effort to bring commuter rail to the city of Peterborough, a project that seems to make very, very little economic sense for a variety of reasons I won’t get into. The first federal election in which I refused to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada was the first one in which he ran, because when I saw him speak and got the chance to talk to him it became readily apparent that we had nothing in common. He also happens to be the champion of the equally idiotic (and strangely undemocratic and fiscally unconservative) Senate bill S-10 which among other things sets mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and was sped through our unelected Senate without any debate (and without any Liberal Senators present to vote against it, either, if I remember right). Again, my contempt for Canada’s Senate is another issue.

So I guess I’ll have to just carry that one forward to another entry.