Breaking The Cycle

Catherine Fife, NDP MPP
Catherine Fife, NDP MPP

One seat shy of a majority government after the 2011 Election, returning Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty enticed the undefeatable Conservative Elizabeth Witmer into resigning her provincial parliament seat and triggering a by-election.  Instead of gaining the extra seat needed to regain his majority, the Kitchener-Waterloo riding went handily to Catherine Fife.  During the campaign, Fife asked citizens to deny the Liberals another majority.  That was the first time in my life I heard any Canadian politician publicly take issue with the fallacy that majority rule  under our winner-take-all system is somehow a good thing.

After nearly a decade of a mind numbing Liberal Majority, Ontario voters were more than happy to hand the NDP’s Catherine Fife a resounding win in a riding that had been staunchly blue since Mike Harris devastated the province with his so-called “common sense revolution.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne, Liberal
Premier Kathleen Wynne, Liberal

Barely into the term, Dalton McGuinty stepped down from his position as leader of the Liberal Party and Premier of Ontario. Governing in a minority government is not at all like running the majority governments to which he was accustomed. He was succeeded by Kathleen Wynn, who became Ontario’s first female Premier.

In the year since, Premier Wynne took the job, the Liberal Party has lost a total of 5 seats. From my perspective, that’s a very good thing, because it widens the gap between minority and majority government quite nicely. Minority governments are the closest to democracy you ever get in a winner-take-all system. For years Canadian political propaganda has maintained the fallacy that majority government is a good thing, but voters are starting to appreciate we’ve been sold a bill of goods. The reality is that it’s not a good thing — for us.Sir Winston Churchill

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Sir Winston Churchill, addressing the British House of Commons, November 11, 1947.

Rhetoric vs Reality

They tell us our First Past The Post electoral system is a representative democracy… but is it?

We get to cast a vote, but some of our votes are worth more than others, because some votes elect an MPP, but most of them don’t. Who represents the majority of Ontarians that don’t elect anyone? Most of us have no representation in the Provincial Legislature.

They tell us majority government is efficient, and it is because it’s effectively a dictatorship.  A majority of seats translates to 100% of the power, which means the majority government can pass any law it likes.  The only thing that can stop it is public opinion.

At the Federal level we’ve been lately reminded just how undemocratic a majority government can be.  The Harper Government bundles together large numbers of disparate laws in so-called “Omnibus Bills.”   These massive documents are fast tracked though Parliament at such dizzying speed many of the MPs who vote for them haven’t actually even read them all the way through.  This is not a democratic process, it just gives the appearance of being one.  As a writer, I can’t believe any law that goes through our legislative process intact and becomes Law without so much as a change in punctuation can possibly have received proper scrutiny.

But that is why it’s efficient — because it is undemocratic.

Democracy requires hard work and negotiation, cooperation and consensus.     People have to actually listen to each other.   And it’s not easy to balance everyone’s needs and represent the whole constituency;  getting there takes time and effort.   Democracy is not efficient.

They tell us majority governments make for stability, but that simply isn’t true. While the Majority Party can make any law it likes, when it gets voted out the New Majority Party can change everything back to the way it wants things.  Far from being stable, this creates a policy pendulum swinging back and forth.

Although Ontario is wonderfully multicultural, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario is not. Although two major Ontario political parties are led by women, there are far too few women sitting in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.   Like most Canadian winner take-all legislatures, the seats in the provincial legislature are predominantly filled by old white men.   Which leaves a great many citizens feeling excluded.

Unrepresentative government is unaccountable government.  When a government doesn’t represent all of its citizens, it’s the public good that suffers.

An inequitable electoral system makes for an unaccountable government. When all of our votes don’t count, and those that do don’t count equally, only a few citizens have the power to vote them out.   And that’s not fair.  Or democratic.

what happens next?

There will be a new provincial election in the next year or two.

Tim Hudak (cc by laurelrusswurm)
Tim Hudak, Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader

Tim Hudak, the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, has made it abundantly clear he won’t be happy unless he gets a majority.   Consensus doesn’t seem to be a word appearing in his vocabulary.  In the past, Ontario has been governed alternately by Conservative and Liberal Parties. Mr, Hudak doesn’t believe there is a need to work with other parties because he’s certain his turn is coming.

Is it?  Or is it time to break the pattern of unhealthy electoral mood swings?

Kathleen Wynne assumed the Liberal Leadership because, unlike Mr. McGuinty, she understands government by consensus is a good thing.  Andrea Horwath’s NDP is well aware of the inequity inherent in first past the post electoral systems. That’s certainly why NDP policy supports electoral reform to Proportional Representation. 

There is a way to make a meaningful change to how Ontario is governed.  A way to upgrade our inequitable 19th Century electoral system to a stable proportional system that would elect a government to represent all Ontarians.

Proportional Representation is both fair and democratic.  And there is no time like the present for Ms Wynne and Ms. Horwath to come together and give Ontario a solid proportional system fit for the 21st Century.  It can’t come too soon.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath
Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP Leader

Image Credits

Cathering Fife, Kitchener-Waterloo NDP MPP photograph by laurelrusswurm released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) License

Kathleen Wynn photographed by Joseph Morris amd released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) License

Public Domain photograph of Sir Winston Churchill found in Wikimedia Commons

Tim Hudak  Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader, photograph by laurelrusswurm released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) License

Andrea Horwath, Ontario New democratic Party Leader,  photographed by Ontario NDP and released under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

What is the Scandal, Really?

Ontario PC Attack on Kathleen Wynne

At the provincial level of government in Ontario, the Progressive Conservative Party is attempting to stick the new leader of the current Liberal minority government, Kathleen Wynne, with responsibility for the fiscal penalty Ontario incurred when the previous government cancelled approved Gas Plants in an attempt to ensure re-election.

Ontario PC Leader, Tim Hudak (cc by laurelrusswurm)
Ontario PC Leader, Tim Hudak

history

While government fiscal irregularity is nothing to be sneezed at, we should note that Mr. Hudak’s outrage is never directed at his own party’s past malfeasance. Take, for example, the sale of the 407, an Ontario Toll Highway back when the Progressive Conservatives last held power in Ontario.

The construction of the 407 was taxpayer funded for years, bankrolled largely by funds collected through inflated license renewal fee for local drivers (charged far more than other Ontario drivers). But as the highway neared completion, instead of adding the new 407 to the province’s existing system of free highways paid for by taxpayers, the PC Government of the day sold it out from under taxpayers.

Without any consulation at all.

It was a very good deal for an unaccountable private company, but a rather bad one for the Ontario taxpayers who funded it without any benefit. Unless, of course, you were a taxpayer who could afford to pay to drive on the private highway created largely at public expense.

spin

The important part of the gas plant story isn’t that it was cancelled due to political expediency, but rather that it was approved at all.

The cancellations clearly illustrate that the McGuinty Liberal Government understood very well that the majority of local residents were opposed to the gas plants. The fact is, Liberal government policy gave unfair advantage to commercial interests ignoring the public good.

One would assume that the point of embracing green energy would be in support of environmental improvement. Yet plunking gas plants down in a heavily populated area doesn’t improve the environment for the local citizens. Siting undesirable industries in close proximity to residential areas loses sight of the public good.

No legislation should allow developers carte blanche. There must be a balance between citizen needs, corporate interests and government policy, absent from the Green Energy Act. The disturbing part is that Mr. Hudak doesn’t question the undemocratic imposition of a provincial policy that strips away citizen rights. If he held majority power, would he govern any differently?

Ontario’s Green Energy Act is an example of law made without proper scrutiny or balance, only possible because we are saddled with an inequitable unaccountable First Past The Post electoral system that gives 100% of the power to a few.  Proportional Representation is necessary at all levels of government if we are to have real democracy. No government should be able to ignore the needs of citizens with impunity.

The real question should be:

“Why were the gas plants approved in the first place?”

Protesters in front of Woolwich Township Offices
In spite of local oppostion, the Ontario Ministy of the Environment approved the enormous Bio Gas plant
(adjacent to parkland, residential settlement, elementary schools, and downtown)

Now is the time that Kathleen Wynne’s government should be working to effect meaningful electoral change. Ontario desperately needs an electoral system that will provide Ontario with Proportional Representation.  

We will never have accountable government until all our votes count.

a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves

Image Credits:
PC Website Screen Capture used under Fair Dealing
Tim Hudak and Elmira Protest by laurelrusswurm a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Ontario Provincial Politics ~ Kitchener-Waterloo By-Election

the Ontario flag flag flies against a blue sky

If memory serves, the well respected Elizabeth Witmer, was one of only two or three Conservative MPs who actually retained their seats after the Mike Harris Government was voted out. Ms Witmer has been Minister of something more often than not during the course of her career, so her Kitchener-Waterloo riding was the very definition of a Conservative “safe seat.” So long as she occupied it.

During the election, Ms Witmer insisted more than once she would serve out her term if elected. Now, less than a year in, Dalton McGuinty has generously appointed her Chair of Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. .

So there will be a by-election in her vacant Kitchener-Waterloo riding. Strategically this election is very important, since a single seat is all that stands between the McGuinty Liberals and a majority. Dalton McGuinty has got to want that seat very badly.

I received a robo-call inviting me to Wednesday’s Kitchener-Waterloo Progressive-Conservative “Town Hall” to meet Tim Hudak and Tracey Weiler, the new Progressive-Conservative Candidate who will be running in the by-election caused by Elizabeth Witmer’s resignation.

But I don’t live in that riding.

Not even close, and my phone number is clearly tied to a street address in my riding. So why did I get the call?

Probably because I listened to a robo-call “Town Hall” over the very same phone line during the last election. It turned out to be what sounded like a tightly scripted conversation between Tim Hudak and my riding candidate, and felt kind of like a personalized election commercial. My guess is that the party would assume anyone willing to listen to such a thing would be a supporter.

Thing is, I’m not. I don’t support any political party. I don’t even like the party system, particularly as practised here. I don’t vote by rote. Every election campaign is a new adventure, and I learn who the candidates are and try to find out what they stand for before casting my vote.

As long as we continue with this antiquated electoral system, the absolute last thing we need is a majority government. Still, even if I went to the meeting and decided Tracey Weiler was the perfect candidate, I can’t vote for her unless I move there. Not gonna happen.

So why would   the PC party want me there? Perhaps to pack the hall with party faithful, more than can be drummed up from the actual riding. Having a full house would make for better photos. These days the appearance of strength has the power to tip an election. When you have an adversarial system like ours, backing the winner can be its own reward. In the same way polls can help manipulate an electoral outcome, this is a clear case of messing with the electorate’s perceptions. It’s exactly the type of thing that makes me dislike party politics.

Even so, if you live in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding, you might want to check out this Town Hall.

the ontario flag hangs limp

I can well understand why Mr. McGuinty would want to regain a majority: it’s much more difficult to govern a province democratically. Except for the term limit, any majority won under our inequitable electoral system is indistinguishable from a dictatorship, so a government majority is never good for citizens.

I agree with the Fair Vote Canada contention: “Your vote should count,” which is why strategic voting is not something I ever endorse. Even if it brings the short term result I’d like, but it is really an attempt to game the system that only helps entrench it. We’ll never change it if we think we can fool it into working. My thinking is simply that we will never elect the candidates we want if we don’t vote for them.

But this isn’t a general election. This is a by-election which could turn the McGuinty Liberal Minority into a Majority. Which is, of course, the only explanation why a Liberal Premier would give such a plumb to such a powerful enemy. It’s why all the parties are campaigning so hard for this crucial seat.

And it’s another reason I dislike our system.  Although the politicians we elect to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario are supposed to govern Ontario on our behalf, the winner-take-all nature of our adversarial political system discourages anything like co-operation, instead polarizing the parties into enemy camps. Political parties look out for the party first, and constituents second.  I’d prefer to live in a place where the Premier would make such an appointment because it was the right thing to do, not because it gives him a second chance at a majority. Instead live in a province where patronage is the norm.

So although I don’t actually live in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding, I would be seriously considering voting strategically in this by-election if I did. Because no majority government is ever good for the citizens.  And I wonder,

Can Ontario really afford another majority government?

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