PR PR

November 22, 2010

Lazily listening to the CBC’s Sunday Edition (at 40’15” of hour 2) yesterday morning, I found myself out-lazied by the show’s host, Michael Enright, during his segment on proportional representation in our voting system. “One of the reasons the public campaign to switch to proportional representation has never gained steam is that it’s about as simple to explain as quantum physics. And boring as well,” Enright opined.

Your public broadcaster at work, folks, shining a light of knowledge seeking into the dark recesses of our democracy. From such a promising premise, the segment then presented two 30 second (or so) ‘commercials’ that attempt to sell the idea of proportional representation. The supposition being, of course, that if you can’t sell an idea to the public in 30 seconds, what’s the sense in trying.

The concept of proportional representation is actually pretty simple and easy to explain. Here’s one from the group Fair Vote Canada: When each vote has equal value, election results are proportional. A party that receives 40% of the votes will receive close to 40% of the seats in the legislature, not 60% or more. A party which receives 20% of the votes will win close to 20% of the seats, not 10% or none at all.

How a democracy goes about implementing such a system is, admittedly, a little more complicated than merely defining it but hardly insurmountably so. That is, unless a democratic institute like, say, the Liberal led provincial government at Queen’s Park saw no benefit to its own electoral well-being by bringing in proportional representation, and deliberately muddied the waters of understanding in the referendum it presented to voters on the issue, thereby sinking whatever prospects it had under a wave of self-interest. Over 80 countries around the world already operate under some variation of proportional representation, and just because the perpetually sad-sack Italy is one of them does not mean the system cannot work.

My suggestion here is to begin with baby steps, and hell, it isn’t even truly proportional representative! Let’s begin the push to have a ranked ballots system for Toronto in time for the next municipal election. Once we get used to voting that way and see how invigorating an experience it can be, it’ll pave the way toward demanding actual proportional representation at the provincial and federal levels with what’s called a Single Transferable Vote.

Ranked ballots (or Instant Runoff Voting [IRV] or Ranked Choice Voting or Alternative Vote or Preferential Ballots), you say. What’s that?

Well, RaBIT does a much more thorough job explaining it but, the short version, a ranked ballot system ensures that candidates must be elected with no less than 50% of all votes cast. Voters are given the chance to list their candidate preference for a particular office, 1st, 2nd, 3rd. If someone wins 50% or more of the vote, they are declared the winner and the election is over. However, if no one receives more than 50% the candidate with the least votes is eliminated from the race…If your preferred candidate is eliminated from the race, your vote is automatically transferred to your second choice. Again, the votes are counted and if someone has a majority, they are declared the winner. If not, another candidate eliminated and it repeats until there is a majority winner. This is all done without voters having to re-vote as happens during leadership conventions. One vote albeit, 1, 2, 3 in order of preference for each office that you’re casting a ballot for.

Like I said, ranked ballots aren’t true proportional representation and work much better at a party-less municipal level like we have in Toronto. Chances are, Rob Ford with 47% of the vote would’ve become mayor even under a ranked ballot system. But only 23 of our 44 councillors won their wards with over 50% of the vote with some truly eye-poppingly low numbers among those who didn’t. 25% for Gary Crawford in ward 36. 28% for Kristyn Wong-Tam in ward 27. 27% for Frank Di Giorgio in ward 12. 19% for James Pasternak in ward 10!!! Not to mention the handful of other council races that were settle by mere percentage point with the winner pulling in just 40% of votes.

That’s not representative democracy. That’s… disgraceful, is what it is. It breeds disregard for the will of the people, makes them contemptuous of a process that needs to be inclusive and participatory. Simply settling for our ingrained first-past-the-post method of electing candidates because anything else is too complicated or boring to contemplate reveals a hollowness at the core of citizenship. If we can’t be bothered to do our part in shoring up democracy, how dare we expect those we elect to do or be any better.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


Rethinking Toronto’s Governance

September 15, 2010

There’s a curious cross-current of municipal political… thinking, let’s call it, at work during our present election campaign. One, which is why I hesitated to use the word ‘thinking’, is the actual campaign. Not so much a struggle of ideas as it is a monkey like flinging of feces to see what sticks to both walls and opponents. The other, conducted off-site and largely away from the glare of the hepped-up media spotlight, occurs under the auspices of academics, former politicos and private citizens involved in the generic field of city building. The pointy-heads and fat cats, to use the vernacular of Rob Ford and Rocco Rossi.

Such an event was yesterday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance sponsored by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Held just prior to the Jane Jacobs Prize presentations, it consisted of a talk by former Toronto Chief Planner, Paul Bedford, on ideas for changing the structure of the city’s electoral map. Ward numbers and boundaries, community council size and numbers, were all put out on the table for examination by Mr. Bedford. This was followed by responses to the proposals from Councillor Kyle Rae and Richard Joy of the Toronto Board of Trade.

I’ll spare you the details but highly encourage everyone to check out the IMFG website over the next couple days when they post the webcast of the session.

In a nutshell, however, I’ll sum up Mr. Bedford’s presentation like this: a dozen years into it and Toronto remains amalgamated on paper only; there’s still precious little real citizen participation and the tools for addressing these issues are within the city’s control both with the City of Toronto act as well as legislative powers it already possessed. The last point is of particular interest to us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke as we have constantly railed about the intrusion of the province in Toronto’s business. Maybe too much at the expense of letting our municipal politicians off the hook, although we did find this an interesting read this morning.

Mr. Rae’s response to this was very revealing. The outgoing councillor for Ward 27, he’s been at it for 19 years now and has become the focus of the campaign as a symbol for all that is wrong with City Hall and its wasteful spending ways, what with his $12 000 retirement bash. While very enthusiastic about many of the ideas being tossed around the room, he expressed some serious reservations about implementing them. Some of it came across as self-serving and little more than a justification for inaction on the part of council. He seemed beaten down by the process after nearly two decades of contending with it and his stance may be the best argument for the idea of term limits. Governing is a war between competing interests and no one should be at war for too long.

However, Mr. Rae delivered a couple key points. City council is still a ward-centric, parochial body that often undercuts city wide planning and vision for the sake of local sensibilities. Not only are the councillors guilty of this, in Rae’s view, but many citizens hold on tightly to their pre-amalgamated view of the ‘old’ Toronto. They are resistant to and suspicious of change regardless of the merits and possible contribution to city-wide progress.

This is coupled with a municipal bureaucracy also allergic to change or innovation according to Mr. Rae. Nothing new to that complaint from an elected official, and one that is being trumpeted out on the campaign trail. But here’s the thing. Like it or not, the bureaucracy is an integral part of any successful public entity. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. A necessary evil, if that’s the particular angle you want to take. The thing is, belittling the bureaucracy, taking it to task or threatening it with dire consequences if it doesn’t bend to your almighty will seems petulant, patronizing and, most importantly, counterproductive.

A bureaucracy consists of people. Like most people, it reacts best to positive reinforcement, to be considered part of the process and integral to the building of a better organization, a better city. It needs direction and a reason to carry out change not to resist it. That can only come from bringing it a forward looking vision, an affirmative and invigorating mission statement for you more business oriented types.

None of this have we seen from the pool of candidates we are being told will spit forth our next mayor. So it’s tough to imagine how we will build a stronger, more unified city in the future with any of those we are threatening to elect to lead us. It just seems, regardless of what is being touted on the campaign trail, we will have more of the same ol’, same ol’.

thoughtfully submitted by Cityslikr