A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Land of the free and home of the beaver may be in trouble.

In searching for ammunition for my weekly post I found these little snippets from recent articles which are food for thought. The title above comes from the first piece and pretty much says it all.

“The entire concept of democracy depends on the participation of the society’s adults at a level of literacy that is well above the basic. One must be able to not only understand the issues and their potential impact but to be able to evaluate and weigh the pros and cons of them without being unduly influenced by them until a decision has been made. In short, literacy is essential to a democratic culture.”
Lani Donaldson President of Beacon Literacy

Given what is going on with various parliamentary committees and court cases the following from the Supreme Court of Canada on the duty of loyalty in 1985 , is perhaps something that our governments need to be reminded of…………

“The loyalty owed is to the Government of Canada, not the political party in power at any one time. A public servant need not vote for the governing party. Nor need he or she publicly espouse its policies. And indeed, in some circumstances a public servant may actively and publicly express opposition to the policies of a government. This would be appropriate if, for example, the Government were engaged in illegal acts, or if its policies jeopardized the life, health or safety of the public servant or others, or if the public servant’s criticism had no impact on his or her ability to perform effectively the duties of a public servant or on the public perception of that ability.”

This from a recent speech by John Turner at St. Lawrence College, Kingston on Nov 19 2009 once again highlights the need to remove the power from political partys and return it to the individual MP’s……….

“(We) have found there are four major impediments to today's young people volunteering, as we did, to serve in public life. Firstly, they are not willing to make the financial sacrifices that we did -- and it is a sacrifice. They are not willing to risk their marriages with the exposure of public life. Another element that we didn't have in those days in the early 1960s is the penetration into private lives by the media we have today, and I find that despicable ... It has become a very difficult thing for younger people in this country, because nobody is a saint.
And the final impediment is, I'm not sure that the role of the member of Parliament or provincial legislature is worth it anymore, and whether the job is really the job it should be. And this brings me back to a speech I made in 1963 in my Montreal riding. I said we have to strengthen Parliament. What I said then is even more acute now, because the issues I spoke about then have become more dangerous now.
I said that I was concerned that the party whips -- party discipline -- is excluding the influence of an MP to express his or her views -- or, more importantly, the views of her constituency in Parliament, free of party discipline. I would take party discipline off all bills in the House of Commons except the Throne Speech, which is government policy, or the budget, which relates to taxation. Every other bill in the House of Commons, I believe, should be a free vote.
In the House of Commons today, there are very few private members' bills that get anywhere; the standing committees don't have the authority they used to have. And party discipline has become overbearing. It didn't begin with [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper, but he's a master of the craft.”

It often seems that retired politicians show much more concern for our democracy after they have little influence upon it rather than when they do. Then there are those that are in that position and talk the talk but do not walk the walk. Most of them in fact just seem to be stumbling backwards as in the example below…..

“For me, these (Remembrance Day) events have great meaning. They go to the core of my involvement in public service. To me, the core Canadian values of freedom, democracy, and opportunity are precious — indeed all too scarce in the world — and worthy of efforts to support them.”

Peter Van Loan MP Nov 11 2009

“The Senate lacks legitimacy right now, and appointing more senators without a democratic basis isn’t going to solve that problem,” Peter Van Loan, (Minister for Democratic Reform) July 2009.

But what exactly has our “Minister for Democratic Reform” done to protect and enhance those “core Canadian values “?
Nothing that I have heard of………………

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Seeking the Truth from Government

This week has been particularly frustrating for the Canadian public to separate the spin from the facts both federally and provincially. It is generally VERY hard to find links to the FACTS as government tries to hide its mistakes and the opposition tries to make political hay out of any perceived error or questionable action. As I mentioned in passing a couple of weeks ago there are several citizen initiatives to bring as much government information as possible into the public eye. One such group which I will highlight in this post is Visible Government who are developing a number of tools to help us have easy access to such information. Please support them, and other similar initiatives, in any way you can because one thing you may be sure of is that government will NOT be making access to information easier any time soon!

Here is a quick overview of some of their current projects…..

Expense Visualizer (In Development)

As the result of a federal government directive, Travel and Hospitality Expenses have been published on the web in Canada since 2004. This information is currently spread across 124 different department sites, all publishing the data in subtly different formats. This project scrapes these expenses from the federal websites into a common format, so that this data can be supplied via an API to external tools and projects interested in using this information.

Access to Information Tracker (In Development)

Website for filing and tracking Access to Information requests.
Filing a federal Access to Information Request in Canada currently requires sending a $5 check, by mail, to one of over 100 different departments. Following the example of the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow, this project will allow Canadians to file Access to Information Requests, track their outstanding requests, and share the results of the request online.

I Believe In Open is a national movement to increase government transparency in Canada. We're organizing citizens to push politicians to make five commitments:

1. Support reforms that increase government transparency and accountability.
Citizens have a right to know what their government is doing.
In honouring this pledge, Members of Parliament will support reforms that increase the transparency of these institutions, allowing citizens to know what is happening inside their government.

2. Make campaign promises specific and measurable, and report progress on promises and their metrics at least semi-annually.
In honouring this pledge, Members of Parliament must publish a timeline for achieving their promises, along with specific metrics that can be used to judge whether or not a promise has been kept.

3. Publish the content of his or her daily schedule, including meetings with lobbyists and special interest groups.
We believe that, like ordinary citizens who use a punch clock at work, members of parliament should have to account for their time. When making this pledge, candidates promise to publish their daily official work schedule on the Internet, within 24 hours of the end of every work day.

4. Support reforms allowing free access to scientific and survey data gathered by government institutions.
In honouring this pledge, the candidate will support reforms that abolish access fees for scientific and survey data gathered by government institutions (at taxpayers expense).

5. Support reforms that make it easier for Canadians to obtain government information they have a right to know.
In honouring this pledge, Members of Parliament will support reforms that make the Access to Information process faster and more efficient. The member will support reforms that mandate publishing government information not restricted by citizen privacy issues by default, avoiding the Access to Information process altogether.

Disclosed.ca (Launched)
Aggregates federal government contract disclosures.
Disclosed.ca collects contract disclosure information from over a hundred different federal government websites, and makes them easily searchable.
Contracts can be listed by agency or by vendor.
There are currently almost 250,000 contract listed that can be searched by department or content.

As has been pointed out before, Australia, to some extent Great Britain and now the United States have made a concerted effort to improve their openness and accountability by improving both the sort of information provided via the internet and the means to locate and read it. Meanwhile our government is doing just the opposite, with the result that even our Parliamentary Budget Officer is having difficulty in locating the information necessary to do his job. This make projects such as the above even more important, go to I Believe In Open and sign up or give them your support by providing a link on your web site. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Accountability for Public Expense’s

This post was originally going to be just about senators expenses but more revelations this week regarding MPs expenses have made me even more appalled at the volume of taxpayers money these “public servants” are spending or receiving for what I am increasingly believing to be less than stellar “service”!

Regular readers will know that I do not support the abolition of the Senate and believe it to be a necessary check upon badly conceived or worded legislation and particularly necessary in majority government situations. Never the less I cannot be anything but appalled by the recent revelations regarding some senators expenses charged to the public purse. Some examples recently quoted include figures of $7,000 or more per day attended which I must assume is based not just upon expenses submitted but include their annual salary and is so high due to the low number of days they attended. I am not at all sure that this is a fair measure of cost in that like our MPs not all their work is done in Ottawa and we must remember that the senate does not generally sit (although I believe some committee work still goes on) when parliament is not in session. Remember that the government of the day has control over when parliament is in session and last year was particularly lacking in such periods!

Even so the allegation that “108 Senators spend 35% more in expenses in a single fiscal year than 308 MP’s.” is most disconcerting and does indeed need looking in to. I searched for both the report of the above salaries and expenses and what rules and limits exist regarding same on the Parliamentary web site without success. Perhaps a reader can provide a link to such information. It probably reported somewhere but as is the norm with our government (of all stripes) these sort of details are hidden in some obscure place which is where the affront to our democracy comes in. As highlighted in previous posts the lack of access to information or the obscuring of said information is to me just as troubling as what seems to be, to most of us average Joes, an obscene amount of public money spent for in some cases little on no services rendered.

Even as a supporter of the Senate I must join the call for considerable reform in the method of selecting senators, the term they serve, the pension to which they may then be entitled to and the control and limits upon their expenditures whilst in office. It may be that in following these various stories I am becoming overly cynical but could it be that our illustrious PM who has threatened numerous time to abolish the Senate, particularly when they took the time to properly study and critique legislation proposed by his government, planned it this way. Certainly one such recently appointed Conservative Senator whom some have referred to as “His Puffiness” and who has racked up over more than $44,000 in expenses (some reports say more ) in the 3 months since he was appointed, apparently promoting the Conservative government point of view, has done his share to demean and bring into disrepute the entire chamber and done much the increase the calls for its abolition. How much of his expenses were actually spent upon “chamber business” and how much on promoting the Conservative party of Canada is unclear but that too needs to be examined closely.

The above is bad enough but when we then also look at some of the expenses submitted or incurred by our MPs we must begin to wonder if these folk are living in the same world as those many Canadians who are out of work, living on minimum wage or their savings or otherwise supporting a family on just a small percentage of what these folk are spending on expenses. We must recognize here that much of this may well be legitimate expenses incurred doing their job however I am convinced that the average Joe could easily reduce these numbers. First class air fair and top notch restaurant meals are nice once in a while but hardly “necessary”, most private citizens on an expense account (those fortunate to have a job with such a thing) would have to pay for that type of upgrade out of their own pocket.

But I digress, The report that the MPs printing costs have doubled to TEN MILLION DOLLARS per year over the last 3 years was what was responsible for my outrage. That much of this expense was incurred in printing what most now recognize as partisan material by the government MPs in the form of an unprecedented volume of 10%ers makes it even more galling. Remember there were mailed out at public cost (MPs do not pay for mailing but it does cost Canada Post to provide this service for which we pay in one way or another) adding to the hidden costs . When we then also see that this same government has spent THREE MILLION DOLLARS in the last month advertising that they have an “Action Plan” but revealing no hard information that actually might be useful or informative to the general public then the numbers start to get totally unbelievable.

NEWSFLASH - Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken recently said that the rules have been changed to allow partisan material on tax payer funded mailings. Where is the openness & accountability in this move?

Government, MPs of all stripes, Senators and indeed all public servants and their unions, must soon come to a realization that the public purse is NOT bottomless and ALL of them work for us and are paid out of our tax dollar. It is long past time that publicly available systems were in place to ensure that there is ACCOUNTABILITY for all this expenditure. Whilst the occasional revelation, such as the above hitting the news, does shake things up briefly, the need for timely (not 6 months after the end of the fiscal period) and fully accessible accounting of such expenditures be available to the general pubic is long overdue.

Accountability and Democracy go hand in hand, accountability cannot exist without access to information being open and accessible to the general public! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Future of Democracy

Last week I republish a bit of Steves May’s thoughts upon the future of our democracy from a post in his series on this subject. Not having a great deal of time this week I have here cherry picked some items from part IX of this series. Much of his series is focused upon “green” issues but the following is food for thought regarding where are we going with this Parliamentary Democracy of ours. I have added my thoughts upon his comments, Steve & I would be interested in your thoughts upon this.


Changing Public Opinion through Education.Seems like this is going to be a generational project, as public education requires time and energy, and is best accomplished through education which begins at home with children and continues through meaningful exposure through our school systems. The good news here is that we have been largely turning out a good number of critical thinkers in the recent decades who understand and acknowledge the perils we face to a greater degree than do most. So, we’ve already got a bit of an advantage here. It’s too bad that many of the youngest in our society are disadvantaged by mounting debts, and disengaged from the political process and our civil society, which often dismissively shuns their involvement. Given our aging demographic, this doesn’t really come as a surprise.

Indeed education is the key but we must ensure that it is FACTUAL not political spin that the public, and more importantly our youth receives!

Leaders Must Initiate a Public Discussion About the FutureRight now, our governmental Leaders have been completely ducking these discussions. Other leaders, though, are stepping up throughout all sectors of our society, and are trying to engage Canadians. While the media has largely ignored these efforts to plan for our increasingly local futures, the momentum is clearly in place. Our elected Leaders need to play some catch up. Shifting public opinion will be their impetus to do so.This discussion must begin quickly, and it needs to take place in an unbiased manner, based on fact and not conjecture.

I am very much afraid that the majority of our POLITICAL leaders will do NOTHING that would change the status quo unless it is forced upon them by public opinion and pressure from the minority of us who see these issues as a threat to the future of our democracy as we know it. We have many politicians but darn few Leaders!

Sweeping Legislative ChangesThe tools for implementation will require sweeping changes to federal and provincial legislation, and that’s not going to happen over night, especially when the public service is going to be focused on cuts. However, these changes will be needed to force the agenda. Pressure to do so must be unrelenting: from the public, from the business community, from other levels of government, from the media.

Again Steve is aiming more at legislation to implement changes related to Climate Change but the same discussion must take place regarding how we are governed in general.

There are many impediments to changing our laws, even when there is a laser-beam focus to do so. Some things to consider:-Abolish the Senate in case they decide to hold legislative changes up (provincial governments don’t have Senates anyway; we won’t have the luxury for this Chamber any longer...plus, think of the cost savings). If abolishing it won’t work, then suspend it.

Despite the recent revelations on the excessive, perhaps obscene is a better descriptions, expenses of some senators I really believe that we must retain the second chamber in order to put at least some checks upon government proposals, something which at this point does not seem to be happening in the HoC. If we ever get to the point where parliament starts working as it should and discussion and compromise become the norm not the exception, then perhaps there may be room to drastically reduce the Senate. There is not much doubt that there needs to be changes in the way the senators are selected, their term in office and upon the expectations of value for compensation received, but this check upon poorly conceived or worded legislation is still needed at this time..

-Stop the practice of partisan politics and restore meaningful debate to parliament. A bit of a tall order to say the least, but we can do this if we elect fewer politicians who are in Parliament to play games.-Adopt a much more representative form of government which is based on proportional representation. This must be a priority, although we often think it will take time. It doesn’t have to. Our elected officials can just do it. And should.

Agreed, but just about impossible to actually implement, all we can do is keep letting those in power know that partisan politics is unacceptable. We elect individuals to represent us not Partys.

Give Local Governments the Powers They NeedThere will need to be greater partnerships with all levels of government. This includes municipal governments, who are going to be tasked with delivering at least part of the mandate. Municipalities will need to receive real powers from senior levels of government, and finally transition from "creatures of the province" to "mature levels of government". Municipal elected officials must assume this responsibility with foresight and in good faith: they must acknowledge that they will be under a greater degree of public scrutiny, which is as it should be, if municipalities are given the power to tax. Power comes with responsibility. Deal with it.

A VERY complex subject given our current mix of what services are provided by which level of government, and which of those provides the funding and criteria for said services. I agree in principal but the devil is in the details on this one!

UrgencyI’ll say it again: All of this must occur within the context of a sense of impending urgency. Some have suggested something akin to a "wartime mobilization"; I’d like to see a little more thought than that go into it, but really I’m still talking about significant action being discussed over a very short period of time (say 6 months) and then action being implemented quickly. If we’ve learned one thing from the Stimulus spending, it’s that it’s not always as quick to make decisions or implement them as we might like it to be, however, it can still be done.

The longer it takes for Parliamentary and Electoral reform, or to tackle Climate Change issues, the further down that slippery slope towards an irreversible situation we get and the harder it will be to turn back.

Take Personal ResponsibilityYou must take personal responsibility as a member of your family, your community, your province and nation. You must educate yourself to the point where you have a decent understanding of the challenges we are faced with. You must act in concert with the emergent consensus. You must acknowledge that the consequences of inaction are too great to consider…………..

Indeed, each of us must not sit back and ignore these important issues, be it Climate Change as Steve is alluding to, or the demise of our Democracy that I am equally concerned about.

Extracted from Part IX http://sudburysteve.blogspot.com/2009/11/future-of-democracy-in-canada-personal_05.html Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Future of Canadian Democracy

“Sudbury” Steve May, a green party supporter, is in the middle of writing a series of articles for his blog entitled “The Future of Canadian Democracy: A Personal Journey”. The first of these pieces just touches upon the threats to our democracy and focuses upon the inaction of our government on the “green” file, the second and third articles are more in tune with our focus upon democracy contained in these pages. Part II is subtitled Media in Crisis and contains these truths……

“Most (people) are accessing (news) through visual formats, be it on television or on the internet. The written word format lends itself to being more comprehensive than a visual format, which tends to rely on images, the more sensational the better, to tell the story, with perhaps some commentary about what it is that you’re supposed to be looking at. It’s a very powerful medium, for sure. But is it the best medium for individual citizens to inform themselves on the issues?Increasingly media outlets are moving away from “fact-based reporting” to providing infotainment. What are we losing? Well, for one thing, we’re losing smaller media outlets which can’t compete with the big boys, whether it’s because of format (local newspapers no longer being published because no one is reading them) or consolidation (local tv and radio stations closing down their shops because it’s too costly to produce local content; so if you live in Sudbury like I do, you can find out as much as you want about what’s going on in Toronto but you won’t find out what’s happening in Sudbury). For another thing, we’re losing the oversight which media used to provide us with to keep our institutions in check. Now, some might take exception to this point of view, and that’s your right, I suppose. But I’d ask that maybe you conduct a bit of a critical analysis here. First, one of the roles in which we have come to expect from media is to report the facts, expose the cover-ups, and keep us all honest, whether it’s our government or the business community, or just individuals who may have done bad things. What used to distinguish truly democratic countries from authoritarian regimes was the extent of freedom those nations allowed their media to operate within. I say that those days are long gone. Media has evolved, because media now has a different master. As a result, they are playing a different role. Media no longer answers to you, the media consumer, by providing you with facts and information. Media now answers to their shareholders, to the corporate giants which have acquired media outlets, from newspapers to radio stations to tv stations.”

Part III is subtitled “Democracy in Crisis” and expands upon this theme of media inattention and corporate bias…..

“(If) the hallmark of a healthy democracy is a healthy and free media, and our democracy is showing signs of not being healthy and so is our news media...where does that leave us? What we value in our democracy is slowly being eroded, and it is happening in tandem with what we have come to value as media oversight. It is doubtful that our democratic institutions could have ended up where they are today if the media had been more vigilant in drawing attention to what has been happening. In part, though, this has happened because we ourselves have had false expectations of the media. We really thought that they would be there for us to help us understand issues, to educate us and assist us in making up our own minds.But that’s not the media’s role. The media is there to make money for its corporate owners. And as a result of this media mandate, the truth can be and has been a casualty. And it will continue to be a casualty…………………”

“But many Canadians may not realize that our government and media might be holding something back in the truth-telling department. Many still labour under the impression that the media is there to hold our government accountable, and not simply to be its mouthpiece. Our media is free, after all, is it not? And a free media is a sign of a healthy democracy, so it’s not a problem.It’s too bad that our media is not free from interference, controlled by an increasingly powerful corporate elite. But does that alone explain why our government seems to get off easy when it comes to some of the more difficult issues? Well, keep in mind the power structure of our government. It could be said that the interests of our government happily coincide with the interests of the media-controlling corporate elite. Happily, alas, for government and the corporations, but not for you and I, the Average Canadian………………”

“What does this say about the state of our Democracy? I think it says that we’re in trouble, especially when you extrapolate existing conditions into the future based on current trends. As governments continue to become more secretive and put power in the hands of Caesar, er, their Leaders, and as the media continues to move from reporting the news to providing infotainment, where will we be in 10 years time? And do you think that we’ll have started to address those very real and important issues which we need to start getting serious about right now?I, for one, just don’t see it happening. Instead, based on current trends, I believe that the Average Canadian is going to become even less engaged in political decision-making, and that governments will continue to spin reality in self-serving ways, aided and abetted by a media which will end up looking a lot more like Entertainment Tonight…………………’’

Now whilst I cannot totally agree with Steve that the “media” is totally lacking in the desire to seek and publish the “truth” I must say that the ever increasing “news magazine” type format and the lack of reporting on some very important issues by some media is very troubling. The word “media” covers a broad range of individuals and organizations and some do a much better job than others, the independent and local newspaper, television and to some extent radio has all but gone by the wayside but individual reporters and guest contributors still on occasion do bring some balance to their articles by actually doing some real research into their pieces. Those individuals must be congratulated and supported even though what they do should be the norm. Meanwhile the power of the internet and the blogging community just might save us from ourselves, for whilst these are as many opinions as there are users out there, the corporate and government “leaders” cannot control and filter the news and opinion (yet?) expressed by the many “citizens reporters” who are now the source for so much of our information.

I look forward to Steve’s next post in this series with interest. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers