Saturday, October 18, 2008

Democratic dry rot

So when do we panic about the state of democracy in Canada?
Voter turnout was the lowest in 141 years, continuing a slow decline in participation.
Fewer than six in 10 registered voters - 59.1 per cent, to be exact - cast votes.
It takes about the same amount of time to vote as it does to buy a litre of milk on the way home from work, but 40 per cent of Canadian voters decided voting was less important than having something to put on their bowls of cereal in the morning.
Actually, way more than 40 per cent. When Elections Canada assesses turnout, it only counts registered voters. If you include those who are eligible to vote, but haven't registered, only about half of potential voters bother to participate.
That should alarm us all.
It should humiliate the political parties and their leaders. Fifty per cent of Canadians don't think it matters who is in power, or don't believe their votes make a difference. They think it's a scam.
That's stunning. Stop 100 people on the street and ask them which party they would like to see form the government, and 50 don't really care.
They've probably got preferences if you ask them about brands of toothpaste or fast food chains. But not about the political parties that want to become the government.
When does it become a real crisis? When four out of 10 people vote? Two out of 10?
I'd say we should panic now.
You can have great theoretical discussions about voting. Maybe the less committed should stay home and leave the decision to the passionate voters who, presumably, have put effort into developing their preferences.
But there's no guarantee they aren't guided by stupid partisanship, narrow self-interest or prejudice.
And surely we should not be content to be a nation of sheep-people who believe either it that it doesn't matter who governs us, or that we aren't competent to choose those who will?
The Chinese government is not a big fan of democracy. Its official news agency sent out a story headlined, "Worst turnout registered in Canada election." The report cited - accurately - the dismal and declining participation rate.
So if we care about democracy, what should we do?
The most obvious - and difficult - step would bring in some sort of proportional representation, so everyone's vote matters.
Look at the results from this election. Stephen Harper claims a strong mandate. But just 38 per cent of those who voted wanted him to govern. Just 22 per cent of registered voters.
That's something out of a developing country pseudo-democracy. Massive power bestowed on the basis of the preference of one-fifth of the potential voters.
The Bloc Quebecois had the support of 10 per cent of the voters and won 50 seats. The New Democrats captured 18 per cent of the votes. They ended up with 37 seats. How does that reflect the public's will?
The Greens were supported by almost one million people - seven per cent of the people who voted. But no one will speak for those voters in Parliament.
If you proposed this approach to a country just developing its electoral system, the people would reject it overwhelmingly. Why give absolute power to a leader supported by a small minority, and deprive millions of anyone to speak for them in Parliament?
The odds are against reforming the federal system. Talk about opening the constitution and the special interest and regional groups get nervous about losing clout.
But we have a chance in B.C. Next May, there will be another referendum on switching to the single transferable vote system of proportional representation.
It's not perfect, but it's miles better than what we have now.
Footnote: The next test of our democracy comes Nov. 15, with municipal and school board elections. Here in Victoria, voter turnout was about 25 per cent in the last election. It's lower in some communities. That's pathetic. After all the struggles to reach some sort of democratic system, over centuries, we have come to consider it a trifle of no value.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More on the homeless court decision

The Sun's usually insightful Ian Mulgrew has a cranky column on the B.C. Supreme Court decision that found homeless people have a right to cover themselves with a tarp or a cardboard box if they have to sleep outside.
The Times Colonist has a more reasoned and rational editorial analysis here .
See the post below for more details and links to the judgment so you can decide for yourself whether the decisions is well-founded. I certainly think so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Homeless have a right to set up shelter in parks, court rules

Homeless people who sleep outdoors won a big victory in B.C. Supreme Court this week. The court ruled that a Victoria bylaw that made illegal to use a tent or tarp or cardboard for a shelter was unconstitutional.
A lack of services, shelters and housing meant people had to sleep outside, the court found, and saying they couldn't create temporary shelters to avoid freezing ad getting soaked in winter rains violated their Charter right to security and safety. (The basic info is here . The judgment, worth reading, is here.)
Tents and carboard boxes are no real solution for the 1,200 homeless in the capital. But, you would think, the prospect of encampments in parks every night might bring real action. That's what the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and city's mayor called for.
But the province responded with a press release setting out how much how much it spends in housing. It's the kind of thing Gordon Campbell railed against in opposition. The point, he said then, was not how many programs were launched or how money promised - it was whether the problems worsening, or improving.
In the capital, they have been steadily getting worse for 15 years and reached a crisis point. (Note the 15 years; this is not a problem to be laid solely on the Liberals. The NDP started us on the road to this mess.)
Here's the release, as well.

Oct. 15, 2008
Ministry of Housing and Social Development


VICTORIA - More than 20 communities across British Columbia, including Victoria, have joined with the provincial government to recognize Homelessness Action Week.

* Providing supportive housing to low-income British Columbians is a priority for the provincial government.

* Housing Matters BC, the provincial housing strategy, is backed by an annual budget of more than $400 million this year - the highest in the history of British Columbia - more than triple what it was in 2001.

* The Province and the City of Victoria are working together to implement the memorandum of understanding signed in January 2008 to create 170 new and upgraded housing units to reduce homelessness.

* In Victoria, there are approximately 4,600 subsidized housing units with a total annual subsidy of over $18.3 million. Nearly 190 units of housing with support services have been created in Victoria to help break the cycle of homelessness, including 45 units of supportive housing for Our Place Society, and a six-bed addiction recovery facility known as Beacon of Hope.

* In addition, the Province provides $500,000 in funding for the Our Place drop-in centre and $138,000 for the Pacifica drop-in centre.

* The Homeless Outreach Program provides assistance to more than 225 people in the Victoria area, and many more individuals are now receiving assistance from the Victoria Native Friendship Centre through the Aboriginal Homeless Outreach Program.

* The Province invests an additional $25 million per year in the Emergency Shelter Program to allow shelters to be open 24/7, a four-fold budget increase since 2001.

* In Victoria, the Province funds over 140 year-round emergency shelter beds and 30 seasonal winter beds for approximately $4.5 million a year.

* The Mayor's Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness report in October 2007 outlined an aggressive target for new units over the next five years.

* Since October 2007, the Province has provided 130 rental supplements to give people the flexibility they need to find a rental unit.

* To protect existing affordable housing, the Province has purchased 30 buildings across B.C. - 1,400 units for $96 million since 2007. Another $90 million will be spent renovating those units so people have safe and secure places to live and create new opportunities for themselves. Five of these buildings are located in Victoria - the Pandora Hotel, Queens Court, Magdelaine Court, Gorge Waterway Apartments and a 13-bed rooming-house.

* Through the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the Province has also committed $7.6 million to better integrate existing health services to housing and other social agencies in Victoria.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dion and Harper both in trouble after election

Sure, it was a bad night for Stephane Dion.
And collapsing financial markets and a bad showing in Quebec hurt Stephen Harper's hopes for a majority government.
But Harper and his party face some tough questions as they assess the election results today.
Perhaps there just aren't enough Canadians who share his brand of conservatism to deliver a majority.
Not to be contrarian, but Harper's future as leader - despite winning 19 more seats than in the 2006 election - should still be in doubt.
He has failed three times to deliver the kind of majority victory Conservatives supporters want. And the setbacks have come despite conditions in the last two campaigns that offered the Harper great opportunities.
In 2006, the Liberals were discredited and tainted with corruption.
In this campaign, the Liberals were divided, disorganized and had a leader in Dion who struggled to communicate. The Conservatives were organized, rich and focused. Conditions were highly favourable for a majority victory.
What went wrong?
There were stumbles by both main parties. Even before the market meltdown, the Conservatives were struggling to find a way to a majority. But the financial crisis highlighted a core belief of Harper's brand of conservatism - that government has a very limited role to play in any aspect of society, economic, cultural or social.
When Harper suggested that people should consider plummeting stock prices - and RRSPs and home values - as a chance to pick up some bargains, he wasn't just being insensitive. He believes that markets and people should be left to sort out their own problems and create their own opportunities. Government's role should be sharply limited. Not non-existent, but as small as possible.
It's a legitimate position. In the U.S., neoconservative policies that stress market freedom and individual responsibility, opportunity and accountability have found fairly wide support.
But the U.S. is different than Canada. Its founders started with a deep suspicion of government; their goal was to escape the control of a remote and interfering British regime; their constitution an exercise in limiting government power. In Canada, the same anti-government sentiment wasn't at the centre of nation-building.
In the campaign's early days, Harper said that he believed Canada had undergone "a tremendous change" in the last two decades and become more politically conservative. They wanted lower taxes, free trade and balanced budgets, he said.
The party's campaign reflected that, from the initial hands-off approach to the financial crisis to arts cuts to tougher penalties for youth criminals.
But the results yesterday suggest Harper got it wrong, at least in terms of a majority.
Canadians don't want waste or irresponsibility, but they do think government has a role in helping make peoples' lives better.
The numbers are still being tallied, but the Conservatives managed to only nudge their support from 2006 - 36.3 per cent - slightly higher. That's enough, given vote-splitting on the centre and left, to allow a minority government.
But not a majority, which is the real goal for Conservative party members.
The campaign started with much speculation that Dion would be dumped. He will be.
But expect questions about Harper's future as well. After three unsuccessful campaigns, he has still not won Canadians' support, even with dismal Liberal competition.
Given the perception that this is very much Harper's party, it's hard to see where the Conservatives can go with him as leader.
Or exactly where Harper can go as prime minister. In the campaign, he talked about treating a second minority government as a stronger mandate for the party's policies.
Harper should have more room to govern given the Liberals' weakness, but faces a financial crisis and slowing economy.
Harper's achievement in bringing together the Reform-Alliance-Progressive Conservative coalition will be remembered.
But this might have been his last chance to win a majority government.
Footnote: The election results should worry Gordon Campbell. The Conservatives did much better in B.C. than in the rest of the country. Nationally, their share of the popular vote barely changed; in B.C. it jumped from 36 per cent to about 48 per cent. The attacks on Dion's carbon tax - and on Campbell's nearly identical tax - likely were a significant factor, building on existing public opposition to the B.C. tax.