Electoral Reform — the Wrong Way

Distributing copies of the Canadian Charter of...

The Quebec-based group l’Association pour la revendication des droits démocratiques is nearing the end of the legal battle it started in 2004.  After early losses in the lower courts, it is taking its case against Quebec’s (and by implication Canada’s) first-past-the-post electoral system to the nation’s Supreme Court, with the backing of Fair Vote Canada and Green leader Elizabeth May.  It will argue, with some justification, that first-past-the-post violates the “democratic rights” and “equality rights” provisions (sections 3 and 15) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I am reluctant to admit this — both as a strong supporter of proportional representation and as a Green Party member — but I think this is the wrong approach.  While it is true that there is evidence in some opinion polls of vague support for electoral reform in Canada, every time a concrete question is placed on a referendum ballot, proportional voting systems seem to lose their popularity.  I understand that this is frustrating, but it would be unfair for proportional representation advocates, having failed to convince the public, to turn around and sneak their changes in through the judicial back door.  Societies have a right to any electoral system of their choosing, and at the very least, ours has not yet made up its mind.

In 2003, a small number of Quebec sovereigntists proposed the abandonment of their longstanding call for a referendum on independence, preferring instead to read the election of a Parti Quebecois majority government as a sufficient mandate for secession.  The mainstream of the sovereignty movement swiftly rejected this idea, understanding that the principle of independence by referendum had always been at its heart.  There is something admirable in this recognition that there is a right way to go about achieving change, and a wrong way.

I never thought I’d say this, but electoral reformers could learn a thing or two from Quebec separatists.


Not a Creature Is Stirring

MouseI was awakened at about 2:30 this morning by the sound of a loud bang.  Turns out it was the trapdoor slamming shut on my Humane Smart Mousetrap (distributed by PETA), which I had only put out the day before.  The mouse that had been nibbling at my pantry foods for days had been caught.  So, as I’ve done in the past on other occasions of infestation, I got dressed, took the creature for a walk a fair distance away from my house, and set it free in a nice grassy area.

What better Christmas present could I ever ask for from Rabbi Kringle than the vindication of this non-lethal product — proof that, at least sometimes, it is the easiest thing in the world to deal with other animals without killing them?

A Merry Christmas to all creatures great and small!

Vancouver Sun Letter

Hot on the heels of my previous post, please see my succinct letter to the editor in today’s Vancouver Sun on the subject of Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada, Kyoto, and Climate Justice

Per capita anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissi...

Per capita greenhouse gas emissions by country in 2000 (including land-use change)

After weeks of rumours, Environment Minister Peter Kent confirmed Monday that Canada is officially pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol.  Echoing the United States, our government has long complained that China, India, and other large developing countries are not required under the current phase of the treaty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  Instead, say our leaders, any fair agreement ought to treat all major polluters — rich or poor — equally.

Due to the usual distaste amongst politicians for clear statements for which they can later be held accountable, I have been unable to find out in precise detail what Mr. Kent means by his demand for equal treatment.  (Not all equalities are created equal, after all.)  As far as I can tell, there are two likely possibilities.  One is that he wants both developed and developing countries to commit to the same percentage of emissions reductions.  This would be an absurd and deeply immoral proposition.  Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita are four times those of China and thirteen times those of India.  For all three countries to be legally required to reduce their emissions at an identical rate would preserve this inequality in stone and amount to nothing less than climate apartheid.

Of course, China and India both have higher total greenhouse gas emissions than Canada, as they have vastly larger populations.  But this measurement is not very relevant.  Nation-states are artificial entities; only people truly exist.  Accordingly, countries must be judged by the greenhouse gas emissions of the individuals who live there.

The second — and more charitable — interpretation of Canada’s position is that our government favours equal levels of per capita greenhouse gas emissions in every country.  On the face of it, this is much fairer, but it is also historically myopic.  More than two-thirds of the carbon emissions ever produced have come from the small portion of humanity concentrated in the developed world; the imbalance is even greater when calculated in terms of per capita emissions.  This trend is now changing, but it is hard to dispute the historical importance that the burning of fossil fuels played in the economic development of today’s rich countries.

Thankfully, more alternatives exist today, and it is incumbent upon industrialized countries to transfer technology and accelerate the establishment of an effective Green Climate Fund in order to facilitate sustainable development around the globe.  But to the extent that it is true that, in our flawed world, at least some fossil fuel use will continue to be necessary for now to give developing countries the economic advantages already exploited by developed countries, it is only fair that they be allowed to eventually achieve a higher level of per capita emissions (they’re still a long way off), and to maintain this legal leg-up until their citizens’ standards of living begin to approach our own.  Total global emissions need to go down sharply enough to avert catastrophic global warming, but how this burden is to be distributed across the world remains an open question.  Intuitive standards of justice demand that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change be respected.

So does the recently signed deal at the UN COP 17 conference in Durban achieve this goal?  It’s hard to say, since not much was agreed to aside from a commitment to negotiate the real agreement by 2015.  There is language acknowledging that this future agreement will take the form of “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” (my emphasis).  But whether or not all parties are to make an equal sacrifice is not specified.  Nor, for that matter, are concrete emissions targets.  Considering the urgency represented by the risk of runaway global warming, any delaying tactic — which is surely what the Durban platform amounts to (the predicted 2015 agreement is not meant to take effect until 2020) — is a step in the wrong direction.

And where does that leave Canada and Kyoto?  According to the outcome of negotiations in Durban, the newly extended Kyoto Protocol will be the only legally binding global agreement regulating greenhouse gases until 2020.  It is far from perfect; the targets it sets are not nearly stringent enough to solve the problems it needs to.  But as the “only game in town,” it is considerably better than nothing, and represents at least a timid nod towards the morally necessary principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

And Canada, as expected, has abandoned it.  Time and again, we are proving ourselves to be on the wrong side of history.  No amount of griping about China and India is going to change that.

Some Thoughts on the NDP Leadership Debate

Yesterday’s debate between the nine NDP leadership hopefuls did not provide much in the way of surprises.

Thomas Mulcair came across well in that he demonstrated his ability to speak like a real person rather than a robotic, awkwardly gesticulating politician.  (This does not automatically make someone a more suitable choice for prime minister, but it is a relevant consideration in party leadership races, because it impacts a candidate’s electability.  In other words, it shouldn’t matter, but it does.)  Mulcair also said nothing to jeopardize his environmental reputation, but I am still uneasy about his rightward leanings on issues like trade.

Brian Topp, the perceived front-runner, came across mostly as capable but uninteresting — with the exception of his perplexing attempt to shake things up with Paul Dewar.  During one brief exchange, he relentlessly accused Dewar of planning to dramatically increase government debt in order to pay for promised spending, without acknowledging Dewar’s pledge to raise revenue by reversing recent corporate tax cuts.  It is true that these party leadership contests often wind up looking more like love-ins than debates, so good on Topp for trying to do something different I guess.  But the way he did it came across as a bit petty.

I had some hopes for Romeo Saganash, given his impressive background and his status as the only First Nations person to seek leadership of a major federal political party in Canada.  Unfortunately, he came across as a bit too nervous, and I cringed slightly when he dismissed the idea of raising income taxes.

So far the candidates who impress me most in this race are Peggy Nash and Nathan Cullen.  Nash has strong progressive and environmental credentials, which I thought stood out subtly in a debate in which not much was noticeable.  And Cullen, like Mulcair, had a natural way of speaking (even cracking a few jokes), which might be advantageous during a general election.  Futhermore, he had already begun to distinguish himself prior to the debate by staking out unique positions in favour of joint nomination meetings with the Liberals and Greens, and a referendum on ditching the monarchy — both positions that make sense to me.

So at this early stage in the race, even though I am a member of a different party, Nash and Cullen are the New Democrats I’m rooting for.  At any rate, they are certainly worth keeping an eye on.

A Manifesto of Hopeless Abstractions

I have started this blog mostly in order to give voice to my political opinions, so I feel that an appropriate place to begin is with the three fundamental principles that underlie what I believe: freedom, sustainability, and equality.

Freedom is the most basic of the three — the axiom from which the other two spring forth.  I define it broadly to include doing what you want, getting what you want, and satisfying your preferences (in preference utilitarian fashion, for any moral philosophers out there).  Overall freedom in a society is a product of the negotiation of these sometimes competing individual preferences.  Needless to say, my conception of freedom incorporates both negative and positive rights.  For example, governments can and should provide the positive rights of health care, education, and income assistance.  One cannot meaningfully be said to be free without the basic means of survival and the minimal ingredients for a good life.  But this is not to dispute the importance of government stepping out of the way when appropriate to facilitate the growth of negative rights.  I am a strong believer in the anti-paternalism of John Stuart Mill: “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”  To me, this means that very high standards of necessity must be met for a government to grant itself jurisdiction over sex, drugs, religion, or expression.

My conception of freedom manifests itself not just individually but collectively as well.  In other words, democracy is not, as it is sometimes purported to be, in conflict with freedom, but rather is its collective manifestation.  (Some might consider “self-determination” a more appropriate term here, but I still believe that freedom is at the heart of my axiom, and I do not wish to dilute it with endless rewordings and qualifications.)  Democracy, according to this line of thinking, should be defended, broadened, and deepened.  In general, consensus is to be preferred over majoritarianism, decentralization over centralization, and participation over representation.  Furthermore, democracy ought to be expanded to realms beyond the political.  The economy, for instance, is in crucial need of democratization through well-designed government regulation and growth of the public sector, as well as increased unionization and the spread of cooperatives.

So where do sustainability and equality fit in?  Beginning with sustainability, it goes without saying that any value derived from freedom is limited by time — by how long it lasts.  And with air and water quality, natural resources, the global climate, and the integrity of ecosystems on which we depend for survival all under threat from the excesses of our civilization, it is not entirely clear how much longer the “good life” will last.  It it therefore imperative, for the sake of holding on to what we have, that we view each individual and collective decision we make through the lens of environmental sustainability.

What is more, we must recognize that it is not only humans whose freedom is important, but all those sentient beings who are on the front lines of the ecological damage that we cause.  It may sound strange to speak of the freedom of animals, for they lack rationality and human language, and for the most part are probably without self-awareness.  But the basic mark of inherent moral worth, as Jeremy Bentham noted, is the ability to feel pleasure and pain.  Just like us, animals are drawn to pleasure and repelled by pain, and we are obliged to fairly weigh these preferences (or proto-preferences) against our own.  To consider only human interests when altering the natural world is the height of selfishness and arrogance.  Other species too deserve our consideration.

Which brings us to equality — by which I mean economic equality, sexual equality, racial equality, intergenerational equality, and even inter-species equality (with qualifications).  The principle of diminishing marginal utility states, plainly speaking, that the more you have of something, the less you want of any additional unit.  One more dollar in the hands of a millionaire, for instance, while he or she will still certainly want it, will not be nearly as appreciated as it is in the hands of a welfare recipient.  This principle is the line that connects freedom (as broadly defined by me) and equality — two values that are commonly (and wrongly) thought to be locked in an eternal battle of mutual exclusivity.  In fact, those on the bottom must be lifted up in order to satisfy their preferences and truly experience freedom, and in a finite world this can only realistically happen if those on top are knocked down a peg.

This is not to say that we must be in a state of absolute equality.  There is some truth to the conservative claim, for instance, that some economic inequality is necessary to provide incentives for good work.  All that I say is that because of the principle of diminishing marginal utility, the burden of proof must be on those who resist calls for greater equality.  It is hard to deny that in today’s world, and in most of its countries, current levels of inequality are far higher than they need to be (to say nothing of the shaky link that exists between riches and merit in our imperfect world).  Accordingly, it is reasonable to judge any policy proposal in part by how it affects the haves and how it affects the have-nots.

So that, briefly, is what I believe.  The principles of freedom, sustainability, and equality are what inform my pie-in-the-sky vision of utopia: a diverse, decentralized, participatory democracy; structured around a strongly civil libertarian constitution; and coexisting with a zero-growth, de-centrally planned economy leaning towards the libertarian or associational end of the socialist spectrum.  I hope to continue to expand on these themes in future posts, as current events unfold and as new ideas come to me.  Thank you for reading!