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.