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 26, 2009

MPs Background & Behavior

There have been two articles of note recently, the first deals with the background and quality of our MPs, the second with the behavior of them in the HoC or more particularly the exemption from prosecution for lying and making personal attacks on other members whilst in that house.

It seems to me that these things are connected, for if we had principled and honest politicians who engaged in debate about the proposed legislation and refrained from personal attacks and stuck to the facts then the debate about “parliamentary privilege” (or the ability to lie and defame in the house without repercussions) would be moot. We all know that this is not the case, it seems that the MPs who are appointed to cabinet or to an opposition portfolio are the ones that are prepared to ignore the facts and spew innuendo and lies in order to further their partisan point of view. The honest MP is relegated to the back benches, given few opportunities to speak and if (gasp) he or she should speak a truth that does not coincide with the party spin risks expulsion to the back corner to sit as an independent.

Jennifer over at Runesmith wonders if their background has a bearing on their behavior and decisions, she notes that in Ontario almost half our MPs come from a corporate background and goes on to say…..

“Corporations have their place I suppose, but here's the thing: you CANNOT run a government like a corporation. You just can't. You can sort of run it like a business because real businesses provide tangible goods and services, and frequently measure success by something other than pure profit.Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders. Period. They don't have to care about the people they employ or the communities they set up shop in or the products they produce, except to the extent that these considerations might impact their quarterly statement.Governments are in many ways the exact opposite of corporations because their primary purpose is to provide services and other tangible benefits to the public. They accomplish this using the taxpayers' own money and so are obligated not to waste it or spend it frivolously, but it's understood that any given government program or service is not necessarily going to be 'profitable'. Many are distinctly unprofitable and inefficient by corporate standards - but they are also carefully regulated and made accessible to all according to their need. The measure of their success is public benefit, not profit.”

I must agree but also wonder what would happen if these corporate types used the same methods and rhetoric in the board room exactly how long they would be there. The only reason that this childish behavior continues is because their are no repercussions, it has become acceptable for our politicians to attack the individual rather than debate the subject. Devlin Johnson has this to say….

”Perhaps the time has come to re-think Parliamentary privilege. Undoubtedly, it will survive in one form or another; after all, there is considerable evidence to suggest that it is an essential component of a free and open democracy. On the other hand, absolute privilege is an invitation to discourteous comments and unfounded accusations. I think that we are living in an age in which the risk of Members of Parliament being arrest for proposing legislation is low, while the risk of the Members of Parliament spreading vicious rumors about one another is high. To that end, perhaps it is time to ease up on Parliamentary privilege in order to make it more responsive to the needs and challenges of contemporary political reality.
Parliamentary privilege should be broad enough that it protects what is integral to democracy and accountability, but narrow enough that there is a disincentive to act like children.”

He has also included a little history of the way parliamentary privilege came to be, we inherited it from the British where they recently attempted to change the rules without success……

“There was plenty of criticism of an early proposal which would have allowed MPs' words in the Commons - now protected by Parliamentary privilege - to have been used against them in court. As worded, the original bill said "no enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court" should stop "any evidence from being admissible in proceedings" against MPs accused of breaking rules. It was not just MPs who had their doubts. The most senior official in the Commons, Malcolm Jack, warned it could have a "chilling effect" on MPs' freedom of speech. The government stuck with it but were defeated when more than 20 Labour MPs rebelled to vote against it “

Seems to me that we need both a better class of MP, and I don’t mean more lawyers and teachers but honest and principled individuals, AND better rules to ensure real consequences for those who would use lies and personal attacks to sidestep real debate. The first is, in part, up to us at the voting booth, the second requires a majority of MPs to want such a change. I am not holding my breath for either to happen any time soon. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Preferential Ballots

I spotted this post from Jeffery Nichols on the Green Party blog site a while back, upon reflection I think he may well have a point. It seems that voters are not ready for a fundamental change and perhaps those of us who recognize that we must move towards more “democratic” systems and wrest some of the power away from the political party and their quest for absolute control must modify our proposals. This proposal would seem to be a modest step in the right direction and perhaps less challenging to those who would protect the status quo.

I have republished Jefferys post in full here for your consideration, let us know what you think, is this a good idea?

In light of the fourth failed referendum on electoral reform in Canada; I suggest that we set our sights a bit lower. While I still think that STV would be an excellent system for Canada, the Canadian public has made it clear that they do not want this kind of large-scale reform now. Rather than blaming the results on misinformation or any other excuses, I think it would be in the best interests of the party to take the banner of a less ambitious reform.My suggestion is a preferential ballots system, otherwise known as alternative vote and instant-runoff voting. In this system we would keep the same single-member electoral districts but would allow voters to rank their choices. The candidate with the fewest votes would be dropped from the ballot until one candidate had at least 50% of the vote in that district. Many people will be familiar with this system as it is used to elect the leaders of most parties.While this system does not have the proportional element that most advocates of electoral reform want, it has several advantages over first-past-the-post:

1. It eliminates the need for strategic voting, letting voters express their true preference. It would no longer be necessary for a supporter of a small party to vote for one of the big two because their favoured party has little chance of winning the riding. They could give their first choice vote to their party they truly like, while giving their second, back-up vote, to a party more likely to win.

2. It eliminates vote-splitting, meaning that a candidate liked by 40% of the candidates and hated by 60% will not take the seat by default because those 60% were split 30-30 between two parties.
3. It keeps all of the full regional representation that people like about the current system.

4. It is easy to understand and does not require the as much math knowlege as STV.

5. It makes campaigns friendlier. It's hard to win on a first ballot, so parties will try to win the second-choice votes of their opponents' supporters. This means that they are more polite to those opponents so that they do not alienate potential second-choice supporters.

6. Friendlier campaigns encourage more diverse and better candidates. Any smart person who does not want to be a part of the mudslinging of current campaigns will be more likely to run for office under a friendlier system. This often includes underrepresented groups like immigrants and women.

I know that strong supporters of electoral reform will balk at a non-proportional system, but a proportional ballot system has a much better chance of passing than the STV or mixed-member systems that voters have repeatedly rejected. Making the small but significant change to preferential ballots could be done quickly, with little structural reform, and with the support of the public. It would be an excellent first step to a more representative government.

A little more about Preferential Ballots or Instant Runoff voting may be found here. As with all such proposals the devil is in the details as various systems and methodology exist and could be adopted.

Update - You will find an alternative point of view from Fair Vote Canada here. T/H to Wilf Day for the link. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Questions, Questions

What’s with the other partys all ganging up on the government” was the question I was asked recently in a conversation with a young married man about Canadian Politics. He was of course referring to the foiled attempt to form a coalition government late last year. In the ensuing (rather one sided!) conversation in which I attempted to explain how it came about and how the government prorogued parliament to avoid a vote of confidence I was asked “what’s a vote of confidence?” and “prorogued?”

Now this young man is not some uncaring self-centered youth but an intelligent family man but I was struck as to how little he knew about our parliamentary system and how the partisan political messages had coloured his understanding of what he did know. It reinforced my belief that it will be all but impossible to bring about positive change to either the parliamentary rules and traditions or our electoral system until the general public and voters fully understand the current systems. I must mention here that even at twice his age I was equally uninformed, it is only recently some years beyond that I have become more politically aware, I like most others was simply to busy with “life” to spend the time to find out these things. I am in awe of the many (much younger than I) bloggers who have jobs, families and other interests but still manage to keep up (some on a daily basis) with all the political machinations, they are in my opinion, one of the few lights at the end of the tunnel, for knowledge is the key.

Given the above it seems that we must insist that Canadian Politics and Parliamentary Systems is a mandatory subject in our high schools and not just a fleeting subject mentioned in passing. Once out in the work force with a family to support and life to get on with few of us will take the time to really understand these things. The sound bites that we may catch on the nightly news simply confuse the issue when one does not know the basics and cannot separate truth from “spin”.

The other thing that struck me during this conversation was the difficulty I had in saying THIS is the way it works. I was able to say “this is the way I think it should work”. I was able to say “this is the way it appears our government thinks it should work”. I was even able to say “this is the way it has traditionally worked”. But I was unable in most cases to say defiantly “this is what the rules say and how it works irregardless of the party in power and here are the repercussions if that does not happen”. As I have said before on these pages and as several scholars have pointed out, much of our parliamentary system has evolved over the years since inherited from the British Parliamentary system, which in itself is an archaic institution replete with tradition, little of which has actually been either written down or brought into law. Few if any solid guide lines exist, we rely upon our parliamentarians to follow the tradition of open debate, our government to follow their whishes, our MPs to follow our wishes and all of them to keep us informed of their decisions. We know that at times none of this happens and there are no penalties other than possibly being voted out when next we get a chance to do so (often with a generous pension ).

So even if we do educate our youth about our governance what do we tell them? How to you say THIS is how it works when even constitutional experts cannot all agree, when each political party bend what few rules there are this way or that to suit their purposes, when much is “tradition” that can be changed at a whim without even being voted upon by our representatives in the HoC?

I know that despite all my research for this blog I remain confused on many aspects of parliamentary procedures and the powers of the government of the day, no wonder my friend was also confused, how could he not be? Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Assets & Liabilities for June 2009

A monthly look at the Democratic balance sheet…..

Asset: President Obama for his statement
“[There is one] single standard for all who hold power:
* you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion;
* you must respect the rights of minorities,
* and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise;
* you must place the interests of your people ... above your party.
Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Barack Hussein Obama, June 4, 2009

Liability: The Government of Canada in appealing a federal court order to seek the repatriation of Omar Khadr and its statement that…

“….there is no principle in international law compelling officials to provide diplomatic protection or consular service to nationals abroad, let alone seek their return to Canada.”

Asset: Manitoba's longest-serving Conservative MP Inky Mark for his statement upon announcing that he will not run again in the next election.

"There is no check and balance. The tone of the country is based on the leadership of the political parties. The way the leaders operate sets the mood of the politics in Parliament. And until we establish some checks and balances in the system so that people actually do have a say in the House, there really [are] free votes and that people can really represent the people who send them to Ottawa, nothing will...

Liability: All MPs who were involved in the secret deal to change the rules on reporting benefits received from political parties…

“Members of Parliament have exempted the cash and benefits they receive from political parties and riding associations from restrictions and public disclosure under the House of Commons conflict-of-interest code. The move was unanimously approved without a vote in the Commons after committee hearings conducted entirely in secret.”

Asset: James Travers of the Star for his remarks about our access to information in his series of articles on democracy in Canada.

“Quill pens are still the rage here. Putting official Ottawa online would free information logjams and provide the openness party leaders promise and forget the second they arrive here. Of course that would spike systemic secrecy and, holy smokes, give politicians awkward moments. It's so easy a fix you can only speculate why it hasn't happened. “

A bit thin again this month as I have been busy with other things so feel free to add to the list. As always your contributions and opinions are welcome. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers