Globe and Mail Letter

The Letters section in today’s Globe and Mail is filled with readers’ thoughts on climate change. One such reader is me. Please see the fifth letter from the top for my response to the “What about China?” excuse for Canadian climate inaction.

Pro Rep: Infinity War; or, In Defence of Endless Referendums

File:Guelph Rally on Electoral Reform - National Day of Action for Electoral Reform - 11 Feb 2017 - 02.jpg

Winston Churchill (apocryphally, as it turns out) is believed to have said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” In light of British Columbia’s referendum on electoral reform this past fall, one is tempted to agree. But let’s not let the media, politicians, and third-party campaigners off the hook.

Regardless of where you come down on proportional representation, the referendum was a shameless exercise in fearmongering and misinformation. Confusion was ramped up at every opportunity. Minor quibbles over process were inflated into frothing conspiracy theories. A rigged vote was proclaimed, an NDP/Green Party power grab in the offing. Nazis lurked around every corner. And the inclusion of not one but two ballot questions? The horror!

While the NDP government campaigned for reform, it rarely did the “Yes” side any favours. Premier John Horgan performed abysmally in his televised debate with Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson (who, to be clear, was no better). If only the government had fleshed out a few more details in advance, some of the “No” side’s deliberate mischaracterizations might have been more easily debunked.

Referendums are poor vehicles for nuanced policy discussion. Some electoral reform advocates even take the position that a fair voting system is a civil rights issue — something no less crucial to our democracy than the universality of the franchise — and thus ought to be above the fickle whims of majority rule. Should we really be holding votes on whether to make every vote count?

And yet, valid though this perspective might be, it is hard to shake the idea that choosing an electoral system is the rightful prerogative of the electorate, that leaving the whole thing up to politicians is a fundamental conflict of interest. Referendums are flawed, yes, but elected governments acting on their own initiative, even if guided by ostensible public consultations, face insurmountable incentives simply to preserve their own power. Indeed, how else to explain the perseverance of first-past-the-post?

Hence a proposal that I suspect will be found equally distasteful both by pro rep evangelists and by guardians of the status quo: perhaps the problem isn’t too much voting, but too little.

What if we held regularly scheduled electoral reform referendums every four years? What if, as a matter of course, the task of choosing next election’s voting system was taken up by this election’s voters? Pairing the ballot question with a general election would help to keep the former’s costs down. Plus, serendipitously, the mechanics of voting would already be on the public’s mind. A permanent, repeated exercise of this nature, if properly executed, could infuse our democracy with a spirit of innovation, experimentation, and open-minded inquiry.

So who would be responsible for writing the referendum question? Which variant or variants of reform (plurality, majoritarian, proportional, or otherwise) would make it on the ballot? In order to prevent governments from gaming the system, these matters would have to be determined at arm’s length — perhaps by citizens’ assemblies or by citizen-initiated petitions. The threshold for victory would be a simple majority — anything more rigorous would serve only to stack the deck in favour of the status quo. And lest this idea be perceived as nothing but an underhanded attempt to lock in proportional representation by fluke and throw away the key, a necessary feature for this running proposition would be its permanence. For the sake of fairness, switching back to first-past-the-post would have to be just as easy as abandoning it.

Is there any public appetite for such an exercise? Maybe, maybe not. Here in British Columbia, fresh off the conclusion of our third electoral reform referendum in just over 13 years, many voters are exhausted. But, to put it bluntly, anyone who doesn’t want to vote doesn’t have to. One person’s experience of voting system fatigue should not prevent another from having their say.

Furthermore, the idea of a perpetual ballot question is not wholly without precedent. The City of Vancouver includes capital plan borrowing proposals on every municipal election ballot, which nobody seems to mind (or, for that matter, notice).

Is there something special about electoral reform that makes it uniquely divisive, that wounds our body politic more widely and deeply with each new iteration? It’s hard to say. Voting systems are a wonky and technical subject matter, not what one expects to ignite the public’s imagination. That something so objectively boring would inspire fierce passions on all sides of the debate is not to be feared. On the contrary, this sense of polarization might even signal something positive. The state of public discourse can probably withstand a little extra strain.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterI have a letter in today’s Vancouver Sun, not so much supporting proportional representation (although I do support proportional representation) as addressing what I consider to be baseless objections to the current electoral reform referendum. My letter is second from the top, under the (perhaps regrettable) heading “Complexity isn’t a real concern.”

Remember to vote and mail your ballots in before November 30!

My Vancouver Election Endorsements

Still wondering how to vote in next weekend’s Vancouver municipal elections? Wonder no more …

Mayor:

  • SYLVESTER, Shauna

City Council:

  • BOYLE, Christine (OneCity)
  • FRY, Pete (GREEN)
  • ROBERTS, Anne (COPE)
  • SWANSON, Jean (COPE)
  • BHANDAL, Taqdir Kaur
  • O’KEEFE, Derrick (COPE)
  • WONG, David HT (GREEN)
  • YAN, Brandon 甄念本 (OneCity)
  • CARR, Adriane (GREEN)
  • WIEBE, Michael (GREEN)

Park Board:

  • DEMERS, David (GREEN)
  • SHIVJI, Shamim (Vision Vancouver)
  • ZUBKO, Cameron (Vision Vancouver)
  • GIESBRECHT, Gwen (COPE)
  • IRWIN, John (COPE)
  • DUMONT, Camil (GREEN)
  • MACKINNON, Stuart (GREEN)

School Board:

  • REDDY, Jennifer (OneCity)
  • BERCIC, Carrie (OneCity)
  • JAAF, Erica (OneCity)
  • PARROTT, Barb (COPE)
  • LEUNG, Aaron (Vision Vancouver)
  • WONG, Allan (Vision Vancouver)
  • DAY, Diana (COPE)
  • ARNOLD, Erin (Vision Vancouver)
  • OGER, Morgane

Capital Plan Borrowing Questions:

  • Yes to all three

I struggled a bit in deciding who to support for mayor. Independents Shauna Sylvester and Kennedy Stewart both seem like strong candidates. Stewart has a more detailed housing platform, while Sylvester is more detailed on the environment. Stewart is the more strategic choice, Sylvester the more female choice (seriously, Vancouver, 132 years and not one woman in the mayor’s chair?). In the end, premised on the assumption that Stewart will probably win regardless of all my soul-searching, I’m going with Sylvester. I figure if she gets enough support — perhaps even leapfrogging into second place past the NPA’s Ken Sim (dare to dream, right?) — the eventual winner might get the message that voters have some appetite for the nitty-gritty. Stewart’s penchant for headline-grabbing issues like the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the UBC subway are well and good, but they are no substitute for tangling oneself in the weeds of green buildings, zero waste, renewable energy, and bike lanes.

Enterprising readers will notice that while I am endorsing all Vision Vancouver candidates for Parks and Schools, I am not supporting any of its Council candidates. I have always agreed with Vision on many issues, but this last decade, they really screwed the pooch on housing. True, there is only so much that municipal governments can do. One gets the impression, however, that housing affordability did not appear on Vision’s radar until the end of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s second term, by which time it was too little too late. Vision is long overdue for a well-deserved spanking, and progressive voters would do well to look to parties that set more ambitious non-market housing goals.

You might also notice that I am not voting for any Green School Board candidates. I find myself philosophically aligned with Green Parties in general, but the Vancouver Greens are going through something of an identity crisis, valuing what they perceive as independence over what I perceive as principle. This sometimes manifests itself as fickleness or head-scratching unpredictability. A case in point: trustee Janet Fraser’s decision four years ago to vote in an NPA School Board chair instead of Vision’s Patti Bacchus. (To her credit, she switched back to Vision one year later, and has since become chair in her own right.) Or take the party’s short-lived nomination of engine-revving bike lane opponent Nicholas Chernen to its School Board slate. (He stepped down after reports that one of his many nuisance lawsuits against elected officials was still ongoing.) The Greens may reap political rewards for being everything to everyone — indeed, I would not be surprised to see them win most or all of the seats for which they are running — but their judgment can be questionable. That said, they have plenty of good ideas on sustainability and housing affordability, as well as several smart candidates.

COPE, Vancouver’s oldest left-wing party, has long been so riddled by infighting as to be easily dismissed. However, with the addition of legendary anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson to its Council slate, the party seems on the verge of a mini-comeback. One poll last month showed COPE second only to the Greens in Vancouverites’ party preferences. Signature policies include a rent freeze and a mansion tax.

Finally, there’s OneCity: not as centrist as Vision, not as nutso as COPE. Just smart, earnest progressives who skew young and female. Signature policy: a land value capture tax. Might be the best party in the bunch.

National Post Letter

LetterIn today’s National Post, I’ve got another letter to the editor on everyone’s favourite topic: the Trans Mountain pipeline. (I’ll stop repeating myself once people start listening!) My letter appears only in the print edition, so I cannot provide a link. Accordingly, here is the full text:

The pipeline crisis

Re: PM takes right tack on Trans Mountain, Andrew Coyne, April 17

Regarding the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Andrew Coyne writes, “this is not a debate about a pipeline, or not any longer. It is about who decides.”

With all due respect, it absolutely is about the pipeline.

If greenhouse gas emissions do not peak and subsequently decline within the next couple of years, the world will fail to meet its commitment to limit warming to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. The time for building new fossil fuel infrastructure has come and gone — not just in other countries, but here at home, too.

To insist on procedural niceties — in the face of the climate chaos we risk unleashing and the burden we are placing on future generations — is narrow-minded provincialism at its worst.

David Taub Bancroft, Vancouver

Of Premiers and Pipelines

In an interview with the National Observer last week, Justin Trudeau raised more than a few eyebrows by comparing B.C. premier John Horgan to former Saskatchewan premier and climate policy obstructionist Brad Wall.

“Similarly and frustratingly,” said the prime minister, “John Horgan is actually trying to scuttle our national plan on fighting climate change. By blocking the Kinder Morgan pipeline, he’s putting at risk the entire national climate change plan, because Alberta will not be able to stay on if the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn’t go through.”

All this over a timid proposal by the B.C. government to study the effects of bitumen spills before allowing increased shipments through the province.

Clumsy “guilt by association” attempts aside, I understand what the prime minister is trying to get at. His approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, so goes the reasoning, is part of a grand national compromise. Alberta gets a pipeline (flowing through B.C.) and environmentalists get carbon pricing. Win-win, everyone’s happy. Remove one piece of the strategy and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Except that it doesn’t. The Alberta government’s willing participation — while preferable — is not strictly needed. As Trudeau himself admits, “there is a federal backstop that will ensure that the national price on carbon pollution is applied right across the country.”

Furthermore, his climate plan was a pretty rotten compromise to begin with. The federal carbon pricing requirement is set to rise to $50 per tonne by 2022, but then it stops. This is not nearly enough to get us to the 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that Canada pledged to achieve by 2030 at the Paris climate conference. To meet that commitment would require an eventual price of $200 per tonne (if pursued through carbon pricing alone). Or, at the very least, a federal government with the political backbone to say no to environmentally destructive fossil fuel projects.

The international community has agreed to limit warming to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That means reaching peak global emissions no later than 2020. Simply put: now is not the time to be building new pipelines.

Nobody suggests shutting down the oil sands tomorrow. But at the very least, at this moment in our history, we must stop moving so aggressively in the wrong direction. If the Trans Mountain pipeline is allowed to go forward, alongside other fossil fuel infrastructure proposals with decades-long lifespans, that would mean sabotaging the meagre gains made by our inadequate federal carbon scheme.

A transformation on the scale required demands bold national leadership. Sadly, beyond a few token half-measures, said leadership has been lacking from Trudeau. It is no ideal solution for the mantle to pass to a provincial premier, but under the circumstances, I don’t see what other options we have.

While the Kinder Morgan kerfuffle has gotten very ugly very fast, and will likely only get uglier, Canada is morally obligated to do more than free-ride on international efforts. So let’s brace ourselves for the coming ugliness and keep our eye on the prize of climate justice.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Globe and Mail Letter

LetterIn today’s Globe and Mail, you will find a letter from me (fourth from the top, under the heading “In the national interest”) relating the present interprovincial pipeline kerfuffle to global efforts efforts to solve the climate crisis. Never hurts to remind ourselves how much is really at stake.