Submission on Voting Reform

Here is what I sent in to the Electoral Reform committee. I think it is worth a read and I hope they actually read it. I actually sent it in  about ten o’clock on Friday.  That was actually the date for verbal submissions but I see no need to do that.

11:59 Special. Read this Paper! Voting reform must be understood in the context of democratic evolution

Here is my submission regarding voting reform. My name is Tim Rourke. I live in Toronto and come originally for Alberta. I have a degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto. I live on a disability pension and have for most of my life. This gives me some time to be involved in voting reform organizing, and with democratic reform more generally.

I worked with Fair Vote Canada for some years. I attended most sessions of the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly as an observer. I have been involved with the much studied participatory budgeting process within the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the city’s social housing arm. It seems to me that voting reform in Canada must be understood within the context of the long process of developing and deepening democracy all over the world.


I think most of the problem with Canada is with obsolete institutions which have never been updated since colonial times. Fixing the voting system would be only a first step to a more thorough overhaul of government. Moving to a more consensual legislature like most other advanced countries did long ago would make it easier to begin reforming other aspects of government. It will be harder for interest groups who simply do not like democracy to obstruct public initiatives.

As a democracy deepens it goes from a representational model to a deliberative one. That is, one that is both direct and participatory; in which the public participates in discussing and forming policy and then votes on measures directly. There is also the concept of a delegative democracy, whereby local assemblies in which everyone participates select delegates, not representatives, to higher ones, which might then choose delegates to yet higher ones. As opposed to a representative, a delegate is directly responsible to the body which points her and serves at its pleasure. This eliminates most of the problems with electoral and partisan politics.

A delegative system is found in a few places where the public really got a chance to set up their own system; it seems instinctive to people. In places where democracy is well advanced, referenda and various forms of public consultation are commonly used. There is a science to conducting proper referenda and they are hard to do where strong party politics and privately controlled media try to manage public perceptions.


There are many forms of citizen consultation, some genuine. and some bogus. They are called Citizen’s Assemblies, Citizen’s Juries, Planning Circles, Participatory. Budgeting, etc. The basic idea is to choose some level headed people by a random process and let them listen to experts on a matter, debate among themselves, usually with the help of a professional facilitator, and reach a decision. It may be an allocation of limited budget resources, the formulation of a referendum question, or a decision on an administrative matter.

There is no really good process of deciding the voting reform issue that would not involve some form of participatory democracy. A referendum question would need to be formulated by some form of Citizen’s Assembly. Parliament just deciding on its own would smell of a conflict of interest. The result would lack validity and thus be open to being undone by the next parliament. It has been wisely said that the voting system belongs to the people, not to the parliament. Thus it needs to be legitimized by some consultative process which is seen as valid and fair.

Among the problems we are facing with this voting reform process is that Canada does not have much experience at real democracy. We do not know how to go about things like referenda and Citizen’s Assemblies. We have also got ourselves stuck in this severe time constraint. It seems to be that the way out of this would be to do the best public consultation possible given these limitations, come out with the best solution within the constraints, and go with it. But, mandate a consultation and referendum on it after two elections.

However, it should be possible to do a decent Citizen’s Assembly within the time frame, about a year. We do have some experience at it, in Ontario and B.C. In both cases, they were done rather well but partisan politics deliberately sabotaged them at the end. The objections raised to a CA, that it would be hugely expensive, or that there is no way to select or manage such a large group of people, are not serious. All these problems could be overcome within the time needed with a bit of common sense and a willingness of politicians to give it a chance to work.

And of course, a CA would cost some money. If it is expensive, then expensive compared to what exactly? Democracy is always too expensive for people who do not really accept democracy.

Senator Axworthy has proposed a CA. The electoral reform committee has heard from Professor Thomson, who very ably led the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly. I attended most sessions of the Ontario CA as an observer and was impressed by it. Below are my own thoughts about how a federal CA could work.


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 all that hard. The problem would be in getting 100 people who can commit for two 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, put up in hotels and flown back sunday evening.

A better solution might be to bring them to Ottawa for a solid month and pay them their usual incomes while they are there. Then you bring the usual experts to them. If the logistics of shipping them around the country is too much the public consultations could be done by teleconference. You then 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. There will have to be the will to face down the yowling of the conservative party. The other parties must agree to pass whatever the assembly comes up with, and abide by it.

Urban-rural model

To conclude, as to the type of voting reform I would like to see, I am impressed by the model developed by the former Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, J.P. Kingsley. It seems to me to be the best compromise between the realities of Canada and the needs for a collaborative legislature.

Some will complain that it is not fully proportional. There is no way to have enough “overhang” or compensational seats given the set number of seats each province can have. But the idea of strict proportionality comes from the “Mathematicians” who have controlled Fair Vote Canada in Past.

What is really important in voting reform is to have multi member constituencies. Single member constituencies are very undemocratic and are what is really wrong with our present system. One person cannot “represent” an entire district; that is absurd. Multimember districts create some competition between representatives which reduces opportunity for abuse and corruption. It gives many more people a representative whom they actually voted for.

Finally, it seems to me that the process of voting reform is itself a learning process. Canada is not really very democratic. Its institutions are frozen in the colonial age. We are starting to run up against this inability to manage reform, and in a grievous way. In learning how to fix the voting system, we create the knowledge by which further citizen driven reforms become possible, including ones which require constitutional amendment.

It is said that the most dangerous idea to democracy is that we already have one. Let us go on with establishing and developing our democracy in Canada.

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”.


About the BICN congress in Winnipeg; setting the scene

red river

It is now a week since I got back from Windypeg from the NABIG conference. It is about time I got busy writing about it and preparing some followup. I have already scheduled a meeting at Ralph Thornton on June 5 to deliver a talk on the event.

bitch, bitch, bitch

There is an awful lot to write about. I filled up a notebook with it and there were so many sessions I missed. I would like to have gone to them all but we had split sessions. There were so many people with presentations of one kind or another that we would have to have either excluded many of them or had an unmanageably long conference.

Four days is getting to be too much. Even the 2014 congress, with people from all over the world, was only three days. Jurgen, who organized that one, had some criticisms of this one. He suggested not starting at 8 am in the morning, in respect of us who “do not have roosters in our ancestry”.

The venue was much criticized. They always hold these events on university campuses, McGill in Montreal and U of T in Toronto in 2012. These two were sidewalk universities downtown. There are plenty of cheap food and accommodations options. They are accessible to transportation hubs.

The University of Manitoba is way out in the south of the city in a bend of the good old Red River. It took an hour and a half to get there by Winnipeg transit from the airport. There was a total lack of food options after hours and on the weekends. Even during business hours, all we had was the food court at the student center.

They had to pull some money from a reserve fund and bring us in some donuts on Saturday and Sunday morning. At least we got some chow at lunch, unlike the Montreal event where I had to resort to the Subways© next door.

The weather was not great. I hear it was not so good in Toronto while I was gone, either. But we had some snow and we learned why they call it Windypeg. Yet they told us that it had been quite toasty in the Peg until we showed up.

Unlike U of Toronto, which goes all year round, U of Manitoba seems to partly shut down in the summer. The campus was a somber place and we had to hike all the way across it from the dorms they put us it. The geese seemed to rule there and we had to watch out for the goose shit.

The interior climate was not great, either. This was held in the Law faculty building, which seems to have the kind of heating/air conditioning system which does not adjust well to changes in weather. It got hot and humid in the lecture halls. We had conflicts between those who wanted to prop the doors open to get some air, and who did not want the noise from the hallways. “Air! Air!”

what I did there

I did my own presentation, on what needs to be done to get a serious movement going for a BI in Canada. I said several things that I knew would be controversial to many people, but my shtick was well received.

A bit later I suggested that it was not a good idea to try to sell Basic Income as a way to get people to accept “climate change” measures. I suggested that the premise of climate change was not as universally accepted as many “left” oriented people seem to think, even among left/progressive people, and there is no reason to offend these people while promoting the BI. For that reason, I said, I wanted people to get my point and not make me have to get into a refutation of “climate change”.

So I did not get lynched by any climate fanatics. Later a few people came up and agreed with me not just about not getting into needless arguments, but about climate change being a hooey!

Another suggestion for holding the next one of these was more time for people to talk and circulate. A lot of information exchange, not to mention real organizing, got done out in the hallway.

This is how I finally managed to run into a few people from the Toronto area who have been working on BI as well. Maybe now we can all get together and get something to happen at home. There are active groups in Waterloo, Hamilton, and Kingston. But big T.O. is a big dead zone for BI activities. So is Ottawa, it seems.

Another example of snack table organizing is when I cornered Senator Art Eggleton. I originally wanted to chide him about his refusal to come to an event I wanted to get going. He had written back snarking that we should stop talking to the believers and start organizing.

I suggested that before organizing anything we had to actually get some people together, and an event with a ‘big name’ in Basic Income circles, like Eggie, could do that. Or Evelyn Forget, by the way, but she has now moved back to Winnipeg. She said she did not like the house prices in Toronto.

But Jurgen walked by. I got another idea. “Hello Jurg. Come here and meet Art Eggleton. He’s a senator. Isn’t that cool?”

“Well, Senator sir, this is Jurgen De Wispaleare. He is originally from Belgium. He is on the board of BICN. He’s got a job designing the Finnish BI pilot project.”

Sure enough, they got talking and I faded out, mightily pleased with myself. I knew what Jurgen would tell him about setting up pilot projects.

the fun parts

One worthwhile feature of the congress was that we all got a bus trip to the Winnipeg Aboriginal Community Center for a lecture on the problems of discrimination against aboriginals, poverty on reserves, and BI as a possible solution to some of this. The Crees, Ojibways, Ojicrees, Lakotas, Ashinabes and etc., so they claim, all had a form of Basic Income before white people came along and messed their world up so thoroughly.

We got some demonstrations of aboriginal arts and culture. I was impressed by the dance school. As with most folk forms of dance, there is more to it that just hopping around. The hoop dances especially require some impressive coordination. As for those who think aboriginal drumming and singing all sounds the same, they do not listen closely.

On the last day, we got invited to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which happens to be in Winnipeg. Oh, yes, everybody is talking about BI now as primarily a human rights issue. I decided I was getting short of money anyway and I did not want to risk missing my flight.

I might rather have gone because Sheila Regehr was effusive about her visit to the human rights center when I chatted her a bit at the airport departures salon. I ended up spending a lot of time there because I booked a late flight, worried about the precedent from Montreal, when the final meeting went way over time.

the inadequacy of BICN

And once again, the thing which impressed me the least about the event was the business meeting, the Annual General Meeting, at the end. A few of the attendees I ended up sitting with at the departures lounge agreed with me. The meeting was “technically inadequate”.

I know what the real problem is. Within the BICN movement, nationally and internationally, there is a strong substrate of people with a “left Libertarian” mentality. In addition, you have a kind of founder effect similar to what I saw with Fair Vote Canada.

The executive committee is dominated by people who do not want any kind of formal structure. They also tend to be academics. They want only a metaphysical debate on whether various modes of BI violate Rawlesian equality theories. They are focussed totally on these congresses every two years, so they can read their papers at each other.

Many activist types of BI people are getting fed up with this and are demanding some structure and transparency. They did not get it. About all that happened was the new board for the next two years was announced. It was not even explained how they were elected. This is even worse than the early Fair Vote Canada of even the TCHC representative council.

In the limited chances I got to talk with Shiela Regehr and Jenna Van Drannen, they seem frustrated by this. These two do most of the real work of the organization as chair and secretary and get a small stipend. I joked with Sheila about being in the army of Oz; twenty generals and one private. She chuckled and admitted to being much overworked.

Sheila and Jenna are trying to develop this advisory council of people involved with local organizing to act as some kind of alternative or auxiliary to the executive council. I indicated I want to be part of this council. I sent in the form. Jenna says she never got it and was dismayed.

possible solutions

At least they have more or less the right idea about reforming BICN from within. That is, to use the old FVC model, which finally moved the ivory tower faction out of the way, at least a bit. They hated the idea of local organizations but these developed anyway and eventually forced FVC to open up. The message was, “come on, if we are going to promote democratic reform we have to be open and democratic ourselves.”

I think there is plenty of time to build up a nation wide network of BI/GLI groups and develop a clear idea of what we are really after. Right now there is excitement about BI but people are not really understanding it. Local governments are adopting it so as not to have to talk about minimum wages. Ontario is talking about a pilot in order to freeze anti poverty discussion.

I notice that there are cycles of about 15 years in guaranteed income interest. This interest always fades away because there is no effective organization from below to create real push for it. As a famous sociologist said, there has never been a social advance without a social movement to bring it about.

We need a strong organization, and what we have now are left libertarian types who are opposed to any kind of structure. This is what anarchism and libertarianism are really about; keeping it secret about who is really in control and what they think is best for everybody.

So, this is what the job is; building a powerful movement. In fact, building a new political party. This is going to take a long struggle because the biggest talkers about an income guarantee do not want this; they are the big enemies of achieving an income guarantee.

In my subsequent bloggings about all the wind from Windypeg I will have much to say about the internal debates and conflicts around this.