Apr 22, 2014

Edward Snowden's every move still strikes controversy

With Edward Snowden's major contribution to history - the leaking of the NSA documents that shed significant light on what our governments are doing - now well over and done with, you might think we would be focusing on the revelations themselves, and that little if any attention would need to be given to the whistle-blower himself. Alas, as has been something of a pattern, this is not the case. 

The latest flare up came about when Snowden was given the opportunity to ask Putin a question on electronic surveillance in Russia. The pushback on this was widespread, leading Snowden to publish his own op-ed in the Guardian. Take, for example, this critical Vox.com piece (this new site seems to be excellent in general, by the way):
"There's no indication that Edward Snowden's great ambition, when he decided to reveal secret NSA programs to the world, was to end up on Russian state television lobbing softball questions at a winking Vladimir Putin. But that's where he ended up.
... 
Snowden's silence was seen in the US as at best an act of self-preservation, even at the cost of the values that had landed him in Moscow, and at worst as confirmation that he was willing to go to tremendous and even admirable lengths to oppose American abuses but was untroubled by those same abuses if they were committed by Russians."
Snowden importance came because he had access to an enormous amount of incriminating information and choose to release that. Sorry to state the obvious, but now he doesn't have any special access. He can no more leak information about whatever surveillance Russia does or doesn't do than you or I. His lack of access means he simply isn't able to shed new light on Russian abuses or even have any special knowledge of Russian abuses or even Russian society at large. Thinking that this somehow implies he is a hypocrite only caring about US abuses is nonsensical. 

What Snowden does have, is a somewhat larger microphone than the rest of us. That is, his notoriety means if he wants to say something the audience will be far larger than, say, mine or certain Vox.com commentators. If he wants to transition his notoriety into being a widely published social critic he could probably do this, although I see why he would be under any moral obligation to do so. Incidentally, given that his audience is largely Western, the argument in the piece that he should be turning to criticizing Russia - again, with no special access or information - instead of addressing Western audiences in the Guardian seems nonsensical. 

Personally, I think his question to Putin is fine. What else, exactly, could he say? He doesn't have some special knowledge, so all he can do is try to spark a discussion about Russian electronic surveillance which is exactly what he did.

But here is my larger point: it doesn't matter. Admittedly, I have waded into such debates but this is because I find them beyond silly and think that point out their silliness might help us to focus on the issues that actually do matter. And after Snowden published his information, Snowden the man just doesn't much matter any longer and we obsess over it to our detriment. 
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Apr 6, 2014

Wynne suing Hudak is hardly going to help her

The de facto practice of being a politician is to not so subtly imply all manner of scandalous inanities about one's opponents. When there is an actual underlying scandal, the shrill accusations from opponents tend to reach a fever pitch, and how an incumbent politician deals with the scandal breaking around them can make or break them.

From Rob Ford to Chris Christie to Stephen Harper, we have seen quite a range of different responses to political scandals. But the approach that Kathleen Wynne is taking to the email deletions over the gas plant cancellations seem to be the oddest yet.

She is suing her political opponent for libel. Or at least, she has given a libel notice and will possibly upgrade to the full suit shortly.

I'm failing to see how this is possibly an effective political tactic. People expect politicians to say ridiculous and overblown things about each other. Reacting via a lawsuit will come off as desperate overkill. It appears weak, as if one isn't able to take the normal blows and punches of politics.

I think the thinking behind the move goes something like this: Wynne wants to make sure that Ontarionians really, really, really, believe that she has nothing to do with the disastrous screw up of the plant cancellations. By taking the action of a lawsuit, she is demonstrating that she is super, super, super serious when she says she didn't do it.

Hudak's claims do seem if not completely spurious than certainly premature on the evidence. However, political opponents are expected to act as if everything is an enormous scandal, even when it isn't yet substantiated. Standard practice is to simply dismiss the claims as exactly that. I doubt this alternate tactic - the threat of a lawsuit - is going to go over well with the electorate. Time will tell.
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Apr 4, 2014

Tech on the Side: Microsoft corrects past mistakes

In a world where tech companies are forced to make difficult decisions between mutually exclusive business models, it can be hard to know whether they decided correctly. For instance, did Google make the correct choice to release Android on a less-than-free model (which has been obviously successful), or did they make one of the biggest blunders in tech by not selling Android for a fee (which could have been worth far more)? When a company tries one option and then reverses course after it proves a failure, however, we get a rare glimpse to be able to compare the options and say the one was objectively a failure. 

It is precisely such a reverse course that Microsoft has done in the last week. Firstly, they have released Office for iPad. Secondly, they are giving away Windows for phones and tablets under 9" making them even cheaper for OEMs than Android (as Android phones give hefty royalties to Microsoft). 

What underlies this shift is a choice between two rather different business models. The desktop Windows business model was that you sold software for a nice fee, and simply needed to keep your advantages (such as an entrenched and trained user base, enormous number of apps, useability, etc) sufficient to keep the free alternative (Linux) at bay. Most of those "moat" advantages reversed themselves going to Android instead which had all the apps and all the users, and left Windows on mobile in fairly dire straights. 

Microsoft had a choice when it came to mobile. They could either keep their old business model (selling Windows for a fee) only applying it to mobile. Or they could radically change their business model, matching Android's price and competing instead on features, trying to profit in some way services (much the way Google profits when people use its services and the advertising they provide). They chose the former. That clearly didn't work, so now they are trying the latter. 

While Windows Phone and Windows 8 for smaller tablets were floundering, Microsoft tried to bolster support for its mobile OS in two ways. Firstly, it started releasing its own hardware in the Surface, and later in the purchase of Nokia. If the other OEMs were not going to be providing the compelling products for mobile Windows, then they would have to lead the way. 

Secondly, they made the tactical decision to keep Office to themselves. Since Office is obviously an enormous competitive advantage, by only putting it on Windows tablets (so, effectively, just the Surface), and by making a quality hardware product themselves, they basically formed the a product that had a compelling use case and reason to purchase. It might have worked, but it didn't. There just wasn't enough momentum in the business strategy. 

It is a trade off between different divisions. When it is was being constrained, the Office division was making less money in the hopes to bolster the Windows division. Now the Windows division isn't making much money in mobile, but Office 365 and other services will go up, as the ability to use them on iPads (and presumably Android tablets in the future) widens their appeal. 

These plans were announced this week, under new CEO Satya Nadella, but were almost certainly decided at least by the time of the Nokia purchase. As in, when they bought basically the only hardware company on the planet with a business in Windows Phone, they already capitulated on the idea of profiting off the sale of the software. Doing the timing now helps drive the narrative of Nadella bringing a breath of fresh air to the company with bold new changes of direction, even if those changes were already baked into the cake. And of course, development on the Office for iPad apps (which mercifully seem excellent) was done over considerable time. 

Rightly or wrongly, Microsoft in the last half decade has made many bold moves, and this is another one. They chose one business plan, and when it didn't work, they (unlike, say, Blackberry) were able to make the shift to a new one. We can now say with a rare certainty that the original decision was objectively wrong in the sense that given how they abandoned it, they would be much better off had they released Office for iPad and started giving away Windows mobile products for free several years ago. Time will tell if the new strategy actually works out. But at least they are now positioned such that it might work out. 


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Mar 30, 2014

The Quebec election is being fought over the wrong issues

Quebec has numerous very legitimate issues in governance and economics that can, and should, be addressed in an election. In many ways, the Quebec model provides for Canada an example of a significantly more interventionist, egalitarian government - something I might advocate for on this blog - but poor management and misguided priorities have led to large challenges in the model, not the least of which is the highest debt per person of a province in Canada. Getting a mandate for a path forward is an important step.

However, the Quebec election will largely be fought, and won, over two other issues.

Firstly, the perennial issue of separatism. PQ leader Pauline Marois was pushed hard by rivals recently in the campaign about stating precisely whether there would be a referendum on separatism if she won a majority mandate. Trying to simultaneously appeal to her base while not alienating the majority that doesn't want a referendum, she refused to make the answer clear, instead giving a vague "when the people are ready" response.

Rightly or wrongly, leaving Canada would have tremendous impact and voters are correct not to set the issue aside if it does remain at all on the table. However, as long as it remains on the table - as long as one of the Parti Québécois remains at its core a separatist party -  it means that elections are mini referendums on that issue, and not all the other issues of governance that could be fought over. It so to consequential an issue for it to be anything else, as much as Marois may wish she could make the election about something else while still retaining her base.

Secondly, there is the Quebec Charter of Values. Tactically, proposing and running on this bill was an excellent move and has helped Marois move into contention for a majority. Rightly or wrongly, it is popular. It allows the election to be reframed into a culture over this issues that spins in elements of Québécois identity politics and distracts from both the separtism issue and all the other issues on the table.

In that culture war, I am not a partisan. I think the bill is a horrific for reasons obvious to any regular reader of this blog. And I think it is horrific enough that it is well worth fighting over. If this election is a referendum in part on the Quebec Charter of Values, then so be it, I am happy to stand in opposition to it. Just as I am a dedicated partisan in other culture wars such as LGBT or reproductive rights, and am happy to fight elections over this issues if need be.

The problem can be that politicians use the culture wars to gain popularity and fight elections while being able to sidestep any substantive policy analysis, tackling any big problems like high debt levels or climate change, and the like. The Republicans in the US (and to some extent the Democrats too) are excellent at this, albeit with different cultural issues under contention than in Quebec.

What is so egregious about the Quebec Charter of Values (setting aside its content for the moment) is just how hopelessly transparent the political calculation is where it is not being fought over because of some legitimate tension and issue manifesting in society, but because one party thinks they can use the appeal of a specific cultural identity to win votes. On something like gay rights, there really was a legitimate sea change in cultural acceptance and this backlog of archaic discriminations that needed to be fought over and removed. It was a culture war worth having. This is not a culture war worth having, but one manufactured for us by a political calculation from a shallow party unwilling or unable to use bold policy as its method to attract voters.

I have written in the past about the effect of identity politics- and here specifically for the 2012 Quebec election, and here again - where when you have societies who vote based primarily on a cultural identity (ethnic, religious, or, in this case, being Québécois) it means that the traditional left right political divide becomes less meaningful and elections are fought less over values and policies to implement those values. Don't get me wrong, I am a stronger support of multiculturalism and like the aesthetic of a vibrant and distinct Québécois cultural identity whose nature and impact is shaped by societal discussion. It would be naive to think that this wouldn't seep into politics at all, but when it dominates the Quebec political discussion to the degree that it does, it puts distortions into the political system that result in less effective governance.

When Pauline Marois won her minority government, she had the ability to choose to run on bold, technocratic ideas, to choose core political values such as financial egalitarianism or environmental sustainability to make as the central identitifier or her party. She didn't choose to do this. Instead, the separatist party - the quintessential example of identity politics - knew that it couldn't do separatism right now, and so it shamefully tried to play a lesser identity politics card with the Charter of Values nonsense.

They deserve neither respect nor votes.
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Mar 26, 2014

Rob Ford Crushes the First Toronto Mayoral Debate

Sorry, fellow progressives, but it's true.

The first debate was, somewhat mercifully, fairly policy focused with large sections devoted to debating various transit plans (such as LRT vs subways in Scarborough), finances, the Billy Bishop Airport expansion, and so on. In this context, and with a format that had a combination of one minute short statements and chaotic open debates, Rob Ford had the perfect style. He strongly addressed each specific policy with a clearly articulated and strong position, almost effortlessly returning to his list of self proclaimed major accomplishments and proven track record, all without notes.

The challengers largely avoided reference to his personal failings, and nobody said the word "crack" until a reporter asked the question that Rob Ford handily side stepped to return to his talking points. Olivia Chow made some veiled references to Toronto becoming an international embarrassment under Rob Ford, but wasn't explicit. It meant that Rob Ford's biggest liability by far was sort of left unmentioned and it thus left the debate to his strengths.

The mayoral race has two major themes. Firstly, there is one major challenger on the left (Oliva Chow) vs four candidates to represent the right. So we have that values and policy division. Then within the right, it is a question of whether the surprisingly enduring appeal that Rob Ford has to voters on the right overcomes the crack and videos and other shenanigans such that people on the right choose or don't choose Rob Ford vs one of the other challengers.

For the John Torys and Karen Stintzes of the world, this debate should pose a lot of trouble for them. They want to try to represent the same basic ideological end of the spectrum, but without the personal failings, and with more judgement and gravitas. When John Tory says there are a lot of inefficiencies still at city hall Rob Ford gets to strongly come out and say that he is the one with a proven track record of saving a billion dollars, while John Tory fell flat on his face during his chance to lead the Ontario PCs. These two need to be going hard against Rob Ford's personal failings, because that is the difference that justifies their candidacy. I think they are hoping that voters will put that together themselves, and so they don't need to be throwing the punches themselves, but I question the efficacy of the tactic.

Oliva Chow doesn't need to do this as much because she already has a big differentiator: she is the representative for the left. What she needs to do is clearly articulate that set of values, and intersperse it with how that is implemented at a policy level. Personally, I am a technocrat. But that wasn't how Oliva Chow chose to present herself, instead taking a much used tactic of trying to tell heart tug stories of mothers abandoned in the cold to full buses. There was a lot of emotional appeals and while it isn't my thing, I think there is good evidence that it can be a good tactic. However, I think she struggled a bit in the format and I didn't see quite the clear presentation of a strong emotional identification of clear differentiating values that I think she needs.

David Soknacki tried to present himself as the technocrat, the guy who had command of policy and facts, with good judgement and subtlety. He is not going to make the kind of emotional appeals that Oliva Chow went for. To a limited degree he succeeded at this. However, I don't think he managed to break out of the mould of being a distance 4th place contender. He got into a lot of yelling matches with Rob Ford that didn't end up well for him, with Rob Ford very effectively painting him as the David Miller guy who couldn't balance a budget if his life depended on it. He also needs to stop reading from scripted statements, he is the only one who had to do this and it looks so bad. 

Incidentally, Rob Ford made one of his few mistakes here where when given a single choice to ask a single direct question to one candidate, instead of using it to trash John Tory or Olivia Chow, he instead went after David Sonacki when he would be better served by just ignoring this minor challenger. My read was that he was heated from the open debate exchange and just wanted to try to stick it to him. One more example of the off the cuff poor judgement from Rob Ford. 

I have never understood how popularity for Rob Ford was ever so high, or how on earth it could have remained so high through all the scandals. I would like to think that his many, many failings are so obvious he wouldn't even be remotely in contention. But like it or not, he is. I still don't think he will be reelected, but we certainly can't count him out. For Oliva Chow, the only candidate I could come close to supporting, it is still going to be a tough battle. 
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Mar 25, 2014

Quebec's Highly Questionable Voting Eligibility Rules

Students who come to Quebec to study at universities like McGill - as my brother has done - are in a rather uncomfortable position when it comes to voting in the upcoming provincial election. Whether they will be able to vote at all is not easily determined. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest there is active disenfranchisement. And they are certainly the subject of blatant demagoguery from the PQ that strongly touches on the identity issues present in past Quebec elections. 

The issue stems from the the question of what level of evidence is needed to demonstrate that one is a "domicile", a term defined very vaguely but meant as a somewhat stronger condition than simply residing in a place. There has been so much attention drawn to this that Elections Quebec released a clarification on the rules
The board of revisors has the power to inquire and obtain any information it considers relevant for examination of an application for entry on the list. To do this, it may ask the person to provide additional evidence, including evidence of bank accounts in a Québec banking institution, a Québec health insurance card, a Québec driver’s licence or registration certificate, or an income tax return made in Québec. The board of revisors may also question an elector who makes an application for entry on the list or for a change of domicile. 
The more evidence that is provided, the clearer the person’s intention to establish domicile becomes. It is important to note that some specific actions also provide more certain evidence of the person’s intention to establish domicile in Québec than the simple fact of signing a lease. Examples include the fact of paying income tax in Québec or obtaining a Québec driver’s licence. 
 Whatever you think the rules should be, we can probably agree on this: those rules should be clear. Anybody should be able to easily go on the official website and determine for themselves whether they qualify, and know precisely what the minimum number of documents are that they need to bring to demonstrate this eligibility. 

These rules simply do not give that level of clarity. Whether one does or does not qualify with a given set of documentation is subject to "interpretation" by the electoral officers. It makes it clear the kinds of documents that can increase the the level of evidence, but there is no explicit statement of the minimum level of evidence required.

When you don't have an objective standard - one that is plainly transparent to everyone - it opens the door for all kinds of disenfranchisement. For instance, an electoral officer who demands a higher level of evidence for someone because they are speaking English than that same officer would demand of someone speaking French.  It allows different standards between different people, the targeting of groups (such as McGill students) for extra scrutiny, and so on.

It isn't just a failure of the websites. A PhD student who has been in Quebec for six years recorded his conversation with electoral officer. At no point is it made at all clear precisely what any of these minimal standards are, merely that the officer has unstated "doubts" about his viability for being a domicile and thus rejects it without offering any explanation. 

What should the rules be?
Setting aside the issue of needing clear and objective presentation of the rules not subject to local interpretation by individual potentially biased humans, we can ask what the rules ought to be.

When it comes to voting rules, I generally fall on the side that democratic participation should be encouraged, not discouraged, and that we should not put in place strict requirements. In particular, young people such as university students often get their first opportunities to engage in the public discourse and their democracy where they go to university - as McGill students have shown a strong willingness to do. Personally, I would set the rule as a Canadian passport and six months of utilities statements for proof of address. 

An identity politics:
Many Quebecors will disagree with me on this. At its core, I think the issue is that they don't want those types of people voting. It is an identity politics: there is Quebec, and there is the rest of Canada.The idea is that if you live in a place as a student, that somehow your view of what happens to that place means less because you have the wrong identity. It is this animosity that leads to statements like the PQ's "“Quebec voters cannot have these elections stolen from them". It is one more example of a frequent theme on this blog: the "us vs them" mentality. Whatever you think about the appropriate rules, McGill students deserve more respect than this. 
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Mar 24, 2014

Hockey on the Side: Shocker, great teams get great stats

I've had some fun slipping the occasional non-politics related post into this politics blog like some of my old piano recordings or the newer Tech on the Side series. Covering politics and politics only doesn't always do good things for my blood pressure, and so here goes for the inaugural Hockey on the Side. Besides, the emphasis on this blog is Canadian politics, so surely Hockey should be included.

Hockey commentary and opinion pieces are, far too often, trash. The problem often comes down to picking one's pet factors that explain the outcomes of hockey games, with little real basis. 

Dan Rosen's piece here prompted this response, and in it he details five reasons why the St. Louis Blues (who have clinched the playoffs in the West) are doing so well. This is an interesting topic, trying to determine what particular factors make a particular team more or less successful. However, it is quite a bit trickier than the article would suggest for a simple reason: teams at the top tend to do well over a wide range of statistics. Hence, simply picking a few pet factors where they do well in don't help to illustrate in a meaningful way why the team is so successful. 

Let's begin with his final point since it is the most egregious. The Blues apparently score the first goal more often than any other team, and manage to win the game given that they scored the first goal 3rd most often in the league. These are undoubtedly true stats, but do they tell us anything at all? Teams that are doing very well - teams that score lots of goals and let in few goals - are going to be more likely to score first and are going to be more likely to win having scored first. These stats are a consequence of the Blues being a dominant team, but they do nothing to explain - as the article ostensibly aims to do - what it is about the Blues that make them a dominant team. This is correlation does not equal causation 101. 

The article opens with the claim that the Blues crush in defence. It is true, they are third in the league for goals-against. But they are also third in the league for goals-for. As we would expect with a top team, they crush a lot of stats, and cherry picking one side of that doesn't help us. A lot of the defence related stats mentioned are all highly correlated and don't help defend the asymmetric preference for the one side. A team which is good on defence gets a good goals-against, but it also gets individual defensemen with high shot and corsi differentials.

 It also relates to goal tending where, because good goal tending is going to give good stats for defence and good defence is going to give good stats for goal tending, it becomes hard to sort out exactly which factors are dominating. Add in the laughably short 10 games for Ryan Miller that doesn't have the significance to determine the outcome of the team, and the whole pair of points on defence and goal tending just doesn't really identify exactly where the strengths of the Blues are by way of quoting statistics about the success of defence and goal tending (while entirely ignoring offence). The same type of points are true for power plays, his third reason. 

This isn't to say that there are not legitimate differences in playing styles where a team can focus more on defence (which involves the way the offensive lines play too) or on offence (which involves the way the defensive lines play too). Chicago scores by far the most goals, and ends up in 6th. Los Angeles leads the way in goals-against but third from the bottom in goals-for placing them in 8th. Those are examples of teams where on can really identify a unique (and opposite) playing style that has resulted in success for both but with a very distinctive focus. The Blues, however, are not one of these teams. They do well in both ends of the rink, and end up being second because of it. Boston is the same way (second in both measures, first over all). 

In general, hockey is a relatively well rounded game. There will always be asymmetries where some teams are more defensive focused vs offensive, some relatively better or worse in powerplays than five on five, some more reliant on a few key players (in particular goal tending) vs a wide bench, etc. But it is pretty hard to top the standings without being very good in wide number of different aspects of the game. So if you are sitting at #1, as the Blues are for the West, you are going to be likely to come near the top in quite a number of these stats. Picking out your favourite few stats and saying that is the reason for the success doesn't help us understanding anything. 
Read more » "Hockey on the Side: Shocker, great teams get great stats"
Mar 16, 2014

Thoughts on Crimea

As the world prepares to accept the near inevitability of Crimea becoming part of Russia, the dominant feeling around the world is one best described as impotency. With the referendum coming in at 95% pro Russian, even if it skips over any official process and was boycotted by opposition groups, Russia has enough political cover to make their annexation of Crimea inevitable.

There simply isn't anything that the US - the purported greatest military super power the world has ever seen - can do to stop it, and strongly worded displays of indignation by leaders like Stephen Harper don't change the calculus on the ground one iota. Republicans in the US are enjoying blasting Obama's alleged weaknesses and character flaws, but they have nothing different to propose. 

There will be two main actions directly in response, neither enough to move the needle. Firstly, there has been an will continue to be boisterous displays of military sabre rattling. It is sabre rattling that has been subdued - particularly during the much hailed "reset" - but is ultimately inconsequential. Secondly, the West will impose some level of sanctions that will hurt both the West and Russia, something we ought to wish could be avoided. It is unfortunate because a deteriorating of relations may hinder diplomacy on the Syrian or Iranian files, where the US needs Russian cooperation that won't be easily forth coming while the sanctions and sabre rattling are going on. Very little was done after the smaller annexation of South Ossetia because then, as now, there really wasn't much that could be done. Some will argue that tough sanctions (which I have argued against in the past) may be necessary as a deterrent to prevent further similar actions, but I am highly sceptical of their efficacy. 

A lesson for the US?
Particularly for the US, that feeling of impotency is an instructive one. When you are the superpower throwing your muscle around in other countries, invading and occupying and installing governments, it can be hard to empathize with the emotional reaction of the rest of the world. But it is precisely this feeling that the rest of the world so commonly experiences. The US is illegally invading Iraq under false pretences? Sorry, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

For the US, which largely views itself as having a unique moral authority, an American exceptionalism, a manifest destiny, the parallels with Russia run uncomfortably deep. In both the annexation of South Ossetia and Crimea, Russia created a lot of propaganda to its people about various humanitarian justifications for their actions. Holding referendums, even if not following the established legal processes, further helps to give the appearance of legitimacy. Like Russia, the US is masterful at creating the pretence of legitimacy even if other motivations (oil, military bases, etc) are plainly apparent.

The comparison does have its limits. The US and Russia are dramatically different societies, and the US (or the US led West, which are largely interchangeable for our purposes here) does, in my view, have a higher degree of moral authority. The way this manifests is through a stronger codification, enforcement and embracing of the ideals of democracy, freedom, rule of law, and addressing of humanitarian concerns. This restricts somewhat the more egregious actions possible. The US couldn't do to, say, a portion of the Canadian Yukon what Russia did to Crimea even if there was a geopolitical benefit (such as oil access).

On this blog I have frequently identified many aspects of US geopolitics that I strongly disagree with, and indeed run counter to these stated ideals. It is far from perfect, and these failures are magnified by the tremendous reach and influence the US has in the world, dwarfing that of Russia. Nonetheless, the commitments to these ideals, imperfect thought they undoubtedly are, do matter. The lessons we can draw from our emotional reaction to this crisis are meaningful, but we have to acknowledge the significant differences that exist.
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Mar 9, 2014

PM Plays Pot Politics Perfectly

Whatever else one might be tempted to say about Harper, nobody is going to claim he is not politically savvy. His latest move - considering changing marijuana laws to include a ticketing system - is tactically brilliant.

Consider the context: Justin Trudeau has adopted the brave stance to support marijuana legalization after it became Liberal policy at a the 2012 convention. Since then, the Conservatives have blasted Trudeau relentlessly in talking points and ads, particularly to their base, featuring rather conspiratorial "think of the children!" themes. To the base, it can be a great issue to demagogue on. . However, a lot of people think our laws on pot are overly draconian and more than a bit hypocritical, and this is the group that is going to lend their support to Trudeau. At the same time that Harper can motivate the base for fundraising and get out the vote with the pot issue, he wants to defend the centre flank against those who think some form of legalization is more sensible than what we have now.

It is to that center that Harper has erected a defense. The ticketing proposal (instead of full criminal charges with stiff consequences) is going to be cast as a small loosening of the rules, a sensible move that makes pot offences a but more in line with reality. He can still appeal to the base and blast Trudeau's legalization scheme as harmful to children. At the same time, he can prevent some of those centrist voters from leaving his flock because of the appeal of Trudeau's plan. By narrowing the difference between the two parties, it reduces the potential upside benefit for Trudeau, minimizing the benefits of this positive distinguishing feature for Trudeau. And it lets Harper still be able to cast this as him having the sensible modest plan while Trudeau, in over his head as will surely be said, has the crazy pipe dream plan.

Note that personally I support full legalization and find this loosening to be a silly stop gap measure. There are some arguments it will actually make it worse, that ticketing is so much easier than the criminal charges that it will lead cops to be more active on people smoking pot. Either way, this point here was about the brilliance of the tactics, regardless of your thoughts once the policy itself.

The power of the public discourse:
Accepting my framing, there is also an interesting point about how public debate and opposition parties accepting popular positions can make tangible changes to policy from the governing party. Back in 2012, Harper was toughening pot laws with the mandatory minimum laws. Once the political need to protect against Trudeau arose, it created a pressure to make this very slight liberalizing shift and now we will likely get a real change in policy stemming from an opposition leader making a declaration.

In turn, the pressure on Trudeau to adopt pot legalization arose from within the party at the 2012 convention. I have always believed that dialogue and discussion on the issues in society matters. It is why I write this blog. Here we have an example of precisely how that can pressure first the Trudeau and then Harper to implementing actual changes. Sure, they are not as far as many of us would like, but they are a step in the right direction. 

Harper, in particular, has been more than willing to steal ideas from other parties when they prove popular (such as the minor consumer protections being talked about recently in telecoms or aviations, long championed by the NDP). This can be annoying for parties in the sense that they lose a distinguishing advantage, a competitive edge, as it were, on a popular issue. But in the large sense of trying to influence government to enact good laws, it is a genuine win. That can, and must, stand for something.
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