Wednesday 20 April 2011

St Catharines Election Debate: Highs, Lows and the Frustrations of an Electoral System That Sucks

Four federal election candidates courted voters last night in a debate hosted by the St Catharines-Thorold Chamber of Commerce. Two other candidates were not invited, but they made sure everyone knew about it. Christian Heritage Party candidate Dave Bylsma addressed the crowd before the debate -- with or without permission, I don't know -- to register his feelings about being excluded, and Communist Party candidate Saleh Waziruddin followed suit. A show of hands revealed audience support for including them. I sympathize, although the logistics of adding another two panellists were definitely against them.

The final panel, then, comprised (L-R in the photo) current Conservative MP Rick Dykstra, Liberal rival Andrew Gill, Green Party candidate Jennifer Mooradian and NDP man Mike Williams. The criterion for inclusion was that each party must have received two percent of the national vote in the last federal election. Although Wazirrudin said he would file a complaint with Elections Canada, the organizers claimed the criterion was in line with Elections Canada's own policy.

I'm a first-time federal voter, so the last few weeks have involved getting to grips with a swath of political issues as I weigh up how I should vote on May 2nd. One month ago I hadn't a clue how I would vote. By last week, I had a much better idea. After last night's debate, I have a real conflict. I know which candidate I would vote for if every vote mattered. But in the Canadian electoral system, the majority of votes are wasted votes. I know how I'd like to vote, but I also know how I should vote to avoid an outcome I don't want. When you feel you have to vote strategically instead of for the best candidate, something is wrong with your democracy.

With that in mind, here's my take on how the candidates did last night.

Rick Dykstra (Conservative)

Poor Dykstra. He was sick last night, and I could tell. I believe he had a chest infection and was running a fever. He was visibly uncomfortable and fed-up. However, he has a strong record as St Catharines' representative in Ottawa, and he relied on that. People tell me he has done a lot of good for the region, and from what I've seen of him, he's a politician who does actually care for the community round here. He argued his corner well in the debate, hampered only by his illness. One thing that stuck out very strongly was that he never once, to my knowledge, mentioned the Conservatives or Stephen Harper. He talked about himself, "the government" and "Ottawa," but I don't recall him saying either "Conservative" or "Harper." If that was a deliberate strategy, I think it indicates those two words are a liability for Dykstra in this election.

Interestingly, by the way, when the debate turned to partisanship, cross-party cooperation and "working together" (I don't recall anyone mentioning the dreaded COALITION), Dykstra defended the viability of a minority government. I agree with him, but I'm curious whether he's toeing the party line. All I've been hearing from the Conservatives nationally is that we have to elect a majority government to prevent, I dunno, a big earthquake or something. Perhaps Dykstra senses the fear of another Harper minority government swinging voters away from the Conservatives?

Andrew Gill (Liberal)

Gill could not have been more different from Dykstra. From the beginning he talked mostly about the Liberal Party, its platform and its leader, Michael Ignatieff. I honestly thought the "Red Book" was a pejorative used only by critics for its obvious Communist associations, until I heard Gill refer to the Liberal platform with the term. His frequent mentions of Ignatieff, sometimes as simply "the Leader," added to the aura of devotion to the Liberal Party. It was a long time before he even mentioned St Catharines. For most of his solutions, he deferred repetitively to the main Liberal ideas, such as the Learning Passport. I would really have appreciated some more independence and an attempt to engage specifically with local issues.

Jennifer Mooradian (Green)

I don't think I'm alone in saying that Mooradian was the real surprise of the evening. My perception of the Green Party has always been that it is a single-issue party, but last night I learned that its name is misleading. If Mooradian truly represents the Green Party of Canada, I'd say it is a genuine alternative for progressive voters, with workable, evidence-based policies formed around a clear vision of a strong economy coupled with social justice. Mooradian consistently presented the issues with clarity and directness, and proposed unambiguous solutions with reference to the way things are in practice. She was also remarkably non-combative.

But candidates like Mooradian face an uphill battle to win in this election. For one thing, the party name is a liability. If I, as someone who invests hours in following politics, thought the Green Party was all about environmentalism, what does the average voter think? I mentioned this to my mom; her response was that she associated the party with being "on the wrong side of the law" (a perception she confessed rather timidly). In her head were images of unruly hippies, illegal squatters and fierce Greenpeace protesters. This has got to be a real problem for the Green Party. Second, reasonable arguments and evidence-based policy don't automatically win an election. It's not the way the media or politics work these days. Third, most voters are, I think, motivated by self-interest. When asked about restrictions on Niagara's wines being sold outside Ontario, the other three panellists took for granted that all restrictions were a bad thing; Mooradian alone turned it around and questioned the effect on other provinces. Unfortunately, "Hang on, let's look at this from their perspective" isn't a vote-winner. It can be, but it needs marketing. And this is the challenge for Mooradian and the Green Party when it comes to evidence-based policies and social justice.

Mike Williams (NDP)

I've tweeted to and about Mike Williams, and I feel bad that's it's almost all been negative. He seems like a fine guy, and I'd be happy to sit down and have a beer with him any time. (If I were much of a beer-drinker.) Unfortunately, he is really out of his depth in this election. And he's admitted it time and again. In the recent Cogeco TV debate, he more or less said he didn't have a clue and that a vote for him would be a vote for Jack Layton. He'd work damned hard for St Catharines, he told viewers, but he didn't have the experience to know what he was doing. He began last night's debate with the same apologetic schtick: I'm just a guy who works in a factory; I've read my party platform, but I don't have it memorized. Read: I'll try, but don't expect much. I suspect the NDP had a hard time finding a candidate in a riding where the party has no chance of winning a seat, so Williams reluctantly stepped into the gap.

In the debate, his main tack was to be the angry dissenter, fed up with the system and fighting back on behalf of ordinary people. But while the bitterness undoubtedly reflected the feelings of a lot of people, he gave no idea how he could or would change things. He railed against the Conservative government but suggested few concrete alternatives. On being asked how he would solve underfunding, his answer was literally "more funding." His solutions conjured up images of a bottomless pot of money somewhere in Ottawa, where the only question is whether our pockets are big enough. He passed on one question because he didn't know the party policy and so chose not even to comment.

How It Ended (for Me)

By the end of the evening, I had a pretty clear opinion of how the four candidates did in the debate. Rick was fine, despite being sick; Andrew was disappointing; Mike did poorly, but I didn't expect great things anyway; Jennifer blew me away. I spoke to Jennifer at the end, and I told her quite bluntly: My fear is that if I vote for you, it's a wasted vote.

I'm a small-L liberal. Most of the things I cherish about Canada I owe to big-L Liberals. With the right leadership and platform, the Liberal Party could be for me. And I will probably vote for them, because it's the only viable choice for me in this two-party race. If the Conservatives form the next government, I'll be disappointed; even more if it's a majority. I don't have a huge issue with Dykstra winning here, per se. I don't want another Tory government, although Dykstra seems okay to me so far.

But if the electoral system really worked and every vote counted, and if I had the confidence it would change a damned thing, I'd be voting for Jennifer Mooradian on May 2nd. Unfortunately, I don't have that confidence. Because the system sucks.

Friday 15 April 2011

Ignatieff's Absences: Why the Iggy Enigma Is My Personal Issue

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has received a fair bit of stick from Conservatives for his 30-year absence from Canada. Long before the 2011 federal election campaign, the Tories were running attack ads against Iggy: "He didn't come back for you."

Every time I hear that, I want to respond: "That's okay. I didn't come back for him either."

I'm a dual British-Canadian citizen. I was born in BC, moved to England at the age of five, returned to Canada for a couple of years in my twenties, and moved back to the UK from 2003 to 2009 before returning to Canada. So it stings a bit when I hear criticisms that suggest absence from Canadian soil is a reason for questioning a citizen's loyalty, commitment or patriotism. Dual nationality is a blessing and a curse, and I've lived 33 years with the joys and the hurts that come from being tied equally to two nations. But I'm no less Canadian because I'm British and no less British because I'm Canadian. I love both my nations.

It's far from certain, however, that all the criticism of Ignatieff's Canadian credentials stem from the mere fact he was away for three decades. It's an undercurrent I've detected in some attacks; but there are legitimate questions, too. It's an unavoidable fact that Ignatieff ran for a seat in the House of Commons almost immediately on returning to Canada. Once an MP, and following Paul Martin's 2006 election defeat, he unsuccessfully ran for leadership of the Liberal Party. He succeeded in his leadership bid in 2008, and now he has a good chance of becoming Canada's Prime Minister. He spent those 30 years outside Canada as a historian, scholar, commentator and writer. Politics, in one form or another, is what he's always done. Maybe that makes him a careerist, an opportunist. Maybe that just means he knows his stuff and that's what he's good at.

Ignatieff's detractors have exploited his statements to the hilt. The most common soundbites don't hold up. He referred to the Canadian flag as "an imitation of a beer label," but read in context, it was clearly ironic, self-deprecating, affectionate, patriotic humour. He told Maclean's the only thing he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park, but I haven't been able to find the original article anywhere. (It definitely exists; I just can't check the context.) Given that, I doubt more than a handful of Ignatieff's critics have seen it either. These are cheap shots.

Then there's the question of whether Ignatieff voted in other countries. He and his office have gone back and forth on this, although it appears now the fact is he voted in the UK as a member of the Commonwealth. He claims not to remember how many or which Canadian elections he voted in while abroad. As for voting in other countries, his prevarication only fuels the erroneous and offensive (to me) assumption that voting in another country puts a person's loyalty to Canada into question. As well as being enshrined in law, it's perfectly possible to be a loyal Canadian and vote in or be a citizen of another country.

His opponents have confronted Iggy with more than just his absence from Canada. In Tuesday's Leader's Debate, NDP leader Jack Layton charged Ignatieff with a dismal 30% attendance record for parliamentary votes. It turned out the actual figure was 41% -- an improvement, but hardly impressive. Ignatieff dodged Layton's question and visibly lost his temper, snapping: "At least we get into government. You'll be in opposition forever." He later appeared to dodge a French reporter asking the same question in the post-debate scrum. Bad move, Iggy. You owe it to voters to explain a 59% absence.

Iggy is an enigma. There are some questions, but those questions are clouded by popular suspicions about Ignatieff's Canadian credentials based purely on his absence from residency in Canada. That merits asking whether he knows enough to govern Canada. It doesn't merit questioning his loyalty or patriotism. That is offensive.

It may be that questions of loyalty and patriotism are a Tory problem, however. I haven't noticed anyone but the Conservatives making a big issue of Ignatieff's Canadianness. As a dual citizen, this concerned me, and I looked into the issue a bit. I learned that in 2006, the Conservative government challenged Canada's laws on dual citizenship in the midst of an influx of Canadian citizens from Lebanon, due to the Israel-Hezbollah War.

Should I be worried that the Conservative Party doesn't like the laws on dual citizenship? Should I fear for my own status as a dual citizen? I have a history and a heritage in this country, and the mere thought of losing that is enough to bring tears to my eyes. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees my right to come and go from my country.

(Would it be far-fetched to suggest I probably don't need to worry because, unlike my fellow Lebanese-Canadians, I'm white, Western and not "ethnic"?)

I don't know what I think of Iggy. I have an idea what I think about his policies, but for me the jury's still out on whether the man himself is more opportunist than anything else. One thing I'm not prepared to do is to question his identity and loyalty as a Canadian purely because he lived outside the country for 30 years. That kind of unpatriotic thinking is just too close to home.


Canadian and British and Very, Very Proud

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Election Debate: The Morning after the Fight Before

Last night, all of Canada, or at least the handful bothered with the current election, tuned in to the 2011 Leaders' Debate. I'm a Canadian citizen from birth, but this is my first federal election as a voter, so I've been following the campaign with interest. I began the election with no idea which way to vote. I think I've arrived at a fairly firm decision, but not without seriously considering the alternatives.

Admittedly, last night's debate was as much about the excitement as the issues for me. So, here, in the spirit of politico-entertainment punditry, is my take on how each of the four leaders -- Stephen Harper (Conservative), Michael Ignatieff (Liberal), Jack Layton (New Democratic Party) and Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Québécois) -- did in the debate.

Stephen Harper
Tory commentators say he was calm; I say he did a James Franco and smoked weed before the show. He was incredibly placid and soft-spoken, as is generally his manner, but I thought his tone got whining and fed-up very early on. Despite the low, soft tones, he quickly began to sound defensive, exasperated and impatient when the challenges started coming in (predictably, from the outset). As far as the issues went, he seemed to go in with "Economy, economy, economy" on the brain, so he clearly thinks that's his strong point and the issue that will win the election for the Conservatives.

Michael Ignatieff
Ignatieff went straight for Harper's jugular on the issue of trust. Harper consistently blamed an election Canadians don't want on the opportunism of the other parties, but Ignatieff repeated a few times that the election was called because Harper couldn't tell the truth on "jets, jails and corporate tax giveaways." It eventually got a bit repetitive, as Ignatieff repeated the same attacks verbatim. He also got pretty grumpy a few times, and lost it when Layton challenged him on his absence record from parliamentary votes. (Layton claimed Ignatieff's attendance was a mere 30%, although it's actually a mildly better 41%, or 59% absence.) An irritated Iggy flew off the handle and snapped: "At least we get into government. You'll be in opposition forever." Though he looked childish, he successfully dodged the issue. I heard a French reporter challenge him on the same point in the post-debate press scrum, but Iggy appeared to evade the issue again, disappearing hastily.

Jack Layton
I'm not surprised that most people declared Layton the winner. He was the most impressive, and he won the debate because he has the least to lose. Conservatives naturally hail his success because they know it would be a stretch to declare Harper the winner, and championing Layton is a nice way to divide the left-wing vote. Layton was the liveliest, most coherent and most polished of the four voices. His main tack was to suggest that Ignatieff and Harper were "best friends." He was big on the social justice issues and managed to get in a few mentions of climate change, an issue otherwise hardly discussed; doubtless a manoeuvre to win over some Greens (who, to a bit of an outcry, were left out of the debate).

Gilles Duceppe
Quebec, Quebec, Quebec. Are you surprised? I'm a BC boy living in Ontario, so the BQ isn't an issue as to how I'll vote. I find Duceppe a bit comical and hysterical. I was distracted by his unintentionally funny English mispronunciations -- "ship" became "shit," "second" became "chicken," and "developing" became "dev'lopping." I only wish I knew French better so I could watch tonight's debate and hear the English leaders mangle their French pronunciations in the same way.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

The Origins of David L Rattigan

I adopted the pen name David L Rattigan in 2003, when I was a young gay man desperate to escape the closet but too afraid to own what were, to me, the three hardest words in the world: I am gay.

"Rattigan" comes from Terence Rattigan (1911-1977), the gay British playwright. His works -- which fell out of fashion in the late 1950s but seem now to be the subject of renewed appreciation --often featured vulnerable, shame-filled characters trying to repress their supposed sexual failings; characters like the tragic classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version and the haunted Major Pollock in Separate Tables. It was never difficult for me to look at these creations and recognize their gayness.

I was blogging almost daily back then, but I never revealed to my readers why I had chosen the name Rattigan. The choice was a faint cry for someone to recognize me and affirm me. I hoped, not entirely consciously, someone would make the connection and do for me what I was struggling so fiercely to do for myself.

Then there's the "L." Do you know what it stands for? Neither do I. I have some ideas, but I've never been certain. I like to imagine David L Rattigan as my alter ego, a part of me I still don't completely know myself. I've a feeling the "L" will always be mysterious to me.

Monday 4 April 2011

America's Most Hated Family: An American Tragedy

America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, Louis Theroux's follow-up to the 2007 documentary The Most Hated Family in America, is upsetting in a way the first film wasn't.

In this sequel, broadcast by the BBC on April 3, Theroux revisits the Westboro Baptist Church, run by the Phelps clan, the Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist cult infamous for its message that "God hates fags," "God hates America" and, dammit, God just hates everyone in the world but them. But this time round, it was a more upsetting experience for me. Back then, they seemed just a bunch of isolated weirdos. In the new film, Theroux probes deeper, especially into the minds of the church's young people, some of whom have since left or been shunned by the church.

One such young person is Libby Phelps, who tearfully describes how a series of events, stemming from the sin of wearing a bikini on a vacation to Puerto Rico, led to the sudden realization that she just "had to get out." I was reminded uncomfortably of my own mom's experience in an abusive fundamentalist church, and my advice to her when the control it had over her began to unravel: Run.

An aspect of the Westboro Baptist Church that came through very strongly in the original documentary was how brilliantly its members managed to hide all signs of inner conflict. Jael Phelps, for example, displayed a remarkably wide and resilient smile in the face of a grilling. In the sequel, we see the veneer begin to crack, however, and never more so than in Theroux's interview with the likeable teenager Grace. She is visibly uncomfortable toeing the Phelps line, and it's clear the rest of the clan know it. Her peers surround her, watching her words like hawks. Eventually some of the other girls let their masks slip as they get emotional talking about their attachment to a group of young (male) students who visited the church from Holland. Jael exerts such control over the situation that Louis turns to her and says:
What are you, like the Gestapo now? ... Your role is [to] interject the doctrinal hard line at key moments, when people are showing vulnerability?
Another tragic moment is when Louis talks to an Asian man, who sits taking notes at the back of the church during a service. The rather effeminate young man hopes to join the church, but isn't yet sure he's ready. He believes he's going to hell, and when asked whether he's obeying God, he answers, "Truthfully, no, because that is something that I have to work on." Matriarch Shirley Phelps-Roper interjects to inform Louis the guy came in "off the streets of San Francisco." It's not difficult to fill in the blanks -- and it's tragic.

Viewers in the UK still have until Sunday April 10 to watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer. The videos are also on YouTube, although they may not remain there for long.