Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A few thoughts on the forthcoming Quebec election

Quebec goes to the polls in a few days' time, in a provincial election which could in theory set in train a sequence of events leading to a third referendum on independence. I recall watching a live stream of the election results last time round, and fascinating it was too - although the anti-independence Liberals held on for another term, it was generally agreed that the Parti Québécois had secured a moral victory by finishing a close second and by comprehensively seeing off the party (the ADQ) that had pushed it into third place in 2007. In a way, it almost looked as if the PQ had "provisionally won the next election", because it seemed inevitable that by 2012 or 2013 the electorate would be looking for a change after a decade of Liberal rule, and that the PQ would be best-placed to take advantage.

Four years on, however, the legacy of that moral victory looks somewhat less than clear-cut. The PQ do indeed hold a lead in most of the polls, but it's a narrow one, and a new party called the CAQ has risen from the ashes of the ADQ to once again threaten the Liberal-PQ duopoly - something which is potentially dangerous for the PQ under a FPTP system that usually severely punishes any party outside the top two. Intriguingly, the CAQ is led by a former pro-independence government minister who claims that his new party is neither sovereigntist nor federalist. To Scottish (and Northern Irish) ears that probably sounds like sophistry - people in this country who want to "move on" from the constitutional debate generally want to do so in a decidedly anti-independence way. But to be fair, the CAQ are only suggesting that the sovereignty debate be put on the back-burner for ten years, and claim that in the meantime they will advocate neither independence nor Canadian unity. This could yet be a dilemma that the SNP have to grapple with one day, because if the worst happens and there is a No vote to independence in 2014, the question of how long it would be before another referendum is appropriate would be very much of the 'how long is a piece of string' variety.

As for the PQ themselves, I'm always struck by the unalloyed hatred the party attracts in English-speaking Canada - way beyond anything the SNP have to put up with here. I know that doesn't seem possible, but just take a look at the comments section of Canadian news articles some time. There was a recent article branding the PQ as "xenophobes" for wanting to introduce a law requiring that candidates for public office should be fluent in French. On the face of it, that is indeed a bit of a draconian step in a province that has a large number of native English speakers, but there is an arguable justification for the proposal. At the last federal election, the social democratic NDP shocked everyone, not least themselves, by sweeping the board in Quebec. Because it was such a surprise, many of the successful candidates were 'paper candidates' from other parts of Canada who couldn't speak French. By definition, this means that much of Quebec now has very poor parliamentary representation - an MP who can't communicate properly with the majority of his constituents is not a good MP. It's impossible to imagine this scenario happening in a majority French-speaking independent state, so it's understandable that a legal remedy is being sought to ensure that as far as possible it can't happen to French-speakers as a linguistic minority within Canada either. But it's still a bad, illiberal idea, and also tactically foolish - why introduce a law that will ensure your opponents put up a better quality of candidate against you?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lib Dems on supporting their own votes-at-16 policy : "oh, if we MUST..."

The Liberal Democrats' support for votes at 16 is remarkably similar to their legendary "100 years of support for Home Rule" - they're terribly passionate about it in principle, but are rather disturbed, and frankly not a little offended, by the suggestions that this should extend to doing anything at all about it in practice. In particular, the notion that Liberal Democrat government ministers should actually be implementing the party's supposedly long-cherished policy is considered fatuous beyond words. You might remember the exchange I had with Lib Dem activist MrsB back in January, when she patiently explained to me that she of course supported votes at 16, but that it was utterly impossible to extend the franchise for the independence referendum. Unfortunately, she became considerably less patient with me when I pointed out that her support for Michael Moore's plan to specifically ban Holyrood from introducing votes at 16 for the referendum meant that she wasn't so much in favour of votes at 16 as...well, opposed to it. That was simply an example of me being "difficult", apparently, and I needed to grow up and accept that there were insurmountable logistical issues standing in the way of 'what we both wanted to happen'. Logistical issues such as Michael Moore's proposed ban, presumably.

It's a great pity that MrsB is no longer anywhere to be found, because I suspect the cognitive dissonance brought about by the events of the last few days may well have been a sight to behold. A UK government spin doctor has evidently been busily briefing the press that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have dropped their objection to votes at 16 for the referendum, and that this new enlightened attitude will even apply in the fantasy scenario of a Westminster-conducted referendum next year. Hmmm. Amazing the speed with which utter impossibilities and insurmountable logistical issues can melt away when there's yet another wizard 'stop the Nats' tactic to be cooked up. But we shouldn't be churlish - it's a rare delight to see the Lib Dems actually supporting one of their own constitutional reform policies, and we can't realistically expect them to be doing it as a matter of principle.

In truth, the excuses for not extending the franchise for the referendum were always pretty thin. The practical objections were comprehensively addressed by the Scottish Government in their consultation document, while the principled objection that there is an international consensus to exclude "children" from the franchise simply didn't stack up. It's not just that established democracies such as Brazil and Austria have already reduced the voting age to 16, or that the British Crown Dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) have done the same. What really drives a coach and horses through this argument is that 17-year-old "children" routinely help to elect the most powerful person on the planet, by voting in US presidential primary elections. Ah, the objectors say, this only happens because those voters will be 18 by the time of the general election. Er, so what? If you think "children" are too immature to vote, self-evidently what matters is what age a person is when their vote is cast, not when that vote "takes effect".

From my own perspective, if I cast my mind back to when I was a teenager, I can see plenty of differences between the 14-year-old me and the 18-year-old me, but not very many between the 16-year-old me and the 18-year-old me. Society has presumably reached the same intuitive conclusion - how else can we explain that 16-year-olds are legally permitted to consent to sex, marry and have children? It really is hard to understand why people think that the sun will fall out of the sky if young adults who are already deemed responsible enough to be entrusted with all of those decisions are simply allowed to vote.

Unless of course the fear is that they will vote "the wrong way". Yes, that's probably it.

* * *

I went back to the Edinburgh Festival on Saturday (although there's not much point in launching into another batch of reviews, because the Fringe ends today) and among the many eager leafletters was a Geordie woman whose pitch was "keep the UK together, sir?"

Sounds a rum kind of show to me.