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, January 30, 2011

For Richer or for Poorer

It seems that there are still some folks that cannot see the difference between taxpayer funding of political partys by a per vote subsidy and taxpayer funding by tax credits for individual donation, and the The Jurist had a great breakdown of the numbers last week
Apart from the fact that the former amounts to a relatively minuscule amount and the latter exceeds that by a considerable factor, the former is spread across partys by the number of votes the get and the latter, whilst 25% is directly from the supporter, is largely (75%) paid for by us all but directed by the greatest amount of donation, there is another difference.

It is this. If a partys platform appeals to the typical working man, low income families, the less fortunate in our society, those desperately seeking work in order to support themselves and their families, and each of those supporters makes a modest donation commensurate with their ability to do so, it will differ considerably from those who do so from a stronger financial position both in the ability to find the funds and the cost to the taxpayer..

If 10,000 folks in the $20,000 income bracket scrape together a donation each of say $50 the party of their choice will get 500,000. Interestingly most of this will come directly from the individuals and in most cases they will receive LITTLE OR NO tax relief as it is improbable that the extra tax credits (minimal as they will be for that small donation) will alter their tax position.

If 10,000 folks in the $100,000 income bracket make a similar donation (percentage wise based upon income) their $250 donation (an amount much easer to come by than the $50 for the less fortunate) will raise 2.5 million and given their tax bracket it is a given that the full 75% tax rebate will be taken, so that around 1.8 million will come from general tax revenue and just 25% from the individuals.

It can be clearly seen that those partys with a platform supporting those with a more affluent lifestyle and failing to support the less affluent in out society have a real advantage when it comes to fundraising and taxpayer support. Which is, I submit, why one particular party is once again trying to skew the funding model even further in their direction.

It is this same mind set, I believe, that has led to the childish, immature and anti-democratic spate of TV ad's emerging from the Harper regime. Simply put if they can push reasonable and clear thinking Canadians to the point where their view of our political system leads then to disconnect, walk away in disgust, fail to support any party and not vote, then all that leaves is the rabid right, the extreme left, the nut bars and the easily led who believe all the spin. And thusly will King Harper come to get his One Party dictatorship, not by democratic means but by default!

Many have said that the next federal election will be a turning point for Canada, there is little doubt that this is true. The question is will it mark a return to a more democratic and inclusive government or a further decent into a more anti-democratic and exclusive autocracy. Its your choice Canadians, stand ready to make it, but please do not do so based upon the lies and spin currently being aired on your television set.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Political Advertising and Funding.

With the recent round of 'advertising' by political partys and the character assassination contained in many of them one has to wonder what, if anything they have to do with our democratic process. When you add this out-of-election-period spate of 'advertising' with the recent statement from our ruling regime that they will once again seek to discontinue the per vote funding that gives opposition partys, large and small, a least a fighting chance of getting their message out to the voters and countering the resources available to whatever party is currently in power, then we must conclude damn little!

One must conclude that, at least so far as the ruling regime is concerned, its all about retaining power and demonising any that might challenge that, about untruths and innuendo being more effective than truth and information, about how money can buy or influence voting pasterns. At this point the opposition must be congratulated for not sinking to respond with personal attack ads but concentrating on policy however I wonder if this is going to now be the norm....... a constant year round barrage of political advertising by those partys that can afford to pay for such unnecessary and partisan posturing.

The opposition does have an excuse, they were after all 'attacked' plus it is their JOB to hold the government to account and to point out flaws in questionable legislation and spending. I do hope they continue to take the high road as things escalate as they no doubt will.

It would seem that this is all in preparation for yet another test of seeing who blinks first as the budget is presented, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May had this to say recently:-
A Prime Minister in a Minority government preparing a budget should be meeting with Opposition leaders. The Finance minister should be doing the rounds with opposition finance critics. Key stakeholders should be getting a lot of time for their proposals to fight the deficit, while continuing economic recovery and creating full-time, well-paying jobs.

But collaboration and olive branches are not in Mr. Harper’s repertoire. Attack ads clearly are.........
Clearly Mr. Harper is in no mood to make Parliament work. These ads are the Parliamentary equivalent of a declaration of war............. Attack ads are anti-democratic by definition.
It turns out they are also anti-Canadian. Thanks to Toronto Star journalist
Susan Delacourt’s blog "Ad standards" I read the plea from Advertising Standards Canada to political parties. “
With this all in mind perhaps any political advertisement should be required to show the following disclaimer during the entire length of the broadcast or at the bottom of every newspaper or on-line advertisement.
Political parties are exempt from “truth in advertising” requirements of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. “
It seems that not only can MPs get away with untruths and personal attacks in the HoC and be protected by 'parliamentary privileged' but the political partys can fabricate any kind of fiction for their advertising with no repercussions, at least so far as the broadcasting and advertising industry is concerned. Hardly news, but hardly the sort of thing you would expect in a 'democratic' country either.

We cannot leave this subject without pointing out one lie that is being recirculated in some of these ads, that being that a coalition government is somehow wrong, unconstitutional and a thing to be feared. I call BULLSHIT. I will not repeat here the many arguments that show it is both a legitimate form of governance or point to the many democracy's across the world that have (or have had) a coalition government, I will however say that I am disappointed that the opposition have so strongly rejected the notion that such a cooperative government is possible when we all know that if and when it become politically advantageous to do so they will rapidly change their tune and seek to form such an alliance.

Must we descend further into a what can only be called a majority dictatorship from our current minority dictatorship before our “representatives” and the citizens who elect them wake up a realize that democracy is far more precious than one particular ideology or another, and lies, spin and personal attacks have no part in such a system.
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Random Reading

Excerpts from articles I have recently read – no further comment required!

Elizabeth May - While Canadian political culture is not steeped in vitriol and hatred, the trend lines are not good.  We are allowing increased levels of incivility to creep into our culture.  Abuse, vilification of political opponents, is becoming increasingly commonplace.  The nastiness of anonymous postings on websites I mentioned in my last blog.  That new anti-social use of social media is a large part of the problem, but it is not the full extent of it.  Mainstream media is turning nastier.  Even before the Sun Media TV channel gets to the airwaves, its “star” players, people like Ezra Levant and Lorrie Goldstein, are bringing a level of rude, boorish behaviour to Canadian radio and TV.  Our political discourse has dramatically worsened in the last five years. The heckling and abuse in Question Period set such a low bar that citizens turn away in disgust.  Treating each other with respect is a foundational aspect of a decent society.  “To disagree without being disagreeable” has long been a Canadian way of discussing differences.  We are losing that. 

James Travers - Identity has long been a Canadian crisis. Living next door to an economic and cultural giant makes we-the-pygmies a little nervous and a lot self-conscious.
Understandable as that entrenched uncertainty is, it masks a more immediate challenge. If the 21st century is to belong to Canada in ways the 20th never quite did, Canadians must abandon the notion that they are merely clients of the state and assert their rights as owners of the country.
The difference between customer and proprietor is pivotal. Customers are content with the timely delivery of pleasing goods and services. Proprietors must safeguard the long-term stability, growth and competitiveness of the enterprise................
Citizens content to be clients can shrug away those concerns. Canadians who remember that they own the place can’t afford to be so complacent.

Gloria Galloway - The three independent federal watchdogs created by the Conservative government operate largely behind the closed doors of their own offices and, after one was exposed this fall for having done little in three years, critics are asking questions about the effectiveness of the other two.
The case of Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet, who investigated just seven of the 228 complaints from public-service whistleblowers she received during her tenure, left many in Parliament questioning how the problems in that office had gone unnoticed.................
Karen Shepherd, who was hired to ensure that politicians are not being unduly influenced by their well-connected friends, has never found anyone guilty of breaking the rules in the year and a half that she has been Commissioner of Lobbying.
And, in more than three years as Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson has discovered just one person, a Liberal MP, to have violated the Conflict of Interest Code. At the same time, she has absolved cabinet ministers, Conservative staff, a Conservative MP and the government itself of myriad alleged indiscretions.

The Canadian Press - A new study ranks Canada dead last in an international comparison of freedom-of-information laws — a hard fall after many years being judged a global model in openness. The study by a pair of British academics looked at the effectiveness of freedom-of-information laws in five parliamentary democracies: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Ms. Legault, whose office resolves complaints from requesters, said while the study has methodological shortcomings, just-published government statistics covering the 2009-2010 fiscal year nevertheless support the finding that the regime is broken.
“We can use our own data, and come to the conclusion that our system is in decline,” she said.
Only about 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests filed last year resulted in the full disclosure of information, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago, she noted. And delays in the release of records continue to grow, with just 56 per cent of requests completed in the legislated 30-day period last year, compared with almost 70 per cent at the start of the decade. Ms. Legault's office also suffers from a chronic lack of resources, creating backlogs, while the law does not give her the power to order the release of documents.
The Harper Conservatives first came to power in 2006 on an explicit promise to reform the Access to Information Act dramatically but have largely failed to deliver after five years in power.

Government of Canada - The Government of Canada currently makes a significant amount of open data available through various departmental websites. Fall 2010 will see the launch of a new portal to provide one-stop access to federal data sets by providing a “single-window” to government data. In addition to providing a common “front door” to government data, a searchable catalogue of available data, and one-touch data downloading, it will also encourage users to develop applications that re-use and combine government data to make it useful in new and unanticipated ways, creating new value for Canadians. Canada is also exploring the development of open data policies to regularise the publication of open data across government. The Government of Canada is also working on a strategy, with engagement and input from across the public service, developing short and longer-term strategies to fully incorporate Web 2.0 across the government.
In addition, Canada’s proactive disclosure initiatives represent an ongoing contribution to open and transparent government. These initiatives include the posting of travel and hospitality expenses, government contracts, and grants and contribution funding exceeding pre-set thresholds. Subsequent phases will involve the alignment of proactive disclosure activities with those of the Access to Information Act, which gives citizens the right to access information in federal government records.

Eaves.ca re the above - On the open data front, the bad is that the portal has not launched. We are now definitely passed the fall of 2010 and, as for whatever reason, there is no Canadian federal open data portal. This may mean that the policy (despite being announced publicly in the above document) is in peril or that it is simply delayed.......................
Possibly the heart stopping moment in this brief comes in the last paragraph where the government talks about posting travel and hospitality expenses. While these are often posted (such as here) they are almost never published in machine readable format and so have to be scrapped in order to be organized, mashed up or compared to other departments. Worse still, these files are scattered across literally hundreds of government websites and so are virtually impossible to track down. This guy has done just that, but of course now he has the data, it is more easily navigable but no more open then before. In addition, it takes him weeks (if not months) to do it, something the government could fix rather simply.
The government should be lauded for trying to make this information public. But if this is their notion of proactive disclosure and open data, then we are in for a bumpy, ugly ride.

Finally if you have not already seen it do read this lengthy summation of the atmosphere in Ottawa from the Toronto Star “Fear and loathing in Ottawa

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

MP's – Why are we here?

Recently Steve Paikin of TVO spoke to Allison Loat of Samara Canada about their second report based upon MP exit interviews titled Welcome to Parliament: A Job With No Description . The startling bit about this report is that the 65 former MPs interviewed, many of them having served for 10 years or more, could not even agree upon the basics of why they were there.

Following their first report, The Accidental Citizen?, this report documents the widely disparate and often conflicting views the MPs expressed as to the essential purpose of their role and what they felt they were elected to accomplish. They also acknowledged feeling unprepared for their roles as Parliamentarians, and said they received little or no formal training or orientation.

Here are some extracts from the report highlighting these troubling findings, remember these are based upon interviews with FORMER MPs and it seems highly probable that things have deteriorated in the period since these MPs first were elected.

Ultimately, our 308 Members of Parliament all hold the same essential position. Given this fact, we were surprised that the MPs lacked a shared understanding of the job’s key components, responsibilities and expectations. For example, two-thirds of MPs we interviewed spent at least a portion of their time in Ottawa on the opposition benches, so it came as a surprise that only a few mentioned holding a government accountable as part of their job.”

A similarly small number mentioned engaging the public in determining the policies that shape our country and communities. Even those MPs who defined their role as representing constituents were unlikely to talk of such engagement. This raises important questions about the relationship between Parliament and the citizenry, themes we will address in future reports.”

But, at the same time, most Parliamentarians we interviewed arrived in Ottawa with neither a concrete understanding of what they would be doing there, or how they could go about doing it. The MPs gave a wide variety of responses to questions regarding their role in the House of Commons. “

Furthermore, our group of MPs was given almost no orientation or training, and was forced to devise their own means of preparing for the job. Their prior experience was seldom considered when it came to their legislative and committee appointments. “

The orientation is terrible,” one MP declared. “You get there, they take you in the House, they give you a book [on] constituency rights and responsibilities, the former Speaker talks about being in the House, and that’s it. There’s no orientation. There is no training. There is nothing on how to be effective,” said another MP. “You learn by the seat of your pants,” admitted a third MP.

It is difficult to summarize the opinions of the former MPs on the above as they were so varied and contained few common threads, about the only thing they did agree on was the lack of orientation and how long it took to get up to speed, you will have to read the full report to get a clearer picture of what these views were. Suffice to say here that the view of their job ranged from representing the views of their constituents, their own views or their partys views; advocating for their local area or the country as a whole; proving assistance to their constituents or focusing upon life in Ottawa; communicating with those who elected them or having little regard to local views and many other far ranging diversity of opinion.

A small minority even said:-
"Collectively with colleagues, [an MP] must play a role as a watchdog of government activities, and ensure that the government [pursues] the public interests and spends money wisely." and “The House… as a place… to hold the government to account has to be rethought,”

The report sums it up like this :-

Together, our 65 MPs used an astonishing variety of terms and concepts to describe the very same position. This immense variation should give pause to anyone concerned with the political process.
We would hope that MPs should be in general agreement as to why they are in Ottawa and what they are supposed to be doing there. Furthermore, Canadians should have an understanding of what to expect from their elected representatives. As it stands, it is not clear that Parliamentarians have a shared conception of an MP’s job description, which likely makes it difficult for the electorate to have a clear view either.”

Several Constitutional experts have said that the rules of engagement in the HoC and other constitutional conventions need to be examined, clearly defined and written down, it would seem that the role and duties of those appointed to the House need to be similarly defined!
Samara is charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy. This project began when co-founders Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan learned that exit interviews, common in many organizations, had never been undertaken systematically in one of the most important workplaces in our country—our federal Parliament.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Coalition a reality?

With the possibility of an election once again (still?) in the news it was good to see that Gov. Gen. David Johnston has been busy brushing up on constitutional governments in case he is called upon to navigate a choppy political crisis. That he has said that he sees nothing wrong or illegitimate with coalition governments and recognizes that “any governor general who has that role in a constitutional system like ours, from time to time will be confronted with questions where there is an element of discretion,” is encouraging. Would that the attitude of our official opposition was equally encouraging.

As one observer said in a reply to Scott's postAdd the GG’s remarks to the fact that Harper and crew seem quite unfazed by the installation of a coalition government in Merrie Olde Englande. I think the fractious nature of recent Parliamentary discourse (QP) could make the idea of a cooperative coalition quite attractive to many Canadians. A dedicated educational approach by would-be coalition partners would be beneficial, too.
The big problem is that Ignatieff has been unequivocal in his rejection of a coalition. He’s played right into Harper’s framing of a coalition as illegitimate and painted himself into a corner.

That sums it up very nicely, not 5 minutes after the last attempt to form a coalition fell apart the leaders resumed attacking each other and have, by their continued and ongoing rhetoric of trying to frame their individual partys as the ONLY choice, doomed us to yet more “dysfunctional” parliamentary shaninikins. The reality is that WHENEVER the next election take place it is highly improbable that any party will get a majority, unless perhaps some of the conservatives dirty washing that they have been so desperately trying to hide sees more light of day, .... AND the electorate takes any notice of such revelations. But then the alternative choices for our citizens are rather hard to select, does one choose the NDP or Greens in a effort to have some alternate views in the House or select the Conservative Lite also known as the Liberal party, either way a minority is probable.

Unless you are a manipulating control freak with little or no regard for parliamentary convention and rules, and apparently some 30% of our citizens are quite happy with such running the country, a functional minority government requires a degree formal agreement of cooperation between two or more partys...... its called a coalition folks. That the scare tactics of the Harper regime have not only convinced so many of our citizens that such cooperation is untenable and 'unconstitutional' but that the official opposition is reinforcing this belief with their anti-coalition rhetoric is clear indication of how these politicians put themselves and their party before us and our country.

Another observer highlights the direction that things are going in with this observation:-
In terms of the last 40 years, our Parliament is sitting a lot less and doing a lot less,” says Queen’s University political scientist Ned Franks.
Franks says governments have compensated for prolonged parliamentary timeouts by increasingly cramming all manner of unrelated legislation into massive omnibus bills, which allow for little individual scrutiny of the various measures. They’ve also resorted more frequently to passing general enabling legislation, giving the government broad discretion to act in future without going back to Parliament for approval.
The upshot is that the government evades scrutiny and Canadians are left in the dark about what their federal politicians are up to..................
This doesn’t necessarily mean the Harper government is legislating less. Franks said the government pushed about half of a normal year’s legislation through in a single bill — this year’s massive budget implementation bill that included varied measures dealing with all manner of subjects from environmental assessments to the post office to the future of Canada’s atomic energy industry. “

Its clear that NONE of the large political partys can be trusted to run things on their own and that only a wide range of ideas and views in the HoC will produce a balanced and generally acceptable outcome. That is how parliament is suppose to work but with the precedent set by the current minority government I doubt that parliament (or the senate) will ever be the same again, I morn for our democracy and hope that a coalition FORCED upon the politicians by the voters choice will smarten them all up.

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