Our Election Issue

November 17, 2011

Mandate.

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.

Lesson # 1: RaBIT, Better Ballots, Fair Vote. Check them out, brush up a little. We’ll talk.

Better, fairer, more representative elections are possible. They are coming. Stay tuned.

goadingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Back In The Game

March 13, 2011

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


Old Friends Reacquainted

February 21, 2011

Why do these things always happen on weekends? Prepped for a couple lazy days of kicking back and doing a whole lot of nothing, maybe catching up on some reading, a movie or two; indulge in an extended wine tasting. Go time on me time.And then the phone rings. And rings. And rings.

There’s no ignoring it, ultimately. It’s not in my nature. A ringing phone must be answered regardless of the technological advances made in allowing us to avoid engaging.

Because of this weakness of fortitude, my weekend unfolded in the most unexpected manner… which, in looking at it, really should’ve been the first sentence of this post. A tweak here and there and it would be a killer opening line.

The caller ID offers no assistance. It’s a name I don’t recognize. Perhaps without the extra spicy, extra strong Bloody Caesar under my belt I would’ve let it go to voice mail. I’m feeling magnanimous, inclined to reach out and touch somebody and not in any sort of creepy way.

It’s Mrs. _________, you don’t know me but I’m the downstairs neighbour of ________. ________? Who the fuck is _________? (I only swear retrospectively, telling the story to you.) Oh, wait. You mean, Urban Sophisticat!

You remember Urban Sophisticat. Long lost colleague, hightailed it out of here not long after the day infamy, October 25th, when the city he loved lost its collective mind and voted Rob Ford to be mayor. If you’ve only just recently joined us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, allow me to submit his last appearance for your reading pleasure.

He up and left for sunnier climes and the boating life. Our very own George Clooney living la vida loca Mediterranean style. Or so I thought. I mean, he sent a postcard claiming as much.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Mrs. _________ tells me over the phone. “He’s here. But acting very, very strange.” Strange, you say. Strange how? “I haven’t seen him for a week now. Maybe two. And there’s this smell…”

Oh, god. The Smell.

And why was his neighbour calling me anyway? He had family in town all over the place. Let them deal with his rotting corpse. Urban Sophisticat had been dead to me for months now. I’d long since buried him.

“There was a note under my door this morning,” Mrs. ________ says. “Asking me to summon Cityslikr. That’s you, right? Cityslikr?”

Summon Cityslikr? OK. This, I had to take part in.

Arriving outside his door and, yes the stench was more than a little disagreeable. But even if Urban Sophisticat had died since slipping the note under his neighbour’s door, he couldn’t be decomposing this badly, this quickly, could he? Besides, there was a hint of cumin… no, wait… cardamom in the stench. Is that what decaying flesh smells like?

I knocked at the door. It took long enough for a response that I almost left, thinking why would I expect a dead guy to answer the door anyway. Then the door opened.

I turned to see Urban Sophisticat already heading away from me, back into his place. He hadn’t said a word. By the time I walked in, he was sitting in a chair in the living room, looking not unlike Michael Corleone near the end of The Godfather II just after hearing the gunshot that killed his brother in a hit he’d ordered. And there was that smell.

“What the fuck is that stink?” I asked.

“I’m fermenting lentils.” Urban Sophisticat just stared at me and clearly wasn’t about to tell me why. The ensuing silence became a little annoying, I must admit. I chose not to pursue the lentil line of questioning and instead inquired into his whereabouts over the last 4 months or so.

“I thought you were sailing off in the Mediterranean,” I said. “What are you doing—“

He waved me off, with clearly bigger fish to fry which wouldn’t be a bad idea if it could mask the stink of lentils long past their best before date.

“I needed you to think that,” he says matter of factly as if no further explanation was necessary. It was.

“Why?”

“We needed time apart.”

Clearly there was going to be no making sense of him. I’d made a terrible mistake coming. But this was the kind of erratic behavior to expect from my other colleague, Acaphlegmic, not Urban Sophisticat.

“I probably should be going,” I told him. Before I could turn back toward the door, Urban Sophisticat got out of his chair and walked toward me as if he was walking on water or some sort of fragile surface that might break under his weight if he stepped down to forcefully. Almost gliding.

When he got close, he lifted his arms and grabbed me by both shoulders and looked deep into my eyes. I won’t lie. I start to giggle, semi-nervously.

Was he really going to take my head in his hands and kiss me? “It was you, Fredo. I know it was you,” I was fully expecting him to say. Instead, he just continued to stare at me in dire earnestness.

“We failed miserably, you and I,” I’m told finally. “We paddled hard against the tide but were washed ashore by a rogue wave of unrighteous indignation and misguided populism.”

He started to squeeze my head. Combined with the lentil stench, I was getting more than a little nauseous. I refused to show any sign of discomfort, however. That would give Urban Sophisticat the upper hand which is something I categorically could not bring myself to do. Ever.

“But in defeat,” he continued, “we must become warriors. Warriors of change. Warriors for change.”

“Whphfedleshdamyhthdsss,” I asked through painfully compressed cheeks.

“What?”

Taking control of the situation, I pushed him back away from me. “What are you talking about? And what’s with the lentils, dude?! Seriously. I’m going to pass out here.”

Urban Sophisticat returned to his chair and sat down.

“It’s time to talk electoral reform, my friend,” he informs me. “Toronto does not have a spending problem. Toronto has an electing problem. I want to be your point man on this. I want to be All Fired Up in the Big Smoke’s ground zero for election and voting initiatives. Unless you grant me that, I won’t come back. This thing between us? It’ll be over.”

It’s not that I disagreed with his sentiments on the issue. Voting reform was long passed due. I had never said otherwise which made this whole display on my colleague’s part unnecessary and so over-the-top.

“Who’s stopping you?” I asked. “Write away.”

Urban Sophisticat looked hard at me, as if I were lying.

“What? Start the conversation. You have carte blanch.”

“Really?” he asked. “And can I have the title of Electoral Reformer in my posts?”

“If it makes you less nuts, I’ll call you Electoral Reformer King.”

Urban Sophisticat sat back in his chair, looking satisfied as if he’d just squeezed a major concession from me.

“But whatever it is you’re doing with those lentils, it stays here. I don’t ever want to smell that smell again.”

With that, I turned and fled the premises. My weekend ruined by the stink of rotting lentils. An aroma that will forever be associated with the notion of electoral reform. But as I think a great suffragette once said: change is never easy and it never smells quite right at the beginning.

wretchingly submitted by Cityslikr


Wilting Democracy

February 17, 2010

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have been thinking a lot lately about the state of local democracy. Well, not all of us. Urban Sophisticat seldom ponders on the subject as his preference would be for a benign dictatorship that banishes cars from cities and permits cannabis cafes on every street corner. This is not a belief conducive to thinking straight about democratic institutions.

But for those of us here not wandering around in a perpetual haze of glassy eyed, marijuana induced idealism, we have been mulling over our situation as duly appointed participants in the democratic process. Yes, it all seems alive and vibrant while in the midst of an election campaign. Caught up as we are in the proceedings, it’s hard to fathom that there are those out there more akin to Urban Sophisticat’s mindset who aren’t devouring every little morsel of news and information coming in off the campaign trail. Neither are they eagerly awaiting October 25th in order to be first in line at the polling booth to mark the requisite Xs in their appropriate ballots.

Trolling through the interwebs as is our want, we stumbled across the fact that over 60% of eligible voters did not vote in Toronto’s last municipal election. I’m sorry. You said over 60% of voters did vote in Toronto’s last municipal election, right? No, we didn’t. Over 60% of eligible voters did not vote in Toronto’s last municipal election. (Note the use of the bold, italics and underline functions for emphasis. Twice.)

Holy mackerel, that’s low. That’s low, right? Yes, it’s low. Criminally low as it would be in some places like Australia where voting is mandatory under penalty of prosecution. Keelhauling, we think they still do down there, what with their naval and shipping of convict heritage, if found guilty of voter neglect.

Yet not voting is par for the course here in Toronto. To say that we have a disengaged electorate is to dally in the shallow waters of DoYaThink!?! Creek which is a tributary of WellD’Uh River. When it comes to municipal politics, Torontonians are passionate about their lack of interest. It’s tough to fight City Hall when you’re not even sure where it is. That funny shaped thing, down by the Eaton Centre, right behind the outdoor skating rink, yeah?

From our inception, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke has chalked up voter apathy – not just in Toronto but in municipalities all across the province of Ontario – to the fact that those we elect as mayor and councilors don’t really have the power and resources to deal with the demands placed upon them. The purse and authority lie with our elected officials at the provincial and federal levels. So why waste time worrying too much about the hired help?

Turns out things might be a little more complicated than that, as much as it offends our sense of strict black and white reasoning to admit. The democratic deficit under which we are operating is a broader, deeper pit of entropy according to those who actually examine the phenomena rather than simply opine glibly about it. If Toronto isn’t alive with voter fervor, it is most definitely hopping with enthusiasts who want to change our complacent attitude toward elections.

A quick trip through the tubes and pipes of the internet reveals a bubbling cauldron of activism at work on behalf of local democracy. At a website of Kris Scheuer, city hall bureau chief for the Town Crier newspapers, there’s a concise overview of the voting (or rather non-voting) habits here in Toronto. In that post, there is a link to a blog from a fellow named David Meslin.

mez dispenser, the blog’s called and it is the work of a self-proclaimed artist and organizer who doesn’t appear to need any sleep. As the site shows, the list of his undertakings is long including City Idol where participants vied to become candidates in the 2006 municipal election. One of his latest projects is Better Ballots which is a push for electoral reform in Toronto; a drive shared by other organizations such as the Toronto Democracy Initiative.

While impossible to summarize in a single post, among other overriding concerns of such individuals and groups is the exclusionary nature of our voting system. The traditional first past the post method is a boon for incumbency that has become so entrenched that City Hall is a pale (pun intended) reflection of the diversity of Toronto. Females and visible minorities are vastly under represented while some councilors can get re-elected with just 20% of the votes cast! (I’m sorry. Did you say that there were councilors at City Hall who got elected with–Yes, I did. Such is the sad state of democracy in Toronto.)

It is a hole that we will not dig ourselves out of quickly. Aside from the usual difficulties of transforming a well fed status quo, there is the ever present problem of having to get the OK from Queen’s Park for much of the proposed electoral reform. And this is a government that was lukewarm at best toward the 2007 provincial reform referendum on proportional representation. So it’s hard to see how they would be all that permissive in allowing Toronto to have a go at it on its own.

Still, you either throw in the towel, shrug your shoulders in defeat and head off to the nearest cannabis café to watch passively as more and more of your city is handed over to those who think of it as their own personal playground or you stand up and say, there is a better way to do things. Democracy is not dead as long as there is enough of the latter kind of people. From that standpoint, I think Toronto’s doing just fine.

upbeatedly submitted by Cityslikr