Thursday, December 27, 2012

Worth Reading – December 27, 2012

It’s time for the last Worth Reading of 2012. This new feature, at least according to the statistics I can monitor, has been quite popular, and definitely has helped to grow my readership. I’m not sure what 2013 has in store for this blog, or for politics in this province/country, but I look forward to writing about it.

Martin Regg Cohn pens a wonderful piece about the bizarre nature of the Beer Store in Ontario. What started off as a state monopoly was sold privately, and now we all suffer as a result.

Chief Spence continues her protest in Ottawa. The Idle No More movement appears to have gained some momentum. It is not surprising at all that Aboriginal people are angry in this country about government policies.

Streets Blog has a great post about how sprawl and the car culture is dependent upon government subsidies and regulation. Let’s keep this in mind when we discuss densification and improving mass transit.

Despite Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’srelease of policy documents, his party is stagnant in the polls. The Tories have polled consistently at or around 35%, which is roughly what they received in the last election.

Macleans suggests with all the chaos at Toronto City Hall that it is time to change how that city elects its mayors. Using a system sometimes called instant run-off candidates would be ranked until a majority consensus was achieved. Makes sense to me and it would end the constant talk of challengers being forced out of the race to unite various political factions.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Worth Reading – December 20, 2012

This story has been popping up more and more over the last week. You may have been seeing the hashtag #IdleNoMore on Twitter, or that expression elsewhere. Idle No More has come to represent the current national protest by Aboriginal people in Canada against government policy. As far as I can tell the movement began when the Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation began a hunger strike to protest government decisions. The movement appears to have developed from that point.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, in an interview on Sunday says that the government has misled Canadians on the F-35 issue. Now, will Canadians care?

Metrolinx did a survey of how major transit systems in the world fund themselves. This clear layout should be considered by anyone interested in public transit and infrastructure in the GTHA because we desperately need a better funding formula. 

James Potter examines the two camps within politics. He breaks them down into the Naïfs and the Cynics. At first I thought I would be in the cynic category, but he suggests that anyone in favour of many of the ideas I am is actually a naïf. It’s a great read, check it out.

The City of Brampton’s budget was introduced, and expected to be passed this week. Some within the community are pointing out the total lack of consultation on the city’s finances and priorities. It’s not clear why Mayor Fennell is trying to ram the budget through, perhaps she has been following what’s happening in Ottawa too much.

The Brampton Guardian has done a little reporting in what the budget contains. It is essentially a retread of the 2011 budget.

The Onion often says things better than traditional media can. Here is their take on the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reflections on Newtown

I avoided it at first. The news came to me while I was driving home from some Christmas shopping. It was an early report and not entirely clear so I was afforded the luxury to ignore it for the moment. A few hours later I turned on the TV and saw President Obama’s remarks following the tragedy.

Over the weekend I was busy and preoccupied so I did not give the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut much thought at all. Then on Monday afternoon I decided to watch the morning broadcast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. I spent a great deal of the time with a clenched throat and misty eyes. I’d like to first of all commend the Morning Joe team for focussing on the victims, the community and possible solutions – and not the perpetrator of this unimaginable crime.

My previous experience with the shooting had been largely through radio, or President Obama’s remarks, but I am a more visual person and so I do not think that reached into me as much as seeing the photos of agonized parents, shaken first responders, or, most painful, the faces of the lost children. Photos of the victims are available here, at the Hartford Courant website. The Courant has excellent, and heartbreaking coverage of the shooting.

Looking at their little faces, and bright smiles it becomes immediately obvious how young these children were, and how innocent and how monstrous an act this was. For a few weeks now I have been working as a teacher at a private tutoring company. I teach students in middle school, or high school, but the facility has plenty of pre-schoolers and young elementary students around. When I watched the news coverage of the incident at Sandy Hook I saw their little faces, and their bright eyes, and their awkward, frantic movements.

Returning to the Morning Joe broadcast, the first thing I saw was a statement given by Joe Scarborough, video clip below.

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Scarborough, a four-term congressman, was endorsed by the National Rifle Association each time, and had an A-rating from that organization. His position has changed. He says that Sandy Hook changed everything and reasonable restrictions on military-style weapons are needed. The discussion from the rest of Monday’s broadcast made clear that there appears to be a lot of agreement that some restrictions on weapons available in the United States must be implemented. Many of the Morning Joe hosts have visited to Newtown, or know Connecticut which added an effective weight to their comments.

I hope the panels on Morning Joe on Monday are right and that change will come, but we’ve seen this before. The horror is different, and more painful, but there have been 31 school shootings since Columbine in the United States and laws have become more relaxed for guns, not tighter. Restricting guns is only one part, the types available are one aspect, but who can purchase them is another. Better identification and treatment of mental health problems is a component, as is addressing cultures of violence and indifference to human life.

I hope the families and people of Newtown can find peace one day, and that the survivors can live lives unmarred by this trauma and continue their blissful innocence. I hope their deaths are not meaningless, and that because of this horror things change in America so that a crime of this magnitude cannot happen again.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Worth Reading - December 13, 2012

Worth Reading – December 13, 2012

This week I had the pleasure to be published on Samara Canada’s blog. If I may, I would like to once again shamefully promote that piece. In it I discuss some of the barriers between Canadians and greater participation in their democracy, in particular I focus on millennials

Ontario’s Auditor General released a report this week highlighting some of the problems within the province’s spending. One of the programs that the AG mentioned as particularly problematic is the Presto system. This is a real problem. The government cannot afford to be incautiously spending money at a time of severe deficits.

The Gardiner Expressway through Toronto badly needs to be replaced. It would have been nice if governments had been saving up for this eventual reality, but they have not. In the Globe and Mail this author stateshow the politicization of the freeway has worsened a deteriorating situation.  

Andrew Coyne takes apart the Conservative government and their on-going spin on the F-35 file

Bill C-377 passed this week which will weaken unions within Canada. The bill forces unions to disclose salaries of staff and other spending. The Privacy Commissioner has stated that the legislation goes too far

Most pundits will tell you that there will be a spring election in Ontario. However, ONDP leader Andrea Horwath was quoted this week saying that she and the ONDP want to make the legislature work, once a new Liberal leader is chosen. 

This is a great piece from the Vancouver Sun. Writing in reaction to Samara’s report, Who’s the Boss?, the author states plainly that Canadian democracy cannot be fixed by government. Citizens need to take hard stock of our system before it is too late.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Centralization versus Democracy

This week I have done a lot of thinking about the competing forces of democracy and centralization. These are not often forces that are considered in opposition to one another, but I think this is increasingly something worth examination.

Before I continue I think that there is a big hole in my analysis, and I should be upfront about that right now. That is that I was not alive during other political eras and therefore cannot say from personal experience what it was like to try to participate in our democratic system in 1978, and I can only really speak from experiences following the year 2005. My conclusions are based on (what are from my point of view) logical deductions.

As Samara Canada’s “The Real Outsiders” states, “Not only is voter turnout decreasing, but every year fewer Canadians are getting involved in other kinds of political activities, like joining or donating to political parties, signing petitions or attending protests.” The study goes on to discuss this group as the disengaged, and given their status political parties routinely ignore these voters.

But why did so many people disengage over the last few decades? What has changed? Democratic reformers, such as myself, point to our political institutions and the false majorities, but the system never stopped 70%, or nearly 80% of voters in the 1960s, from voting. Instead we must look to our politics and see what has changed in the intervening decades and how it may have altered the political landscape at the local level.

Beginning in the Trudeau era power moved away from the Members of Parliament to the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister’s Office. No party has reversed this trend, and if anything it has dramatically escalated under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Worse still, the practice of centralized power was copied within the opposition parties and in the provincial spheres. In short order the leader of a given political party controlled the apparatus of his or her party. Members of Parliament, of MPPs, or MLAs, or MNAs, etc. who spoke out against the leadership were muzzled and the result was a sufficiently cowed caucus.

What does this have to do with democratic participation? While it would be nice to think that people participate in political parties because of altruistic civic instincts, I am not sure that it applies to the majority. Most people involved in politics wants to A) feel their voices are being heard, and B) shape the decisions taking place. This means helping to elect preferred candidates (both in the general election and nomination) and helping to push the overall leadership to your point of view. Before this gross centralization legislators more than likely had the interest of their constituents, and therefore their re-election, at heart. Their ultimate loyalty was to the constituents whom they served, not their masters in the leader’s office.

The effect of all of this is that even if citizens join a party, or volunteer and elect a new legislator they are more likely to eventually turn against them or betray their trust. This still happens from time to time, a backbencher or someone in cabinet (of upper echelons of a party in opposition) speaks out against the leadership’s decisions. Minister James Moore (CPC – Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, BC), for example, spoke out against the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is incredibly unpopular within British Columbia. Sadly, Minister Moore retreated from his outspoken position when party discipline was reaffirmed.

Citizens get involved in politics because they want to influence the outcome. Increasingly it seems that parties are moved by polls and focus groups and not by activists and loyalists. As a result it can hardly be surprising that membership wanes. People have no interest in participating in toothless organizations that act as rubberstamps for those placed above them. Think of the American presidential primaries for Obama in 2012. They were a formality, and turnout, as a result suffered. When parties can appoint candidates, or transform legislators into convenient mouthpieces and puppets, citizens see little value in participating.

Disengagement can only be reversed through empowerment, but, tragically, it is not in the interest for those in power to democratize their political parties. Democracy offers uncertainty when rigid authoritarianism provides much greater comfort to those already ensconced in power. However, the methods to fix this problem are in the hands of the citizenry. If hundreds, or thousands of people join a riding association or political party with a common set of goals then they can affect real change. Political parties are ultimately democratic institutions, leadership can be kicked out and replaced with more democratic or grassroots-friendly candidates.

My experience within the Ontario New Democratic Party has given me hope so far. I believe I have already had a small impact. The Executive of my local riding association has been very supportive and eager to encourage new members. I helped to establish a social media presence by launching a Brampton West NDP Facebook page.

Speaking of which, I have a guest post on Samara Canada’s blog today, which discusses social media and its importance in engaging millennials and reinvorating our politics. Check it out here, Opacity and Unresponsiveness Alienates Canadians.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Worth Reading – December 6, 2012

These weeks are terrible. I started today’s Worth Reading with seventeen articles, but according to my own artificially imposed rules I can only use seven. Decisions, decisions.

Samara Canada’s latest report Who’s the Boss? created quite a stir in Canadian media this week.   There are many great articles in virtually every newspaper and news website that discusses the issues it raises; the most prominent of which is the growing disconnect between Canadians and their elected representatives. Canadians more and more feel detached from their leadership. One of the best articles I read this week building off of Samara’s findings is this piece by Colin Horgan. Horgan discusses causes for the growing disillusionment of citizens, but comes to few conclusions.

Mayor (for now) Rob Ford continues to be enshrouded in controversy. In the wake of his court case and appeal a blogger with the handle Provocative Penguin wrote this great piece titled, “Confession: I voted for Rob Ford”. It is both funny and well stated. Many of Rob Ford’s critics ask how could a man such as he even get elected? It may be difficult to remember that the battle between Smitherman and Ford was not exactly an attractive choice.

I may write more on this article later, but the Huffington Post Canada had a good piece on the political engagement of Canada’s millennials. I many of the assertions of this article are more than a little optimistic, but I will leave that determination to the readers.

Jamey Heath, NDP strategist, offers an excellent analysis for the prospects of a ‘unite the left’ alternative. What I like most about Heath’s article is that it goes beyond the typical “this will never work” or “this is the only way to beat the CPC” angle. Very thoughtful read.

Steve Munro, prominent writer on transit and urban issues in Toronto, wrote this week on the next phase of development proposed by Metrolinx. Metrolinx’s plan for developing transit in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area is available here.

Andrew Coyne in the National Post suggests that perhaps we should just have one big election on democratic reform and have it over with. Sadly, this bold proposal begins to disintegrate with even the slightest bit of scrutiny.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Grassroots Politics and a Healthy Democracy

This morning I read Samara Canada’s latest report on the wide dissatisfaction Canadians feel towards their political representatives. The report, titled Who’s the Boss?, shows that Canadians feel increasingly detached from their Members of Parliament. More importantly, a majority of Canadians view MPs as primarily serving the interests of their political parties rather than constituents. The most telling lines from the report come from former MPs in Samara’s Exit Interviews. These anonymous former MPs decry the fact that instead of taking their constituents’ message to Ottawa, they were taking Ottawa’s message back to their constituencies.

It is a common refrain, “MPs are powerless against the leadership, if only something could be done.” Well, something can very easily be done. Our Members of Parliament could develop a spine and be less worried about their future political careers. There is no formal restriction of a MP’s power, only informal custom and threats to disobedience. There’s no reason that a backbencher on the government side could not vote against the government in principle, and the opposite is true for a member of the opposition. But they don’t. That spot on a committee they covet, or the parliamentary secretary slot, or maybe, if all goes to plan, that shiny cabinet post will all be out of reach if they vote against the leader’s will.  

However, I cannot simply harp on the MPs and call them gutless. The leadership of each party has a tremendous amount of power in one regard. For a candidate to run for any political party in Canada he or she must have the signature of the party leader on the nomination forms. Local riding associations select candidates, that is true, but all the parties’ leaders have a form of veto over them. Elizabeth May, among many others, has identified this particular problem. Therefore, she has introduced a private member’s bill to end central approval of local candidates. What would this mean? It would mean that local politicians, with good connections to their community and supporters could buck against the central party and still be re-elected.

For example, imagine somewhere in the Conservative backbenches there was an MP who was furious over the state of the budget. The cuts are not aggressive enough, and the deficit needs to be eliminated yesterday. She holds town hall meetings in his riding in, say, Manitoba and her constituents support her criticism of the government. So on budget day she delivers a harsh criticism stating the budget does not go far enough and when the time comes, she votes against it. The Prime Minister’s Office is enraged, but, for the most part, her constituents support her choice. When the next election rolls around she might be challenged by a more stalwart candidate, but she wins the nomination again and is returned with a bigger majority of the vote. Voters reward independence and principle.

In short, the power to approve nominations has muzzled Members of Parliament to a great extent. It is a sword of Damocles that hangs over all of their heads. Therefore backbenchers are good little boys and girls, hoping they can return to parliament and continue to be toothless. It is an odd strategy when laid out. Why are they there if not to represent their constituents, and hold the government to account?

Let no one be fooled that this is a Conservative issue. The Chrétien Liberals exercised brutal control over its MPs, and, sadly, I have no doubt that if the NDP win a government the same will apply to them as well. One merely has to look to the provincial governments across the country to see the exact same patterns.

Politics in Canada seems too much of a top-down affair. Centralized, one-size-fits-all messages come down from on high to the local constituencies. Political party memberships are in a decline, along with riding associations. The formal partisan grassroots of this country, and province, seem to be having a very difficult time. I think this is one of the reasons alternative political movements seem to have all the energy behind them. A case in point is the Ontario Liberal Party. It has a total membership in the thousands, not tens of thousands. It has been in government for nearly 10 years. One would think there would be great incentive to join and participate. The Liberals and New Democrats have shadow riding associations across the country. If I recall correctly the Liberals had 80 or so ridings where they essentially had no presence at all out of 308.

I joined a political party in 2011 because I believe it is one of the best ways to have my voice heard and to shape my country and province’s democracies. A majority of the population does not see it that way. On Sunday I attended a meeting in a union hall in Oakville to discuss how to build a stronger NDP in what has been termed the Central West region (extending from Peel to Halton, Brant, Hamilton and Niagara). Many of the riding associations in Peel are quite small, as far as I can tell. I am getting more involved with mine in Brampton West, but a lot of work needs to be done to build the Ontario NDP in the area. Many of the organizers from across the region kept saying the same thing though, “Strong riding associations, strong party.” They wanted the tools and resources to build the party locally and make the party stronger across the province (and country). Increased central control stifles local democracy. Activists and party regulars feel powerless and therefore disengage.

As Samara’s report states, Canadians want to feel their voices are heard in the political process. Strengthening the grassroots and ending central approval of candidates seems like a good first step.