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 28, 2010

Defending Democracy

In any civilized society there must be rules which we all generally follow, in a democracy hopefully we have at least some input at to what those rules are even if only by selecting those who make them. There will always be those who do not fully agree with such rules and whilst we all have a problem with some of them we generally follow them as to do otherwise leads to anarchy and chaos. We have in such a democratic civilized society a number of ways to indicate our displeasure when such rules are not to our liking, voicing our opinion to those that make the rules or kicking them out at the first opportunity or pressuring those responsible by publicly making our views known in letters, blogs, print or in the streets.
Non of these methods is particularly effective for the individual citizen and sometimes such protests get out of hand and a few individuals go 'over the top' and promote or participate in violence and / or property damage in order to 'get attention'. Whilst I perhaps understand such frustration I do not condone it, again I believe this is the path to chaos.

This brings me to the point of this post, the lack of respect on BOTH sides, protester and law enforcement, by a few individuals that brings into question our ability to remain a peaceful and cohesive society. Recent reports have clearly shown that there are SOME who are tasked with upholding the rules that our governments have placed upon us (whether we agree with them or not) have been abusing the power vested in them to enable them to do this difficult and sometimes dangerous job. Worse, their colleagues, who cannot help but be aware of such abuses, stand back and do nothing, either at the time or after the fact. There have been a number of well documented cases where such abuses of power have either been highlighted in court or in official inquiries but little if anything has been done to correct the problem or penalize those responsible. I view such lack of accountability a real problem for our democracy, for our society depends upon us having at least a passing respect for our legal system, not only from the average citizen but also from those who enforce it and from those who decide upon the penalties for 'breaking the rules'. If the majority of citizens come to believe that the legal system, of which our police are part of, does not work or is biased then it clearly will not work and cannot help but eventually fail. As with government if those at the top do not respect the rules then what incentive is there for the citizen to follow them? Is this why we need more jails?

How can our system of law enforcement (or government) survive, as other than an arm of a dictatorship, if there are no repercussions for those responsible for upholding the rules, and they are not subject to the same rules and same punishment as the average citizen who does the same thing. Not only must there be equal treatment but such treatment must be seen to be done openly, equally and investigated independently of the very system that these folks are part of. When fellow officers either through a sense of loyalty, fear of repercussion from colleagues, or some other repercussion of speaking out, remain silent in such situations they are no less responsible for the ever decreasing respect with which their job is held than those that abuse the power that such jobs hold. Continuing in this direction is a recipe for more civil unrest not less, its a difficult job, do your job with as much restraint as possible officers, but do not protect those amongst you that clearly cannot be trusted with such power.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Senate Shananikins.

There has been much said this week about the hurried vote in the Senate that killed the Climate Accountability Act, almost all of them include the phrase “unelected Senate” as if this is the problem here. Whilst it may be part of the problem it is by no means the only area of contention, lets face it this is a reflection of the extreme partisanship which has now migrated from our ELECTED MP's in the House of Commons.

Lets take a look at what one observer has to say and then return to address some of the points raised....

It's kind of hard to argue that the Senate remains the "chamber of sober second thought" when they kill a bill passed by parliament without any debate. And this wasn't just any bill. This was the very first bill passed by a democratic nation which established greenhouse gas emissions targets for a period beyond that mandated by the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, Bill C-311, passed by our elected officials in parliament, established that Canada would commit to reducing emissions by 25% from a 1990 baseline by the year 2020 (in contrast to the Conservative Party's stated goal of "reducing" emissions by +3% above 1990 levels by 2020,.................
And now our unelected Senators have killed our Parliament's bill without any discussion. This situation is just absurd. We elect parliamentarians to represent our interests, and that's presumably what happened when parliament passed Bill C-311. What good is a Senate which can betray our elected representatives in such a way, and betray Canadians in the process? There was considerable debate in parliament before Bill C-311 was adopted; in the Senate, none at all.

For quite some time now, I've advocated for the abolition of the Senate at the federal level of government. Our provincial governments do not have equivalent upper houses. It's always been unclear to me what value the Senate adds to the legislative process, except to perhaps stand in the way of legislation adopted by political parties which don't also have majorities in the Senate.

Lets not 'throw out the baby with the bathwater', just because the current method of selecting senators and the dictatorial tendencies of the current PMO makes the senate look bad does not mean the whole concept is flawed. I agree with Steve that It's kind of hard to argue that the Senate remains the "chamber of sober second thought" but lets lay the blame where it belongs, with the political partys that use the senate as a reward system for highly partisan party faithful. Without an independent second in depth look at legislation (and yes, I agree, that is NOT what we are getting now) a party with a majority, or a minority with a weak and inefective opposition, can force through ANY legislation it wants no matter how partisan, idealogical or flawed it may be. That the conservatives are playing games once again with our legislative system should not enter into the debate as to whether the senate should be abolished, this is after all what they seem to be trying to accomplish, a system where the PM and his hand picked flacks in the PMO can do ANYTHING they please without any 'checks and balances'.

There is little doubt that a better method of selecting senators exists, its just than no one can agree as to what that may be, elected or appointed the political partisanship will still rear its ugly head. Election by the general population could follow the makeup of the HoC so closely that the senate would be but a rubber stamp for the party in power, or maybe not, its hard to tell and would depend much upon how such elections were carried out. Our senators are supposed to represent various regions of the country, we have a system of regional elections, its called provincial government, why not use this level of government to select senators. Appointment of senators to represent various areas of the country by majority vote of the provincial legislatures (from a list of candidates nominated by some process independent from the PMO or the Provincial governments of the day) would seem to be a reasonable and easy to implement solution.

The point here is that, in my opinion we need the senate. If you question that, go look at the details a few of the more complex bill put before our MP's, it is impossible for individual MP,s to fully understand the implications of such bureaucratic gobbledygook without extensive study, something that rarely happens. The study of such bill clause by clause is what the senate is SUPPOSED to do, and in fact they have in the past revealed major flaws and hidden clauses in such bills, (the omnibus budget bill comes to mind) to the embarrassment of the partys that created such documents.

Bottom line lets FIX the Senate not abolish it!

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

First Past The Post Undemocratic

Elizabeth May will be an intervenor in a court challenge arguing that the first-past-the-post electoral system contravenes the fairness required by Section Three of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Fair Vote Canada has also been granted intervenor status in the case.  Spearheaded by L'Association pour la revendication des droits démocratiques (ARDD), a Quebec democratic rights group, the case (Gibb v. Quebec's Attorney General and Quebec's Director General of Elections) is currently being heard in the Quebec Court of Appeal, and is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Both May and Fair Vote Canada will be represented by renowned Canadian Constitutional lawyer, Peter Rosenthal.  With a legal team headed by powerhouse Julius Grey, the case has been winding its way through the courts since 2007. 
Hat tip to drivingtheporcelianbus for bringing the latest on the court challenge to our antiquated first-past-the-post system to our attention.  Several other bloggers picked up on this here is what one one of them had to say:-

If Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton  truly believed in real democratic reform (instead of just platitudes), then they would step up and join ranks with the Greens and with Fair Vote Canada to obtain an interpretation from the Quebec Appeal Court and later (probably) the Supreme Court of Canada.

Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms constitutionally guarantees all Canadian citizens the democratic right to vote in a general federal or provincil election. Neither Parliament nor any provincial legislature can override this section using the overriding section 33.

The clause reads:
Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.
As Wikipedia states, generally, the courts have interpreted section 3 as being more generous than simply providing a right to vote. As stated in the case Figueroa v. Canada (2003),[1] the section has been viewed as a constitutional guarantee to "play a meaningful role in the electoral process," which in turn encourages governmental "respect for a diversity of beliefs and opinions."
Of course one of the arguments against a system proportional voting will be that it will create more minority and coalition governments and that such governments are not “stable”. That rather depends upon whether the partys involved WANT it to be stable, such governments can and do work if our representatives try and work together for us instead of work apart for themselves.

When will the Liberals and the NDP get it? Without some kind of accord between these two parties, the country is locked into a kind of political version of the movie Groundhog Day—doomed to repeat the same depressing, cynical and destructive politics day-in, day-out until our democracy is so damaged that no one will bother voting.
There are policy areas that civil society organizations need to focus on to expose the Harper Conservatives—their economic policy, the tar sands, democratic reform, Harper’s security-state obsession, jets and jails, and climate change. But it is absolutely clear that, barring some serious, deal-breaking corruption scandal hitting the Harperites, nothing is going to change any time soon.
The archaic first-past-the-post voting system is not just undemocratic, it is profoundly anti-democratic in a system that now has five political parties with proven staying power.

Lost along the way was trust in a system that, despite its many faults, could once be counted on to act in the best interest of most citizens, most of the time. Growing in the vacuum created by lies, fraud and countless broken promises is the acidic judgment that parties are guided by self-interest and the powerful few who whisper in their ear. Abused and abandoned to wander in a democratic wasteland, voters have every reason to be mad as hell and every right to pummel the nearest politician.

Yesterday, half of the voters cast votes for the Progressive Conservatives and half for other parties,” said Fair Vote Canada Executive Director Larry Gordon. “But the half supporting the Progressive Conservatives will be represented by more than three times as many MLAs – 42 PCs vs. 13 Liberals. The opposition is severely under-represented and the 17% of the electorate supporting parties other than the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals have no representation whatsoever.”

The figures below show the popular vote for each party, along with the number and percentage of seats under the current voting system and the proposed MMP system.
PC - popular vote 49% - with MMP, 28 seats (51%) rather than 42 seats (76%).
Lib - popular vote 34% - with MMP, 18 seats (33%) rather than 13 seats (24%)
NDP - popular vote 10% - with MMP, 5 seats (9%) rather than 0 seats
Greens - popular vote 5% - with MMP, 3 seats (5%) rather than 0 seats

There seems to be an attitude in the government - that they can go in, be deliberately defeated and call an election - that's not how our constitutional system works. The government has a minority - it has an obligation to demonstrate to Canadians that it can govern. That it can form a majority in the House of Commons. If it can't form a majority, we look at other options, we don't just concede to the government's request to make it dysfunctional. I know for a fact that Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton and the people who work for them want this Parliament to work and I know if is in all of our interests to work. The government has got to face the fact it has a minority, it has to work with other people.”
No this is not Iggy speaking but Harper in 2004! Would that he listened to his own advise!
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Open Government?

I have on several occasions pointed out the value of Open and Accessible information in protecting our democracy, recently the Liberal Party made a commitment to reverse the increasing secrecy that current pervades government. We are a long way from actually seeing it happen but this is a big step in the right direction, promises are easy. They say:-

Liberal Party of Canada is committed to democratic renewal – and that means a commitment to open government.
While progressive governments in other countries have deployed digital technology to advance transparency and unshackle information to fuel knowledge and innovation, Canada has been held back by the most secretive government in its history.
To create a new level of accountability for government spending and to spur innovation and economic growth, a Liberal government will open government to the public through four specific measures.
The Liberal Open Government Initiative will:
  • Immediately restore the long-form census;
  • Make as many government datasets as possible available to the public online free of
    charge at opendata.gc.ca in an open and searchable format, starting with Statistics
    Canada data, including data from the long-form census;
  • Post all Access to Information requests, responses, and response times online at
    accesstoinformation.gc.ca; and
  • Make information on government grants, contributions and contracts available through
    a searchable, online database at accountablespending.gc.ca.
For complete details, please read the PDF policy brochure.

Emma Hogbin, recently appointed Science and Technology Critic for the Green Party of Canada had this to say on the subject ...
Last week the Liberal Party of Canada launched their Open Government Initiative. There's been a bit of buzz in the blogosphere about the Liberal initiative. I'm delighted that we're moving towards open government. I'm looking forward to the Conservative government agreeing that this is really important and declaring that all (appropriate) data will be available.
But what if we launch into this "open" thing and it all goes horribly wrong? Let's assume that only appropriate data is made publicly available. Let's assume that all privacy and security concerns are met. There's still two very important points that need to be met before data is "open":
I've been using a lot of the freely available government data from elections.ca and StatsCan and the Community Information Database for my campaign. But freely available information isn't the same as open data. Freely available information is like the reference section of your public library. You can read all the books for free. But you can't take them out of the library. And you most definitely cannot highlight the really important passages, rip out pictures for your scrapbook, or otherwise convert the information into a format that's useful to you. Freely available information can only be used as-is.
Open data, on the other hand, is released into the public with the intention of it being remixed by other people. A license is applied to the data that allows other data nerds (scientists, geographers, map makers, etc) to copy and paste the bits they need. The remix could result in new maps--or in the case of science: new revelations about the world around us. Open data can make it easier for government departments to work together too--with open data anyone (especially bureaucrats) can grab a copy of publicly licensed information and get to work. There's no chain of command and there's no wasting time waiting for the person who's on vacation to give you permission to use data from the department down the hall. The data comes with a built-in permission slip via its license.
Sound interesting? I sure think so! I have started collecting information to create a new policy for open data and open access to information for the Green Party. The policy will include a way towards open government that includes:
  • opening data sets created by government
  • opening data sets created by publicly funded research
  • appropriate licenses for public data
  • appropriate formats for maximum re-useability

Emma Jane Hogbin is the Science and Technology critic for the GPC and  Green Candidate for the riding of Grey Bruce Owen Sound.
Dont hold your breath on the Conservatives embracing these initiatives, they did after all promise to be Open and Accountable and we know how that worked out. But also be aware that many within the civil service have been pushing for this sort of thing, both internally and for public consumption but are being frustrated by the restrictions being placed upon them. Let us hope that with several groups all pulling in the same direction we can get some movement on this one.
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