Thursday, June 27, 2013

Worth Reading – June 27, 2013

Most of this week’s Worth Reading comes from one author in a series she released. This week is a lot of municipal content and a great deal about my hometown of Brampton.

John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail asks when a Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) government might be possible. Liberal strategists have been using a two-election strategy before the Liberals could return to power. However, with the Conservatives declining popularity they may be able to return in one.

Not long ago Justin Trudeau made a public press statement about the Senate scandal while flanked by protestors. One by one the phony protestors behind him have been revealed to be Conservative interns. It seems shame has long since departed the corridors of power.

The Huffington Post is asking prominent Canadians how they would change the country. Richard Florida says that he would strengthen the authority of our mayors

This is a wonderful piece by Martin Regg Cohn. The provincial government has announced a cutback in transfers from the provincial government to the city of Toronto. Mayor Ford is unsurprisingly furious about the funding cut, but it is odd given that he supports greater fiscal restraint. 

I went back and forth a lot on whether or not I wanted to include this one. It really doesn’t fit with my normal content. This is a letter a father wrote to his young daughter about how to choose a partner and how to value herself. This was my last week at my teaching job, and I worked with a lot of young ladies. I worry about how they think of themselves and their worth. The letter is overloaded with platitudes and it is quite sappy at points, but the underlying message, that women must not be subservient to men’s whims but find their own happiness, is important.

Dahshana Bascaramurty just did a series with the Globe and Mail about Brampton. At my count there are nine articles in the series with five tent-pole pieces; the remaining four providing some background. Bascaramurty moved from Toronto to spend a month in Brampton to learn about the city. As she puts it, Brampton is at the centre of demographic change that has implications for the rest of the country.

In part one, Bascaramurty lays the foundation by providing context for Brampton’s history, and communities. This is an excellent summary of what modern Brampton is

Part two looks at how Brampton’s changing face impacts our healthcare services

Part three is about language training provided by the Peel District School Board. 

Part three, one of my favourites, is about Brampton’s urban form and how Mount Pleasant Village in northwest Brampton is a model being adopted elsewhere

Part five, the intersection of faith and politics and how the gurdwaras of Peel have become hotspots for politicians

A side piece from the series looks at food in Brampton

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Dark Side of Political Parties

Not too long ago I wrote a piece for Samara Canada extolling the virtues of participating in political parties. The piece was in response to a young man in Saskatchewan who said he didn’t understand the purpose of political parties and thought we might be better off without them. I disagreed and suggested that political parties are critical in the functioning of our democracy, and serve a valuable purpose at a local community level.

However, to make my point and keep within a tight word limit I did not discuss the dark side of political parties. As I am getting ready for my move to the Northwest Territories I have been considering the non-partisan political system they have there, along with the one at our municipal level. I think political parties are necessary steps once a legislative body reaches a certain size. Therefore it makes sense to introduce parties (perhaps) to Toronto City Council, but not to the Northwest Territorial Assembly. That is all beside the point, I wish to discuss some of the problems with political parties.

Riding associations or electoral district associations are organizations at the local level of a political party. Their primary purpose is to select candidates for election, help run election campaigns and build party support on a local level by bringing new people into the political process. Informally they build a network of activists at a community level. It is also the responsibility of the riding association to represent the riding back to the party, i.e. defend its interests and offer its perspective. If the riding is fortunate to have elected an MPP/MP their role changes slightly. The RA/EDA must do what it can to hold the MPP/MP to account and help the representative connect with the constituents. Here is where the system begins to break down.

Riding associations with elected members are more active. Party members and citizens are more likely to get engaged when it means access to an elected official. Politics, especially party politics, is tribal. Those who dislike the MPP/MP may disengage while those who do become very active. Paid political positions in the constituency office or capital office go to loyalists and friends of the elected official for obvious reasons. During the next Annual General Meeting to elect the executive of the riding association the MPP/MP is able to bring a lot more of the membership out to vote and people close to the representative tend to be elected. Sometimes this is a hostile takeover. Political veterans with years of experience but no particular ties to the representative are pushed out in favour of new blood less likely to cause trouble.

This process is repeated throughout a political party. Party leaders are often accused of excess control of caucus, but control of caucus is only matched by control over the party. Each party has its own unique internal structure, but there are checks and balances that are supposed to keep the leaders accountable to the party. Party leaders have a vested interest in subverting this process. High positions tend to go to those close to the leader. It is not patronage, the leaders command a large number of votes at conventions and councils and so candidates who are part of these factions tend to do well.

The two examples above of centralizing control damages political parties and strengthens politicians. Party members want to have influence and control, that is part of why they join. By stripping away their power and influence the motivation to get involved and stay involved evaporates. Parties can become victims of regulatory capture, they become controlled by those they are suppose to oversee and influence.

In my experience EDAs are made up of a small number of dedicated people. For example, in Brampton West there are hundreds of New Democrats. Most have never gone to a meeting or attended an event. A couple of dozen are active and have participated in some sort of event or even sit on the riding association’s executive. Within that group there are a handful of diehard activists. These folk are the real deal; political junkies through and through. The sad thing is they exist in very small number. If a group of people wanted to take over the riding association it just takes a small number, or a majority, to push out the old guard. Sometimes this is good. Parties need rejuvenation and new people need to be given the opportunity to take on leadership roles. However, to cast aside people who have been dedicated for years or decades is a mistake. More often than not the stories I have heard about take-overs have resulted in greater problems.

Ideally new members join, learn the culture of the party and riding association and ultimately can grow and obtain a position in the party if they want it. However, participating in politics requires a commitment of time, and sadly, money. If you live in one of the country’s major cities or capitals being involved in politics isn’t so hard. Most of the events having to do with your party will be local to you. Even if there is a big event outside of your city you can keep busy with local stuff. If you live outside of those cities participation in party politics will be much more difficult. If your work means that you do not have a regular schedule, or you’re not working Monday-Friday, 9-5, or you simply cannot afford to take a night off, then that means you can be cut out of the process. If a convention is held in another part of the province or country that means you will probably be unable to go. Not to mention you have to pay for the privilege to attend and even be a party member.

With all this in mind I still think it is valuable to be a member of a political party, but I thought it was important to highlight some of the negative. So far I have had a positive experience in politics, personally. I have heard stories and seen negative things in party politics, but that is merely a fact of life. Ultimately a person can avoid that if they believe in making their community a better place through a committed vision, be that with the Conservatives/PCs, Liberals, NDP or Greens.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Worth Reading - June 20, 2013

A somewhat shorter list this week, preparations for my move has cut down on my time devoted to reading the news.

Former Premier Dalton McGuinty (OLP – Ottawa South) has retired and resigned from the Ontario Legislature. The Star offers some thoughts on his career.

Relations are at an all-time low between the province and the federal government. Martin Regg Cohn documents a series of slights and attacks the federal Conservative government has directed at Ontario. A totally reasonable thing to do to the largest province in the country.

Bad relations between Queen’s Park and City Hall are causing trouble for the Premier. Actually, to be more exact, Rob Ford’s embarrassments are causing trouble for Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West). Perhaps most troubling, leaders from other jurisdiction have been asking Wynne about Ford wherever she goes.

Martin Regg Cohn writes on the electoral reform at City Hall in Toronto. Cohn refers to the changes as anti-democratic. I find this difficult to swallow. I’m quite biased on this issue, but sometimes I don’t see the harm in reforming the electoral system without a referendum. Representatives are elected to make decisions after all. I am sympathetic about raising the question of whether non-citizens could vote, but not the ranked ballot issue. Also, I hardly feel that Wynne could gain more legitimacy through our broken first-past-the-post system, but that’s just my opinion. Voter turnout at the local level is about a third, if I recall correctly, what harm does changing our voting method do?

Bob Rae (LPC – Toronto Centre, ON) has announced his retirement from the House of Commons, but likely not public life. 

Justin Trudeau’s (LPC – Papineau, QC) speaking fees have caused some controversy of late. Andrew Coyne breaks down the problem clearly and succinctly. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Third Anniversary of the Orange Tory

This week marks the third anniversary of this blog. Over the last year I have made the change from one to two posts per weeks, introducing the “Worth Reading” feature. Worth Reading has been a great success, in my opinion. It definitely has helped reach a wider audience and helped to provide a service for readers who don’t spend as much time on twitter as I do.

If Google and Blogger are to be trusted the number of readers has continued to grow. The last few months has seen 600-700 visitors coming to my blog each month, which is shocking from where this all started from. If no one was reading this I’d probably still be doing this, but it is rewarding to know there are people out there reading my work and taking something from it.

The focus over the last twelve months seemed to be the federal government and the scandals and erosion of Parliamentary tradition. I have also increasingly written about local issues affecting the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, Peel and Brampton. The process of how our democracy, elections and politics function have become a theme this year, especially since I joined a local riding association and gained a new appreciation of how political parties operate.

In terms of what to look forward to in the future, I still hope to continue the twice weekly posting. I’d like to begin the book reviews/essays I have mentioned on several different occasions. However, things are set to change dramatically over the next few months. I was recently hired to work in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Obviously this will be a life-changing experience and will affect my political engagement. I don’t know what political activism looks like in Fort Smith, but I will do what I can. In addition I will do my best to write about issues both back home in the GTHA and in my new home in the Northwest Territories. Hopefully it doesn’t result in too much chaos.

The fourth year of the Orange Tory is set to be another great one. I’d like to thank my readers and supporters. In particular I’d like to thank Samara Canada and their amazing staff for featuring my work several times over the last couple of months and the Brampton West NDP for introducing me to the local political scene. Keep reading and I hope the fourth year is the best one yet.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Worth Reading – June 13, 2013

Kelly McParland writes in the National Post about the longevity of the Harper government. McParland suggests that Harper’s government might be in jeopardy.

Countering Kelly McParland, Chantal Hébert in the Toronto Star writes that the Senate scandal will fade from public memory by the time the next election comes around. 

Relating to my post earlier this week about leadership, Mayor Rob Ford removed that last woman from this cabinet. Canada’s largest city has no woman on its executive. Remember what I said about building coalitions?

Andrew Coyne writes about the scandals on all three levels of government and how evasion has only made things worse

John Ivison writes that a major summertime cabinet shuffle could make or break the Harper government. The question is how to rebuild the cabinet to appease the public without upset the backbenchers even worse.

Speaking of unhappy backbenchers, the Globe and Mail has a good interview with Brent Rathgeber. Here is Rathgeber’s blog post about his resignation that is referenced in the piece

Martin Regg Cohn criticizes Premier Wynne's sudden support of Senate reform.

Toronto City Council voted in favour of several reforms to its elections. Now it will be up to Queen’s Park to amend the law so these changes can be made officially.

Royson James in the Toronto Star endorses the changes discussed above in an editorial. 

The best video you’ll watch this week. CGP Gray discusses the weirdness of the American-Canadian border. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Failures of Leadership

Leadership is a very difficult quality to quantify. It is entirely subjective, I suppose, especially in politics. One man’s leader is another man’s fool. Looking around the political scene it is hard to find individuals excelling at leading their constituents. The current trifecta of scandals on Parliament Hill, Queen’s Park and Toronto’s City Hall make the disaster all the more obvious.

As Andrew Coyne points out in the National Post, the failure of the Prime Minister, former Premier Dalton McGuinty (OLP – Ottawa South) and Mayor Rob Ford to accept even basic accountability has caused relatively minor scandals to spin out of control. As was said of Watergate, it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up. The sense that the public is being deceived, and that there are still more uncovered lies and theft, undermines public faith and the ability of the government to carry on. All three levels of government decided to avoid accountability rather than face consequences. As these events drag out the consequences only get worse.

Premier Dalton McGuinty may have done the best thing and resigned. While the method in which he did it was questionable at best it was at least a sign of some personal accountability for his flailing government. Meanwhile at City Hall Rob Ford and his administration has failed to adequately address the situation. In fact, he has not even denied it.

An even greater leadership crisis may be occurring in Ottawa. In light of the Senate scandal and the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office there is significant unrest among the Conservative backbenchers. Conservative MPs are getting a lot of heat from these scandals back in their constituencies. Last week in response to the obsessive control MP Brent Rathgeber (IND - Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) resigned from the Conservative Party to sit as an independent. As John Ivison reported, Rathgeber had introduced legislation to create a sunshine list for the federal government similar to what we have in Ontario. Rathgeber’s legislation was amended without his consent to water down its contents. The bill would have increased federal transparency for spending, which Rathgeber cited was one of the raison d’êtres of the Reform/Conservative Party.

What Rob Ford and Stephen Harper best represent is a failure of leadership. Together these two men have failed to build a coalition and lead it forward. In Mayor Ford’s case his adversarial and combative style, along with his personal embarrassments, have scared away allies and created staunch enemies both on City Council and elsewhere. By being unnecessarily antagonistic Ford has alienated himself and now he stands isolated.

Stephen Harper is also isolated, but his is by design. The Harper Conservatives came to power with a minority. At the time there was a certain expectation for tight discipline and a certain amount of a “bunker” mentality. It was an unstable political situation and there were many threats to his early governments. However, after they achieved their majority in 2011, by all accounts, the ruthless control only tightened. Reading Mr. Rathgeber’s post on his blog about why he left is informative enough. As a democratically elected representative, and merely as a thinking, mature adult, Rathgeber was fed up that he and his colleagues were being treated like children by the PMO staffers half their age, and given ludicrous talking points and told to behave as trained seals.

Stephen Harper, as the old cliché goes, rules through fear. His caucus is kept under strict control. However, as any historian can tell you, leaders who rule by fear are the most likely to face rebellion. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used to say his most important job was to keep his caucus happy. Harper doesn’t need his caucus to be happy, he needs them to stand and speak when needed.  

Through all this reflection it is hard not to appreciate the style that Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) has brought to Ontario. Her's is a more conciliatory and consensus style. However, she also appears to know that she ultimately makes the decision and while she receives input the burden ultimately falls on her. In addition, Wynne is actually tackling tough issues, such as congestion/transportation with boldness. There may be no greater contrast to Wynne than Harper in how to run a minority.

Ultimately the arrogance of power of McGuinty, the perpetual campaign of Rob Ford, or the bunker paranoia of Stephen Harper cannot create lasting governance. These structures are unstable and represent a failure to build coalitions. Politics is about bringing people over, by hook or by crook, and winning them over to accomplish big things. It’s a shame so many of our so-called leaders cannot do that. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Worth Reading – June 6, 2013

A guest post on Pundits’ Guide discusses some of the misconceptions about the Canadian Senate and abolition. The author writes that abolishing the Senate may be easier than widely thought and the provinces need not wait on the federal government to act. 

Steve Munro, noted Toronto-based transit expert, writes in the Torontoist about the Metrolinx investment strategy. This is by far the most detailed and best laid-out description of what is going on with the Big Move.

Martin Regg Cohn in the Toronto Star talks about the political risks associated with the Metrolinx Big Move plan

The knee-jerk anti-tax discussion is not helpful. In the Globe and Mail there was a piece discussing the opposition to new revenues by Mayor Ford, the Progressive Conservatives and even the ONDP. The question is what are we willing to pay for?

Brent Rathgeber (IND – Edmonton-St. Albert, AB), an outspoken Conservative backbencher, has announced his resignation from theConservative caucus over spending issues and a lack of transparency

In the long-overdue column, the Ontario government goes ahead to half the number of teacher’s college positions per year. 

Ahead of the Conservative convention later this year, Peter MacKay (CPC – Central Nova, NS) suggests that changes to the party’s voting mechanism will re-open old schisms internally

According to this article, critics of Rob Ford need to stop worrying about his daily scandals and start getting ready to defeat him in the next election. At this moment I’m not confident that the opposition will field a strong enough candidate to win. The question to my mind is, is there a left-right split, or a Ford-anti-Ford split. I could see a lot of value someone like Councillor Karen Stintz challenging Ford from the right, along with a lefty challenger, but would that mean Rob Ford would be re-elected with 38% of the vote?

I found this piece from The Atlantic Cities really interesting, and related to my post from Tuesday. The article discusses class in relation to bicycles. Cycling culture has been associated with yuppy urbanists, but research has shown that a while financially secure white urbanites strongly advocate bike use a growing number of visible minorities are moving on two wheels. Bike use could be polarizing and cars being relegated to a tool by the lower-middle class. It’s definitely an interesting filter through which to view these issues.

National Post has a piece about the decline in the virtue of accountability. Very timely.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Unpopular Urbanism

Urban issues are one of my passions. Over the last few years my bookshelves have become even more cluttered with books about public transit, land-use policies and urban development. What can I say? I’m a nerd. Things like this detach me from the everyday person on the street and sometimes I worry it disconnects me from the concerns of everyday people. I know traffic and congestion are issues that people care about, but probably much less than I do.

Like many urbanists I believe that public transit is the solution to traffic congestion. From the experts I have read, investments in public transit are the only way to reduce congestion. This immediately conflicts with public consensus. Most people assume, at least based on my own anecdotal evidence, that only by increasing road capacity (more highways, wider lanes) can traffic move better. Transportation experts will tell you increasing the number of lanes does nothing to alleviate traffic, cars merely fill the space. In addition it is generally bad policy. The eight lanes built for rush hour remain mostly unused for the rest of the day. A massive investment in capital and maintenance is only used at peak hours.

The idea that I am off-side with a great deal of the public on these issues has become quite apparent recently. First, I recently attended the public consultations for the Hurontario-Main LRT project. Admittedly this is a small subset of the general population, but those in attendance expressed great concern for the changes in Main Street and Hurontario for cars. In particular the creators of the plan suggested one option for Downtown Brampton was to close Main Street from Queen to Nelson to car traffic and allow only the LRT and pedestrians in the space. I thought it was a magnificent idea, and similar plans had seen incredible transformations elsewhere in the world. Pedestrian zones often become the hotbed of public life. It would make events like the farmer’s market and the events downtown even more public space. Businesses in that stretch could open larger patios and cafés, cyclists would be safer to move and that stretch of Main Street could be rejuvenated with spin-off benefits accruing to the rest of the downtown.

While I saw these positives many of the other people in the room asked one questions, “What about cars? What about parking?” I wasn’t concerned about that. I trusted that the planners would be able to divert traffic, but many others were quite sceptical. In addition there are many large public parking lots in the area already.

The Hurontario-Main LRT will be built in the next wave of projects proposed by Metrolinx and paid for, hopefully, by new dedicated taxes. The urbanist press and advocates for transit investment all line up and are supportive of the new taxes. As I expressed when I first read them, these are not my favourite taxes, but I’m willing to accept them to beat gridlock and get the GTHA on the move. It appears that position is a pretty lonely one.

The prospect of paying more taxes does not sit well with most, unsurprisingly. The opposition parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP, are already speaking out against the funding proposal. It is estimated that the average GTHA family will pay $477 a year in additional taxes. In my opinion, I would gladly write the cheque to support the project today, but I am already convinced so Metrolinx and the Ontario government need not win me over.

Voters will ultimately decide. This will take a while to implement and will require a vote in the Ontario Legislature. I have a feeling that this might be the issue that brings down the Wynne government and triggers the next election, and it will be central to the political battle to be fought.