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, March 25, 2012

Electoral and Parliamentary Reform (part 5)

The Senate

There are generally three views on Senate reform “First, keep our current system. Second, elect our Senators, and realign where Senators come from in the country (equal representation). Third, simply abolish it.” I will add a forth which falls between that previously proposed by the Conservatives and that which at least one province has tried to initiate, that being appointed by the PM from a short list provided by the provinces. I will briefly cover each of these options most of which I have covered extensively in these pages some time ago.

The current system has two major flaws, the lifetime appointment (now resolved?) and the propensity of Prime Ministers in power to make partisan appointments that detract from the 'independence' and objectivity pf the second chamber. One of my correspondents recently had this to say “Out here, we in Western Canada, especially in my home province of Alberta, have been wanting electoral reform for decades. What we'd especially like is to reform the Senate, although the reforms Stephen Harper is proposing are so poorly conceived that most Western academics have been giving them the thumbs down.”
In 2006 the Conservative government introduced legislation to limit the terms of Senators to eight years. They also committed to introducing legislation that would require non-binding elections for new Senators. The Prime Minister would then use his/her discretionary powers to appoint the winners of those elections to the Senate. The latter has obviously not happened and Mr Harper has in fact increased the partisan nature of appointees exponentially.

The second option, an elected senate sounds good at first glance but not only would this require constitutional reform and a mechanism to hold such elections but would invariably lead to a similar mix of political affiliation to that of an elected House of Commons, it is the difference between these two bodies (if and when it exists) that enables the debate and 'sober second thought' that makes the Senate such an essential check upon power hungry and authoritative majority governments. As Senator McCoy said in a guest post here some time ago an independent, appointed Senate could (ironically enough) be Canada's last best hope for democracy. For now, I'll leave you to mull that over … but consider this: if what we need is a group dedicated to public service who can speak truth to power, then we'd best find a way to insulate them from the pernicious influence of rapacious power seekers. A Senate appointed by some means other than the PM would fit the bill quite nicely.”

Another observer said:-
If candidates for the Senate are aligned to our existing political parties, they will be dependent on those parties for financial and moral support to be nominated, elected and re-elected once their term is up. If they vote on a bill, contrary to their party’s vote in the House of Commons, they risk being ejected from that party and losing all support needed for re-election. We've seen how ruthless the last few PM's have been when a member votes his or her conscience. If you’re not careful, what you end up with is just doubling the number of sitting MP’s/Senators who are under strict control of one Party leader. They just sit in two buildings.”
If that indeed were the case, as it seems to be in its present form, then we may as well abolish the Senate. However that would leave any majority government, no matter what affiliation, with totality unrestricted power to do whatever they please without ANY second look at legislation. Given that even those MPs presenting the bills, let alone all those who must vote upon then, have recently revealed that they have little idea of the details contained therein this is hardly a positive thing.

That brings me to the last possibility where I will simply re-post my proposal from two years ago:-

That as and when a senate seat become vacant the appropriate provincial legislature shall by majority vote nominate a candidate for consideration to the Prime Minister of Canada who shall in turn recommend this candidate to The Governor General of Canada for consideration as a Canadian Senator. Should the Prime Minister not accept the Provincial recommendation he shall give full and good reason for his rejection, the House of Commons shall be given the opportunity to debate the candidates qualifications and the Provincial Legislature shall be given the opportunity to publicly defend and support their choice and / or select an alternate candidate.

I offer the following observations in support of this proposal.
1) It avoids the expense and difficulty of requiring a public election each time a senator retires, and the electing of senators during a federal or provincial election which would be even more partisan..
2) It avoids the politicization of a public election campaign and would reflect a variety of political views as represented by the various legislatures involved.
3) It removes as far as possible the partisan choices of the PM of the day from the mix.
4) It ensures that the senators elected are in fact representative of the provinces which they represent and not beholden to the PM of the day or his party.
5) It does not require constitutional change but just an agreement from the Provinces, parliament and the PM (that’s the tough one) to proceed in this manner.
6) A rejection of a candidate as proposed shall be given the full light of day and debated in both the provincial and federal legislatures so that a PM cannot arbitrarily reject a candidate without at least some measure of accountability.
I note that in almost all of previous proposals some form of having all or some of the senators either elected or recommended at the provincial level was included, however non of the proposals was ever adopted perhaps because of other more contentious issues also proposed at the same time. The problem is of course, that any decisions to make the Senate less partisan and more effective must be made by highly partisan MPs, MPP,s and indeed by the senators themselves.

I will leave you with this from Liberal Senator Joseph Day who appeared on Power & Politics , and gave probably the best explanation for the Senate and its role in recent memory:

The House of Commons is a house of politics, and they balance things on politics. They look at all the matters that are before them, what they want to get out, what they want to fight. We look at each piece of legislation, and we’re somewhere between the judiciary – the judges – and the political body, the House of Commons. We have a role to play that is quite different from the House of Commons, and we do our job and they do theirs. I don’t think anybody should think that we are just the other side of the coin of the House of Commons.
If the Senate is to fulfill this 'different role' and examine each piece of legislation with a critical and non partisan eye then we must indeed find a way of returning it to be a non political and independent body not beholden to the PM or any particular political party.

For a comprehensive review of senate reform proposals and constitutional issues surrounding them (and lots of other information on parliament, elections etc etc) see The Maple Leaf Web site
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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Electoral and Parliamentary Reform (part 4)

Parliamentary reform

There are basically three things that govern the procedures in the House of Commons, House Committees and the Senate - Parliamentary Tradition, the House Standing Orders and the current PMs willingness to recognize that the powers that he and cabinet have been trusted with are not a license to dictate governance by decree. The latter depends entirely upon whom we elect and as we have seen when using the current electoral system (not that an alternative system would necessarily change this aspect) can lead to a highly centralized and authoritative governance. Parliamentary Tradition is subject to much the same limitation, it depends upon the willingness of the participants to abide by those traditions for they are not written 'rules' and often are not even clearly understood. That leaves the Standing Orders which govern the way the actual business of the House is carried out, unfortunately said Orders as they now stand leave a great deal of room for abuse of the “traditions” of free and open debate should the government of the day (particularly a majority government) wish to limit debate in either the House or Committee, limit the public’s accessibility to such debate or otherwise short circuit the democratic process.

According to the House Standing Orders, MPs must examine the Commons rules each time a new Parliament begins between the 60th and 90th sitting day. Recently parliament debated this in the House and a number of MPs called for changes to better control the actions of highly partisan individuals during question period and in committee. As Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said during debate on Friday. “I ask myself sometimes, as I’m sure many Canadians do, why this place often seems to grind to a complete halt. Is it because of the rules, or is it brought about by an abuse of the rules? I don’t mean to sound cynical, but the hyper-partisan nature of this place in recent years makes me wonder sometimes what needs to be changed.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May went further and said the rules need to be reviewed and potentially changed in order to have a check on powerful prime ministers with no self restraint. 
“The health of democracy in really large ways has always depended on the prime minister … having self restraint, recognizing ‘I could prorogue Parliament to avoid a vote I’m going to lose but no one would do that because it would be wrong.’  When you have a Prime Minister who doesn’t care or respect the traditions and has no sense of self restraint in the exercise of power, then we have to as individual MPs figure out how to enforce some sort of checks and balances against a Prime Minister who behaves in unilateral and dictatorial ways.”

That sums it up quite well, things were moving along reasonably well whilst those in power 'respected the traditions' but the current rules are insufficient to reign in those that do not. We now have a number of MPs wishing to review and possibly change those rules but there are a few problems in that regard, not the least being that MPs are the ones that must propose and debate the rules that govern their own behavior and that a majority of MPs must agree to those changes in what is currently an institution dominated by one particular party who seem to have little regard for democratic process. It can also be seen that with a majority in both the House and Committee the Conservatives could force through changes that have not been fully debated or even some that actually reduce democratic practices. Add to that the fact that much of the checks and balances that usually place some limits upon is 'tradition' and not even clearly defined and most certainly not defined as 'rule of law' and it can be seen that this is not an easy fix. The need for and difficulty of instituting changes was previously discussed by many observers when Mr Harper prorogued parliament to avoid a vote of confidence in the House, at that time several constitutional scholars said that the hitherto unwritten customs and practices needed to be codified (written down, formalized).

This brings me to the next problem as I see it and that is the lack of clear penalties should the 'rules' be broken. As far as I can tell it is up to the speaker to decide if the rules have been broken, if the matter should be brought before the house for further action and then if fault be found to decide upon what action to be taken. Once again a case of more or less self policing of actions within the house, however when it comes to other matters such as the rules around proroguing for instance as we have seen not only is nobody clear what the rules are but there seem to be no penalties for abusing them other than public outrage and the possibility that voter will remember such things next time they vote. Hardly a very effective restraint as we have seen in the past, is it time for a committee of citizens constitutional scholars to be formed to consider such changes or is this a job for a Senate committee?

I believe we have already reached the breaking point, it remains to be seen how many MPs also see that and how many are willing to stand up and be counted as being in favor of limiting the ever increasing power of the PM and the ever increasing diminishment of our democracy.

NOTE - Please see my Elections Malfeasance page for updated links to some of the many news and blogs following the ongoing Robo-Scam revelations.
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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Electoral and Parliamentary Reform (part 3)

Electronic Voting

Last week I touched upon the subject of electronic voting as a means to increase the number of citizens who would participate in this important part of our democratic process and given that Elections Canada is 'studying' the possibilities will expand upon my thoughts on this. Given all the recent and ongoing allegations of malfeasance regarding poll locations during the last election perhaps we should consider electronic & telephone voting as a way to minimize this problem, or will that simply provide more opportunities for illegal activities?

As I have said before the single biggest hurdle in bringing such a system to fruition is designing a system that provides public confidence that the results are valid and that any software involved cannot be 'hacked'. Given the current revelations that the 2011 election was subject to at least some phone scams that discouraged or misinformed the electorate as to voting places or options this is singularly important. The use of telephone, internet and possibly paper ballots combined would at least eliminate any confusion as to where to vote. This was a major impediment in the last Ontario Provincial election where not only were many rural addresses incorrect on voter cards creating much confusion and the need to personally visit a 'revisions office', but the voting locations (and revisions offices) were often many kilometers away from the community where the voter lived, this may have lead to some irregularities taking place. This was blamed upon the lack of 'accessible' (to physically challenged persons) locations in rural areas, such considerations could obviously be eliminated with phone or internet voting. It is fairly obvious that a phone in system MUST be available for those without internet whilst an internet system SHOULD be available for those who prefer that option. Those without phone or internet could be provided with access to one or both at local library’s, schools, post offices or the like as no staff would be required to process the vote. I see little advantage to using electronic methods of counting or voting at fixed voting locations which really only speeds up the counting process with little or no other advantages.

Let us look at what would be required for such a system

Security :- Given that on line and telephone banking systems are reasonably secure (provided that the user protects their password from skimming or hacking) I see no major problems with this issue. Public confidence in such a system is however another issue entirely. It is not sufficient for such system to be secure, the public must be quite confident that it IS secure.

Identification :- The issuing of a one time pass code to each voter would help ensure that no one votes twice but it would be hard to verify that the person who was issued the code was in fact the person voting. Verification by name, SIN or some such would for the most part eliminate this problem but voters would then be concerned about the anonymity of their vote.

Verifiability :- Having voted how can the voter be sure their vote has been counted and in the case of alleged problems (with software, hardware or other counting issues) how can an independent recount be made? The first is fairly simple I would think in the issuing of a confirmation code which could later retrieve the voting record of that voter should they wish to do so. A recount is much more problematical if software malfeasance or crash is alleged, a total re vote would seem to be the only solution in such a case however in that folks would not necessary vote the same way a second time around this could be very controversial. It would however be much the same as a by-election and much easier and cheaper to implement than by current methods..

Stability :- Given that millions of voters would be trying to access any voting system, be it telephone or internet or both, over a relatively short period of time the capacity of such a system would have to be considerable, a crash would almost certainly invalidate the results. The use of multiple systems, say one for each riding, would no doubt help with this but the security of each system would have to be ensured and back up systems, both for power supply and software / hardware be readily available. There is also the possibility of being able cast your vote over a period of several days or even weeks as is currently possible via special and advanced polls.

Whilst some of these potential problems may be difficult to solve I do not think they are insurmountable, any system of electronic voting will not be perfect and may well be subject to misuse or abuse but then so is the current paper ballot system. All in all the ease of voting which should encourage more citizens to vote far outweighs IMHO any possible additional problems that mat arise provided that the four issues identified above are fully addressed.

One final note here, the practice of federal, provincial and municipal voting SYSTEMS being entirely designed and implemented by each separate entity is ridiculous. Yes, they should probably be administered by each level of government but if a federal electronic system is successfully implemented it should be readily available to ALL levels of government in the country. ONE system across the country for all elections, not wasted money on multiple different systems to further confuse and alienate voters. Perhaps even ONE comprehensive voter identification system would make sense, not that the various levels of government would ever cooperate to that extent, it might save too much taxpayers money!

Next week I will examine what reforms are needed and / or are possible in the House of Commons, meanwhile please note that my Election Malfeasance page has received numerous updates.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Electoral and Parliamentary Reform (part 2)

Electoral reform

All the electoral reform in the world, everybody getting out and voting, more partys represented in the mix, even a better quality of representative will not make one iota of difference if the current “if he said it, it must be wrong, If I say it, it must be right” confrontational, non co-operational, my job is to prove the other guys wrong attitude remains unchanged. We need a quantum change in attitude from both our representatives and the partys that they purport to represent (damit, they are supposed to be representing us!) before we can wrest what is left of our democratic processes out of the hand of the politicians and their corporate lobbyists and back into the hands of our citizens where it belongs.”

So said I some three years ago and this is reflected in the Conservatives report on Canadas Democratic Institutions way back in 2007 where those few who had a say in this 'National Survey' were much more concerned about what our Representative were doing than how they were elected. Little has change over those 3 years except perhaps the 'parliamentary dysfunction' has increased! I am increasingly leaning towards that view myself, whilst electoral reform MAY change the outcome of any election the question remains will it change in any way the partisan nature of our Parliament that is stifling free debate and producing flawed legislation.

Given my previous post whereby I opine that electoral reform is most unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future I am not going to spend a great deal of time laying out the various options, that are readily available on line for those who care to look. Suffice to say that is is not sufficient to say “I favor STV” or “I favor MMP” as each system has numerous variations that can make a considerable difference as to how they affect the resulting parliament. The question is why do we want electorial reform? For many of us it is because we do not like the results that we are getting under our current system, but whether that is a general dislike of the results as not being 'proportional' to the popular vote or more political, i.e. we don’t like the lot that got in via this method. We must be aware that just because we change the way we vote for our individual MP does not necessarily mean that the collective riding’s across the country choices will add up to reflect proportionality, only the MMP system takes that into account.

That said here is a very brief look at the major voting systems generally proposed and a couple of personal comments upon them. I note that such systems may have different names and slightly different features in different countries.

FPTP - First Past The Post
The status quo, simple winner takes all.
Not proportional, can lead to strange results when multiple candidates split the vote.

MMP – Mixed Member Proportional
Proportional, allows voting for MP and Party separately, ridings remain unchanged
Creates 'extra' MPs to produce proportionality, methods of selecting 'extras' complex and controversial.
This is the one that failed to get support in Ontario

STV – Single Transferable Vote
Somewhat proportional, many more individuals to choose from when voting.
Complex, hard to understand, multiple MPs for greatly enlarged riding’s
This is the system that failed to get enough support in BC

AV – Alternative Vote
Allows voters to indicate their 2nd and subsequent choices, no 'wasted' votes, simple, easily understood, ridings remain unchanged
Not truly proportional, however use of 2nd & 3rd choices make it more so.
This is the system proposed but not adopted Great Britain in 2011

Whilst I previously preferred MMP I now am leaning towards AV for a couple of reasons, firstly it is simple, easy to understand and gives some weight to a voters SECOND (and possibly 3rd) choice so that voters who do not get their first choice (and that will invariably be more than 50%) do get some satisfaction from their votes actually impacting the results. Whilst not truly proportional this use of second and third choice is perhaps better as more voters will be somewhat satisfied with the result. (even with truly proportional systems as many as 60% of voters will not see their choice of individual elected, and the riding system can further skew the results of which PARTY gains power) AV is a compromise, and perhaps one which all sides can agree upon, it would sure be better than the status quot!

For those who want to see which systems various countries around the world are using a good overview can be found at http://www.idea.int/esd/world.cfm. These sorts of discussions may be somewhat academic given the chances of seeing any move to actually place such choices before us, but are still important to have to try and reach some sort of consensus as to where we want to go WHEN such a move is made. A look at the 8 Principals of Electoral Systems as provided by Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform a few years ago may help put things in perspective.

As a final observation I must say that we cannot discount “Electronic Voting” as an 'Electoral Reform', a means of voting easily from within our homes, be that by computer or telephone, would markedly increase the number of citizens who exercise their voting privilege. This in and of its self would probably do more to change the political landscape than any change in the way we mark or count votes. The difficulty is to both design a secure and problem free system and to convince the public that it is indeed both those things, given the increasing probability that the existing system is being abused that may well be the hardest thing to accomplish.

Please note:- In view of the ongoing revelations of electoral fraud during the 2012 federal elections I have created a permanent page providing links to some details of this and other recent electoral malfeasance. Click on the Election Malfeasance tab at the top of the page.

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