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.