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Now Is The Time For Democratic Reformers to Pause and Reflect

In celebration of Canada Day, my next few posts will be about Canadian politics and culture.

Last month, democratic reform in British Columbia was soundly defeated. The proposal to adopt a Single-Transferable Vote (STV) system that earned 58% support in 2005 – just shy of the required 60% to be adopted – barely scraped the 40% support mark a second time around. Following the convincing defeat of the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system in Ontario in 2007, observers can’t be blamed for assuming that, at least for a generation, the death knell for democratic reform in Canada has been sounded.

On this point, I agree. It’s unlikely that any government will have the appetite to entertain major reforms to our voting system for at least a decade. In addition to proposals in two of Canada’s three largest provinces being defeated, average voters are unlikely to have an interest in major reforms, or a tolerance for governments who spend time and money entertaining them, as long as our economy is struggling. Major issues with management of the environment and the sustainability of our public health care and social support programs are likely to become more and more pressing as well.

In the wake of STV’s defeat, some proponents took solace in the fact that youth supported the referendum in strong numbers. Eventually, they figure, the demographics of the voting population will be on their side. I’m wary of this, as I believe a large number of those who voted for STV did so since they support changes to the system that would advance their political beliefs. Which is why, as our generation becomes more engaged, and becomes a more influential block of voters, support for major systemic reforms is likely to shrink. The big parties will either adapt to the beliefs of voters or be replaced. STV or MMP may yet happen, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.

I consider myself a supporter of democratic reform, but I don’t support all of the proposals for reform we’ve seen. I oppose the election of Senators, which, unfortunately, is one of the most likely reforms to proceed in some form over the coming years. I would have opposed MMP if I lived in Ontario, largely because it exacerbates one of the major problems I see with our system (I’ll explain a little later). I’m honestly unsure of how I would have voted on the BC-STV proposal.

The coming years present a great opportunity for reformers to take a step back, and think about what outcome they are truly looking for. What are the things we are trying to change? Will STV or MMP address them? If not, what will?

Dealing strictly with structural issues, which democratic reform aims to address, the following issues are the most pressing for me:

• Strict party discipline, and the corresponding inability of representatives to vote freely without significant reprimand and repercussions from the party caucus.
• In a minority government setting, the ability of the government to designate any issue as a confidence motion, forcing the opposition to acquiesce and accept policy they do not support, or defeat the government and trigger an election.
• The ever expanding power of the first minister, which is largely unchecked except in a minority government setting. Though as per the previous point, that check is less effective than it should be.
• The First Minister’s unilateral power of appointment over non-partisan positions.
• The blurring of executive and legislative functions.
• The lack of meaningful roles and powers for elected representatives who aren’t in cabinet.
• The fluid and discretionary size of cabinet, which leads to cabinet shuffles and department reorganizations that are disruptive to the civil service.
• The absence of true fixed election dates.
• Vote-splitting, which allows a candidate to win with a plurality of support.

I fail to see how either BC-STV or Ontario-MMP would address any of my concerns, save for the last one. The use of party lists in MMP would in fact possibly exacerbate the first concern.

Further, while supporters often argue that some form of PR will boost voter turnout, I’ve seen no evidence that an increased number of options at the ballot box increases turnout in Canada. For most of the past twenty years, there have been four parties who run candidates nationwide – the Liberals, PCs, NDP, and Reform/Canadian Alliance from 1993-2004, and the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and Green Party from 2004 to the present. Yet, despite this, voter turnout has steadily decreased since the 1988 election, which ended a long period that featured three national parties – the Liberals, PCs, and CCF/NDP.

Our system can be improved, and reformers should look at ways we can meaningfully do so – our voting system may or may not be one of them. Over the coming years, there is an opportunity to engage citizens who are dissatisfied with government, and determine what the problems people care about are. Are they policy issues, a general distrust/dislike of politics and public officials, or are there structural characteristics of our legislative system that could be changed to address them?

All of the concerns I outlined could be addressed by changes within our traditional system; this is where I hope to see the debate move over the next 5-10 years.

Next post: a corresponding list of recommended changes that would address these concerns.

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On Iran

I’ve been slowly working on my next blog post, but for the most part I’ve been spending my time following the fallout of Friday’s election in Iran.

Now, I wish I had something insightful to offer you about the politics of Iran, but since I don’t, I want to simply encourage you to stay abreast of what’s happening. And to pray for the safety and health of the citizens of Iran, and for a peaceful, just outcome.

The executive summary of what’s happening: protests and violence have swept the country since the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which is almost certainly a product of foul play and electoral fraud. Supporters of his opponent, the reform-minded Mousavi, took to the streets in protest. They have since been met with violence from various extremist groups and the police.

To get acquainted with the issue, and to stay up to date, here are a few excellent resources. If you’re following the situation and can recommend additional resources/websites, please do so in the comments section:

Andrew Sullivan, who blogs at The Atlantic, has been indispensable in relaying information from around the web.

– The National Iranian-American Council blog is constantly providing updates.

The Lede, from the New York Times, is also on top of the issue.

The Huffington Post and the Boston Globe have been excellent, especially for posting photos from Tehran.

Tehran Bureau was down for a while, but is back up and always a great resource.

– Also worth a read: Hitchens’ take, and this account from a Globe & Mail reporter who was beaten and detained, before being released.

– Finally, Twitter is also helpful for spreading information. The #iranelection hash tag is constantly producing news. I also recommend followed The Tehran Bureau’s twitter feed (@TehranBureau), as well as Lara Setrakian of ABC News (@LaraABCNews).

One final thought: situations like this remind me that we have it really good here in Canada. I don’t think we stop and appreciate that enough. Now let’s hope for the best in Iran.

“We Have to Change our Whole Mindset if We are Going to Have a Future”

I’ll have a massive post about urban planning and Edmonton up over the weekend, but I want to talk a bit about a decision made – and how an almost better one was made – in Ottawa earlier this week.

Ottawa was debating the expansion of its suburban lands on which development is permitted. The administration recommended adding another 842 hectares; developers wanted more than 2,000. In the end, after a motion to fully freeze development outside the suburban boundary failed by 3 votes, a compromise allowing development on 222 new hectares of land passed by a single vote.

Edmonton is considering its new Municipal Development Plan, aptly titled “The Way We Grow”. I view Ottawa and Edmonton as similar cities. Both have a population in the city of around 800,000, and a metro population of over 1,000,000. They both have harsh winter climates, and are heavily government/public sector cities. Looking to Ottawa for lessons is better than comparing Edmonton to Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver.

Edmonton’s draft MDP talks about focusing more on infill – which is progress, but doesn’t go so far as actively discouraging low-density suburban growth. Like the majority of cities across Canada, it would appear that Edmonton is not quite ready to take that step, despite increasing evidence that low-density growth just isn’t cost-effective or sustainable.

The title of the post is a quote from Councillor Diane Holmes, who moved the motion to freeze the suburban boundary. She also added this:

She said her residents are getting fed up with their property-tax dollars supporting suburban growth through road, sewer and water service construction, which developers profit from, then subsidizing operating costs in the suburbs. A city study has shown that households inside the Greenbelt pay an average of $1,000 more in taxes than they receive in services from the city, while households outside the Greenbelt pay less.

More and more people are starting to realize this. 10 in favour, 13 opposed to a freeze on new development space. A few years ago this would have been unfathomable. I believe we’re nearing the tipping point where it will become common wisdom that we have to grow up, and not continue to grow out indefinitely. In a few years time, the votes on Ottawa City Council will turn around. Kudos to our nation’s capital for almost getting it right. Someday Edmonton and other cities will follow suit as well.

The Fascinating Candidacy of Danielle Smith

I’ll start with a bold prediction that might eventually make me look like a fool: Danielle Smith is the greatest threat to the Tory dynasty in Alberta since Laurence Decore.

This is high praise for someone who has yet to win a seat in the legislature, or her party’s leadership, and only publicly launched her leadership campaign four days ago for a party that currently does not have a single seat in the legislature. Furthermore, many people have looked foolish betting against the Tories and the current Premier. Nonetheless, I believe she has the most potential to shake up the political landscape of anyone who has come along in the past 15 years.

Reading her speech to the WRAP convention from this weekend, I can’t help but be impressed. I don’t agree with her vision, but I’ll grant that it’s a heck of a speech. She articulates a clear message about business and fiscal responsibility in this province, and where the current government has erred. She makes an emotional connection to the audience, first by relating her family’s experiences from the recession of the 1980s, then by explaining her involvement with the PC Party and why she left. Finally, the requisite Trudeau dig aside, she gives a speech that avoids demagoguery, ad hominem attacks, and instead relies on a well-constructed argument that she backs up with facts and figures.

Following the 2008 election, there was much ado about problems on the left – vote-splitting, issues with the Liberal brand, and so forth. There is much talk about – through merger, rebranding, or creating a new party – some action to consolidate centre-left voters and disaffected Tories. After more than a year, there is no public evidence that such outcome is any closer to reality. The left remains divided, lacking an idea, institution, or person it can rally around, and disaffected Tories are left searching for the lesser of the evils and hoping for something better.

However, flying under the radar were issues that might lead to a surge of support for a centre-right, fiscally conservative party: the high spending, and sudden reappearance of a deficit in the provincial budget; controversy surrounding the new royalties regime; the appearance that the government lacks big ideas. All three of these topics are covered in Smith’s speech.

While the 2008 election saw the WRAP lose their only seat, they have nonetheless seen an uptake in donations, largely from businesses disenchanted with the government. Their conservative credentials are unquestioned, and they could take advantage of a potential rift between the Tories and their federal counterparts. Most importantly, if they choose a fresh, young leader like Smith, they can make the Tories suddenly seem old and stale. She can generate excitement and interest in a province where it’s sorely lacking. It’s tough to predict the future, but the Tories would seem to be a lock to win the 2012 election. Beyond that, if the Alliance gains a beachhead in that race, they could grow fast.

The last transfer of power between parties – the 1971 defeat of the Social Credit Party at the hands of the Progressive Conservatives – was less about ideology, and more about image. There was little that separated the two parties policy-wise. But Peter Lougheed and his team were new, fresh, and energetic. The SoCreds were a tired government, and failed to bring forward new ideas and new personalities. The same opportunity exists for the Alliance here. Most of the new faces in the Tory government are still buried in junior cabinet posts or the backbenches. More and more voters see them as lacking ideas. Can a new, fresh face bring about the downfall of the mighty Tory dynasty? It might take her 2-3 elections, but I’d bet on Danielle Smith before I bet on any of the other alternatives.

What is the System Doing for You?

Bill 44 passed third reading in the Alberta Legislature this week, and received assent on Thursday. I would suggest checking out the commendable work of Trish Audette and Paula Simons in covering this story, as well as the blogs of Ken Chapman and Kevin Kuchinski for excellent insight into the subject. The main controversy is that it enshrines in human rights law the ability of parents to pull their children out of the classroom when dealing with material related to religion or sexual orientation.

My guess is that there will be little long-term effect, in the political sense, stemming from this. The people who find the opt-out clauses objectionable aren’t going to pull their kids out of class anyways. The government will suffer some bad press the first time a teacher is hauled before the human rights tribunal, and some more if/when the law is challenged in court.

There has been a backlash in Alberta over this, including from many urban, moderate supporters of the governing Progressive Conservative Party. The perception, possibly true, is that the opt-out provisions are a paean to the social conservatives in the party. I’ve also heard that the two cabinet ministers moving this forward – Dave Hancock of Edmonton-Whitemud and Lindsay Blackett of Calgary-North West – are forced to defend this despite personally being opposed. Urban, more moderate Tories are not pleased with either of these results.

All this being said, none of the ones I know view this as a deal-breaker with the party they support. Following the dialogue on Twitter, in particular the night it went through second reading, the most prevalent thought appeared to be “I don’t like this, but I’ll continue to work through the party for change”. This is perfectly acceptable. But, at some point, one has to wonder what they’re getting out of their support and participation, and what they’re forced to swallow in terms of unappealing policies despite continuing to offer their support.

A couple of things I should clarify:

• We all work through the system in some form or another. The only other option is to overthrow the system, and subsequently introduce one you feel will be more amenable to your goals.
• No one is going to agree with every decision a political actor – be it a party or an individual – makes.

I’m not saying someone should give up because of one bad policy decision, but there are some relevant questions to ask:

• What good policies and outcomes has this party/person produced?
• What bad policies and outcomes has this party/person produced?
• What am I ultimately trying to accomplish, and what are the best ways to go about doing it?

Some Tories are trying to work through the party system. As Ken points out, both the Edmonton-Whitemud and Edmonton-Glenora constituency associations are bringing forward resolutions aimed to eliminate the controversial opt-out clauses in Bill 44. This may work, or it may not.

So, to reiterate, I see three questions anyone engaged in the political process should ask themselves, and be able to explain:

• What do you want to see accomplished?
• What is the best way of working through the system in order to see these outcomes accomplishments?
• What are you willing to accept as tradeoffs as part of the previous two questions?

Though I’m not a member or supporter of the PC party, I want to make it clear that the purpose of this piece is not to serve as a critique of their government. In the past few years, they have produced both good and bad outcomes.

• On the positive side, they put the hammer to the Capital Region and forced them to come up with a structure for regional government and cooperation, a problem that has festered for 50 years. Also, the Land-Use Framework offers great potential to start developing the province in a responsible manner, and to allow for the conservation of important natural spaces.

• On the other hand, the government’s lack of planning and saving when oil and gas revenues were high, its caving on the new royalties regime almost before it began, and the shoot first, ask questions later strategy in pursuing health care reform (which they never demonstrated was needed in the first place), are all, to my mind, decisions that have or will produce bad outcomes.

From my perspective, as someone who considers himself liberal to progressive on most issues, the bad outweighs the good in terms of this government. Others may see it differently, which is perfectly reasonable. But like anyone else, Tories working within the party for change should be able to answer what they’ve been able to get for their support, and why they’re willing to accept outcomes like Bill 44 as tradeoffs. I hope that seeing the dialogue move here will encourage everyone to reflect on what they’re trying see realized, and how the best way to accomplish it is.

He Took the O-Train Going Anywhere

On Friday, I did something novel. I took public transit straight from a major airport to a city’s downtown. Taking advantage of Ottawa’s Rapid Transit Network, I had a simple, convenient, and enjoyable time getting to my destination.

I had to get from the Ottawa International Airport to central Ottawa, and my trip was very simple. From the terminal, I walked about 100 ft. to a bus stop, where the 97 arrived within a few minutes. I paid my $3 fare, got my transfer, and settled in. Once the bus arrived at the first station on its route, it started traveling on a dedicated busway. A stop later, I got off at the Greenboro station. I then walked up the stairwell and across the overpass to reach the O-Train platform. 5-10 minutes later, the train arrived. Greenboro is the end of the line, four stops later it reaches the Bayview station at the end of the line, not far from downtown. All told, it took roughly 25 minutes from the time my bus left the airport until I arrived at Bayview. Most of the time I might have saved by taking a cab – which might have been 10 minutes – was on account of having to wait about that long for the bus to arrive. However, the fact that I would have likely been billed at least $3 by the time the cab left the airport terminal, and a lot more by the end of my trip, makes taking public transit from the Ottawa airport an incredible deal.

I write about this because today, Edmonton’s City Council is conducting a public hearing on its LRT Network Plans. LRT to the Edmonton International Airport is unlikely to happen, due to the distance between the airport to the city, and the low-density development – where development does exist – along the route. What might make sense is a system like Ottawa’s. By this time next year, Edmonton’s LRT will reach Century Park at 111th St and 23rd Ave NW. Bus service connecting the airport to the LRT line and transit hub at that station could be established – the presence of a regional government structure should make this easier than it otherwise would be. Assuming a 15-20 minute bus ride to Century Park, public transit would be competitive time-wise with driving from the airport to central Edmonton. It would be a much more convenient and economical travel choice than the existing shuttle service – the alternative to taxi and car travel.

Edmonton’s transit system continues to take great strides forward. Bus service reaching the Edmonton International Airport would be yet another positive development.

The O-Train stops at the Bayview station. Above to the right, a bus traveling along a dedicated busway arrives at the adjacent transit centre.

The O-Train stops at the Bayview station. Above to the right, a bus traveling along a dedicated busway arrives at the adjacent transit centre.

Blogging Again

Written May 29, 2009, somewhere over the Canadian prairies.

I’ve decided to start blogging again. I made this decision over the Christmas holidays, but only now, five months later, 40,000 feet over the Canadian prairies, have I made the time for it.

This is my fourth attempt at blogging. The first lasted several months, and was a sporadic effort at best. The second remains by far the most successful. I posted fairly frequently for 12-18 months, and sporadically for a year afterward. The third can be seen when you scroll down on this blog. I posted on and off for 2 months last year; on the whole I count 3-4 substantive posts interspersed with links and baseball playoff predictions.

My challenge has always been making the time to think through and write out blog posts. It’s a symptom of my life right now. Like many, I am always lacking for time; ny days tend to fill up pretty easily and quickly. I still read about and follow issues, but I find myself missing the time to really contemplate them, and to subsequently express my thoughts.

It makes sense that I find myself writing when I’m on an airplane. For a change, there isn’t much going on, or much else to do. I didn’t bring any work with me; I’ve read all the documents I have for my conference this weekend. I’ve already been through the CTV News loop and The Score’s highlight reel, and I have no internet access. Surrounded only by strangers, smiling flight attendants, and the music of Joel Plaskett on my iPod, I have four hours to myself to think, reflect, and write.

My goals with this blog are simple:

•    To structure time for myself to think about the issues on my mind, and to express my thoughts through written form.
•    To focus on longer pieces. I may occasionally throw up a collection of links, but that’s primarily what I use Twitter for. It won’t be entirely a blog that keeps you up to speed on my life – that’s what I use Facebook for. And it won’t be a photo blog. I’m setting up a Flickr page for that.
•    To have something interesting to say. As much as this blog is about expressing my thoughts and ideas, I also want to create a dialogue with anyone who chooses to read it. Therefore, I want to write about things that readers will find thought provoking and interesting. I suspect anyone reading at this point knows me reasonably well; feel free to suggest a topic.

For the time being, I’m setting the goal of two substantive posts per week. They will most likely focus on politics, policy, sports, community, or culture, with some book/music reviews thrown in. I hope you enjoy it.