Does our Democracy need fixing?

This week, the Globe is running a series this week looking for ‘One Big Idea to fix our democracy.’  Today’s installments are pros and cons of mandatory voting, as well as one suggesting we allow online voting.

The implicit assumption in this series is that our democracy is broken.  But is it really broken?  Sure, it could be improved, but I wouldn’t say that it’s broken.

The most-heard arguments that our political system is broken is that 4 in 10 voters can’t be bothered to vote, that less than 40% of voters cast their ballots for the winning party, and the number of seats won by each party in parliament is not representative of the percentage of people that voted for that party.

Personally, I don’t think that any of these means that our democratic system is broken.  I think they are legitimate areas that need improvement.  That may seem like splitting hairs on semantics, but calling something broken tends to imply that it’s beyond repair; that we should just scrap what we have and start over.  Even with the issues that our electoral system faces in Canada, nobody complains that our elections are not conducted in a fair an impartial manner.  There is no violence or intimidation during the campaign or voting periods.  We don’t have political leaders illegally clinging to power after they lose an election.  And we also have 4 viable choices of political parties (5 in Quebec), as well as the ability to cast out ballots for candidates who belong to no party.  If we don’t like our elected representatives, we can turf them after a maximum of 5 years.  To me, this doesn’t sound like democracy is broken in Canada.

Regardless, the items mentioned above are legitimate criticisms.  All three of the articles in the Globe today deal with the first problem.  The last election we had about 58.8% voter turnout, while most elections before 1990 had voter turnout somewhere between 65% and just under 80%.  But Canada has never had an election with a voter turnout of over 80%.  There has never been a point in Canadian history where everyone in the country has been fully involved in politics.  No matter what idea we may come up with, there will always be a certain portion of the population that just doesn’t care who runs the country.  Neither mandatory voting nor online voting will solve that problem.

Forcing people to go to the polls is not the same as engaging the electorate.  Just because someone is forced to walk to a polling station and check off a box, it doesn’t mean that they care about who they are voting for.  It’s just treating the symptom of the problem instead of the disease.  Showing a number after an election that 93.21% of eligible voters cast a ballot (as in Australia in 2010) only shows that 6.79% of voters don’t care about the threat of a fine.

Online voting has also been touted as a way to increase voter turnout by making it easier to cast a ballot.  But if you don’t care enough to spend 15 minutes out of your day to drop a piece of paper in a box, do you really care about the election?  Showing up to a polling station on election day is not really a high standard.  Plus, there is advanced polls, as well as special ballots, which mean you can vote pretty much whenever you like just by showing up at your local returning office.  Or, if you don’t like leaving your house, you can vote by mail.

Online voting also suffers from two major flaws: there is no way to verify the who the voter is, and there is no paper trail.  Since anyone can vote by mail, I guess we can gloss over the verification problem, but the lack of paper trail is a cause for serious concern.  What if someone asks for a recount?  There is no possible way to verify that all of the votes are legitimate, or that they haven’t been tampered with.  If a system is online, then it is possible to be hacked.  Unscrupulous individuals could use the online system to cause anyone they want to win, without any way to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate ballots.  At least with paper ballots, all votes are counted in front of independent scrutineers, and then the boxes are sealed in case a recount is ordered.  With online voting, there is no scrutineers, no sealing of ballot boxes, and no recounts.  Besides all that, it still doesn’t solve the problem of voters not caring.

It seems that the most common solution to disengaged voters is some form of proportional representation, which theoretically allocates votes more ‘fairly’ between the parties.  While I think we could do with a frank and open discussion of the relative merits of other voting systems, it’s not going to be a panacea for all of our problems.  Besides, in the four referendums that various provinces have held on electoral reforms (two in BC, one in Ontario, one in PEI), none have passed, which indicates that there is not widespread desire for reform, despite what certain parties may say.  But that’s another topic for another day.

Overall, these ideas all seem a little gimmicky and unlikely to solve the problem of 40% of voters not caring at all, and that’s not going to happen until someone inspirational comes along.  The four elections that came closest to an 80% turnout saw the victories of Laurier, Deifenbaker and Pearson.  The elections with the mid-70s turnout saw leaders such as Borden, Mackenzie-King, Trudeau and Mulroney.  Love them or hate them, those leaders know how to rally support.  They had vision.  All of our current leaders can do is tell you why their opponents are bad.  If the goal is voter participation, inspirational leadership is the answer: that’s what has worked in the past, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in the future.

On Easter Sunday, families gather to…watch a Liberal infomercial

In what is apparently a last-ditch effort to gain support before the election, the Liberal have bought a half-hour time slot on Global and City TV for Sunday afternoon.  The show will be an “up-close-and-personal TV special about Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party’s plan to strengthen families and defend Canada’s health care system.”

I honestly can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend any time at all on Easter Sunday watching an advertisement for a political political party.  On a day where many Canadians are getting together with family, the Liberal party seems to think that they will put off anything else that they have planned, and watch a show explaining the greatness that is Michael Ignatieff.

Seriously, whose idea was that?  Do they expect anyone to watch it?  Do they think undecided voters are sitting around hoping one of the political parties will air an infomercial to tell them how to vote?

If this is the Liberal Party’s best shot for winning the election, then they clearly have no idea what they need to do to inspire Canadians.  Showing a big ad on a day where people will probably be spending time with family is not going to change the sad state of affairs for the Liberals in the polls.  This really just highlights how adrift the party as been since leaving power.  And without a big shakeup through the upper echelons of the party, it looks like the Liberals are going to be on the wrong side of the House of Commons for a very long time.

Guest Post: Ajax/Pickering/Scarborough East Deate

My good friend Adam Walker over at at The Walker Express asked me if I would mind posting his review of the Ajax/Pickering Debate, and I am happy to oblige.

The election event held at the Hilton Garden Inn on April 19th was not a debate, but a “forum” that was organized by the Ajax Pickering Board of Trade.  It featured the candidates of the four major parties that are running in the ridings of Ajax-Pickering and Pickering-Scarborough East.  The candidates were grouped by party and the questions were created by the board of trade and asked by the host, who would direct the question to the candidates.  The candidates decided between themselves which individual would speak for their party’s position on that specific issue.  There was no cross-talk between the candidates and no one was allowed to further elaborate on questions or respond to anything said by other candidates after they had spoken.
Conservatives (Chris Alexander and Corneliu Chisu)
The candidates for the Conservative party stayed on message and on point for the entire evening.  There is a reason the Conservatives dropped former diplomat Chris Alexander into Ajax-Pickering: he’s a good public speaker, who has belief in his message and delivers in a clear and confident manner.  The Conservatives want a win in Ajax-Pickering so badly they can taste it and Alexander may be the guy to do it.  He stuck to the party platform without resorting to the party platitudes.  Mr. Chisu was the weaker of the pair, answering the questions in a canned manner, emphasizing his military service where possible and staying close to the prepared talking points.  When asked a direct question on the status of the Pickering Airport and the airport lands, he would not give an answer.

Liberal (Mark Holland and Dan McTeague)
Make no mistake: these guys are professionals.  They can answer any question thrown their way and spin it in their direction.  However, in a campaign that has focused on mud-slinging so much nationally, I was surprised at how these two kept that mostly to a minimum.  There was a significant amount of emphasis placed on McTeague’s work with the Chretien government in the 1990s and a surprising amount placed on Holland’s work with the Martin government of 2004-2006.  I’m not sure how many votes that would gain him.  Keeping the message on the platform and away from attacks gained a lot of respect from me and that’s saying something, as I am not a fan of Mr. Holland.

Green (Mike Harilaid and Kevin Smith)
As one would expect, the focus from these two men was on issues of future development using green technology and ideas.  They are the only candidates to actually address the issue of high speed rail (something that is an important issue to me and one that have written about on my own blog).  I think it came as a shock to most in attendance that the Green perspective isn’t a Left perspective.  They want to lower taxes for all Canadians, to shift the burden of taxes to consumption of fossil fuels and other pollutants and invest in Canada through tuition and other grants.  Mr. Smith came off as very professional, very polished and I imagine, were he running for a different party, he would be a front running candidate.  Mr. Harilaid, running in his second federal election, was engaging as a speaker as well.  He joked beforehand that he had the least supporters in the crowd, but I saw several people take flyers from the Green party table when the forum was finished.

NDP (Jim Koppens and Andrea Moffat)
The NDP candidates were a study in contrasts.  Mr. Koppens is a union man, through and through.  His emphasis was on jobs, labour and bringing work to Canada instead of sending it overseas.  He was slow, steady and a good candidate for the NDP – if it were 1975.  While the NDP’s base has long been labour, I think the direction the national party is trying to move in is away from the hard and fast union types towards a family friendly, centre-left party.  Mr. Koppens spoke well and is clearly passionate about ensuring work for Canadians.  I am too, but that doesn’t mean his message will resonate with the people in this riding.  As for Ms. Moffat, she has run before for the NDP and will no doubt run again.  She spoke very quickly and loudly, burning through issues without elaborating on them and she seemed very nervous.  For a candidate in the 2008 federal and 2007 provincial election, she should have a bit more confidence in speaking publicly.

In the interest of full coverage, the United Party candidate for Ajax-Pickering (Bob Kesic) was not in attendance.  There are no fringe party candidates running in Pickering-Scarborough East.

In summary, this forum did very little to move the needle in terms of my vote. As for others, aside from the people I mentioned above, it was clear by the buttons and the talk afterwards that most people were already aligned with a specific party.  To their credit, the Conservatives had a number of volunteers staffing the propaganda tables afterwards and they seemed genuinely interested in the questions I had for them.  These type of events are always a little peculiar, a little staged, for my liking.  When a candidate comes to my door and wants to talk to me, it seems as if they might care a little about what I have to say.  Talking to a volunteer or staffer is enlightening; it’s like they’re a real person!  In all seriousness, I don’t think this forum was of great value to the community and I don’t foresee people telling their friends
that it was the breaking point in the election for any side.
Like the host of this site, this election has been an indifferent one for me. On one hand, I’d like to not have to go to the polls every five minutes because the MPs can’t get along so a stable majority government would be nice.  On the other hand, there is something about the Conservative party that sort of rubs me the wrong way.  I guess I have to stick with what I think is right and the rest will turn out in the wash.

For Critical Constituent, I’m Adam Walker.  You can read more of my thoughts, mostly on trains, at The Walker Express.

What happens if there is another Conservative minority?

If the current polls hold, then it seems very likely that the Conservatives will yet again win more seats than any of the other parties, and yet again will not win enough seats to gain a majority.  The the question is, what will Ottawa look like?

I personally think that the Conservatives will form a minority government.  Even though Michael Ignatieff has now clearly stated the conditions that would allow him to ask the Governor General to form a government, which would only happen if the Conservatives are unable to gain the confidence of the House.  I honestly doubt that Ingatieff would try this, unless it happened many months after the election.  Part of the reason that many people disliked the idea of a coalition last time is because it happened so soon after the previous election.  If Ignatieff tries to form a government too soon, it will look like he is trying to seize power without winning an election, and suddenly all of the “He’s just in it for himself” attack ads become true.  So I would say that he should probably wait at least a year before engineering the defeat of the Conservatives in order to at least make it seem like he is trying to ‘make government work.’

But a lot of things can happen in a year, and I expect a lot of changes if there is another Conservative minority.  First off, I doubt Ignatieff will last very long if he doesn’t win this election.  That will make two Liberal leaders in a row that are unable to deliver the party to their rightful place as the ‘natural governing party.’  I predict that there is already a number of very sharp knives waiting for Ignatieff to fail so someone else can have a shot.

So if Ignatieff resigns or is forced out, then the Liberals need to have a full campaign for leadership, which takes time.  The party also wouldn’t risk appointing someone else without a full campaign, since that’s how Ignatieff ended up in the leader’s seat.  And the party wouldn’t want to force an election if the leadership of the party is in flux.  And when the new leader comes to power, it will be unlikely that he or she will try to seize power without an election since that would automatically turn all the ‘contempt for democracy’ arguments back towards the Liberals.

I would also expect that Harper wouldn’t be too long sitting as Prime Minister, although he will definitely last longer than Ignatieff.  This will be his third election where the Conservatives have been unable to form a majority government.  If he can’t take advantage of the perpetually weak opposition, then many Conservative members will wonder if he is the right man for the job.  I don’t think that his ouster will be quite as public as Ignatieff’s, but he will eventually go.  He will probably act like he is leaving after a successful career in public service (which is true) but he will be forced out just the same.

So that leaves the Conservatives and the Liberals possibly looking for new leaders within the next year.  I think that probably the best possible situation for politics in Ottawa.  Getting rid of the current crop of leaders, especially the leaders of the two major parties could make a world of difference in improving the partisan bickering between the parties.  It will give the membership of both parties a chance to show that the status quo is not acceptable.  Both parties will be given a chance to pick a leader who is willing to work with others in order produce results that benefit all Canadians.

And what about Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe?  The NDP are still light years away from becoming a party that the voters trust to govern, regardless of whether or not Layton is leader.  The NDP can be trusted to oppose  whoever wins any election, because that’s what they do.  They have a long track record of opposing bills before reading them, and a short track record of compromise.  And of course the Bloc will happily extort money for Quebec no matter who is in charge.

Update on the Local Campaign

Tonight was the local candidates’ debate for Whitby-Oshawa, so I went in hopes of helping me decide who to vote for.  In general, it was almost as big of a waste of time as the leaders debate.  I say almost because I now have a slightly better idea of what the individual candidates stand for in the riding.

The debate was hosted by the Whitby Chamber of Commerce, and the questions asked were a mixture of questions placed by the Chamber, and those asked by the audience.  It was pretty obvious which questions from the Chamber, since they were invariably long-winded, and related to business and corporate policies.  It was also pretty clear as to the answer the Chamber was looking for when they asked the questions.  The candidates weren’t generally swayed by the leading questions and stuck to their talking points.  The questions from the audience were varied between clear partisan shots to actual requests for policy information, but there wasn’t really anything too shocking said by any of the candidates.

Unfortunately for everyone, there seemed to be too many partisan supporters in the audience, to the point where we had to wait between every question for the applause to die down.  I think it would have been much better if the same rules were applied to the leaders debate, where the audience was asked not to shout anything, or clap between responses in order to better get through the questions.  There was even one particularly obnoxious (I’m assuming) Liberal supporter that would shout out approval to Liberal and NDP catch-phrases, and heckled Jim Flaherty at a few points.  Thankfully, someone eventually quieted him down a bit and we didn’t hear from him after the first couple questions.

On the plus side, the moderator were very good at keeping the candidates to their time, although that was probably helped by the fact that candidates were threatened with a muted microphone if they ran over their alloted time.

Overall, Jim Flaherty (Conservative) knew his stuff.  He has been in government for a very long time, so it’s not at all surprising how well he understands any topic that they threw at him.  There wasn’t much back-and-forth between the candidates, but he made sure he had a rebuttal for pretty much any time another candidate made an accusation against Flaherty or Conservative policy.  He also made sure that any time one of the other candidates made a promise that had actual barriers to implementation (such as not being able to expand the CPP without approval of the provinces), he made sure that those barriers were addressed, and not glossed over.  He made a point to address all of the good things that he has done for Durham Region and for Canada, including the controversial decision for bail out General Motors, which is a major employer in the region.  While he was the most well-spoken candidate, he should be, since he has been a politician for so long.  But he still suffers from all of the same criticisms of the Conservative Party, and he does receive a large share of the blame for its actions (or credit, if you are a supporter)

Trevor Bardens (Liberal) can be summed up with one phrase: Liberal Candidate – there’s an app for that.  The whole debate, it sounded like he was reading straight from the Liberal campaign website.  His answers often were only tangentially related to the questions asked, and it only took about 20 seconds into the first question before he mentioned “jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts.”  If the question asked wasn’t part of the Liberal platform (for example, there was a question on reducing the gas tax to lower gas prices) he just muddled through a non-response without being committed to any position whatsoever.  He was also the only candidate that did not have a table set up outside of the debate with campaign literature for anyone to take.  This just cements my earlier opinion that he is running a very weak campaign.  It seems like the Liberals just needed someone to run, and Trevor Bardens was the only person there.  On the plus side, he did do well on the question on border congestion, which he is familiar with due to his time on the Oshawa Harbour Commission.  Unfortunately, he lost the advantage there, when Flaherty mentioned that the Harbour Commission was a mess of infighting until the Federal government stepped in, and Bardens didn’t even take the time to disagree when given the option.

Trish McAuliffe (NDP) did reasonably well.  She knew the most of the NDP talking points well, even though she didn’t seem to be the most confident public speaker of the bunch.  The unfortunate thing is that she didn’t really differentiate herself from the NDP mold.  If you agree with NDP policies, then she will be right there to implement them if you elect her.  She seemed to have a bit of extra knowledge on anything to do with the manufacturing sector, due to her past experiences at GM and the CAW.  However, none of that really made her stand out, since all that helped her with was to give a slightly personal touch to the regular NDP platform.

Rebecca Harrison (Green) was probably the one that I was most disappointed with, but for different reasons than the other candidates.  I had hoped that since she was young, and running for a party trying to make inroads into Parliament, then she would try to cast herself as a different sort of politician: one that moves away from attacking other parties to one that is willing to work with others to accomplish her goals.  I did not receive that impression from her during the debate.  She attacked Conservative policy just as much as any other candidate, and proved that when it comes to partisanship, the Greens can play ball with the rest of them.  She was very familiar with all of the Green Party talking points, as well as her own pet issues of poverty elimination and women’s issues.  I was just hoping that the Green Party candidate would act a little less partisan, and a little more compromising.  I might have been able to look past some of the ideological differences between myself and the Greens if their candidate seemed willing to rise above the partisan bickering of the other parties, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  It may seem weird that I am holding one party to a higher standard than the others, but if the Greens want me to vote for them, they need to show me that they are better than the others, not just equal to them.

So despite having seen the local candidates in action, I am not really much closer to deciding who to vote for.  It would probably be an easier decision if I had been moderating the debate, because then I could ask follow-up questions.  There was a number of times where I wanted to call BS on what the candidates were saying, or at the very least, get them to answer the question that was asked instead of rambling on about something else entirely.  The most memorable occasion of this to me was when a question was asked on free trade, and the summary of answers would be Flaherty likes it, McAuliffe dislikes it, and we have no idea what Bardens or Harrison feel because they didn’t even mention free trade in their responses.  No candidate was completely guilt-free in this, and it would have been helpful if the moderators actively encouraged them to answer the question as asked.

Not included in the debate was a fifth candidate running for the Libertarian Party – Josh Insang.  There is no information specific to that candidate anywhere that I can see, nor have I seen a single lawn sign for him.  I am not even sure why the Libertarian Party is running a candidate if they aren’t even attempting to campaign.  Since he seems to only be on the ballot as a slot for a protest vote, I can see why he wasn’t invited to the debate.  I would put his chances of winning at exactly 0%, since in 2008 the Libertarian Party received 7,300 voted country-wide, while Jim Flaherty received 30,704 in Whitby-Oshawa.

So now the question becomes, how does one vote if none of the candidates are appealing?  I am open to suggestions.

Ontario Government appeals ruling that allows sale of delicious milk

The Ontario government has announced that they are appealing the ruling allowing farmer Michael Schmidt to sell raw milk.  The government seems to think that unpasteurized milk is a hazard to our health, and thus it should be banned for sale.  The reason this particular case was originally ruled to be legal is that all of Schmidt’s ‘customers’ are actually part owners of the cows.  It’s perfectly legal to consume raw milk, but it’s illegal to sell it.  So it’s not like any of the people buying it were unaware that it was unpasteurized either: they bought shares in the cows specifically so that they could get raw milk.

The government’s arguments stem from the belief that raw milk can contain dangerous levels of harmful bacteria.  But that argument seems a little silly since Canada is the only G8 country to ban the sale of raw milk.  Now, I will admit that I don’t really follow international news that closely, but I am unaware of epidemics of milk-borne disease afflicting people from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK or the United States.  I haven’t heard of any surges of people collapsing on the streets of Paris because they drank some fresh milk.

Some people claim that pasteurization reduces the amount of nutrients available for consumption, and that it kills the good bacteria along with the bad.  While I don’t claim to be an expert on the health effects of milk, I do know that raw milk is delicious.  It absolutely tastes better than any milk that I have bought from the store.

I’m not sure what purpose the government thinks it is serving by fighting this case.  It is spending taxpayer money fighting something that is currently hurting nobody.  The people that are buying the raw milk have made a decision for themselves that they will accept any potential risk from consuming raw milk.  Nobody has been deceived at any point during the sale.  None of the customers have gotten sick when consuming the milk.  So who is the government defending?  Is it protecting people from making decisions for themselves?  How is it that we live in a society where we can buy cigarettes, which are known to cause cancer, but we are prevented from buying milk that might possibly have the potential to make someone sick?  I can go to a restaurant and order steak tartar, but I can’t buy milk fresh from the cow.

It’s not like the ruling banned the practice of pasteurizing milk.  The milk that’s available in stores is still pasteurized and the ruling only stated that ‘cow-share’ programs are legal.  If the ruling is upheld on appeal, then I would still need to purchase a portion of a cow in order to get my raw milk.  There won’t be raw milk in the grocery store where the ignorant masses will confuse it with their regular 1% and sue the government if they get sick.

So I say it’s time for the government to drop its case and just let people live their lives in a way that doesn’t harm others.  If people want to risk getting sick in order do drink a delicious beverage, why should we care?

The (not so) Great Debate

After watching the English leaders debate, I am left wondering what the point of the debate is.  From what I saw, I can’t imagine anyone basing their voting decision on what they saw there.

If I had to decide, I would say that Harper ‘won’ the debate solely based on the fact that the opposition members didn’t say anything that really stuck to him.  Layton, Ignatieff and Duceppe would all make accusations about Harper’s policies, and Harper would easily deflect them every time.  The opposition members never really made a serious attempt to attack Harper with any evidence or hard numbers, so Harper could easily say it wasn’t true, and then he would move on to mention all the great things that he has done in the last four years.  Ignatieff was especially bad for this because every time he had a chance to speak, he would mention at least four or five different issues with the Conservatives, but then Harper would respond to the one or two that he actually had a good defense for and then ignored the rest.  If Ignatieff was a little more focused, he probably could have done a better job of forcing Harper off of his talking points.  And as a bonus, Harper laid off the coalition boogeyman, which was becoming pretty tiring to listen to.

Speaking of which, Ignatieff was pretty terrible for most of the debate.  He wasn’t nearly focused enough to land any decent shots on Harper.  He also seemed to stutter a lot when he was trying to get through his talking points.  This was his chance to really shine as a viable alternative to Harper, but was lackluster by comparison.  He spent too much time with his “jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts” line, throwing it in wherever he could.  My biggest pet peeve was that he appears to forget that the corporate tax cuts have already pass in Parliament because the Liberals purposefully didn’t send enough MPs to the vote when they voted against it.  It rings a little hollow when you oppose something after having let it pass.

Layton did a bit better.  He had decent criticisms of both Harper and Ignatieff but still suffered from not being able to stick anything on Harper, although he did a reasonably good job of painting Ignatieff as a friend of the Conservatives for propping up the government repeatedly over the last few years.  And the high point for the night was when Layton mentioned ‘bling’, when talking about gangs.  That almost made the two-hour ordeal worth watching.

Duceppe was far less entertaining than he was in the previous debates.  It almost seemed like he wasn’t trying.  I do expect him to do better in the French debate, when people that actually care about him will watch him debate.

The worst part of all was that the questions that were asked were for the most ignored by the candidates.  They generally started with the general theme of the questions and then veered off towards whatever talking points that they waned to get to.  It’s hard to find out where the party leaders stand on specific issues when they ignore the question and then talk about something else entirely.

The format of the debate was pretty bad too, although it was better than the last election, with the roundtable of everyone against Harper.  The one-on-one format seemed like it could have been interesting, but seeing Duceppe and Layton go head to head on multiculturalism was about as useless of a discussion as I can imagine.

As I said, I can’t really imagine anyone changing their decision based on this debate.  No new policy planks were mentioned, and there was no ‘knockout’ that people seem to expect from these debates even though they never occur.  It was really just a continuation of the bickering that we have all come to expect from the people we keep sending to Ottawa.