Max Cameron


Why I’m happy to vote Yes on the Transit Referendum

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Last year I spent seven months in a major city in Latin America. The congestion, pollution and crime are so bad that it makes moving around the city a nightmare. A trip that should take 15 minutes can take 45 minutes to an hour. 45 minutes breathing noxious gases, in aggressive traffic, is enough to make anyone prefer to stay home and read a book rather than go to the theatre, a good restaurant, or meet up with friends.

The experience impressed on me the value of public transit. When I think of public transit I don’t just think about buses, trains, roads and bridges. I think of the freedom to move around town tolerably efficiently, safely, cheaply and sustainably. This is just one of the goods we get in return for the taxes we pay.

Our well-being is closely tied to the quality of these kinds of goods. Others such goods include great public schools, and a public health care system that does not ask for a credit card before asking what ails us, safe streets. Governments alone can provide these goods, and they benefit us all. Many Canadians take them for granted. I don’t. That is why I support the transit referendum.

I will vote Yes because I want to continue to live in a vibrant, livable, safe, clean, sustainable, healthy, and naturally beautiful city. The small tax increase we pay now is an investment in the future. It is a bit of insurance against Vancouver becoming a congested, segregated, unsafe and smoggy city.

I admit there are things about the referendum that I don’t like. I don’t see the necessity of asking voters every time we need to raise taxes to make public investments. This sets a bad precedent and could put us on the same path that has been so disastrous for California where governments have been hamstrung by naysaying voters.

I also don’t like the fact that the revenue for transit will come from a regressive consumption tax. People with high incomes don’t need public goods as much as the public at large, but they should still pay their fair share—maybe more. They can drive luxury cars rather than use the bus or train, pay for private rather than public schools and clinics, and wall themselves off from social problems like homelessness and addiction.

But just because high income earners can find private substitutes for public goods does not mean they should be free riders. The more the affluent fail to contribute to public goods, the more we are like to become like Third World cities with their glaring disparities of income and underfunded public goods.

For all the problems with this referendum, voting “No” is short-sighted and counter-productive. The website of the “No” campaign invites voters to forgo the tax and spend their money on private consumption—a dinner out, a hockey game, or swimming lessons.

I’ll happily pay a modest increase in taxes for public transportation because enjoying the goods comparable cash can buy turns out to be a lot less rewarding when the child you’re taking to swimming lessons has asthma from air pollution, or you’re too tired from spending miserable and unproductive hours in congested streets breathing polluted air on your lengthy commute home, to bother dinning out or going to the hockey game with friends.

Written by Max

February 18th, 2015 at 12:16 pm

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Vancouver Votes for the Status Quo

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The November 15, 2014, elections in the Lower Mainland provided more evidence of the high rate of incumbency in BC municipal politics: all the largest population centres voted for the status quo. Incumbents were re-elected in Vancouver (Gregor Robertson), Burnaby (Derek Corrigan), Richmond (Malcolm Brodie), North Van (Darrell Mussatto) and the Tri-Cities (Greg Moore, Mike Clay, Richard Stewart). In Surrey, Dianne Watts’ anointed successor Linda Hepner won by a surprising margin. In Langley Township, incumbent Jack Froese warded off a challenge from former mayor Rick Green. There were upset victories in more troubled municipalities: Jonathan Cote’s victory over longstanding mayor Wayne Wright in New Westminster, or the election of Randy Hawes in Mission. In both cases there were conflicts between mayors and their councils. In Abbotsford, Henry Braun ousted Bruce Banman; and in Maple Ridge Ernie Daykin lost to Nicole Read. Perhaps most surprisingly, the election of Lisa Helps—by the narrowest margin—in Victoria is a real surprise. But the main overall takeaway is that voters are happy with the status quo.

In the waning days of the campaign it looked like the Vision government might go down to defeat in Vancouver. After his political “near-death experience,” we may see a chastened Mayor Robertson attempt to be a better listener. He did promise to welcome more voices in his acceptance speech, but he also won a mandate to continue his policies: seeking to be the “greenest city,” prioritizing climate change, affordability, and homelessness. The NPA approach focused on growth, economic development, investment, transparency and accountability. It would have aligned Vancouver more closely with the ideological bent in Victoria and Ottawa. That this did not happen is a reminder that Vancouver is different, especially on the environment—something the federal parties will have to think about in 2015. The results were not what the oil and gas industry hoped for. The cities of Vancouver and Burnaby have both expressed opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, and Patricia Heintzman, the new mayor of Squamish, is opposed to the construction of an LNG plant in that municipality.

The NPA campaign was polarizing and negative. Kirk LaPointe could have run as someone who would not radically depart from the Vision agenda, but would offer more consultation and transparency, but then it would have been hard for him to differentiate himself from Gregor Robertson who already enjoyed greater name recognition and standing in the community. Instead, he ran a more polarizing campaign that highlighted differences between the candidates. Vision seemed surprised by such a strong challenge. Rather than using the negative ads to take the high road, Vision took NPA and LaPointe to court, which seemed petulant rather than politically astute. The Seinfeld-esque apology (an apology about nothing) looked insecure and…well, apologetic.  At one point, in the same debate in which the apology was offered, the mayor was put on the defensive about being a bike rider. He did not strike back over the attack ads, and did not aggressively defend his record. In the end, however, both the strength of the NPA campaign and the weakness of the mayor’s performance was not enough to convince voters to abandon the status quo. I tend not to like negative campaigns because they turnoff voters, suppress turnout, and encourage people to dislike politics and politicians. In this case, however, the NPA campaign led to a tighter-than-expected race, and this probably increased turnout. I think the high turnout may have favoured Vision, which had the better-oiled machine to pull the vote. Ironically, much of Vision’s support may have been a vote against the NPA as much as a vote of confidence in Vision.  

Written by Max

November 16th, 2014 at 9:09 am

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Venezuela: The Failure of the Fifth Republic

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Published in LSE IDEAS.

The turmoil that has rocked Venezuela since early February has resulted in almost 30 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and 1,500 detentions (see timeline here). Although such protests were never likely to threaten the survival of the regime, their intensity, breadth, and duration have exposed the deep cleavages and polarization in Venezuelan society. The intent of many of the protesters is clear: to bring down a government elected less than a year ago.

After 15 years in power, why is the Venezuelan political regime still vulnerable to anti-system opposition? One might ask, to steal a line from Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘en que momento se jodió?’ most from the beginning, I would say. What we are witnessing in Venezuela today is a crisis brought about by the failure of chavismo to adhere to principles of its own ‘Bolivarian’ constitution—indeed, principles inherent in any constitution.

Neither ex-President Hugo Chávez (1998-2013), nor incumbent President Nicolás Maduro, ever fully appreciated the critical role of opposition in constitutional and democratic regimes: to offer a viable electoral alternative to the existing government and to question the actions of government officials, criticise them when appropriate, and thereby ensure that those in power are accountable between elections. The opposition has never truly united around a consensus on whether to play by the constitutional rules of the game. Neither side recognises the legitimacy of the other.

For over a decade, there has been a negative dialectic between the government and the opposition: Chávez minimised the role of the opposition in the constituent assembly that wrote the 1999 Constitution (surely a mistake); the opposition tried to topple Chávez in a botched coup attempt (huge mistake); Chávez hardened his regime, cracking down on critical media and reinforcing popular organisations; a chastened opposition organised a petition to recall Chávez by referendum (a good move, albeit unsuccessful); Chávez fought and prevailed using every trick in the book; a demoralised oppositionboycotted the 2005 legislative election and then was trounced in presidential elections the next year (score two for Chávez); Chávez radicalised his revolution; the opposition unified and organised its best effort to challenge Chávez at the polls in 2012, followed by an even stronger result against Maduro in 2013.

This brings us to the present, where the dismal pattern has continued: Maduro should have read hisnarrow victory as a sign that he needs to reach out to the opposition, but (perhaps more worried about sustaining the internal cohesion of his coalition) he instead confronted and attacked the opposition (mistake); a fraction of the latter threw its support behind student protests of February 2014, using#LaSalida to give them a stronger anti-regime flavour (mistake). The protests have not spread much beyond Venezuela’s middle and upper middle-classes, but they have spread across the country and have lasted for over a month.

All this illustrates that the Bolivarian constitution, although not merely printed matter, has not been fully institutionalised. The government and opposition in Venezuela cannot rise above their differences and recognise each other as citizens. Maduro calls his opponents ‘fascists’; the opposition calls the government a ‘dictatorship’. This can be fatal for democracy. As Guillermo O’Donnell put it, democracy depends on an ‘institutionalised wager’: I may believe you are wrong, but I must respect your right to vote and be elected (2010: 26). We have the same rights of citizenship. These rights are not negotiable. They are inalienable and imprescriptible, and they are backed up by an organisational guarantee: the rule of law under the separation of powers. This is why constitutions matter. They are the constitutive rules of democratic politics and provide the generative grammar that enables democracy to flourish (Cameron 2013).

How should we characterise the Venezuelan political system? Specifically, is Venezuela democratic or authoritarian? The answer is that it is both; it is a hybrid regime. There non-fraudulent elections; but elections are a means to a set of ends or ‘goods’—and they alone do not make a regime democratic. The ends (or ‘goods’) are: (1) the possibility of alternation in power; and (2) the guarantee that a government will govern democratically and that the opposition will accept the results, because it has a legitimate voice and stake in the system. Elections must be free and fair to ensure that they produce these democratic goods, which means that further conditions must be present: access to alternative sources of information, the right to assembly, association and protections for fundamental rights and freedoms. The Venezuelan government has grossly violated these conditions.

Venezuela’s democracy is thus defective; it is plebiscitary and delegative. But is it authoritarian? Classifying a regime as authoritarian requires more than highlighting defects in its democratic features—it requires evidence of authoritarianism. The idea of competitive authoritarianism, although useful, needs further specification to avoid creating confusion over where to draw the line between democracy and authoritarian rule.

The voluminous literature on authoritarian rule reveals a common thread. In authoritarian regimes, a coalition of non-elected officials rules by coercion. Such governments cannot be removed by means of elections. They may be military and/or civilian; they may have technocratic and corporativist elements. Before labelling Venezuela as authoritarian, we would need to see such a coalition come into sharper relief. Perhaps it is there in waiting. We see armed colectivos, the regime’s Rottweilers; we see a politicised military throughout the bureaucracy; we see a Boli-bourgeoisie that does not want to lose its privileges. Could these elements come together to prevent alternation in power? Possibly, but it has not to date. What is clear is that these groups are not interested in allowing the opposition to play its critical role.

In short, the Venezuelan political system today has both democratic and authoritarian features that are at odds with each other. This should guide our thinking about how to avoid deepening the conflict. Venezuela urgently needs dialogue between the government and the opposition. We know from the transitology literature that hard-liners in the regime and radicals in the opposition often reinforce each other, and that successful transitions involve coalitions between soft-liners and moderates (Przeworski 1992). Building such a coalition demands great leadership skills on both sides—but it is possible. It is the challenge faced by current generation of leaders in Venezuela, and the international community can help.

The situation in Venezuela calls for the flexible and proactive diplomacy. In the absence of effective action by the OAS, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has offered to convene a much needed dialogue. To be meaningful, any dialogue will have to include human rights, freedom of the press, rights of the opposition, restoration of the constitutional separation of powers, citizen security and the rule of law. As Jennifer McCoy notes, it will have to create space for moderates, build confidence, and restore communication between government and opposition.

The lesson this crisis offers the rest of the world is the importance of opposition in a democracy: ‘In democracies the opposition is an organ of popular sovereignty just as vital as the government. To suppress the opposition is to suppress the sovereignty of the people’ (Guglielmo Ferrero cited in Sartori 1987: 32).



Cameron, Maxwell A. 2013. Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Donnell, Guillermo. 2010. Democracy, Agency, and the State: Theory with Comparative Intent. New York: Oxford University Press.

Przeworski, Adam. 1992. “The Games of Transition.” In Issues in Democratic Consolidation: The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective, Ed. Scott Mainwaring, et al. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, pp. 105-152.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1987. The Theory of Democracy Revisited: Part I. Clatham: Clatham House Publishers.

Written by Max

March 22nd, 2014 at 9:54 am

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Drone Warfare and the Constitution

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From the Fletcher Forum.

Thirteen-year-old Zubair Rehman recently told members of Congress how his grandmother, Mamana Bibi, was “exploded to pieces” by a U.S. drone attack while picking okra for a family meal. A similarly tragic drone strike in Yemen last month killed a wedding party of fifteen. The Obama administration should take three measures to safeguard against such atrocities in the future. First, encourage Congress to develop guidelines for the use of drones. Second, create a drone court to authorize strikes and provide remedy for victims. And third, curtail Central Intelligence Agency involvement in drone warfare.

Are such measures really necessary? Advocates for the use of drones point out that they have effectively neutralized terror networks and leaders, such as Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud. Mehsud was reportedly the mastermind of an attack on a CIA post in Afghanistan that killed several Americas (an event dramatized in Zero Dark Thirty).

But what about targets that fall into the ethical gray zone between killing Mamana Bibi and Mehsud? How do we decide who is a civilian and who is a “militant”? By what criteria are people designated legitimate targets? When is it legal to kill combatants outside active hostilities? How can we know when a killing is justifiable on grounds of self-defense, and when it is punitive?

To answer to these questions, we must recall why constitutional democracies distribute authority and responsibility among the branches of government. If the rule of law is to mean anything, it cannot be up to the president and those under his authority alone to decide who shall live or die. If the executive can enact laws and execute them, standing in arbitrary judgment over citizens, there can be no security of life and liberty.

This is how James Madison and the Founders of the United States Constitution understood the separation of powers. Madison also understood that the normal functioning of deliberative institutions would be impossible in times of war. That is why he said, as Obama noted in his May 23 speech at the National Defense University, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

This was not the view of Bush-era officials who argued that permanent war should give the president exceptional powers, permanently. Obama can still distinguish his policies from those of the Bush administration by strengthening the separation of powers as part of the effort to phase out the “war on terror.” This would accomplish more than presidential guidelines that can be thrown away by the next incumbent.

First and foremost, the legislature, not the executive, should write the rules governing the legal use of force. The executive needs a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), one that clarifies the proper scope of presidential war-making powers in the specific context of drone warfare. It is not enough to apprise select congressional committees of executive decisions involving lethal force; legislators should spell out, after a public debate, rules governing the use of drones outside the battlefield wherever targets are not directly engaged in acts of terrorism.

The second step would be for Congress to authorize the creation of a drone court, as many legal experts have suggested. Such a court would oversee compliance with rules established by congress. Just as a judge can authorize an arrest or search warrant, drone courts could authorize the use of force in situations where there is ambiguity over the legality of a targeting decision. A court would also provide remedy for victims of unlawful uses of force.

The final step would be to halt drone campaigns by the CIA and place drones exclusively under control of the Armed Forces. Obama has been excessively deferential to the CIA. This is unfortunate, because the CIA does not act in the public domain. The CIA should be limited to providing intelligence—not fighting covert wars—because it is a creature of the executive, over which the deliberative branches of government have little control.

These three steps would compel the branches of government to work together in the fight against terrorism. The role of the courts and congress would expand as the level of threat diminished and the use of military force shifted from self-defense against imminent attacks to the disruption of potentially threatening networks. This will not debilitate the presidency, nor undermine U.S. security. On the contrary, it will strengthen the rule of law and prevent the further corrosion of the Constitution.

The separation of powers enables the United States to act deliberately, efficaciously, and lawfully in making decisions about morally significant actions involving life and death. It is at the heart of what gives the United States a strong constitution; vigilance in holding the government accountable is the price of these democratic values.

Written by Max

January 14th, 2014 at 12:02 pm

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Fiddling While Rome Burns? Not so fast Mr. Martin

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Lawrence Martin complains that Canadian political scientists are not speaking out on the malaise that affects our democracy (“Canadian Political Scholars Fiddle While Rome Burns”, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2013).  He quotes political scientists who share his lament for our profession.  It is true that as political science becomes more narrow, technical, and abstract it loses relevance to the practice of democratic politics.  But there are also powerful forces that push us in the direction of public engagement.

Like many political scientists, I am not happy with the state of parliamentary democracy in Canada today.  We all lament the excesses of party discipline, the toxic levels of partisanship, the media focus on negative attacks, and the failure of many parliamentarians to live up to the ideals of the institution they serve. But laments are not enough.

That is why UBC brought political scientists and practitioners together to create a Summer Institute for Future Legislators (watch a superb W5 documentary on our boot camp here).  We are actually training aspiring politicians in the art and craft of parliamentary practices. In developing this program we take inspiration from a series of books published by UBC press from the Canadian Democratic Audit (which Mr. Martin does not mention).  Indeed, we assign David Docherty’s book from that series, Legislatures.  We also draw on the work of Samara on the role of parliament, a project that mobilized the knowledge of many political scientists.

We agree with Samara’s main finding: we need to empower ordinary MPs.  For a constitution to work well, MPs must find their voice and reassert their authority – over the bureaucracy, over parties, and even, from time to time, over the Prime Minister’s office.  Brett Rathgeber is no maverick.  He is doing what MPs were elected to do.

Of course, as a political scientist I am under no illusions that my discipline can produce better legislators.  Aristotle famously said that politics is a practice, and practice demands experience.  Few political scientists have real world experience in politics.  No amount of peer reviewed research can replace the knowledge, experience, and judgment of an able practitioner.  That is why our summer institute seeks to bridge academic reflection and practical experience.  Preston Manning, Mike Harcourt, Anne McLellan and many others have volunteered their time to help us create a new generation of democratic leaders.

It is true that this takes the university into uncharted territory, and not all political scientists have an appetite for that challenge.  Some will continue to focus all their efforts on abstract research while leaving to others the task of translating their knowledge into practice.  But to suggest that we’re all fiddling while Rome burns is to miss at least part of the action.

Written by Max

November 8th, 2013 at 11:47 am

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Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized

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From Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s Canada’s Democracy Week Blog.

Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized. Many people – particularly youth – no longer see politics as the critical arena for making change. Few of my students want to run for office, though many are public-spirited. They’d rather start a fair trade café, use social media to advance awareness of homelessness and environmental issues, or fundraise for research on cancer or MS. They have civic virtue, but politics is not their vocation.

Many good people are deterred from political participation by the disrepute into which politics has fallen. Scandals over expenses, toxic levels of partisanship, and the media emphasis on political theatrics over the prosaic grind of legislation give politicians a bad rap. Canadians reject the culture of entitlement, Question Period antics, bullying and infighting. That is why UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions created the first-ever Summer Institute for Future Legislators.

We began with the premise that universities can and should prepare people for public life. Not academic preparation but training and mentoring by practitioners who could help impart the skills and know-how to be effective as legislators. The Summer Institute was cross-partisan – we included practitioners and participants from all parties. The only requirement was an aspiration to participate in politics. We recruited over 50 men and women of all ages and backgrounds – from business, the media, students, First Nations, lawyers, civil servants – and put them through a kind of boot camp: four Saturday workshops followed by a model parliament in the Legislature in Victoria. Others participated for free online.

The boot camp not only inspired greater interest in politics as a career, it provided an exemplar of what democratic life could be. Rather than replicate parliamentary business as usual, our political wannabes raised the bar. They came away with a deeper appreciation of the demands of political life, yet were not deterred; it actually made them feel more confident that they knew what they were getting into. We saw how quickly group-think kicks in, as participants began to operate as teams, but also how effectively they were able to monitor and overcome the tendency to bully, grandstand or exclude. As a result, mock legislation was passed by broad majorities following impressive deliberations. A sense of accomplishment was palpable as we ended the sitting.

By preparing people for public life we can encourage more good people to enter politics, channel the civic virtue of some of our best citizens, and demonstrate that politics can be done differently. That is just one way to reconnect citizens with democracy.

Written by Max

September 23rd, 2013 at 8:16 am

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Why is Obama consulting Congress on military strikes in Syria?

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From the Strong Constitutions blog.

In relation to the separation of powers, the key phrase in Obama’s speech on Syria today was:

“That’s [to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike] my judgment as Commander-in-Chief. But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.”

There are three possible explanations for this.

1. “The Iraq Syndrome.”  Like the Vietnam syndrome before it, the Iraq syndrome means we’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends.  The experience with Iraq has made it impossible to sell military action without major public diplomacy.

2. “Blood Pact.”  Obama needs to involve both his own party and Republicans in complicity with actions he knows will neither be popular nor easy.

3. “He is a true constitutionalist.”  Obama gets that countries are stronger when they use the separation of powers to coordinate the branches of government to act energetically while upholding the rule of law.

The problem with (1) is that, for all the reasons Obama has outlined, this is not at all like Iraq in 2003.  There is no question that WMDs have been used, and the “war” on terror is not being used as a pretext to do what the President has already decided to do.

As for argument (3), Obama certainly has given evidence of wanting to limit the war-making powers of the President.  I don’t doubt that his sentiments are sincere. But so far his efforts have been extremely tepid.  Consider his campaign of drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.

Argument (2) seems most persuasive at this point.  Obama knows that military action in Syria is unpopular and will be used against him.  Why should he take the fall alone?

That said, especially coming on the heels of the vote in the UK parliament against British involvement in strikes on Syria, it is great to see deliberative institutions being put to work.  Let’s hope some precedents are being set.


Written by Max

September 10th, 2013 at 9:31 pm

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UBC boot camp for politicians kicks off

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Over 50 people gathered at the Liu Institute on Saturday, June 15, to kick off UBC’s first ever boot camp for politicians. The event was a great launch to the Summer Institute for Future Legislators.

Folks started arriving even before we could get the building open at 8:30 am to begin registration. Even as we mingled over muffins and coffee we could feel a good vibe in the group. One of our participants, Victor Guerin, from the Musqueam First Nation, welcomed us with moving words. I made a few remarks, followed by Mike Harcourt, and we then did introductions all around. This gave us a sense of the range and diversity of the group. Mike asked how many people aspired to federal, provincial and local office, and it was immediately clear that most are looking at running locally and provincially. We formed three political parties (government, official opposition, and third parties), whose first task was to come up with names. The Action Party, Justice League, and Canadian Party for Change were chosen. A welcoming video from Preston Manning was then shown, followed by a discussion of the program and the expectations of the participants.

At lunch CTV’s Jon Woodward showed up with a camera and began to interview some of the participants for a W5 documentary. Jon will follow them over the coming weeks to document how their thinking may evolve and what they take away from the experience. After lunch Stockwell Day gave a terrific talk about his experiences in the House of Commons – everything from question period to handling the media to personal challenges. He was lively and entertaining and offered some wise words of advice.

Gerry Baier introduces Stockwell Day

I appreciated his Tweet: “Totally impressed with turnout and quality of those at UBC Summer Series on Democracy. The future looks good with citizens like these.”

After thanking Day, our participants were divided into three committees. They had to agree on basic rules of procedure and then discuss the role of the MP, reporting back to the larger group. The discussions provided a chance to practice some of the skills needed to reach consensus on substance and procedure as well as to get used to doing simulations, which we will do more of in the coming weeks. Gerry Baier and Campbell Sharman ran a tight ship with each event keeping rigorously to the time table. In all, we’re off to a great start.

Next Saturday we meet in the Choi Building with Mike Harcourt, Preston Manning and Joy McPhail. Looking forward to learning more from the interactions between experienced practitioners and aspiring politicians.

Written by Max

June 16th, 2013 at 8:23 pm

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Delegative vs. Liberal Democracy in Latin America

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Nelson Manrique has touched a nerve with a recent column. The re-election of Correa and Chavez is a dilemma for analysts who have cast these leaders as autocrats, as was the re-election of Evo Morales and Cristina Kirchner. The so-called “bad leftists” – in Jorge Castaneda’s argot – have proven remarkably popular. Reactions have come from Steve Levitsky, Martin Tanaka, Eduardo Dargent, among others. I’m mentioned by Tanaka, so am inclined to add a few thoughts.

Perhaps Manrique should not have rested his case so heavily on survey data of attitudes toward democracy, since we all know that the same data showed the popularity of Fujimori in the 1990s. Democracy is not just a popularity contest. But there are deeper reason for the success of the governments whose democratic credentials have been questioned.

In the first place, they have, by and large, governed well. This is certainly true by comparison with the governments that immediately preceded them. Who can forget the chaos that followed de la Rua’s resignation in Argentina? Or the catastrophic impasse in Bolivia in the middle of the last decade? And does anyone seriously think that any of the leaders of Ecuador over the past 15 years can hold a candle to Correa? Or that Chavez has not governed as well as Caldera or Andres Perez? We forget that these countries went through serious crises before their current governments got them back on track.

And it is not just that they have restored a sense of order, a sense that a better future is possible. They have governed, in contrast to extraordinarily callous neoliberal governments that proceeded them, with a single-minded concern for showing results for the majority of the population. Call it clientelism or vote buying if you like, but they have all tried to redistribute wealth to the benefit of marginalized majorities.

And not just wealth, power too. They have also experimented with a remarkable new repertoire of participatory innovations, from community councils and participatory budgeting to indigenous autonomies and, of course, plebiscitary consultations. These institutionalized mechanisms of popular participation have given citizens a stake in the political order, and in some cases has empowered them in relation to the bureaucracy. I just finished an edited book on this subject, with Eric Hershberg, Ken Sharpe and a great group of scholars from around the hemisphere.

Not only have these governments experimented with new forms of democratic participation, they have largely avoided the kinds of widespread and systematic abuses of rights that characterized authoritarian governments of the past, including the Fujimori regime. It is a gross and ahistorical exaggeration to compare Chavez and Fujimori in these terms, to say nothing of Ecuador and Bolivia. It would also be a gross exaggeration to compare any of the elections that have been held in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, or Argentina with the Peruvian elections of 2000. Nor have any of these countries had an autogolpe. In every case constitutional reform has been pursued by electoral (albeit plebiscitary) means.

There is simply no valid reason to exclude these countries from the set of democratic regimes in the region. There is, however, reason to exclude them from the set of liberal democracies. And this is the nub of the dispute between Manrique and his critics. The problem with using liberalism as the normative base line is that implies that there is only one type of democratic regime. This blinds analysts to the reasons for the success of the delegative democracies we observe in the region today.

Liberalism is about checking the power of the state, but leaders like Chavez and Correa want the state to do things (redistribute wealth, for example), and that is why their followers support them. In Latin America, the tyranny of the majority has never been the central problem. It is the tyranny of powerful minorities – economically powerful groups, the media, the armed forces, and so forth – that prevents the social change demanded by majorities.

Similarly, liberalism offers a passive view of citizenship. Democracy is about voting. Between elections, citizens should be free to pursue their private interests. But the new participatory mechanisms in the region tap into a collective capacity for self-rule that exceeds the institutions of liberalism.

Let me be clear: I don’t like the way that power has been concentrated by the executive branch of government in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. I would like to see powerful legislatures and independent courts serve to represent and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens in these countries. But we have to start making the case for governing more democratically in terms that are more persuasive to the citizens in the region.

We can start by arguing that, in the long run, submissive legislature and politicized courts become obstacles to effective self-government. One of Guillermo O’Donnell’s great insights in his famous article on delegative democracy was that the ostensibly all-powerful delegative leader can quickly become impotent as the institutions of self-rule are eroded by the plebiscitary tendencies inherent in democracies in which mass participation exceeds the capacities of a lawful state. In a forthcoming book I argue that the separation of powers does not make states weak it makes them more powerful. It enhances overall state capacity by mobilizing resources in society for collective action to attain socially desired ends by legally legitimate means.

After all, the common denominator of each of the countries in question is that in none of them has the opposition been able to articulate an attractive alternative. Political scientists, manos a la obra! Our job is to imagine a wider range of possible democracies in which constitutionalism, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, and full and active participation are brought together in mutually reinforcing ways to make it possible to collectively achieve a better future for our children and our planet.

Written by Max

February 26th, 2013 at 9:12 pm

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Restoring Parliamentary Supremacy

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Published in Samara.

How might we redesign parliament for the 21st century? We can begin by asking what we expect or want from parliament. My own view is that parliamentary government is not well understood and, therefore, it might be wise to elucidate the principles and aims that are already inherent in our institutions, and then see if we can make them work better.

The essence of our system of government is captured by the phrase “parliamentary supremacy.” Today, however, parliament is anything but supreme.

Parliamentary supremacy is the idea that parliament is the source of all legislation. Where our system and presidentialism differ is that the executive branch is selected by the parliament. In principle, this means that the executive is embedded within a larger and more important collegial body. But over time the tail has come to wag the dog. Power has gradually been concentrated—first in the cabinet, and now, increasingly, in the office of the Prime Minister. The main source of this inversion of power is the modern political party.

Today, parliament is a pathetic semblance of its former self. It is an electoral college that chooses the government, which then governs with scarcely any concern for parliamentary debate or procedure. MPs are well-trained yes men and women who do what their party leaders tell them. They have little say over committee assignments, few free votes, and, what is worse, they devote precious little effort to legislation.

The inversion of power has come about because parties—which are increasingly PR firms devoted to permanent campaigns for office—control MPs from the moment they are nominated until the day they retire from public life. MPs are more accountable to their party leaders than to the voters. And voters are fed up.
So, if our aim is to restore parliament to some semblance of its former glory, what kinds of measure might we adopt?

To restore the supremacy of parliament would require the empowerment of ordinary MPs. There are many measures that could move us in this direction. They include more free votes, more opportunities for ordinary MPs to submit legislation, more power in the hands of MPs to decide committee assignments and distribute other perks, more power to select the cabinet and remove the leader, and more influence in decisions like prorogation.

The corollary would be less power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Less power to use confidence votes to discipline the house and caucus, restrictions on the power to dissolve the house, elimination of the routine use of time limits to shut down debate, tough rules to stop the abuse of omnibus laws, less influence over perks, assignments, and appointments, and less control over nominations.

The bottom line: parliamentary supremacy, the cornerstone of our system, demands that we clip the wings of the office of the Prime Minister. The alternative is a slide toward elective autocracy.

Written by Max

February 24th, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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