Thursday, September 27, 2007

MMP in Guelph

In my last post, I indicated that the all-candidates debate in Guelph helped me narrow down my choices to two: Liberal candidate Liz Sandals and Green candidate Ben Polley. At present, my voting intentions are being influenced by two main issues: the funding of religious schools out of the public purse and the move to a mixed-member-proportional electoral system.

In both cases, the positions of the candidates are leading me to support the Green candidate. The Green party position on the schools question is to support a constitutional amendment to eliminate public funding for the Catholic school board system. To my mind, this is the best way to deal with the question of equitable treatment of religious groups raised by the UN. It is also a route that has been successfully followed in Newfoundland and Quebec. The Liberals, meanwhile, are content to simply defend the status quo, which is preferable to the Conservative approach, but somewhat cowardly in terms of showing leadership.

As for MMP, on his website Ben Polley clearly states that he favours MMP. The Greens are, understandably, fully in favour of a system that will give them some representation for the 5-10% of the vote that they attract. The Liberals are not taking a firm position, although some have adopted a favorable stance. I contacted Liz Sandals to find out her stance on the issue. Her reply was as follows:

"In 2003, the Ontario Liberal Party ran on a platform that included giving Ontarians a choice through a referendum, for the first time ever, on how people are elected in Ontario. When asked to study our electoral system, a randomly selected group of 103 Ontarians came forward with the suggestion of using the MMP system. I am not advocating for either side in this debate. We called the referendum to ask voters which system they prefer, and I will follow the direction of the voters.

That, to my mind, is not showing leadership on this issue, which I expect from a politician. I would at least like to know where their personal preference lies. This, again, is a check in the Polley column for me.

I might yet be swayed back to the Liberals before election day, but it's looking less likely.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Guelph All-Candidates Debate – Ontario Election

On September 19, I attended the all-candidates debate for the riding of Guelph, held at the Dublin Street United Church, and organized by the Guelph-Wellington Coalition for Social Justice. The meeting was well-attended, with a nice mix of both young and old voters, and a fair number of interest groups were represented there. I was pleased that the evening began with a presentation on the MMP referendum from Marty Fairbairn, from Elections Ontario. Fairbairn did his best to stay neutral, despite some very pointed questions from the audience. Unfortunately, there were so many questions in the candidates debate that the moderator ended it (after 2 hours, which was perfectly reasonable) before a question could be posed about candidate support for MMP.

The Opening Statements

Bob Senechal: The “John Tory” candidate in my riding did very briefly use the words “progressive conservative” in his opening statement, which might have been the only time he did so over the course of the night. The John Torys are running on leadership, leadership, and leadership, attacking McGuinty for broken promises. Senechal laid out 5 priorities for Guelph (borrowing a page from the Harper handbook): 1) Fairness in Education, including $500M for public funding to faith-based schools; 2) Transportation, including bringing the GO Train to Guelph, and incorporating mass transit into new highway development; 3) Lower Taxes; 4) More Family Doctors, and easing the process for recognizing foreign credentials; and 5) Environment – creating more nuclear plants for Ontario.

John Gots: The Family Coalition Party candidate, who would get equal time to the mainstream parties. I find this party offensive on a personal level, so I will not dwell on his statements or answers to questions. Suffice it to say that he banged on the drum of the traditional family, attacked gay couples, and would later turn a question about laws regarding animal cruelty into a speech about abortion.

Ben Polley: I was quite keen to see what the Green Party candidate would have to say. Guelph is, I have rapidly discovered, a hotbed of environmental activism, and so I expected a serious candidate. I was not disappointed over the course of the evening, although his opening statement was quite general, speaking about moving beyond left-right debates and relying on common sense. He did, however, speak of the linkages between issues of poverty and health, and between education and the economy. And of course, some good words about the impact of the Greens on Liberal party policies on pesticides and wind turbines.

Karan Mann-Bowers: I have voted NDP in a long string of federal and provincial elections, although often reluctantly, faced with no better options. Mann-Bowers stressed her credentials as a mother, an advocate, a wife and an educator. She stated that she would make no promises that evening, but stressed values of fairness, accountability and respect. She also stressed the importance of her unique perspective of an immigrant woman of colour, which she believes needs to be represented in the legislature.

Liz Sandals: The incumbent Liberal MPP, Sandals stressed both the Liberal record and attacked the Conservatives, particularly for their education policy. She carefully spelled out the constitutional requirements for the four existing streams of publicly-funded education in the province. Key accomplishments were listed, including the creation of the Green Belt, reduction of coal plants, a new wait time strategy for health, and a new child benefit for low-income Ontarians.

Andrew Garvie: My husband leaned over to me and said “I bet he’s the Marxist-Leninist,” referring to the young man with the longish hair and short-sleeved shirt. Well, not quite, but he is the Communist candidate, a fourth-year philosophy student at U of G. Garvie stressed two key issues: the need for MMP to allow for a more democratic process, and the need for universal access to post-secondary education, to reduce student debts and end the “prostitution” of universities to corporate interests.

Question Period

I am not going to recap all of the questions and answers, although this part of the evening was particularly long and tedious, as we had to sit through six answers to every single question, regardless of whether or not the candidate had a position, or knew what their party’s stance was.

This section started out as a bit of a consensus section. Everyone likes local farmers and wants to encourage buying locally and subsidizing farms. They are also all keen on more mass transit and want to bring the GO Train to Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo (although Sandals was cagey about when this might happen, and would not promise to get it done). Everyone is also committing to reduce downloading of responsibilities to municipalities without funding, and spoke of uploading (except the FCP). Everyone opposes cruelty to animals.

Differences emerged on a few key issues. Water extraction and sale by Nestle is a major local issue. The NDP and the Green candidate were quite vehement about this being “our water” and raised the spectre of Americans taking Canadian resources. I was impressed by the Green candidate’s proposal to shift the cost of recycling and reuse of plastic water bottles to the manufacturer. Sandals would return to this issue at length in her closing speech, stressing the bureaucratic evaluation of the sustainability of the ground water resevoir – it was a weak point for her, as she seemed only to be able to explain inaction as the result of bureaucratic red tape.

A host of written questions on public funding for religious schools was grouped together by the moderator to present to Senechal. He couched this as an issue of fairness and of relpying to UN criticisms that the Ontario system is discriminatory. Sandals criticized this as a measure that would take even more money away from the existing public schools and foster discrimination. The FCP called for a move to the voucher system. I must congratulate Garvie for calling for a move to one public system, which would require a constitutional amendment to eliminate public funding for Catholic schools as well.

The impact of the high dollar on the Ontario economy was also raised, and the candidates were asked how they would help the manufacturing sector. Sandals spoke of partnerships with high-tech industries, which she believes are the sector where Canada can compete internationally in value-added, high-skill jobs. Senechal talked (surprise, surprise) about lower taxes. Mann-Bowers raised the NDP pledge for a higher minimum wage, lower corporate hydro rates and anti-scab legislation. Polley outlined (a bit too quickly for me) a Green plan to invest in small businesses through loans to workers to invest in their firms, as opposed to direct large loans to big businesses. I need to read more about that policy plank.

Closing Statements

Garvie admitted that he hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning, but observed that he wanted to run to raise issues in the debate, especially about tuition fees and the MMP referendum. He got a lot of support from the audience, even those who were not clearly his friends.

Senechal repeated his opening statement, in slightly different words.

Sandals spent two thirds of her time trying to explain the water extraction evaluation, and ended up sounding like a bureaucrat. She closed by stressing that a vote for anyone but the Liberals is a vote for the Conservatives as government and a return to more private health clinics and education funding diversions.

Mann-Bowers spoke vaguely about wanting to “connect with people” and representing the marginalized groups of society, including those in poverty, who are mostly single mothers, many of whom are black. She threw in a few sops to the “children are our future” discourse, and then rattled off a few NDP planks about a two-year tuition freeze, raising the minimum wage, closing coal plants and supporting unions.

Gots was a troglodyte.

Polley presented a platform that would be well suited to a left-wing social agenda, supporting a minimum wage hike, an increase in the basic tax exemption up to $11K in the first year of government, an end to the health premium tax, and a living wage policy. He also, of course, spoke of green power, green transport and green housing. And he got off the best line of the night, joking about how Bob Senechal appeared to be running as the candidate for “the independent party of John Tory”.

My Impressions

Wednesday night whittled down my choices to two candidates: Liz Sandals and Ben Polley. I now have some platforms to read in more detail. These two were the only candidates who struck me as not only being on top of their issues and generally representing my values, but also able to think for themselves, and do more than parrot the party line. I found Mann-Bowers deeply disappointing – I expect more from the NDP than someone essentially asking for me to vote for her as the affirmative action candidate. Like Howard Hampton, she seemed fresh out of new ideas. Senechal seemed like a puppet for his party. I liked Garvie on a personal level and admire his gumption for running, but to borrow from Leela in an episode of Futurama (the one with the popplers and the Omicronians) “You’re a Communist, who cares what you think?”

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ontario election - Guelph all-candidates debate first impressions

I attended the all-candidates debate this evening for Guelph. I've taken detailed notes which will be the subject of a later post, but here are my first impressions.

Only two of the six candidates struck me as credible, intelligent potential MPPs: Ben Polley for the Green Party, and Liz Sandals, the incumbent Liberal MPP.

Andrew Garvie, the candidate for the Communist party was young, but it was nice to have someone speak about tuition rates and post-secondary education. However, it was really frustrating that both he and the obnoxious man from the Family Coalition Party were given equal speaking time to the more serious candidates.

The NDP candidate, Karan Mann-Bowers, did not impress me with her grasp of the issues of her party's platform, and seemed to be running primarily on her credentials as a visible minority woman.

The Progressive Conservative candidate, who rarely dared say the word "conservative" was weak, and parroting the party platform in a wooden delivery.

Quote of the night: "Bob Senechal, who appears to be running as the candidate for the Independent party of John Tory..." from Ben Polley's closing statement.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The significance of Outremont

As I write this post, it looks like Thomas Mulcair is on his way to a victory in Outremont. As someone who once lived in that riding, and volunteered for the NDP in the 2004 election campaign, I'm pleased for him.

But by-elections are strange beasts, and rarely mean all that much in the broader scheme of events. Indeed, the last (and only other) time the NDP won a seat in Quebec, it was a by-election victory. Heck, a Communist MP managed to win a by-election in Quebec in 1943 (Fred Rose, re-elected in 1945). By-elections are great opportunities for local issues to rise to the fore, or for frustrations to be vented without fear of affecting the overall structure of government. However, they often do not indicate what they appear to on the surface.

And so while I am happy for Thomas Mulcair, I think that he will ultimately be another flash in the pan for the NDP in Quebec. He was elected at least partly on the strength of his high profile in the province from his years in the Charest cabinet. Previous NDP candidates in the riding (where the party has fared far better than elsewhere in the province) have barely eked out 10-20% of the vote. And so, much as I wish it were otherwise, I don't think this is indicative of a broader trend for NDP strength in other constituencies.

I think the bigger story, unfortunately for the Liberals, is the further decline of their vote from the 2004/06 levels which were already lower in Outremont under Jean Lapierre than they had been under Martin Cauchon. The Bloc vote does appear to be declining, but in one of the other by-elections, it was the Conservative who picked up those votes, not the NDP. And while a single NDP seat in the House of Commons from Quebec is a pleasing thought for me, the spectre of over a dozen new Conservative pick-ups in former Bloc (and perhaps even Liberal) seats does not.

On a side-note, Quebec's historic election results are one of the reasons why I support electoral reform towards some system of MMP. The left-wing/NDP vote and the Liberal vote alike are concentrated on the heavily-populated island of Montreal, and yet the high raw voting numbers for candidates who espouse these values or political leanings rarely translate into a seat count in the legislature that reflects this fact. For decades now, it has been possible for separatist/sovereignist/Union Nationale parties to win more seats than their share of the popular vote entitles them to, largely because their vote is dispersed across less-populous rural ridings.

Most egregious was the 1994 election, where the Liberals took a greater share of the popular vote (44.75%) than the PQ (44.4%) and yet were outnumbered in the legislature 77 seats to 47. As a result, we were treated to a Jacques Parizeau-led government, and the 1995 sovereignty referendum. I recognize that even if Quebec had had the version of MMP that is proposed for Ontario, Parizeau would have still formed the government. But the crushing majorities that do not reflect the voters intentions would no longer be the norm, and third parties might have a chance to break through the entrenched and often stale dynamics that characterize most provincial electoral systems.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ontario election

So apparently an election has been called in Ontario. Who should I vote for? The governing Liberals of Dalton McGuinty, who hasn't done a great deal to excite me, other than proposing to ban fresh sushi-grade fish a few years back(and that wasn't the good kind of excitement)? The Conservatives of John Tory, who want to undermine the public school system, and perhaps allow the teaching of creationism - or maybe not? (Oops, perhaps I should be saying PC party, since the party seems to be running scared from the Conservative brand - so much so that the word does not appear on the entry page of their website). The tired NDP of Howard Hampton, who are "fighting for working families," a slogan that gets under my skin like no other, and are still trying to rid themselves of the albatross of the Bob Rae years? Or the Green Party of a leader who has made such an impression on me that I had to go look up his name (it's Frank de Jong) and have no chance of forming government?

As you can probably tell, while I'm pleased to be back in my home province, its political life is not exactly filling me with glee and excitement. I will, however, be diligent in trying to decide which way to vote, and inform you, my friendly readers, with what I find out about issues that are near and dear to my heart. I'll also attempt to put up some content about the referendum on changing the electoral system to a Mixed-Member Proportional system, which I am supporting. I'll also be placing a particular focus on my home riding of Guelph.

In the meantime, my first observation on the campaign is that I find it curious that in a province with a sizeable Franco-Ontarian minority community and a French-language services act, only one of the four aforementioned parties - the Liberals - has bothered to create a bilingual webpage. It's not like this election date wasn't set a long way in advance. If I were a francophone, I'd find this very insulting indeed.

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Tidbits of interest for Canadian gays

Just over three years ago, my husband and I signed the necessary paperwork to make our marriage legal in Canada. We had held a ceremony with friends and family a year earlier, just before the Canadian court rulings started to come down, but had been waiting until Parliament had passed legislation before we took the steps to make it legal. During the 2004 election campaign, we decided it might be best to go ahead anyways, just in case the Conservatives won.

According to Statistics Canada's report on the census that was released today, our decision has put us in an elite group (or at least so I'd like to think - grin!) of 0.6% of the country's population that declared that they were in a same-sex married couple. We like to think that we're doing our little part to reinvigorate and perhaps rework the institution of marriage. Mind you, with less than 50% of the Canadian adult population listing their status as married, the first time this has been the case since the census was first held, I'm sure that someone will soon be arguing that it's "us gays" who have undermined the institution.

There has also been much hubbub about the decision of Stephen Harper to prorogue Parliament, and speculation about whether this will lead to a new election. Frankly, I'm more interested in the pieces of legislation that were effectively killed (click the link for "Government says it won't reintroduce Clean Air Act"), left to die on the order paper. If an election is called, Alberta, BC and Ontario won't get those extra seats they were hoping for with Bill C-56 (Expanding House Seats Bill) dead. But on a brighter note, Vic Toews' regressive Bill C-22, the Age of Sexual Protection Bill, is also dead. I found this bill particularly objectionable as it did nothing to eliminate the blatant discrimination against gay sex from Canada's Criminal Code, leaving the age of consent for anal sex at age 18 (despite court rulings in Ontario that this is unconstitutional), while raising the age of consent for other sexual acts to 16.

Now that my courses are back in swing, and an Ontario election is in the offing, I'll try to post a bit more often. I've been a bad blogger this summer, but I like to think that it's been in a good cause.

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