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, October 31, 2010

Mail, phone & electronic voting

With Municipal elections now complete here in Ontario and in most provinces across the country it appears that there has been a significant increase in voter turnout in most regions and municipalities, in some places up to around 55% from a low of about 35%. The question becomes is this due to increased citizen engagement and interest in who runs their local government, an increase in political interest in general or due to the greater use of alternative means of voting.

I suspect that the latter has much to do with it, this time around many municipalities in addition to traditional methods used mail in ballots, electronic voting machines, internet voting or phone in voting – or a combination of all or some of the above. In our case it was a simple mail in ballot and most certainly made things much easier from my point of view.

It is difficult to quickly see who did what and how it affects turnout as there seems to be no central repository of such information. Also, references to “electronic voting” can be referring to electronic voting machines which voters must physically enter their choices on, electronic counting machines for paper ballots, on-line internet voting and even phone in voting.

None of these methods on its own is ideal; however those municipalities that have used a combination of these methods may have the best chance of getting more citizens to participate in the democratic process. Can these lessons be applied to provincial and federal elections? I don’t see why not, certainly Election Canada is currently studying the various possibilities and examination of these local elections should give a good indication of the advantages and pitfalls of such systems.

Lets take a quick look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of some of them.

Firstly Voting online or by telephone where the voter is sent instruction by mail, the following is an example from the Brockville vote..

“Aside from giving directions on how to vote, the forms also contain the all-important, eight-digit, personal identification number (PIN). The number allows voters to gain access to the voting system where they will cast their ballot. The form includes a web site where they can go to cast a ballot or a telephone number. ......... Electronic or E-voting also allows voters the opportunity to cast their ballots over a number of days. Voting will commence at 9 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 18 and continue uninterrupted until 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25. Voters are encouraged to vote early to avoid higher volume activity periods near the end of the election period.”

Thus far that seems to be one of the problems, at least one such system crashed due to being overwhelmed by last minute voters. “The electronic voting system being used by the town of Arnprior for the Oct. 25 municipal election was overrun during the final two hours prior to the 8 p.m. deadline causing it to shut down, leaving many local residents unable to cast a ballot.” The voting was extended 24hrs.
If such a system is used, and this goes for mail in systems also, there in no need to wait until the last minute unless of course one is relying on last minute polls to make your decision. This should not be an issue with municipal votes but could be more of a problem with Provincial or Federal voting if it ever finaly got modernized to this extent. Perhaps the publication of polls AND electioneering should be banned during any period where voting is taking place, even if that be by mail or internet and covers the entire week before voting ends?

There is also always the possibility of tampering or errors or failure of software and hardware used for electronic voting. This issue is equally true for machine counted paper ballots, telephone voting and Internet voting. Ballot counting machines and touch screen computer voting (with a confirmation printout viewed by the voter) can be audited, however remote voting by telephone or internet is much more difficult to recount. One observer says this:-

“If we get the technology right, it still will not be finished. If the goal of a voting system is to accurately translate voter intent. The voting machine itself is only one part of the overall system. In the 2004 US election, problems with voter registration, untrained poll workers, ballot design, and procedures for handling problems, resulted in far more votes being left uncounted than problems with technology. Let’s learn of this for Mexican elections.

If we're going to spend money on voting technology, it makes sense to spend it on technology that makes the problem easier instead of harder.

Last but certainly not least. Nobody seems to even consider other countries experiences. Brazil, Estonia, France, Venezuela and others, already vote electronically. It is unthinkable that they have not considered what I have written above and have found solutions to these problems.”

The traditional paper ballot is not without its problems, as mentioned above it can be subject to long line ups and other problems including access problems for some residents without transportation or with health issues. None of these methods is sufficient on these own, it is a combination of such voting systems that must be available to make it easer to vote, but will that be enough to get our citizens out in increased numbers?. I think not!

It may take several things to raise the number of voters, an increased number of folks dissatisfied with the status quo, a voting system where the results more closely reflect the popular vote, a viable alternative to vote for, AND an easily accessible and secure voting system. With that in mind it would seem that the voting method is the easily solved problem, alternative voting systems such as STV or MMP are years away and alternative political parties are making little headway in part because of just that.

All I know is that when 50 or 60% is considered a good turn out there is something wrong in this Canadian Democracy. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lies & Spin

Here is James Travers this week on the ever decreasing “truth” of information coming from our politicians of all stripes:-
It’s a revealing quirk that the word that best describes how politics is practiced here is banned from Parliament. The words is “lie” and in any other place it would be firmly fixed to everything from the flimsy justification for gutting the census to the bogus boast that the country is tracking towards balanced budgets.
Let’s be perfectly honest: Sometime before the Millennium, “spin” crept into the political vernacular as an elastic substitute for “truth”. Old promises were recycled as new, brush was furiously dragged across the money trail and governments flying both red and blue colours found ever more inventive ways to frustrate the public’s right to know.
Since then little lies have grown into the Big Lie. This fall alone Conservatives have been exposed here for grossly inflating wispy resistance to the mandatory long-form census and caught out at the United Nations for making the imaginative declaration that Canada is back up front on the world stage.”
The article continues to say that its not just the Conservatives “spinning” the truth but that the opposition is party to this troubling trend in our nations capital. Indeed the term “Honest Politician” is rapidly becoming an oxymoron, and that’s a shame and a disservice to the few MPs who truly do try to be honest, open and accountable.
This week we also had another indication that fact and information must not get in the way of spin and lies. Those civil servants that attempt to make public their concerns on such matters were supposed to have at least a little protection against political pressure to dismiss or demote them should they point out some wrongdoing or misinformation by the government of the day. To that end a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner was appointed some 2 or 3 years ago to listen to, and rule upon complaints by the civil service regarding such matters, but now it would seem that even within this office something very fishy is going on.
The country’s public sector integrity commissioner has retired from her post just as the federal auditor general has launched her probe into the commissioner’s office amid operational complaints.
Christiane Ouimet, the federal whistleblower watchdog who hasn’t produced any recommendations or found any wrongdoing in her three years on the job, announced Wednesday she is “retiring” four years before her term is set to expire. “

Ouimet's job was to protect public service whistleblowers, and investigate complaints of wrongdoing. But she found no evidence of any wrongdoing whatsoever in any of the 170 complaints her office handled since Stephen Harper appointed her in 2007. It was all "nothing to see here, move along" from the get-go. Guess who one of the complainants was? Sean Bruyea. Name ring a bell?

Ouimet was also, it seems, a rare pleasure to work for. In one twelve-month period, 18 of her office's 22 employees left. (tip o the hat to Dr Dawg on that one)

It seems that there were in fact thousands of complaints but only 170 were elevated to the status of “official” complaints and of those only a handful made it much further through the process and as was pointed out above NONE were found to have any merit. I find that VERY hard to believe, between that and all the staff quitting it is clear that the civil servant actually had NO protection and I am sure word spread quickly and had a chilling effect upon those individuals on OUR payroll who wished to point out a problem in government.

We must be very grateful that we have a strong Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, who, it would seem, is determined to do her job in an ethical, open and timely manner. Sort of reminds one of Kevin Page over at the Parliamentary Budget Office doesn’t it. I wonder how long it will be before her budget gets cut and she has difficulty obtaining information necessary to do her job?

In a political landscape where lies and spin is the norm we must thank and support those individuals who do not fall prey to this insidious trend, and condemn and publicly identify those who do.

Talking of Lies here is one of the most blatant as pointed out by our friend Impolitical:-
This from John Baird
“Mr. Speaker, this government, when it comes to administrating the public's business, always acts with great, high ethical standards, openness, transparency and fairness. Those are all the principles. When it comes to standing up for Canada, this government has no price. We will always do what is right for this great country.”

If you believe that, please contact me regarding some ocean view property I have for sale in Saskatchewan........
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Democratic Deficit, Contempt & Maple Syrup?

Some recent commentary, please see the original posts for the full text.

Showing utter contempt

The Conservatives’ contempt for Parliament apparently knows no bounds as they are expected to deliver their fall economic update today, in Mississauga of all places. No, you’re not mistaken – the House isn’t sitting this week. For them to deliver it outside of the House shows contempt in and of itself, but to deliver it on a week where it’s not even sitting is just rubbing it in. It shows that the government doesn’t care what the House thinks, because there is no speech to MPs, and no chance for the other parties to respond to its deliver at that time. Oh, and in these times of “fiscal restraint,” the government could have delivered it in the House for no cost, or they could deliver it outside, in a ridiculously controlled environment with a ridiculous backdrop for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But hey, contempt of Parliament costs money, and they apparently are going to make us pay for it.

Jim Flaherty's annual fall update was in fact delivered Tuesday not in Parliament but at a business lunch in Mississauga and was full of self-congratulatory rhetoric ...

Democratic Deficit Disorder

Domestic relations characterized by chronic wedge politics, partisan bickering, and character assassinations
An overworked PMO as a result of downgraded functioning within the government’s executive
Shutdown of civic participation described by low voter-turnout and heightened political apathy
an electoral system that no longer meets the demands of the country’s democratic life source, Canadians.
A “Wizard of Oz” style politics that uses tactics such as prorogation to mitigate transparency and accountability
And finally, an overwhelming tendency to play “the blame game.”
Canadians need to start demanding a better democracy, or else Canada is going to have some serious leadership issue for years to come — regardless of what side of the political spectrum you support.

How you know a government is broken

(The G & M) ran an excellent piece about how the government's promise to strengthen Canada’s access-to-information laws is now five years old.
It is of course all so laughable it is sad. Here we have an issue that the public is universally supportive of - making government more transparent and accountable - and yet the government contends the issue requires extensive consultation. And so... no action.
Meanwhile, on issues to which the public is almost universally opposed - for example the long form census - the government acts without consultation, without evidence and in the dead of night, hoping that no one will notice. Again, it would be laughable if the implications weren't so serious. It's also a big reversal of what should have been and maybe the clearest sign yet this government is broken.
And it didn't have to be this way. Looking back at the Conservative's 2006 election platform under the header "Strengthen Access to Information legislation"
How many of these promises have been implemented? To date, only one
As an aside, take a look at that platform. Guess what isn't mentioned once: The long form census.
One of the great pledges of the Conservative government was that they were going to make government more accountable and more transparent. So far, when it comes to managing information - the collective documents our tax dollars paid to create - today our government is more opaque, more dumb and less inspiring to Canadians than it has ever been. For a government that was supposed to restore Canadians confidence in their country, it has been a sad decline to observe.

Not Enough Maple Syrup

It was reported on CBC this morning that in a last ditch effort to win over votes for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, Canadian diplomats were giving out maple-leaf shaped bottles of maple syrup.
Maybe our government’s grasp of the concerns of the world’s nations is a bit lacking in substance.………..
………. no matter how much we give out last minute bottles of maple syrup, and no matter how sincere the pitch for membership from the PM to the General Assembly seemed two months ago, actions speak louder than words.  The actions of the Harper government led to this outcome  --  not their words, nor the words of Michael Ignatieff in saying what everyone knew, that our reputation in the world was tarnished after four and a half years of Harper government policies.
You reap what you sow.  Let us hope that this is the nadir in Canada’s world reputation.  Let us commit to be the country we once were, with a Prime Minister and a House of Commons that understands what it takes to be a constructive member of the family of nations.
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Democracy Takes Another Hit

With parliament barely returned from the summer hiatus we can already see the direction that things are going. This week a motion to have the house decide whether or not a breach of privilege had occurred when certain ministers or bureaucrats failed to appear before a parliamentary committee when summoned. The Harper regime has a history of disrupting the committee process but now we see the opposition assisting them in doing so. I will let Eugene Forsay Liberal take it from here….
The LPC "cowers pathetically" in refusing to defend Canadian democracy!
Democracy, and thus in Canada, parliamentary democracy, belongs to all Canadians, is the foundation of our society, and is not any party's plaything. Lord knows all of them have mucked with it for their own ends. But given the epic struggle we had over the past year to defend democracy, parliamentary democracy, led by the LPC, to their credit, for once, I am outraged and ashamed the LPC would have sold it out, for little or no reason, as far as I can tell. And in being weak, they have exposed themselves to further attacks. So wrong, bad, and STUPID. Always be on the offence, ready to fight an election, rather than on defence. Prepare for war, and you shall have peace, or war on your terms, which is no bad thing. But the LPC were pathetic cowards and traitors to democracy by cravenly abstaining on this motion, moved by the NDP, supported by the Bloc, which was right on the money: In light of these matters, the Committee has reason to believe that a breach of privilege may have occurred. The Committee feels it is its duty to place these matters before the House at this time so that the House can take such steps as it considers appropriate.

Given all the LPC did, and fought for, this past year, it never even occurred to me they would sell out democracy - I took it for granted that whatever the diversity of views within the party, they had finally understood how fundamental an issue this is, and indeed, from apparatchik point of view, "a winner", and would do the right thing, without any further prodding. I really did. How can any parliamentarian NOT support such a motion, given the CPC behaviour? Resign your seats if you're not going to stand up for the principles and institutions of Canadian democracy, which give your role meaning. Because as of now, you're meaningless empty puppets. Siksay's comment is exact: '"We can't let this one slide," Siksay says -- if the committee "drops the ball" on this one, it will be dropping said ball for all committees, current and future, which is why he thinks it's something that must be followed up on.' As O'Malley rightly noted, "You know, I'm glad Szabo isn't still in the chair for this. He shouldn't have to see his party COWER PATHETICALLY".

Not good enough, LPC, and not good enough to moan about election timing, or feel guilty but what's done is done. Bring this back, by hook or by crook, PRONTO! As always, My Democracy Before My Party.

I second that motion. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Measuring Democracy

I recently caught Alison Loat of Samara, “a charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with the Canadian democracy”, on TVO's The Agenda taking about one of their projects, exit interviews with former Members of Parliament. Whilst it was interesting to hear some of the perspective from former MPs, of more interest was another project with which they “hope to strengthen the health of our democracy and encourage others to do the same”. They are developing a project to “measure democracy” something that, given that each of us sees not only the state of our democracy differently but even exactly what democracy actually is differently, is very difficult to do.

I am told it will take at least a year to develop the protocols to make such a measurement so don't hold your breath waiting for a startling report showing the decline which many of us feel has been taking place of late. I do hope however that you will support their efforts, for we do truly need a measure of where we stand in this regard. This all got me to thinking “how would I measure democracy”, is it the opportunity to have a small say in who runs the country, or province, or municipality, by voting for our choice of representatives in those particular governmental bodies every few years, or is it much more than that? Here then are a few suggestions of other measures that might be good indicators.

  • How closely do the results of an election follow the wishes of an electorate as measured by the number of seats in the various legislatures versus the popular or regional results?
  • Are smaller regions and minority populations adequately represented?
  • Is the pre-election process fair and equal for all candidates, do large partys, incumbents, highly funded individuals or partys have a unfair advantage over independents or small partys?
  • Can or does the incumbent government use public funds for partisan purposes?
  • Is information on government programs, spending, decisions & policy readily available to the general public?
  • What measures are in place to enhance, or suppress, information both public and internal?
  • Is access to information proactive or reactive, how closely do statements by government and political partys match the facts?
  • Are parliamentary processes fully documented and closely followed, how often are processes abused or ignored for political gain or idealogical reasons?
  • What percentage of votes in the legislatures are “whipped” and how often are our representatives free to vote their constituents wishes or personal beliefs?
  • Does the government of the day follow the wishes of the majority of MPs as per vote in the legislature how many passed motions are ignored or shelved by the government of the day?
  • Are arms length boards and commissions free to do their work without political interference, are said bodies open in their dealings and decisions?
  • How much information from government experts, bureaucrats and departments is altered or suppressed by the political arm of government.
  • Are Ministers and staff available to parliamentary committees when requested and free to testify without pressure by the government of the day.

I am sure I have missed some measurable things that give an indication of the state of our democracy so please add any you feel may be useful to the comment section. I will then make the folks at Samara aware of them in their efforts to get a handle on this.

You will note that I put a great deal of emphasis on the availability of accurate information, whilst process may be the the thing that we have to do correctly, information is the thing that allows us to see that it is being done. As James Travers said just this week :-
“Voters and taxpayers are vulnerable in an information vacuum. They have little empirical protection from the spin that away from here is known as lies. We the people have no consistent means of separating fact from fiction, reason from ideology or imminent dangers from imagined threats.”

Is our democracy in imminent danger, its hard to tell, thats what this project is all about.
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers