Sunday, June 29, 2014

(No.267) A Liberal 'mandate' or another electoral system failure?

"A Liberal election 'mandate' in Ontario: yet
another illustration of the need for electoral reform"

by Alastair Rickard

The Ontario election result on June 12 was (according to the media, their columnists and assorted cable news talking heads) a big surprise.

The result, a Liberal majority, would not perhaps have been a great surprise except that the media as usual were relying on various polls that proved once again -- as in recent elections in B.C., Alberta and Quebec -- to have been inaccurate.

The use of statistically unreliable polling methods (such as 'interactive robo calls') as well as voter samples that are no longer an accurate representation of that part of the population who actually vote (52% of eligible voters turned out in Ontario) make for 'surprise results'. This is no wonder when some  polling margins of error are admitted to be 4%; translation -- 'the Liberals might get 32% of the votes on election day or perhaps 40% according to our poll'.

One sees this sort of suspect 'news' played out regularly these days as supposedly serious news media like the CBC and the Globe and Mail try to bulk up their election 'news' content with the results of their own "online polls"soliciting viewer/reader opinion. In fact such opinion polls have no more statistical validity than a focus group. But such online polls provide cheap content and feed into the 'horse race' perspective so much of the news media now rely on.

In the wake of the unpredicted outcome of the Ontario election (i.e., a Liberal majority government) there was an unseemly scramble by various media 'experts' to explain what had happened, why they had not predicted the result or, more likely, why they got it wrong.

Even more irritating was the widespread post-election rush to risible explanations of what the Ontario election result actually meant while largely ignoring the reality of the increase in the Liberal vote of only 1% above its previous electoral result, i.e., a minority government.

Without much effort one could compile a scrapbook of newspaper columns declaring that "the people of Ontario" had spoken, that they had embraced the Liberal centre-left approach to provincial government spending, and/or they preferred Kathleen Wynne to continue as premier of the province.

In fact more than 61% of those who voted on June 12 did NOT want the Liberals. Indeed, barely 7% more voters chose Wynne's Liberals than those who favoured Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservative hard line on government spending.

Then of course we had the promiscuous use in the news media of nonsense about Liberals receving a popular mandate (sic). Some mandate, some popularity!

The Ontario Liberals' June 12 victory was only slightly less 'popular' than Prime Minister Harper's last federal electoral 'mandate' also based on less that 40% of voter support. Indeed through some mystical media process a Liberal government based on a slim majority of seats is treated as if the government was elected by a majority of Ontario voters.

Writing about the June 2011 federal election result which produced a majority of seats for the Harper Conservatives based on fewer than 40% of the votes cast Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin put his finger on the core issue, one equally relevant to the recent Ontario election:

"We now live in a permanent state you could call the tyranny of the minority. You could also call it the tragedy of the majority. We'll have had 10 years of government desired by 40% of the voters while 60%, who largely agree on what they'd like, will get zero representation. Everyone played by the rules of the game, but it's a stretch to call that game democracy."

Hence I return to the argument I have made previously on and elsewhere: it it past time for Canada to have systems of proportional representation at both the provincial and federal levels.

[See also RickardsRead columns No. 151"Canada's electoral failure"posted May 7, 2011 and No. 156 "The tyranny of the minority: another media miss" posted June 14, 2011].



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Monday, June 9, 2014

(No.266) Conor Fitzgerald & Northcote Parkinson: Two series of novels

"Two series of novels: one by C. Northcote Parkinson,
the other by Conor Fitzgerald"

by Alastair Rickard

I believe that one of a book reviewer's most important as well as useful responsibilities is to the potential reader of the novel being reviewed to convey his or her level of enjoyment while reading the book. Because novels, like wine, are a matter of taste -- and some people's tastes are so self-consciously trendy as to be unreliable as a guide -- it is important for the reader to understand if certain literary genres are considered to be somehow unworthy by a reviewer.

I am always on the lookout for series of well-written novels anchored by an interesting continuing character. Recently I have been reading two such series.

Some readers will have been fans of the Royal Navy novels set in the age of sail and written by Patrick O'Brian (1914 - 2000). Gradually they (and he) achieved considerable popularity both in the U.K. and the U.S., O'Brian having written 20 complete novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series from 1970 to 1999. After his death O'Brian's rather unappealing secret life became known but by then he had surpassed even C.S. Forester as the most popular writer of British naval fiction.

Nautical fiction is a genre which many writers have entered in recent years but few have begun to approach O'Brian's success from creating two memorable characters: the Royal Navy officer Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and spy.

Many years ago I happened across some novels by an English academic and civil servant C. Northcote Parkinson (1909 - 1993). Yes -- he is the same man who was the creator of Parkinson's Law ("work expands to fill the time available").

He wrote six novels which followed the naval life of a young man from the island of Guernsey named Richard Delancey. I recently reread these novels beginning with "The Guernseyman" published in 1973 and ending with"Dead Reckoning" (1978). All are in print.

O'Brian's naval series has writing and characters livelier than Parkinson's but the latter's plots are as absorbing and his grasp of the naval and political historical context for his novels superior rendering his fiction informative while still enjoyable reading. Rereading these novels by Parkinson one knows not only what certain events meant to specific characters but also how these events acquired their meaning.

If a reader enjoys naval adventures during the Napoleonic period then Parkinson's series of Delancey novels are very likely to be enjoyed as a worthwhile contribution to the genre. They are not nearly as well known today as they deserve to be and as various recent novels in this genre are but they have not been eclipsed by the work of those who came along later, not even O'Brian.

Turning to a different sort of fiction, one of my favourite policeman is Aurelio Zen, a Rome detective of the modern day created by the English writer Michael Dibdin who lived in Rome for several years and eventually settled in Seattle where he died at age 60 in 2007. He died while his Zen series was riding high with eleven novels published between 1988 and 2007.

Fictional police detectives, regardless of their nationality, are too often characters of unreflective self-assurance who come across to the reader as neither convincing nor coherent. Zen is a character at once interesting, irritating, brooding, frustrating -- and is as well-drawn as any fictional detective I have encountered.

So when I read references to a Rome detective named Alec Blume in a new series by Conor Fitzgerald my interest was piqued. However I was more than a little bit sceptical of promotional claims that Blume was the 'new Zen' and Fitzgerald the 'new ' Dibdin.

The first of the four novels in the series published thus far came out in 2010: "The Dogs of Rome". The lead character is Commissario Alec Blume, born in the U.S. but a man who has spent the majority of his 40+ years in Rome. As a politically inept but stubbornly skillful homicide detective his lack of both political skill and any inclination to abstain from annoying his superiors reminds one of Aurelio Zen but with different wrinkles.

Blume's creator, the businessman and novelist Conor Fitzgerald, was born in Limerick Ireland in 1981 but lives and works in Rome. Having read the first four Blume novels one after the other  (the fifth "Bitter Rivalry" will be published in August this year) I too am now prepared to say that Fitzgerald has created a continuing character as interesting and well-written as Dibdin's Aurelio Zen.

In terms of likely reader enjoyment as well as quality of writing in the detective/crime fiction genre I regard Fitzgerald's Commissario Alec Blume series of novels to be up there with Ian Rankin's Edinburgh detective Inspector John Rebus, from me high praise indeed.

Each of the Blume novels is as strong if not stronger than the one that preceded it.


The six Delancey novels by C. Northcote Parkinson (published by McBooks Press):
The Guernseyman, Devil To Pay, The Fireship, Touch And Go, So Near So Far, Dead Reckoning 

The novels in the Commissario Alec Blume series (published by Bloomsbury):
The Dogs of Rome, Fatal Touch, Namesake, Memory Key and due out in August 2014 Bitter Rivalry.




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are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the website, go to
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Monday, June 2, 2014

(No.265) Agents & the LLQP: a bridge too far?

"Life insurance agents and the proposed "harmonized LLQP":
a bridge too far?

by Alastair Rickard

I have written several columns expressing my scepticism about the plan from the provincial life insurance regulators in Canada who comprise CISRO (the Canadian Insurance Services Regulatory Organizations) to introduce a new modular regime (exams and content) to be developed by Quebec's AMF (the Autorite des marches financiers) for use in both Quebec and the common law provinces.

See, for example, the columns on (No.216) "CISRO's 'harmonizing': the life insurance agent licensing regime of LLQP revisited", posted Oct.8, 2012; (No.222) "CISRO, the AMF and a new LLQP life insurance licensing regime: to whose benefit?", posted Dec.9, 2012; and most recently (No. 262) "Regulator games-playing in insurance: agent licensing revisited", posted May 5, 2014.] 

The new regime has been given the designation of "the harmonized Life Insurance Licensing Qualification Program". The CISRO/AMF plan would replace the content and exams of the existing LLQP program (the Life Licensing Qualification Program), a program with the development of which I had more than a casual involvement a decade ago.

This 'son of LLQP' process initiated by the insurance regulators is, in CISRO's dealings with those directly concerned, every bit as arrogant in its presentation and the imposition of a plan to bring in a new LLQP regime as it was a decade ago.

In my comments about the 'harmonized LLQP' and other life insurance industry matters, I have stressed the core role played by active, selling life insurance agents; why regulatory actions which have the effect of needlessly complicating and therefore depressing entrance to the active agency system should be resisted; why Canadians are under-insured and the fact that Canda is NOT a mature market for individual life insurance.

Thus I was interested to learn, apropos of these and other of my comments about the need for more agents who are active in selling this core product, i.e., in providing genuine opportunities for Canadians to acquire it, of a discussion and Q & A session being presented in Toronto on June 4 this week by the Economic Club of Canada on the subject of "The Underinsured Market in Canada"

The panelists are Laura Dawson, the President of Dawson Strategic and Rickard Hekeler, a V-P of research at LIMRA/LOMA, the industry research and educational association. [For details go to] 

It should be a useful contribution to the long standing need for an effective antidote to the self-serving nonsense about Canada being a mature market for life insurance, nonsense much favoured by financial 'pundits' and industry executives alike.  


In response to various of my comments on the LLQP over time I have received some thoughtful views disagreeing with me from a person associated with one of the registered LLQP course providers. I received another such email in response to Column No. 262. It appears below in its entirety followed by my response.

"Mr. Rickard,
Have you gone through the LLQP as it currently stands?  I challenge you to enroll in an LLQP course and go write the provincial licensing exam as it currently stands.  Then tell me that the process as it currently stands is a proper licensing process.  The examination is a poor exam at best.  The last time any meaningful effort went into keeping the LLQP current was in 2006.  Since that time, no resources have been made available to those responsible for the LLQP to keep it current.

"If you are interested in pursuing this, I would offer you a complementary enrolment in my business’ LLQP certification process.  I believe that experiencing the provincial licensing exam might cause you to at least reconsider that the current process leaves much to be desired."

To which I replied as follows:

"Thank you for your comments in response to my recent column. They are worthy of a reply.

"However I do not intend to rehearse here the points I have made at length about the LLQP and its proposed "harmonization" in several RickardsRead columns. I have already spent far more of my time on the subject than is warranted given the other things of interest to me as potential subjects for columns.

"Therefore a few points only:

"1. Does the current LLQP regime need to be revisited, revised and enhanced after a decade in use?  Yes.

"2. Does the need to revisit LLQP mean the current redesign and redevelopment by Quebec's AMF is the best route or what is required?  No.

"3. Whose fault is it that the LLQP has not been revisited appropriately before now (as indeed it should have been)? Its official custodians in CISRO,
virtually all of whose key members today are the same regulators I and other industry stakeholders worked with on the original LLQP a decade ago,
and who retain the same powers of action they had a decade ago and during the years since.

"4. Do the current concerns by various informed stakeholders, including nearly all the LLQP course providers, about the sweetheart arrangement
cooked up between CISRO and the AMF before informing any stakeholders, mean the latter want the LLQP regime to remain unchanged?  No.

"Finally, I decline with thanks your offer to take a bog standard LLQP course. Even if its completion were to cause me to embrace willy-nilly your
assessment of the current LLQP regime it would not change by a scintilla the answers to the four questions above.

"My experience over the years leads me to observe that too often provincial insurance regulators offer tinned goods as fresh produce -- as
I suspect will turn out to be the case with the CISRO/AMF's 'Revised King James Version' of the LLQP.

"CISRO's self-righteous truth-mongering on the subject may seek to establish one 'harmonized LLQP' narrative to which everyone pays obeisance.

"Time will tell if that is a bridge too far."


Finally, in response to that same column on the 'new' LLQP I received a brief email from a life company executive who -- among other industry people -- was involved a decade ago in working with provincial insurance regulators in the original LLQP.

"BRAVO Al and thank the lord I am no longer involved!"

That is a sentiment with which I can agree.




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are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the website, go to
a recent column and use the links

to set a "Google alert":
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as they are posted to RickardsRead, go to