David Gladstone on Transit planning in Ottawa

A couple of Tuesdays ago, I spoke with David Gladstone of Friends of the O-Train about transit in Ottawa. The interview began as a discussion about the city’s so-called transit “wishlist”, but quickly evolved into a broader discussion on mass-transit strategy in the city since the last election.

At one point, Mr. Gladstone speaks of a council committee meeting that he will be attending the next day. That meeting would turn out to be quite interesting, with a new light rail proposal emerging, something which at least on the surface seems to be more than the “back of the napkin” plans Gladstone decries in this interview.

Note: for those using google reader, the built-in player may make the file sound at an odd speed. You can download it, or subscribe to the itunes feed, which should sound fine.

Sigh. MMP.

This past weekend has been pretty exciting for possible blog topics: an overnight change of a bridge; Ottawa’s efforts to spend lots of money on transit while doing nothing; the cool community vibe of movies in a park; or perhaps even look forward to actually see Andrew Vincent play later in the month.

But yet I’m not drawn to any of these- each is almost like a real person might want to read something about any of these. Lord knows, I don’t blog about things that regular people are interested in. So, instead, I’m drawn to the only thing more boring than the Ontario Provincial election: the Ontario electoral referendum.

Democratic Space has been talking about this for the last sixth months or so, and Scott Tribe and Jason Cherniak have lately taken up the cause, as have my good friends Big Poppa Chu and Ryan Androsoff (who may yet, depending on the wisdom of the fine people in Saskatoon Northwest, be a case for MMP, ).

But I want to focus my attentions today on Jason’s last post, because I can.

Now, some starting points:

  1. I’m mostly ambivalent about the whole process, which doesn’t bode well for the referendum in general.
  2. As a process guy, I’ve never been a big fan of citizens assemblies for deciding how electoral systems should work: the public is terrible at picking a Canadian Idol, I don’t see why electoral systems are any easier. I also think the whole system is just a way for chickenshit politicians to look like they are doing something about electoral reform to satiate the public, while still allowing them not to have to pick a side. Savvy politics, perhaps, but terrible governance.
  3. I don’t have any burning problem with our current system, and think that too much of the debate revolves around people equivocating on the meaning of the word “democratic”. If someone is duly elected according to fair rules, then it is democratic. There is nothing undemocratic about the person with the most votes winning, nor with a system favouring regional representation to the exclusion of non-regional issues.
  4. This discussion shouldn’t be about which process we use, but what we want our electoral system to reflect, or how much we want it to reflect certain things. I can argue with you all I want about whether it is more appropriate to use email or the phone to start a conversation, but what is really important is what we actually talk about. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were actually talking about that?
  5. I really wish that the MMP opponents, or proponents, for that matter, would look to the example of perfectly reasonable countries that have had the system for decades. Germany has used it for years, has a coalition government at present, and Angela Merkel is less likely to face an election in the next year than Stephen Harper is. Conversely, Nova Scotia and its three-party, single member plurality legislature has done just fine over the past few years without a majority government. Minorities can be fine if people stop thinking that they are just one wicked press release away from a slam-dunk majority.

So, remembering that, what did Jason say in his most recent missive?

1) Any party that gets at least 3% of the vote would elect an MPP. That means that a party like the Christian Heritage Party would have no goal other than to earn 3% of the total vote. If they were to succeed, they would have an MPP elected. They don’t get that much right now, but with the knowledge that only 3% across the province earns a seat, I suspect that there would be more incentive to actually vote for them.

Federally, the BQ gets 10% of the vote and about 17% of the seats. That’s because right now, there is an incentive to form regionally focused parties, where there is value to vote for candidates because they are likely to be elected. I actually don’t have any particular problem with that. Now, the Christian Hertiage Party (who are kinda crazy, which I think is the reason why they were used rather then the generally more sane Green Party, which is also a better example) don’t have a regional concentration of support, but do have a broad based ideological support. There is nothing wrong with ideological-based parties getting support.
But better yet, what’s wrong with people getting elected if people vote for them? 3% of the vote is a heckuva lot for just a single seat, in any case.

2) With 5-10% of the vote, the Green Party would win its first seat in Canada. They would probably get somewhere between 6 and 13 elected politicians. However, since those politicians are unlikely to be elected in a riding, they would have no local responsibilities. They would only be accountable to the people who put together the Green Party list and there would be little incentive for them to worry about personal popularity. As long as the idea of the “Green Party” is popular with 5 – 10% of the population, they would probably continue to get elected as long as they want.

3) Parties that currently earn less MPPs than popular vote would be more represented. If the NDP were to win 15% of the vote and 7 ridings as they did in 2003, they would get their 7 local MPPs along with another 10-15 MPPs with no local responsibilities. (…)

Ahh, the green party. Someone in Jason’s comments point out that as party’s win elections, they are more likely to lost list seats, so there is an incentive to do lots of constituency work. He even has some research (“theories!”) to support it. Whatever: I don;t care if list MPs do no constituency work in the usual sense. There is likely good reason for NDP and Tory List MPPs to do so. For the greens, it is likely a better bet to do away with regional thinking and instead focus on interest groups: grow the notion that the party is important for the province, and that it is valuable member of a coalition government; indeed that is apparently exactly what happens in Germany. This makes a whole lot of sense, if you start thinking that in a lot of places, an MPP is less valuable for looking out for where you live than in what you stand for.
I could easily point out that nothing stops a party under the status quo of doing nothing but appointing candidates. While we accept it occasionally, I would suspect that a party would get a backlash from its membership if it did such a thing today. But that’s kind of laming out: It’s better to point out that this tradition of party driven candidate selection is pretty firmly entrenched in how we do politics in Canada, and I’d like to think that would be strong enough to carry over into any MMP system. Even if parties opt to just appoint the list themselves, if list MMPs do nothing but curry favour from the party elites, that’s an excellent reason to not vote for that party again. Ain’t democracy grand?

4) If you look at the 2003 election results, you will see that the official opposition got almost exactly the same percentage of seats as they did votes. However, if there had been much of a swing further away from the Tories, we could have ended up with a legislature of almost all Liberals even though the Tories might have had 25 – 30% of the vote overall. The one advantage of MMP, in my opinion, is the guarantee that there will always be a real opposition in the legislature. However, this has never been a problem in Ontario so I don’t see that theoretical concern as a reason to support MMP.

Listen, you can’t say that something almost happened, and then say it’s never been a problem. BC (admittedly only with 2 parties) didn’t have much of an opposition after the 2001 election. Also, pity the poor supporters of the NDP that might wish that there was a little more of there kind of opposition.

5) The party that wins in the ridings would probably get none of the proportional seats because they would already have more seats than they “deserve”. As a result, if the Liberals were to win an election under MMP, they would probably get a majority of the riding seats and few or no proportional seats. This would mean that the government would only have MPPs who do constituency work, while at least half of the opposition politicians would be able to spend all their time working at a provincial level. (…) Essentially, it would be a no-win situation where the opposition always has the advantage, no matter who is in government.

As mentioned before, it would make more sense for opposition list MPPs to try to build support for their party so they can win next time, and may even be the case that they would be people that had already run in a traditional seat. Moreover, what’s to stop MPPs or MPs from current “safe” seats from doing minimal constituency work and instead spreading the party gospel somewhere else? Isn’t that half the idea behind secondary tour during an election?

I do believe we need some electoral reform. The first time I went to a Young Liberal meeting in 1998, I voted in favour of a preferential ballot. That is a very simple process where we keep everything the same except that you list your local choices from first to last. The end result is that the person who wins is the person who is the most acceptable to a majority of the voters in the riding. It has the benefits that it is simple, maintains local representation and ensures that you can always vote for your preference without worrying that your second choice might be beaten by your third choice. It is also a small change that can be tried before we go further without any real knowledge of what will happen.

  1. Incremental change is kinda lazy. If we are going to do it, let’s do it whole hog, and not try to act like no one has ever tried this system before.
  2. List systems are no more likely to produce a condorcet winner than FPTP or MMP.
  3. It is no less simple than MMP.

I’m willing to be convinced either way on this. I’ve worked out west for a federal Liberal candidate that would have been an asset to the House of Commons and the country, yet was all but unelectable with a red lawn sign. I also like the idea that its possible to dramatically shake up government with just a small shift in the votes, rather than get more or less the same group of people over and over again. I also think that people that maintain a losing vote is “wasted” miss that democracy is about more than winning.

It’s Joe DiPenta Day!

There is something profoundly bittersweet about finding out that the Stanley Cup is parading through my old neighbourhood today. Cool, because someone that went to my High School (indeed, I had classes with his sister) is taking it through the external shooting locations of trailer park boys my old haunts, not cool because he played for fucking Anaheim.
Good on the local boy, and there is always next year.

The hurdles to accessibility in Post-Secondary Education

(This was a draft that has been sitting in queue for a while. Given that students are struggling to figure out how to pay for school as we speak, I figured it a fitting time to post it. )

I love this:

Given what we know about this issue, it’s pretty clear that the most important obstacle to increasing access to PSE is the Canadian Federation of Students.

(…)

The CFS ‘solution’ to these problems is to reduce tuition fees. But a significant portion of an increased tuition subsidy budget will go to those who are either from upper-income households (35% from the top quartile) or to the 40% of those who graduate without debt. (Clearly, there will be some overlap between these two groups). If the CFS was really concerned with these issues, then it would be campaigning for increased spending on grants and debt relief programs.

Now, I graduated from undergrad without debt, but know lot’s of people in different circumstances. It would be extremely selfish of me to receive benefit from a tuition reduction that could have been targeted at those that didn’t always know where their next box of KD was coming from.