What the next election will really be about

Colby Cosh on the intellectual blockbuster that will redefine politics

Joel Lemay/Agence QMI

Joel Lemay/Agence QMI

And just like that, the scene was set for the 2015 federal election. An overstatement, perhaps, but what a week: The RCMP ended its investigation of Nigel Wright, Elections Canada dropped the “robocalls” inquisition, the government retreated on changes to the Fair Elections Act, and the Supreme Court delineated conditions for alterations to the Senate. Meanwhile, amid all this slate-cleaning, the New York Times handed the Conservatives a windfall, announcing that the median after-tax income in Canada had surpassed that of the U.S.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Senate reference is a turning point. For 30 years and change, our renovated judicial branch, armed with dreadful power to dispose of and revise laws, has been able to play the role of defender of minorities and enforcer of sacred rights. It sees itself, probably, as having a similar function vis-à-vis the Senate question: protecting the interests of small provinces that entered Confederation on certain terms.

In practice, the court has made federally led reform or abolition of the Senate impossible for generations. And although the decision was unanimous, the court’s reasoning is less than overpowering. Like those who have opposed the Prime Minister’s approach to reform, the justices complained that term limits would improperly “imply a finite time in office” for senators—while insisting, without much explanation, that the age limit introduced in 1965 poses no similar problem. (Throwing the old people out of an assembly whose name means “house of old people”? A trivial detail.)

The court also found that it is unconstitutional for the Prime Minister to use the results of a consultative election to choose Senate candidates. He can use a Ouija board: That’s not a change to the “method of selecting senators.” Chicken entrails? No problem. Use a professional polling firm? Fine. Only “elections” as such are deprecated.

The full implications of the ruling are unclear. The court was asked to rule on federal legislation providing for Senate elections. Such elections have been held in Alberta, and winners appointed, with no federal framework. Were those votes constitutional? Would future ones be? If not, are elected Alberta senators already in the chamber illegitimate? What about Mike Shaikh, the “senator-in-waiting” next in line for a seat? Is he the only qualified person alive who cannot be appointed?

Almost everybody will find something to dislike in this decision, and its general effect is to fortify the odious present form of the Senate. There is no further avenue of appeal. The rule of stare decisis binds future Supreme Courts in a manner in which Parliament can never bind Parliaments. These truths must now sink in with Canadians—including the NDP’s Senate abolitionists—as never before. It does not help that the Senate ruling follows close on the Justice Marc Nadon business, in which a strong lone dissent rather shamed the majority of the court. Perhaps a long honeymoon has ended.

The other story with long-term implications is the New York Times’ “middle class” splash, echoed around the world. For Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who have spent a year hammering the theme of middle-class anxiety, this must be unpleasant. The immediate countermove has been to shrug and say, “Sure, we’re doing well compared to the U.S.: It’s in the toilet.” (Sorry, President Obama!)

To this approach, one can only say ,“Lotsa luck.” Every adult Canadian has spent his entire life comparing his station to that of analogous Americans. And anyway, the Times’ charts have the median Canadian beating the median German, Dutchman, Swede, Briton and Finn.

The Times did not mean to make mincemeat of Canadian Liberal strategy, but I predict the Grits will respond by adopting Thomas Piketty as their totem. Piketty is a French economist whose new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is the intellectual blockbuster of the year. He believes he has discovered an iron law, whereby the rate of return on capital must exceed overall economic growth, fostering a return to 19th-century-style social classes and quantitative inequality. Piketty advocates a global wealth tax in order to humble rising capital in the way two world wars did—with fewer explosions, one hopes.

Piketty, as his book’s title hints, means to be the new Karl Marx. As an empirical analyst of inequality, Piketty has been universally celebrated. Marx was an outstanding data-digger, too. Unfortunately, his entry into the racket of flogging historical laws may have been the single most catastrophic decision ever made by an individual. But Piketty’s updated line—that middle-class people everywhere are right to be anxious about scary, posh rentiers in monocles and top hats—offers the Liberals an obvious strategic escape from a tricky corner. Remember where you heard it first.


What the next election will really be about

  1. Must read the book, but from what I understood from another article is that being born in wealth trumps skills, hard work, and democratic equality (remind you of someone, Justin Trudeau?). A few things worth keeping in mind. (1) Piletty used data on income and wealth for three centuries and 20 countries, probably the first to do so. (2) His argument can be summarized by the formula: r > g, where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital (profits, dividends, interest, and rents) and g stands for the rate of economic growth. (3) He contends that for much of modern history the rate of return on capital was between 4 and 5 percent, while the growth rate was lower, between 1 and 2 percent. (4) His conclusion, or capitalism’s “principal destabilizing force”: whenever r > g, “capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.” [Canadian Senate anyone?] (5) Piketty also makes a case that economic growth, which depends in good part on population growth, is unlikely to accelerate dramatically anywhere but in Africa, given current demographic trends. Buy yah, a discussion worth having.

    • I need to read Piketty’s book as well, but it seems like the fundamental problem with his work is that he’s observed a correlation without digging into the underlying mechanisms behind that correlation. The return on capital is generated as part of the broader economy. In the long term, it’s simply not possible for return on capital to exceed overall economic growth – they’re part of the same system. He also doesn’t seem to have keyed into the disruptive effect of technology on economic stratification. He points to the world wars as catastrophic events, but doesn’t seem to consider the way the industrial revolution replaced the capital concentration of a landed aristocracy with a new generation of industrialists. Nor does he consider how those industrialists have been supplanted by the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley.

  2. The angst of the middle class in Canada is due to the quality of jobs and stability and benefits that the next generation is being offered. The age to be established has shifted dramatically and the younger generation are delaying marriage kids etc because they can not afford to do so. The fabric of the middle class is shifting and we are afraid that it is never to recover. Charts to tell us a different story are unlikely to change our living and breathing a different story daily. The younger generation is only buffered now by wealthier parents continuing to help out but it is only a stop gap for a lost generation….and a major shift in the middle class.

    • Yup

  3. “In practice, the court has made federally led reform or abolition of the Senate impossible for generations.”

    Actually, the law, and the inability of Harper to work with the provinces, does this.

  4. The CONS have never anything more than Pro-american FENIAN’s -look it up.

    We have TOO many Lawyers in the ferderal Gov’t,.. and everywhere else.
    How about a unbiased-+30-year-experienced Doctor/MD/PhD to look after our “Health Canada”.

    Do you take your car to a Professional Agriculuturalist to have it tuned-up ? -NO.
    Do you takes your Home-Plumbing problems to a Medical Physician ??? – NO

    We, as Canadians, have to put an end to this +100-year-old ‘ole Lawyer’s-only Boy’s club, -if you get mydrift. They are run by lobbyists’ groups who have NO interest in the well-being of any average-Canadian, and they never will.
    What don’t we get here ?.

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