Archive for : November, 2016

Bring on Photo Radar

Why is a human touch required in the measurement of vehicular speed? It’s fair for a member of the police force to measure your speed but somehow it becomes unfair for a machine to do exactly the same thing. In both cases, if your speed is excessive, a fine results. Why do people have a problem with that?

So what if it’s a government cash grab. Let’s think of photo radar as a tax on speeding. Let’s accept it as a government gash grab, but one where we can choose not to participate by driving at or under the posted speed limit.

Those who oppose photo radar seem to argue that they should be able to speed as long as they do not get caught, and it is somehow unfair to use technology to catch them breaking the law. That’s nonsense on stilts. If you don’t like the speed limits, lobby to get them changed. Otherwise, obey the law or pay the fine.

Random Events in Election Campaigns

A persuasive post

asserts that random events were the most important events in the US election, far more significant than after-the-fact theories about brilliant or flawed political strategies: giving two examples, two key essentially random events relate to revelations from a sex tape and then from a pedophile texter.

Canadian election campaigns have such random events, with perhaps less salacious significance. Consider the event and the reaction to the fumbled football photo in the 1974 election campaign: unpredictable yet significant. Consider, more recently, the impact during the 2006 election campaign of the RCMP announcement of a criminal investigation into possible insider trading on income trusts prior to a government announcement on the subject. This latter was a pivotal determinant of the election’s outcome and, unless you assert egregious political interference by the RCMP, also to all intents and purposes random as to timing.

“Events, dear boy, events”
feared by Prime Ministers,
according to Harold MacMillan

Nonetheless, I believe it is too strong to assert that post hoc analyses of election outcomes are an arbitrary and unjustified imposition of a framework on essentially random events. Understanding the voter’s mind may be very speculative, but the structural underpinnings of an election are just as important: turn out matters; demographics matter. And I would say that character matters – perhaps in the wrong way.

With respect to turn out, 2106 voter participation fell in the US Election, compared to 2012. The causes are no doubt many, but it appears that Mr. Trump was elected President in 2016 with substantially fewer votes than gained by Mr. Romney in his loss to President Obama. The reasons for the fall in participation can be left for the political theorists (they could include those random events). However, it is indisputable that the Democratic vote dropped far more than the Republican (1).

With respect to demographics, there was a race-based split in voter preference. Whites favoured Mr. Trump by a strong margin (in the 60% range), Blacks and Latinos favoured Ms. Clinton by an enormous margin (in the 80% range). Women and lower income earners tended to favour Ms. Clinton; the reciprocal for Mr. Trump. I believe it is clear that the structure of the vote is more significant than random events in the campaign.

Assessments of a candidate’s character are far less objective than statistical descriptions of voters and their turn out. However, character assessments were a very strong theme in the campaign, and mostly negative about the other candidate. My assessment is that the charges against Mr. Trump were far more extensive (rapist, sexist, racist, bigot, bully, swindler, etc.) than those against Ms. Clinton (deceptive incompetent crook). My further assessment is that the various charges were essentially self-cancelling, that they brought both candidates down, but not one much more than the other.

However, in other cases, character matters. Here follows two Canadian Conservative Party examples, one illustrating good character, one not.

Robert Stanfield allowed the minority government of Lester Pearson to survive after it was defeated on a tax bill. Pearson enlisted the aid of the Governor of the Bank of Canada to persuade Stanfield that the fall of the government would have disastrous economic consequences. ‘Twas a dubious argument, but Stanfield accepted the word of the Prime Minister and the Governor – to his political cost. Pierre Trudeau became the new Liberal leader and the opportunity was lost.

Stephen Harper sought to prorogue Parliament, only six weeks after an election, rather than face a vote of non-confidence on a fiscal matter. Harper attacked the prospect of a vote as a political tactic by the opposition to gain unelected power, and sought to erase the whole non-confidence process by proroguing Parliament. Although Harper’s motives appeared entirely political, the Governor General allowed his request and the administration survived. There were no apparent electoral consequences for Mr. Harper, as the next election gave him a majority in Parliament.

Alas, in these examples, good character is not rewarded and poor character is. But character matters.

So the outcomes of elections depend on far more than random events. That said, theories that purport to understand the minds of the voters (until there is data on the matter) are indeed suspect. Nonetheless, there is enough data out there to see the workings of an election campaign.


(1) Although the Democratic vote was still numerically greater than the Republican.

A Parliament of Owls?

The collective noun for a group or owls is called a ‘parliament’.  The conventional explanation is that: owls are considered wise; parliaments should be wise; therefore a group or owls is a parliament of owls.


This is either wishful or avian thinking.  Most parliaments are not wise – and mostly don’t even try to be wise.  Sometimes they are, but it requires a political death wish to do so.  As Sir Humphrey said to James Hacker, “That’s a very courageous decision, Minister”, meaning that a good policy idea might make for disastrous politics.  But perhaps owls do have a death wish: not their own, but they are predators so wishing political death upon the opposition is quite consistent.  Owls hunt after dark, as well, so night-time or concealed treachery fits right in.  A capable Minister I once worked for said that the difference between parliamentary and academic politics was that in parliamentary politics “you knew when you’d been stabbed in the back”.  Parliaments are also messy, rather like owls’ kills: one doesn’t want to know the details of an owl’s meal, nor those how legislation is passed in a parliament.