voting reform politics on a hot August day

single member constituent

Last week I was at my MPs summer picnic. I used to have some nice M.P.s, Bill Graham and then Bob Rae. Lately I have had an MP, Chrystia Freeland, who was not really too interested in the riding. She was planning to run somewhere else after redistribution.

When the redistributions were done, she chose to run in one of the new ridings created. The M.P. for Toronto center after the election was Bill Morneau, the new finance minister. As befits something named “Toronto Center”, we always have a big shot in Ottawa to represent us.

Morneau also seems to be a good “riding person”. However, the redistribution also distributed me out of Toronto Center into one of the new ridings. The district drawers should not be allowed to cut through neighborhoods like they seem to have a mania for doing. In the north of the Toronto center riding, the Church and Wellesley area was chopped up among three ridings. In the south, where I am, two neighborhoods got chopped in two right down their main streets.

So if the denizens of St. Lawrence want to complain about their eternal nemesis, the Port Authority, or try to get some federal money put into whatever public works need some work, they have to go to two different M.P.s depending on which side of The Esplanade they are on.

Those north of it can go up Parliament street to near Regent Park to visit with our “representative”. We know where Regent and Moss parks are; many of us moved from there. They studied St. Lawrence when they went about redeveloping Regent.

But if we are banished south of the red line, we have to get through to the other side of downtown to tell our sorrows to our great interceder. Most of us have nothing in common with Liberty Village and China Town; don’t even know where they are. Above all we are disdainful of the “mondo condo” mess along Queen’s Quay from Yonge west, now creeping into our territory.

My one and only representative in Ottawa is now Adam Vaughan. His father Colin had also been a TV news Johnny turned politician. Adam also became a city councillor but got fed up with local politics and ran federally.

my well ground axes

When he was a councillor I has some words with him about the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations, which I have a long standing grievance with. I asked him why he wants to support such a downright criminal group. He mumbled something about how if I know something criminal going on I should call the cops. Haw, haw.

But ultimately, the only solution for outfits like FMTA is governmental reform in Toronto. If every councillor could not act like a party of one and only a few of them together able to block just about anything, much of the corruption in Toronto would have its cover blown.

These days Adam is federal, and what is going on Federally that concerns me is governmental reform at the federal level. If we can get that, I suspect that local governmental reform would become easier. But there is a more personal issue for me; getting some money for the hours I was not able to work on the election last October.

I have already blogged enough elsewhere about my misadventures as an advance poll supervisor in the last federal election. I had as a boss a chief returning officer who was a complete nut case. I was stuck between her ridiculous rules and the Liberal party’s scrutineers who rightly wanted to be able to do their work.

The latest I have heard is that elections Canada, which had been full of conservative appointees, is in the process of being cleaned up by the new government. But it remains totally disorganized almost a year after the elections. When I call Gatineau I get handed around among shmooks who talk like they got hired off the street that morning and are still looking for the washrooms.

The returning officer in question is refusing to quit even though she was suspended toward the end of the campaign. From the stuff I obtained out of “Freedom of Info”, she had no staff trained a week before the election, but was sitting on over 1000 applications. Someone had to come down from Gatineau and pull Elections Canada’s chestnuts out of the fire.

So a few of us who had signed on for the full election and then lost our jobs because of this would like to be made whole for the money we should have made. There is now a Vaughan staffer looking into all this but I have not heard from her in awhile. Ah, well. It is August. Everything is at a crawl.

at Adam’s picnic

All the federal government is doing in the summer is run its election reform committee and hold community picnics. So I got on my bike and headed up the Queen’s Quay bike route to Little Norway park, under ominous clouds and steamy Toronto summer air.

A few people were already buzzing around Vaughan, vying for their moment in The Eye. I got a hamburger as the rain started pouring down. I stood with my burger getting soggy as I watched someone who was taking all the space under the canopy and whose brain power seemed to be taxed in getting some ketchup onto his burger.

Finally I got a dressed up burger and headed over to the trees to consume it. By the time I finished it the rain had settled back to a sprinkle and I got some cake and juice.

I sat back down under the tree canopy on a concrete embankment, and watched the picnic. The attendance was small due to the rain. Vaughan did not seem to mind getting wet, he was still talking people up. I went over to him.

He soon turned to me. We did not shake hands, I noticed he usually doesn’t do that. Everyone is germ phobic these days. I had decided my topic would be voting reform. I asked when he was going to do his obligatory consultation on that. It seems he has it arranged for September 10th.

I had to wonder if he really remembered me or any of my issues. He has to meet dozens of people every day. I might meet one new person every couple of days and I could not possibly remember more than a fraction of them. When I attend a conference like the one last May in Winnipeg I get totally boggled. My poor old fibrofogged mind.

topic for today

But he cannot do anything about FMTA as a Federale and my Elections Canada problem is being processed by his staff. The problem now is getting voting reform going. I suggested that a consensus seems to be emerging that a citizen’s assembly, such as B.C. and Ontario organized, is the way to go. Senator Axworthy seems to be a big proponent.

He disputed that there was any such consensus. He seemed to have the idea that since time was already getting tight, the ER committee should just bring forward a recommendation and send it to the Elections Canada bureaucracy. I suggested that time was not all that tight. Yes, Elections Canada needed two years lead time, but the next election could be delayed a year if needed.

Adam did not seem to think much of the idea of delaying the next election for a year. But a citizen’s assembly could take much less than a year, and then legislation could be dealt with quickly, and you would still have time to get in place whatever EC needs to get in place. I think the Ontario assembly took four months of weekends, in fact.

Adam was concerned about who was going to be on this assembly; how was it going to be representative of the population. I am actually a big expert on the Ontario Assembly. I attended most of the meetings open to the general public and got hold of much of the information they were informed by.

I started explaining how the members of the assembly were selected, but I realized this was too much to get across and instead suggested he read up on the assembly. There is plenty about how it worked on the net. I had my own web pages about it before I took it down. But he seemed very skeptical and hit me with a pretty good question; there are three hundred thirty eight federal ridings as opposed to just one hundred and five provincial, so how was this assembly going to function?

Yes, an assembly that size could get unwieldly. You would not want more than about eighty to one hundred on it, and how would these people be representative of the population and credible? By credible, not seen as handpicked. But this is a problem which could be worked out.

I told Adam that the big problem in Canada is we do not have much experience at deliberative democracy. They have much more in some European and South American countries. He needs to study the idea of deliberative assemblies more. He needs to listen more to the professor who chaired the Ontario Assembly and talked to the ER committee the previous week.

He smirked a bit and said something about hearing even more experts. He also said something about how the civil society groups concerned with voting reform should have come up with more definite proposals by now. It is interesting that he mentioned Leadnow, but not Fair Vote Canada. I would have agreed with him that these groups were really not very sophisticated or useful, though I do not think they should be seen as examples of democratic participation.

Leadnow is probably the best, but such groups tend to be made up of self important pinheads, or are astroturf for special interests. I know, I was involved with Fair Vote for some time. Such groups are not examples of discursive democracy because they have no mandate.

But someone else was waiting to lay their words of wisdom upon him and he turned away from me. I got some more cake and juice, and came back to listen.

Someone claiming to be a veteran of some Canadiana army peace keeping was concerned about the Liberals planning to do peace keeping again. I am not sure if these were his own experiences or those of his friends, but he talked about being in a contingent that had to report back; “if we can find a peace here, we will try to keep it”.

go home and remember

I did not like the look of the sky to the west, so soon I was back on my bike. I got home, inside my personal air conditioned island, and sat down as the rain started, and thought about this electoral reform problem.

I no longer support the idea of a referendum because the mechanisms are not there to do it right. You can’t do these on the fly. There has to be a process of educating the public about the issue and there has to be time and money for that. A good direct democratic system needs some sort of citizens assembly to study the issue and make recommendations.

The way the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly worked, or was set up to work, should be the gold standard. They got someone from the voters list, one for each riding, and did a screening process like a jury selection. Then they spend several months listening to experts. Then they deliberated and came up with recommendations.

The usual hordes of advocacy groups for various causes were told to go home; they were not doing it that way. I supported that, because most of these groups are mere self important busybodies and letting them do their “deputations” is a caricature of democracy.

Then the provincial government gave in to pressure from those who do not like any sort of advancement of democracy. They cut off all the funds for the project. There was no ‘education program’ for the public about the assemblies recommendations.

When election time came around most people did not know there was a referendum. Those who did were frustrated that they could not find out anything about the matter of the ‘randum. The government paid for a few public forums and hired people to explain the voting reform recommendations. Then these people got their chains yanked and were given sharp limitations on what they could say.

A few of the people who had served on the Citizen’s Assembly were furious at this. Some even wanted to start a law suit with the government for wasting their time for four months. The various community groups which had been ‘studying’ voting reform woke up and realized that if any sort of ‘yes’ campaign was going to happen, it had to come from them.

A major feat of organizing was pulled off as a few voting reform activists told the ” no, we are just a group of citizen experts consulting with government” types to get the fuck out of the way. Some funds were raised, materials printed, and some volunteers hit the streets, including me.

The response of the “main stream press” should have been predictable. Journalists tend to identify with the elite class and to have the idea that they are in control of The Truth. They are hostile to any idea of democracy except within the limited framework it is presently restricted to. The public is not supposed to know what it wants, it is supposed to be told.

There was an information blank out for most of the election campaign, then in the last two weeks came a torrent of misinformation. Basically, it used what people dislike about the present system, and used it to protect the present system, by transposing what people dislike onto the proportional system being proposed. For example, PR would put ‘party hacks” in control of selecting candidates, like they are not almost totally in control of candidate selection under the present system.

If you look at candidate nomination in PR countries, the party hacks tend to have a harder time stacking candidate slates because there are more alternatives they have to exclude. In open list systems, handpicked candidates tend to get knocked out in the general election and candidates with more rank and file support move up in rank.

In the end, the referendum lost in every riding, but had a strong showing in a few; precisely the ones where the “yes” campaign could get a good organization going on the ground.

From all this I would extract three simple rules for running a referendum.

1) The issue has to be thoroughly worked out, with a clear set of options set before the electorate.

2) The referendum campaign should not be run concurrent with a general election, as this divides attention.

3) The “yes” campaign needs plenty of time to organize itself, and plenty of money to do its work. There is no need to fund the “no” side, it will get unlimited resources from the “private sector”; you can count on that.

conclusions about a citizen’s Assembly

So, within this rushed timeframe which election promises and term limits have imposed on the vote reform process, a referendum is not going to work. But the reform does have to have some legitimacy, to make it harder for a conservative government to come in and restore the old rules the same way they were set aside; by legislative fiat.

This is why Axworthy’s idea of a Citizen’s Assembly is so smart. Vaughan’s idea of some of the advocacy groups just getting together and recommending something to the government would not be a good idea. LeadNow would likely be smart enough to refuse to go along with it. The pinheads of Fair Vote Canada would love to be “consulted” about vote reform but would then fall into discussions about the mathematics of various vote systems until everyone is exasperated.

But we are now left with the problem of how to run a Citizen’s Assembly on a national level. I had not thought enough about this yet. But before the dusk settled on a hot and rainy Toronto I had some ideas about it, which I will conclude this summer piece with.

The CA should be 100 people, half of each gender of course. Google tells me that 22 would be francophone, 4 aboriginal, and 21 immigrants. We can only go so far with getting a “representative” Canadian population, or we will end up with something like the genius ideas on the Fair Vote Canada discussion boards, like having to find someone who is one quarter of a transgendered person. The group should also be roughly proportional to geographic areas, for example 18 from the Prairies.

These people could be found through jury rolls and a selection committee. It would not be al that hard. The problem would be in getting 100 people who can commit for four months and could travel to Ottawa. The Ontario assembly met on weekends. People were flown or bussed, some from the far reaches of the province, but up in hotels and flown back sunday evening.

A better solution might be to bring them to Ottawa for a month solid, especially in summer, and pay them their incomes while they are there. Then you bring the usual experts to them and finally let them come to a decision with the help of professional facilitators.

So the problems of a Citizen’s Assembly are not all that great. They should be surmountable by an entity with the resources of the federal government. The will to put up with the yowling of the conservative party will have to be there. The other parties must agree to pass whatever the assembly comes up with, and be done with it.

And I am done with this.

Presentation on Cognitive Framing for Health and Strength Action Group.


“Framing” has become a big buzzword for left/progressive groups in North America. This is largely due to the work of Cognitive Scientist Professor George Lakoff in trying to explain to such groups why they keep losing the debate on the shape of society to the neoliberals and other “right wing” groups.

Lakoff gets frustrated because these people do not even understand his explanations. They think that all they have to do is adopt different phrase words in order to appeal to working class people. They are incapable of seeing their own “Aristotelean” way of thinking.

the cognitive revolution

This has always been a problem with western culture and civilization from the time of the Ancient Greeks. Even the scientific revolution has had a limited effect. In fact, the scientific revolution is very much an unfinished revolution even in the universities. I have found in my own experiences with academia a conflict between scientific and philosophic academics.

The trouble with modern liberals is that they are still educated in the Aristotelean, scholastic, rationalist line of western thinking which is very flawed. As Lakoff has noted, most right wing people have gone instead to business school and learned “marketing”. In other words, persuasion using the new academic discipline of Cognitive Science which has developed in the past fifty years.

I think the real ancestor of cognitive scientists is the philosopher David Hume back in the 1700s in Scotland, in the so called “age of reason”. He told people then that they have in fact no such faculty as “reason” and everything they do differs from what animals do only by degree. Later, Hegel in Germany told people that everything we know and do comes from a long “dialectic” process, passed on from one generation to the next.

Dialectics means that people seek a solution for a problem, the solution creates a new problem or “contradiction”, the solution for that creates another contradiction, and so on. This is often called, “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the synthesis becoming the new thesis. Karl Marx was a great exponent of Hegelian dialectics.

A thinker called Alfred Korzybski in the 1940s developed what he called a system of “general semantics”, which taught people to solve their cognitive problems by thinking in a non Aristotelean or “Null A” way. People needed to become “conscious of abstracting”, that is, aware that their internal model of the world is not the same thing as the external reality. The word for a thing is not the thing itself, it is only a symbol.

But cognitive science really got going in the 1950s and 60s when people started trying to create artificial intelligence. They were forced to realize that their assumptions about how human intelligence worked were totally wrong. Machines which tried to solve problems with”reason” and “logic” got nowhere. If they tried solving problems by running through every possible solution they ran into a “combinatory explosion” because there are always infinite possibilities.

So scientists realized that intelligence was really about reducing huge amounts of information to simple patterns and models which could be dealt with; “reduction to simplicity”. Cognition requires three orders of abstraction; identification of salient objects in the world, identification of relations between these objects, and identification of principles governing relations between objects. Order one, two and three.

What is called “magical thinking” is the misunderstanding of the principles of relationships between objects.

the evolution of understanding

This system evolved like everything else in living things, from simple to complex. The simplest organisms could react to things only reflexively, as by jerking their entire body in response to a stimulus at one spot. More complex organisms developed what is called “embodiment”. They developed an internal map of their bodies in order to control and direct them.

These days people who design complex computer control systems realize that they have to create a model within the computer’s circuitry, of the system it is to control.

Next, organisms had to develop a model of the external world in order to be able to respond to it and survive. It had to do this using a limited amount of sensory information and available processing power of the brain. A brain, even a primitive one, uses a lot of energy.

The larger brains needed to be able to make and use fire and tools required the extra energy made possible by the use of fire and tools. Using fire and tools enabled the brain to develop the circuitry for language. Manual processes are a kind of story or narrative, with a subject and object and a correct sequence to follow.

People had sign language before they developed speech. It took a long time after speech to start raising plants and animals and creating civilization. Learning how to do all these things required narratives; telling a stories about how things work and how to do things.

how understanding works

This is why the professor telling the student that her paper is a mere “narrative” and not in a proper form, is so stupid. What he means is, she is not thinking in an Aristotelean way. In other words, not “proving” by a “reasoned argument” that things are the way they are.

People who try to “reason” about things invariably get everything wrong. All knowledge is built from what is often called the “scientific method” but is really just using one’s brain the way it was designed by nature to work. You do not construct an ideal world in your head and then try to make it work in the real world. You look at how the world works and build a model of it in your head, always remembering that what you see depends on what you have already learned.

In the same way, if you want to convince somebody of something, you show that it is a better tool for understanding and for living in the world. You do not assume that the way you understand something is a universal truth. If you are a true scumball, you will try to confuse people and discredit what they know using abstract “reasoning”, meaning arguments which cannot be rebutted in their own terms but which are disconnected from reality.

A serious activist should above all refuse to deal with anyone who will not deal with others like human beings, using the system the human brain is set up with. This is the system of embodiment and narrative; of schema and frames, symbols, tropes, and analogies. Everyone thinks this way, because our brains are hard wired by evolution to see and process things in this way.

However, everyone’s experiences and perceived interests are different. Therefore a person’s inner model of the world can change rapidly when parts of the old one are not working anymore and where there is motive to change them. The key to persuasion is offering a better and more appealing narrative or framing.

The obstacles to people understanding something in a different way are usually social, not based on facts. It is said that “where you sit is where you stand” and ” it is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it”. Often holding contradictory ideas is a means of self protection; if you can’t do anything to change something, acknowledging it can just lead to depression.


So here are the basics of cognitive science as they relate to persuasion. It can actually get a lot more complicated than this. It is about a lot more than just “reframing” an issue, as those who misinterpreted Lakoff thought.

“Framing” an issue does not matter much if you do not have a better idea than what you are challenging. The real reason the “left/progressive” establishment has failed against neo-liberalism in the information wars of the past forty years is that they have nothing better to offer. It is not just that they think they have “The Facts” and that if people who are given the facts do not reason to the “correct” conclusion they must be stupid or crazy or evil. What they have to offer is as insulting and threatening to ordinary people as what the neo-liberals want.

The thing about the “human rights” approach to a Basic Income is that we do have something better to offer. The broad mass of people can be convinced of it if we can reach them, and if we can overcome the confusion that will be thrown up by those who want the forms of BI which will be bad for most people.

This is the motive for learning cognitive science; to be able to engage in this “framing” war. It is not about just trying to hijack the elite’s frames. You have to build new frames and completely new schema in people’s heads, and that is a long and hard job.

For example, people have been conditioned for generations to a negative framing of the word “socialism”, the organization of society to meet human needs rather than that of profit taking organizations. The term activates the frames of “communism” or of “out of control government”, taxing everyone to death and impeding their freedoms. It brings in the whole libertarian or neoliberal schema which sees all of history as a struggle against government. Government is always bad and we would all be better off with no government.

Trying to defeat the “socialism-bad” frame in relation to a Basic Income, by trying to reframe BI as a “socialist way to achieve the aims of capitalism”, is not going to impress many people. The whole neo-liberal schema, and all its composite frames and narratives, has to be tackled head on. Defeating it requires counter narratives, especially of democracy as a long, slow revolution for government in the interests of a majority. Or, “no-government” as chaos, as insecurity, a war of all against all, etc.

understanding is still evolving

I am not qualified to be a guru on cognitive mapping and information war. It requires some serious learning and the learning resources out there are not adequate yet, but they are getting better. I am publishing along with this article a few resources to get people started on an in depth study of “framing”.

This is what human rights oriented Basic Income or Guaranteed Living Income activists should be doing. We do not need more “rational” people going around telling everybody what is good for them by “fact based” analysis. While supplying suppressed facts is necessary too, people have to be persuaded to think about the subject in a better way. You do that by first having a better way of thinking about it, that people can support.

You can only convince those who are reachable. So, we can also do without people who think it is all about converting their opponents. Usually they have the idea that politics is about debates among elites. The worst are the academic rationalists who think they have to repeat the opponents debating points to show they have understood them. What they show is that they have accepted the opponents terms before they start, the sure way to lose any debate. Then they reinforce the opponents ideas. And finally they show they have no better ideas of their own.

I sum up my framing message for Basic Income activists thusly; have something to show people that is better than what your opponents are offering. Recognize that you have opponents, and that you are in an informational class war. Communicate the message in the way that people understand.

Of course, learn all you can about cognitive framing and develop, not your “arguments”, but completing frames and a thorough schema of a society built around a living income for everybody. All this will require considerable learning, far beyond what I can offer. I am still learning, myself.

Because the BI movement does not have these frames and schema and narratives ready yet, it is itself not quite ready yet. We have the “what” but not the “why” and “how”.