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On the significance of sound and fury.

April 17, 2015

Oh journalists, you love a strong response to an unanswerable question don’t you?

The media are really into nailing down what each party leader thinks about coalitions after the next election at the moment. Case in point, this week’s little drama with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau trying to answer questions about coalitions with the NDP after the election which he shouldn’t be answering:

The CBC even posted a video question on Facebook about: Coalition for Canada?

As someone on that Facebook thread pointed out, the simple story that many are reciting is that Trudeau said he’d be willing to have a coalition if it weren’t for NDP leader Mulcair. All the articles just snap parts of the quote to magnify this context. I can’t find the full interview. But it doesn’t matter because the next day:

Well that’s nice, glad it’s all wrapped up and we know what Canadians want.

This article by John Ibitson has some bluster about the Liberals being closer to the Conservatives than the NDP but is more on target about what the coalition options really are after an election :

I don’t really think Trudeau meant the problem is Mulcair. He said he doesn’t want to talk about it, trying not closing the door entirely and unwisely responded to a ridiculous personality question, and then he closed the door entirely.

But here’s the thing, none of this really matters.

Begin rant

The great thing about democracy is those running for office can propose to do whatever they want and if they can get the voter’s support, then it’s ok (within the bounds of the constitution). That is literally all that there is to it.

So if the NDP and the Liberals can come to a coalition agreement or a non-aggression pact of some kind before the election, the voters will take that into account. If they stay vague, the voters will take that into account. If they don’t say anything either way, then after a hung parliament (because that’s what it really is when no one wins an outright majority of seats, and in the UK they’ll call it that) they can try to work together to form a government…or not.

Whatever they do they will be acting within their mandate because the MPs are elected individually. The parties are merely useful hallucinations which we created to simplify the process of making a hard, unified decision across hundreds of ridings, and of course to make fundraising easier.

Regardless of what approach the MPs take, or what approach their parties decide on and ask their MPs to support, the voters will react and the next election they can make a different decision. In the mean time if the voters are unhappy they can protest, raise funds for other parties, start new parties themselves or run in by-elections to make their unhappiness known.

So should party A and party B agree to form a coalition before the election happens? It doesn’t matter and why would you answer that question? Why tie your hands before you even know voter intentions? Even if they take a stand either way, they don’t need to stick to it. All that matters are what all the voters say in each riding which determines who their empowered elected MPs are. Then it only matters what those MPs decide to do to work together and form a government, in full freedom, on behalf of their ridings.

Our democracy is at once simpler and richer than any of this discussion gives it credit for.

There is nothing illegal, misleading, or dishonest about forming a coalition before the election or forming it afterwards, whether it was planned and discussed or not. It’s just parliamentary democracy in action.

Embrace it.

Should America Make Voting Mandatory?

March 19, 2015

So US President Obama recently suggested that making voting mandatory. There are multiple reasons for this, one being that the people who don’t vote are more likely to be low income and democrat so it would favour his party. But he also suggested it would reduce the influence of money in politics since the candidates that can spend more to make sure their base get out would lose the advantage.

I don’t disagree but I think there are many better ways to get people voting, like ensuring every vote counts equally and that every significant voice is heard even if they don’t win the horserace. Mandatory voting can’t really hurt despite some wails from people who will reliably claim this is removing people’s freedom. Voting is one of the duties we have as citizens in our society. However, that doesn’t mean you have to vote for someone. I don’t know if Australia or the other nations with mandatory voting do this, but I would think it absolutely essential with mandatory voting would come the universal inclusion of a ‘none of the above’ option on every ballot. This would allow people the freedom to protest the choices or the entire system system without paying a fine. It should be mandatory to show up to the ballot box, register and do something with the ballot. Most people will choose to vote but we cannot mandate free citizens to choose from a list of two, or even five or 20 for that matter, without giving them the option of saying “no, just no”.



Toronto’s Future Isn’t Written Yet

October 20, 2014

If you make to the end of the Back to the Future movie trilogy, past the flying cars and cowboys the last scene has a sage bit of wisdom to help you get through life…and voting:

Jennifer: I brought this note back from the future (about Marty losing his job) and…now it’s erased!

Doc: Of course it’s erased!

Jennifer: But what does that mean?

Doc: It means that your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your
future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.

In a way, opinion and voter intention polls are like that note, they are an attempt to look into the
future. Then pundits and journalists sit around looking at empty pieces of paper asking “what do they mean?”.

Polls come from asked people to predict how they’ll vote at some point in the future. These predictions are analyzed statistically but pollsters need to make assumptions. Assumptions about how good people are at predicting their own future decisions. Assumptions about how likely they are to lie to pollsters. Even assumptions about what kind of people the respondents are. After all, these are people already on their call list, usually with landline phones and who actually answered the pollster’s call rather than just hanging up the phone. That’s definitely not everyone.

The polling companies do their best try to correct for these biases but with limited data it is, unfortunately, more of an art than a science. In the past few elections in Canada, analysis of polls has been quite misleading. The current election for Toronto’s Mayor on October 27 could prove to be even worse. The reasons people would vote for any of the main candidates is very complicated and emotional. A lot will depend on who comes out to vote, which campaigns can get their supporters out and how afraid some of the city is of one candidate or another actually winning. The pollsters can’t predict how all of that complexity will affect the election result.

So there are lots of reasons to be cautious about what polls say but there is even more reason to be cautious, or ignore completely, what you see on the news about polls and polling trends. Just look at the media interpretation of polls in the run-up to the most recent BC, Quebec and Ontario elections, there were lots of surprises once the voting results started coming in.

And if the polls are suspect, if the outcome is unpredictable then strategic voting is even more dangerous than usual. I’ve supported strategic voting in the past, and I still believe that every vote is a strategic vote. But strategic voting doesn’t mean you always have to vote for someone you don’t like to avoid someone you hate. It just means you think about what is likely to happen and take that into consideration when making your decision. The polls are relevant but so are many other things: who’s supporters are likely to show up on election night? what population do the polls miss and how would they vote?

Pundits talk about inertia in polling numbers. But this is an illusion that can fade like a puff of smoke on election night, if we so choose. The citizens of Toronto are not a train barreling ahead off an abandoned bridge, that has inertia. It takes no more effort to change your mind in that little voting booth than it does to decide what to have for lunch today. But it’s much more important! So whatever you think, whoever you believe, wherever you think Toronto needs to go in the next four years: get out on October 27 and vote so your voice is heard. If you don’t know where and how to vote check out the Toronto Elections website.

Personally, I don’t think we need to worry so much about the precise details of each candidate’s plans for transit, child care (if they have one), jobs (if they have one) or how to bring in more business and tourists. Carrying out any plan requires all of council and usually all levels of government. So we need to rather worry about what their high level goals are, how they think about these problems and how they plan to work with others so the city can move on to reach it’s potential to be truly great for everyone who lives here.

When making your decision the most important fact to remember should be this one: we haven’t made our decision yet. So don’t make it out of fear, make it out of hope.

The future of Toronto is whatever we make it. So let’s make it a good one.

Ranking the Lesser of All Evils

September 14, 2014

So we finally know exactly who will be on the ballot for mayor of our quiet little town of Toronto.
It’s not who we expected, which isn’t surprising in a strange way, but it is done.
In a sane world the municipal campaign wouldn’t start until now. Six weeks is more than enough time to hear from the main candidates and make a decision. If it’s good enough for federal elections why isn’t it good enough for city elections?

In all these months the main issues of this election have been discussed ad nauseum: Transit, Anyone But Ford, Taxes, Services, oh and Transit. So how about talking about something else? How about talking about the democratic machinery we are participating in as citizens?

Wow, boring right? Or maybe it’s too complicated? Journalists, politicians and pundits tell us that citizens don’t have time or interest for such things.

Well tough.

This entire four year slow motion train wreck was enabled by some structural failures in our democratic system. From a close two-and-a-half-way election four years ago, to the lack of impeachment powers at the municipal level, to wasted years and millions due to a lack of central decision making on long term, regional transit planning.

A few days ago, before Friday’s big news about the Ford family playing musical chairs at the last second, some current and former candidates for mayor addressed one simple way of improving our democratic system. David Soknaki and Olivia Chow pledged support for ranked ballots in city elections and for reform to make democracy more representative at all levels of government. John Tory says he’d rather wait for a report from the province on democratic reform. Prudent and cautious as usual for Tory, but unnecessary. Admitting the fact that our current system is flawed and committing to fight to fix it does not require a report from a Royal Commission. You’d think someone who has lost so many elections would be more willing to change the system. Rob Ford did not reply to that article’s request and no one knows what Doug Ford thinks of such a proposal, but I suspect the answer is ‘not much’.

The idea of ranked ballots is very simple and described well by the Ranked Ballot Initiative (RaBIT) which is trying to get this change adopted. Ranked ballots are not without controversy. One of the other major democratic reform groups active in Toronto, the national Fair Vote Canada (fantastic organization, sign their Declaration of Voter Rights!), is opposed to ranked ballots and other instant runoff systems. This is because simply ranking candidates and doing runoffs does not guarantee that election results will match the proportion of votes in the population. This is true, but they do provide less ambiguous results as the winner will always have at least half the city’s votes. Even Rob Ford’s landslide win last election only amounted to 47% of the votes. A clear win but not what many journalists lazily continue to call a ‘majority’. Meanwhile around 10% of the vote from that election went to a third candidate who, it turned out, could never win. In a ranked system at least those voters would have had a second shot to influence the real contest between Smitherman and Ford, perhaps leading to the same result. Another benefit could be to discourage candidates from burning bridges by disparaging similar candidates to themselves whose second and third choices they would like to get in the instant runoffs.

You could say that in normal years, the Toronto Mayoral election already has a flavour of ranked ballots as candidates self-select and drop out before the deadline when it becomes clear they can’t win. I’d rather the voters make that choice, but no matter. Of course, this is not a normal election year with the deadline this year seeing the incumbent drop out while his brother jumps in to the race for the final stretch. Now more than ever we need to acknowledge that an election choice is more subtle than any winner-take-all contest can ever capture. Voters are forced to choose the lesser of all evils and vote strategically about who they want as well as keep in mind who they are afraid might win. Why not let the voters rank the evils directly and stop worrying? It would be more honest.

Good for Olivia Chow for supporting democratic reform so directly.

Government and democracy are about more than just finding efficiencies, lowering taxes or even getting people moving. Informed and responsible citizens of a democracy need to work to make the system better, more representative and more responsible. Just because the media and many politicians find that too boring or pretend it is too complicated is no excuse.

So let’s get on with it.

The Judoon Summarize Today’s Toronto Election News

September 12, 2014

A Message from the Shadow Proclamation summarizing today’s events in the Toronto Mayoral election.:

RoFo no go fo mo of TO.
RoFo go fo cou of TO so,
MoFo no go fo cou of TO
MoFo go fo scho bo of TO.
DoFo go for mo of TO!
TO po so mofo cray yo!

Goodbye Robin.

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams has always been a part of my life. One of the earliest proper TV shows I remember watching was Mork and Mindy, about a strange guy with a name like mine who happened to be an alien and was just trying to figure out how this crazy world and the people in it worked. He was sincere and silly and hopeful all at once, and that was ok. I haven’t seen nearly all his movies but he made an impact in me which so many roles over the years in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin and even Peter Pan. The roles he chose and the performances he gave provided humanity and pointed us to what is truly important in life.

I actually saw him once. It was when I was in university, sitting on the steps inside the Eaton Centre for some reason, waiting for someone I suppose. It was during the Toronto Film Festival so it wasn’t strange to see actors but there he was, Robin Williams, in a full scruffy beard, walking across the second floor by the elevators with four bags of shopping. A young couple stopped in front of him and said hello, asking for an autograph. He smiled, put down his bags and shook their hands. He chatted for a minute, signed their paper and moved on. Part of me wanted to run up and tell him how awesome he was. But, he was just a normal person trying to get through his day. Just seeing him that way made me feel I knew just a little bit better.

He was weird and funny and torn and broken and totally brilliant, like all the good ones are. He could never be anything but himself, even when it made people uncomfortable. We can all learn from that. He was a light in the darkness even though the darkness overwhelmed him in the end. The world will be quieter and less weird without him, and that’s a bad thing.

Nanu nanu Robin.

Toronto Is More Than The Core

June 28, 2014

Marcus Gee makes a nice attempt at an ode to Toronto as opposed to the idea of Ford Nation: “Toronto isn’t Rob Ford. Toronto is more than that”. Unfortunately, I think he missed the point of why there is dissatisfaction in some parts of the city. All his anecdotes refer to The Core of the city. It’s mostly south of College and all south of Bloor. Toronto is more than Ford Nation, true, but it is also so much more than the Core. Let me tell you about my Toronto.

Toronto is getting pizza and Tim Hortons at St Claire and Dufferin. Toronto is getting a Jamaican beef patty on a fresh portuguese bun at Eglinton and Oakwood. Toronto is getting congee rice porridge in North Scarborough and then going to Walmart for some shopping. Toronto is getting fresh polish sausages and halal lamb skewers in Etobicoke to BBQ on the balcony of your high-rise apartment.

Toronto is massive shopping malls outside the Core: Yorkdale, Scarborough Town, Dufferin Mall, Centrepoint, Fairview. Places where families get their shopping done. Places where teens learn to build their own community as they go to movies and roam the stores. Places where so many people work day in day out, 364 days a year. Some malls, like Fairview, provide a transit hub and essential services needed to support huge clusters of apartment buildings nearby. Other malls, like Yorkdale, become places to push the limit of consumerism without worrying about affordability. Both have their place in this town.

Toronto is also a place of small malls and strip malls that bind communities. Jane Park, West Side Mall, North Park, Agincourt Mall and dozens of others I don’t know. Places you’ve probably never heard of or visited unless you live in that community. They are part of the identity of this city of neighbourhoods outside the Core. They are the places where people shop in No Frills and Walmart; where people meet and chat doing groceries; where seniors meet in a coffee shop where everyone knows their name.

Toronto is the quiet sea of bungalows throughout midtown, full of tiny parks and where a tiny corner store is hidden far from any major road. These neighbourhoods are where the whole world lives side by side, where whole neighbourhoods will light fireworks on Canada Day in local school yards.

Toronto is a town of many colleges and three huge universities. UofT sits as an island of new and old, a universe of world class learning and research floating in the centre of the city and in growing campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga. YorkU sits on the edge of the world, crossed by power lines and bordered by oil storage and highways; a community built on melding Art, Science and Knowledge into a cohesive whole. Meanwhile Ryerson grows, relentlessly, just a bit off-centre in the old Core, charting a new way forward through technology and design.

Toronto is a morning ride on crowded buses and subways where absolutely everyone is a minority, and everyone respects the space of others and the hard commute they go through every day. Toronto is also commuter’s traveling beyond the city. It is the transit hubs at Union, Yorkdale, York University, Finch Station and others. Where people step every day off their TTC bus or subway and get onto another bus or train run by VIA, GO, YRT or others to continue the long journey home. This too is Toronto, it is the orbit of our great city, and it cannot be great without all its neighbours like Markham, Richmond Hill, Brampton, Mississauga.

Toronto is the Belt-Line trail, a running path tracing an old commuter rail that stretches from working class old York through the back yards of Forest Hill, across uptown and into the great Mount Pleasant cemetery down to the Don Valley.

Toronto is more than the Gardiner and the Don Valley. Toronto is the 401, Allen Parkway, Black Creek Drive and all the ramps and roads that feed into the highway universe that is so essential to this city. People live in the shadows and view of those highways and never see the crumbling Gardiner at all.

Finally, Toronto is not just a city of neighbourhoods, it is a city if cities. People still identify as living in Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York and even tiny York(represent!) and East York. They are also Torontonians, a duality of identity within the city. One that hurts when the very real wonders of The Core are the beginning and end of anyone’s description of the city.

Toronto is so much more than the Core or the car centric suburbs. But that is just my Toronto. What is your Toronto?



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