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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Democracy

They understand there’s been an active, conscious, successful class war against them in the United States over the past several decades. As they say repeatedly, they are sick and tired of struggling to make ends meet while 1 per cent of the American population has 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth. Whilst it is not as clear here in Canada there is little doubt that such divisions not only exist but are indeed widening and that many folks are indeed 'struggling to make ends meet'. That the few are getting richer whilst the many are increasingly paying more to multinationals who control much of the basic necessity’s of modern life seems to be the theme that is emerging from the Occupy movement.

What has not emerged, at least not in any meaningful way, is the disproportionate influence that both the rich and the corporate world has upon our democracy. It is this influence that in no small way may well be the reason for the ever widening gap between the rich and the less affluent. After all does government 'consult' with the average Joe on the street or the independent business owner in small town Canada, do large political contributions come from the guy making minimum wage, or the fat cat to whom a large contribution to the party coffers will be but a miniscule percentage of their income.

It is my contention that the very rich be they individuals or corporations have a greater chance of effecting government policy and election results than the rest of us by their choice of party support and thus the funds available for blanket brainwashing via television advertising, and by greater access to those in power than most. The removal of the per vote 'subsidy' is, in my view, a deliberate move to further disenfranchise the lower income voter and enhance the support of those in the upper income brackets.
Given that, according to statscan (2009 figures), only around 5% of individuals make over $100,000 and around 50% of us make under $30,000 is it any wonder that so many folks are not happy with the influence that the upper crust has upon our daily lives.
One of the things that gets many some folk upset is the lack of reliable information on our economy, corporate profits and rising cost of goods. Statscan has many charts and numbers available however many long term records are only available on a pay for use basis (and its NOT a nominal fee but a considerable amount per download, in the hundreds of dollars for any amount of data), once again the average Joe is locked out due to income considerations.

Assuming you get the data it is then open to interpretation, let us take the available data on the consumer price index for instance, as it is on such things that the Occupy movement is in part focusing on.. According to statscan 2009 had a CPI of 116.5% over the past 7 years (2002 being the base year), we all know that the cost of living has gone up more than that over that period just by looking at our bills. From the same chart we see the following , food 123%, shelter 123%, transportation 118% (do you believe that last one, I dont), the point being that the figures that are spouted by those telling us how rosy it is are AVERAGES. A further look at the break down of food prices and we see poultry & dairy 130%, bread & cereal 138%, fats & oils 140%! The point being if you buy a lot of the items whose prices have risen dramatically or comprise a large part of your budget (gas, heating oil and insurance come to mind) and little of those whose prices have remained stable then such figures are meaningless and yet these are what we are told is how our economy is doing or what the AVERAGE wage is or what the cost of living is. Its all a shell game and without open data EASILY and FREELY available we cannot refute the political spin.

That may not be most folks view of a commentary on democracy but to me knowledge is the key to unlocking the door to change.

(For an eye opening series of charts on the U.S. Employment / Compensation / Income gap over the last several years do check out 'Here's What The Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About...”) , similar comparisons for the Canadian economy could not be found!
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Samara Report – The Outsiders Manifesto

Samara is an independent charitable organization, founded in 2008 to study citizen engagement with Canadian democracy. Their work focuses on three areas: political leadership; the participation of citizens in public life; and public affairs journalism. They have conducted Canada's first-ever systematic series of exit interviews with former Members of Parliament in Canada and have released a series of reports that use these collective narratives to shine light on how Parliament works, and share MP’s advice on how our politics can be improved.

These interviews were shared in a series of four reports that cover the MPs' backgrounds and paths to politics; their transition to public life and the ways they view their roles; how they describe their time in Parliament and their relationship with their political parties and their advice, recommendations and best practices. They have recently released their final report in this series.

These are the four reports-
This report will focus on the first part of those interviews, where the former Parliamentarians discussed their motivations and paths to politics. It sets the stage for a larger series of reports based on the MP exit interviews. Our purpose is neither to applaud nor embarrass MPs, but to understand political leadership and the role of Parliamentarians in our system.

This report is the second in a series sharing the stories and advice of these 65 Parliamentarians, each of whom dedicated an average of nearly ten and a half years to national public life, acting as a bridge between Canadians and their government.

The report outlines how the MPs expressed embarrassment at the public displays of politics in the House of Commons, saying that little constructive work takes place there.  Instead, the MPs said their most important work was done away from the media spotlight, in the less publicized venues of committees and caucus meeting.

Canadians know very little about those men and women—leaders like our Members of Parliament—and what they've learned serving on the front lines of our democracy. MPs' experiences can offer tremendous insight into the successes and failings of our democracy, and yet they're rarely consulted about what should be done to improve our democratic process,

Below you will find a few 'teasers' from the final report, there are many surprises in these extensive summaries of the MPs comments and I recommend that anyone interested in our parliamentary system past, present or future read each of the four reports.

'The first area in which MPs focused their recommendations was the nomination process, the point at which a political party, in each of Canada's electoral ridings, chooses its candidate for the federal election. Many of the MPs to whom we spoke, despite winning their nominations, expressed discomfort or outright disgust with the way these decisions were made and the lack of transparency and local engagement in the process.

'Many said they were left to their own devices to determine how to go about their job, how to navigate the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, and even how to hire appropriate staff. As one MP put it, "Rookie MPs are, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the day after they're elected. Unless you've established the right contacts and you've got the ability to find your own way and ask questions, it can be a pretty overpowering situation."

Another simply blamed the leadership of the political parties and the culture of antagonism in the House. "It's going to come from the leadership on top. I really would like to see party leaders from all parties engage in sober debate, and not throwing the malicious barbs back and forth," one MP recommended.

'Several felt that the Speaker should be more empowered to enforce good behaviour. "To me the decorum should be simple. Run it like I did my Grade 8 classroom. Stop it and stop it now. You point at him and put the cameras on [those] who are causing too much disturbance, then let the people talk about it back home," said another MP.

'Many MPs claimed committees were where some of Parliament's best work took place, where MPs could transcend the inflated partisanship of Question Period and make policy recommendations that best reflected the interests of the country as a whole. As such, their recommendations centred on reducing political party influence over the committee process, and putting in place guidance to ensure committee work was better reflected in the legislative process.

Specifically, a number of MPs, including two party leaders, suggested reforming committee regulations to weaken the ability of political party leaders to replace MPs on committees mid-way through their mandate, a tactic used to delay work from moving forward, or to stop it all together. 
Several MPs were concerned that committee work didn't have enough influence over the legislative process, and that committee reports were often shelved without proper consideration. "Where committees have more power, a lot more things are going to get done there," one MP said. Another recommended that committee reports should be brought forward as Parliamentary motions, to ensure greater profile and debate of the work. "You spend all this time on committees. Surely there should be some way to have motions on your recommendations. But there isn't. There's just a minister who takes it and says, ‘Thanks very much, we'll veto that. Goodbye,'" he said.

Given the recent shelving of a number of reports from the Public Account Committee the latter three points are particularly of interest! We also wonder why these MPs all wait until they 'retire' before speaking out and if the current lot will actually do anything to improve things. Not holding my breath on that one!

Do visit the Samara web site and support their work to give us a better insight into how our democracy is working and how we might improve it.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

More Parliamentary Contempt

Dale Smith clearly outlines the Conservatives contempt for parliamentary process – here is his recent post in full.
The government introduced its fall budget implementation bill today – while the entire Finance Committee is currently on tour doing pre-budget consultations around the country. What’s more galling – is that they’ve put said bill up for debate tomorrow. You know, while the finance critics are out doing those pre-budget consultations, and giving their staff some 24 hours to digest 650 pages so that they can create briefs for the other MPs who will have to debate it. Oh, and the briefing with department officials? Won’t happen until the 18th, which is once the finance committee members are back after the break week next week.
Added to this, the government unveiled the Ways and Means Motion as part of the supply cycle yesterday – and gave the MPs six whole hours to read over all 250 pages said motion before they had to vote on it. While the finance committee including the critics are not in the House.
In other words, the government has decided to thumb its nose at the fundamental basis of parliamentary democracy in this country. Sure, they have a majority and these bills are going to pass – but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be robust and informed debate. That’s the whole point of Parliament. If the government is going to release budget bills and supply motions – you know, the kinds of confidence measures that governments live and die by – and stymie the ability of the opposition to actually examine these bills and motions and give them robust and informed debate, then why bother having a House of Commons at all?
Yes, these motions will pass, but debate is important. Informed, robust debate is important. The Ways and Means motion passed without MPs knowing what they were actually voting on. This budget implementation bill isn’t going to see informed debate, but we’ll get the Conservative MPs reading prepared statements about how the opposition needs to support the Economic Action Plan™, the NDP saying that the government needs to create jobs and fix pensions, and the Liberals tutting at both sides about being “too ideological.” And the debate will not be robust, informed, or worth the time of our august institutions.
The Conservatives are treating our parliamentary democracy with contempt. And I fear that Canadians simply don’t care.

Dale continues to bring more of this contempt to our attention in this post. including the Parliamentary Budget Officer thoughts on the just released costing for the 'tough on crime bill' which he calls “total obfuscation.”

We can expect MUCH more of this from the dictatorial Harper Regime in the coming months and years and all we can do is watch and remember for the next election - where much of the pubic support for alternative partys is about to be removed in a self serving move by said regime!
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Libs reject Coalition

The Ontario Election is coming down to the wire and it is increasing looking like a minority government with an almost equal split between two if not three partys. The headlines say “ The Ontario election remains a three-horse race four weeks into the campaign, with the one and only televised leaders’ debate doing nothing to end the dead heat between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives or budge support for the New Democrats.
Then we have one of the major parties say in an open letter to the Hudak conservatives that:- “ any instability and uncertainty will take Ontario off track,” adding he is “running to form a Liberal government — and only a Liberal government.
“There will be no coalition with either your party or the NDP”.

Do these folk live in some kind of an alternative dream world that the rest of us know nothing about? It is strongly probable that Ontario is going to land up with a minority government and I have said here many times that minority governments are not necessarily bad, it dependents upon the willingness of those elected to work together for the good of the electorate. That a leader who could well be in a position to form such a government should rule out a formal arrangement with another elected party to govern in cooperation with other elected MPPs BEFORE such a choice become inevitable strikes me as a suicide mission!
I have to this point been very unsure of where my vote should go, they each are promising expenditures that cannot be recouped without major increases in income or major cuts in service but NONE of them will say specifically where these moneys are going to be found. This recent development leave me with pretty much a choice of none of the above! As former bank of Canada Governor David Dodge said insofar as their financial plans are concerned they are all lying (or living in lala land), and now it would seem that some of them at least are doing the same regarding the possibility of a coalition, saying I will not work with the 'other guys' no matter what!
Should, as seems quite probable, we get a minority situation it will be necessary for ALL partys to cooperate to get us out of this mess and avoid a second election in the near future. That one, and possibly two of the major player should reject such cooperation BEFORE the cards are even on the table shows what a state of affairs our political world has come to. We know the federal scene has been in this partisan gridlock for sometime, but I was under the mistaken (perhaps naive) belief that out provincial politics had not quite reached that sad state of affairs, guess I was wrong.

As a rural resident I have not seen a candidate at my door in the 50 years I have lived in this great country (why bother talking to the minorities when the city folks can get me elected without your vote!) , right now the best advice I can give any of the candidates in my area is don’t show up at my door unless you are prepared to hear some hard truths about politics in Canada!
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Saturday, October 1, 2011

What are they hiding?

Recently MP Guy Caron called on the Commons public account committee to resurrect 14 studies that were left unfinished when Parliament fell last March. Seven of the 14 are complete and just need to be tabled in the House of Commons, they include studies into costs related to the renovation of Parliament's West Block, the helicopter procurement deal, and the regulation and supervision of large banks.
The majority of Conservative MPs on the committee quashed Caron's motion, they also barred the public from that meeting despite there being nothing confidential being discussed.
One of the main concerns expressed by many observers, this one included, with a majority Conservative government was that the secrecy and difficulty in obtaining information about such items would increase. It would seem that those fears were not unfounded given that this oversight committee is charged with studying issues of transparency, of accountability and public expenditures. That they would not table the seven reports already completed indicates that as always they are hiding something in those reports that reflects poorly upon their governance. Nothing new about that, expect much more of this sort of thing in the coming months and years!

Meanwhile they continue to ram massive bills through the house without proper debate or consideration of the consequences. I have to agree with the Green Party on this one:-
The omnibus crime bill is 103 pages long. It holds nine separate bills, some of which will create major changes to the Canadian justice system. Harper wielded his majority as a bludgeon this week and limited debate to a mere two final days before sending it to the Conservative dominated committees for approval.
The worst of these changes are ethically and economically expensive. They look back to the 19th century instead of responding to the realities of the 21st century.  A government that respected its citizens would allow reasonable time for examination, debate, and change—and not limit parliamentary debate to an average of less than six minutes per page!”
So the omnibus bill now goes to committee and we have already seen how those are going to work under this government ........ as a conservative rubber stamp without regard to differing opinion, nothing new here!
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