One of the oldest questions in philosophy is that of determinism.  Do we have free will or are we simply machines that react to external stimulus.  Recent brain research shows strongly that in most of the things we do, the brain actually makes decisions and initiates actions microseconds before we are conscious of the decision.  In his book Incognito, David Eagleman gives study after study demonstrating that the brain functions on a level below willful consciousness.  One interesting study describes a man who got up in the middle of the night, drove to his in-laws and murdered them, -all while sleepwalking and not remembering it the next morning.

I think that we’re all familiar with some examples of this in our own lives.  At times we’ll read a page of a book and realize that we’ve done it totally mechanically and can’t really remember anything from it.  We did it.  We looked at each word and it registered in our brains, but we didn’t do it on a cognitive level that included awareness of the meaning.  Similarly, walking or driving home may become a mechanical act.  With a little honesty, I think that this might extend to a lot of behaviour, including interacting with certain people.

On these occasions we’re acting like the proverbial zombie, acting mechanically without consciousness.  How do we know that people are not acting like that all of the time.  I know that I’m not because of my inner dialogue, which we’ll return to later.  However how can I be sure that other people are not just going through the motions, firing off stimulus/response reactions in the same way that Turing’s test for AI claims that a machine can fool an observer into thinking that they are speaking with a real person.  Eagleman comes to the conclusion at the end of his book that more than 90% of our actions is our brain working on automatic pilot with consciousness just checking in occasionally to make sure that the brain’s projection of reality is consistent with the “actual” reality.  (Don’t get me started on that.)  Consciousness, awareness and decisions fueled by will power are the remaining 10% or less.  He actually suggests that it is very much a sliding scale where some individuals implement this level of consciousness far more often than other, and some perhaps only 1% or 2% of the time.

That leads us to the question of whether there are some people who exercise that level of awareness to such a minor degree (or perhaps not at all) and as a result are conducting their lives much like Turing’s AI.  The program is sophisticated enough to approximate real human reaction, but really there is little or nothing in the way of actual human consciousness and free will.  Something as complicated as a chess game can be faked by a non-conscious computer program, so believing it possible of other human actions is only a matter of degree.

In his new novel, Quantum Night, Robert Sawyer takes ideas from new discoveries combining quantum physics and consciousness, and works them into a fiction which starts with some good, hard science and then extrapolates it into speculations about the consequences.  He postulates three kinds of people: normally conscious people, those without empathy who are psychopaths, and those without inner dialogue who are simply acting mechanically.  The third type relates to an old idea of “philosophical zombies”, which are people who appear to be conscious but do not really have any inner consciousness.  One question which I carried away from Sawyer’s speculation was whether it had to be an all or nothing proposition.  In his novel, to be true to his plot line, it does.  But this may take on varying degrees.

Are there people who have a stunted or perhaps even non-existent inner dialogue and who drift through life without real consciousness?  Many philosophers have asserted this, as have many psychologists.  Dealing with some people who seem to just babble on with glazed eyes it is not hard to imagine.  Looking at bizarre behaviour by otherwise normal people, it is not hard to imagine a momentary glitch in the system of the brain’s programming that causes someone to adopt radical ideas, act violently in a moment of jealousy or commit some other uncharacteristic or explainable act.

It’s not a question of how logical somebody is.  One can have an inner dialogue which is very rooted in emotions and not be a philosophical zombie.  One can be highly logical and yet have no inner dialogue, like the computer chess program.  What it seems to have more to do with than anything else is the idea of the quality of inner dialogue.  Hence the ideas of meditation and self reflection in the current mindfulness trends being among the most productive methods of self-improvement.  Inner dialogue slows down thinking and reaching conclusions so that the first thing that the brain presents doesn’t have to be the final conclusion.  Self reflection promotes an examination of multiple options and forces the brain to do that “checking in” thing that Eagleman talks about, encouraging a more discerned answer.

But, as is suggested by the Turing test, philosophical zombies can respond mechanically to the extent that they can fool the average person.  How do we tell if we are dealing with a zombie, and does it actually make a difference?

This is when I started thinking about metaphors and analogies.  (Similes are different because they present a physical connection between the meanings being compared, -but sometimes the observations below work with them as well.)  I have noticed that some people just don’t understand metaphors or analogies.  They just don’t get them.  It tends to be certain kinds of people who also seem to lack some other cognitive skills and who have very simplistic views.  When I started to think about the question of philosophical zombies I noticed that the people who didn’t get metaphors very often had the kinds of characteristics that I would expect in someone who had limited inner dialogue.  That makes sense.  Without inner dialogue, the required reflection necessary to make the connections of meaning in metaphors is unlikely to happen.  Without that capacity for reflection and inner dialogue, metaphors become very difficult to interpret, other than those that can be learned by rote.

So, can the interpretation of metaphors and analogy be used as a determination of inner dialogue?  A quick Google search suggests immediately that there is a lot of research out there that bears this out.  I’ll leave the readers to investigate that themselves.  Furthermore, it makes sense.  And finally, I plan to test the hypothesis (hopefully without angering any zombies), but my past experience suggests that there is at least some truth to this hypothesis.

Why does it matter?  Some may regard this whole issue as a bit crass.  Why do we need to judge people in this sort of way?  Well, I think it is important for a number of reasons.

First, let’s not forget that I’m far from the first to propose that there are philosophical zombies out there.  Perhaps a lot of them.  From numerous philosophers who promote determinism, to George Grudjieff who proposes that man is primarily a machine, to countless spiritual leaders who point to humanity’s blindness in crucial areas of consciousness, the idea that much of mankind is the “mindless grey masses” (as Tom Brown like to call them) is far from new and points to an urgent need to pursue a course of self improvement.  Our world is suffering from all sorts of tribulations which might easily be explained by a lack of genuine consciousness.  And furthermore, I’m speculating here that we all suffer from this issue to one degree or another.

Second, ethically, if a person is acting in a way that does not utilize a level of consciousness and awareness that involves free will, can they be held responsible for their actions?  Eagleman addresses this in the conclusion of his book, where he says that, of course, responsibility has to exist, but the manner in which you treat, punish, rehabilitate or otherwise deal with such people has to take into consideration their fundamental human condition.  That is a difficult issue to deal with because many of those who create laws may easily be zombies themselves.

Third, please remember that I’m not pushing a dichotomy here.  I don’t think that it is an all or nothing proposition.  I think that many people work on automatic pilot much of the time and occasionally check in with a more conscious part of their brain.  As a former teacher, I often had to grade essays.  After reading a few carefully, I would create in my mind a kind of evaluative algorithm that would then take over and grade the rest.  If I came to something that didn’t fit the algorithm I would re-engage my mind and deal with it more consciously.  I have always tried to practice self observation and reflection in my own behaviour so perhaps I’m more likely to be able to notice and analyze that kind of pattern.  But my point is that everyone uses this auto-pilot.  We wouldn’t be able to function without it.  However, some use it more than others, and some may even use it exclusively.  Teaching people to improve their existing self reflection and inner dialogue is a critical endeavor of the utmost importance.  I think it has been a guiding principle for a lot of the teaching I’ve done in my life, even if I haven’t been totally aware of the issue framed in this model.  After all, the map is not the landscape.

Fourth, this has nothing to do with psychopaths or sociopaths, who may or may not have inner dialogues.  A psychopath’s inner dialogue just ignores any kind of empathy and is totally self centred.  Theoretically, psychological zombies could be very nice people.

I’ve just started using the story of “Jumping Mouse” as an allegorical story of self development with the youth group I’m currently working with.  It is interesting to watch the response to the story in these 16 year olds.  There are other such stories, many from old spiritual texts, such as Sufi teaching stories and Zen Koans.  The fact that they seem to have spiritual roots strengthens the connections between conscious will power, inner dialogue and metaphors  I’m advocating in this article.  It also suggests that, in addition to being a method of determining consciousness, they can also be used as a vehicle for promoting and developing it.

There is a story in a book of tales by Mullah Nasrudin which talks about this enlightened master walking through the village at night carrying a lantern.  A villager approaches him and asks, “If you are so enlightened, why do you need a light to show you the way.”  The Mullah responds, “The light is not for me.  It is so that others do not bump into me.”   Sometimes I read that story and delve into layer after layer of meaning.  Sometimes I only am able to relate to the first layer or two.  Sometimes I read it and feel nothing.  I’ve come to regard it as a good indicator of my own immediate state of mind.

There are many simplistic definitions of a CULT that provide a very broad and general meaning.  I’ve researched the material and come up with a more narrow and specific definition, which I think points to more dangerous cults more effectively than a broad definition.

It rests on 7 essential principles:

  1. It has a very strong leader, based on personal, emotional identification and an extreme feeling of allegiance and compliance.
  2. There are demands, pressures and pledges of allegiance to that extreme leadership figure or group of people.
  3. There is a central religious or ideological foundation that is rigidly adhered to.
  4. Some form of impending doom is involved, whether it be apocalyptic or some other sort of catastrophe.
  5. That impending doom is used as a vehicle to mobilize fear as a strong motivator.
  6. There is a routine suspension of reason and a dismissal of facts, with severe rationalization being obvious.
  7. There are paranoid tendencies dismissing all sources outside of the cult as conspiracies opposed to their one right way of seeing things.
  8. There is a strong pressure and often serious consequences forcing members to not leave the cult.

 

[postscript]   There’s one other characteristic of most cults that I want to add after watching some of the televangelists this Easter Sunday morning.  (I’m normally not in the habit of doing that, but GPS was a rerun, so I ended up flipping through channels.) Cults present arguments in calculated increments that are designed to convince people with weak reasoning skills to go deeper and deeper into ideological or religious beliefs.  They’re half reasonable (if appealing to a more semi-rational group) or deal in gradations of emotional ecstacy with the less rational and more emotional group.  They believe that if you repeat something, however ridiculous, often enough eventually many people will believe it.  The facts around it aren’t important, but you still have to pull the con job in gradual increments so that cognitive dissonance can take hold. Whichever strategy is present (and sometimes all are), it is calculated and deliberately designed to inch the potential cult member towards the desired goals.  It is different from “education” per se in two ways.  First of all the strategies are diabolical and designed to minimize personal awareness rather than maximize it.  Second, it is done in the context of the eight characteristics mentioned above.

 

Do with that what you will.  Personally I have no trouble seeing Donald Trump’s supporters as falling in line with most of these to a rather extreme degree.  Granted, you could make a case for any political movement being a cult, however by comparison I honestly don’t see Sanders supporters in the same fanatical light.  There are some pretty easily identified differences between charisma and fanaticism.  There are some pretty easily identified differences between speaking purely emotionally and putting forth rational arguments.  Easy, at least, for those that are not embraced by the cult.

More and more, as I’ve watched Trump surrogates on news talk shows, I see blank eyes and totally uncritical minds.  I’ve talked to many individuals who have come from bonifide cults, and Trump surrogates most certainly have “the look”.  It has gotten to the point where some of their advisories on these panels seem like they want to physically go over and shake sense into them, and I can’t blame them.  Recently several panel discussions actually cut the mike of Trump supporters because they just couldn’t stand the nonsense that they were spewing.  I think that marginalizing reason and suspending critical thinking are a slippery slope for some people, aided by incremental brainwashing and the calculated use of logical fallacies.  Once you start doing it, cognitive dissonance takes over and you end up going all the way down the rabbit hole.

 

Fortunately, a cult leader who is an outright narcissist is likely to consume himself and the cult in time.  Also, unless there is some kind of societal psychosis, the cult should have a ceiling, reinforced by the aversion to that narcissism.  That’s starting to happen now.  But watching these people embarrass themselves as they are drawn into this hypnotic state is almost too weird to believe.  I am hoping that it will be a socially transformative experience when it is all over, …and in a positive way.

Never mind Survivor or The Bachelor, the current American presidential race is the best reality TV that anyone could ask for. I would never watch, and actually I decry, any of these other shows, but this one has all the hallmarks of what a good reality TV show should be. It is continuous and in real time. You can tune in any time of the day to check up on it, like a Tamagotchi pet or the Truman Show. It is a contest with exceptionally high stakes. It has fascinating characters that develop over time. It has witty and entertaining rhetoric, sometimes prepared by some of the best speech writers in the world. It has drama and scandal and controversy. My favorite attraction to it is that, being based on real issues and politics, it is a constant source of moral, ethical and rational thought experiments, allowing you to weigh arguments , fact check and, with any luck, see through spin, disinformation and innuendo. Finally, being a Canadian, it is possible to view it with detachment, and even to garner lessons or ideas from it that are applicable to our own Canadian politics, all without the worry that Trump may become the new leader of my country.

Watching intelligent people on both sides of the fence polarize their beliefs in order to correspond to their political positioning is a valuable lesson in human nature. Having a character like Donald Trump, who has migrated his position and behaviour farther and farther into unacceptable territory is a wonderful opportunity to watch his supporters struggle, rationalize and fall victim to cognitive dissonance.   It’s a naked demonstration of almost ever social psychology concept and theory that I’ve ever studied, laid out ready to be inspected at its most basic level.

In the most recent developments, this has turned into an opportunity to observe a sizable fraction of the public swallowed by a cult like movement and to watch the pundits supporting that movement fanatically ignore facts and turn logic on its head in order to justify their candidate. In recent days that has turned into shouting matches where all those not supporting that fanaticism are visibly stunned and angered by the Trump supporters’ indifference to reality.

A reality show where reality itself is at stake. Entertaining, yes. But also a little scary.

With the recent protest occupation (to use a kind term) in Oregon and the announcement by Obama that he will pursue executive actions to strengthen gun control, it is inevitable that the pro-gun, anti-government conspiracy flakes will once again howl at the moon.

There are a lot of pro-gun, anti-regulation of any kind web sites that are desperately trying to bring their argument to a rational level. This makes them feel better and does a lot to convince their own supporters who like to feel rational. The rest of us aren’t fooled.

For example, one statement that I see used frequently is “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” It was used in one web site as the lead off in an article titled “14 things you should understand about guns before writing about them.” For the record, I understand them completely. Understanding doesn’t mean that you agree, although an egocentric mind will often say that if you disagree then obviously you just didn’t understand. I don’t have a problem with responsible gun ownership, but I do have a big problem with crappy logic.

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” There is an element of truth to that. How about, “Hand grenades don’t kill people. People kill people.” Or “Weapons of Mass Destruction don’t kill people. People kill people.” I don’t think it is a false analogy. Guns have a privileged status because they are already entrenched in (American) society. Beyond that, the comparison is totally valid. Both of the latter statements are true. However, we don’t balk at the idea of restricting hand grenades or WOMD in our society (…at least if we are sane). We recognize that making such things accessible to the general public would be a dangerous thing. Why? Because there are crazy people out there who would misuse them. Because of that danger, they are controlled, regulated and restricted.

Guns, one might say, are different from hand grenades or WOMD. Very true. They have potentially legitimate uses such as hunting or sport shooting. As far as self defence goes, one might argue the same for hand grenades, but, OK, let’s allow that one and say that guns are distinct there as well. That’s why guns are permitted under regulated conditions while these other things are not. However that distinction doesn’t mean the all regulation should be abandon. It also does not mean that the item itself, the gun, has no relationship with the outcome, the killing of people. Statistics, whatever strange contortions the pro-gun lobby wants to apply to them, are pretty conclusive in establishing a link between gun availability and gun violence. (Arguing the specifics here is a whole other article.)

In fact, if the relationship between gun availability and gun violence doesn’t exist, then I find myself forced into alternative conclusions that are kind of awkward. Why, then, does the U.S. have such a big problem with gun violence and mass shootings, if not for the availability of guns? The only thing I can come up with is that there is something inherently wrong with Americans, whether it be a pathological gun culture, a lack of intelligence or a predisposition to mental illness. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to argue that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” then there’s got to be something wrong with the people. Lots of them. More than in other countries.

That fact is possibly borne out by the argument that you get when you really push a pro-gun supporter, diffuse much of what they pretend to be rational thought and back them into a corner. The argument then becomes, in most cases, that the government wants to come and take away their guns so that they can tell them what to do. They see a government conspiracy. It was evident in the recent Jade Helm comedy. It’s evident in YouTube videos coming out supporting the Oregon protestors (and even in the name they’ve chosen for themselves). I’m sorry, but to believe in a government conspiracy to the extent that normal military exercises in your own country are seen as an invasion has to qualify as a degree of paranoia, and is at least a personality disorder. So perhaps there is something to people vs. guns argument. Furthermore, it is interesting that these people so afraid of a government conspiracy to tell them how to live their lives are the exact people who are most in judgement of others, and believe that it is OK to tell others how to live their lives because the Bible tells them so. The very thing they are afraid of is the thing that they do themselves to others.

However, I digress. The idea that “Guns don’t kill people…” is the Intelligent Design of the gun debate. It is a false statement dressed up to look respectable. Perhaps a more reasonable statement would be, “Guns don’t kill people. People and guns kill people.” I could live with that from a logical perspective.

 

Again to digress from the original topic, it is a shame, because I believe that the ranchers involved in this whole affair may well have some legitimate grievances worth protesting. The BLM in the U.S. has a long tradition of over reacting, and the five year prison terms are generally regarding as being a little excessive. Charging the original two Hammonds with terrorism was perhaps a bit of a reach. There’s probably more justification in charging the current militia occupation with terrorism, at least once they eventually fire a gun.

What I’d like to see happen with the Oregon protestors is for people to just ignore them. What would happen if an army of bird watchers, all armed with cameras and cell phones, were to show up to use the land and enter the occupied building? Would this militia open fire on or otherwise physically prevent such use of the land? It would be infuriating for them. Also, I think that enterprising counter protests would be easy to mount. A formal counter protest of their occupation would be interesting. How could they object to people exercising the exact same right that they themselves are trying to advocate.

Best Music Releases 2015

Posted: January 2, 2016 in Personal Whining

For those that are interested here is my “Best Releases” list for the year of 2015. It was a reasonably good year for music, although there was nothing spectacular. Most of the best finds of the year were, as usual, buried deep and did not receive much general exposure. One of the interesting things about the year’s releases is the number of old bands that took a swing at the ball this year, with many notable and interesting results. In fact the number one selection is just that.

  1. Blur – The Magic Whip
    Damon Albarn is one of the most prolific people in music, also responsible for Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad and The Queen and a whole host of solo work. But Blur was the original band in the early 90s and their new release doesn’t disappoint, being full of the original and diverse slants on music that Albarn is known for.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbvKJEHUXXw&index=7&list=PLq6LLq4DHMbuDLKaOn4A-4KZGx1SjgTSU

 

  1. The London Souls- Here Come The Girls
    The London Souls are not a new band, with several releases spanning the last 8 years or so. But I’ve never heard of them before. While many of the songs have a Beatles and late 60s feel to them, the music doesn’t come across as dated and their diversity is one of their strong points.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wspxp4guMDM

 

3.The Fratellis – Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied
This album is brim full of catchy tunes that have teeth and depth. Memorable songs rather than the stuff that often just drifts through your mind.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yQ_grujECk

 

  1. Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
    I thought this was going to be the big album of the summer, and certainly several of the songs got a lot of airplay. There’s a new maturity and measure in Florence’s work here that I rather like. *Video’s a little slow to get going.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgeKHTcufLY

 

  1. Tame Impala – Currents
    This was my “mowing the lawn with headphones on” music this past summer. Mellow enough to enjoy the yard but active enough to keep me walking.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hefh9dFnChY
  2. Macabees – Marks to Prove It
    Kind of an Arcade Fire feel to it, with a little more juice.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70Zr8Ri5iCE&index=4&list=PLP0r8fYHYjnIlAgR5BbsrMpWSXiUPcWQh

 

  1. Best Coast – California Nights
    Great Show at Dundas Square last summer. Reminded me a lot of the Pretenders.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lqvsbb4Ax6Q

 

I’m going to list the rest in no particular order, mostly because they all sit about at the same solid place. Most of them, as you can see, are older bands who put out some excellent new material this year.

The Waterboys – Modern Blues

Joe Jackson – Fast Forward (Best new album in years.)

Squeeze – Cradle to the Grave (Also a best for years. Great to hear new material from them.)

Paul Wellar – Saturn’s Pattern   (Not as strong as the previous album. A bit eccentric but still good.)

Low – Ones and Sixes

New Order – Music Complete   (Surprisingly good from the old band.)

The Strypes – Little Victories   (Solid album though not quite as good as the first. These guys need to up their game.)

Of Monsters and Men – Beneath The Skin

 

 

When listening to gun advocates talk about their opposition to gun control many of them are occasionally candid enough to expose the real reason they want their guns. Behind the points about more guns reducing gun violence and whining about the Second Amendment (both of which have feeble or non-existent rational basis) there lies the real shadow driving their beliefs. Every once in a while the expose the fact that their real reason that they want their guns is to repel what they feel is an imminent attack coming to change their way of life. Sometimes it is Russian infiltration, sometimes the U.N., and currently it is Sharia Law, but more often than not it is their own Federal Government that they fear. Take, for example, the recent ridiculous fears about Jade Helm. The right to bear arms originated and still has a firm root in the fear that tyranny will creep into their lives.

Why do these people have a fear that there are those in government that are conspiring to oppress them? Why do they fear that the government will come and take away their guns and try to tell them what to do? I believe that it stems from two related sources.

The first is that on some level they truly understand that what they are doing is seen by the rest of the world as ridiculous, and as a result their beliefs are a defensive stance.

But secondly, and more importantly, the idea of oppression and telling other people how to live their lives seems to be a characteristic that this brand of right wing thinking seems to be very comfortable with. These are the same people who want to tell other people how to live their lives, who are intolerant of other cultures, who have an unjustified sense of exceptionalism and who are prepared to break laws in order satisfy what they believe are the dictates of their own personal values. They truly exhibit all of the worst characteristics that they are claiming to want to protect themselves from with their guns.

This is classic Shadow behaviour, and in this case seems to be operating on a cultural level. They are projecting their own negative characteristics onto whatever “bogeyman” is handy. Right now a lot of the projection is against the Federal Government, which, I think, has a lot to do with the victory of a black president for not one but two terms. The very things they seem to be afraid of are the very things that they prolifically exhibit themselves.

This, then, poses a problem as it reveals that this passion for guns (what some have cleverly labelled ammophilia) is actually a type of personality disorder. I’m not saying that just to provide a handy label for it, or to pigeon hole it, but to emphasize how difficult it is going to be to change. Changing these people’s attitudes towards gun control is going to be hampered by three problems:

  1. You’re not going to get meaningful change until you address and resolve the underlying Shadow elements. This happens very slowly as a result of social evolution.
  2. Any attempt to resolve the problem unilaterally will only result in the underlying Shadow becoming stronger and more determined.
  3. Any kind of rational discourse is going to have no effect. Looking at studies about gun control vs violence is of no value, as the root cause is an emotional and psychological one.

Understand that I am not making the case here that this analysis applies to all gun owners.  I am looking at those who have an emotional and irrational opposition to any kind of reasonable gun control.

I’m not sure where that leaves us as a society. I do think that in the Canadian political landscape you can see a bit of the same thing happening, though not nearly as extreme as you see in the U.S. One thing that we can learn from this way of looking at the problem is to be very vigilant that we, in Canadian society, don’t allow the development of these cultural Shadows to ferment, and that we take whatever steps are necessary to nip in the bud anything that might foster or bolster those Shadows.

Once they are in place, they’re very difficult to shake loose.

The Canadian federal election is just around the corner and the polls seem to be characterized by each of the three main parties having about one third of the popular vote. The balance shifts a few percentage points each week, and the seat tally shifts depending on how the vote is distributed, but in the final analysis it seems that Canadian voters are pretty well evenly strewn among the three parties. A minority government is almost certainly going to be the result and old questions about coalition governments are rearing once again.

The interesting thing about Canadian political parties is that the left is split between the Liberals and the NDP, while the right is in the hands of the Conservatives. That’s a little deceptive as examining recent history will show you that the current Conservatives are the result of a merger between the old Progressive Conservative party and the western based Heritage party. The current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, actually came from that Heritage party. (It is interesting that they solved the name issue by dropping the word “progressive”.) The Conservative party, which embodies the politics more right of centre, is therefore already a coalition that has simply been formalized with an actual merger. The Liberals and the NDP, who embody the politics more left of centre, are still maintaining their individual identities, even though they have far more in common with each other than either has with the Conservatives. Clearly, if the Liberals and the NDP were to merge (and maybe even include the Green Party), and create a two party system in Canada similar to what they have in the U.S., the Conservative Party, at least as it exists now, would never win another election. Two thirds of the voters are currently supporting parties that sit left of centre. (That’s not to say that the Conservative Party wouldn’t change its nature if the political landscape changed drastically.)

Admittedly we have a lot of independent voters that see themselves as centrist in their political views. They often bounce back and forth between the Liberals and the Conservatives. They have a dilemma to deal with in the current election seeing as the Liberals and the NDP have sort of swapped places, with the NDP trying to take the more central role and the Liberals being forced more to the left. It makes the centre and left territory a little more fuzzy.

So, it is no wonder that the Conservatives are strongly opposed to the idea of a coalition government and the other two parties are more open to it (in spite of the overt Liberal policy). Each party has its own interpretation of the Westminster system of Parliament, on which our elections are based. The Conservatives insist that our electoral system says that the party with the most seats should form the government. The other parties have a differing view.

The reality is that the Westminster system gives the incumbent party first shot at forming a government. It seems to me that this, itself, is a vindication of the idea of coalition governments. If a sitting government were to lose an election, only by forming a coalition would they be able to retain power. I’ve only heard of one situation where this was even considered in Canadian federal politics, but it is not that unusual in European countries. The second shot usually does go to the party with the most seats, but there is a harsh reality there. If that is a minority government, it could last as long as the first vote of confidence. If they were to lose that important vote, it could potentially trigger another election immediately. So, it is the case that if a coalition of parties approaches the Governor General after the results of an election are in, they could be given the right to form a coalition in Parliament, even though the parties separately haven’t gotten the most votes. The idea of a confidence vote in our system creates a situation where it is the elected Parliament which determines the Prime Minister and the ruling party. Whether you feel that is right or not, that, in fact, is the way our system works. Protests from the Conservative party that coalitions are “unfair” are not based in fact.

Our “first past the post” system of elections has come under a lot of scrutiny lately, with many vying for alternative electoral systems. In my opinion this seems like a good idea and worth examining. A system where 10% of the people can vote for the Green Party, only resulting in 1 seat, or where 40% of the voters cast their ballots for the Conservative Party and they end up with a majority government, is just not representative government. In a country where between 60% and 70% of the voters are making a statement that they want change, re-electing a Conservative government, even if it is a minority, seems unfair. Those wanting to change the electoral system are looking at some more whole scale changes to the system, which I’m not going into here, but a coalition government formed to provide a clearly desired change does not seem to be a bad idea at all, -except for the party that can’t manage to retain power even though they don’t represent anywhere near a majority of Canadians.

Canada is not like the United States, where there are only two parties. If you look at world governments where there are more than two major political parties, coalition governments are not uncommon. In fact, if the Green Party were to build support and garner more seats, coalition governments might become an absolute necessity.