Grad school in London

It’s taken a little while to get oriented since I landed in London, but now that I’ve settled in, this is a probably a good time to sit down and process the past two weeks.

First off, I’m staying at a place called Bankside House. It’s a student residence, just a stone’s throw from the Thames (couched between the Tate Modern, Blackfriars Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Financial Times). It’s a bit dingy, but the location, food and company are first-class. In the first few days I’ve made new friends from India, China, Singapore, Germany, France, Norway, Belgium, Mexico and The Gambia to name a few. I’m told that more than two thirds of postgrad students here hail from outside of the UK, which seems about right.

Campus is a 25-minute walk across the river and down Fleet Street. There, I’m taking courses in Social Policy, Philosophy and Public Policy, and Public Management. Already we’re being flooded with readings on defining the disciplines (not always an easy task in the social sciences), how to measure wellbeing (health, education, happiness), how to ration health care through quality adjusted life years (QALYs), the origins of the welfare state and so on. More to come. I’m managing to get through all of them so far.

Tower Bridge spanning the Thames this morning

Tower Bridge spanning the Thames this morning

One common thread I’ve seen early on has been the lasting influence of Jeremy Bentham’s work (the greatest happiness for the greatest number). All three courses live in different departments, but each has dedicated at least some time to his theories. One of my professors, Alex Voorhoeve, even brought us to UCL to pay our respects to the father of utilitarianism, where his preserved skeleton is on display. You can find him sitting in his reading chair in a wooden cabinet in the atrium, safely behind a pane of glass. Over the years UCL has been known to wheel him out for council meetings, where he is always marked as “present, but not voting.” Look it up. It gets weirder and weirder.

Across London I’ve been exploring pubs with new friends and old who’ve planted roots in the city. We visited places like the Cheshire Cheese (which I walk by every day), the Temple Brew House, the quirky Lord Nelson and the G-Bar at Goodenough College. I’ve sampled spirits straight from the cask (at a staggering 66 per cent). I’ve taken my first uber and witnessed my first anti-uber protest staged by unhappy taxi drivers. And last week I joined a few student groups including the Debating Society and perhaps more compelling, the Cider Appreciation Society. Looking forward to that one.

It feels good—almost natural—to be back in the classroom. It’s hard to believe seven years have passed since my last university lecture. There is a lightness in my step. I’m learning loads each day and perhaps more importantly, what I’m learning feels relevant. These early weeks have reaffirmed my decision to really work on my foundational knowledge of the public sector.

Of course, I miss home: my pals; my scooter; our apartment—which at 650 sq. ft. now strikes me as spacious; and of course Ches most of all. Thank god for Skype. But I’ll get a taste of Canada soon. I already have two Canadian Thanksgiving dinners scheduled this week.


The longest election in Canadian history?

This morning, the prime minister visited the Governor General to dissolve parliament, which means Canadians will be going to the polls on October 19th.

At first glance, what’s unusual about this election is its length: 11 weeks. 78 days seems like an awfully long time—even excessive given that the last election lasted only 37. I remember it vividly, back when I was fresh out of university and working for the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, when the minority government was defeated in a motion of non-confidence.

But just how out of place is this historically? I crunched a few numbers.

You can download my data, here.

While we now have fixed election dates in Canada, it turns out there are no determined lengths for campaigns. The only instruction we have is that the campaign must be a minimum of 36 days, with no set maximum.

Since 1867, the average campaign length since has been around 51 days, dropping to 37.5 days since 1997. What caused the drop? Amendments to the Elections Act were made in 1996 to reduce minimum election calendar from 47 to 36 days, which helps to explain recent trends.

So will this be the longest election campaign in Canadian history? Not quite—but it will be the longest since the 1872, before Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador joined confederation. Spare a thought for the volunteers, campaign workers and journalists who will endure 14-hour days with few weekends off. It’s going to be a long 78 days.

The enemy of the good

Over the past few months I’ve been advocating for electoral reform in my home province of Prince Edward Island. On the heels of a provincial election and a controversial coin toss to decide a tie, I wrote that “a coin toss is not just a deeply flawed method for choosing a politician, but a symptom of a larger problem,” making the case to reform our tired and broken first-past-the-post voting system.

Luckily the issue has gained steam in the province, with a steady stream of op-eds, panel discussions (more on that later) and debate in the legislature. In Saturday’s Guardian, Alan Holman very clearly laid out the options Islanders have when it comes to electoral reform. One of the problems with the debate, however, is that it often gets framed as a question of proportional representation (P.R.) versus the status quo.

Holman was right to point out there are many ways to elect politicians, and whatever system we use greatly affects the quality and makeup of our legislature. There are a number of advantages associated with P.R., but what he said next was prescient — and something that has been on my mind for some time:

“While many Islanders feel there’s a need for change they should keep in mind a couple of old adages; perfection is often the enemy of progress, and incremental change is usually the most successful.”

There is a real opportunity and appetite for reform in the province. Just 10 years ago, P.R. was soundly rejected by islanders for a variety of reasons. If we fail to truly consider real, meaningful and straightforward alternatives like ranked ballots (often called preferential voting), Prince Edward Island may miss out on this window to adopt a more progressive voting system.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says “better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

Let’s not make perfect the enemy of the good.