Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Different Kind of Strategic Thinking

Only a week following the Ontario election, the political focus has shifted from Toronto back to Ottawa as Prime Minister Stephen Harper does his best to use Parliamentary strategy to bring his party the support and attention it can't get from its policies.

It's a shame that the simple assumption and maintenance of power on Parliament Hill has become the apparent raison' d'etre for the "grey" parties - and garners bigger headlines than real news about the planet's ecology and economy.

Even as 42% Ontario's voters complacently sent Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government back to Queen's Park for four more years of middle-of-the-road management, Australian climate change specialist Tim Flannery made the international news pages with his interpretations of the initial data just released by the International Panel on Climate Change. Flannery concluded that, based on the IPCC evidence, global warming is happening faster than scientists had expected.

Another international report issued last week showed that world economic growth has completely overwhelmed widespread attempts to reduce pollution. And now this week a new national report organized by several government agencies including Environment Canada shows that the same has been true for Canada.

Yet print headlines, editorial commentary and TV news stories in the past week have focused on Ontario's new February holiday and Prime Minister Harper's cynical jockeying for power with Liberal leader Stephane Dion.

The Green Party of Ontario's tripling of its popular vote has barely registered with the mass media. Nor has the Sharbot Lake area Algonquins' legal challenge to Ontario's Mining Act, nor the recent scientific research published in the respected journal Nature indicating that our atmosphere has become significantly more humid in recent years entirely due to increases in temperature as a result of industrial activity.

The biggest problem with the political game from the point of view of an ecologist is that while virtually everyone understands human interactions to some extent, hardly any of us understand our interactions with the rest of the natural world.

How much easier it was this past election for the Green Party of Ontario to get press for its single-public-education-system policy than to put its water policy, energy policy or agricultural policy onto the table. Everyone in Ontario has been to school - but how many of us have any idea how much energy, water or food we consume, let alone the complex biological and ecological transformations needed to bring those commodities to us?

The Mixed-Member Proportional system proposed by the Citizens' Assembly was recommended in part because it provides a way for those few people who understand ecology to have their voices count at Queen's Park. Sadly, it seems from the initial data on the referendum that people mainly voted for or against MMP solely on the basis of what benefit it would have for the party they supported. MMP passed the 60% approval mark only in Toronto ridings home to large numbers of NDP supporters, for example. One can imagine that Green supporters also voted in favour of MMP, while Liberal and Conservative supporters did not.

It would appear that holding the referendum in conjunction with the election promotes this kind of partisan approach to decision-making, which is utterly at odds with the intent of the reform. The Liberal strategists who recommended holding the referendum in conjuction with the election have proved themselves adept at manipulating the electorate, but at what cost?

Meanwhile, the PCs told their supporters outright not to vote in favour of MMP, mainly because the party hopes to benefit from the current system of disproportional representation at some future election. The irony here is that, if MMP had already been implemented, the PCs would have received more proportional seats than any other party given the results of last week's election.

There is a great need for strategic thinking in this time of global ecological crisis. Unfortunately, the kinds of strategy we need to adopt don't have anything to do with the manipulation of one another that we're so familar with, but with coming up with new and better ways to interact with our ecology so that we don't wear out our welcome on this earth in short order.

Thankfully, the Green Party of Canada's leadership understands this necessity clearly, and has come out strongly with its own version of strategic thinking to counter the Prime Minister's shallow Throne Speech. The "green vision" document, now available on the GPC website at www.greenparty.ca, outlines some real strategic thinking directed at more than petty power games.

In the coming days I'll review the referendum in more detail, and also compare the innovative GPO and GPC policies with their Liberal and Conservative counterparts.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Leapfrogging Greens

As expected, the 2007 Ontario election campaign proved to be the "great leap forward" for the Green Party of Ontario, comparable to that experienced by the Green Party of Canada in 2004.

Voter support for the GPO tripled from 2.7% of the popular vote in 2003 to 8% last week. This far surpasses the 5.5% garnered by the federal party in 2006, and bodes well for Elizabeth May's chances to lead the GPC to double-digit figures and perhaps even seats in the House of Commons in the next federal election.

In Peterborough, Liberal incumbent Jeff Leal was sent back to Queen's Park by a comfortable margin, as most expected. Leal's sheer stamina in public service, including many years as a south-end Peterborough municipal councillor, no doubt played a major role in his re-election, as did his party's support of the Catholic school system.

Once again, Peterborough proved to be a "bellweather" riding as voting results here mirrored the overall provincial results. Leal had 48% of the popular vote, while his party averaged 42%. Leal's vote total, 24,425, was only 200 shy of his total for 2003.

PC candidate Bruce Fitzpatrick, the well-known downtown lawyer, resembled in some ways his own party leader John Tory with his businessman image and smooth command of rhetoric. Both men fell well short of their supporters' expectations, with Fitzpatrick garnering less than 26% of the vote, well below the 33% earned by then-PC incumbent Gary Stewart in 2003. In fact, Fitzpatrick's vote total of 13,093 was over 5000 votes fewer than Stewart's, likely indicating that many PC voters stayed home rather than vote for the Toronto-centered Tory and religious school funding. The PCs averaged 31.6% provincially, down from 34.7% in 2003, representing a drop of 200,000 votes across the province.

Dave Nickle, the local NDP candidate, also lost votes from his 2003 totals, dropping from 9796 to 8488, even while his party picked up 80,000 votes across the province. Nickle's 2007 support equalled 16.6% of the popular vote, almost identical to the NDP's provincial average.

Miriam Stucky, Peterborough's Green Party candidate, was the only local candidate who increased her party's vote totals from 2003 - and they increased significantly. In 2003, Tim Holland picked up 1605 votes. Stucky nearly tripled this figure, with 4,444, representing 8.7% of the popular vote. This vote total is more than half that of the NDP, and more than a third that of the PCs. This is an incredible accomplishment, given that the Green Party locally spent only about a tenth as much money on its campaign as did its rivals, had no television advertising, and was shut out of the televised leaders' debate again. Stucky's vote total was 20th in Ontario among Green candidates.

Across the province there were simliar success stories. The most notable was Shane Jolley's unprecedented run-off with PC imcubment Bill Murdoch in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. Jolley was running at 28% in the polls the week before the election, while Murdoch, a 17 year veteran as riding representative, caused controversy by breaking ranks with his party over the religious school funding issue and watched his support tumble. Volunteers from other ridings joined Shane's team in Owen Sound in an valiant attempt to push Shane past Murdoch and take the seat. Their efforts were rewarded, as voters poured out of the woodwork and away from the Liberals and NDP, casting more than 15,000 votes for Jolley, or 33% of the popular vote. Murdoch's supporters rallied around him, whether in spite of or because of his split with Tory, and he managed to recapture his support with more than 21,000 votes, or 47%.

As a result of the tightly-contested race, voter turnout in the riding was over 66%,dramatically higher than the provincial average, which was an all-time low 52%. However, Murdoch's breaking-of-ranks with Tory didn't help the fortunes of the leader or the other PC candidates, and given the extremely low vote totals of the local NDP and Liberal candidates, may not have even been necessary to his own re-election.

Other major Green victories occured in neighbouring ridings in rural Ontario. Ben Polley in Guelph managed to earn almost 20% of the vote, while Rob Strang in Dufferin-Caledon picked up 17%. Support was also strong in nearby Simcoe-Grey, Simcoe-North, and Wellington-Halton Hills. Green candidates in urban ridings in downtown Toronto, Ottawa and London were also highly successful at the ballot box. All told, 19 GPO candidates had double-digit vote totals, and 21 finished in third place (or in Jolley's case, second), leapfrogging either their PC or NDP rivals.

Leader Frank de Jong managed more than 10% in his downtown Toronto riding of Davenport, in spite of low voter turnout and his obligation to spend most of his time touring the province.

It sometimes seems absurd to be evaluating progress toward sustainability on the numerical results of these popularity contests we call general elections. With our antiquated system of disproportional representation, the Liberal government is now free to move ahead with its outrageously inadequate energy policies and maintain its foot-dragging on issues of water conservation, toxic chemical regulation, and status quo positions on health and education.

Nevertheless, the Green Party's rising vote totals are incontrovertible evidence that Ontario's population is ever-more ready to embrace the significant changes urgently needed. Polls show that support for the Green Party and for electoral reform are quite high among younger voters, whose voices are unfortunately dwarfed by the large number of older voters in Ontario who tend to be highly resistant to change, less well educated, and much more likely to actually show up to vote.

The 2007 election has shown us that it's not a matter of "if" for sustainable public policy and electoral reform, but a matter of "when".

Monday, October 8, 2007

Profiting from the Democratic Deficit

As I'd predicted in an earlier post on the subject of schools and religious groups, PC leader John Tory's ploy to attract the votes of non-WASPs in the GTA by proposing an extension of public funding to faith-based schools has backfired. It was clear from the beginning that the majority of Ontario citizens wouldn't support such a plan, and Tory's last-minute attempt to control the damage by suggesting that he'd hold a free vote in the Legislature on it instead of pushing it through has made him look more of an opportunist.

The upside of the resulting public debate over the proposal is that Ontario citizens, perhaps to the chagrin of Catholic school supporters, are now ready to start the move toward a single English language public school system.

The downside is that, as NDP leader Howard Hampton complained, the education debate has dominated the campaign both in the media and in the chatter of the electorate to the exclusion of other important issues. The Toronto Star today ran a story about this - without, of course, acknowledging that The Star itself was partly responsible for blowing the issue up. A shamelessly Liberal paper, The Star took the lead in promoting both sides of the issue, effectively distracting voters from other serious issues - most notably in my mind, the impending massive investment in nuclear power. Hampton, naturally, perceived that Tory's school proposal detracted from the NDP and the PC campaigns' ability to draw attention to the Liberal government's mediocre record in several key areas. Following the debacles of the Rae, Harris and Eves governments, however, McGuinty's record doesn't look so bad anyway, and the "attack ads" on TV, in my experience, wear thin with the electorate pretty quickly.

The continued exclusion from the televised leaders' "debate" (a misnomer if there ever was one) of Green Party leader Frank de Jong also worked to keep important issues under the radar of the majority of the public. Certainly one can surmise that the leadership of the PCs, Liberals and NDP find themselves united in their desire not to let any more votes slip away to the Green Party. However, given that the policy debate logjam caused by these three parties' strategies to maintain power has resulted in nothing more than the maintenance of the status quo at Queen's Park, they may want to reconsider their role in keeping de Jong out. Had de Jong been put on the televised debate, a whole host of policy alternatives would have been brought to the fore. All it would take next time is for one of the three other leaders to make the Green Party's admission to the debate a condition of his own participation, and the network organizers would be obliged to comply. There would be little point in going ahead with a two-leader debate.

The corporately-owned mass media continue, unfortunately, to keep the Green Party marginalized. Although the Greens have been polling between 6% and 11%, the party and its policies without question receive far less press proportionally than do the larger parties. The Liberals and Conservatives, the two parties with the strongest ties to corporate Ontario, together receive close to 90% of the media coverage, even though their combined poll totals wouldn't crack 75%. Although polling at about half the popularity of the NDP, a third of that of the PCs and a quarter of that of the Liberals, the Green Party's press coverage comes to probably about a tenth of the NDPs, and its TV coverage still less.

Not only does the Green Party suffer from this exclusion, but so does all Ontario, now and into the future. There's no question that Canada's "democratic deficit," as Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May has so astutely referred to it, is largely a product of the systematic limiting of the scope of political debate by the corporately-owned media and its slavish publicly-owned imitator, the CBC. While Elections Ontario forces every political candidate in the province to account for every last dime spent or collected, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission continues to let broadcasters act as free public advertising for some parties but not others.

Our antiquated system of disproportional representation is also a major contributor to the democratic deficit, of course. A second major step forward that has occured in this campaign is that proportional representation in the form of the Mixed-Member Proportional system is now on the public's mind. Although the referendum is not likely to pass this time, great strides have been made in making our politically unsophisticated electorate aware of the options. Perhaps when yet another false majority government takes 100% of the power at Queen's Park with 60% of the seats and 40% of the votes, leaving the majority of voters entirely unrepresented, there will be more questions asked, and more voters ready to take a serious look at a better system of representation the next time the opportunity is presented. Like the move to a single public school system, a proportional system of representation for Ontario is an inevitability that vested interests can only put off for so long.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lessons from New Zealand's experience with MMP

With 17 days left to the Oct. 10 election and referendum, the polling numbers indicate that the Green Party is the only party increasing in popularity.

Last week's polls showed the Liberals hovering just above 40%, the PC's just above 30%, the NDP in the mid-teens and the Green Party around 10%.

Though these figures ought to result in a minority Liberal government, the fact is that under our current system, the Liberals may again wind up with a majority. As blogger Greg Morrow noted on the Democratic Space website (http://www.democraticspace.com/blog/), the final outcome of this election will likely be determined by a mere 1.5% of "swing" voters in the 30 closest contests around the province.

The situation is even more exaggerated at the federal level, where federal election outcomes in recent years have revolved around a dozen swing ridings in Western Quebec.

Once more than two parties become serious contestants, the first-past-the-post system becomes increasingly less democratic, often focusing vast amounts of decision-making power into the hands of a few thousand voters who may not even realize that their votes have the potential to grant one party 100% of the governing power.

The mixed-member proportional system (MMP), which has been recommended for Ontario by a democratically-selected citizens' committee, has been designed to eliminate such anomalous distributions of power. However, it is important to note that although MMP will guarantee that the makeup of the Legislature is proportional, it won't guarantee that the distribution of power within the Legislature is proportional.

One of the principal features of proportional representation systems is that they usually result in coalition governments comprised of the the party with the greatest percentage of the popular vote and whatever combination of the less-popular parties they can get on board to bring their seat total up to 50%. This sometimes means that a party with only a few seats may hold what is known as "the balance of power" in the process of forming such coalitions.

At the federal level, neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper felt that they could acceptably strike up a coalition with any other party to achieve a stable majority, and chose to carry on seeking support on an ad hoc, bill-by-bill basis from whichever party they felt they could appeal to at the time. Martin narrowly avoided defeat in the spring of 2005 by luring Belinda Stronach over from the Conservatives and winning the support of the independent Chuck Cadman. Harper managed to buy time in 2007 by throwing money at Quebec to secure the support of the Bloc Quebecois.

With a proportional system, however, coalitions become much more attractive because there really isn't much hope of winning a majority in the next election. This means that any party which aims to govern must be prepared to enter into a serious set of negotiations and compromises with another party, usually much smaller, in order to gain the majority needed. This can put a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of parties with minimal amounts of voter support.

The example of New Zealand is well-worth studying for anyone interested in promoting MMP for Canadian jurisdictions. In the 1996 general election, the first election following the adoption of MMP, a three-year-old party called New Zealand First, led by the charistmatic and controversial Winston Peters, a former National Party MP who had been dismissed from his caucus, managed to pull votes from both conservative white voters and younger Maori and end up with 14% of the seats. With the National Party at 36%, Labour at 30% and the left-wing Alliance at 10%, a number of coalitions were possible - but all of the likely ones depended on New Zealand First. After months of negotiation, Peters chose to side with National - a choice which immediately disenchanted many of those who had voted for NZF imagining that they would side with Labour.

The coalition proved no more popular among the National Party caucus, many of whose members resented having to deal with radically-minded Maori MPs and Peters himself, who they had earlier dismissed from their caucus. The reaction of the general public was to blame MMP for the unpopular and volatile situation, and polls indicated that whereas 54% had voted in favour of MMP in a 1993 referendum, by 1997 support had dropped to 33%, and some National Party members began lobbying for a return to the old system.

However, the democratic process quickly repaid the ill-advised opportunism of the NZF and National Party, as the uncomfortable coalition fell apart, and in the 1999 election support for both parties fell. The Labour Party under Helen Clark formed a coalition with the Alliance which proved to be a more stable combination. The Alliance itself had been composed of a number of smaller parties, including the Green Party. In the 2002 election, the Alliance had fallen apart, and when Labour again won a plurality but not a majority, they turned to its dispersed remnants in the newly-formed Progressive Party and United Future Party.

Proportional representation systems, proponents argue, encourage consensus decision-making in the legislature rather than confrontation and grandstanding. New Zealand's example shows us that consensus isn't easy to achieve - even among coalition partners.

Up until the early 1990s, New Zealand's political system was dominated by the conservative National Party and the center-left Labour Party - not unlike its parent country, Great Britain. By 2005, there were seven parties with seats in the national assembly - National, Labour, New Zealand First, ACT, United Future, Green and the Progressive Coalition. A new party, the Maori Party, was formed to contest that election, bringing the current number to eight.

Proponents of proportional systems, like myself, argue that this is the way democracy should work. With a wide array of interests and perspectives among voters, it only makes sense that there should be a wide range of parties to represent those interests. To small-"c" conservative voters in Ontario, however, such a diverse complicated system can seem intimidating, and to give too much power to what are peceived as minority groups.

The New Zealand example shows clearly that in fact both Maori and women voters have experienced a significant increase in representation in the Parliament since MMP came in. Maori, who comprise about 14% of New Zealand's population, historically had only 4 seats in the Parliament, special seats which had been created for Maori only in an early attempt to guarantee some representation but not enough to impact Parliamentary decisions. Today Maori-born MPs comprise all the Maori Party and a significant portion of New Zealand First members and some Labour MPs.

Women have come to positions of prominence in New Zealand since MMP as well. In the late 1990s, both National and Labour were led by women - Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark, respectively. For a period during 2005-06, all the highest offices in the country were held by women - including the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice and Governor-General. The Maori party currently has male and female co-leaders. However, the overall number of female MPs remains far lower than the number of male MPs.

While Ontario bears some resemblance to New Zealand in terms of its population size, colonial history, land area and political conservatism, Ontario's current ethnic makeup is quite different. Whereas the Maori comprise a significant voting bloc in New Zealand, Ontario's First Nations make up only 2% of the total population. While those who trace their ancestry to the British Isles remain a majority in Ontario, it is now a slim one. Waves of immigration from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, India, China and the Ukraine have changed Ontario's ethnic makeup dramatically since the Second World War. French Canadians continue to make up a sizable percentage of Ontario as well, and new waves of immigration from Africa are now occuring. It is much less likely that an MMP system in Ontario would foster parties split along ethnic lines. It is more likely that the existing smaller parties would find themselves in positions of greater power, and thus find themselves mutating to meet these new demands.

However, there is a limit as to how small a party can be and still be represented in the Legislature. In New Zealand the limit is 5% of the popular vote, or of course a single representative elected in a riding.

New Zealand currently serves about 5 million people with 120 Members of Parliament. Ontario, with twice the population, has only 107 seats in Queen's Park. In moving to an MMP system, New Zealand did what the MMP proposal for Ontario aims to do: reduce the number of ridings, and increase their size so that when proportional seats were added, the number of seats wouldn't simply double. However, New Zealand, in opting for the German-style MMP with 50% of seats for ridings and 50% for parties, was obliged to drastically reduce the number of ridings and redraw riding boundaries virtually from scratch.

Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has actually proposed a better system, which requires much less disruption to the current ridings. The Citizens' Assembly astutely noted that there is no need for 50% of the seats to be proportionally-assigned to create a proportional Legislature. In fact, 30% will do the job nicely in every possible situation. This is the rationale behind the proposal for Ontario - to reduce the number of ridings from 107 to 90, and to add 39 proportional seats - which is 30% of the total of 129.

It is also worth noting how long it took for New Zealand to actually bring in MMP. It was 10 years from the time their Royal Commission on electoral reform recommended a switch to proportional representation to the 1996 election where it actually went into effect.

A first referendum was held in the early 1990s, in which the public was asked if they favoured a referendum on electoral reform at all, and to indicate which of several possible new systems they would want on the ballot. Both the National Party and the Labour Party, who had enjoyed a duopoly on power in New Zealand for most of its history, opposed the reform, as they knew it would destroy their cozy system of alternating governments.

A series of unpopular majority governments, elected with less than 50% of the vote, throughout the late 80s and early 90s increased voter dissatisfaction with the existing system and fuelled the calls for an MMP system. An analagous situation occured in Ontario with the Rae and Harris governments - but McGuinty's Liberals have succeeded in doing what Liberal governments always do - sit on the fence and make as few changes as possible. This policy may have the effect of chilling voter interest in reform.

McGuinty's government has also put an artificially high 60% threshold for the referendum to become legally binding. This was also the tactic used by the Liberal government in British Columbia several years ago when they held a referendum on electoral reform. The BC referendum actually saw a higher percentage of voters in favour of change than did New Zealand - but due to the imposition of the 60% threshold, BC continues with business as usual. Had the New Zealand government of the day imposed a similar threshold, MMP would never have come in.

Like the necessary economic reforms being put forward by the Green Party, systems of proportional representation will eventually be adopted in Canada. It is only a matter of time. We will very shortly find ourselves unable to negotiate the realities of the 21st century with an obsolete set of 19th century legislative principles holding us back.

If the referendum on MMP does not pass this time, it will most likely pass next time. Other provinces will also be holding referendums in the coming years. It will likely be a province with a high degree of voter dissatisfaction with inept false-majority governments that takes the plunge first. Once one province takes the first step and navigates the transition successfully, timid Canadians across the country will be empowered to join the rest of the democratic world and bring proportional representation to their own provinces.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Moving Ahead With MMP

Tonight's televised leaders' debate will be most notable for one thing: the absence of Green Party of Ontario leader Frank de Jong.

Even with CTV and Decima Research polls showing the GPO solidly in double-digit figures, only a few percentage points behind the NDP, and with the party running a full slate of candidates across Ontario, the organizers of the televised debate have decided to maintain the status quo and feature only the NDP, PC, and Liberal leaders.

In the world of mainstream television, it's always better to play it safe than risk being relevant.

Let's hope Ontario citizens don't feel the same way about MMP - the mixed-member proportional electoral system which is the subject of a referendum in conjunction with the Oct. 10 election.

An MMP system would attempt to match the number of seats a party holds in the Legislature to its actual vote total. With 129 proposed seats in the Legislature, if the Greens continued to poll at 10%, we would see 13 Green MPP's at Queen's Park - which is 13 more than they have now with the exact same level of voter support.

A democratically-selected group of Ontario citizens, one from each riding, called the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, recommended the MMP system for Ontario almost unanimously after a year of research and consultation. Their plan consists of reducing the number of geographical ridings to 90 from the current 107, while simultaneously increasing the number of seats in the Legislature to 129 - about the number we used to have before the Harris PC government "downsized" it in the 1990s.

The extra 39 seats would be "proportional" seats, allocated to parties such that the overall makeup of the legislature closely reflects the popular vote.

Let's play out an imaginary scenario for the following general election in Ontario, assuming that the referendum were to pass.

The Green Party, if it were to maintain its current share of 10% of the popular vote yet elect no MPPs directly, would be assigned 13 proportional seats. Let's say the NDP achieved 15% of the popular vote, and elected 15 MPPs in the riding seats. They'd be entitled to 15% of the total of 129, or 19 seats in all - so they'd be assigned 4 of the proportional seats in addition to the 15 they'd won outright.

Were the Liberals to achieve, say, 40% of the popular vote and elect members in 45 ridings, they'd be assigned 6 proportional seats to bring their total to 40% of 129, or 51. Finally, to complete our speculative example, let's imagine the PCs won the remaining 30 of the 90 riding seats with 35% of the popular vote. They'd be assigned 16 proportional seats for a total of 46.

How would we determine who would actually occupy these proportionally-determined seats as MPPs? Each party would submit a ranked-order list of potential MPPs for public viewing. There would be no secrets - just as riding candidates today make their name, face, educational and vocational backgrounds, and positions on various issues public, so would the "list" candidates. Voters would be free to evaluate what kind of people each party was putting forth, and let that help determine their vote.

The other new twist the MMP system would bring is that there would be two choices made at the polling station, not just one. One choice would be for the local representative to fill the local seat, as today. The other choice would be for the party whose policies the voter prefers. The party might be the one that the voter's favoured local representative belongs to - or it might not. Either way, the party preference vote is the one that is counted towards determining the overall distribution of the seats at Queen's Park.

This system allows voters the best of both worlds. We would be able to vote for the individual candidate we think is the best representative for our riding without throwing our policy preferences out the window.

Under the MMP system, coalition governments would become the norm. Politicians of the various parties would be obliged to work with one another instead of automatically gainsaying every statement or decision made by their rivals. The quality of debate at Queen's Park and the behaviour of the MPPs would improve immensely. Progressive ideas would no longer be swept under the carpet by parties desperately trying to hold on to their false majorities.

If we'd brought in the MMP system 20 years ago, Bob Rae's NDP would never have been given a majority government with 38% of the popular vote and a raft of rookie ministers unprepared to handle such unearned power. Without the public backlash against the Rae government's policies, the Harris PCs would probably never have to come to power, and we wouldn't have an education system still trying to recover from the Harris slash-and-burn management style. We wouldn't have the McGuinty Liberals pushing a $46 nuclear expansion project through behind closed doors.

As the current beneficiaries of disproportional representation, McGuinty's Liberal government has been doing everything it can to keep the referendum from passing without actually appearing to be against it.

There most successful weapon in keeping the public ill-informed so far has been to severely limit Elections Ontario's ability to educate the public on the referendum and the proposed reform. This was accomplished by giving Elections Ontario vague legislation to deal with, so that time would be eaten up in forming the final referendum game plan. To make sure that the public wouldn't know much about it before the election period, they also made sure Elections Ontario had only enough money to promote the referendum during the campaign period, rather than educating the public well beforehand.

Given that we haven't had a referendum in Ontario in 70 years, and that hardly any of us have a solid understanding of the way the electoral system works currently, let alone what the alternatives are that exist around the world, one month is hardly enough for the public to be able to make an intelligent decision - especially when that month's news is totally consumed with the usual political soap opera stories. The public should have had a full calendar year to process the potential changes before being asked to vote on them - not a single month during which the referendum would be dwarfed by the campaigns of the political parties.

As always, the Liberal party's policy is to preserve the status quo at all costs, and avoid the risks associated with venturing any kind of substantial change - not unlike the television executives who continue to shut the Green Party out of the leaders' debates.

If we weren't saddled with the 19th century baggage of disproportional representation, the Mining Act, and the Ontario Municipal Board, if we weren't choking ourselves to death on auto-fumes and ticking away the days before global climate change destabilizes our ecology permanently, maybe this wouldn't be such a bad thing.

We can only ignore reality so long before it hits us in the face. Let's hope that Ontario citizens have more guts than do McGuinty's advisors and TV executives.

Next week I'll discuss the story behind New Zealand's switch to MMP in the 1990s, and how it has led to that country taking an international leadership role on climate change and ecological health.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Disproportional representation: yet another 19th century relic

MMP = Mixed-Member Proportional.

If you already knew that, consider yourself one of Ontario's more astute citizens.

If you already know what it means, consider yourself a member of the political elite.

The Toronto Star and other mainstream media sources have been running articles for the past few weeks focusing on the general public ignorance of the referendum on electoral reform taking place in conjuction with the Oct. 10 provincial election. A random survey of adults walking down Bay St. in Toronto this week showed that only 3 of 50 knew anything about the referendum or its implications.

Based on what I've seen in the mainstream media, I wouldn't bank on the proportion of journalists who are in-the-know being much higher.

Some news items have spun this ignorance as a lack of interest in electoral reform. A more accurate interpretation might be that in fact very few people have much interest or knowledge of provincial politics in the first place.

Citizens who know who their representative to Queens Park is would certainly find themselves in the minority. And how many would know their riding boundaries, or actual polling numbers from the previous election? How many know anything about the provincial budget that their elected representatives vote on? How many know that no majority government in decades has actually received a majority of the popular vote?

Compared with our Quebecois counterparts, Ontarians are a politically simple group. There are many reasons for this, beginning with our 19th century "family compact" origins which set the precedent for concentrating power in the hands of the wealthy, right up to the huge number of recent immigrants to the province who in most cases have little understanding of its system of governance.

Voter turnout for Ontario elections has been dropping steadily for the past 30 years, from 68% in 1975 to 57% in 2003. This is universally condemned as an unfortunate trend, but when one considers how little the vast majority of citizens actually know about their government, and the way the current electoral system distorts the voting results, it's difficult to conclude that a higher voter turnout would make any significant difference in Ontario's governance. Indeed, a sense that this is the case is precisely what dissuades people from making it out on polling day.

The current riding-by-riding simple plurality method of electing representatives to Queens Park is certainly part of the problem. Voters often feel that their votes don't make a difference - and they're right.

The bare fact of the matter is that when any more than two candidates or two parties compete for election, there will be more votes that don't matter than those that do. This is precisely the opposite of what a system of democratic election intends.

In Peterborough in 2003, 24,626 people voted for Jeff Leal of the Liberal party, or 45% of the 55,000 who turned out to the polls. The other 31,000 voted for other candidates. Although Leal will ostensibly go to Queens Park with the interests of all his constituents in mind, whether or not they supported him, in practice he will side with his party on every matter of legislation. The 45% of Peterborough voters who supported Leal indirectly hold 100% of the legislative power granted to the Peterborough riding. The votes of the other 55% - the majority - are effectively discarded when it comes to legislative power at Queens Park.

If this same pattern were repeated in every one of the 103 electoral districts in Ontario, the Liberal party would hold 100% of the seats in the legislature even though more people voted against them than for them.

But wait - this is precisely what did happen in Ontario in 2003! Because it takes only a simple majority to pass legislation at Queens Park, the Liberals didn't even need to repeat the Peterborough result 103 times - they only needed to repeat it 52 times to gain 100% of the power.

Indeed, in theory the party could have received zero votes in the other 51 ridings and obtained the same final result - 100% of the power.

Let's put it in blunt if obtuse terms: a simple majority of representatives elected by simple pluralities in their ridings will virtually never represent the interests of the majority. This is why the majority attitude toward the government at election time is nearly always negative.

Our current method, sometimes called "first past the post", was never designed for a multi-party system. It was only designed for a two-party system. With a multi-party system it will always produce distorted results.

Most of the rest of the democratic world, who are all more politically sophisticated than we in Canada (and perhaps have better math skills), realized this long ago, and have moved on to more sophisticated methods of determining elected representatives. Because our closest neighbours, the Americans and the British, are nearly as unsophisticated as we are, we haven't noticed.

The MMP system being proposed is but one option among many to bring us back to reality. I'll analyze its merits and review its history in other places in my next entry.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

GM layoffs expose our house of cards for what it is

In my last post, "The Twisted History of Trent Rapids," I plumbed the convoluted path of policy-making that has led to the current Liberal government's willingness to subsidize a hydro dam on Trent University property to allow Trent to earn some money from leasing the land - instead of simply properly funding Trent in the first place.

Next week I'll comment further on the proposed project in light of the Ontario Municipal Board hearings that occured this summer.

In the meantime, I'd like to discuss other peculiar paths of financial flow and their relationship to unsustainable economics.

Let's consider the layoffs announced last week at GM's Oshawa truck plant. GM announced 1200 workers would be laid off due to slumping US sales of pickup trucks, which accounts for 85% of the sales from the plant.

The slumping US sales are a result of a crash in the housing market. As the Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom wrote last week, the American housing market had been artificially propped up in recent years by the institutional practice of providing mortgages to homeowners who had little chance of ever paying the money back.

People were encouraged to buy houses whose mortgages were worth more than they could afford to pay, with the expectation that as demand for houses continued to increase, so would their prices. Essentially, you could buy a house with virtually no down payment, maintain the minimum interest payments on the mortgage for a few years, then sell the house for thousands more than you'd paid for it, and keep the profit.

This kind of bubble is bound to burst, as it finally did this past summer. Housing prices dropped, and many people were caught with an overpriced asset they couldn't afford to maintain. Homes were repossessed, new housing starts dropped, and so did the demand for imported pickup trucks from Canada.

Making the market even tighter is the rising value of the Canadian dollar relative to the American dollar. One of the main reasons for the Canadian dollar's increasing value internationally is the ever-rising price of oil and gas, largely a product of rapidly increasing demand for fuel from China's rapidly-expanding industrial sector. And who buys the products the Chinese manufacture using Canadian oil and gas? That's right - Americans.

At an all-candidates meeting during the 2006 federal election we were discussing the problems Ontario farmers face in trying to make ends meet due to the fluctuating food prices on the wholesale market, which are mainly determined in the US. The Green Party's position on the problem is to look for ways to detach the Ontario food-production system from the American trading system as much as is feasible. "Tying ourselves to the American economy is like tying ourselves to the mast of a sinking ship," I told the audience.

The truth is that America can't afford its current lifestyle - not even close. The American government has a debt load larger than total budget for many countries. The average American household spends more than it brings in each year. The American empire is in decline internationally, and at home.

The unsustainable economic systems that we have developed in the western world can only last so long before they crumble in a heap of broken promises. Canada is not much better off than the US. One can easily make the argument that our incredibly high standard of living is simply due, in the main, not to our work ethic or brains, but simply to the vast network of natural resources we have had to play with over the past 100 years - a network which is now approaching its breaking point.

Our oil and gas sector is currently booming. Petroleum prices worldwide are going to continue to increase as demand outstrips supply over the next generation. But as we know, the real cost of burning so much fossil fuel isn't going to be fully reckoned until two generations from now, when our grandchildren will face rapidly rising temperatures and climatic instability.

In the short term, too, though, we have a problem. America's consumption levels will have to decline, and with that decline will come a decline in demand for cheap Chinese manufactured goods. And with that decline will come a decline in demand for Canada's oil - and its motor vehicles.

The Ontario government has had the power for a long time to force local automakers to produce higher-efficiency vehicles with lower emissions. This not only would reduce our smog problem and our global warming problem, but would actually force GM and Ford to become competitive again in the marketplace. Instead, the government has repeatedly bailed out the automakers when they've run into financial trouble. This approach, supported by the autoworkers unions, hasn't saved jobs or made the companies more economically viable. It has only postponed the inevitable.

An over-reliance on unstable and unsustainable global markets should be avoided as a matter of policy. Many countries around the world have already learned this. Rampant economic globalization is no longer trendy in most places. But, as John Ralston Saul noted last year in his book The Collapse of Globalism, the political and economic elite in Canada haven't taken notice.

Brazil and Argentina have taken major steps to rid themselves of IMF loans and re-establish their economies under local control. Venezuela has nationalized its oil and gas industry and sought to stem the leakage of oil money to foreign investors. The American empire's influence over South America has diminished drastically over the past generation. But here in Canada, we're still blithely expecting to be able to ride the coattails of the US giant.

The GM layoffs in Oshawa should be a signal that it's time to retool our economy from the inside out.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The twisted history of Trent Rapids

On the campaign trail I often found supporters of the Conservative Party intrigued by Green policies but confusing the ideas of “conservative” and “conservation”. The fiscally-responsible side of the Green Party platform appealed to them, and Green conservation policies spoke to a sense they had that the Conservative party had some connection to “old-time” values such as frugality and modesty.

Once upon a time “conservative,” in the world of partisan politics, meant an adherence to established values and a cautious approach to social change. But ever since the Harris government’s Orwellian-named “common-sense revolution,” in Ontario “conservative” has meant finding every possible way to use government to facilitate private profiteering and keep our economy in overconsumption mode – the exact opposite of “conservation”.

The Trent Rapids hydroelectric project is a direct result of the Harris government’s sly attempts to artificially stimulate unsustainable but profitable private development by starving public institutions of funds. And the McGuinty government’s refusal to reverse those policies has allowed them to keep doing their dirty work years after their originators were voted out of office.

Worse, the Liberals’ apparently progressive policy of subsidizing “green” energy development has backfired and is now causing an underfunded Trent University to back an absurd and unnecessary scheme to build a huge new hydroelectric project in its Nature Areas.

One of the Harris government’s most damaging smoke-and-mirrors tricks to cut taxes and free up consumer dollars for electronic gadgetry, minivans and monster homes was to abdicate any responsibility for the well-being of Ontario’s post-secondary education system.

The Harris government took millions out of the high school budget by axing OAC, and pushed OAC-bound students to take out loans to continue their education at the post-secondary level. At the same time, the PCs cut funding to universities, forcing small institutions like Trent to the point of bankruptcy, obliging them to grasp at any opportunity for the injection of dollars to help the school stay afloat.

This policy has had wide-ranging repercussions that we are still dealing with. The Trent Rapids hydroelectric project is but one among many.

Trent’s desperation for funds has led to its accepting many more students than its facilities can accommodate, its decision to contract out its bookstore to an American corporation, a steady exodus of disenchanted faculty members, the closing of Peter Robinson College, and the resulting historic lawsuit from its own professors, the verdict on which effectively put all power to govern Trent in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable Board of Governors. This decision violated the original Trent Act, which had set up a bicameral governance system in which the Board shared power with the Senate, a body composed of faculty members, staff and students, and set a terrible precedent for universities across the country.

Trent’s Board of Governors has been hoping to find some way to turn Trent’s Nature Areas into revenue for years. Golf courses, condos, and shopping malls had been suggested but didn’t have good optics. But a deal to lease its property to a hydroelectric firm to produce so-called “green power” – now that would be a winner, wouldn’t it?

No matter that the proposal to bulldoze thousands of trees and destroy a shoreline to create an 8 megawatt hydroelectric station completely disregards the Trent Nature Area Stewardship plan developed thoughtfully over a number of years by Trent’s own professors and approved by the Senate. Thanks to the historic ruling in the Kulchyski vs. Trent case, the Senate’s power has been utterly nullified. And the reason why the court ruled against the Senate in that case? Trent’s financial exigency - brought on by the Ontario government’s own policies.

No matter that there’s nothing “green” about the destruction of a natural environment for the sake of a few megawatts of electricity. The McGuinty government, desperate for ways to add generation capacity to allow it to finally fulfill their campaign pledge to close Ontario’s coal-fired plants, is willing to accept any form of renewable energy as “green” without even so much as environmental assessment.

No matter that the City of Peterborough’s own Official Plan does not allow for such a development on that property. All it takes is for one public-private partnership, Trent University, to team up with another one, Trent Rapids Power Corporation, which is 50% owned by Peterborough Utilities Inc., and evade the City’s regulations by invoking section 6.1 of the Zoning bylaw, which exempts the PUC from having to obey bylaws which would apply to any private applicant.

No matter that there are several dams already in existence on the river north of Trent which could be retrofitted with turbines to produce additional electricity without further disrupting the ecology of the place.

The McGuinty government refuses to provide adequate funding to support Trent University directly. But it’s more than willing to put up taxpayers’ money to subsidize Trent Rapids, which will turn over some of this same money to Trent University in return for a long-term lease on the land, and keep the rest for profit.

It’s quite frightening when you boil it right down, isn’t it?

If a private landowner teamed up with a private developer to create such a project, it would have to go through a major environmental assessment and an appeal to City Council and the public to modify the Official Plan. A fully public institution would never have had to go down this road in the first place. But in the shady world of public-private partnerships, neither an environmental assessment nor a presentation to City Council is considered necessary for a multi-million dollar investment of public money in drastically modfiying what is essentially public space.

As shameful as the project appears from these angles, it’s even worse when one considers that the power from the station is estimated to provide electricity for about 2,000 residences. That’s only about 5% of Peterborough’s residential demand.

An equal amount of electricity could be freed up if the PUC simply recalled all its inefficient water heater tanks and replaced them with tankless models, which consume 75% less energy, and put smart meters in every residence.

The McGuinty government’s offer to pay more for electricity to private suppliers than it charges to consumers is typical of Liberal policies which attempt to make everyone happy without any actual economic rationale. By going down this road, we are using tax dollars to increase an already-abundant electricity supply while providing no incentive to anyone to conserve energy, ensuring that our consumption will never decrease.

In other words, projects like Trent Rapids will only make our eco-problems worse.

For a thorough review of the Kulchyski vs. Trent case and its historic and legal background, go to http://www.ourtrent.com/docs/pdf/short-history-of-kulchyski-v-trent.pdf.

I'll discuss the OMB hearings on the Trent Rapids project on Wednesday.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Trent Rapids: "Greenwashing" the abuse of public funds

This week I took a break from the office and spent some time swimming and camping at Sandbanks provincial park in Prince Edward County.

The water was warm and the beach was beautiful. The area is a natural paradise in the summer with high dunes and shallow waters.

Yet the dunes at Outlet Beach were home not only to rare and hardy plant species, but also to pop cans, water bottles, styrofoam cups and even disposable diapers. And this is in spite of the fact that there were garbage cans and blue bins only 30 feet away.

It's one of the great - and perhaps tragic - ironies that humanity's Achilles heel may not be warfare, racism or sexism, but simple carelessness and the short-sightedness that breeds it.

The Trent Rapids hydroelectric project, planned for the Otonabee River just north of Trent University, is a shining example of the repercussions of short-sighted policy-making and short-sighted overconsumption of natural resources by the public.

It's also a prime example of the shady, unaccountable world of public-private partnerships.

The west bank of the Otonabee north of Trent may not be a tourist paradise like Sandbanks, but it's a lovely spot nonetheless, and has provided countless hours of recreation and enjoyment of natural beauty for thousands of Peterborough residents over the years.

Yet a public-private partnership called the Trent Rapids Power Corporation plans to bulldoze the area, blast out a canal over one kilometer in length in this natural area between Locks 22 and 23 of the Trent Severn Waterway and erect a series of turbines, hoping to produce 8 megawatts of hydroelectricity.

The project directly contradicts the City's Official Plan as well as Trent's Nature Areas stewardship plan, and has been subject to Ontario Municipal Board hearings this summer. And contrary to what we are often led to believe of "public-private partnerships," the money is all coming from the public purse, and the profits all flowing to the private partners.

At this surface level, the debate appears to be a simple cliche - nature lovers pitted against engineers over whether a natural area should be left alone or bulldozed in favour of a machine to produce more electricity for our electronic toys.

But the politics behind this project are incredibly messy, exemplifying the worst kinds of unaccountable behind-the-scenes decision-making. The Harris PC government, Trent University administration, the City of Peterborough and the Peterborough Utilities Commission and the Shaman Power Corporation are all culpable in a unethical con game in which taxpayers are being obliged to pay for something they don't want and don't need.

Proponents of the project are driven by a singular belief that Ontario is "running out" of electricity and we are desperately in need of more energy-generating capacity.

The reality is that Ontario's electricity generating capacity is greater than virtually every other jurisdiction in the world. We have been told countless times by scientists the world over that we must reduce our energy consumption by at least 50% if we are to have any chance of surviving the 21st century. Yet Ontarians, among the wealthiest people in the world, continue to subsidize global warming by refusing to pay the real cost of the energy we use and carelessly racking up the kilowatts on our electrical meters.

In my previous posts I addressed the problem of overconsumption with respect to reliance on nuclear energy and the environmental and social costs that it incurs. At first glance, most of us would think that replacing nuclear energy with hydroelectricity, a renewable resource, would be a self-evident good. And this is where the "greenwashing" starts.

The Ontario Liberal government, taking a page from the Green Party policy book, has offered to buy "green" electricity from small suppliers at the rate of 11 cents per kilowatt hour - double what consumers are paying for it. The project has been highly successful in prompting innovative wind, solar and hydro projects across the province.

The problem, however, is precisely that as consumers we aren't paying the real price of the electricity we use. The Liberals have adopted only half of the green formula - the subsidy half. Afraid to raise electricity rates to their real market levels, the Liberals have created an absurd situation, as Ontario taxpayers are being obliged to pay the real cost anyway through our taxes, but without any connection between what we consume and what we pay.

The Trent Rapids Power Corporation is jointly owned by Shaman Development Corporation, a small private firm based in Toronto, and Peterborough Utilities Inc., the publicly-owned local utility. Representatives from Shaman have admitted that the project would not be profitable or even feasible without the publicly subsidized rate of 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

In other words, all of the profit that Shaman will earn from selling the electricity from the project will come directly from your tax bill. And you don't even get a say in whether or not you want the project to happen.

The project was recently the subject of Ontario Municipal Board hearings, as several astute Peterborough residents, alarmed at the flagrant violation of due process at City Hall and Trent's disregard for its own Nature Areas policy, made legal appeals to the OMB.

Peterborough's Official Plan designates the land in question as "major open space and natural area," allowing only specific, small-scale utility developments such as electrical substations for surrounding neighbourhoods. Any significant alteration to this designation would require a change in the Official Plan, which would have to go through City Council and extensive public meetings.

Trent Rapids, however, merely had to go to the City's Committee of Adjustment, which gave the project the go-ahead in spite of its flagrant violation of the Official Plan.

Yes, a multi-million dollar project which will radically transform the Otonabee River where it enters the City limits didn't even make it to City Council for review.

Next week I'll get into the specifics of the sordid tale behind this unaccountable use of public funds, beginning with the Harris PC government's policy of starving Trent University for funds in the 1990s, and continuing right up through the recent OMB hearings on the Trent Rapids project.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Greens lead the way on education policy

Liberal Education Minister Kathleen Wynne was in the riding this week to campaign against the PC proposal for extending funding to religiously-based schools and defend the status quo. Local Green candidate Miriam Stucky responded by citing the Green proposal for one public school system, and received coverage for the idea in the Peterborough Examiner.

The Liberals are arguing that it would cost $500 million to extend public fudning to religiously-based schools. The Greens argue that it would save another $500 million to move to a single public system, money which could go into more teachers and specialized programs to improve the quality of service.

Aside from efficiency, one of the immediate benefits of a single public school system in an ever-more multicultural society is the cross-cultural sharing that takes place in school.

In the public system today, students from a wide variety of backgrounds mix in a supported and supportive environment. One of the least represented groups in the public system, by definition, are Catholics. Moreover, the proportion of newcomers to Ontario who profess themselves to be Catholic is only half of that of the existing population. As a result, most newcomers head to the public schools, while the Catholic schools retain a greater cultural homogeneity.

There is also the legal problem of discrimination. Catholic schools are the only public institution allowed to discriminate in its hiring or admission practices on the basis of religion. That this contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is self-evident, and it is only a matter of time before a successful court case obliges the province to move to eliminate this privilege.

As a free-thinking person with strong spiritual and moral views of my own, I’ve been highly aware of potential for the public school system to become a one-size-fits-all education factory which discourages difference and perpetuates a spirtually-vacant, materialist view of the world. I’ve enjoyed my visits to Catholic secondary schools in Peterborough for All-Candidates forums and appreciated the moral focus evident there.

I’ve also been impressed, however, by the equally strong moral focus on what is now called “character education” in the public school system.

I’ve also been impressed by the increased willingness of the public system to accomodate differences of all kinds, from ESL instruction to individual education programs, from French Immersion to integration of the severely disabled. Public schools have come a long way since I was a child, as have the province’s Bachelor of Education programs. I’m convinced that a single public school system would be able to find ways to address the desires of parents to have appropriate moral and religious curricular elements included in their children’s education programs, whether through specialized programs, classes, or individual exceptions.

History has shown that integration of previously divided groups does nothing but good for all involved. I have no doubt that Catholics and non-Catholics would be excellent influences on one another in a single public system.

It’s ironic that a single public system would actually allow for greater diversity than is currently the case – or would be the case under the PC proposal.

It does no good to invest public funds in institutions that insulate cultural groups from one another, as key childhood opportunities for mutual understanding are bypassed, while various forms of elitism are unwittingly encouraged.

PC leader John Tory is running against current Liberal education minister Kathleen Wynne in the Don Valley area of Toronto. His bid to make education reform along religious lines an issue is in part a strategy to put Wynne on the defensive. A personal defeat in the riding for either Tory or Wynne would be a decisive blow against their respective parties and their education funding policies.

GPO leader Frank de Jong is running in the Davenport riding on the west side of Toronto, an area of lower income and more cultural mixing than the Don Valley. The GPO policy of which he has been a long-standing proponent is clearly more in tune with the feelings of Ontario citizens in general than either the Liberals’ favour of the status quo or the PCs opportunistic appeal to non-Christian voters. A plebescite on the issue would likely show support for a single public system in the 70% range if not higher, as polls of parents who send their children to Catholic schools indicate that a significant percentage would likely vote in favour of an amalgamation of the two systems.

It's only a matter of time before the single public school system is implemented - just as it's only a matter of time before proportional representation is implemented. The Greens are ahead of the curve as usual, lobbying to bring 21st century common sense to a province with its head still stuck in the 19th.

On Wednesday I'll attempt to resume my comments on the Trent Rapids hydroelectric project.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Building community and saving $ with one school system

In my last post, I put the Green Party of Ontario’s proposal to move to a single public school system in its political and historical perspective. Today I’ll take a look the advantages of such a system, beginning with simple efficiency and demographics. On Monday I’ll discuss the more complex social dimensions.

When responsibility for education was designated to the provinces way back in the 19th century, formal schooling played a minimal role in Ontario’s overall economy. Formal education in Europe had been largely the initiative of churches, and even in North America schooling was for the elite.

Today, education is a major public business with a $17 billion budget, and the stress is on accessibility for all.

Over the past hundred years, public education, for all its faults, has been an incredible success story. Ontario is one of the best educated societies in history, and the result has been a reduction in class inequity, a luxurious standard of living for most citizens, a rapidly increasing tolerance for social difference, and high expectations for human and civil rights.

Certainly, elitism and cultural intolerance still exist, and our standard of living comes at a horrendous cost of overconsumption of natural resources and environmental toxicity. And our education system isn’t the only factor in driving social progress. Our public education system has plenty of room to improve in many areas, but it would be folly to overlook its potential to play a major role in continued social and economic progress.

Even as the importance of education and the minimum of formal education required to succeed in our high-tech economy are growing, however, the proportion of young people in Ontario is dropping as our population ages.

Ontario’s annual education budget supports a network of English and French Public and Separate School Boards across the province. Many schools and school boards are finding it difficult to maintain financial efficiency with under-used facilities as enrolment falls.

The PC government under Mike Harris tried to address this issue by amalgamating school boards the same way it amalgmated municipalities. Today’s Kawartha-Pine Ridge District Board of Education is a product of those policies - and also a demonstration of the administrative inefficiency brought about by making an administrative structure responsible for too large a geographical area. It’s a two-hour drive from Apsley to Bowmanville, and there’s not much the two areas have in common – but both are now part of the same school board.

What the Harris government didn’t have the guts to do, but which would have made much more sense, was to amalgamate the Public and Separate boards. In Peterborough’s case, for example, it surely makes more sense to have all the local schools under one umbrella, rather than requiring teachers and administrators from both boards to drive all over central Ontario to get to or to do their jobs.

Moreover, the Ministry of Education’s funding formulas compensate boards with lower population densities for providing special services such as ESL instruction, resulting in skewed funding scenarios in which Public and Separate boards in the same area may receive radically different amounts of money for the same services. The costs of duplication in operating school buses have already become prohibitive, and the two systems now operate their transportion jointly in most of Ontario.

The PC proposal, to extend public funding to all religiously-based schools which meet the province’s standards, is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Its detractors argue that this is money taken out of the public system as it currently stands, subsidizing the few at the expense of the many.

If this is the price tag for extension of funding to religious groups making up a much smaller proportion of Ontario’s population than do Catholics, imagine how much more funding could be freed up in administrative savings to hire more teachers, save small schools, and start new programs – all while integrating students with one another in their local communities.

On Monday I'll comment on the other benefits one public education system would bring to Ontario.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Greens, Tories, religion and schools

In my last post ("How unelected officials cause sprawl in your neighborhood") I addressed the problems with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), that nineteenth-century legislative relic that has mutated into a mechanism whereby unaccountable central powers dominate local decision-making in Ontario.

I had intended to discuss the Trent River Rapids hydroelectric project with respect to the OMB, but I'm going to wait until next week. Instead I'll deal with yet another 19th century leftover which has become a hot topic this week - our two provincial education systems.

Ontario, like Canada, was legally born in the 19th century, and its various governing systems are often dominated by 19th century attitudes and circumstances which no longer prevail.

The Mining Act, the OMB, our two public education systems, and our system of disproportional representation are vestigial governing structures which have handicapped Ontario as we try to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.

We are finally having a referendum on electoral reform to address the problem of disproportional representation at Queen's Park. I'll be touting the virtues of voting in favour of "MMP", or mixed-member parliament, in future entries.

Long a proponent of electoral reform, the Green Party of Ontario has now been attracting attention for its policy on education reform. A Toronto Star interview with GPO leader Frank de Jong this past weekend focused on his long-standing support for a single, integrated public school system. The GPO's position has become mainstream news as an alternative to PC leader John Tory's expressed support for extending the current Catholic education funding privilege to other religiously-based groups.

"Ontario is becoming a more and more secular province day by day, and we need to modernize our educational system and be fair to everyone," de Jong told the Star. "It's not fair to fund only one religion and so the status quo is untenable and it has to change. Either we go to funding all religions – which of course is a can of worms – or we go like Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland and switch to just funding one school system for each language."

In the 19th century, the French and English colonial governments attempted a merger which would create the entity of Canada. As part of confederation agreements, provinces were obliged to protect education rights for both cultural groups.

At the time, language, ethnic heritage and religion were tightly intertwined with one another, and divided cultural groups from one another much more so than they do in Canada today. Schools were originally operated by churches, and so guaranteeing the rights of le francophonie meant guaranteeing the rights of Catholic churches to run Catholic schools.

The plan didn't last long in Manitoba. As non-French settlers from Ontario and Europe rapidly outnumbered those from Quebec, the government moved to eliminate the Catholic schools, causing a national controversy which eventually led to the election of the Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier.

In Quebec, the Catholic church ran almost all the schools in the province right up until the 1960's. Since that time the organization of public education has continued to evolve, with the complete secularization of the system not yet complete. The right to Catholic and Protestant educational classes within the public schools continues, to the exclusion of other religions, but only via Premier Jean Charest's invocation of the notwithstanding clause - a situation which will not hold indefinitely.

In Newfoundland, most Catholics are not of French background but of Irish. The Catholic churches ran the education system right up until ten years ago, when Premier Brian Tobin, himself a Catholic, successfully promoted a referendum on moving to a single publicly run school system. The referendum passed with 73% support - considerably more than the 52% which supported Newfoundland's joining of confederation in the first place. Interestingly, 37% of Newfoundland residents consider themselves Catholic, suggesting that a sizeable portion of Catholics probably voted in favour of the reform or didn't bother to vote at all.

Ontario's case is very different. Churches have not had a role in public education for a long time. The Catholic school system has served not people of French background only, but also those of Italian, Irish, Dutch, Eastern European and Latin American. Funding policies have varied over the years, with full public funding for the Catholic school boards finally achieved in 1985 as one of Premier Bill Davis's final acts.

Davis, who led Ontario's PC party through its years of political dominance in the 70s and 80s, had earlier been against full funding for Catholic schools. It was widely speculated that the extension of full funding was a political ploy to secure the support of Catholic voters in the upcoming election. Davis, who was set to retire, may have wanted to leave some political momentum to his successor, Frank Miller.

Who was Davis's principal secretary in his last years in office? None other than current PC leader John Tory.

Davis's attempt to bequeath solid electoral standing to Miller did not produce the desired results. Some small-town Protestant voters were alienated, and Miller's team were quickly replaced at Queen's Park by David Peterson's Liberal party - ending 42 successive years of PC governance in Ontario.

Just over one-third of Ontario residents consider themselves Catholic. Roughly the same amount consider themselves Protestants. The third largest group, at 16%. reports "no religion", while other religious groups together make up the remaining 14%.

What were at one time Protestant school boards evolved over the course of the late twentieth century to absorb most of Ontario's new ethnic and religious diversity, finally becoming fully secularized in the last generation. Over this same period, immigration replaced childbirth as the driver of population growth in Ontario.

We have far fewer children in our society today than we did in the 19th century and early 20th, and many more old people. As a result, many schools and school boards in areas of low population density are not able to maintain enough student enrolment to warrant the cost of their facilities. Moves toward the merger of the Public and Catholic board transportation management have already been made across the province, and some schools and school boards have initiated their own mini-mergers in order to make ends meet.

The economic efficiency argument is only one rationale for a single public system. Another is the issue of religious discrimination. Ontario has been cited by the United Nations several times for failing to reform the current discriminatory system.

The issue is likely to become an emotional one through the provincial election campaign. Tory is clearly taking a page out of his former boss's book of tricks. He's obviously hoping that support for funding for a multiplicity of religious schools will draw some of the electoral support of recent non-Christian immigrants to Ontario, which traditionally has gone to the Liberal party. So far, the polls haven't shown much change in support for the PCs, and it may be worth Tory's while to give another review of the downfalls of Sir John A. Macdonald's and Frank Miller's Conservative governments over the issue.

Dalton McGuinty, himself a Catholic, supports the status quo, as does NDP leader Howard Hampton.

In Peterborough the issue is likely to be high profile, as we have large proportions of both Irish Catholics and conservatively-minded Protestants, as well as rapidly-growing support for the Green Party.

That's the history so far. I'll discuss the single public system model and possibilities for the future on Friday.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

How unelected officials create sprawl in your neighbourhood

In last Friday's entry ("What's behind our own private Iraq") I discussed the ongoing social and ecological problems caused by obsolete 19th century provincial legislation that gives the government automatic control over everything underground in Ontario. The Mining Act gives the province the right to overide any existing land use, no matter how ecologically sound, if it means that metals can be dug up for private profit.

The Ontario Municipal Board is another 19th century relic which permits private developers to do what they like with property - whether or not the municipalities or local residents like it, and in some cases whether or not the proposed development is consistent with Ontario's own Planning Act.

Few people in the province even know the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) exists. The name gives one the impression that it's some kind of association of municipalities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The OMB was set up in the late 19th century as a quasi-independent, government-appointed body designed to resolve disputes between local landowners and municipal governments.

What it has become is an unelected, unaccountable body which any government can stack with whomever it likes, and whose principal purpose is to overrule municipal planning decisions made by elected city councils and let developers go ahead with projects regardless of their integrity, usefulness, or suitability.

Under the Harris PC government, the OMB was filled with pro-development Board members, and Ontario municipalities found that they would lose their cases to developers twice as often as they'd win.

The City of Toronto found itself having to assign thousands of hours of staff time and huge amounts of money to fight developers who would ultimately win the right to put up 50 storey highrises in areas zoned for 5 stories. The cities of Guelph and London found that their plans for sustainable growth and liveable neighbourhoods were useless in the face of developers' desire for more strip malls, big box stores, and parking lots.

The pattern of OMB decisions led directly to the unchecked suburban sprawl and land speculation. There was little to stop developers from buying up relatively cheap property zoned for industrial or low-density residential use and use the OMB to force municipalities to let them turn the sites into high-profit commercial or high-density residential use.

Worse still, muncipalities became afraid to say no to developers applications in the first place, for fear of tying up scarce resources and wasting money in a losing OMB battle.

"Taking action against urban sprawl begins with overhauling the OMB," said Dalton McGuinty in 2002, when he was seeking election as Ontario's Premier. "These changes are necessary to ensure that Ontario’s planning rules benefit Ontario’s families, not just big developers."

What's happened since? The Liberal government didn't implement any reforms to the OMB until 2007. Developers lobbied the Minister for Municipal Affairs, John Gerretsen, to preserve the status quo as far as possible. The long-awaited "reform" consisted of mere tinkering with the existing setup, making it easier for citizens to appeal to the OMB, and requiring the OMB to "consider" municipal planning decisions when making their rulings.

Undaunted, the OMB continues to work its black magic. This summer, the city of Toronto was hit with an OMB ruling on a proposed development in the Queen and Dufferin area which was so egregious in its discounting of planning principles, including the province's own Planning Act, that the city was forced to take it to a regular Ontario courtroom. The judge ruled that the OMB had given virtually no consideration to existing laws in making its decision.

Right here in Peterborough we can see the chilling effects the OMB has had on local planning. The city had designated Lansdowne East for commercial expansion. Walmart, however, wanted to build a big new store on Chemong, right beside where they hope the Parkway extension will eventually be built. What was the city's response? To let Walmart go ahead with the Chemong development, in spite of serious problems with encroachment on nearby residential neighbourhoods and disruption of the north Peterborough watershed.

Walmart was allowed to build on an absurdly steep slope, creating the current "wall of litter" which now decorates the south end of the Chemong property. Neighbouring residents were subject to artificial light from the parking lot pouring into their backyards 24 hours a day, and the sound of trucks loading and unloading at 3 am. The city was obliged to build huge new retention ponds along the Parkway trail to deal with the disruption of the natural water runoff.

Fear of losing at the OMB is also likely what is keeping the city from removing the Parkway extension from its Official Plan. Residents voted 55-45 in a 2003 referendum against building the Parkway extension. The proposed road would be prohibitively expensive, and the city's own studies show that it could never pay for itself in any tangible benefit. It would drastically interfere with the city's complex north-end watershed and cut into much-needed greenspace. But local citizens who have tried to get councillors to put forth motions to remove the Parkway from the Official Plan have been stonewalled. The City does not want to remove the Parkway from the Official Plan and then have Walmart and the developers behind the Carnegie housing development take them to the OMB and force them to put it back in.

The OMB has made it virtually impossible for municipalities to plan for the realities of the 21st century. It also gives the Ontario government something to hide behind. Politicians can publically talk about limiting urban sprawl and preserving greenspace even while the OMB allows unsustainable development to continue unabated.

Currently under review at the OMB is the proposed Trent Rapids hydro-electric project on the Otonabee north of Trent University. I'll write more about that project, and more about the OMB, on Wednesday.

Friday, August 17, 2007

What's behind our own private Iraq

My previous entry ("The Sharbot Lake standoff and economic faith") made the connection between our general societal expectations of perpetual economic growth and the current dispute between the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and a private mining firm that wants to prospect for uranium on land the Ontario government considers "crown land" but that the Algonquin argue has always been theirs.

The Sharbot Lake standoff provides an excellent example of how habitual overconsumption leads not only to needless pollution but also to social unrest and physical conflict. We don't need to look as far as the oil war in Iraq - our own seemingly banal desire for air conditioning and electronic gadgetry is creating major problems right in our own backyard.

The Liberal government's proposed $46 billion expansion of Ontario nuclear facilities isn't the only reason that the private mining firm Frontenac Ventures is looking to mine eastern Ontario, of course. Industrial and nuclear expansion worldwide has created a seller's market for mining products, and uranium prices in particular are through the roof. Frontenac had been planning to invest over $70 million in the contentious project, and have launched a lawsuit against the area's First Nations for an equal amount in lost business should the project be prevented from going ahead. Prior to launching the lawsuit, Frontenac had offered the bands $10,000 as compensation, a tiny fraction of their potential profits - a proposal which was quickly rejected.

Frontenac had asked the Superior Court of Ontario to order the Algonquin people off their access area, but two weeks later the judge has yet to make a decision on the case. A full hearing is scheduled to begin Sept. 20, but this week the Algonquins issued a press release stating that they are withdrawing from the legal proceedings and appealing directly to the Premier to step in and resolve the situation.

The Liberal management of the Ontario energy sector isn't looking much better than the previous PC government's. The botched handling of the regulation and degregulation of electricity prices discredited the Harris/Eves government and played a large part in the Liberals' winning of a majority in 2003. This week it was revealed that John Beck, top executive at Canada's largest construction firm, Aecon, has been elected chair of the Ontario Power Authority. Aecon has already been contracted for $75 million worth of power construction projects and has $100 million more lined up, including operations at the Bruce Nuclear facility. Aecon's profits are up 30% over last year, according to recent business reports.

The same sorts of conflicts-of-interest can be found behind the scenes in the Sharbot Lake standoff. The market for uranium isn't just power plants - it also fuels nuclear weaponry. The Sharbot Lake area is also home to a facility run by a company called Mining Resources Engineering Limited (MREL) which tests explosives for both mining and military use. Its clients include major players in the weapons industry, such as Canadian weapons manufacturer Allen-Vanguard, which sells to not only the RCMP but to the FBI, the US Army, and to military operations worldwide. Peter Deane, the OPP officer who shot and killed First Nations protestor Dudley George in 1995 at Ipperwash, ended up working as a sales manager for Allen-Vanguard after being obliged to resign from the OPP in 1997. The OPP and the Province are handling the Sharbot Lake situation delicately to avoid a repeat of the Ipperwash tragedy.

The MP for the area is none other than Gordon O'Connor, the man who was removed from his post as Minister for Defence in the latest federal cabinet shuffle, and has never lived in the riding. O'Connor spent most of his career as an officer in the Canadian military and was first elected to represent the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills in 2004. In between he worked for the infamous and unscrupulous public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, the very firm employed by Kuwait and the US government to persuade the American citizens to back the first invasion of Iraq in 1990. O'Connor has also been a lobbyist for the arms industry, and in the eighteen months he spent with the Defence portfolio the Canadian government spent $17 billion on big-ticket military hardware.

Predictably, the politically inexperienced minister proved incompetent at the helm and became a public relations headache for the Prime Minister's office, and this week was replaced as Defence Minister by Peter MacKay. MacKay, who was the final leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada before it was swallowed by the Alliance to create the current Conservative Party, is MP for the Antigonish-area federal riding in Nova Scotia, and will be challenged in the next federal election by none other than Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May. The general dissatisfaction with the way Canada's mission in Afghanistan has unfolded may make MacKay a lightning rod for criticism and help May's chances of being the first Green MP in Canadian history. Hopefully their campaigns will draw attention to the many ties between armed conflict, ecological destruction, and our relentless desire for economic expansion.

The Algonquin have never ceded their ancestral land to the Crown, and as such claim to be its governing authority. The Province of Ontario has not only historically claimed ownership of all non-privately-held lands, but also has been held to have ownership of all subsurface mining rights across the province, and the power to grant exploration and mining privileges to private corporations at its discretion. This power is based on the idea that mining overrides any other possible use of the land. Non-native private land owners in the area have no ability to prevent Frontenac from coming onto their land and drilling holes for uranium 500 feet deep. Only the Algonquin have a legal privilege which may supersede the power of the Mining Act.

Thus the conflict here is not only between a local community and a private corporation looking to make big profits, but between the 19th century belief that digging up metals is always the best use of land and the 21st century knowledge that virtually everything we pull up from the depths of the earth is poisonous to what lives on the surface. The outcome of this case may well be precedent-setting, not only in the area of First Nations self-governance, but also with regard to mining and ecological integrity.

Now that the onus is on Premier McGuinty, it will be interesting to see which side he chooses. Will he decide in favour of short-term profits for the nuclear, weapons and construction industry whose many players have no doubt been generous in making campaign contributions to the Liberal party? Or will he decide in favour of preserving the well-being of the citizens of Eastern Ontario, including the Algonquin, today and into the distant future?

The conflict between local communities and private developers can be seen across the province on various levels. On Monday I'll discuss the way that the Ontario Municipal Board, supposedly an independent judicial body which rules on disputes between the two, has created an environment in which municipalities are actually afraid to say no to development they don't want for fear of losing at the OMB.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Sharbot Lake standoff and economic faith

Of all the "green" ideas that I've tried to promote, the idea that economic growth is not equivalent to economic progress has been the most difficult to get across.

The basic philosophy that virtually every citizen adheres to is that more is better.

As a result, we live in a system that seeks always to maximize "output" - the total value of goods and services circulating in the society.

Unfortunately, large outputs require large inputs - which is why our system has been chewing up our natural resources at a rate which will very shortly reduce our planet to a desert.

A much better system would be one that maximizes efficiency - that actually minimizes the natural resources required to fuel a healthy degree of economic activity.

This would seem little more than common sense. At its simplest, it's what shoppers base their shopping decisions on: how can we get the best deals for our dollars?

Yet our desire for vast amounts of cheap goods and services leads us to put massive demands on our natural resources, demands which are obviously unsustainable and which drive governments to foolish policies like the energy policy currently being followed by Ontario's Liberal government.

It's a surprisingly little-known fact that more than half of Ontario's electricity comes from nuclear reactors. This dependence on nuclear energy is masked by our habitual use of the word "hydro" to refer to electricity. In fact, hydro-electricity, which derives from harnessing the power of our waterways, makes up only a small fraction of our consumption.

Another common misconception is that nuclear power is "clean" - that it doesn't contribute significant amounts of pollution to our ecosystems. This overlooks dozens of environmental problems with nuclear energy development, right from uranium mining through its processing into nuclear fuel, to the immense amounts of energy required to build and maintain the massive nuclear power plants, to the problem of dealing with radioactive spent fuel.

Most scientists and policy-makers who are in the know agree that we must reduce our energy consumption by at least 50% over the next generation to even approach sustainable levels. Energy efficiency technologies abound in the marketplace. A large portion of our current electricity consumption goes to waste or to activity that is unnecessary or utterly unproductive in the real economic sense.

In other words, Ontario could phase out its nuclear operations entirely without significantly affecting the high standard of living we currently enjoy. It would just mean that our economy would "slow down".

The problem is that in a hyper-competitive global economy dominated by corporations under obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits, the Ontario government is afraid to let the economy "slow down" for fear of losing investment to other countries or provinces.

The Liberal government and the nuclear industry want taxpayers to subsidize nuclear development in Ontario to provide still more electricity supply, even though we are already consuming twice as much as we should be.

As a result, businesses like General Electric in Peterborough and the mining company Frontenac Ventures are seeing dollar signs. GE has applied for a licence to process more nuclear fuel at its Peterborough location, right in the heart of the city's residential and commercial areas. Frontenac Ventures, meanwhile, have made extensive plans to prospect for uranium in the Sharbot Lake area two hours east of Peterborough.

Neither Frontenac Ventures nor the government ministry which granted permission to the company to look for uranium on what they considered "crown land" paid much attention to the people who have been living in that area for hundreds of years at the very least - the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.

Members of the nation, along with their neighbours from Alderville, Hiawatha, Curve Lake and other First Nations in the area, have occupied the gateway to the lands Frontenac intends to mine. They refuse to let the miners in, arguing that even prospecting for uranium poses a serious danger to the watershed and to the short and long-term health of their community, and indeed that of everyone living in Eastern Ontario.

Frontenac has sued the First Nation, and is currently seeking a court order to remove the demonstrators. A Kingston judge has reserved his decision on the request for over a week now, indicating the particularly messy legal situation he finds himself in. If he grants the order, the OPP will be reluctant to enforce it, and moreover it does not seem possible to force a First Nation to vacate land which its members live on.

The Canadian constitution requires governments to negotiate with First Nations fairly and respectfully in such matters, yet neither the Ontario government nor Frontenac made any attempt to consult with the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation before setting up a multi-million dollar mining plan that is potentially illegal and certainly immoral.

Beyond the legality and immorality of the individual situation, however, lies its absurdity.

There is no real need for nuclear expansion in Ontario - in fact, there's no real need for nuclear power at all - except the impatience of individuals and businesses who continue to demand vast amounts of electricity to fuel a wasteful economic system.

At Sharbot Lake we see a classic case in which our reluctance to change our most basic assumptions about what it means to have a healthy economy has created an unnecessary and potentially damaging social conflict, one which will itself consume massive amounts of people's time and energy that could be far better spent working together toward sustainability.

I'll discuss Sharbot Lake and the nuclear industry further on Friday.

Check the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation website at http://www.aafna.ca/ for more information on the people and the struggle.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The campaign begins

The provincial election campaign doesn't begin until the writ is dropped on September 10, but already we've seen plenty of unofficial campaigning.

PC leader John Tory has stirred the pot with his attempt to lure religiously-minded non-Chrisitians to his party by promising full funding for "faith-based" schools in Ontario.

Locally, the dying carp in the Kawartha Lakes has become a prominent issue, as has GE Peterborough's bid to expand its processing of nuclear fuel to feed the two new nuclear reactors the Liberal government is planning to spend $46 billion on. Meanwhile, just east of here in Sharbot Lake, First Nations communities are occupying their land to prevent potentially dangerous and illegal uranium prospecting.

I'll be commenting in detail on these issues and many more over the next 10 weeks. Please visit this blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from mid-August until after the campaing to find out more.

Take care -

Brent