Ditching First Past the Post

Like passing a gallstone, the end of 12 years of Liberal rule had to happen sooner or later.

While this was a painful outcome for some, there is an undeniable elegance to our election results. In their wisdom, the people of Canada collectively decided for the second election in a row to send a minority government to Ottawa.

To those who equate electoral success with unfettered power, this might seem a disappointing outcome. Yet there is an underlying intelligence to what is happening in Canada.

Even more than the last parliament, the political survival of Stephen Harper’s minority government will depend on being flexible, accountable and willing to engage in good faith dialogue and compromise.

This is no accident. I believe it is clear evidence of an important evolution of our democracy – a process being led not by politicians but by the Canadian public.

The Canadians have grown weary of the excesses of absolute power and the childish squabbling of partisan politics. More and more, we expect our politicians to actually listen to each other and cooperate like adults.

The commitment by all leaders on election night to try and make this fractured parliament work was not just a nicety; it was an acknowledgement of a growing political imperative.

For the time being, the Canadian electorate managed again to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear. However, our antiqued and unfair “first past the post” voting system also produced the usual litany of democratic causalities.

According to Fair Vote Canada, the big losers in this week’s vote included:

- 500,000 voters in Alberta who did not vote conservative, yet elected no one.

- 400,000 urban Conservative voters who did not elect a single representative in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

- The more than 650,000 Green party voters who should have elected 12 MPs, and ended up wasting their votes yet again.

- NDP voters, who outnumbered Bloc supporters by one million, yet elected 22 fewer MPs.

- Women, whose representation dropped to less than 20% in our new parliament, with only 62 MPs .

Structural changes to our voting system are both needed and long overdue. Our “first past the post” system was long-in-the-tooth when we inherited it from the British 139 years ago. Canada remains one of three developed western nations still saddled with this electoral museum piece.

Strangely, some Canadians (and of course all politicians) still yearn for majority governments. To those puzzling souls, I can only suggest casting your mind back to the dark days of trough wallowing under the Mulroney Conservatives. Let’s also not forget the Versailles-like arrogance of the Chretien government and the abundant political rot that inevitably followed.

“Majority” governments are in fact a misnomer. Since 1921, Canada has had 15 “majority” governments of which only 4 garnered more than 50% of the popular vote. In all other cases over 50% of Canadians who bothered to vote, voted against whatever government enjoyed virtual dictatorial powers during their “majority” rule.

In contrast, virtually every government in Europe now uses some form of proportional representation, which typically results in representative, accountable and stable coalition governments as a matter of course.

These coalitions are not accidental shotgun weddings like the wary alliance between the Liberals and NDP in the last parliament, but are true coalition governments typically with a shared cabinet and caucus meetings.

Because different parties know that they may one day have to work together, the public debate tends to be more respectful than the embarrassing spectacles for which Ottawa has become infamous. Coalitions also mean that governments are more accountable to the people between elections – not just on voting day.

Countries that use proportional representation also have far better representation from women – up to 42% in Sweden. This system has also been shown to significantly increase voter participation – over 80% in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Belgium.

In contrast, the turnout in this week’s election was a mere 65%. This is admittedly up from the dismal figure of 61% in the 2004 vote, the worst showing since 1898. But by global standards, our voter participation remains frankly, pathetic.

An electoral system such as “mixed member proportional” representation (MMP) would be a good fit for Canada because it provides for local representation while also ensuring that elected seats accurately reflect the popular vote.

Stephen Harper says he is serious about changing how things are done in Ottawa. Many Canadians want to believe him. Bringing in MMP would be a fitting and elegant legacy of this diverse parliament, and our evolving democracy.

Or perhaps he is just another politician...

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece was published in the Ottawa Citizen on Jan. 26.


Harper and the Environment: Be Afraid.

With the prospect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper looming large – perhaps with a Conservative majority– Canadians should be asking themselves what this would mean for our environment.

Lord knows there were many failings of the Liberal regime on environmental issues. However, a close look at the Conservative platform relating to the environment is truly alarming.

Enshrining property rights in the constitution.

This might sound fairly innocuous, but this one act would have enormous implications for the effective enforcement of environmental regulations throughout the country.

First of all, the constitution is the “prime directive” of government. It overrides all other federal, provincial, and municipal laws, and is not something to be tinkered with lightly.

The Conservative plan would put property rights on the same legal footing as human rights. The result could be demands for compensation whenever an environmental law prohibits a property owner from doing something (like putting toxic site in the middle of a community), or requires them to do something extra (like building subdivisions to a higher density to prevent urban sprawl).

This has already come to pass in the State of Oregon, where “Measure 37” voted property rights into the State constitution in 2004.

The Washington Post commented, “the property-rights law …is on the brink of wrecking Oregon's best-in-the-nation record of reining in sprawl, according to state officials and national planning experts." Put more bluntly, “Measure 37 blew up our land-use system," said Democrat Senator Charlie Ringo, from suburban Portland.

In Canada, such a measure would undermine the ability of all levels of government to encourage smart growth of sustainable cities – a major challenge of the 21st century. Since property rights would be in the constitution and protection of the environment is not, it could also effectively trump any environmental law in the country.

Nor is this intervention even needed. Our common law system of justice was primarily designed to protect private property, and it does a superb job of doing just that. What Canada needs instead is a constitutional guarantee of a clean environment.

Climate change
Harper has said that he will “address the issue [of climate change]…with a made-in-Canada plan, emphasizing new technologies, developed in concert with the provinces and in coordination with other major industrial countries.” He also told Radio Canada this month that the Kyoto protocol is “not the right approach” to combat climate change.

This coded message is music to the ears of oil executives everywhere, and is clearly the type of shameful retreat from mandatory emissions targets that has taken root south of the border.

The science behind climate change is clear and becoming more worrisome almost every day. Every additional delay will make future solutions more difficult.

Fiscal conservatives like Stephen Harper should understand the simple principle of living within our means. His apparent retreat on mandatory emission reductions would damn future generations of Canadians to deal with the environmental deficits we are recklessly racking up today, while wasting time looking for technological fixes to our oil addiction.

The management of resources.
The Conservative platform states that they will allow stronger involvement of the provinces in the management of natural resources. This is also not necessarily great news given the shoddy environmental records of many provincial governments.

Consider the plight of the critically endangered spotted owl in BC. There are only 23 of these birds left in the country – all in the province of British Columbia. The destruction of remaining old growth forests through industrial logging is the overwhelming reason for their decline.

The leading logger of remaining spotted owl habitat in BC? The British Columbia government, through their BC Timber Sales Program. Even companies such as International Forest Products have stopped logging owl habitat and therefore have a better record at protecting this imperiled species.

Enforcement and staffing

Lastly, consider the infamous environmental record of record of the Mike Harris government in Ontario. Canadians might well expect the type of widespread gutting of environmental staff and enforcement that Ontario became famous for in the 1990’s should the Conservatives be given free rein. Laws to protect the environment mean nothing unless there is the political will, backed up by the necessary resources, to enforce them.

Disasters such as Walkerton happened not so much because environmental laws were changed, but because enforcement staff were cut, and responsibility for environmental quality was devolved away from central governments without the required increase in local resources.

The environment may well become the defining issue of the 21st century. We need a bold and progressive vision to build a future Canada that will be able to meet these national and global challenges.

When you cast your vote on January 23, ask yourself: is a conservative majority government is really up to this important task?

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece was published on The Tyee on Jan. 20, 2006


Fishing Down the Food Web

The utter failure of Canadian fishing policy was laid bare last week by the plight of a very homely fish.

The onion-eye grenadier looks like it swam out of a Dr. Seuss book, lives at deeps up to 3,000 ft, and is about as far from desirable seafood as you can get. Its scales are so tough it can only be economically processed for its liver.

Yet researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland recently reported in the prestigious journal Nature that populations of this obscure fish had declined in Canadian waters by an incredible 93.3% over the last 26 years.

Why would such an unpalatable fish living up to a kilometre underwater be so threatened?

Because we are fishing for it.

Demonstrating that it has learned exactly nothing from the infamous collapse of the cod stocks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) continues to allow an unregulated fishery for onion-eyed grenadiers for the simple reason that in many areas there is virtually nothing left to fish for.

DFO is best known to many as the department that killed the cod, and it seems they will not allow dragger boats to sit idle until the ocean is truly empty.

“Draggers” are so named because they do exactly that, drag a weighted net across the bottom of the ocean and pull up dead whatever happens to end up inside.

Huge amounts of so-called “by-catch” fish and other marine life are hauled up in dragger nets and typically pitched over the side because they are caught accidentally or are simply inedible.

The onion-eye grenadier is primarily caught and kept as by-catch, but that in itself is indicative of a larger problem.

For instance, there is a “moratorium” on fishing for a related and critically endangered species of grenadier, however these fish continue to be hauled up dead in dragger nets. It is now estimated that both these grenadier species will disappear from Canadian waters in as little as 20 years.

The scientists at Memorial further lamented that the plundering of deep-sea ecosystems by dragger boats could lead to many other species being lost before they can even be identified.

Given the on-going pillage of the deep ocean, perhaps scientists should focus future research efforts on the freezer section of their local supermarket.

Hyperbole? Hardly.

A researcher at Dalhousie University was alarmed several years ago to find a species of deep-sea octopus unknown to science in the seafood section of his local Safeway.

Dragging a net that weighs several thousand kilograms across the ocean floor also has predictable effects on areas with sensitive bottom habitat. Unlike other more progressive jurisdictions such as Norway, the Canadian government continues to indiscriminately permit the use of dragger gear regardless of the ocean floor habitat.

In fact it was revealed in December 2005 that Canada worked behind the scenes to scuttle a UN ban on dragging on the high seas. This is in spite of a poll released this week by conservation groups showing that 78% of Canadians would support such a ban.

DFO is apparently worried that such a prohibition might undermine their ability to allow the continued scouring of the ocean floor within Canadian waters.

Canadians should not simply accept this on-going culture of incompetence within DFO. It is the important responsibility of the federal government to set and enforce clear conservation goals so that sustainable commercial fishing does not instead become fish mining.

While the collapse of the cod is the most notorious blunder of DFO, we should also not forget the decimation of the west coast wild salmon stocks, and the massive outbreaks of sea lice from net pen aquaculture.

The impressive list of Canadian fisheries disasters is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Fisheries ministers come and go but the upper bureaucracy of DFO - in some cases the same individuals that presided over the collapse of the cod fourteen years ago - remain stubbornly in place.

A thorough housecleaning of senior DFO bureaucracy is long overdue. Yet the response from our campaigning politicians is sadly lacking. Both the Liberals and Conservatives seem content to blame the state of offshore fish stocks on foreign interlopers – a favourite political straw man to distract attention away from ineptitude exhibited by both parties when they were in power.

Instead what the researchers at Memorial University are calling for is perhaps the only hope for the delicate deep-sea ecosystems: marine protected areas that would prohibit the relentless scouring of the ocean floor by dragger nets, while there still fish stocks left to save.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran in the National Post on January 19, 2006