I set out to write a little fluff of a travelogue after my excursion to Montreal last week. A comparative piece to my hometown here in Toronto. Hometown? Is that what you call somewhere you’ve lived for almost all your adult life that still doesn’t really feel like home so much as the place where you live? Continue reading
I have been given a mandate by the people.
Those are the words inevitably spoken by a politician just freshly elected (or re-elected) to office. The battle has been won. The prize awarded. Absolute rule.
That’s our first past the post voting system for you. Unless held in check by a minority situation in a parliamentary setup, those winning an election govern relatively unhindered by opposition for their entire term. This, regardless of how many voters actually voted for them. Look at Ottawa currently. The newly installed Conservative majority government has almost 54% of the seats in the House of Commons having only secured 39.6% of the popular vote. Absolute rule with fewer than 4 in 10 voters voting for them.
That’s a mandate.
And it’s not at all unusual. In fact, it’s commonplace. The unexception that proves the rule. The last time more than half of Canadians voted for a federal government was 1984 at exactly 50%. Before that, 1958. In Ontario, 1937! That’s right. For all those who remember the vaunted Big Blue Machine that ruled the roost in this province from 1943 until 1985, never once did it secure an absolute majority of voters. Not once.
The lack of true democratic representation is as equally skewed at the municipal level. Last October, Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto with just over 47% of the popular vote. Declaring a mandate, he single-handedly scrapped and established transit plan. Just like that. No vote. Just a so-called mandate from less than half the voters who cast ballots.
Even more disturbing, of our 44 councillors nearly half of them, 20 to be exact, were swept into office with less than 50% of the popular vote. Five of those tallied less than 40%. Four less than 30%. One under 20%.
Think about that for a second. A city councillor makes decisions on behalf of his constituents after 4 out of 5 didn’t vote for him. Again, think about that. Line up every voter in that ward and start throwing rocks at them. For every 5 rocks you throw, less than one will hit a voter who voted for their current councillor.
And that’s not all, folks.
Of those 20 councillors elected with less than 50% of the popular vote, 10 were incumbents. That means that even after having been in office, garnering the kind of publicity that brings –at the municipal level, name recognition counts a lot — they could not convince more than half of voters in their ward to vote for them. They didn’t need to. It doesn’t work that way.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, Team Ford’s self-proclaimed QB, he of the famous thumb, was returned to city hall by 43.8% of Ward 7 voters. He’s been a councillor since 1995 and was an MPP for five years before that. Before deciding to seek re-election, Councillor Mammoliti ran a very high profile campaign for mayor of the city. With all this, he still couldn’t convince more than half of the voters in his ward to vote for him. But there he now sits beside the mayor, casting votes along with him 100% of the time.
How about John Parker, councillor for Ward 26, in no way a Rob Ford stronghold in last year’s election. Another former MPP and one term incumbent failed to muster even 1 out of 3 votes last fall. Yet, now he’s deputy speaker at council and bona fide member of Team Ford. How could that be considered fair and equal representation?
Now, this is not a partisan issue. The skewed electoral situation breaks almost evenly on both sides of the electoral spectrum although, I should point out that of the Team Ford members who have voted with the mayor more than 2/3s of the time, eleven of those councillors came to office with less than 50% of the popular vote. It suggests to me that the views, opinions and attitudes of the citizens of Toronto are not truly reflected in the direction of how the city’s headed right now.
So it’s little wonder so many of us are ultimately disengaged with the political process. Of all the numbers being bandied about here, the one that is truly the most dispiriting is this one: 53.2%. Barely half of eligible voters even bothered to vote last year and that was a significant jump from previous elections that had dipped under 40%.
We have tuned out and this very well may be one of the reasons. Our votes simply don’t add up. Too many of us cast ballots that ultimately are meaningless. A majority of voters never end up voting for those who govern us. So, of course there’s a disconnect. Why bother voting when chances are very likely that it won’t end up mattering because the other candidate will end up winning.
Not only that but our first past the post electoral system (Is that from a horse racing term? Odd because in horseracing, those betting on the second and third place finishers are rewarded too. Win, place and show.) warps campaigns into also suppressing voter turnout. Negative, nasty races are the norm as cutting your opponents down to size works to your benefit. Less votes for them can work out for you. Assholish behaviour prevails but democracy is dirtied and diminished.
There is a better way to do this.
And I have been anointed by the powers that be here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke to tell you how. Over the next few months, I will be posting pieces on how we can change this. Don’t let anyone tell you we’ve been throw this before and it’s all too complicated. It isn’t. Do not give in to the ease of our status quo bias. There is a better way.
Better, fairer, more representative elections are possible. They are coming. Stay tuned.
— goadingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat
Not all that long ago, as recently as the waning days of 2009 in fact, I was happily living my life as a self-identified political apathete. Cocooned in a warm, fuzzy coating of ‘They’re all the same’, I voted when I had to and with very little enthusiasm. Calling myself a Red Tory to anyone who asked, I failed to recognize I’d become a species near the brink of extinction and that almost the entire right side of the spectrum had been slowly consumed by what can only be described as a brand of radical conservatism.
Then I went and did something stupid like sign on to All Fired Up in the Big Smoke and become involved, active and aware during last year’s municipal election campaign. I honestly believed I could bring a dispassionate, rational voice to the site but as things progressed… or maybe that should be, regressed… out on the hustings, it was a stance that became more and more untenable. Disregard grew into disbelief that morphed into shock, anger, fear until, ultimately, at the race’s conclusion, a little bit of my soul died.
“This is why you shouldn’t put yourself out there,” I thought to myself afterwards. “It can all turn out so horribly, horribly badly… bad? Badly?” Don’t like the sound of ‘badly’ in that context but ‘bad’ is in all likelihood incorrect.
So, I fled. In hopes of rediscovering my old self. My old, disinterested, apolitical self.
I took to the seas. I took to the bottle. I took to my knees to pray that it had all just been one bad dream. All to no avail. I was hooked. I’d become a junkie of the worst kind. The political kind. I can’t quit you, Toronto municipal politics!
Once having acknowledged and accepted that fact, I found myself face-to-face with a dilemma. By the time I turned my attention back to City Hall, it had become something of a partisan hellhole. Serious battle lines drawn. Whatever divisions that had manifested themselves during the election were, by the time Mayor Ford was sworn into office, deep to the point of moat-like. While my colleague Cityslikr seems to be quite content wallowing in such a nest of vipers, the thought of joining him struck me as wholly unappealing. Surely there was a way to make a more positive, satisfying contribution.
And there is. Voting/electoral/ballot reform.
If you hadn’t noticed, things are horribly out of whack on that front here in Toronto. In a couple great posts back in January, John Michael McGrath dug into the grisly details of highly disproportionate wards where some councillors are buried deep in constituent work while others have a lighter workload and have additional time to offer help, sometimes unasked, in other wards and do regular radio spots. It is a situation that seriously undermines the notion of one person, one vote that we like to believe sits at the heart of our democratic system.
While adjusting boundaries to more equitably distribute numbers throughout the city’s wards, there’s also a deeper fundamental change that needs exploring. Since amalgamation and the elimination of Metro Council, Toronto has suffered under a lack of city wide vision. Only the mayor is elected by voters throughout the city. So he (and it’s only been a ‘he’ since we became the megacity) sets an agenda for the entire city and must contend with the views and opinions of 44 councillors whose priorities for their constituents oftentimes sit in direct opposition to a broader view. For example? We all know that increased density is a must for our future well being. Yet where do we start developing? As the battle at Lawrence Heights shows, communities may see the need for more density but they don’t necessarily want it near them.
At the same time, there’s also a growing demand for a strengthening of local input into decisions being made at City Hall. This suggests we should look at giving more powers to our community councils. Not only would this foster an increase in citizen participation but it would also relieve the burden on city council to spend their time debating and voting on such hyper-local issues as extending liquor license hours to Paddy McMuldoon’s Irish Emporium Pub for St. Patrick’s Day or if a tree needs to be cut down in Ward Wherever.
All of which points to not only such electoral reform issues as at-large councilors and the like but actual improvements in voting. Yes, I’m talking about the bogeyman of proportional representation and changing how we cast our ballots. It is long overdue and we need to stop ignoring the claims of over-complexity that inevitably arise from the political class that has benefited from our current, first-past-the-post system. Arguably, this is something we could do most easily at the municipal level, owing to the fact we are officially party-less. Time is of the essence and new rules have to be in place soon in order that the can come into effect for the next municipal election.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Not only do reform-minded people have to contend with entrenched status quoers but there is a divide within the ranks of the reform movement itself. It’s a clash of ideas that was captured nicely last month by Jake Tobin Garrett over at Spacing and, unfortunately one that can be used by opponents to argue for doing nothing.
But that really isn’t an option. Voters continue to be disengaged from the process and campaigns at every level are rarely fought over issues. The first-past-the-post system seems to encourage negative, I’m-not-as-bad-as-the-other-guys races and a clawing for a mere simple majority usually leads to more voters casting ballots against the ultimate winner. And as we can see by watching recent events in Ottawa as well as City Hall here in Toronto, negative campaigning moves directly into negative governing.
So I begin the initial steps of understanding alternative ways of electing our representatives. What I do feel strongly about right now is that Mayor Ford’s campaign pledge of cutting council in half is a non-starter. It will only increase our democratic deficit and his argument that since we only have 22 MPs and MPPs we only need 22 councillors displays a monumental ignorance about the difference between the services delivered to the public by their councillors and by their representatives at Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill.
Secondly, what we need to demand right now is the ability to elect our municipal officials by a ranked ballot. For a primer on what exactly that is, I highly encourage you to read over what the folks have to say over at RaBIT. I know this wades right into the controversy over alternative voting versus true proportional representation (about which you should also read at Fair Vote Canada) but 21 of the 45 people making decisions for us at City Hall were elected with less than an absolute majority of votes. In fact, 5 of our councillors had less than a third of their ward voters actually cast a ballot for them. So we have the ludicrous scenario of someone like Councillor James Pasternak standing up at council, claiming to speak for his ward when, in fact, less than 1 in 5 of the voters in Ward 10 who chose to cast a ballot, voted for Mr. Pasternak.
That ain’t democracy, folks. It’s time for a real change. And that’s what I intend to dedicate my time to, back here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke.
— submitted by Urban Sophisticat