Monday, May 08, 2017

Is British Columbia Headed in the Direction of Washington, Oregon and California?

The closing polls in the BC election suggest a close race perhaps trending in the direction of the incumbent BC Liberals, despite the name really small 'c' conservatives. However, it is clearly too close to call.

My seat estimate, which is based on riding boundaries that are out of date, suggests the NDP could finish a couple of seats ahead but one absolutely cannot tell. In the past many Green voters have switched to the NDP at the end of the campaign although so far there is no indication of that this time. If anything the strength of the Greens in this election (they are up from 8% last time to around 20%) may reflect in part that it has become a 'safe' alternative for some disaffected Liberals who are unhappy but want nothing to do with the 'dreaded socialists' (although the Green platform is clearly closer to the NDP than the Liberals).

In the 2013 election the BC Liberals won a comfortable majority of seats while winning the popular vote by just over four percentage points. I have done some poll averaging that suggests how tight it is this time:

British Columbia is a difficult place to poll because it is so diverse, ethnically and geographically. You can see from a map of the 2013 election that overall the NDP is stronger on the coast (as are the Greens) while the Liberals hold sway inland.

But what of the longer run? The small 'c' conservative coalition (originally as a Conservative-Liberal coalition, then Social Credit, and more recently BC Liberal) has dominated BC politics on all save three occasions since World War II. But can it sustain itself over time?

If we look south we a similar geographic pattern overall where the Democrats in blue generally dominate along the U.S. Pacific coast in elections to the U.S. House of Representatives (and Presidential, Senate and Governors races) while Republican strength in red is concentrated inland.

The west coast jurisdictions in the two countries have several key differences. However, one that is important is simply that B.C. extends further inland (its easternmost tip borders on Montana). The Pacific coast in both countries is where the large urban areas of Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are located and all lean left of centre.  Support for conservative parties in both places is stronger in rural (whether agricultural or resource-based) communities.

The blue state-red state trend in the U.S. is of relatively recent vintage (until the mid-nineties Republicans were strong in California), but the trend to more left of centre views (and growing green consciousness) is clearly characteristic of the coasts in both places. Can it be too many more years before the trends evident south of the border become typical of B.C.?

Friday, May 05, 2017

Clarence Lyle Barber

One hundred years ago today my father, Clarence Barber, was born on a farm near Wolseley Saskatchewan. His father was a farmer who sent milk to Regina, paying my father as a child to milk the cows. However, his mother had been a school teacher who highly valued education.

Clarence Barber
My dad was the second of four sons, three of whom would receive a PhD. In his early years he attended a one room school house, and loved to tell the story of being called on to give an answer in the late morning, but only after he had put on his skates to play hockey during the lunch hour.

He entered the University of Saskatchewan in 1937 three years after graduating from high school (the depression prevented him from starting sooner). By 1943 he had degrees from the University of Saskatchewan (1939), Clark University in Massachusetts (an MA in 1941) and had completed his course work for a PhD at the University of Minnesota (received in 1951).

At the conclusion of a summer course at the University of Chicago during his doctoral studies, the course professor, Frank Knight, handed him a copy of John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Although trained to that point by Chicago school free market economists, my father, as a result of this encounter, became a life-long Keynesian with an ongoing interest in seeking practical solutions to the economic difficulties facing ordinary people.

After two years in the RCAF he left the air force early in 1945 to participate in the preliminary work at the then Dominion Bureau of Statistics that would lead to the postwar creation of Canada's national accounts.

By 1949 he was established as a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba, where he would remain until his retirement in 1983. However, he worked for one year each at the Queen's (1954-55), McGill (1964-65) and the University of the Philippines while serving as an advisor with the United Nations in Manila in 1959-60.

His very accomplished career had some real high points:
  • He published a seminal article titled simply Canadian Tariff Policy in 1955 that articulated for the first time the theory of "effective protection" provided by the tariff.
  • He served as Director of Research for the Manitoba Royal Commission on Flood Cost-Benefit from 1957 to 1959. Without his pioneering work in cost- benefit analysis, the Red River Floodway around Winnipeg might not have been built. 
  • He served as President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in 1958-59, at a time when it was dealing the academic freedom scandal at United College in Winnipeg arising from the dismissal of Harry Crowe.  
  • In 1966 he was appointed by the Government of Canada as the only member of the Royal Commission on Farm Machinery, delivering its final report in 1970. 
  • In 1972-73 he served as President of the Canadian Economics Association.
  • In 1977 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. 
  • From 1982 to 1985 he was a member of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada. 
  • In 1987, he was appointed to the Order of Canada and to the Order of Manitoba in 2001.
His personal side was captured well in the Lives Lived column written by my brother Dave and published in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 2004 following his death at age 86 the previous February 27.
But it wasn't always hard work. In the early 1960s, he built a summer cottage on an island in the Lake of the Woods where he would spend the summers reading and relaxing. He loved to build and fix things: tables, a toy castle, a boat. My brothers and I joked that dad's handiwork was evident when we discovered some broken object that he had pasted back together in some ingenious manner.
Most importantly, he bestowed upon me and my brothers a profound sense of fairness, critical thinking, and acceptance of others. His favourite phrase was, "Where's your evidence?" Always sticking up for the underdog in defending an alternative viewpoint, he loved to debate issues of the day at the dinner table. At the height of Brian Mulroney's problems, I declared: "You know, dad, nobody likes Brian Mulroney." He replied emphatically, "In certain parts of Quebec, they do."  
A world traveler, he took my mother (affectionately known as "Babs"), me and my three brothers all around the world (with stops in the Philippines, Japan and London) when we were just kids. All this travelling exposed us to other cultures at a very young age - that was important. And he passed on to all of us a deep love of music; his record collection included everyone from Miles Davis to Ravi Shankar, Miriam Makeba and Glenn Gould. 
During the cold prairie winters he loved to ski and curl. But eventually Babs persuaded him to retire to a warmer climate in 1985 in Victoria, B.C. He developed a love of gardening, walking, and creating lists of the top 10 books he had read in that past year. Incredibly well-read, his lists reflected a huge curiosity about the world around him. He would often send these out at Christmas time as recommendations to friends. I marveled at the huge diversity of subjects on these lists. My dad championed the values of compassion, fairness and equality. Underlying his life and career was a deep thoughtfulness and kindness to others. If the measure of a man is whether he has made a difference in other's lives then my dad succeeded gloriously. 
There is nothing more for me to say except that we all still miss him.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Trudeau and electoral reform

This week Justin Trudeau killed the prospect of significant electoral reform in this Parliament. His argument that there isn't a consensus may be true. However, he is rightly getting flack from left and right because his original promise in June 2015 was unequivocal - he pledged that 2015 would be last election to be run under the first-past-the-post system.

It is playing out as one might expect. My guess is that the Liberal calculus is correct: electoral reform is not really a top of mind, critical voting consideration for most of the electorate. However, whenever you promise something in language that strong and then don't keep it, there will inevitably be damage to your trustworthiness. Remember Trudeau senior's problems with "Zap you're frozen!". He lost the next election.

The real winners here are the Conservatives who get to keep the system we now have, which they feel they can exploit by splitting the votes of other parties. They successfully seduced the NDP into supporting a referendum within the House of Commons' electoral reform committee, not a smart move on the NDP's part. The record of referendum results in Canada suggests default support in such votes is for the status quo. One expert testifying before the Electoral Reform Committee said: "The majority of people who came to the polls who knew nothing about it essentially voted against it. I think the Evidence, certainly from Ontario, suggests that the large majority who come to these referendums really know nothing about the substantive details of the issue." (See report, footnote 100 on page 32)

The referendum is not a good way in seeking change. In the current circumstances, the NDP has been strongly asserting that there is a consensus and strong popular support for the idea of proportional representation. I am skeptical of that claim; I suspect most of the electorate has no clear set of feelings on the subject. Had there been a referendum the majority may well have opted to keep first-past-the-post.

If the NDP had offered to support Trudeau's initial inclination for preferential voting the Liberals might still have cancelled electoral reform, but it would have been politically more difficult. From the perspective of those advocating greater changes such as proportional representation, any change in the electoral system, in my view, would have broken the ice in public consciousness on the issue and created the potential for further change.

There are still two future possibilities for electoral reform. The issue has been bubbling away at the provincial as well as the federal level. The BC NDP has promised to hold a referendum on proportional representation in time to implement the change before the subsequent provincial election, if they are elected in the upcoming provincial election on May 9 of this year. If they are successful, reform at the provincial order of government could have a powerful demonstration effect (remember how medicare got its start). BC has already conducted two referendums on electoral reform, one did have a majority in favour but nothing happened because the government set sixty percent as the benchmark for moving forward, and the other had a majority against.

The other possibility of future action is pressure from the NDP after the next election on a future minority Liberal government. At the moment such a prospect is simply in the realm of speculation. For all the talk of democratic reform and the appointment of a new minister, it is clear little will happen between now and the next election. However, compared to 10 years ago there has been considerable growth in support for electoral reform and proportional representation. The activist base supporting it is now much larger. It would be unwise to think its moment has passed forever.