Thursday, February 28, 2013

Worth Reading – February 28, 2013

I have decided to break one of my rules about Worth Reading. I’m expanding the selection to ten. It won’t always be ten posts, but sometimes seven felt very constraining. I’ve also been considering the future of The Orange Tory blog. This past Tuesday I posted a piece about the declining empathy I have noted among people. I have received good feedback about it but there were issues that came up this past week I wanted to address. Sometimes one post does not feel like enough. I briefly considered a Sunday essay. The topic would not be related to current events directly and be more of a commentary. I still haven’t decided whether or not I’ll do this, but I’m considering something along these lines.

We often hear how strong the Canadian economy is, but what we don’t hear often enough is many of the underlying weakness. One of the things that has crippled the American economy is the high level of consumer debt, which Canadians are also amassing. Another issue is the debt the provinces are taking on.  This isn’t just an Ontario issue, across the country the provinces are cash-strapped and struggling, even Alberta.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government got hit with more controversy when new documents were revealed related to the gas plant closures in Oakville and Mississauga.

Metrolinx has set up a cool interactive challenge. Can you fund the infrastructure projects? What balance of taxes and fees will you use to pay for projects?

One of the big news items over the last couple of days was the release of a new political book called The Big Shift by John Ibbitson and Darrel Bricker. The authors argue that the 2011 election heralded a fundamental realignment of the country away from traditional eastern power centres to Western Canada. The Conservatives, they claim, are poised to be the “Liberal Party of the 21st century”, or, Canada’s natural governing party. A lot of columnists have responded with their own critiques. Susan Delacourt counters that it is hard to change the political DNA of Canada. In the Hill Times we have how the Conservatives changed politics in Canada. I’m hoping to pick this book up sometime this year and perhaps post a review.

Perhaps the biggest piece of news for a political nerd like me this week was the updated version of the Federal Ontario Boundary Commission’s report. The boundaries have been significantly altered in this version. I imagine I’ll dedicate next week’s post on the topic. A relatively new blog, Ontario Projections, has a write up on it if you want to check it out. 

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail discusses the international phenomenon that is “Vancouverism”. Vancouverism is the practice of increasing density in cities and developing infrastructure (particularly public transit) to match. However, as Saunders points out, there is an irony in that what the world is embracing, Canada is backing away from.

Samara’s series on Redesigning Parliament continues. This week I was particularly interested in a post that suggests that parliament needs to return to its supreme place in our political culture

Finally, something else urban/transit related. The author asks, “does light rail actually reduce congestion?” The answer may surprise you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Empathy Deficit

Empathy is an undervalued talent. Empathy is the ability to sympathize, understand and/or feel someone else’s emotional or mental state. It is fundamental to being able to interact with other people. In a way it is more important for interacting with complete strangers than people you are close with. In time you build an emotional bond with people you know, even casually, and are constrained by basic etiquette to be sensitive to their feelings.

I’m having a hard time expressing my key idea here, so I’m just going to go straight to the point. I am concerned that changes in culture and technology has eroded our sense of empathy and made us a colder, harsher society.

I work as a teacher at a private tutoring company. I often speak to my students about their lives at school. Lately my students have shared with me a stream of stories about violence in their schools that they have seen, or their friends have experienced. Despite the latest push against bullying it appears violence and intimidation is alive in well in the educational system. I was not particularly disturbed by my students’ accounts, but by their reaction to some of it. More than one admitted to acting as a by-stander. One in particular recounted the fight with glee and described how exciting it was.

I challenged each of my students on their position as bystanders, and their relationship to the violence around them. I don’t think my group of students are particularly sociopathic, but I do feel they are representative. I challenged their empathy; I asked them about the victims. None of them reported these assaults. One grade nine student said that he had a friend who called a teacher during a fight and the attackers beat him up the next week: “snitching” as it’s called. The culture of prisons is present in our school. This isn’t a new development of course. There were the same pressures while I was at high school, but my students are younger, in middle school or elementary school.

I may have led a sheltered life, perhaps more innocent and less violent than the average, but it seems to me that the culture is changing. Violence is more accepted and victims are dismissed, if they are thought about at all.

People are no longer fellow human beings to many; instead they are merely interactive objects, or static things. I have discussed this before but as we have become digitally connected we have cut the links for face-to-face interaction. We live inside our screens and behind our earphones; we consciously ignore those around us and would prefer if they did not exist. Riding on public transit very few ever talk to their neighbours, they are engrossed in their own little worlds.

It is not just a casual relationship with violence that made me concerned with our collective empathy. I have been considering our society’s relationships with gender and sexuality. I believe the lack of empathy has led to a greater push towards the objectification of both genders. My rationalization is that if we do not think about the person behind the body then they merely exist as an object. A friend and I were recently out to dinner at a large chain restaurant. I began a conversation with him about the shift in service staff in restaurants over the last few years. Around us were servers, all female, all under thirty, all wearing form-fitting clothing, all thin, and, at least in our opinion, all were pretty. This trend is more or less shamefully exploited by restaurants.

In our conversation we debated the merits and motivation of this move, and we tried to understand how the employees felt about it. We admitted we couldn’t be sure, but that to my mind it would feel degrading. A manager measuring my skirt to make sure it is short enough (not too short, short enough) would be offensive to me. I will not presume to speak for these young women. However, as a heterosexual man I found it degrading personally. The marketing mindset that says if sexually appealing women are presented to me I’m more likely to eat at the restaurant, buy more and tip higher disgusts me. They view me as an object that is motivated by base sexual desires. I, obviously, have only scratched the surface on gender issues in society, but this is something that has been on my mind for a long while.

Do we see people behind the strangers that we meet? They are are feeling and thinking people, not merely objects for our amusement or obstacles in our own lives.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Worth Reading – February 21, 2013

I recently was speaking with someone and she was baffled by my “Orange Tory” moniker. I get this reaction from time to time. I grew up in McGuinty’s Ontario, and I was very disappointed and dissatisfied with the government and policy choices of that era. There did not seem to be a consistent set of values behind the policies, and if they were I found them unsettling. It was a deficit in principles and clear core values that drove me away from the Liberal Party. Andrew Coyne in the National Post discusses the Liberal leadership race and how they have squandered an opportunity to renew their party with policy

The Senate. What are we suppose to do with it? I think the NDP policy to abolish the Senate might be the most practical solution, but in reality we should try to reform it. Every federation in the world has an upper house. Adding a legitimate Senate could balance out some of the troubles we have with a distorted House of Commons. Andrew Coyne’s take here.

The Wynne government presented their Throne Speech this week. Her government endeavoured to appeal to both Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats. Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West-Glanbrook) has already announced they will vote against the Throne Speech. This sets up a Liberal NDP-backed budget.

Martin Regg Cohn, the Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park reporter, released a piece today discussing how the Ontario Legislature is working. He suggests that Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre), as leader of the third party, is doing her part to make the legislature work. Of Hudak he says, “Hudak,by contrast, never misses an opportunity to oppose. Instead of influencing government, he is marginalizing himself.” According to Cohn he is making governing harder while not getting his policies advanced. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bankrupting Brampton and Cities

Today I was going through the Brampton Guardian when I got to the Commentary page. Terry Miller, a columnist with the local paper, was discussing Brampton’s budget, link here. Reading Miller it seems that Brampton is faced with the same budget issues it is always faced with. Funding is allocated, there is a proposed property tax hike and while the budget is mostly set there is a massive gaping hole in the projections.

The reason for this is simple – capital funding. Financing the expensive business of building/maintain roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure is immense. It is critical because a basic level of infrastructure support is necessary for the stable operation of a city. In the case of a city like Brampton, which is undergoing rapid expansion, makes these gaps acute.

Brampton is (tragically) not alone in this. The cities in Ontario and across Canada are dependent upon the support of the provincial and federal governments. However, unlike in American jurisdictions these commitments are not made consistently or within a concrete framework. The city (and others) rely on one-time transfers. As Miller puts it, “The current budget makes the best of what is available but doesn’t provide for the future except for a 1% tax transfer into infrastructure spending, federal gas tax sharing, which could change up or down, and federal provincial infrastructure funding schemes that are usually project based and most often require local financial participation…usually 1/3. But the sources of revenue won’t match the need to keep building the services needed to service this city. Added to those problems are the city’s share for the new Peel Memorial Hospital and Highway 10 transit requirements soon to be unveiled by Metrolinx.

The funding expected from these sources and the expected growth of expenses in Brampton do not come close to matching one another. In less than a decade the shortfall will be roughly a billion dollars that the city alone will have to meet.

The city does what it can to keep taxes low. Brampton, like all local governments in Ontario, is dependent upon property taxes which are highly regressive and punishing to property owners. Sources of revenue such as development fees will one day vanish as the last green-field site turns into homes. Brampton fights to maintain a balanced budget and to not borrow money, but it is left with few choices.

Why do the federal government and provincial governments refuse to support cities? Canada is an urban nation, and despite the need for basic services the higher levels of government choke resources from our local institutions. The Ontario and Canadian governments need to take cities more seriously if they are to thrive and serve their residents. Bankrupting the engines of our economy will do little to solve the bottom line for the province or federation.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Worth Reading – February 14, 2013

Samara’s series on Redesigning Parliament continues. My pieces on citizen’s voice are now up on Samara’s blog. There has been advocacy for less party control over MPs, improving the jobs of MPs, and looking at other parliaments for lessons.

In local news Brampton’s City Council has passed a strict bylaw limiting the expansion of homes. This seems like a badly conceived bylaw, in my opinion. First, it restricts the freedom of property owners to develop their homes. Second, it seems to me that older neighbourhoods in Brampton will need to be revitalized to maintain their property values.

Polling shows that the public supports the idea of new taxes to fund public transit

I featured this piece in my blog post Tuesday. Eric Grenier from 308 puts together the numbers for the chances that backbenchers can find their way in cabinet

After several embarrassing stories surfaced about the Senate there have been greater calls to end the anachronistic chamber and abolish the Senate

If MPs want to matter in parliament they need to be courageous, argues Ibbitson. This is similar to my post on Tuesday, except I assign ambition, not fear to their motivations.

Finally, most importantly, zombies in the House of Commons. No, I’m not talking about the backbenchers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Victims of Ambitions, Our Powerless MPs

With Samara’s ongoing report in regards to whether or not Parliament is reactive to the desires of Canadians we are left with a bigger question of who do the Members of Parliament truly serve? Most politicians probably fit in a category of honour most citizens would not put them in. They are dedicated public servants who strive to help their constituents and represent their communities. And then the parties step in.

As was reported in The Globe and Mail this week Canada, compared to all other democracies, has the strictest party control. When contrasted to the United States, or Great Britain, or Australia, or European democracies our MPs are less likely to break rank with their party leadership.


There are often-cited top-down control mechanisms. Party leaders dish out the positions of influence and prominence. When a party is in government the Prime Minister/Premier builds the cabinet with his/her advisors. As happened yesterday in Ontario, our new Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) presented her new cabinet. MPPs who supported her bid were rewarded with prominent posts in cabinet, MPPs who backed rival candidates were knocked out of cabinet or demoted.

Leaders also have a type of “nuclear option”. To have a party’s name beside a candidate they much have their nomination papers signed by the leader of the party. Withholding of this signature prevents the candidate from holding the party’s nomination, regardless of what the riding association or local members may want. In essence this removes the member from the next parliament, unless they successfully run as an independent. Leaders can also remove recalcitrant members from caucus or discipline them in other fashions.

What party leaders cannot do is stop an MP from doing his/her job, yet they so often succeed.

Compared to other legislative bodies the House of Commons has a very large cabinet. In Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government there are 38 cabinet ministers. Then there are the 28 parliamentary secretaries which work under the cabinet ministers. Add in the positions within the party and important chairmanships and a shocking number of the Conservative MPs owe their position to the Prime Minister’s Office. Of the 165 Conservative MPs 40% are in cabinet or parliamentary secretaries. That means for a Conservative backbencher there is about a 50/50 chance that they could find themselves in cabinet one day. These numbers are misleading though. Eric GrĂ©nier from 308 analysed the chances for backbenchers to accede to cabinet. There are 35 MPs in the Conservative backbench who have never been in cabinet and were elected in 2006 or earlier. According to GrĂ©nier these backbenchers should give up hope of ever finding their way into the inner circle. The odds aren’t 50/50, unless a change in leadership or some other dramatic shift occurs.

This isn’t just a federal issue. In Ontario there are more cabinet ministers in the Wynne government than there are backbench MPPs. Liberal MPPs therefore have a great deal of incentive, theoretically, to maintain strict discipline and make nice with the Premier if/when a member of the cabinet falls on hard times or retires.

I sincerely doubt many MPs arrive on Parliament Hill, or MPPs to Queen’s Park without some ambition. It is this weakness that cripples our parliamentary institutions. Our representatives surrender their independence, and perhaps their principles, all in an effort to carry favour with the leadership. This is a rarer problem in places such as the United Kingdom. In the UK there are currently 303 Conservative MPs and only 23 cabinet posts. The result? Instead of 40% in cabinet there, at most, can be about 7%. Most MPs know they’ll never be in cabinet and so instead dedicate themselves to their role as MPs. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, which means some of the posts are held by members of another party.

Let there be no doubt, this is not only a government problem. Opposition shadow cabinets and critic portfolios suffer exactly the same weaknesses. The parliamentarians on the other side of the house dream of when instead of being Education Critic they can become Education Minister.

This system of control only works if parliamentarians agree to play. A successful MP or MPP need not sit in cabinet or government to serve his/her constituents well. I believe our politicians need to be reminded of that.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Worth Reading – February 7, 2013

Much like with their last report, Samara Canada’s Lost in Translation or Just Lost? created a stir in the media. The Globe and Mail has run a series alongside the report about how to fix the House of Commons and improve our democracy. My post from earlier this week drew on it for inspiration.

Greg Fingas at his blog Accidental Deliberations wrote a piece analyzing the NDP’s move to reform the way provinces could secede from Canada. Fingas lays out not only the legal and philosophical reasons for these changes, but also the political and strategic ones. 

Jeff Simpson in the Globe and Mail excoriates the political leadership of Alberta of leaving the province in a lurch following the inevitable bust in the energy sector. It is not as though Albertans don’t realize the problem, I suppose the question is, is there the political will to act?

According to Den Tandt the strategy of the Liberal leadership contenders is not to bruise Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) too badly before the leadership convention. The candidates should be throwing all they have at Trudeau to win, but refuse. This weak leadership race hurts the Liberal Party in their efforts to recover.

Part of the Globe’s Reinventing Parliament series, with digital technology do we need the House of Commons? I would say any promotion of direct democracy is foolish. Citizens cannot clearly express themselves in yes or no questions. Looking at a state like California it is evident that direct democracy has done more harm than good. Governance is about making hard choices and facing the consequences, the public may be far less willing to make those choices themselves.

Michael Ignatieff, former MP and Liberal leader, also contributed to the Reinventing Parliament series. In it he discusses the dangerous repercussions of centralized power in the executive. Former-leaders always seemed poised to make these criticism, I await the day when current leaders in power do.

Aaron Wherry of Macleans’ discusses the Parliament Budget Office and how it should be reformed to improve it and why some proposals will only make things worse

This week we say farewell to our dear friend the penny, another tragic victim of inflation. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Redesign Parliament: Democracy and Party Leadership

During the Liberal leadership convention I came across an article that caused me to reconsider the entire process we use to select our political leaders. Peter Loewen of the Ottawa Citizen examined how we select party leaders in this country in this article, which initially inspired this post.

An often repeated refrain during the Liberal leadership coverage was, “this will likely be the last delegated convention in Canada”. A delegated convention works as follows: within the local riding associations delegates are elected to represent each riding at a central convention. Each riding has the same effective weight as all the others. That means it does not matter if there are 10,000 or 10 party members in a particular riding, it gets the same number of delegates.

Many partisan commentators from both the NDP and Conservatives (Progressive or federal) pointed out how undemocratic this whole process was. So, how do they select their leaders? Political parties in Canada, by and large, use a one-member-one-vote system. This system means that each party member gets a vote in choosing the next leader, or in the case of the next federal Liberal leadership vote, party members and “supporters”. Typically because political parties have thousands of members this is now conducted through day-of telephone or internet voting. Voters meet with their fellow party members and cast ballots together if they cannot make it to the convention.

Proponents of the one-member-one-vote system argue that the delegated convention is undemocratic and places all the power in the hands of party hacks and insiders. No one really defends the delegated convention anymore, as it is unfashionable in our political culture, but I think it’s worth exploring.

As Loewen points out the delegated convention falls between two “extremes” of how a leader can be chosen. At one extreme is where elected members caucus to pick their leader with no consultation of the electorate. The other extreme is to let part members pick, the one-member-one-vote system. But as Loewen and others have pointed out, by directly electing leaders and only making them accountable during leadership reviews we have terribly weakened our elected members of the legislatures. Previously, and in some countries/parties still, it is possible for the MPs to call for a leadership review. If the leader fails a new leader is selected. This famously happened in the case of British PM Margaret Thatcher. She was one of the most powerful leaders in the world until her caucus revolted and removed her from power.

Now, however, leaders draw on a legitimacy of being elected by the party members and individual MPs are unable to remove bad leaders from office. Leaders claim a stronger mandate and shape the party into their image rather than lead an existing party. While leadership has always been important it strains the ability of parties to remain consistent or honest to their core beliefs.

Despite opening the leadership contests to the public they remain largely private affairs. The show for the public fails to scratch the surface because it’s not just party members watching, but the whole electorate. Rarely do new voters sign up, merely former members renew their memberships.

Delegated conventions also offer some distinct advantages. If the ONDP had to call a leadership contest this year and we were using a one-member-one-vote system the leadership candidates would have very little incentive to travel outside of Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, Windsor and Northern Ontario – the ONDP strong points. Why? Because that’s where the party members are. I have heard in particular about the size of the party membership in Hamilton Mountain, which probably dwarfs the total number of activists in Peel.

During a delegated convention though the leadership campaigns are encouraged to go into every single riding and build up a base of support. This has three distinct advantages to my mind. First, since becoming active in a riding association I have found that people in the RAs just want some autonomy and be able to contribute. A one-member-one-vote leadership race does not give much hope for the small RAs. However, a delegated convention can support the growth of riding associations across the province/country. Even a small number of new members in certain ridings could swing the vote share and delegate numbers dramatically. Second, a delegated convention better reflects how elections are actually won in this country. Until we reform our system we are still stuck with First-Past-the-Post, which means to form government a party must win the most seats. Parties in decline shrink their base and the number of ridings they are active in. Leadership conventions under those conditions cannot build the party back up under a one-member-one-vote system. Third, a delegated convention allows new coalitions in the party to form. Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) won by putting together several of her leadership rivals under her banner and those defeated candidates leading their delegates to her. Contrast that to Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC). The NDP leadership convention suffered because candidates did not cross to each other. This was likely because with pre-entered ballots and so many voting from home candidates were unable to control their supporters like the Liberals could. Therefore if Peggy Nash (NDP – Parkdale-High Park, ON) crossed to Tom Mulcair she could not count on her support doing the same. At a delegated convention loyalties are stronger and likely form around ideological or personal leadership. In addition, delegates can keep in touch with their members in their home riding via phone, text, or social media and reflect the consensus there.

Once a leader is selected it is very difficult to remove them, as Loewen writes, “once a leader is selected, there is no clear mechanism for them to be deselected by their caucuses. Instead, every few years, leaders must stand before a convention of party members who will decide to reaffirm their leadership or withdraw their support. Such conventions are as often a gathering of political staffers as they are genuine party members. They are rarely exercises in democratic deliberation.”

As with many things, I am learning this is a matter of grays, not black and white. One system is not inherently more democratic than the other. Giving sitting MPs/MPPs the power to oust the leader is a tad problematic, but worse still is allowing leaders to defy their caucus and stay in power while weakening the ability of our legislators to resist authoritarian control from the leaders’ offices. Samara Canada has just published a new report, Lost in Translation or Just Lost?, and now are asking how to redesign parliament. Perhaps a “simple” change could fundamentally help push back the gross centralization of power – let the caucus have the power to remove the leader. Perhaps then the MPs/MPPs would get the respect they deserve and Parliament and Queen’s Park could begin moving in the right direction and reverse some of the damage of the last few decades.

Before signing off, I am credited in Samara’s report as a volunteer researcher as I did a small part to help in their project. I will also be doing a few write-ups for them in the coming days to elaborate on their findings and answer the question of how best to Redesign Parliament. I will be sure to share any links on this blog.