28 June 2010

The value of a vote in Alberta

I can't complain. The value of my vote, under the constituency boundaries recommended by the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission, will be close to average. At least for now. According to the Commission, the average population per electoral division in the province is 40,880. The population of my proposed new constituency, Calgary-Buffalo, is 40,381. I did much better than, say Calgary-Hawkwood, which will have a population of 47,686, yet much worse than the rural constituency of West Yellowhead which will have a population of only 31,338 privileged citizens, if the Commission's report is accepted by the Alberta Legislature.

How democratic is this? Well, not very. Democracy means political equality, but a citizen in West Yellowhead has a vote worth 50 per cent more than that of a citizen in Calgary-Hawkwood. Actually, it's even worse. The population of Dunvegan-Central Peace, considered a special case because of its vast area, is only 24,584. A vote in that "special case" has almost double the value of a vote in Calgary-Hawkwood.

And that is now. This distortion will be greater by the time the next boundary review takes place. The trend is for rural ridings to decrease in population while urban ridings increase. Considering this trend is now a century old, it is long past the time boundary commissions took it into account.

Sadly, the rural/urban perversion of democracy has been sanctioned by no less an authority than the Supreme Court. In a 1991 decision, Madame Justice Beverley McLachlin stated: “the purpose of the right to vote enshrined in s. 3 of the Charter is not equality of voting power per se, but the right to ‘effective representation’.” She went on to say, "Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic. These are but examples of considerations which may justify departure from absolute voter parity in the pursuit of more effective representation; the list is not closed."

Unfortunately, in practice the list is closed. The discrepancies allowed are generally based on area and sparsity of population, thus advantaging rural voters over urban ones. In an inner city riding, an MLA or MP may face an additional challenge of dealing with many citizens for whom English is a second language. This would seem to fit into Madame Justice's "community interests" or "minority representation," but are the populations of such ridings ever reduced to compensate for the greater challenge of representation? I think not.

At one time, we might have been able to make an argument for offering rural areas special consideration because of the distances their representatives had to travel. Even then, however, reducing the democracy of urban citizens to compensate was never justified. It should have been dealt with by providing appropriate assistance to the representative such as a greater travel allowance or more aides. And it certainly isn't justified in an age of instant communication. It matters not at all to me where my MLA is if I want to contact him. I can do so instantaneously by email or phone, and even snail mail takes only a couple of days.

Madame Justice McLachlin's definition of the right to vote is arbitrary and undemocratic. Democracy rejects her "effective representation." It demands equal representation. Saskatchewan most closely approaches equality, restricting deviations from the average population of only plus or minus 5 per cent (except for two special cases of its own). Alberta still allows the grossly excessive 25 per cent. Our votes are discounted enough by our archaic first-past-the-post voting system; we don't need persistent gerrymandering in favour of rural constituencies.

23 June 2010

Headline of the day

Wednesday's prize for headline of the day has to go to to an article by Nick Spicer in Al Jazeera online:

Does McChrystal play for France?
A perfect splicing of sports, politics and international affairs. And, of course, humour. Give this headline writer a medal!

21 June 2010

How is the U.S. not a banana republic?

Last week Jon Stewart of the Daily Show had a bit of fun with Texas Representative Joe Barton. (He put him on the cover of Disdainful A**hole Magazine.) Barton, at a Congress hearing, apologized to oil giant BP for agreeing, after conferring with the President, to provide a $20-billion fund to compensate victims of the Gulf oil spill. Barton referred to the agreement as a "shakedown." He was soon brought to task by his Republican colleagues and apologized for his apology.

That he would be contrite is not a surprise. He is in line for chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (he is currently the GOP's ranking member) if the Republicans win big in November, so he is eager to keep the party bosses happy. But it isn't surprising that he would defend BP either. He is the major beneficiary of oil industry campaign contributions since 1990, receiving over $100,000 in the last year and a half alone.

The obvious question here is how the American people can possibly believe that a man taking money from the oil industry for years will manage the House Energy and Commerce Committee in their best interests, keeping in mind that if the Republicans were in power this is the guy who would be in charge of BP. His electoral dependency may be legal but it's also corrupt -- he's bought and paid for. Democracy has been traded in for dollars and American energy and environmental policy may well be the loser.

19 June 2010

Nellie McClung returns to Manitoba Legislature

Nellie McClung, perhaps Canada's leading figure in the fight for women's rights, returned to the Manitoba Legislature this week, to the same building where 96 years ago she began her campaign to convince the government that women should be allowed to vote. She returned, not in the flesh, but commemorated in bronze. A statue of Nellie and the rest of the Famous Five was unveiled at the legislative building on Friday. It was here in Manitoba in 1916 that Canadian women, largely because of Nellie, first received the franchise. The federal government followed Manitoba's lead shortly thereafter. 

The Famous Five were the women who successfully petitioned for women's inclusion as persons in the British North American Act, making them equal to men in the eyes of the law. The statue at the legislature depicts the signing of the petition.

Nellie's interests went well beyond political rights. She campaigned for dental and medical care for school children, property rights for married women, mothers' allowances, factory safety legislation and many other causes. She was also a writer of note, author of much non-fiction and a number of novels, one of which, Sowing Seeds In Danny, became for a time the best-selling novel in Canadian history.

An accomplished and committed lady. A true hero, well-deserving of the honour Manitoba has bestowed.

18 June 2010

War as a prosecutable offence: This is a big f.... deal

War has, throughout the ages, almost been a sacrament for men. This was how men became men, by becoming warriors. In the last century, this began to change, perhaps because of the massive, horrifying and utterly pointless deaths of millions of men in the First World War -- a slaughter of unprecedented proportions. In any case, it began to lose its cachet.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg described aggressive wars as a "supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." The Nuremburg tribunal, and others since, have prosecuted those "other war crimes" but not the crime of aggressive war itself. It may have been a crime, but it was a crime above the law.

No longer. Last Saturday, at a conference in Kampala, the member states of the International Criminal Court gave waging aggressive war a precise meaning and made it a prosecutable crime in international law. The states made a resolution that criminalizes the use of force against another country in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and gives the Court the power to prosecute political and military leaders who plan, prepare, initiate or execute illegal wars.

The resolution also establishes the conditions under which the Court can exercise jurisdiction. Although the UN Security Council is the principal body that can classify an action as a crime of aggression, thus initiating judicial proceedings, if the Council doesn't act within six months, the Court can proceed on its own. This ensures that if the Security Council -- a political organ -- doesn't act, the Court is not hindered in its duty.

There are various restrictions. For example, the crime won't apply directly to non-member states (111 countries are members) and unfortunately this includes major powers such as China and the U.S. Nonetheless, including the crime of aggression as a prosecutable offence under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court fundamentally changes the ancient macho practice of warfare as "politics by other means."

History has been made. As Vice-president Joe Biden of the United States might say, "This is a big fucking deal."

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing makes the front page

I have mentioned the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) in previous posts as an alternative to the GDP for measuring society's economic and social health. Unlike the GDP, the CIW measures more than how much stuff we consume. Produced by the nonpartisan, nonprofit CIW Institute, the index "takes into account the full range of social, health, environmental and economic concerns of citizens." It evaluates our quality of life overall and specifically in areas such as health, quality of the environment, education and skill levels, the use of time, the vitality of communities, participation in the democratic process, and the state of our arts, culture and recreation.

Unfortunately, the media focuses on the GDP to evaluate societies' quality of life. Other, more meaningful, yardsticks tend to be ignored. I was, therefore, both surprised and delighted to see a report by the CIW featured on the front page of Tuesday's Globe and Mail.

The report, Caught in the Time Crunch, finds that more of us are working non-standard hours and looking after children and seniors, while fewer of us are able to participate in social activities. The result is poorer physical and mental health and less satisfaction with the quality of our lives. The report offers a number of public policy suggestions for improving our work-life balance.

The publicity the report and the index have received is a healthy sign that Canadians are looking for better ways of measuring our quality of life than the one-dimensional GDP. Roy Romanow, chairman of the advisory board of the CIW, says he hopes this report and others in the series will complement the GDP in measuring Canadians' well-being. I hope the CIW will do much more than that. I hope it will relegate the GDP to nothing more than the measurement of national income it was originally intended to be.

As the inventor of the GDP, Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets, warned, “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long run. Goals for ‘more’ growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” The GDP cannot make those critical distinctions. The CIW does.

12 June 2010

The Calgary civic election and the corruption of democracy

With a civic election coming up in October, local developers and home builders in Calgary are preparing to campaign heavily for their agenda, which essentially means campaigning for growth and sprawl. The campaign, including a website to be launched this month, is supported by the Canadian Home Builders Association, Calgary region, and the Urban Development Institute Calgary. "With the mayor's seat and a number of wards up for grabs, it's time to engage and mobilize our industry," says Jay Westman, CEO of Jayman MasterBuilt.
Calgarians who believe in a sensibly-sized, compact city are highly disadvantaged in the debate, lacking the deep pockets of the development industry. City planners, who understand the financial and environmental costs of sprawling cities, are, because of their status as civil servants, banned from partisan participation in the political process. Developers, traditionally the biggest donors to municipal election campaigns, have their way open to elect aldermen amenable to their interests.
What particularly annoys democrats about this is that the money to fund the propaganda comes out of citizens' pockets. We all need a home, to rent or buy, so we all put our dollars into the hands of developers who then use it for whatever purposes they choose, including lobbying, public relations and electing amenable politicians. We are propagandized with our own money.

And paying for the propaganda isn't the end of it. Sprawling cities may be the developers' ideal, but they are costly cities. More sprawl means more roads, sewers, water lines, etc. to maintain. Citizens pay for this either with higher taxes or poorer services. The cost to the environment is also greater with more green space paved over and more pollution.

Democracy, to say nothing of sensible urban development, requires rules that confine the electoral process to citizens, and to citizens equally. That, after all, is what democracy is: political equality. When the plutocrats are allowed to intrude and undermine that equality with their money, democracy is corrupted to serve their interests. Voters do not get a balanced picture of the issues and the alternatives. But that, I'm afraid, is going to be the story of the 2010 Calgary civic election.

10 June 2010

Good news on the bad news front

The worst news humanity has ever received is that we are changing the climate of our planet, and if we don't stop we will quite likely wreck our civilization. Or worse. As this wasn't bad enough, recently we have heard that many people are losing interest in climate change, the greatest challenge we have ever faced. And worst of all, that decline in interest seemed most prevalent in the United States. If Americans don't care -- the people who produce 20 per cent of the world's greenhouse gasses -- we are in dire trouble indeed.

But now some good news. A survey released this week found that 61 per cent of Americans believe global warming is occurring, up from 57 per cent in January, and 50 per cent believe it's caused by people, up from 47 per cent. Sixty-three per cent believe it will affect them personally. The survey also found strong support for doing something about it, with 77 per cent supporting the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant and 87 per cent wanting more funding for research into renewable energy sources. 

Maybe there is a silver lining to B.P.'s catastrophic Gulf spill after all. When Americans see the destruction just one offshore oil well can do, one of many thousands, they may realize that all the activities of humanity accumulated might just be capable of changing the climate. The sight of innocent birds trapped in the smothering grip of oil can in itself jog our conscience about our treatment of the Earth.

Fifty per cent of Americans now coming to terms with the well-established scientific evidence is progress, but it almost certainly won't be enough. Convincing politicians who are under the spell of oil, coal and chemical industries will take more. Nonetheless, if the trend continues, it may be strong enough to affect the November elections, and that would be healthy progress indeed.