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, July 27, 2014

Harpers “Democracy”

With the Harper Regime loosing a series of rulings in the Supreme Court of Canada from their plans for the senate to prostitution laws to his nomination to the court it should be no surprise that as well as Harpers direct attack upon Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin he now has set his minions out to attack the Supreme Court in general. It would seem that the Court making rulings that follow the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is now a “problem” and that groups using the Charter to defend their rights when a new attack upon our democracy issues from the Con Oligarchy is somehow antidemocratic.

Andrew Coyne writes

...............over on the democratically elected house, unintended irony was also the order of the day. In a story bearing the imperishable headline “Conservatives warn of diminishing Parliamentary power,” Conservative MP Larry Miller told the Post’s John Ivison of his growing dismay that the “courts are making laws.”
“I’m all for rights and freedoms,” he said, “but the Charter complicates things.” The problem, as far as rights and freedoms are concerned, is that we have “complicated” them by writing them into law..............
The idea of codifying rights in law they tend to regard as a vaguely Gallic plot, perhaps forgetting Canada’s original Bill of Rights, the handiwork of a certain John George Diefenbaker.
Miller does not disappoint. “Pierre Trudeau,” he said, “did this willfully and deliberately, taking rights away from the majority to protect the minority.” Can you believe it? Protecting the minority. I mean, who the hell elected him?..................
As things stand, MPs seem content to abdicate this responsibility to the courts, so they can pick fights with them later. “Why elect people and pay them to do something the courts are doing,” Miller grumbles. Why, indeed.
Just to make it clear that this is not just Larry Miller spouting off but a directive from above, we have another report of the same talking points being floated from the other side of the country......

Dan Albas, the MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, says that while he respects the courts he also believes an increasing number of groups are using litigation to advance policies the government will not put forward. 
"Often the Plan B is to do an end-run around our democratic process and turn to the courts where it seems some judges are quite happy to engage. This can result in decisions contrary to what have been decided in our democratic process," Albas told CBC Radio's The House.
The Con view of 'democratic process' being create laws without consultation, limit debate and force legislation through as quickly as possible whilst spending thousands of dollars of public money promoting their view and calling those with a different point of view anti-Canadian or worse. This is of course now standard practice of the Harper Regime – anything or anyone who blocks or disagrees with their wishes is wrong and must be eliminated
The government has, for all intents and purposes, successfully defunded Canada’s advocacy movement — well, those advocates that disagree with them anyway, like women’s rights and child-care activists, environmental and scientific researchers. They have eliminated funding for roundtable consensus-building initiatives as well as non-governmental organizations dedicated to promoting human rights and equality for women around the globe.
The list is long and depressing.
The government has used, or rather abused, its power in so many ways that Canadians have perhaps grown immune to the attacks on democracy and civil society.

Whilst the following comment was written in response to a CBC article about the behaviour in the Ontario Legislature it is just as valid to all politicians in all provinces and those in the federal legislature.
I'm old, and have watched politics and politicians all my adult life. But this crop of politicians from all levels of government all across the country exhibit anger and partisanship at a level I have never before seen. Civil behaviour is tossed out the window and the work of governing takes second place to scoring points and attempting to destroy opposing politicians and opposing parties. Win at all costs takes priority over serving those who they were elected to govern.

We should not accept this behaviour in our politicians. We need to demand that they submit people of integrity and civility for election. We should demand that personal attacks on each other end. We should demand that political debate be just that... debating the merits of the different party proposals for action, and we should demand that governments be flexible enough to through out parts of their legislation which debate has shown to be unacceptable to most Canadians and to incorporate the best ideas from opposition parties.

Our system of government would be far more efficient, less wasteful and satisfy the needs and want of more Canadians if they would clean up their act.
"Gr8 Scott " is correct we should not accept this behaviour in our politicians and I would suggest that the recent upsurge of non cooperative partisanship across the country is in part due to the various partys watching Harper ignore parliamentary convention, stifle debate, unilaterally change the rules and attack those who disagree with him both within parliament and within the advocacy community. That he has thus far 'got away with it' and, unless the public wakes up to his dictatorial ambitions, may well continue to do so scares the hell out of me.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Electoral Reform – Personal Perspective

After more than 5 years of writing about our declining democracy and having several times reviewed the options open to us should we ever get a government in power willing to put the issue of voting reform before the people I am now going to try and spell out my own wishes in this regard. Such wishes must be tempered by some practical considerations, wishing for things that simply are never going to happen is an exercise in futility – perhaps this whole series on Electoral Reform should be filed under that heading!

I will start by reiterating that I do not support Proportional Representation without reservation, I do support SOME PR systems and prefer even FPTP over others. Nor do I pretend that my personal preferences are the only option or better than any other point of view, such thinking is more divisive than helpful in this 'debate'. First some general concerns and considerations that form the basis of my thoughts on this.

Any system adopted should make the elected representative more accountable to the electorate and less under the control of any particular party apparatus, it should not disproportionally flavor larger partys over smaller ones or individual independent candidates. The use of the popular vote to elect Mps or who holds power should not leave minority populations such as rural areas or smaller provinces unrepresented in other ways. In our large and diverse Country we must be aware that just because an area of the country is particularly sparsely populated and other areas are densely populated should not mean that the latter should have total sway over the former as to selecting our government. This is at present ensured to some extent by both the constitutional requirements of minimal representation for the smaller provinces and our system of representation by area ridings.

Given the above I immediately reject STV (as previously proposed in BC) which created much larger 'ridings' with multiple representatives, this may be acceptable in large urban areas where riding are physically small and those elected would still be 'close to' their constituents but in less populated areas such 'ridings' would comprise 100s of square miles with no guarantee that those elected would even be within reasonable travelling distance of some communities. Nor is it really proportional so I see little advantage in going from bad to worse with this one.

My Choices.....
I previously supported MMP in that it enables the voter to select the best local representative and their choice of party to govern separately. We have all wished for that and it would reduce the 'strategic voting' dilemma. I still would prefer this over FPTP but have some real concerns about how the 'extra' Mps (needed to give the new government the numbers of seats reflected in the popular vote) would be selected and to whom they would be answerable to and represent.

I do like the AV system for selecting our local representative, the instant runoff system whereby our second and subsequent choices ensure that no single candidate is elected with less than 50% of the vote seems to me much more equitable. As I said before more voters would be 'somewhat satisfied' with the results and voters could (if they so desired) vote for the best candidate and preferred party candidate with their first and second choices. The strategic voting dilemma would be all but eliminated with this system. It is not truly 'proportional' but would I believe be a very good first step towards Electoral Reform and perhaps more acceptable to PR proponents AND FPTP supporters, a compromise perhaps, not something that political types are well known for!

Finally I recently found out about the system proposed by the Commission charged with suggesting a new system for elections to the Parliament of the United Kingdom called AV Plus which is a combination of Alternative Vote and MMP. The Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) uses the Alternative Vote (in which voters rank candidates in order of preference) to elect a candidate in each constituency, and then uses a small top-up list to make the overall result more proportional. Voters can then either select their favourite party or choose their favourite candidate from the top-up list and the votes are then allocated to represent each party’s share of the votes proportionally.

The only problem with this system is once again as with MMP how the 'list of top up candidates is preselected and to who they are accountable. As far as I can see this is the problem with ANY PR system where the electorate does not directly elect ALL of the Mps. In every case it creates two classes of Mps which in my view is problematic, I am not against PR but it is not in my view the ultimate fix that some proponents seem to think it is. I do note that with some of the above the counting of ballots and selection of candidates becomes more complex and that the use of tabulating machines would probably be desirable in all but the smallest polls if speedy results are desired.

Getting there......
One of my readers has been aggressively pushing his view of how we should select a new voting system in the comment section of this series calling for a “3 option referendum” between FPTP, AV/RBV and PR and “If PR is on the final round, the two main PR options can be put on the ballot: MMP or STV.” In other comments he says that “If a citizens' assembly chooses some arbitrary form of PR for Canadians, Canadians will reject it as they did in ON, BC & PEI. Then PR is toast. “ He seems to think that the Liberal and Green Party stated position of having a committee (of either citizens or Mps ) come up with recommendations is somehow 'undemocratic' and “ will destroy all hope of bringing real democracy to Canada” It is IMHO impossible in a practicable sense to give the voters a choice without pre-selecting at least SOME of the options and an all party/ citizens assembly mix would seem to be the best option to do this no matter what eventually emerges on the ballot.

Even though I have previously raised the possibility of a multiple choice referendum I have several problems with the above, will the voters be 'confused' by having more than the choice of yes or no for one preselected system and if PR is chosen what will be then put before the electorate as a possible system – MMP & STV are not the only systems of PR and there are many variation within these two systems – and how many citizens would show up for a second vote withing a few weeks?
Another reader suggests that 'run off 'elections would be the answer “if no candidate in a given riding gets 50% plus one, then a second round of voting is held a week later in that riding.” Given our already low and declining turnout at election time the same concern would be an issue for that suggestion also.

I would suggest that if a party that comes to power proposes to 'study' this issue with a view to putting some kind of choice before the citizens in a referendum then we had best encourage them and not be too picky as to the process, any choice is better than no choice. I am concerned that there is adequate public input and education prior to any such referendum which is unlikely to take place before 2019 with even the most optimistic view of things. I am increasingly more concerned with getting some Parliamentary reform given the way in which the Harper Regime is running roughshod over so many parliamentary 'traditions' and arbitrarily changing the rules to suit themselves. The power of the PMO must be curbed no matter who is in power, Electoral Reform without Parliamentary Reform is all but futile if we wish to save our democracy.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Electoral Reform – The Parties Position

Its sometimes hard to see where the parties stand on any particular issue given the hype, bafflegab and spin that issues from almost all of them at times and the ever changing positions taken depending upon their position in the polls or whether they are in power or not. As far as I can tell the following is their current position on Electoral Reform.

Trudeau is a supporter of a preferential ballot, having made it a plank of his leadership platform.
Liberals say they will launch all-party consultations on reform. The party passed a resolution at its convention earlier this year that said a Liberal government would launch an all-party consultation on reforming the electoral system, including looking at a preferential ballot.

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Liberal Party pursue political reforms which promote:
  • Open, democratic nominations of candidates;
  • Fewer “whipped” votes in Parliament and more “free” votes requiring individual MPs to assume full responsibility for their decisions;
  • Stronger Parliamentary control over public finances, including an annual deadline for the budget; accounting consistency among the Estimates and the Public Accounts; more clarity in voting on Estimates; a costing analysis for each government Bill; and a requirement that government borrowing plans must get Parliament’s pre-approval;
  • A truly independent, properly resourced Parliamentary Budget Officer;
  • A more effective Access-to-Information regime with stronger safeguards against political interference;
  • An impartial system to identify and eliminate the waste of tax-dollars on partisan advertising;
  • Careful limitations on secret Committee proceedings, Omnibus Bills and Prorogation to avoid their misuse for the short-term partisan convenience of the government;
  • Adequate funding, investigative powers and enforcement authority to ensure Elections Canada can root out electoral fraud;
  • Pro-active disclosure of parliamentarians’ expenses, a more transparent Board of Internal Economy and better audit rules;
  • A truly independent Senate not based upon partisanship or patronage;
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT immediately after the next election, an all-Party process be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better.

Tom Mulcair, Leader of NDP replied to a letter from the Electoral Alliance thus-
...our commitment to electoral reform was again reinforced at our 2013 NDP Convention where delegates debated and passed a resolution in support of electoral reform. ....

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the federal New Democratic Party reaffirm its desire to reform Canada’s electoral system by way of a system that combines proportional representation and direct election of Members of Parliament from constituencies, that is to say, through a version of mixed member proportional (MMP) representation that is adapted to Canada......

The Green Party takes a much broader view in their longstanding support for Democratic Reform simply saying that a proportional system should be considered along with parliamentary reform, a position which I personalty also favour. Given the way in which our MPs and political party’s are operating these days having one without the other will probably not change much.
Reform our voting system. Hold a national discussion on the health of our democracy, address the growing and undemocratic power of the Prime Minister’s Office and explore the options for a more meaningful electoral system. Consider the risks of “first past the post” and vote on whether it should be replaced. Consider proportional representation.

  • Establish a Public Inquiry into Democracy, with powers of a Royal Commission, to engage Canadians from coast to coast and address anti-democratic trends within Canada:
    • 1. The growing and unhealthy power of the Prime Minister’s Office;
    • 2. The lack of scope for independent action of individual MPs;
    • 3. The use of prorogation to avoid political embarrassment, in violation of Parliamentary practice and tradition;
    • 4. The abuse by the Senate of its role of “sober, second thought” in voting down bills approved by the House, as in the case in November of 2010 in their defeat without debate of Bill C-311 (the Climate Change Accountability Act);
    • 5. The inequity of the current voting system with a view to replacing it with a system based on proportional representation
    • 6. The recommendations of the Public Inquiry will be presented as options to Canadian voters.
  • Adhere to fixed election dates permitting political stability and fair elections.
  • Reduce the mandatory $1,000 candidate deposit to encourage more Canadians to participate in the democratic system.

Its difficult to find an official position of the CPC on Proportional Voting, we have seen what their idea of Electoral Reform is in the (un) Fair Election Act that was jammed through with minimal debate and only modified somewhat by intense public pressure. Nowhere in this document that I can see is there any commitment to study or move towards a different means of selecting those sitting in the House. In 1997 when in a minority position an essay penned by Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan extolled the virtues of both proportional voting systems and coalition governments however once brought to power by the FPTP we have heard nothing of this, its not that they don’t know there is a better way its just that it is not currently to their political advantage to promote it at this time.

Only in politics do we still entrust power to a single faction expected to prevail every time over the opposition by sheer force of numbers. Even more anachronistically, we persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline and expel subordinates.
Among major democracies, only Great Britain so ruthlessly concentrates power. .......In most of the rest of Europe, proportional representation ensures that coalition governments routinely form cabinets.
Many of Canada’s problems stem from a winner-take-all style of politics that allows governments in Ottawa to impose measures abhorred by large areas of the country. ..........Modernizing Canadian politics would not only be good for conservatism, it might be the key to Canada’s survival as a nation.

In New Zealand, which used to have a Canadian-style system of concentrated power, the voters rebelled against alternating Labour party and National party dictatorships: electoral reform now ensures coalition cabinets.

To sum it up they all at some time or another have been in flavor of electoral and or parliamentary reform but once in power it seems to fall by the wayside, will future leaders follow up upon their promises and will that lead to modernization of our voting and parliamentary systems remains to be seen. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Electoral Reform – Voting Systems

I have said that simply calling for PR (Proportional Voting) is not sufficient but that we must understand the various systems that are generally promoted as 'proportional', and the alternatives. I wrote about the various systems some 3 years ago and will simply re-post part of that article with some updates and additional thoughts here in this series on Electoral Reform.

First however I must point out that non of the systems thus far proposed can be compared with what is often touted as the outcome from FPTP in so far as 'the popular vote'. We currently vote for an individual who may or may not be associated with a particular political party and the much used 'party A or party B got XX% of the popular vote” is actually not true and may be misleading. How many folks are voting for the individual and how many vote because of their association with the party? I suspect mostly the latter and a system that changes this dynamic will have a big impact upon the results which will not necessary be comparable with the 'popular vote' under the FPTP system.

That said here is a very brief look at the major voting systems generally proposed and a couple of personal comments upon them. I note that such systems may have different names and slightly different features in different countries, it is unknown if or when such choices will be presented to the Canadian voter or which systems will be part of that choice.

FPTP - First Past The Post
The status quo, simple winner takes all.
Not proportional, can lead to strange results when multiple candidates split the vote.
(Voters are faced with a dilemma in that given the power of the 'party system' do they vote for the individual based upon their suitability to represent them in the HoC or for them as a member of a particular party who they wish to see form government)

MMP – Mixed Member Proportional
Proportional, allows voting for MP and Party separately, ridings remain unchanged
Creates 'extra' MPs to produce proportionality, methods of selecting 'extras' complex and controversial.
This is the one that failed to get support in Ontario
(The above dilemma is eliminated by the ability to vote for an individual Candidate and for a political party to govern separately giving a 'popular vote' for the various parties irregardless of the votes cast for the candidates. Extra MP must be selected or nominated somehow in order to satisfy the party vote numbers, how that is done and who they represent and are accountable to is where this system runs into trouble)

STV – Single Transferable Vote
Somewhat proportional, many more individuals to choose from when voting.
Complex, hard to understand, multiple MPs for greatly enlarged riding’s
This is the system that failed to get enough support in BC
(This system combines several riding’s in order to let voters select more than one MP, instead of a choice of 4 or 5 candidates one would have a choice of 15 or 20 from which you select several. This may work in small urban riding’s but in the large rural riding across Canada is in my view totally impractical both from a point of 'knowing your candidate' and for ensuring that you MP is from a relatively representative area as the voter)

Party List
A system in which parties make lists of candidates to be elected, and seats get allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party receives. Voters may vote directly for the party or for candidates whose vote total will pool to the party depending upon which particular system is used.
(I have not researched this system in depth but letting political parties select MPs from a list and not having a local representative chosen by the local voters is not in my view a viable system in such a large and diverse country as Canada)

AV – Alternative Vote
(also known as Instant-runoff voting (IRV), transferable vote, ranked choice voting, or preferential voting)
Allows voters to indicate their 2nd and subsequent choices, no 'wasted' votes, simple, easily understood, ridings remain unchanged
Not truly proportional, however use of 2nd & 3rd choices make it more so.
This is the system proposed but not adopted Great Britain in 2011
(This give the voter the ability to vote for their choice of candidate and the ability to say in effect if this candidate does not win then here is my second choice which will come into play if no candidate gets more than 50% of the first choice. More voters would be 'somewhat satisfied' with the results and voters could (if they so desired) vote for the best candidate and preferred party candidate with their first and second choices. Results would be quite unpredictable in tightly contested races. Several political parties select their leader in a similar fashion.)

AV+ Alternative Vote Plus or Alternative Vote Top-up
AV+ was invented by the 1998 Jenkins Commission which first proposed the idea as a system that could be used for elections to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. (It was not however the system put to the referendum) The important difference from AV is that an additional group of members would be elected through the regional party lists system to ensure proportionality.
(This is another system which I have not yet researched but sounds like one that may well be a good compromise between AV and PR. I will be looking into this system further and will have more to say here as I learn more in the next few months.)

You can see from the above why I say that just saying I want a change in the voting system or even I want PR voting is insufficient, in addition each system may have various different details as used in different countries or districts. We must try and narrow the choices and try to find consensus on which system to promote if and when we get a government willing to consider such changes!

Whilst I previously preferred MMP (due to the ability to choose candidate and party separately) I now am leaning towards AV for a couple of reasons, firstly it is simple, easy to understand and gives some weight to a voters SECOND (and possibly 3rd) choice so that voters who do not get their first choice (and that will invariably be the case for most voters) do get some satisfaction from their votes actually impacting the results. Whilst not truly proportional this use of second and third choice is perhaps better as more voters will be somewhat satisfied with the result. (even with truly proportional systems as many as 60% of voters may not see their choice of individual or party elected,) It eliminates the dilemma of how to choose extra MPs created by a truly proportional system. AV is a compromise, and perhaps one which all sides can agree upon, it would sure be better than the status quot!

For those who want to see which systems various countries around the world are using a good overview can be found at http://www.idea.int/esd/world.cfm. These sorts of discussions may be somewhat academic given the chances of seeing any move to actually place such choices before us, but are still important to have to try and reach some sort of consensus as to where we want to go WHEN such a move is made. A look at the 8 Principals of Electoral Systems as provided by Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform a few years ago may help put things in perspective.

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