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.