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.

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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!

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.

What Is a Left-Leaning Green to Do?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/Ic_thumbs_up_down_48px.svg/200px-Ic_thumbs_up_down_48px.svg.pngWith less than a week to go before election day and polls tightening across British Columbia, I find myself in the all-too-common predicament of dreading the electoral options before me.

The Liberals, naturally, are out of the question. They have governed this province horrendously through 16 years of the wrong kind of class warfare, slashing education and social services, offering up more for wealthy donors than for regular people or the natural environment. True, former premier Gordon Campbell showed genuine concern for climate change for about 15 minutes back in 2008, but his successor Christy Clark froze BC’s paltry carbon tax at $30 per tonne and weakened her predecessor’s clean energy regulations in service of her pie-in-the-sky LNG dreams.

As for the NDP, the kindest thing one can say is that they are not the Liberals. Leader John Horgan, in an attempt to appeal to both the labour and the environmental wings of his party, is pledging to raise the carbon tax to the level required by the federal government, but to do so at a marginally faster pace than will the BC Liberals. The party favours some LNG projects and not others. It is strongly opposed to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, while it straddles the fence on the Site C dam.

The NDP represents the province’s best shot at effecting a change in government, yet this does not in itself constitute sufficient reason to vote for them. To cast one’s ballot “strategically” lets mediocre parties off the hook for their mediocrities and sets the stage for a race-to-the-bottom-style proliferation of inadequate policy. Progressives must demand more from the NDP, insisting that our support be earned, not taken for granted.

Which brings us to the Greens, the party perennially on the verge of either breakthrough or irrelevance, never quite reaching either. Unsurprisingly, the Greens have by far the most environmentally sound platform — and probably the most progressive one too. They promise to raise the carbon tax to an eventual target of $70 per tonne — $20 above the federal requirement — and to expand it to cover some emissions not currently priced. Party leader Andrew Weaver has been a lone voice of reason in the Legislature opposed to LNG development, and he rejects the approval of any new fossil fuel infrastructure.

On the social front, the Green Party matches the NDP’s promise on raising corporate taxes, while surpassing them on personal income tax hikes for the wealthy. Income assistance rates would be higher under a Green government than under either other major party. Both the NDP and the Greens have some worthy, albeit incomplete, ideas on housing, and while NDP child care policy presents a good deal more detail, the Greens have one-upped them on affordability.

Boasting the largest increases to both spending and revenue, Greens distinguish themselves as the party of what is ominously referred to in right-wing circles as “big government.” While their rivals promise to keep budgets in the black, the Greens pledge only to balance the books on average over a four-year term, allowing deficits to occur during individual years.

Where the Greens start to falter is not so much in their platform as in their leader. Weaver is an accomplished climate scientist and former lead author on several IPCC reports. When he speaks, people rightly listen. But his stature suffered when, during his term as MLA, he bewilderingly voted for two Liberal government budgets.

Like many Green voters, I could not help but wonder what he was thinking. Was it a matter of deep-seated conviction on his part? Or of wanting to “do politics differently,” as he nebulously claimed in the moment? Did he simply wish to ingratiate himself to whoever happened to be in government? Add to this his strange infatuation with private power and his criticism of the NDP’s equity policy on candidate nominations, and it is not clear that Weaver is capable of walking his party’s progressive talk.

Furthermore, the stakes are particularly high in the current election, in which the Greens are polling unusually well for a third party, while the Liberals and NDP wage a closely fought battle for first place. If no party gets a majority in the Legislature, who would Weaver and his potential caucus-mates throw their support behind for premier?

For my part, I plan, with some reservation, to risk another vote for the Greens on May 9, premised on the possibly flawed assumption that an NDP-Green alignment makes more sense than a Liberal-Green one. Two budgets aside, Weaver has voted with the NDP far more often than he has with the Liberals, and he stated in 2013 that he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government.

However, I understand that others, including many whose opinions I deeply respect, might make their calculations differently. Weaver is a bit of a gamble. Under the circumstances, I cannot blame anyone for casting a safe — albeit uninspiring — vote for the NDP.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterFor what is likely to be my last letter to the editor of 2016, see today’s Vancouver Sun (fourth letter from the top). The gist of my argument is that Kinder Morgan is bad.

Fun fact: this ain’t the first time I’ve responded to a pro-Kinder Morgan op-ed by former NDP Premier Dan Miller.