Free speech must not be held hostage

Author: Barry Kay.
Published on September 27, 2012 on The Waterloo Record.

“Part of the problem of cultural insensitivity results from the widespread existence of authoritarian one-party dictatorships in many Islamic societies, where media access is restricted by the governing structure. Those living in Islamic countries where the government controls all speech available to the public might be susceptible to the canard that the American government is responsible for everything on the internet. However, there is no question that religious extremists committed to an industry of outrage are consciously exploiting this anger for political advantage.”

Assessing Devolution in the Canadian North: A Case Study of the Yukon Territory

Authors: Christopher Alcantara, Kirk Cameron, Steven Kennedy.

Published September 2012 in the Arctic.

Abstract: Despite a rich literature on the political and constitutional development of the Canadian territorial North, few scholars have examined the post-devolution environment in Yukon. This lacuna is surprising since devolution is frequently cited as being crucial to the well-being of Northerners, leading both the Government of Nunavut and the Government of the Northwest Territories to lobby the federal government to devolve lands and resources to them. This paper provides an updated historical account of devolution in Yukon and assesses its impact on the territory since 2003. Relying mainly on written sources and 16 interviews with Aboriginal, government, and industry officials in the territory, it highlights some broad effects of devolution and specifically analyzes the processes of obtaining permits for land use and mining. Our findings suggest that devolution has generally had a positive effect on the territory, and in particular has led to more efficient and responsive land use and mining permit processes.

A Little Help from My Friends: The Partisan Factor and Intergovernmental Negotiations in Canada

Author: Anna Esselment

Published online September 2012 in Publius.

Abstract: This article takes a new approach to the study of federal–provincial relations by arguing that in the conduct of intergovernmental relations in Canada, whether on major constitutional issues or the mundane, ordinary intergovernmental negotiations, partisanship has an effect. An examination of the Meech Lake Accord constitutional negotiations (1987–1990) and the Child Care Agreements (2004–2005) reveals that where traditional factors fail to provide a reason for conflict or cooperation between governments, the partisan variable offers valuable explanatory power. The impact is found in the process of federal–state bargaining and not in the substance of agreements themselves—in other words, partisanship can influence how an agreement is reached and whether it is kept.

Devolution and Territorial Goverance

Does devolution produce positive outcomes for territorial governments and residents? I examine this question with a former graduate student, Steven Kennedy, and a former civil servant in the Yukon Territorial Government, Whitehorse city councillor Kirk Cameron.

This article is free to the public (open access) and can be found here. Below is the abstract.

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Despite a rich literature on the political and constitutional development of the Canadian territorial North, few scholars have examined the post-devolution environment in Yukon. This lacuna is surprising since devolution is frequently cited as being crucial to the well-being of Northerners, leading both the Government of Nunavut and the Government of the Northwest Territories to lobby the federal government to devolve lands and resources to them. This paper provides an updated historical account of devolution in Yukon and assesses its impact on the territory since 2003. Relying mainly on written sources and 16 interviews with Aboriginal, government, and industry officials in the territory, it highlights some broad effects of devolution and specifically analyzes the processes of obtaining permits for land use and mining. Our findings suggest that devolution has generally had a positive effect on the territory, and in particular has led to more efficient and responsive land use and mining permit processes.

The cynical game Ottawa plays over MPs’ pensions

Published Sept. 24, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Everyone knows that the pensions for members of Parliament are far too rich.

MPs can draw their pensions too soon (at age 55), after too few years of parliamentary service (just six), and they receive too much money (up to 75 per cent of salary, with more if they served as a cabinet minister or committee chair). And they contribute far too little to their pension fund. The C.D. Howe Institute reported last year that taxpayers contribute $6 for every $1 put in by MPs; this year, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation put the disparity at $24 to $1.

We’ll let the actuaries argue over the numbers. The point is, parliamentary pensions are not sustainable by any realistic standard. No private-sector employer would contemplate such lavishness.

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Of course, there are reasons for the golden pensions, including interrupted careers in the private sector (MPs often cannot return to jobs they held before Ottawa) and lack of job security in elected office (figuratively, at least, MPs exist just one vote away from the breadline). To those reasons, add the big one: MPs determine their own pension entitlements: how much they will get and when they will start collecting it.

Even MPs know they cannot defend their rich pensions in an era of economic hardship, when employers are squeezing their workers on wages and benefits, when governments are insisting employees accept freezes, when citizens are being asked to pay more for fewer services at all levels.

The Harper government agrees. That’s why it is proposing to reform MPs’ pensions as a matter of legislative priority. And that’s why Marc Garneau, speaking for the Liberals, made the Conservatives an offer they should not have been able to refuse last week. If the government would present its pension reforms in a separate bill, the opposition would fast-track it – turn it into law with a minimum of debate, probably with unanimous consent.

That was too good to be true. The Harper government doesn’t mind doing the right thing, provided it can use the opportunity to stick its elbow in the eye of its opponents while it is at it. So it insists on planting pension reform in another omnibus “budget implementation” bill, similar to C-38, to the 425-page monster that finally cleared the Commons last June following an angry all-night debate.

MPs are still trying to figure out what they actually did when they approved C-38; some of it was good, and some decidedly not good (especially the weakening of environmental protection).

Indications are the new bill, which may be introduced as early as this week, will be another “dumpster” bill, as lengthy as C-38 and, like it, crammed with measures that have little or nothing to do with the federal budget.

The government has not yet revealed what, aside from pension reform, will be in the new omnibus, but from what ministers have said, it appears there will be provisions to sell off certain (unspecified) government assets, to shift the focus of the National Research Council from pure research to service to industry, to give the police new powers, and to tighten Canada’s immigration laws.

With a majority government in control, MPs will not be able to split the bill into manageable chunks. They will have to vote for the whole dumpster or reject it entirely. If MPs want to rein in their own pensions, they will have to agree to change the NRC, enhance police powers, sell off government property, and who knows what else.

Harper is trying to goad the opposition parties into voting against the bill so that he can claim his Conservatives, and they alone, are prepared to cut the fat out of parliamentary pensions. They will be present themselves as the frugal stewards of the public purse, setting an example for the nation, while opposition members are self-serving spendthrifts who care not for restraint.

It’s a childish, cynical game. It’s what passes for leadership in Ottawa these days.

The Flipped Classroom and University Education: Part 2

Today was the first full “flipped classroom” class for my course, AF101x. So what happened? Before I give you the final verdict, let me describe how the class was structured and how it went.

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The week before today’s class, students had to read three short pieces, one on Hobbes and the state of nature, one on Libertarianism, and one on individualist anarchism.  They then completed an online quiz by 4am on Tuesday which asked them to find examples from their personal experiences or from the news that illustrated at least one assumption about human behaviour from each of the three readings.  The final question on the quiz asked students to specify what they found most difficult about the readings this week.

Almost all of the students were able to find an example to illustrate one or more of Hobbes’ assumptions about the state of nature.  Slightly fewer students found appropriate examples for libertarians, and even fewer found appropriate examples for individualist anarchist thought.  The feedback question also reflected these results.

Today, in class, I give a mini-lecture that covered the following topics:

a) what were the main questions/issues that all of the readings were concerned about?;
b) why/how are these questions, issues, and perspectives relevant to contemporary politics and policy?

In my mini-lecture, I covered Hobbes very briefly, given the quiz results, and spent more time on Libertarianism and individualist anarchist thought, paying particular attention to the core concepts within these ideologies that the students seemed to have trouble with on the quiz.

Following the lecture, we played this game, which simulates a state of nature using cards and rock/paper/scissors. Predictably, all of the students, except two, actively challenged other players until only three players remained. We then discussed the implications of this activity for the three readings.

We then played the game a second time.  Students, with the exception of three, chose not to challenge any other student, and several students attempted to form a semi-libertarian civil society with a minimal sovereign. Again, we engaged in a brief discussion about what happened and its relevance to this week’s topic.

We played the game a third time, although this time I announced students had to have at least two cards to survive. A final game involved four students having no cards, four students having two cards, and the rest of the students having one card each at the beginning of the game.  Interestingly, all sorts of alliances, bargaining, and sharing, occurred. Again, at the end of the game, students discussed how these various games related to the readings.

After a short break, I divided the students into groups of two or three and gave them two scenarios to consider.  The first was to imagine a situation where people started going blind, much as Jose Saramago’s book, Blindness, describes, while the second scenario was a zombie outbreak.   In groups, students discussed what kinds of state of nature would emerge, and what kinds of authority would be necessary in these situations.  This discussion then was opened up to the larger group.

I ended the class with a traditional seminar discussion about the utility of these concepts for making sense of politics.

So what were the results? Again, amazing!  All of the students participated in the activities and almost all of the students (with the exception of one) actively engaged in the various discussions.  The discussions were rich and again demonstrated that the students understood, for the most part, what the readings were trying to argue, and they could apply those ideas and assess them using a variety of means (i.e. assessing internal consistency; using hypothetical examples; using real examples from the news; etc.).  Again, an excellent class with demonstrable learning!

Next week, we watch the movie “Lord of the Flies”.  We will discuss the implications of the movie for the previous course readings, and students will have a week to write a 2-3 page paper discussing the utility of the “state of nature” concept for explaining politics (in addition to the readings for the new course concept and completing the online quiz).  For their papers, they will have to use the readings, in-class materials, the “Lord of the Flies” movie, and examples of real-world or personal politics to defend their argument.  I’m looking forward to seeing the final product.  Will students be able to transfer the ideas they’ve acquired over the last several weeks onto paper? We shall see!

Groups or Individuals? Which are More Likely to Make Decisions in a Game Theoretic Way?

I haven’t read the article below yet, but the findings in the abstract remind me of Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which uses math to show how a group (e.g. a jury) is more likely to reach a correct (and unbiased) decision compared to a single individual (e.g. a judge).

Groups Make Better Self-Interested Decisions

Gary Charness & Matthias Sutter
Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2012, Pages 157–176

Abstract: In this paper, we describe what economists have learned about differences between group and individual decision-making. Continue reading

This literature is still young, and in this paper, we will mostly draw on experimental work (mainly in the laboratory) that has compared individual decision-making to group decision-making, and to individual decision-making in situations with salient group membership. The bottom line emerging from economic research on group decision-making is that groups are more likely to make choices that follow standard game-theoretic predictions, while individuals are more likely to be influenced by biases, cognitive limitations, and social considerations. In this sense, groups are generally less “behavioral” than individuals. An immediate implication of this result is that individual decisions in isolation cannot necessarily be assumed to be good predictors of the decisions made by groups. More broadly, the evidence casts doubts on traditional approaches that model economic behavior as if individuals were making decisions in isolation.

Peter Lougheed could have been prime minister

Published Sept 17, 2012 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury

Robert Stanfield was often described as the best prime minister Canada never had. He was a great premier (Nova Scotia), became leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party, but had the ill fortune to appear on the national stage at the same time as Liberal Pierre Trudeau, to whom he lost three general elections in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Lougheed, who died last week at 84, was also a great Tory premier (Alberta). Earlier this year, a panel of eminent Canadians, assembled by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), a Montreal-based think tank, voted Lougheed Canada’s best premier of the past 40 years, ahead of Ontario’s Bill Davis and Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, among others.

Unlike Stanfield, Lougheed resisted pressure – considerable pressure – to go federal. Although he stayed in provincial politics, he became a powerful and respected figure in national affairs.

I first encountered Lougheed in September 1967 during the federal Conservative leadership convention in Maple Leaf Gardens, the convention that chose Stanfield to replace John Diefenbaker. The convention was buzzing about Lougheed, the young new leader from the west, whose Tories had breached the Social Credit fortress of Alberta, having elected six MPPs in the provincial election a few months earlier.

Confession time. I cannot recall a single word Lougheed said when he addressed the crowd in Maple Leaf Gardens. But I do remember being impressed; here, clearly, was a bright new star, a politician to watch in the future. And I remember how dazzled the delegates were by him, his energy, and whatever it was he said to them so articulately that day.

When federal Tories talked about leadership in the years to come, the name of Lougheed inevitably sprang to their lips.

He had opportunities to go federal. The door swung wide open in 1976 when the Conservatives chose a successor to Stanfield. The leadership that year was won by another Albertan, Joe Clark, who came from third place, behind Claude Wagner and Brian Mulroney, to victory on the fourth ballot.

Clark, then a backbench Tory MP, would not have contested the leadership if Lougheed, by that time Alberta’s premier, had wanted the job. As it was, Clark won the next federal election, in 1979, albeit with a minority. With Lougheed as leader, the Conservatives would have almost certainly have elected a majority government.

The history of the 1980s would have been different. Surely, there would have been no national energy policy if Lougheed had been prime minister instead of Trudeau. But would the Constitution have been patriated? Would there be a Charter of Rights and Freedoms? With Lougheed in 24 Sussex, would Brian Mulroney ever have become Conservative leader and prime minister?

The “what-might-have-beens” of history make for fascinating speculation, but the “what-actually-happeneds” are interesting, too. Having taken his Alberta Tories from zero seats in 1965, when he became leader, to six in 1967, Lougheed went on to win a majority government in 1971, ending 36 years of unbroken Socred rule in the province.

With shrewd policies, careful management of abundant resources, fortuitous timing (and a certain amount of luck), he presided over Alberta’s transformation from a rural economy, a have-not province, into an economic powerhouse. He might not have been able to accomplish this feat in another province, but in Alberta he could. His admirers called him “Mr. Alberta.” His detractors in central Canada called him the “blue-eyed sheik.”

He was one of the few premiers smart enough, tough enough and brave enough to stand up to Trudeau at federal-provincial meetings.

When he retired in 1985, his Conservatives had been in office for 14 years. But his legacy – a strong Alberta in a united Canada – continues. The Tories are still in power. Having broken the Social Credit record for longevity, they have established one of their own: 41 years, and counting.eHw


Loughheed made a mark on his province and country. His mark is made in indelible ink.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

Engaging the Canadian State: Aboriginal Groups Have Four Options

Generally speaking, First Nations have four options when they choose to engage the Canadian state.  They can negotiate with the Crown to secure their rights and interests, but often the negotiating costs are high, as I argue here in my forthcoming book, or they produce results that are mixed, as political theorist Glen Coulthard argues here, or political scientist Martin Papillon argues here.

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Indigenous groups can also litigate against the Crown in Canadian courts, but such a strategy is a high risk/high reward venture since rarely do courts produce decisions that seek compromise between the two groups.  In that sense, negotiations are preferable because they do have the potential to produce compromises that better satisfy both groups.

Aboriginal groups can also engage in what I call, Indigenous contentious collective action, by mobilizing Aboriginal elites and non-elites to undertake both conventional and unconventional tactics against the Canadian state. For the most part, at least on the aggregate, such strategies are not very good at producing results that favour the Indigenous groups.  There are, however, some important exceptions.

Finally, Indigenous groups can simply assert their rights and self-government jurisdictions.  Many groups and individuals have done the former, while very few groups have done the latter.

Recently, a group of First Nations in B.C. announced that they were unilaterally imposing a ban on all trophy bear hunting in their traditional territories. In justifying the decision, Chief Doug Neasloss of the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation said that years of negotiating with the Crown had failed to produce any type of compromise between the First Nations, the provincial government, and the bear hunters.  Instead, the bear hunting simply continued, unabated. Hence, several days ago, the First Nations announced they would be asserting their traditional self-government rights.

If negotiations fail, I think asserting self-government rights may be the next best option for Aboriginal groups to protect their interests, followed by litigation, and then Indigenous contentious collective action.  But what factors determine the success of this strategy of asserting self-government jurisdiction? The literature is unclear, unfortunately.  In my article on Indigenous contentious collective action, I provide some theoretical insights into why Indigenous contentious collective action emerges and what factors might produce favourable outcomes.  However, these theoretical insights were derived from one case and have yet to be tested against other cases.  Nonetheless, my research found that success is very much influenced by the ability of Aboriginal groups to frame their dispute in such a way that it taps into public support.  As well, successful Aboriginal groups are those that generate and find allies, both within and outside of the government, who are sympathetic to the goals of the Aboriginal group and are wiling to work with them to achieve their interests.

At some point, I plan to continue my research on Indigenous contentious collective action.  In the meantime, I will be watching this case with much interest!

LISPOP Associate comments on Kitchener-Waterloo election

Published on The Canadian Press on September 8th, 2012.

“Political scientist Barry Kay at Waterloo’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier University said Hudak should take the blame for losing the byelection, especially after blowing a Conservative lead heading into last fall’s general election, allowing the Liberals to get a third term, although reduced to a minority”.