Creative Writing 213: Blogs
A Mug's Guide to Politics in B.C. and the May 14, 2013 Provincial Election
by Elmer G. Wiens
Niccolò Machiavelli | Milton Friedman and the Fraser Institute
B.C. Politics as a Zero-Sum Game | B.C. Politics as War!
The Political Party Paradox of Constituency Associations
Niccolò Machiavelli on Politics in British Columbia, February 23, 2013
As British Columbia slides into a provincial election on May 14, 2013, it might be interesting to review some of the political theories that supposedly determine the policies and decisions of political parties. At the same time, let's see what these political theories say about how citizens respond when they cast their votes to the activities of politicians.
B.C.'s raucous political scene over the last half century has seen numerous notorious characters bring their party to power and to claim the crown of premier. The names of Campbell, Harcourt, Clark, Vander Zalm, Bennett, Barrett, and again Bennett bring to mind politicians and governments who became premiers with high expectations and the best wishes on behalf of a plurality of votes, but subsequently fell into disfavour because of mismanagement or scandal.
Is there a dependable theory that can explain how these politicians obtained power, and why they fell into the disfavour of voters, often for seemingly incompetent or unethical conduct? Famously,
Niccolò Machiavelli claimed in The Prince, that since politics is an end in itself, politics, ethics, and capacity for office have nothing in common, necessarily. Judging from the incompetent and unethical behaviour of some of B.C.'s prominent politicians in the past, Machiavelli really knew what he was talking about back in the early sixteenth century.
Machiavelli reached his conclusions after a precocious exercise in real politics. He examined the methods by which princes and despots of the numerous independent states and cities of Italy managed to obtain and retain power. Wanting to be as pragmatic and unbiased as possible, in other words scientific, he conducted his investigations without any preconceived notions about the objectives and behaviour of rulers. Particularly he rejected as a non-starter Aristotle's opinion that the object of the state is to achieve the supreme and common good of its citizens, meaning that rulers should govern so as to achieve this good.
After his investigations and due deliberation on his findings, Machiavelli reached a startling, if perhaps obvious conclusion: what rulers should do does not necessarily determine what rulers actually do. To put it slightly differently, politicians as rulers of a state often do what they should not do in the interests its citizens. What they actually do is to act in their own best interests to obtain and maintain power as rulers, within their capacity to do so.
Machiavelli added that while acting in their own best interests, politicians as rulers must also keep in mind the responses of their citizens, other politicians who want to be rulers, and rulers of other jurisdictions. And this is where the notorious premiers of B.C. have frequently screwed up.
For a recent example consider the government of Gordon Campbell's introduction of the HST after the 2009 provincial election. During this election campaign, the B.C. Liberal's promised that they would not go along with the Federal Government's plans to combine their GST with the provincial sales tax, or PST. Once elected, Premier Campbell and his cabinet suddenly decided that the incentives to harmonize the GST and PST under the HST as offered by Prime Minister Harper were too good to pass up. Moreover, based on somewhat sketchy analysis, numerous economists came on side to proffer the "efficiency benefits" of the HST. Consequently, the B.C. Liberals merrily implemented the HST. (HST Timeline: The Battle over B.C.'s HST)
What does Machiavelli have to say about this move by Gordon Campbell's government? Machiavelli conducted his research for the express purpose of giving advice to rulers. He advised that once a conqueror has taken a state, he "must arrange to commit all his cruelties at once" and then over time "to reassure people and win them over by benefiting them." This is precisely what the B.C. Liberal Party did. Knowing that the HST would be extremely unpopular, they foisted it on the citizens of B.C. right after the election, counting on the short memories of voters to forgive them. However, the B.C. Liberal's did not count on such strange bed fellows as
William Vander Zalm and the NDP getting together to oppose the HST.
We shall soon see if B.C.'s electorate has forgiven and forgotten the B.C. Liberal Party and Gordon Campbell's ill-fated venture into Machiavellian real politics.
Milton Friedman, the Fraser Institute, and Politics in B.C., February 26, 2013
Political parties with a conservative political philosophy have formed the government in British Columbia for about forty-eight years of the last sixty years. During this time period, the left-wing New Democratic Party won three elections (1972, 1991, and 1996) to govern the province for a total of twelve and one-half years. From 1952 to 1986, the Social Credit Party won eleven of the twelve elections, losing to the NDP in 1991. In this election, the Liberal Party led by Gordon Wilson became the official opposition, relegating the Socreds to a historical footnote.
Right of center supporters of Gordon Campbell, the former Mayor of Vancouver, agitated for a leadership review of Wilson. In the ensuing leadership convention, Campbell defeated Gordon Gibson and Wilson to become the leader of the party, re-branded as the B.C. Liberal Party. To the chagrin of his right-wing supporters, Campbell's B.C. Liberals lost the 1996 election to the NDP led by Glen Clark, who successfully tarred Campbell as a right-wing extremist. Afterwards, Campbell expanded his support base by welcoming former Socreds and B.C. Reform Party members into his party. Since then, the B.C. Liberals won elections in 2001, 2005, and 2009.
Where do Milton Friedman and the Fraser Institute fit into this mix? It is probably not a coincidence that the Fraser Institute was created in 1974 while the NDP was in power. The socialistic tendencies of the NDP, for example its creation of ICBC — the government owned monopoly for car insurance — were anathema to businessmen and B.C.'s corporations. Upon its formation, the Fraser Institute whole-heartedly embraced the economic theories and libertarian political philosophy of Friedman, probably the most famous right-wing economist in the world.
Friedman supported free markets for all goods and services with minimal government interference, privatization of government firms, the abolition of medical licenses, private schools in favour of public schools, a negative income tax to replace social welfare, and many more conservative economic and social policies. The Fraser Institute's research, publications, sponsored events, multimedia initiatives, education programs, and programs are premeditated to foster and maintain a society that elects right-wing governments. Their directory of staff members and board of directors reads like a who's who of conservative academics, former premiers, corporate executives, and ambassadors.
At a memorial to his friend Milton Friedman, the Fraser Institute's founder Michael Walker lauded Friedman's mentorship of his organization
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CeybEEECPw). Friedman's ideas about politics are captured in a lecture he gave on the zero-sum political game, on
You Tube at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoSzrgMNx8s. He claims that "the laws of the market work as well in the political arena as they do in the economic arena." To get elected, politicians do what is best for them by maximizing the number of votes they get, just like businessmen compete to maximize profits. Businessmen maximize profits; politicians maximize votes. Competition in an economic market leads to an equilibrium with zero profits. Likewise, competition in the political market leads to an equilibrium in which no net gain is possible for anybody.
How helpful is Friedman's idea of equilibrium in the political arena? Friedman claims that if a government tries to distribute a million dollars of benefits to citizens, it will pay some people to spend up to one million dollars to pre-empt its distribution and acquire the million dollars for themselves. However, this is precisely what Friedman's definition of equilibrium in the political market implies. No net gain is possible from any action by politicians. Is this not circular reasoning?
This analysis begs some questions. Why did Friedman support the establishment of the Fraser Institute? Why does the Fraser Institute expend so much money, time, and energy on their programs to prevent a left-wing party from forming the government and attempting to spread incomes and wealth across a broader spectrum of society that would obtain if the status quo of a right-wing government is maintained?
Who will lose if the NDP party forms the government? Who will win? Will Michael Walker, his colleagues and supporters lose some of their incomes? Is it really about the efficiency gains of private enterprise versus government programs, such as privatized health care versus public health care? Is it just winners versus losers?
B.C. Politics as a Zero-Sum Game, February 28, 2013
In his lecture on You Tube in the previous blog, Milton Friedman introduced the concept of a political equilibrium within the context of politics as a zero-sum game. By definition, a person or party (group of people) immersed in a zero-sum game can only make themselves better off by making some other person or party also immersed in the game worse off. The benefits one person or party gains in the game must be offset by loses of some other person or party also in the game.
In the context of B.C.'s political arena, there are 85 seats up for election on May 14, 2013, with 43 seats need for a majority. If the New Democratic Party wins a seat, the remaining political parties — the B.C. Liberal Party, the Green Party, and the B.C. Conservative Party taken as a group — must lose that seat. Furthermore, any vote the NDP gets, the other parties do not get.
Games of this type are called two-person zero sum games. A large body literature exists analyzing these games. Click on the link for an introduction to two-person zero sum games and for definitions of terms such as players, strategies, tactics, and pay-offs.
Generalizing, each political party is involved in a zero-sum game against all the other political parties (and independent candidates) taken as a group. With four political parties in the B.C. political arena, four two-person zero sum games are presently being played out simultaneously as B.C. approaches the May 14 election. Call these four games the primary election games. Each political party has its own primary game.
The possibility of two or more political parties joining forces against another party complicates the analysis a bit, until one thinks of a coalition of parties as just another larger party. For example, the Liberals and Conservative parties coordinating their election strategies can be thought of as the Liberal-Conservative party. Call these games the subsidiary election games.
Consequently, the NDP strategists — the people who are organizing their election campaign, including policies or agenda once elected — need to think of themselves as players in their primary election game, and all subsidiary election games involving possible coalitions by other parties. The strategists of the other political parties need to do likewise.
To clarify these ideas, the primary election game strategies for each political party can be placed in a table. Parties are arrayed along rows and columns. Each cell in a colour keyed row represents the strategies that the political party will play against each other political party as indicated in the column. (I added a column for independent candidates because presently four elected MLAs sit in the Legislature as independents.)
The last two columns show the number of seats the party controls currently, and the party's popularity in the latest opinion poll (Angus Reid, February 21-22, 2012), expressed as a percentage.
Thus, SNDP,Lib. represents the political strategy the NDP plays against the BC Liberals. Similarly, SLib.,NDP represents the political strategy the BC Liberal Party plays against the NDP.
|Primary Election Game Strategy Table
For example, recently the B.C. Liberal Party unleashed a spate of adds slagging NDP Leader Adrian Dix for some dubious activities while he worked for Premier Glen Clark about fifteen years ago.
So the Liberal strategy: SLib.,NDP = Slag NDP Leader Adrain Dix with TV and radio advertisements.
Similarly, the NDP criticizes the Liberals for the way the HST was introduced after the 2009 election, and the fact that prominent cabinet ministers who supported the HST, like Rich Coleman, are running in this May's election.
So the NDP strategy: SNDP,Lib. = Criticize BC Liberals on HST and cabinet ministers who supported the HST.
As the election campaign heats up, any strategic move by a political party can be reduced to one or more strategy entries in the "Primary Election Game Strategy Table," one entry for each of the other political parties affected by the strategic move.
Recently, the B.C. Liberals "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan" has received a lot of media attention.
Properly implemented, their attempt to increase the number of votes from B.C.'s diverse ethnic communities seems like an excellent strategy. So this would result in a strategy entry in the row for the B.C. Liberal Party in each column of the other parties, including the independent candidates.
B.C. Politics as War!, March 5, 2013
The contest for power in the political arena of B.C. is frequently described as a blood sport. This portrayal suggests that politics is a battle field. Consequently, it might be interesting to investigate some theories relating to the art of war and how they apply to the B.C. political scene.
In a state of war, opponents try to destroy each other, with little or no regard for any rules of conduct or for collateral damages inflicted on others. Winning is the primary objective. To paraphrase Machiavelli again, since politics is an end in itself, politics, ethics, and capacity for office have nothing in common, necessarily. Does this apply here?
Let's go back to the B.C. Liberals "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan." Its objective is to redress past actions by the B.C. government harmful to specific ethnic communities. Let's see what this is about in a particular context.
During WW II for example, the federal government passed legislation to intern any person with a Japanese racial origin. While this legislation was federal, B.C.'s politicians had frequently used Asians as scapegoats for the province's economic woes. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, some B.C. politicians spoke of Asians in ways that resembled the way Nazi's spoke of the Jews (*), and were instrumental in getting the federal government to implement the removal of Japanese citizens from B.C.'s coastal communities.
So what did Christy Clark's B.C. Liberals do? More specifically what did the premier's deputy chief of staff do?
Kim Haakstad and some of her staff became confused about where the B.C. Liberal Party ends and where the B.C. Government begins.
The "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan" was a B.C. Liberal Party election strategy. The Ministry of Multiculturalism is part of the Public Service funded by tax payers. Their mandate is to promote "the acceptance and appreciation of diverse cultures" and how citizens are enriched by such diversity.
This distinction was not understood or ignored by the premier's deputy chief of staff. The Office of the Premier, B.C. Liberal Party caucus members, and officials of the Ministry of Multiculturalism conspired to promote the Liberal Party's chances for re-election in May.
Machiavelli warns that few conspiracies are successful. As the number of conspirators increases the chances increase that some disgruntled person will reveal the plot.
Naturally there was a furious uproar when members of the NDP found out that the B.C. Liberals were using taxpayers' money in their election campaign.
As of today, March 5, Kim Haakstad and John Yap, the Minister of Multiculturalism, have resigned.
The B.C. Liberals made a mistake tying their election campaign to the government's reconciliation with ethnic groups. Saying, "We are apologizing so please vote for us," strikes many people as cynical.
Machiavelli warned would be Machiavellians to at least seem to be good, even if one finds it hard to actually be good. A successful ruler must seem to be sincere, faithful, and humane to citizens. Going for a quick win by offering insincere apologies to people maltreated in the past is not the way to maintain oneself in power.
For some further thoughts on this issue see David Schreck's blog on his Strategic Thoughts website at http://www.strategicthoughts.com/.
(*) Paolini, David. "Japanese Canadian Interment and Racism During World War II." Imaginations: The Canadian Studies Undergraduate Journal. University of Toronto. (2010). 4 March 2013. http://imagi-nations.ca/?p=13>.
The Political Party Paradox of Constituency Associations , March 8, 2013
A politician wanting to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in British Columbia must win a plurality of votes in a provincial general election, or in a by-election, in one of the 85 provincial constituencies (ridings). Normally, the candidate for election represents one of the two major political parties if the person hopes to have any chance of winning the riding. But first, the person must win the party's nomination contest in the riding against other potential candidates. This nomination contest is run by the constituency association for that riding. The procedures the constituency association uses in the contest are set by the party's rules and bylaws which are determined at party conventions held once a year.
A constituency association has other duties along with running the nomination meeting to determine the party's candidate in the riding. The executive members of the association have the task of maintaining the party's interests in the riding. They maintain the list of local members and actively recruit new members for the party, develop party policies of local and provincial interest, send delegates to the party's annual and leadership conventions, search for suitable candidates for nomination in the event of an election, and raise funds by way of donations and fundraising events. The executive themselves are elected at an annual general meeting of the constituency association.
However, sometimes this democratic process is circumvented. The constitution of some political parties permits the leader of the party to appoint a candidate in the riding, without actually holding a nomination contest open to others. Generally this only happens in a riding if the constituency association has been unable to find a suitable candidate, or if the association has been inactive with few people on their membership list. If the association is maintaining its duties democratically according to the rules and regulations of the party's constitution, why would a party's leader or election chairman force the association to accept a particular individual as the candidate in the riding?
Last fall, the B.C. Liberal Party leader, Christy Clark, and election co-chairman, Rich Coleman, appointed Darryl Plecas to be their candidate in the riding of Abbotsford South, circumventing the democratic process of holding a nominating contest. In protest, the entire riding association executive resigned.
The radio station CKNW AM980 quotes Coleman as saying, "Back when I was Solicitor General he actually put together a criminal ... an international crime research lab in cooperation with police, both RCMP and others, in British Columbia at the Fraser Valley University."
Deputy Premier Coleman seems to be saying that he worked with Plecas, liked what he saw, and now he wants someone with him in the B.C. Legislature whose views on crime enforcement agree with his own views and with the views of his former employer, the RCMP.
An editorial writer at the Abbotsford Today newspaper was incensed by this event.
So a self-proclaimed criminologist has made a name for himself by advising municipal governments to break the law, ignore the criminal code, the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights in order to stop people from smoking a natural herb that 60 percent of the population thinks should be legalized.
And this guy honestly believes he should be allowed into a chamber where laws are made."
As usual, the political scene in B.C. is a mess.
Some Liberal party members want Christy Clark to resign.
But if she resigns as premier, would the citizens of B.C. and the B.C. Liberal Party be better off with Rich Coleman as premier?
For more blogs on the B.C. Election see The Huff Post B.C. Election 2013.