Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Boundaries and Voter Inequality

On Monday the Electoral Boundaries Commission of Ontario released its report for its proposal on the future election map of the province. As mentioned in previous posts, the House of Commons passed the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act which gave Ontario fifteen new ridings, bringing the total to 121, from 106. These seats were added to address the growing population. Canada’s strange rules in regards to electoral ridings means that it is difficult or impossible to reduce the number of seats in the smaller/shrinking provinces, therefore to reduce the inequalities between citizens in different provinces new seats must be added.

Adding fifteen seats and the tremendous growth within Ontario means that the boundaries needed to shift dramatically in a lot of different places. Most of the change fell within the suburbs around Toronto, but many ridings were affected across the province.

In our parliamentary system the electoral boundaries for our MPs are critical in shaping our representation. If you live in an urban area and the commission attached a sprawling area of rural farmland, that will change the voting patterns and who represents you in the House of Commons. These Commissions work in a very difficult area: trying to rework people’s local identities into larger political units fairly. Fair is obviously up to interpretation.

Here are some maps from the proposed new boundaries, or you can go to this link for an interactive map and find your new riding. 

The goal of the Commission was to create ridings that came as close as possible to matching the provincial quota (106,213). This number was reached by dividing the population of Ontario by 121 seats. The Commission was permitted a +/- 25% variance on the quota to ensure some level of fairness and practicality. This rule was ignored only in the creation of the riding of Kenora, a riding in remote northwestern Ontario, and across Northern Ontario in general to improve representation in the massive area of the province.

Putting the North aside, there are other major problems on the map. The Commission has favoured certain areas over others. Toronto, for example, is composed mostly of ridings with a population less than 106,213. The suburbs around Toronto on the other hand, particularly in my home region of Peel are over 106,213. For example, the riding of Toronto Centre and Toronto North are 5.98% and 10.3% below the quota, while in Peel all the Mississauga ridings exceed the quota by between 3.57% and 9.66%. This might not sound like much, but it means that a voter in Toronto North is the same as 1.22 voters in Mississauga East-Cooksville, meaning it takes more people to have the same effect, weakening the power of their vote. Etobicoke is similarly problematic, as is Brampton. Here is a website that discusses voter inequality.

While voter equality is problematic on its own, I am more concerned about the logic behind these decisions. In my new riding, Brampton South, we are already 7.74% over the provincial quota. Over the next decade (when boundaries will be reconsidered again) a tremendous amount of western Brampton is due to be developed. Which means the 7.74% surplus at the moment may be more like 15, or 20% in ten years time. The British Columbia Commission made some ridings under the quota where they expect growth.

My second home, Niagara, has also seen a major facelift. Niagara has the problem of several small-medium cities, which makes the construction of ridings difficult. Niagara West – Glanbrook, now Niagara West, has taken Thorold and south St. Catharines from the riding Welland and added it to its own. Welland riding has added Fort Erie, and now Niagara Falls consists of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Falls. St. Catharines remains unchanged. I am not an expert, and have not put the time into the consideration into the matter yet, but the NDP may have been seriously hurt, or helped by the change. The addition of Thorold, very NDP friendly, to Niagara West, may make the riding competitive for them, and Fort Erie’s addition to Welland-Fort Erie may not substantially affect the outcome there.

Other parts of the map raise questions in my mind, such as the Kitchen-Waterloo area, and the Durham region. I look forward to what Earl Washburn and perhaps Eric Grenier have to say about these changes and the impact they might have on politics and the 2015 federal election.

The good news is that this being a democracy, the Commission wants public consultation on the proposed map. If you are concerned about the boundaries in your area, you can attend a meeting, submit a written comment, and/or make a presentation, if you are so inclined. You can find the details here. Given my meddlesome nature, I plan to submit a criticism to the Commission when it visits Brampton, and attend if possible. Remember, decisions are made by those who show up, if there is something with the new map, like voter inequality, let the Commission know.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Year without Jack

Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of the death of Jack Layton, leader of the NDP and leader of the opposition. The tributes will ring out and New Democrats and other progressives will gather to mourn the loss of their leader and reflect on his life and the year that has followed.

The most notable organization has been the Dear/Cher Jack program by the Broadbent Institute. The website has asked for submissions on how the passing of Mr. Layton has affected their lives and how they have honoured his memory. It is a fitting tribute, and the words of prominent and everyday citizens have been kind reminders of the impact of one extraordinary man.

I think it would be fair to say that since 2011 Canada has been living through an intensely political time: the censure of the Harper government, the election of May 2011, Mr. Layton’s resignation and funeral, a string of provincial elections across Canada, the NDP leadership contest, several contentious federal pieces of legislation – in particular the budget (C-38), the looming Liberal leadership contest and the pains of majority for the Conservatives. In recent weeks we have the provincial election in Quebec and by-elections here in Ontario. Mr. Layton has had an impact on all of these events.

As a historian I sometimes wonder how present events will be described in later histories. It seems to me that the progressive movement has been mobilized in Canada now and is now posing a serious challenge to Liberals and Conservatives. I am not suggesting that the NDP are on their way to permanent majorities as they become the natural governing party of Canada, but the party has been growing provincially and federally and now provide the alternative options for progressive Canadians. Future Canadian political historians will be hard pressed not to credit Jack Layton for this shift.

The Orange Wave in Quebec, assumed by many to be a brief affair, appears to have resulted in a more permanent commitment. Since the selection of Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) to lead the party, the NDP have remained in first in Quebec in the 40% range. More importantly the NDP are now consistently tied with or beating the Conservatives in polls. Within Ontario Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre) was able to build up her support following their federal counterpart’s success and now hold the balance of power in the provincial legislature. Polling suggests the ONDP is competitive in the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election, which has been long out of reach for the party. In the Atlantic Provinces the NDP is displacing the Liberals more and more as the party of opposition, and polls show conflicting information, but British Columbia could swing dramatically towards the NDP provincially and federally in the next vote.

It is entirely within the realm of possibilities that in 2015 the New Democrats will form government. This reality is only possible because of the remarkable breakthrough that Jack Layton had in Quebec and creating the NDP, not the Liberal party, as the alternative to the Conservatives.

For my part, I can honestly say that Jack Layton is the reason I am a New Democrat. I joined the party in the spring of 2011 and have been increasingly active in politics since that time. I am not sure to what extent Mr. Layton’s message and spirit has motivated my commitment to the NDP, and in politics in general, but I do know that his leadership is what drew me to the orange banner in the first place. The extraordinary convention last March, which I participated in, was a wonderful celebration of Mr. Layton's life and commitment to the vision he presented. In his final letter to Canadians Jack Layton said, “Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly.” I cannot help but feel that this hopeful vision of Canada can be our destiny, if we choose it to be.

I miss our Happy Warrior, and I cannot help but think we are poorer for his absence. Still, we can build upon his legacy and, with any luck, a new generation of Canadians, of all political persuasions, are inspired by his leadership to change Canada for the better.

Here are some links I’d like to share on this anniversary:

One of the more memorable ads from the 2011 NDP Campaign

Rev. Brent Hawkesbeautiful eulogy of Jack Layton at his State Funeral

My posts from Jack Layton’s resignation, Our Happy Warrior, and after his death, Good-bye Jack.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Quebec 2012 Election and the Two Solitudes

I think Hugh MacLennan had it right when he defined the relationship between English- and French-Canada as two solitudes. The language barrier between Quebec and the rest of Canada has led (and will continue to lead) to divisions within Canada that are not easily bridged. Canadians experience the world through very different lenses and only periodically is a common stage shared. Language, in a sense, may be a steeper barrier than  religion, or race because at least those minorities and the ‘majority’ can communicate in a common culture.

I have been trying to keep an ear on the Quebec election. Today a few news items came to my attention that has me scratching my head. Emmett MacFarlane tweeted about Quebec's political choices, “A corrupt government and two utterly odious opposition parties. I feel sorry for Quebec.” I'm inclined to agree. 

The Quebec Liberal Party, the only federalist party in Quebec, is mired in corruption allegations. The party faces the same problems as any party that has been in power for over twelve years. Quebecers are tired of the Liberals, but the public is not sure the alternatives are palatable.

The Parti Quebecois has emphasized its commitment to ban the hijab in Quebec this week. The PQ leader Pauline Marois has said she would introduce a charter of secularism, and civil servants will not be allowed to wear a hijab at work. However, the crucifix will remain in the National Assembly. The move against Islamic head scarves is not unique to Quebec, as French (Europe) nationalists have moved to ban them from public schools. This strike against culturally pluralism is more than a little disturbing to my mind. In addition, the PQ is also becoming increasingly hardline on the place of French within public institutions.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec may have won the week though. Francois Legault, leader of CAQ, relayed at a campaign stop today that if Quebecois youth want to besuccessful they should be more like their Asian peers, who work really hard, but have no lives. This is true. I am not exaggerating, and I don't think I need say anything more. 

Quebec voters must be preparing to hold their noses on the way to the ballot box, that is for sure. Eric Grenier of 308 Blog recently wrote that the CAQ is gaining steadily in the polls since the campaign began. His model shows a PQ government, with the PQ and Liberals receiving about a third of the votes and the CAQ about ¼. I will be interested to see how the CAQ’s popularity is affected by Mr. Legault’s remarks about Asians. Much of Quebec’s political culture seems, at least to me, to be quiet different from the norms of Ontario, particularly in terms of racial and ethnic sensitivities. A party leader who spoke of Asian students that way, or proposed banning Islamic (or other religious minorities’) symbols from public life would be harshly punished in Ontario, or these views would only represent a marginal candidate and not the leadership. Two solitudes, indeed.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

By-Election Blues

There are three by-elections coming up in Ontario, with another one is possible. The provincial by-elections are Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan. MPP Elizabeth Witmer (PCPO – Kitchener-Waterloo) resigned months ago to sit on the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Earlier this week long-time McGuinty ally, Greg Sorbara (OLP – Vaughan) announced his retirement. On the federal level Bev Oda (CPC – Durham, ON) retired on July 31 and MP Ted Opitz (CPC – Etobicoke Centre, ON) is awaiting a Supreme Court decision onwhether or not the 2011 election results are invalid, and a by-election is required due to irregularities.

By-elections are incredibly unpredictable. Turnout tends to be lower, and often surprising parties win. For example, Thomas Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) won a by-election in 2007 to become the first NDP MP in Quebec in decades. By-elections are good times for upsets. They are also a good way to send governments a message by electing a member of the opposition.

These by-elections will have a significant impact on local news in coming months, and politics within Ontario. Before getting into specifics there are broad patterns in these by-elections. On both a provincial and federal level the Tories are poised to do well in these by-elections. What ridings the Tories don’t win are likely to go to the Liberals, and the NDP are likely to be shut out.

Kitchener-Waterloo was solid for Ms. Witmer, though in 2011 she won with only 7%. The Liberals have nipped at the Tories heels in the not-so-distant past. Provincially the Progressive Conservatives are polling higher than at the election (at least in June). The Ontario NDP should not be counted out yet though. The ONDP nominated CatharineFife, who is a school trustee in the area. When Fife ran in 2007 she won 17%, but the NDP are polling at 30% or so, therefore a win might be possible in a tight three-way race.

Vaughan was a sudden surprise. As a prominent cabinet minister Mr. Sorbara won the riding handily with over 50% of the vote in 2007 and 2011. However with the Sorbara name off the ballot and the chronically unpopular McGuinty government facing a by-election this could be a Tory pick-up. The federal Conservatives hold the riding as a matter of fact. This suburban riding north of Toronto is unlikely to bear any fruit for the ONDP.

In Durham Conservatives should find it relatively easy to hold on to this seat. In 2008 and 2011 Bev Oda won the riding with a majority (54%). Oda’s public embarrassments may hurt the next Conservative candidate, but probably not enough to swing the riding. Surprisingly the NDP came in second in this riding in 2011 with 21% of the vote, with the Liberals behind at 17%. Still, it’s a hell of a climb to get past the Tories in Durham as the rural character of the riding naturally favours the Harper Conservatives.

EtobicokeCentre may, or may not be, a by-election. It depends entirely on how the Supreme Court rules in regards to former-MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj case of alleged election-day irregularities. If there is a by-election in this Toronto riding I think it will be tough for a Conservative to hold onto this riding. A boon to Mr. Opitz will be a division among the NDP and Liberals. The Liberals are the most likely candidate to win, given that the riding was decided by 26 votes and the NDP was a distant third. With the NDP polling higher in Ontario  it might eat into the Liberal numbers and only ensure a Conservative win even if a by-election is called.

Outside of Ontario there is a by-election in Calgary Centre to replace Lee Richardson. There is little doubt who will win in said by election in deep blue Alberta, but there is a contentious race for who the Tory nominee will be.

By-elections are usually moments for the opposition to flex its muscles and beat up on the government. Sadly the placement of these by-elections give a solid chance to the government (both Harper Conservatives and McGuinty Liberals) a chance of winning, and not much hope for the NDP. When all is said and done there is likely to be more blue wins than losses. Don’t count out the possibility of an unexpected results, by-elections are famous for them.