Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rising Towers, Falling Prices?

I would like to begin by thanking Fair Vote Canada for sharing last week’s post on The Orange Tory regarding some of my proposals on how to improve democracy in Ontario. Last week’s post drove traffic to this blog to an all-time high. I am very grateful for Fair Vote for sharing this post and my blog. I would like to welcome my new readers, I hope you find something worthwhile to you here.

This week I want to begin a discussion about housing. I hope to sometime soon discuss some ideas regarding social housing and housing prices – both of which, I believe, require redress. Funny enough my local MPP Cindy Forster was named the ONDP critic for Municipalities and Housing.

To begin the discussion I wanted to share a link to an article by Stephen Smith at Forbes, link here. Smith poses a simple question – does urban growth have to mean gentrification? The reason that it is an important question is that the answer may be counter-intuitive to some philosophies, or perhaps broadly the logic of the market.

My friends on the right might say that the issues of high housing costs and social housing could be addressed by reducing restrictions on new builds and building new projects. Smith points out in his piece that new construction is never accepted at face value as additional housing stock, but always with increased value due to new amenities and the fact that it is not joined by other construction.

Finally, I want to share this video of time elapsedscenes in Toronto. I think us in the GTA often overlook how beautiful Toronto is as a city, this really highlights that. Enjoy. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Immodest Proposal for Democracy

Previously in this blog I’ve labelled myself as a reformer, or a democrat, or a democratic reformer – and this is the label that I cherish the most. I value it more highly than social democracy, government regulation in the economy and creating a more fair society, which are also key aspects to my political identity, but secondary to the value of democracy.

Last week I posted a rant on the decline in our democratic institutions as manifested through dismal turnout in the Ontario (and other provinces) election. Being disappointed and complaining doesn’t do too much good, so let’s talk about what we can actually do.

On their post-electionepisode of The Agenda of TVO, Martin Cohn (if I recall correctly) suggested that the real way to end concerns about low voter turnout is to introduce Australian-style mandatory voting without consulting the public for a period of ten years. At the end of the ten-year period hold a referendum, and hopefully after having it in place for ten years people will come to accept it. I can’t help but wonder if you’d want the referendum to be mandatory, or just hope the pro-participation side outvotes the apathetic naysayers and keep the reform in place. I have spoken in favour of compulsory voting previously here.

One feature that would be required if compulsory voting, but can be introduced without it would be a “None-of-the-Above” option. Pundits often point at low voter turnout as a symptom of dissatisfaction with the options. Voters could send a powerful message by clearly declaring their dissatisfaction with their candidates. For example, in a riding that an incumbent wins with 40% and the other parties win 10% a piece and None-of-the-Above gets 30% it might indicate that if the losing parties put up stronger candidates they would perform better, maybe even win. It would also punish candidates for negative campaigns.

In our current system of democracy (coming to that in a minute) voters that support small parties and parties with limited support in particular regions have very limited reason to get out and vote. Green voters have very little incentive to vote anywhere in Ontario outside of a couple of ridings. PCs can stay home in most parts of Toronto. New Democrats are shut out of the rural east of the province. Liberals have a tough go in many parts of mid-Ontario. One way voters were encouraged to vote in the federal elections were through vote subsidies. For every ballot cast the party would receive $1.75. The Harper Conservatives have moved to kill this funding program, but it gives some incentive for voters to get out there and boost turnout.

Here’s a change that’s sure to raise the hackles of a few citizens – we need more politicians. Please hold on to your rotted fruit! One of the biggest concerns of voters is that they do not feel heard by or connected to their representatives. We had one fewer Members of Provincial Parliament in Ontario one hundred years ago than today. The population of Ontario in 1911 was 18% of what it is today. So despite increasing population by more than a factor of five we have added one representative to the body. One of the biggest complaints I heard during the election is that people do not get to meet the candidates. With tens of thousands of households in a riding it is a hell of a task to meet even a small percentage. I am not suggesting we quintuple the size of the legislature to match population, current technologies do not make such a dramatic leap necessary. But, bringing the legislature to its largest historical size of 130 may be a good first step.

I would like to see reform to the way political advertising is done. I believe it turns people off from the process, especially ads by third-party groups who cannot be punished directly by the public for their campaigns. I do not have a solution to this issue though, sadly.

Finally, I was a supporter of the Mixed-Member Proportional reform on the ballot in 2007. A reform of our electoral system would make every riding competitive and attract back those discouraged voters. Wilf Day offers a very clear explanation of what MMP is, or you could watch this mostexcellent video on YouTube. At his blog Day has run the numbers of what the Ontario Legislature would look like given the October 6th results, but with an MMP system. It is quite a different animal. The Legislature would still be a minority, the Liberals would have won 50 seats (down 3), the PCs would be up to 45 (up 8) the NDP would jump even higher, up to 31 seats (up 14). The Green would get their first win with three seats. You can see Day’s analysis here.

Voter turnout is not the weather. It is not something we should regularly complain about, then shrug our shoulders in defeat – it is a problem that can be addressed through concrete policies and reforms. My suggestions here would all work together, which is part of the reason I chose them. Other options are out there, and I hope our political leaders have the sense to consider some of them. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We Need All Voices

Well Ontarians our provincial election is over. Tonight was the night of the Newfoundland and Labrador election, and before those were the Manitoba, Northwest Territories and Prince Edward Island elections. Across the country so far provincial governments have been re-elected, though sometimes under different leaders. Our nation’s punditry is extrapolating this to mean that Canadians are embracing experienced leaders and restoring them to power in the face of uncertain uneconomic times. This is plainly stupid. As is the notion that Liberal and New Democratic Parties are being elected to government as resistance to the Harper majority federally. Provincial elections are shaped by provincial issues. Besides, every one of these Premiers have been returned with a smaller majority, aside from Selinger in Manitoba, and reduced popular vote.

I have opted this week not to obey my standard format of addressing an issue carefully and exactly but instead to just rant a little. I do not have the skill of Rick Mercer, so please bear with me.

The 40th Ontario General Election had an utterly abysmal turnout of just 49.2%. A majority of the voting population decided to sit at home and likely watch the home opener of the Toronto Maple Leafs or whatever things they had going on in their personal or professional lives. That means that a majority of Ontarians did not aid in the selection of their local representative.

I’m a democracy nerd. In my perfect world voting rates would be approaching 100%. I understand that is unrealistic and utopian, but I feel the 80% that is achieved in other countries would be tolerable. Why care about voting turnout? If people wanted to vote they would have, they either are apathetic or dislike all the candidates. This is unacceptable. It was also never easier to vote, there were 29 days of advanced polls.

In a democracy the citizen’s job is to select the best candidate to be his or her voice. Do you like any of the party leaders? Do you like any of the parties’ platforms? Do any of your candidates particularly appeal to you? Finally, which candidate is the most qualified by your assessment? And, which candidate mirrors your values most closely? Democracy isn’t about perfect, it’s about compromise and preferred choices. If you don’t like the choices, run for office or help someone you do like.

Why does voter turnout really concern me? Because it delegitimizes our government and system. In our electoral system, which I have problems about which I’ve discussed previously (and have hinted at multiple times), you don’t need to get a majority to win. The McGuinty Liberals received 37% of the vote, and will operate a functional majority or a very strong minority. However, only 18.2% of the people of Ontario supported them in the election. If they received 18.3% it would have been a majority government and they would have absolute control. Less than one fifth of the population selected our government, does that seem right at all?

At one point do our representatives fail to be representatives? When turnout is at 45%? What about 40%? Or 30%? Or 10%? At what point does our democracy fail to be a democracy? The voice of the citizenry is as critical component as the cabinet, and legislature, its absence will only lead to greater problems and alienation of the public.  

Note: In the future I might make a comprehensive post about how our democracy may/should be improved. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Our Education Premier

Dalton McGuinty likes to style himself the education premier. His success on that file may be his proudest accomplishment since being elected. In this he combines his policies for public education (K-12) and post-secondary, which I think is an error.

I do not believe the direction of public education under the Liberal government has taken is much to celebrate over the last eight years. Not everything was incorrect, obviously. Smaller class sizes and peace with the unions is positive. Other frequently trumpeted benefits, such as increased graduation rates might be cause more for alarm than celebration. I addressed my concerns about the Ontario education policy of increased graduation rates here.

Education has increasingly turned to statistical measures to determine success – How many kids are graduating? What are the scores on the standardized tests? How many kids passed the literacy test? These questions don’t actually address issues like – Are our standards of education slipping? Are our children learning successfully? Are our students literate?

I have worked in education on several different levels – volunteer, teacher, and now as a teaching-assistant at a university. Professors much deride the declining quality of the students emerging from our public education system. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even though many thousands of students are entering Ontario universities, first year programs are increasingly becoming high school completion classes because students lack basic skills.

More students graduate every year as a percentage, but every year the value of an Ontario Secondary School Diploma drops further. It no longer signifies a particular level of skill and knowledge.

I should point out that many of my objections are likely products of our times. These patterns are unfolding across North America in many different jurisdictions with very different governments. I’m convinced for the most part that neither Tim Hudak nor Andrea Horwath would fundamentally alter this educational reality. Education is often more a product of society and economy than public policy.

On post-secondary, there are also major issues. Despite the promises of both the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals to add tens of thousands of new spaces in post-secondary institutions our schools are not adequately providing the resources to staff them. During a panel discussion I attended at Brock University the panellists were in total agreement that universities are cutting back on tenured staff in favour of part-time staff and larger class sizes. What does this do to post-secondary education in Ontario?

At Brock University our infrastructure is doing well to keep pace with our growing student body. However the departments are not. All faculties are facing budget cuts annually. Growing classes are increasingly taught by instructors and space for researchers is shrinking.

Public education in Niagara is also in trouble. Every year in Niagara there are rumours of schools closing. Many are well founded because of diminishing enrolment. Niagara will likely lose more than one high school in the coming years. What does that do for our quality of education? I agree in efficiencies and making the system effective, but schools used to be the heart of communities – these are not consequence free decisions.

Education has not received substantial attention in this election, frankly, few issues have. Perhaps when this election is over and the results have poured in I’ll look back and write what I would have liked to have heard.

Remember, Election Day is this Thursday October 6. Get out and vote!

Remember to follow me on Speak Your Mind. My latest post about a Welland Riding debate in Thorold can be found there