What do we want our immigration system to accomplish?

This week, the Fraser Institute released a report saying that, on average, immigrants cost Canadian taxpayers much more in social services than they end up providing, even after they have been here for long periods of time.  In total, the net annual cost for all immigrants is somewhere between $16.3 billion and $23.6 billion per year.  The long and short of this is that the Fraser Institute suggests that we should vastly restrict our immigration system and only let in people who already have job offers, and stop allowing immigrant to bring over elderly parents and grandparents.  The authors of the report feel that our immigration system should only let in people that will leave the government richer than it would have been without them.

Of course this is not the sort of critique we are used to hearing in Canada.  We often hear that we need immigrants to sustain our economy as our population ages and our birth rate declines.  We also like to boast about the ‘cultural diversity’ that it brings.  But what if, on average, that our immigration system is not actually producing a net benefit for the country?

The main problem that I see is that we have never actually had a discussion about what we want our immigration system to accomplish.  As far as I can tell, no politician has ever laid out a set of goals for our immigration system, and then measured the results against those goals.  The current system seems to only want to get as many bodies into Canada as possible (subject to a few restrictions), and then hope everything works out.  The Fraser institute wants a polar opposite approach where we don’t let in anyone who will cost more in social services than they pay in taxes, which by design would severely decrease the number of immigrants we take.  Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong intrinsically, but either approach, or something in the middle, has consequences and benefits.

It’s time for our leaders to start debating what we actually expect from people that want to move to Canada.  How many people do we want to let in?  The Liberals in the past, and the Conservatives in the present have essentially taken an approach of ‘the more the merrier’ in fear of being labeled racist and anti-immigrant by the opposition.  Clearly, that’s not the best place to start when setting policy.

I think we can all agree that having specific goals in mind for the immigration system will end up being better for everyone.  We can’t ignore the fact that new immigrants will want to bring their families with them, but we also can’t ignore the costs that many in the family reunification class incur for the taxpayers.  There is probably a middle ground in there somewhere, but there is no way to reach a middle ground unless we start talking about it.

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Aftermath of the Unlikely Election

Now that the dust is starting to settle from last night’s results, and people (including myself) are starting to feel a little less shocked about the overall outcome, we can start to think about what is going to happen to the political landscape in the next four or five years.

First of all, the Conservatives deserve a congratulation for finally winning the coveted majority.  After seven years of minority governments, five of which were under the Conservatives, someone finally managed to end the Groundhog Day that was Canadian Federal politics.  But now comes the part where they convince the rest of us that giving them the majority was a good thing.  They no longer have any excuse of having to spend big dollars in order to appease the opposition.  If Harper doesn’t start governing in a competent, fiscally conservative manner, he will lose all credibility to call himself a conservative, and that will hurt him next time around.  Personally, I think that will be the hardest job for the new government, since they have grown so used to spending lots of money on anything they can think of.  I don’t think true fiscal conservatives will forgive them is they keeps spending money like they have been over the last 5 years.

The other thing they need to do is convince left and centre-left voters that they aren’t going to turn Canada into some American-style, so-con dictatorship, where abortion is illegal and gay marriage is banned, or whatever other insane arguments crop up every once in a while.  I think that will be the easiest thing for the Conservatives to do, since I always doubted they would ever do that in the first place.  There may be a few MPs that want that (and not just in the Conservative party) but clearly taking on that sort of agenda is political suicide, even in a majority government.

And as a fun bit of trivia, at the end of this majority mandate, Harper will have passed Brian Mulroney in length of time served as PM, putting him second of all time in terms of Conservative leaders.  That will also put him less than 2 years shy of Chretien’s record.

The second big winners of the election are obviously the NDP.  Jack layton led his party to a 175% increase in the number of seats to Official Opposition status.  He also decimated the Bloc Quebecois, which is making pretty much every non-spearatist in the country celebrate.  But the lasting legacy of this election is that the NDP has now been confirmed as a legitimate contender in the federal landscape.  After 40 years of also-ran status, the NDP has shown voters that they are not a wasted vote.  Soft support for the NDP will no longer automatically default to the Liberals in order to stop the Conservatives from winning an election.

With the Conservative majority, the chances of the NDP implementing any of its promises is essentially nil, but the NDP is now in it for the long game.  Nobody will underestimate them any more.  This may be wishful thinking on my part, but it’s possible that the increased scrutiny that comes from being mainstream will lead them to create platforms that isn’t based purely on wishful thinking.  It is theoretically possible to create a socialist platform grounded in actual economic reality, and the NDP has at least 4 years to build that platform.

The hardest part of the next 4 years for Layton will be keeping all of his support in Quebec.  Quebec voters have shown themselves to be very fickle (just ask the ADQ), so now is not the time to ignore the people who put you where you are today.

Lots of pundits are calling this election the end of Liberal Canada, and the end of the Liberal Party.  While this was a devastating blow, the Liberals will bounce back, but only after some serious introspection.  Their leader lost his seat, and this morning resigned as the leader.  Now is the perfect time to take stock of what they have and right their course.  If the Conservatives can come back from 2 seats in 1993 (yes, I realize that the Progressive Conservative are not exactly the same as the Conservatives) then the Liberals can come back from this.  It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s still unclear if the current leadership knows exactly what went wrong.  Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff have both blamed attack ads on the Liberals’ poor showing, which indicates that they may be missing message that the voters sent them.  In his resignation speech, Ingatieff even said, “I think the surest guarantee of the future for the Liberal Party of Canada is four years of Conservative government and four years of NDP opposition.”  Clearly, the Liberals will be better off without him if he believes that.

Voters want a party that stands for something, and currently the Liberals only stand for being not the Conservatives.  Until they fix their identity problem, they will experience similar results at the polls.

The Bloc received an even bigger kick in the pants than the Liberals this time around.  I think the Bloc suffers from the same sort of identity problems as the Liberals do, but with less chance of recovery.  Like voters in the rest of Canada, I think that Quebecers want a party that stands for something, and a one-issue party dedicated to breaking up the country just wasn’t cutting it any more.  Jack Layton treated Quebecers almost like voters anywhere else, and the generally left-leaning Quebec electorate responded.

I think that the Bloc will have a very difficult time of recovering from this.  Gilles Duceppe was a good politician, but his party stopped resonating with voters.  At least the Liberals have the potential to stake a claim to the middle ground between the Conservatives and the NDP.  The Bloc have no hope at all if the voters decide they don’t care about separating.

Finally, the Greens had their minor win, with Elizabeth May winning her seat.  Unfortunately, that was overshadowed by the overall support dropping from 6.78% last election to 3.9% this election.  Elizabeth May better have an ace or two up her sleeve if she wants to grow her party’s support countrywide, because one opposition MP can’t always do a whole lot in a majority government.  This sitting of the House of Commons will be her time to shine, so hopefully she makes good use of it.

And as everyone has been saying, the election that nobody wanted has turned into a game changer for Canadian politics.  I think this will be an interesting 4-5 years.

Does our Democracy need fixing?

This week, the Globe is running a series this week looking for ‘One Big Idea to fix our democracy.’  Today’s installments are pros and cons of mandatory voting, as well as one suggesting we allow online voting.

The implicit assumption in this series is that our democracy is broken.  But is it really broken?  Sure, it could be improved, but I wouldn’t say that it’s broken.

The most-heard arguments that our political system is broken is that 4 in 10 voters can’t be bothered to vote, that less than 40% of voters cast their ballots for the winning party, and the number of seats won by each party in parliament is not representative of the percentage of people that voted for that party.

Personally, I don’t think that any of these means that our democratic system is broken.  I think they are legitimate areas that need improvement.  That may seem like splitting hairs on semantics, but calling something broken tends to imply that it’s beyond repair; that we should just scrap what we have and start over.  Even with the issues that our electoral system faces in Canada, nobody complains that our elections are not conducted in a fair an impartial manner.  There is no violence or intimidation during the campaign or voting periods.  We don’t have political leaders illegally clinging to power after they lose an election.  And we also have 4 viable choices of political parties (5 in Quebec), as well as the ability to cast out ballots for candidates who belong to no party.  If we don’t like our elected representatives, we can turf them after a maximum of 5 years.  To me, this doesn’t sound like democracy is broken in Canada.

Regardless, the items mentioned above are legitimate criticisms.  All three of the articles in the Globe today deal with the first problem.  The last election we had about 58.8% voter turnout, while most elections before 1990 had voter turnout somewhere between 65% and just under 80%.  But Canada has never had an election with a voter turnout of over 80%.  There has never been a point in Canadian history where everyone in the country has been fully involved in politics.  No matter what idea we may come up with, there will always be a certain portion of the population that just doesn’t care who runs the country.  Neither mandatory voting nor online voting will solve that problem.

Forcing people to go to the polls is not the same as engaging the electorate.  Just because someone is forced to walk to a polling station and check off a box, it doesn’t mean that they care about who they are voting for.  It’s just treating the symptom of the problem instead of the disease.  Showing a number after an election that 93.21% of eligible voters cast a ballot (as in Australia in 2010) only shows that 6.79% of voters don’t care about the threat of a fine.

Online voting has also been touted as a way to increase voter turnout by making it easier to cast a ballot.  But if you don’t care enough to spend 15 minutes out of your day to drop a piece of paper in a box, do you really care about the election?  Showing up to a polling station on election day is not really a high standard.  Plus, there is advanced polls, as well as special ballots, which mean you can vote pretty much whenever you like just by showing up at your local returning office.  Or, if you don’t like leaving your house, you can vote by mail.

Online voting also suffers from two major flaws: there is no way to verify the who the voter is, and there is no paper trail.  Since anyone can vote by mail, I guess we can gloss over the verification problem, but the lack of paper trail is a cause for serious concern.  What if someone asks for a recount?  There is no possible way to verify that all of the votes are legitimate, or that they haven’t been tampered with.  If a system is online, then it is possible to be hacked.  Unscrupulous individuals could use the online system to cause anyone they want to win, without any way to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate ballots.  At least with paper ballots, all votes are counted in front of independent scrutineers, and then the boxes are sealed in case a recount is ordered.  With online voting, there is no scrutineers, no sealing of ballot boxes, and no recounts.  Besides all that, it still doesn’t solve the problem of voters not caring.

It seems that the most common solution to disengaged voters is some form of proportional representation, which theoretically allocates votes more ‘fairly’ between the parties.  While I think we could do with a frank and open discussion of the relative merits of other voting systems, it’s not going to be a panacea for all of our problems.  Besides, in the four referendums that various provinces have held on electoral reforms (two in BC, one in Ontario, one in PEI), none have passed, which indicates that there is not widespread desire for reform, despite what certain parties may say.  But that’s another topic for another day.

Overall, these ideas all seem a little gimmicky and unlikely to solve the problem of 40% of voters not caring at all, and that’s not going to happen until someone inspirational comes along.  The four elections that came closest to an 80% turnout saw the victories of Laurier, Deifenbaker and Pearson.  The elections with the mid-70s turnout saw leaders such as Borden, Mackenzie-King, Trudeau and Mulroney.  Love them or hate them, those leaders know how to rally support.  They had vision.  All of our current leaders can do is tell you why their opponents are bad.  If the goal is voter participation, inspirational leadership is the answer: that’s what has worked in the past, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in the future.

The (not so) Great Debate

After watching the English leaders debate, I am left wondering what the point of the debate is.  From what I saw, I can’t imagine anyone basing their voting decision on what they saw there.

If I had to decide, I would say that Harper ‘won’ the debate solely based on the fact that the opposition members didn’t say anything that really stuck to him.  Layton, Ignatieff and Duceppe would all make accusations about Harper’s policies, and Harper would easily deflect them every time.  The opposition members never really made a serious attempt to attack Harper with any evidence or hard numbers, so Harper could easily say it wasn’t true, and then he would move on to mention all the great things that he has done in the last four years.  Ignatieff was especially bad for this because every time he had a chance to speak, he would mention at least four or five different issues with the Conservatives, but then Harper would respond to the one or two that he actually had a good defense for and then ignored the rest.  If Ignatieff was a little more focused, he probably could have done a better job of forcing Harper off of his talking points.  And as a bonus, Harper laid off the coalition boogeyman, which was becoming pretty tiring to listen to.

Speaking of which, Ignatieff was pretty terrible for most of the debate.  He wasn’t nearly focused enough to land any decent shots on Harper.  He also seemed to stutter a lot when he was trying to get through his talking points.  This was his chance to really shine as a viable alternative to Harper, but was lackluster by comparison.  He spent too much time with his “jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts” line, throwing it in wherever he could.  My biggest pet peeve was that he appears to forget that the corporate tax cuts have already pass in Parliament because the Liberals purposefully didn’t send enough MPs to the vote when they voted against it.  It rings a little hollow when you oppose something after having let it pass.

Layton did a bit better.  He had decent criticisms of both Harper and Ignatieff but still suffered from not being able to stick anything on Harper, although he did a reasonably good job of painting Ignatieff as a friend of the Conservatives for propping up the government repeatedly over the last few years.  And the high point for the night was when Layton mentioned ‘bling’, when talking about gangs.  That almost made the two-hour ordeal worth watching.

Duceppe was far less entertaining than he was in the previous debates.  It almost seemed like he wasn’t trying.  I do expect him to do better in the French debate, when people that actually care about him will watch him debate.

The worst part of all was that the questions that were asked were for the most ignored by the candidates.  They generally started with the general theme of the questions and then veered off towards whatever talking points that they waned to get to.  It’s hard to find out where the party leaders stand on specific issues when they ignore the question and then talk about something else entirely.

The format of the debate was pretty bad too, although it was better than the last election, with the roundtable of everyone against Harper.  The one-on-one format seemed like it could have been interesting, but seeing Duceppe and Layton go head to head on multiculturalism was about as useless of a discussion as I can imagine.

As I said, I can’t really imagine anyone changing their decision based on this debate.  No new policy planks were mentioned, and there was no ‘knockout’ that people seem to expect from these debates even though they never occur.  It was really just a continuation of the bickering that we have all come to expect from the people we keep sending to Ottawa.

Let’s Look Local

Since in our Parliamentary Democracy we vote for candidates at the local level instead of voting for the party at large, I figured it would be a good idea to take a look at the candidates in my local riding of Whitby-Oshawa.  This is only based on publicly available information through party and candidate web sites.  I may update this after the local candidates debate if one of them seems to stand out ahead of the others.

Jim FlahertyConservative Party: Jim Flaherty is the current MP for Whitby-Oshawa, as well as the Minister of Finance.  He is also the only candidate for any party that is the same since the last election.  His web site lists quite a bit of funding for the riding during both his tenure as MPP in Queen’s Park, where he served from 1995 to 2005, and as MP form 2006 onwards.  As the Finance Minister, he is one of the main faces of the Conservative Party.  If you like the record of the Conservative Party from the last 4 years in government, Jim is your guy.  He tends not to rock the boat on Parliament Hill, and I am unaware of any times where he has spoken against his party.  However, if you dislike the Conservative policies, there is little there to make you want to vote for him.  Defining himself as a fiscal conservative, he promised to never run a deficit in the previous two campaigns.  Now he seems to have warmed to the idea of stimulus spending, and running deficits no longer bothers him.

Love him or hate him, I project that he wins his seat this election.  In 2008, he won with 50.99% of the popular vote.  That’s still a very large hill to climb for any candidate looking to unseat him.

Trevor BardensLiberal Party: Trevor Bardens seems to have been very involved in the community for a very long time, as referenced by the long list of committees that he has participated in and the volunteer awards that he has received.  Just the resume listed on the Liberal web page shows that he is passionate about serving the public, especially at the local level.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much other information about him.  He is currently the only candidate without his own web site.  He has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, but neither give much insight into who he is, or why he is running for the Liberal Party.  People have been posting on his Facebook page asking how to get a lawn sign, and he direct them to call his campaign office.  Every other candidate page that I have seen has a gigantic link for ordering signs that can be  seen from just about anywhere on that candidate’s web page.

To me, this speaks of a very weak campaign.  Trevor Bardens may make a good MP, and he clearly cares quite a bit about local matters, but if he doesn’t take the time to get information out there for people to get to know him, why should voters take the time to vote for him?

Trish McAuliffeNDP: Trish McAuliffe is an obvious choice as an NDP candidate due to her prior experience as an executive board member for the CAW during her tenure at General Motors.  She has volunteered for the NDP in nearly every past election, both provincial and federal, for the last 25 years.  On her web site, she mentions that she participates “at Whitby Municipal Town Hall meetings, community events, educational programs and various sporting activities,” but unfortunately she does not give any specifics.  She suffers from the same problems as Trevor Bardens in that there really isn’t enough there to get to know her.  All of the posts on her personal campaign web site are just campaign press releases outlining promises from Jack Layton.  There isn’t a personal post at all, besides the one with a brief biography.

Overall, she seems like plain vanilla NDP candidate with heavy ties to organized labour, with nothing mentioned on her web page to make her stand out from the pack.

Rebecca HarrisonGreen Party: Rebecca Harrison is the Poverty Elimination Critic and the Status of Women Critic for the Greens.  She also has far more personal information on her web site than any other candidate.  Her focus is definitely on her two portfolios, so much that she has very lengthy pages describing plans for those issues, yet she doesn’t mention environmentalism on her web page at all.  She seems to be the candidate in this riding that most differentiates herself from the party mold.  I think that could be an asset for her since the Green Party mold doesn’t seem to be that appealing to the vast majority of Canadians, as evidenced by their very low poll numbers, and their lack of seats in Parliament.

While I doubt she has much of a chance of actually winning the seat, I think she may be able to do better than the Green candidate in the previous election.  Being the youngest candidate at 27 may be able to help her get the coveted ‘youth’ vote.  She seems to be the one to connect best with people on her Facebook page, rather than just using it to link to the leader’s campaign announcements.  I think if the Green Party is going to make any headway at all, it’s going to be through people such as Ms. Harrison.  I just don’t think Whitby-Oshawa is going to be the place for that first breakthrough.

So that’s my first look at the candidates running in Whitby-Oshawa.  The deadline for nominations is tomorrow (April 11) so it is still theoretically possible for an independent or fringe party candidate to join the race.  If there is a surprise new nomination, it will be listed at elections.ca by Wednesday April 13, and I’ll update this accordingly.

A tale of woe

On March 25, 2011, the children who inhabit Parliament Hill decided that they didn’t want to play nice, so decided to call an election in order to gain the approval of the electorate, who for the most part just want them to behave.  So now we are having our fourth federal election in seven years which will likely end up with very similar results to the previous two elections.  It seems that the only people that really wanted this election to happen are the politicians themselves, despite the evidence from polls that suggest yet another Conservative minority.

The official reason for the election was that the Opposition parties found the Conservative government to be in contempt of Parliament for not disclosing the costs of various bills that the government introduced.  Of course the full cost of legislation should be disclosed before the MPs vote on it, since they need a need a full and accurate account of all the implications of the bill before they can lend it their support.  And if the opposition parties actually performed a rational critique of other, previous bills, then finding the government in contempt would be an appropriate action.  However, the impression that I frequently get from the opposition parties is that they only want the cost because it is much easier to decry something in a 10-second sound-byte if the cost is included.  If the opposition parties really wanted to weigh the costs and benefits of a piece of legislation, we would hear sound bytes such as, “We believe that there should be a rational discussion on the needs of probable future combat missions that Canada may be called to in the future, and purchase new fighters jets in sufficient quantities to meet those needs.”  Instead, we get “Instead of spending $16 billion on untendered fighter jets, Liberals want to address the economic pressures facing Canadian families when it comes to family care, pensions, learning and jobs.” The fact that Canadians are still facing pressures from the recent recession does not mean that the Canadian military doesn’t need to jets.

Which is where this blog begins.  After hearing the government and the opposition hurl insults at each other across the floor of the House of Commons, I have decided that I’ve had enough.  Nothing is accomplished in Ottawa not because of the continuous minority governments, but because the MPs themselves don’t work well with others.  If both sides shut their collective mouthes long enough, they might notice that the voters have started tuning them out.  But there are many of us out there that do care about what goes on in Ottawa, despite all the nonsense.

So I am going to be doing my best to cast a critical eye on the upcoming election, and the political stories of the day.  I’ll add my voice to the crowd to say that I am fed up with the way things are going, and that it’s time for a change.  That change does not necessarily mean a change in government, but we need a change in attitudes of the people running the country.  While I generally lean towards conservative ideology, I have no party affiliation, and I would have no qualms about voting for a different party if the right candidate came along.  Unfortunately, none of the current crop of leaders seems to be that candidate.

I firmly believe that voting is an duty for all citizens, although I don’t currently feel that any of the major parties deserve my vote.  At the very least, that should make this election interesting.