Thursday, March 28, 2013

Worth Reading – March 28, 2013

I cannot say this is a definitive list for good reads this week. I have a window open in Google Chrome with at least 25 tabs of stories I have not read yet. However, after coming home from work I do not feel I have time to try to read them all, sift through them and write this up before the self-imposed deadline. So, instead, a worth reading list from mostly the last 5 days.

The Hill Times is a fantastic publication. I was lucky enough to win a subscription in a contest a few months ago. I dread the day when it expires. This week a writer challenges the “Big Shift” theory advanced by John Ibbitson. If progressives in Canada rally to a single banner the “Conservative century” will swiftly end

From Spacing, John Lorinc scrutinizes Andrea Horwath’s (ONDP – Hamilton Centre) position in regards to funding transit. Rosario Marchese (ONDP – Trinity-Spandia) offered a response to the piece as well.

Walkom in the Toronto Star discusses one of the underlying failings of the Conservative government’s jobs plan. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has proposed a national job training program, but the truth is that temporary workers and immigration laws make it easy for companies to hire labour rather than train.

Brampton’s mayor, Susan Fennell, is the highest paid mayor in Canada. I cannot imagine that will sit well with the fiscally conservative electorate in Brampton. There were grumblings about pensions, there will be yelling over this.

Definitely the biggest Toronto story this week by a long-shot. Mayor Rob Ford, reportedly, was asked to leave a charity event because he was intoxicated. After reading the story about Mayor Ford I could not help but feel sorry for the man. Despite claims that it is all lies it has a very solid core to it. The part about how Mayor Ford’s agenda has vanished since late 2011, and he has cut back his working hours significantly is also concerning.

Aaron Wherry in Maclean’s discusses MP Mark Warawa (CPC – Langley, BC) challenge to Canadian parliamentary democracy. His motion is a simple one, either he and his colleagues have real voice and authority, or they do not.

This is super wonky, but I found it fascinating. Steve Paikin and TVO hosted a discussion about how the federal government in Canada does its budgeting and carries out its financial matters, and its failures. Perhaps most importantly, the roundtable featured former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.

Laura Payton at CBC helps provide some context for Warawa’s “rebellion”.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Getting on the Big Move

Unlike at previous times, a consensus appears to be forming within the GTA/GTHA for greater investment in public transit and transportation. Political leaders from across the region have expressed the need for new projects to help mitigate crippling congestion and delays. The question now falls to how it will be paid for. This is ultimately the sticking point for most public policy; great ideas need to be paid for.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency charged with developing a regional transportation plan, will be releasing its plan to finance its program, the Big Move, soon. Before Metrolinx can present its work the Toronto Board of Trade offered its suggestions for how to pay for it: a 1 percent increase in regional sales tax, a parking space levy of about $1/day, a regional fuel tax of perhaps 10 cents per litre, and high-occupancy lane tolls. The region has to raise approximately $1-2 billion, or as Oakville’s mayor recently put it, $1000 per household.

There are the usual suspects who hear any talk of raising taxes and see red, but according to the Toronto Star two-thirds of regional residents would accept paying more in taxes for an improvement in public transit.

To make progress Queen’s Park and local civic leaders are going to have to come to some sort of consensus. Given that we have a minority government to pass such a plan would require the support of at least two political parties. It appears, at least at the moment, that the Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) will introduce plans similar to what Metrolinx and the Toronto Board of Trade has suggested. Hopefully politics does not get in the way of good policy on this one. Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West-Glanbrook) has even been making positive noises towards transit funding. Obviously the Conservatives are hesitant to support any tax, and Hudak frames his support by saying that any investment would be predicated in first getting Ontario’s budget in order, but still, a positive development, no doubt.

My party, the Ontario New Democratic Party, has me a bit worried. John Lorinc, senior editor at Spacing, says that Andrea Horwath (ONDP –Hamilton Centre) and the NDP are missing the point on transit. This is very damaging for the party most associated with transit funding. It seems odd to me that the NDP would be getting cold feet on this issue at this late hour. Horwath made a speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade in which she said that funding of transit should not fall on the backs of working people and that consensus must be achieved. Lorinc characterizes Horwath’s remarks as being vague and details in particular are absent. From my point of view I was most frustrated by the idea that the billions needed should come from corporate taxes and increasing income taxes on the wealthy. MPP Rosario Marchese (ONDP –Trinity-Spadina) offered a response to Lorinc in the comment section. Marchese did a lot to undue my preconceived notions on this topic. According to Marchese $2.5 billion has been cut from corporate taxes, which would be enough to fund the Metrolinx program.

Marchese raises other concerns. Support for these projects could be lost if efforts aren’t made to include all constituencies. He cites the collapse of Mayor David Miller’s Transit City strategy, and the frustration in Oakville over the delay of all-day train service and cancellation of stations. As a centrist-New Democrat I am often concerned by the party’s knee-jerk response that corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy will cover everything. In this instance perhaps my party has a point.

When Metrolinx comes out with its report we will see how the parties respond to concrete recommendations. I hope civic and provincial leaders feel the urgency to do something. Every day of inaction only exacerbates the problem. The clogged arteries of our regional economy can only take so much before the heart gives out. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Worth Reading - March 21, 2013

Alice Funke, aka the author behind Pundits’ Guide, criticizes the Liberal leadership race. She says that even the candidates who focus on policy did not truly focus on the issues. It was a leadership race about nothing, and a bad way to revitalize a party that has been adrift for ten years.

Related to Alice Funke’s piece above, Jonathan Kay points out something that makes my blood run cold – Canadians don’t want smart candidates with good ideas. Marc Garneau (LPC - Westmont-Ville-Marie, QC) dropped out of the Liberal leadership race. He was largely considered the second-place candidate and consistently called for more policy discussion.

I’m a fan of mixed-use neighbourhoods and I wish that contemporary urban planning would encourage it more. That being said, a piece from The Atlantic Cities suggests that these types of neighbourhoods are safer

A local planning decision here in Brampton is stirring up a lot of controversy. In the neighbourhood of Springdale there are plans for the construction of a few hundred townhouses. Members of the community object to the townhouses and would rather larger homes that fit the community’s family structure. Then things got heated...

I’ve shared a lot of links about Generation Y and Millenials struggling in the new economy. From the Huffington Post is a piece about why younger Canadians spend so little time at a place of employment and spend more time between jobs. In a time when corporate hierarchies are a tad static it is easier to leave and climb the rungs on other ladders.

Chantal Hébert in the Toronto Star discusses the relationship between the Quebec and federal Liberals after the election of a new leader. Hébert suggests that the Quebec Liberal Party may prefer working with Tom Mulcair’s NDP than a Justin Trudeau Liberal Party.

Here is a piece from the Toronto Sun talking about the accountability of our local politicians. Municipal councils can meet behind closed doors and make important decisions without citizen oversight. This does not apply to the provincial or federal legislature (though their committees can). It is an interesting issue.

A Conservative strategist looks at 8 ideas that the Liberals and NDP should borrow if they want to win. 

The Toronto Star asks an important question, “Is Toronto ready for its LA moment?” Los Angeles is infamous for its car-centric culture and congestion. The reality is that Toronto’s congestion is now worse than LA’s. In 2006 LA made a major policy shift with a massive infusion into transit funding from a dedicated tax.

Speaking of a dedicated tax, Adam Giambrone has a piece in NOW discussing funding options. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Amateur Politics, Penashue and Canadian Democracy

Over the weekend Evan Solomon of CBC’s radio program The House interviewed Reg Bowers, link. The vast majority of Canadians have never heard of Reg Bowers, and until very recently for good reason. Mr. Bowers is a 68-year-old businessman from Labrador who has played a role in local Conservative politics in Newfoundland and Labrador for decades as a member of his riding association. In the 2011 election he was the campaign manager and agent to Conservative candidate Peter Penashue (CPC – Labrador, NL). Penashue narrowly won the election with 79 votes over the Liberal candidate. Being the only Conservative MP from Newfoundland he found himself in cabinet as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

The Labrador MP’s tenure has been marred by questions about his election. As revealed in the CBC interview and covered extensively by the media Penashue and his campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions. He also had sweetheart deals with a local airline which allowed him to visit remote communities and stir up those 80 critical votes.

After months of investigation Penashue announced last week that he had resigned from cabinet and as a MP and seek validation by running in a by-election. The former-minister and Conservative Party blamed the errors on Reg Bowers calling him an “inexperienced volunteer”. Interestingly Bowers was later appointed to an important board position in relation to Newfoundland’s energy sector by the Harper government. Either Bowers is an unfortunate man in over his head and the government appointed a complete neophyte or crony to an important board or, a capable man who ran a campaign broke the Elections Act and was rewarded for his service and skills as a businessman (and political ties) for a plum appointment.

The Conservative Labrador campaign appears to have been rife with law-breaking errors. One must applaud Penashue for at least standing up to his criticism and facing the will of his constituents. The interview with Mr. Bowers raised some interesting questions in my mind. The attack on Bowers, that he was an inexperienced volunteer, simply did not fit with what I was hearing. While his experience in politics was limited he understood he definitely articulated Canada’s election laws well, even if he didn’t follow them. In fact, in the interview he discusses how more suspect money likely slipped through the cracks.

Politics in Canada is a very strange beast. I think shows like The West Wing or more recently Netflix’s House of Cards gives the impression that everyone involved in politics is well-connected, rich, brilliant, cynical, cunning, and savvy. This definitely describes an element of those political activists, but only a minority. Across the country and province political parties are run by volunteers. The head offices of the political parties have very small staffs and the vast majority of the work of politics is done on a volunteer basis.

From my observations the work of politics in this country is carried out by a small group of partisans, idealists, political junkies, and community-minded individuals. They volunteer their time and money to help try to build their parties, but I assume most on non-election, non-leadership race years are not too involved. There are other more activist types who travel to the conventions and sit on the local executives, but that is a small group. There are hundreds of New Democrats in my riding, but only a dozen or so ever attend a monthly meeting. These are sometimes derided as “the usual suspects” who come to every community event and every fundraiser, but they are critical to the function of our democracy, believe it or not.

While political parties do the best they can to train and help candidates and campaign managers (also normally volunteers) they can only go so far. Canada is not the United States and we do not know when our next election will be. Trying to get ready for the unknown next provincial election has many riding associations in Ontario tied in knots. There is no time, and perhaps no resources, for extensive training and support.

Politics does not need, and should not be, professionalized, but more training and support is definitely required. In my work with Samara, and reading their blog posts one of the important themes is that political parties should be conduits for our democracy. By training activists to better be able to reach out to their communities, encourage participation and help candidates put their best foot forward the public and politics in generally could only benefit.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Worth Reading – March 14, 2013

Catherine Fife, MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo, has introduced a bill to change the rules on prorogation. However, it may not be that simple. The Globe and Mail raises some problems with the plan

Los Angeles recently had its local city election. The turnout there was 16%. As the writer Steve Lopez says, “Stop with the excuses, non-voters. Cynicism is acceptable, surrender is not. Read the paper, for crying out loud. Educate yourself. If we pull together in the runoff, a 25%-30% turnout is possible.

Speaking of voting, Andrew Coyne came out in support of the RaBIT campaign (Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto). I wrote about RaBIT for this Tuesday’s post.

Ontario Projections has compiled an amazing resource for anyone interested in politics and campaigns. They have categorized all the census divisions in Ontario and analyzed various groups correlations to the political parties. For example, if a neighbourhood in your riding has cluster “352 – This Is How We Do It Here”, which is middle-aged areas with older housing stock, and high school education favoured the NDP. Therefore the NDP can target their messaging to these neighbourhoods that appeal to those voters. On a side note I found the descriptions of my surrounding areas interesting as they both revealed familiar information and unexpected results.

En français, despite seven years in office Stephen Harper (CPC – Calgary Southwest) has failed to put together a significant legacy. Compared to other long-term Prime Ministers Harper has failed to achieve a lasting policy achievement, so far. 

The Manning Networking Conference was last week. One of the remarkable thing was the way the Harper Conservatives failed to live up to the expectations of these conservative activists. For example, Ron Paul’s criticism about government over-reach could only sound wounding to the current Canadian government. Andrew Coyne asks how long the cognitive dissonance between the conservative movement and the ConservativeParty can continue. 

This a really wonky piece, but it is worth considering. The blog Transport Politic analyzed why federal support for transit is important. Basically, the cities and populations who most need transit are least able to pay for it.

Earlier the Liberal Party of Canada proudly announced that nearly 300,000 people had signed up with the party, but there’s a problem. A series of errors may mean that the vast majority of that 300,000 will be unable to vote for the next leader...

John Lorinc at Spacing counters the casino argument. Supporters highlight the potential jobs and investment at the Canadian National Exhibition. Lorinc demonstrates the opposite case where casinos fail and become a major burden on the public

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Better Ballots, Better Democracy

On February 15th I attended a meeting called “I Heart Democracy” at Hart House in Toronto. The main event was a speech by Dave Meslin. Meslin is a community organizer and activist in Toronto. He first came to my attention from his TED talk about ending apathy and making city government more open to the public. After the speech Meslin struck me as a mobile idea factory. He has dozens of concepts or plans or thoughts about how to make Toronto (and all communities) better places. He builds campaigns to help realize these goals. He isn’t a politician, and he seems more interested in engagement than results.

One of the most intriguing things about Meslin is that he does not claim to be offering the answer. For example, he recently released a pamphlet through a group called The Fourth Wall which discusses 36 different options to improving civic life in any community. Some of them contradict each other, but they are all currently implemented in some jurisdiction so that they are feasible and possible to imagine.

However, 18 months before the next municipal election Meslin and a group called RaBIT are pushing for one idea: Ranked Ballots. RaBIT or Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto is seeking to implement instant runoff voting before the next election. For a description of what IRV is you can watch one of CGP Grey’s amazing videos here. Ranked ballots would mean that the winner of each council seat and each mayoralty got a majority of support from the public. Our current system, First-Past-the-Post, relies upon a candidate getting a plurality, not a majority. This is a very flawed system as it awards victory to the candidate with the largest number of votes even if they do not command a majority.

To see how big of a problem this is I went to the Wikipedia page for the 2010 Ontario municipal elections. Quickly at a glance the following areas elected mayors without majority support: Brant, Brantford, Chatham-Kent, Greater Sudbury, Haldimand, Hamilton, Kawartha Lakes, Ottawa, Prince Edward, Toronto, Barrie, Brockville, London, St. Thomas, Clarington, Oshawa, Whitby, Burlington, Thorold, Welland, West Lincoln, King, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Cambridge, Waterloo. In Peel all three mayors were elected with majorities, but not necessarily the city and regional councillors. From my cursory examination the worst case scenario is when three strong candidates stand for election, as, for example, happened in Hamilton in the last election. Or you could look at Brant County where Ron Eddy won re-election with 33.65% of the vote. Two-thirds of Brant residents looked at Mayor Eddy’s time in office and chose someone different, but they split their votes between four other candidates.

FPTP at the local level is part of the reason incumbency is so powerful. New challengers are discouraged because it is hard to galvanize support. Local elections in Ontario are non-partisan so candidates cannot wrap themselves in the familiar branding of a political party. Moreover there is simply less infrastructure because a candidate has to build it all themselves. It is certainly daunting and when confronted with a system that discourages competition it becomes even more problematic.

I wish RaBIT the best of luck, and I hope one day we can bring the system here to Peel and the rest of Ontario.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Worth Reading – March 7, 2013

With a minority government in Queen’s Park an election could be triggered at any time. The next big hurdle for Premier Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) will be her budget. With an election so close, the Progressive Conservatives have announced hard caps on spending for the next campaign. As an observer I have to wonder if this strategy will leave the Tories fighting an election with a hand tied behind their back. Clearly they cannot afford to be plunged into deep debt, but it could cost them the election if the Liberals and NDP have more resources.

Speaking of an Ontario election, ONDP leader Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre) this week announced she would not support the government unless meaningful action was taken on auto insurance premiums

Detroit will no longer be operated by a democratically elected government. Republican Governor Rick Snyder will be placing management of the city under an appointed official to help balance the city’s dismal accounts. The optics of these takeovers has been bad. Now more than 50% of Michigan’s black population is governed locally by unaccountable officials.

Steve Paikin of TVO takes a look at the new map of downtown Toronto’s federal ridings. Paikin expresses remorse for the loss of the riding of Trinity-Spadina, which, according to him, encapsulated what downtown Toronto was. Paikin says he realizes that he should have expressed his support of the status quo. Remember, decisions are made by those who show up.

Related to the above, and featured in this Tuesday’s post, a nifty little website that has calculated the outcome of the next federal election with the new seats if the votes are the exact same in the exact same places. 

Tabatha Southey takes the Senate scoundrels out behind the woodshed

I really love this piece. It is essentially a person stating the unvarnished, uncomfortable truth. Rob Burton, Mayor of Oakville, says that to pay for Metrolinx’s Big Move each household in the GTA will needto pay $1000 per year more in taxes. The question is, how?

Steve Paikin asks a critical question about the gas plan closures in Oakville and Mississauga – Did McGuinty have the authority to do it?

Chantal Hébert in the Toronto Star argues that the defection of NDP MP Claude Patry (BQ – Jonquiere-Alma) to the Bloc Quebecois may only be a superficial wound at this time.

Finally, Samara Canada has synthesized all the ideas and suggestions from the Redesigning Parliament series into a Top 5 list of suggestions. Samara also has a permanent page set up for this series. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pushing Boundaries – Seat Redistribution

The Ontario Federal Elections Boundary Commission has released a revised report of its proposed boundaries for the next Canadian election. Hearings will take place in the House of Commons on the new boundaries. I sincerely doubt that these MPs will have a substantial impact on the future ridings. It would look problematic if MPs intervened and succeeded in changing the boundaries arrived at after extensive public consultations. The media consensus seems to be these will be the boundaries.

The Commission’s report is available here, but I can summarize some of the major points. Ontario has been allocated 121 seats in the next Parliament, which is an increase of 15. These fifteen seats were distributed to areas that have experienced population growth and require new districts to account for the growing population. Many ridings in rural Ontario have remained essentially unchanged. The Commission took a regional approach to adding seats: Brampton received two new seats, as did Durham, Markham, and Toronto while Mississauga, Cambridge, Hamilton, Oakville, Ottawa, Simcoe and York each received one.

The ridings around the GTHA (Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area) have seen significant changes where population growth has been the greatest. The three new ridings in Peel will significantly shift the political landscape. Areas of Toronto saw a major redesign of its political boundaries. In particular the region in the downtown with the major condominium development has a new riding that has broken apart Trinity-Spadina.

Proposed Federal Boundaries for Brampton and Mississauga

This is the map of the latest proposal for Brampton and Mississauga. Other maps are available here. The major difference here compared to the original proposal from last year is the removal of Malton from the easternmost Brampton riding. Currently Bramalea-Gore-Malton includes Malton and the old Gore region of Brampton, along with parts of Bramalea. In the new map Brampton East will only include Brampton territory. Brampton-Springdale and Brampton South-Mississauga are gone and instead they have been replaced by Brampton Centre and Brampton North. In my riding, Brampton West, the riding has been split in half along Queen Street for the most part. Brampton West now consists of Brampton north of downtown and north of Queen Street and the new riding of Brampton South is the southwestern quadrant of the city.

Overall I am quite happy with the Brampton map. Compared to the initial map put forward this one is much better. In previous posts I’ve emphasized the importance of voter equality: each riding should have as equal a population as possible. The new Brampton ridings are very close to the provincial quota of 106,000. This won’t be true for long, but at least the Commission got that part right. During the public event I attended there seemed to be two big issues: the inclusion of Malton within Brampton and splitting downtown into three ridings. Excluding Malton freed the Commission to redraw the lines to put all of downtown in one riding. It was a simple and effective fix.

Sadly, this came at a cost. The ridings in Mississauga are badly overpopulated now. Each one is at least 10% over quota. The largest, Mississauga East-Cooksville is 14.67% over quota. This Commission did not make voter equality a fundamental point and therefore the result are ridings that vary in population size from Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing with 79,801 people (-24.87%) to Brant with 132,443 (+24.70%).

Given the changes in political geography people have began to scrutinize the new maps to discover the potential impact on the next federal election. The best breakdown I’ve seen so far comes from a group called Poll Maps. At that link you can take a look at the party breakdown if an election was held today in that area with the voting results from 2011 or 2008. In summary, if in 2011 the Conservatives, NDP, Liberals, Green and Bloc get the exact same number of votes in the exact same places there result would be 189 seats for the Conservatives, 108 for the NDP, 36 for the Liberals, 4 for the Bloc and 1 for the Greens. I have read panicked commentary that this means the Conservatives are guaranteed to win the next election. The CPC won in 2011 because they won swings ridings in the suburbs and the suburbs received most of the new seats. If you ran the 2004 elections numbers it would look good for the Liberals. The voting will change, it is inevitable. The system is not rigged.

Now a more painful process begins. The political parties and local activists will have to build up new organizations and memberships to get ready to fight the next campaign. For sitting MPs they will have to pick where they want to run, which may lead to tough nomination fights, or incumbents running against each other.

Finally, we have to do this process on a provincial level. The Ontario seats are badly out of alignment with each other. As I said, my riding, Brampton West, is so big that it was split in two. However, provincially there is no plan to address this imbalance. With a minority government I fear that not much will be done in the near future, but pressure should be applied to address this problem.