1. Voter turnout
It’s been declining for decades, but at 53.55 per cent, voter turnout was a record low for Tuesday’s provincial election. Part of that was by design. Stephen McNeil knows that low voter turnout generally benefits the party in power, and he certainly did everything in his power to schedule the election to best minimize turnout — he called the election on a weekend and scheduled it for after the universities let out and just before the summer.
It’s a truism that low voter turnout is a bad thing, but the explanations for why it’s a bad thing usually aren’t very thoughtful. For the most part, low voter turnout is a bad thing because it’s a bad thing.
Worse, the solution for many people is to shame people who don’t vote, and to suggest horrible solutions like internet elections or compulsory voting.
But low voter turnout is only a symptom of a bad thing, and not a bad thing in itself.
Before getting into that, let’s acknowledge that there are people with principled reasons for not voting.
6 (1) The House hereby declares its intention to include as an additional member a person who represents the Mi’kmaq people, such member to be chosen and to sit in a manner and upon terms agreed to and approved by representatives of the Mi’kmaq people.
The Mi’kmaq, however, have declined to choose such a representative. My understanding is that they have declined the seat for principled reasons: They see their treaty relationship with the Nova Scotia government as that of an agreement between equal governments. To sit in the legislature is to agree that they are subservient to the provincial government, so they don’t take that seat. (If I have any part of this wrong, I hope to be corrected.) For much the same reason, many First Nations people refuse to vote in Canadian or provincial elections because they don’t recognize the Canadian and provincial governments as legitimate.
There are others that have principled reasons for not voting. Anarchists, for example. reject the entire idea of government, and voting legitimizes the thing they disdain. Some people refuse to vote because they view our government as imperialistic or they see our representative democratic system as a manifestation of capitalism.
You don’t have to be Mi’kmaq, an anarchist, an anti-imperialist, or an anti-capitalist, or agree with them, to recognize that there are people who have principled stands against voting. To suggest compulsory voting is to say that you want to force those people with principled stands against voting to vote. Compulsory voting, then, is itself imperialist.
Of course most people who don’t vote likely haven’t thought it through to the point that they have principled stands about it. I can’t read their minds, but my sense is that many of them just have a general feel that it’s not something they want to bother with.
But whether thought through or not, we shouldn’t discount not voting as simple apathy and void of any political content. As Mary Campbell points out:
People like to vote. They’ll do it daily for weeks to try and get Ron MacLean to declare their town a “Hockey Town.” They’ll do it daily for weeks to help their favorite local band win the CBC Spotlight contest. They’ll do it daily for weeks to get a local baseball team recognized for its good deeds. They’ll even do it in those Cape Breton Post polls, taking the time to answer (with delightful regularity) “No” to questions like, “Will you be attending [insert name of high profile local event here]?”
I could add that only cranks and malcontents like myself object to social media advertising campaigns disguised as charity that encourage people to vote in contests for which nonprofit the multibillion dollar insurance company will throw a few bones to, which lighthouse will get funded, or which crappy, run-down business street will get painted — everyone else seems to joyfully jump on the bandwagon, uncritically thinking they’re doing some positive good in the world. Vote, vote, vote! We’re supposed to vote every day, encourage our friends and family to vote, become invested in the outcome.
So it’s really something when our vote-happy citizenry refuses to become invested in the political process and declines to vote. It may not be thought out or articulated, but the message is loud and clear all the same: something ain’t right here, and people are increasingly refusing to play along.
I was thinking about this yesterday, and posted this on Facebook:
Voter turnout is merely a signal, an indicator.
If someone is losing weight at an alarming rate because they are sick and vomiting up all their food, we don’t simply force food down their throats so they’ll gain more weight. Instead, we try to address the underlying sickness.
In much the same way, when the body politic is sick and that sickness expresses itself in lower voter turnout, we shouldn’t simply force people to vote. That doesn’t address the underlying sickness at all.
And yet, that’s what I’m seeing all over the place this morning: People who don’t vote suck! We should force people to vote like they do in Australia! Etc.
Instead, we should ask ourselves why people don’t vote. Why are people disengaged? As I see it, low voter turnout has nothing to do with “apathy” or all the other ways we put this on individual people — it’s a kind of victim blaming, really — instead of blaming the political culture itself.
I don’t have time or space to get into it here, but I’d argue that it is precisely our society’s increasing emphasis on individual behaviour and the shift in value systems to one that only values individual consumption, at the expense of communal wealth, that leads to lower voter turnout. Put simply: we have so disparaged the notion of a shared community, with shared obligations to each other, that individual people increasingly see no purpose in voting. And I’d date that shift to exactly 1979 and 1980, the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and ever since, with the success of a neoliberal world view.
In the comments, I tried three versions of another metaphor. In the first, I said complaining about people not voting is like opening a restaurant with really crappy food and a horrible atmosphere, and then complaining that you don’t have enough customers.
That didn’t seem quite right, so I tried again: It’s like having a restaurant with good food, but then giving the bill to the guy living in a box in the alley behind.
No, that didn’t work either, so I tried a third time: It’s like a really, really good restaurant, with excellent food. The very rich people who patronize the place will leave completely satisfied no matter what they’re served. But the servers go out into the alley and ask the guy in the box to pick the menu items for the rich folk inside.
In this metaphor, the rich diners are the wealthy who primarily benefit from our political system; the servers are the political parties; the menu choices are the candidates on the ballot; and the guy in the box in the alley is the sucker voter. Is it any wonder the guy in the box doesn’t want to keep playing along?
Also in the comments, my good friend Chuck points out that the decline in voting turnout mirrors the decline in union membership, which has “has forced people to pursue individual survival strategies. This effectively isolates people, making them less politically active and apathetic.” Other commenters had other explanations.
None of these explanations are perfect, but they’re an attempt to push back on the notion that not voting is simply an individual character flaw and not reflective of greater problems in our society and our political economy. I guess it’s easy to just blame individual people and not think any further. Maybe blaming individual people has something to do with our social media shaming culture. I know it definitely reflects a world view that we are all atomized individuals, utterly disconnected from and in perpetual competition with each other.
In this latter sense, voting is merely a contest. The winner…wins! The contest is everything — every goddamned thing on this planet is part of the game, and nothing exists outside it. There’s no affirmation of any bigger ideal, no shared purpose, no hope for anything more.
To the extent that people are rejecting that framing of voting, it’s a good thing. If we want people to vote, then maybe we should give them something to vote for besides the vote itself.
2. Michelle Coffin
Writing for The Coast, Maggie Rahr speaks with Michelle Coffin, the woman who was assaulted by Stephen McNeil’s spokesperson, Kyley Harris.
“Everyone has had a chance to tell this story — about me — but me,” Coffin told Rahr. “And now I’m reclaiming it.”
What made Coffin decide to go public? The Liberal campaign showed up on her doorstep during the campaign in the form of candidate Labi Kousoulis, MP Andy Filmore, and a campaign worker:
“What are your views on domestic assault?” she asked, without identifying herself as either a former Liberal staffer or the woman attacked by Harris. “What are your views on violence against women?”
Kousoulis answered right away. Without mentioning a name, he reportedly said “that individual” is no longer in the position. The candidate went on to say that Harris struggled to find work after his sentencing, and McNeil had wanted to offer help.
“The premier called all of the women’s organizations and asked what they thought,” Kousoulis explained, “and they unanimously said that he should be rehired.”
Coffin concluded that Kousoulis either misspoke, was parroting a spoon-fed Liberal talking point, or was knowingly lying to her face.
Rahr goes on to fact-check Kousoulis’s claim that the premier called women’s organizations, and finds it wanting.
The story that never dies… a correction of a correction.
Jennifer Henderson talks to the co-producer of Maudie, who says that Nova Scotia lost out from the possibility that at least some of the film would be filmed in this province because Stephen McNeil cut the film tax credit.
This story is kind of driving me nuts. As we first published it, the article wasn’t sufficiently sourced (one source wasn’t enough for such a politically charged story) and had a factual error in it but, as it turns out, it was essentially correct — as Henderson points out in the revised article, both the co-producer and the director of Maudie are sticking to their story that they moved filming to Newfoundland in part because of the cut to the film tax credit. But already people are arguing about that — they hadn’t actually filed the paperwork for the credit, so you can’t really say they were cut off from it… and on and on we’ll argue, I suppose.
4. The Cape Breton vote
“I watched CBC Nova Scotia’s election night coverage, which meant I watched three Haligonians sitting at a desk in Halifax interpreting the ‘message’ being sent by Cape Breton and three reporters stationed at the campaign headquarters of the three leaders, all of which were on the mainland,” writes Mary Campbell for the Cape Breton Spectator:
Healthcare and “traditional union sentiment” were the go-to explanations for Cape Breton’s decision to turf three Liberal incumbents (Michel Samson, Pam Eyking and Dave Wilton) and scare the bejesus out of two others (Geoff MacLellan and Derek Mombourquette).
Interestingly, the question of child poverty wasn’t raised, that I heard, nor was the issue of underfunded equalization, and as for unemployment and out-migration, they’re cited the way you’d cite “spruce trees” or “salt water” — like things that are simply part of our landscape.
Everyone, I think, would have had a much clearer idea of what was up Cape Breton’s nose if the powers that be had heeded CBU political scientist Tom Urbaniak’s call for a leaders’ debate in Cape Breton, about Cape Breton but the idea didn’t seem to gain traction with any political party. (And for the record, I would not object to a debate in the Annapolis Valley about the Annapolis Valley, or on the South Shore about the South Shore either; I think it would be healthy to shift the discussion, literally, away from Halifax.)
If I had to interpret the message sent by Cape Breton, I’d say it was that our representatives need to represent us.
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5. The other McNeils
On Tuesday, the Liberals were reelected to a majority government, ensuring that Premier Stephen McNeil would continue in office. On Wednesday, it was announced that another McNeil — Robin McNeil — would become deputy chief at the Halifax Regional Police Department. Says the department’s press release:
Deputy McNeil began his career with the Halifax Police Department in 1989. During his career, Deputy McNeil has acquired a broad base of experience in both operations and administration, working in Patrol, Criminal Investigation, Casino Intelligence, Drugs, Fraud, and Community Relations/Crime Prevention. He was promoted to the rank of Superintendent in 2009 and has served in a variety of areas including Community Projects, Administration, Support and Integrated Emergency Services and as Central Divisional Commander. Deputy McNeil most recently served as Officer-in-Charge of the Patrol Division, a position to which he was appointed in April 2015.
Now, McNeil or some variation of it is a common name in Nova Scotia. (My friend Iain MacNeil told me that he and a guy named Ian McNeil once got into fisticuffs over the spelling of their names.) So while the premier has a brother named Robin McNeil, I can’t be 100 per cent sure that the Robin McNeil appointed deputy chief is one and the same.
However, one of the premier’s other brothers, Chris McNeil, had previously served as deputy chief. There are 17 McNeil siblings — 11 brothers (one deceased) and six sisters. And this Robin McNeil sure looks like he’s of the Bridgetown McNeil clan. Consider:
Now, I’m from a big Catholic family. Not as big as McNeil’s, but big enough — I’m one of eight kids. I wouldn’t want to be judged by my siblings’ actions, and more importantly, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to be judged by my actions. We’re independent people and we’re responsible for ourselves.
But there’s something creepy about the extent to which the McNeil family has permeated the Halifax PD. There’s yet another McNeil brother who was part of the force: Anthony McNeil. Anthony and Chris were involved in a scandal that rocked the force in 2011, and which ultimately led to Chris’ resignation as deputy chief. I detailed that scandal here; the short of it is that it appears Chris was trying to cover up improper activity by his younger brother and was accused of lying to the police review board.
As we do in Nova Scotia, Chris was allowed to retire, the scandal was swept under the rug, and Chris went on to establish a consulting firm that sells its services to various police agencies around the province. He’s probably making more money now than he was as deputy chief.
And now Robin McNeil is deputy chief.
Update: several readers have confirmed that Robin McNeil is Stephen McNeil’s brother.
1. Joanne Bernard
“I am still getting used to the idea that Joanne Bernard is now the former Minister of Community Services, soundly beaten in Dartmouth North by NDP candidate Susan Leblanc,” writes Robert Devet:
I am not shedding any tears for Bernard. Lives on welfare are hard lives, and Joanne Bernard the minister did next to nothing to change things for the better.
What is exciting about Bernard’s loss is that to some extent she lost because of her record as the minister of Community Services. There were other reasons as well, but the hard work of anti-poverty advocates, their rallies and campaigns, were a major factor. Not just during the election, but over the years. We haven’t seen that in Nova Scotia for a while.
About the Icarus Report
I get complaints about everything I write. Everything. People complain about the ships. I’ve had someone tell me I shouldn’t write about animals. Someone else told me that publishing cranky letters is a waste of my time. I’ve fielded complaints about each and every one of the writers I publish — not about their work, just that the complainer doesn’t like the writer for some reason. People complain about the layout of the webpage. They complain about photos, the colour of the text, the terms and conditions page. A Twitter troll criticizes my pronunciation of “kilometre.” Someone else criticizes my spelling of “kilometre.” There is literally not a single damn thing I do that isn’t criticized. Someone will inevitably criticize this very paragraph.
Mostly I just shrug off criticism. I started this enterprise to be able to do what I enjoy doing, and if people don’t like it, well, fuck ’em.
But the criticism of the Icarus Report is at an all-time high. Over-the-top high. People really, really hate it. It seems a visceral hatred.
I don’t much like talking about my personal life, but I guess I have to get into this. I have issues with height. I can’t walk over the Macdonald Bridge, or most other bridges either. I get the willies walking over the Quinpool Road bridge over the railroad tracks, for example. Overlooks and ledges are off limits. I even get vertigo watching a road runner and coyote cartoon, when the coyote falls off the cliff.
I don’t always have nightmares, but when I do, they’re about falling. Half the time, I’m falling to my death. The other half the time, someone I care about is falling to their death. If you’re my friend, I’ve probably seen you fall to your death in my mind’s eye. Sorry.
I don’t know what explains this fear of heights, and it only seems to get worse. I am completely convinced that falling to my death is my ultimate fate. This doesn’t stop me from flying, but as the plane is taking off, I try to think of something I’ve accomplished or someone I love, and cherish that thought, because it might be my last.
And so the Icarus Report is a way to work through this fear, or at least to self-mockingly play with it. I try to make it amusing, in a self-deprecating sort of way. I’ve never pretended it was “real journalism” or any such thing — does everything I write have to be serious? Can I not play around a bit?
But complaints about my fear of flying go something like this:
Me: I have an irrational fear of flying.
Smart/sane person: Your irrational fear of flying is irrational.
Me: Yes, I know. I have an irrational fear of flying.
Smart/sane person: But that’s irrational!
Me: Indeed, I have an irrational fear of flying.
Smart/sane person: You sure are an asshole.
Well, I yam what I yam, as some famous person once said.
But, given the unusually vitriolic hatred for the Icarus Report, I thought that just this once, I’d throw it open to readers. It only takes me about five minutes to put together the Icarus Report — I usually do it while watching TV or having a beer, so it’s not like it’s taking away from my other work. But should I stop with it? Continue? You tell me:
Should I continue to produce the Icarus Report?
— Tim Bousquet (@Tim_Bousquet) June 1, 2017
No public meetings.
The Dalhousie University Club’s AGM (Thursday, 4pm, Dining Room, Dal University Club) — drink with the bartenders.
In the harbour
7am: Maasdam, cruise ship with up to 1,510 passengers, arrives at Pier 22 from Sydney
7am: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Pier 36 to Autoport
7:20am: Skogafoss, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Argentia, Newfoundland
11:30am: Manon, car carrier, moves from Pier 31 to Autoport
11:30am: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Autoport to Pier 41
Noon: Skogafoss, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for sea
3:30pm: Maasdam, cruise ship, sails from Pier 22 for Bar Harbor
8:30pm: Manon, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea
We’re recording Examineradio today.