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My wish for Cuba

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via Photo Challenge: Wish

Wish

The photo was taken last week in Old Havana, on the Paseo Marti at lunchtime. We had found a restaurant on the roof of the Asturias friendship association’s building: they have a barbecue up there. I had a whole grilled red snapper, my partner the largest pork brocheta I have ever seen. We felt very lucky to be away from the cold of Vancouver, in a beautiful old city. Then I looked across at the other side of the street.

There are many old buildings in Havana, which tourists love to photograph. They are highly picturesque and a few have been beautifully restored. Many more are in desperate need of repair. Look at the balcony of the window to the left of where this woman is standing. The old rusted rebar is still there, hanging loose. The concrete has fallen away. Yet there she stands – and where she is standing is going to go the same way one day.

Cuba has been subject to a lot of severe weather – many sites show the damage caused by hurricanes. These weather events are getting more severe and more frequent. Many countries are switching to renewable energy sources to try to limit the increase in the greenhouse gases that are the cause of the change in our climate. It is not just warming: it is sea level rise, storms and plagues.

In  its recent history Cuba suffered as a result of the US embargo. It had an ally in the former Soviet Union but that source of aid has gone. It used to rely heavily on Venezuela for its fuel but that country is now facing its own challenges. A Canadian company, Sherritt, has been helping in recent years to exploit the newly found oil and gas resources not too far from Havana in Matanzas, near Varadero – which is also a major area for all inclusive resorts where we also spent some time last week. We saw the huge chimney of the thermal power plant that now supplies Havana’s electricity – and it’s long plume of particulates. These add to the smoke from the open burning of sugar cane residues in the field after harvest. And the tailpipe emissions from old cars that never had catalytic converters or any emission controls and have now been mostly converted to diesel. I got through four packs of nasal tissues every day while in Havana.

What we did not see – despite the sunshine and strong winds – were any photovoltaic panels or turbines. Someone told us they were in the plan for the future but were currently considered “too expensive”. She also said that Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire next year. There is much uncertainty over what may follow.

My wish is that the people of Cuba will benefit from the long overdue improvement in relations with the United States as a result of President Obama’s decision to end the embargo. The main immediate effect of which was to end the opportunity of travel for Cubans to the US as refugees. Increasing uncertainty is unfortunately a major plank in the policy of the current occupant of the White House.

Cuba is a poor country with many people who are underemployed: well educated but unable to find a way to utilise their knowledge, skills and willingness to work hard. Every embassy and consulate I saw in Havana is heavily fortified, not because Cuba is unsafe but to deter those who might climb their fences to secure sanctuary.

My wish is for a better future for Cubans that is not dependent on the individual generosity of tourists, or the investment of more Canadian money in exploiting fossil fuels. A future which offers dignity for all. And safety in their homes. Not a precarious perch in a crumbling ruin. I wish I knew of a way of getting this message out to more people. I wish we could persuade our governments that waiting for chaos to break out – or even provoking it – and then offering shelter to a tiny percentage of the resulting refugees is not a tenable foreign policy option. That foreign aid is not just an easy target for spending cuts to allow tax breaks for the wealthy. That countries like Cuba are not simply a useful place to conduct torture that would be illegal at home – and is anyway ineffective.

My wish is that countries like Canada and the United States will do something to tackle the gross inequalities that now characterize our world. Symbolized by the wealthy old white guy enjoying his expensive lunch while a young woman looks out from her window a few feet away and wonders what she will do next.


Afterword

Much later in the same day I wrote this piece my partner found an article by Michael J Totten in World Affairs entitled “The Once Great City of Havana” 3 December 2013. It is a Long Read but very thought provoking.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 8, 2017 at 11:55 am

A guest post from Barack Obama

The following is the text of the President’s farewell address, taken from the New York Times webpage which, for reasons which pass all understanding, refused to let me see their video.


It’s good to be home. My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well-wishes we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight it’s my turn to say thanks. Whether we’ve seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people – in living rooms and schools; at farms and on factory floors; at diners and on distant outposts – are what have kept me honest, kept me inspired, and kept me going. Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties, still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life. It was in neighborhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.

After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

This is the great gift our Founders gave us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, toil, and imagination – and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a greater good.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande, pushed women to reach for the ballot, powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan – and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11…if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens – you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

In ten days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.

We have what we need to do so. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth and drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention mean that the future should be ours.

But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people. Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

That’s what I want to focus on tonight – the state of our democracy.

Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism – these forces haven’t just tested our security and prosperity, but our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future.

Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity. Today, the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a ten-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in fifty years. And if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system – that covers as many people at less cost – I will publicly support it.

That, after all, is why we serve – to make people’s lives better, not worse.

But for all the real progress we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles. While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind – the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills – convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful – a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

There are no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree that our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.

And so we must forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible. We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

There’s a second threat to our democracy – one as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.

But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce. And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.

Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination – in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.

So regardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder; to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

None of this is easy. For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.

Isn’t that part of what makes politics so dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating. Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, doubled our renewable energy, and led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.

Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.

It’s that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse – the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.

It’s that spirit – a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles – the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.

That order is now being challenged – first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power. The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform, and the intelligence officers, law enforcement, and diplomats who support them, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years; and although Boston and Orlando remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We’ve taken out tens of thousands of terrorists – including Osama bin Laden. The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders, and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed, and no one who threatens America will ever be safe. To all who serve, it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your Commander-in-Chief.

But protecting our way of life requires more than our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans. That’s why we cannot withdraw from global fights – to expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights – no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world – unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point – our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should make it easier, not harder, to vote. When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

And all of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;” that we should preserve it with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.

Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.

Mine sure has been. Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I’ve mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch, and our wounded warriors walk again. I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us of our obligations to care for refugees, to work in peace, and above all to look out for each other.

That faith I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change – that faith has been rewarded in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined. I hope yours has, too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home were there with us in 2004, in 2008, in 2012 – and maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off.

You’re not the only ones. Michelle – for the past twenty-five years, you’ve been not only my wife and mother of my children, but my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.

Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women, smart and beautiful, but more importantly, kind and thoughtful and full of passion. You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad.

To Joe Biden, the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son: you were the first choice I made as a nominee, and the best. Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother. We love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our life.

To my remarkable staff: For eight years – and for some of you, a whole lot more – I’ve drawn from your energy, and tried to reflect back what you displayed every day: heart, and character, and idealism. I’ve watched you grow up, get married, have kids, and start incredible new journeys of your own. Even when times got tough and frustrating, you never let Washington get the better of you. The only thing that makes me prouder than all the good we’ve done is the thought of all the remarkable things you’ll achieve from here.

And to all of you out there – every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town and kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change – you are the best supporters and organizers anyone could hope for, and I will forever be grateful. Because yes, you changed the world.

That’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans – especially so many young people out there – to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain. For now, whether you’re young or young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President – the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes We Can.

Yes We Did.

Yes We Can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 10, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Posted in politics

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Proportional Representation the only credible option for 2019

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Press Release from Fair Vote Canada, December 1, 2016

Today, Canadians saw first-hand how proportional representation can work for all Citizens. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform – a multi-partisan group of MPs who were selected in proportion to the votes their parties received – submitted an evidence-based, majority report that called for a strong system of Proportional Representation.

 The all-party committee on electoral reform has stated that they heard overwhelming support from experts and Canadians on their cross Canada tour. This reinforces the findings from decades of research from around the world and of 13 previous electoral reform processes in Canada, including two thorough and impartial citizens assemblies.
However, in a shocking and profoundly disappointing move, the Liberal members of the ERRE held a secondary press conference where they essentially recommended that the government break its own election promise. Oddly, the Chair of the Committee suggested that the point of making election promises is not so much to actually fulfill them, but to ENGAGE people. This is a mind-bending and dangerous spin on what it means to make electoral promises.
What needs to be stressed is that there was a consensus on what the committee heard: that 88% of experts that expressed an opinion on electoral reform suggested proportional representation – not AV (ranked ballots in single-member ridings), not First-past-the-post.
While the ERRE did not recommend a particular proportional system in the majority report, the NDP and Greens put forth two made-in-Canada PR options based on the evidence they heard and they are willing to work with the government on a design. The base exists for satisfying the government’s electoral promise in good time for 2019.
 As Nathan Cullen declared: “rarely have such extensive consultations on a subject been carried out.” Unfortunately, the turnout and passion of Canadians did not impress MP Ruby Sahota who added that the Liberals needed to see a lot more engagement but would not commit to goals or outcomes.
We wonder what magic bar of engagement is necessary to fulfill their promise and how does that measures up against other election promises?
When the Government launched its electoral reform platform preceding the election, they announced they would end first-past-the-post voting and make every vote count. That means Proportional Representation. Trudeau and many in his party said they were changing the system based on feedback from Canadians that the system is unfair and does not accurately reflect what voters say at the polls.
The Government now has all the evidence it needs. Now is time for Liberals to show leadership, rise above partisan self interest and deliver on their promise, including introducing legislation within 18 months of the 2015 election to “Make Every Vote Count”, in time for the 2019 election.

Key indicators from ERRE hearings

88% of expert witnesses who expressed a preference called for proportional representation

4% supported the Alternative Vote (majoritarian ranked ballot systems tend to evolve towards a two-party system, often favour centrist parties and could further entrench the distortions brought about by our existing majoritarian system. )

67% thought a referendum was undesirable or unnecessary.

Detailed analysis can be found here in our Synthesis of witness statements and views.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 1, 2016 at 5:38 pm

We Want Proportional Representation

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Most of this post is going to be a Press Release from Fair Vote Canada. You will know if you have been following me that, like most Canadians, I am dissatisfied with our First Past the Post electoral system. It produces results which fail to reflect the way that we have voted, especially in constituencies where there are several candidates. Clearly  a system that elects someone who most people voted against is a failure. And this is not a new problem, and we have been railing against it for years, yet the politicians who have benefited from this system are not inclined to change it. In the last election Justin Trudeau made a commitment to “Real Change” including “making every vote count”. And now, guess what, he’s trying to find a way to not keep his promises. Just like he has not kept them on respecting First Nations and having an evidence based decision making system.

I know this is another long post, but it is worth reading. It is also worth taking action to remind our Prime Minister that we expect him to keep his promise.

Nov. 3, 2016

Consultations Provide Strong Mandate for Proportional Representation

The all-party committee on electoral reform (ERRE) has just finished four months of expert and public consultations. They will make their recommendation to Government by December 1st.

Of the ERRE witnesses with a position on voting systems, 88% recommended Proportional Representation. This reinforces the findings from decades of research from around the world and of 13 previous electoral reform processes in Canada, including two thorough and impartial citizens assemblies.

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When the Government launched the process without a mechanism for collecting empirical data, Fair Vote Canada, a multi-partisan advocacy group, started tracking the process very closely. We are releasing the results of our work to the media because we believe the process needs to be transparent and accountable.

(You can find key a list of results below with links our spreadsheets.)

Despite a strong call for proportional representation across all of the consultative platforms, we believe reforming the electoral system could be in serious trouble based on recent comments from Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Monsef.

President Réal Lavergne expressed Fair Vote Canada’s concerns “We are worried that the Minister and the Prime Minister are saying that we cannot count on the government keeping its promise to make every vote count. Yet experts and Canadians have clearly expressed themselves in favour of proportional representation, which is what it really means to “make every vote count.”.

David Merner, Vice-President of Fair Vote Canada and a Liberal candidate in last year’s federal election adds “This is not the time for back-tracking. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Democratic Institutions have personally created a sense of hope in Canadians, building on the 2015 Liberal campaign promise of Real Change. Millions of voters believed that the government intended to keep its promises. We believed the political cynicism of the Harper years was behind us, and thousands of us participated in the government’s consultations in good faith.”

Merner says “Now is the time for the government to deliver on its promises.

Highly regarded Conservative strategist and spokesperson for the Every Voter Counts Alliance, Guy Giorno, adds that “committee members must endorse what’s right for Canadians, not what benefits any particular party. Given the weight of the evidence before the committee, the only legitimate option is a recommendation for proportional representation. Let’s also remember that electoral reform was a major issue at the last election, and voters overwhelmingly supported parties promising change.”

The weight of expert testimony in favour of PR was echoed across the country in hundreds of town halls and public dialogues.

Over the next few days the ERRE will negotiate a recommendation for a new electoral system for Canada. The final report is due on December 1.

Fair Vote Canada’s President Réal Lavergne explains that “Once that recommendation has been made, it will be incumbent on the minister to carry it forward and for the government to act on it. Leadership will be required to educate both the public and parliamentarians, and to champion the proposed reform.”

“Based on all the results of the expert and citizen consultations, the committee’s only legitimate option is to recommend in favour of proportional representation.”

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Key indicators from ERRE hearings

88% of expert witnesses who expressed a preference called for proportional representation

4% supported the Alternative Vote (majoritarian ranked ballot systems tend to evolve towards a two-party system, often favour centrist parties and could further entrench the distortions brought about by our existing majoritarian system. )

67% thought a referendum was undesirable or unnecessary.

Detailed analysis can be found here in our Synthesis of witness statements and views.

Open Mic-sessions

From coast to coast, Canadians lined up at the ERRE open-mic sessions asking that the committee keep the promise and deliver PR.

According to data released this week by the NDP, out of 428 participants who spoke up, 374 (87.38%) called for proportional representation.

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MP town halls

Total number of town halls reporting: 174

The following indicates the level of support observed for proportional representation in MP town halls.

69.5% (121 town halls) – Majority of speakers calling for proportional representation.

8.6%% (15 town halls) – Majority for electoral reform, but no clear majority specifically for proportional representation

5.2%  (9 town halls) – Support divided between majoritarian system and proportional representation

5.7%   (10 town halls) – Majority for the status quo

8.0% (14 town halls) – Report does not allow any majority view to be identified

2.9%   (5 town halls) – Majority support for the Alternative Vote

Detailed analysis can be found here in our Synthesis of witness statements and views.

 

Citizen and Community Group Dialogues/Events

Here are basic indicators from the 27 dialogues or town halls hosted by citizens and community groups posted on the ERRE site or for which we have directly obtained the information so far:

Total number of participants: 1,058

88% (22 events) – A majority of speakers calling for proportional representation

8% (2 events ) – A majority for change but no majority for any one option

12% (3 events) – Report does not allow any majority view to be identified.

We are aware of at least 15-20 other community dialogues that are not yet posted on the ERRE site.

Detailed analysis can be found here.

 

Minister Monsef’s Townhalls

Minister Monsef organized two types of town hall consultations: ones in her own riding, and others as part of a cross-country tour. Here is an extract from the report submitted to the ERRE on town halls held by Minister Monsef in her Riding of Peterborough:

“It is clear that there is an appetite for thoughtful change to the electoral system. While opinions on the various electoral systems did vary, most participants indicated their support for a more proportional electoral process that still respected the need for local representation and simplicity of the ballot.”

Although Minister Monsef routinely conducted straw polls on issues such as mandatory voting and online voting in town halls on the road, she did not do the same regarding support for proportional representation. FVC volunteers attended these events across the country and shared their opinions. Here are a few quotes from participants:

Toronto: “PR was clearly the main issue for most. With respect to PR, many attendees spoke passionately and eloquently in favour, and if anyone present opposed it, he or she was not bold enough to express that view.”

Vancouver: “It seemed that 90% of the audience… did want some form of PR.”

Edmonton: “ It seemed most people were in support of some sort of proportional representation.”

Yellowknife: “She asked whether the participants liked FPTP to remain, or Ranked system or STV or MMP or Proportional Representation implemented. One voted for FPTP. Many voted for MMP and a few voted for PR.”

Yukon: “Some Yukoners came in support of our current electoral system (First Past the Post); more were on the side of moving towards proportional representation.”

Halifax: “The feedback from the groups certainly favoured PR.”

Montreal: “There was an overwhelming support for PR in the room.”

Thunder Bay: “Of the dozens who rose to spoke, everyone spoke in favour of PR.”

Gatineau: “ Participants spoke to PR at every opportunity they had… However, the format made this difficult… Taking into consideration those interventions that spoke to the issue of PR vs FPTP or AV, the overwhelming majority of interventions – in the order of 70% or more – were in favour of PR.”

Waterloo: From the report of 4 MPs: “Every group discussed the need for our new electoral system to feature some degree of proportionality.”

Charlottetown: “ About 90% of the people there were pro-PR.”

Winnipeg: After noting that three people were for FPTP because they feared losing local representation. The rest of the comments I heard were mostly just preferences for the different PR systems.”

Happy Valley-Goose Bay: “What we said was that we wanted PR  BUT, it had to be a hybrid type that considered the lack of population and massive land mass of not only Labrador but 60 % of Canada, i.e. the North.”

Calgary: “There was overwhelming support for getting rid of the current system, with different groups mentioning STV or MMP as their top choice.”

A concluding note

And, to conclude, this eloquent quote from a Fair Vote Canada volunteer at the Victoria town hall where the Minister said she “can’t promise you that I’ll be advocating for PR because I haven’t heard that from an overwhelming majority across the country.“

Victoria: “The wheels were skidding out of control as we tried to combat the spin we received at last night’s town hall on Electoral Reform. Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions hosted the gathering in Victoria billed as “the last chance” to give your input. But the tone of the meeting was quite acrimonious. They were clearly managing the message while backpedaling from an election commitment about changing the electoral system. Not only did she defend Trudeau’s recent comments about no longer needing this reform because we voted for HIM.”

“After months of hearing expert witness by the proportionally cross-partisan panel, and while MPs held public consultations with thousands of Canadians across the country, are we now to believe there is no appetite for Proportional Representation? Monsef said that she has not yet made up her mind but the implication of her words was troubling. Will the government diminish the committee’s well-researched, democratic report in December by championing their predetermined preference? For many of us who attended last night the so-called consultation felt like a sham.”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 3, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Port development trumps BC agriculture

with 4 comments

Canadians did not vote for this. The expectation they had was that electing a Liberal government would produce a rapid, radical change of direction from the Conservatives. Instead of that we have seen what is apparently always the way with Liberals: campaign on the left, govern on the right. It was certainly my bitter experience in the first Canadian election I was able to vote in after I became a citizen in 1992. I read “The Red Book” which set out a Keynesian agenda for the country, so I voted Liberal. Then Paul Martin became Finance Minister and we went on with all the conservative policies I had voted against. Of course I did not get caught twice: I voted Green last time. Not nearly enough people did that, so we are forced to repeat history.

The opponents to the Massey Tunnel replacement have long held the view that real reason for this megaproject is further port expansion. Once the tunnel has been replaced by a bridge, the tubes will be removed from the river bed, and dredging will commence. Of course, the Environmental Assessment for the project ignores this completely. And ports are a federal responsibility. We now have confirmation from federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay:

“We do not want to lose agricultural land but it’s no good producing products that you can’t move, either,” MacAulay said, answering a question from Country Life in BC following a presentation to Greater Vancouver Board of Trade members on September 12. “So it’s one way or the other – the port in Vancouver has to be efficient to move the products to market. The Asian market is a big market, only going to get larger, and we want to be there.”

So we can now add loss of land from the ALR to the Site C project, the Lelu Island LNG project and the almost certain federal approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion to the “sunny ways” of our new Prime Minister. Yes, I am sure he looks very appealing to many when he takes his shirt off. But I do not think that is nearly enough to justify his policies.

Of course I am risking a lot by openly opposing this government. We have already seen how the practice of the Conservative Government

  • audits of the environmental charities for political activity, ignoring the Fraser Institute far more blatant flouting of the same law;
  • removal of Canadian citizenship with no right to an oral hearing, no right to have the matter referred to a judge, and no right to even know the extent of the case against them
  • Creation of a “New”CSIS as a secret police force

continued by this government. Of course, if I do find myself without citizenship I will not actually be able to prove that it was environmental activism that was used to brand me a terrorist – but that is already happening.

Is Trudeau any different than the old boss?

Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2016 at 1:20 pm

There’s nothing clean about the Site C dam

with one comment

There is something wrong in BC. There is a provincial general election coming up (May 2017) and the premier seems to be determined to secure her legacy by building mega-projects of dubious or even negative value before she gets kicked out of office. Hopefully, the new government in Ottawa will do something to restrain this effort to change the face of BC before more damage is done.

 

Copied from Amnesty International

Open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:
Canadian organizations condemn Peace River hydroelectric mega-project for human rights violations

Dear Prime Minister,

Our organizations are profoundly concerned that construction of the Site C dam is being pushed ahead despite the conclusion of a joint federal-provincial environmental assessment that it would severely and permanently undermine Indigenous peoples’ use of the land; harm rare plants and other biodiversity; make fishing unsafe for at least a generation; and submerge burial grounds and other crucial cultural and historical sites.

The Site C dam is not just another resource development project. It is one of the largest such projects currently underway in Canada. For First Nations such as West Moberly and Prophet River, which continue to challenge the project in court, flooding the Peace Valley would take away one of the last remaining places where they can still practice their cultures and traditions. In other words, it would violate fundamental rights protected by Treaty 8, the Canadian Constitution, and international human rights law.

When the federal and provincial governments approved the project, they claimed that the severe harm that would be caused by Site C was ‘justified’ by the energy and the jobs it will produce. We strongly disagree.

Ignoring the rights of Indigenous peoples can never be justified. Furthermore, in this day and age there are far less damaging and less costly methods that could be used to meet British Columbia’s energy needs – many of which would create more jobs than Site C.

Last month, Canada played a crucial role in achieving an historic global accord on climate change. The Paris Agreement calls on governments to increase the use of renewable energy but also reaffirmed the obligation of all governments to acknowledge and respect human rights, including the rights of Indigenous peoples.

In other words, energy projects that violate human rights are not clean or green.

Prime Minister, we urge you and your Cabinet to put the principles you championed in Paris into practice in Canada. We urge that construction of the Site C dam be halted immediately, that all permits be rescinded, and that the previous government’s approval of this project be re-examined. It is crucial that the federal and provincial governments work collaboratively with the Indigenous peoples of the region to reach common agreement on a long-term plan to protect Indigenous land use in the Peace Valley.

The people of Treaty 8 have said no to Site C. Any government that is truly committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, to respecting human rights, and to promoting truly clean energy must listen.

Signed,

Alliance 4 Democracy
The Anglican Eco-Justice Unit, Diocese of New Westminster
Amnesty International Canada
Blue Planet Project
BC Women’s Institute
Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion – BROKE
Canadian Federation of Students
Canadian Friends Service Committee
Council of Canadians
Christian Peacemakers Team, Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Project
Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) Vancouver
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS)
CPAWS-BC
David Suzuki Foundation
Earthroots
Ecojustice
Greenpeace Canada
KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives
Patagonia
Peace Valley Environment Association
Peace Valley Landowner Association
RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs)
Skeena Wild Conservation Trust
Sierra Club BC
West Coast Environmental Law
Wilderness Committee
Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Written by Stephen Rees

February 11, 2016 at 8:34 am

Posted in energy, Environment, politics

Tagged with

How to fix Translink’s broken governance

with 12 comments

The need for this article, right now, is almost purely academic. The ruling BC Liberals seem immune to widespread obloquy over not one but a series of scandals any one of which might have brought other kinds of government down. Yes Translink is a problem for those of us living in the region  – and that is, numerically at least, the majority of the BC population. But that is not the way politics works here, and Christy Clark seems able to serve out the rest of her term. And anyway there are plenty of other issues where she is at odds with most of the people who live here, but can survive at least until the next election.

The reason I decided to start writing was a piece in BC Business entitled  “How TransLink might fix its broken business model” which is nearly a month old now but its author, Frances Bula chose to tweet it again to-day, which caught my  attention. Basically the article looks at the turn around in Atlanta, and speculates about a similar approach here.

My comment is under the article, and this post is designed to enlarge upon it. Quoting myself

The problem in Vancouver is not management. It is governance. The present model is unaccountable and unrepresentative. It was imposed by a provincial government that has clearly demonstrated that it has absolutely no interest in seeing it work.

The province has always had a policy that transit is different to other types of public service, and needs a unique approach. It interferes continually but, at the same time, refuses to fund transit properly while spending far too much on road expansion. A referendum is required for any new funding mechanism, but is never required for any highway project – or indeed any other type of provincial spending/funding decisions.

And Jordan Bateman will always be only too happy to torpedo any proposals that might actually work to improve the situation as that would rob this one trick pony of his audience.

A new CEO is not going to be able to change the governance. Only the province has the ability to do that. This government never admits to any of its mistakes. Only a change in Victoria as complete as the one just seen in Ottawa is going to make any difference.

So one day there will be a different provincial government that decides that it is time to reform Translink. Here is what they will need to think about:

The current arrangement has been cobbled together to suit the BC Liberals of the day. It makes no sense now to continue with it, and the easiest point to start might be to unpick what they did by simply repealing their legislation, and go back to the former GVTA. Except that was not exactly popular either, and for very good reason. In its first iteration it was a new body run by some but, not all, of the Mayors with some acknowledgement of the varying sizes of the municipalities. This method of indirect representation is similar to that of Metro Vancouver, responsible for waste disposal and water delivery, regional parks and planning, but there all the Mayors get a seat at the table but with weighted votes.

Translink was supposed to have been a transportation agency – with responsibility for some bridges and the Major Road Network (MRN), but this was really only provincial downloading of responsibilities that would have happened anyway. One of the worst decisions, in terms of its financial impact on Translink, was to replace the Albion Ferry with the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, which has created a huge drain on the agency’s revenues as traffic has never come up to expectations, and revenue risk was not transferred to the P3 – which pretty much vitiates the reason for using that method of funding. Apart from that the MRN seems to have worked well except for one long running argument over a bridge between New Westminster and Coquitlam. On the other hand the ill conceived North Fraser Perimeter Road was soundly defeated and has yet to re-emerge. Though it almost certainly will if the Ministry engineers get their way – as they usually do in the Long Run.

I have long argued that indirect elections are a recipe for discontent. Mayors are not elected on regional issues, and tend to adopt a stance that is defensive of their turf before any regional consideration. But no matter how much you might dislike what your Mayor says over regional issues, they are not the deciding factor come election day. We need representative and responsible government and you do not get that by holding infrequent, contentious non binding plebiscites.

The governing body has to be an advocate of better transit, because this region has historically been underserved for most of its existence, and is the only feasible way for a region of this size to function effectively. Transit is not only vital to the economy, it is also essential to tackle our most pressing environmental and social issues – and those include affordable housing. Where you chose to live determines how much you travel and the concept of affordability has to include costs of housing AND transportation if it is to be meaningful.

And while the province will never make any concessions over the needs of longer distance travel and transport, nor will the federal government in terms of ports and airports. Both levels of government have effectively abandoned their responsibilities with respect to housing but that is not sustainable and will inevitably have to change. And while technological changes may well have some dramatic impacts on how we use the transportation system they are unlikely to reduce demand for movement of people and goods overall.

It is also obvious that you should not plan just for transport as though it was not intimately enmeshed with land use. Sadly, we continue to behave as though the two subjects were unrelated – even if we give the idea of integration at least lip service if not substantive commitment. By and large, when new transit lines are planned it would be much better to get them up and running before the people arrive, if you do not want them to get used to driving everywhere first, which is what has been happening.

So, given that Metro Vancouver seems to work acceptably, why would you not just put Translink under its command? I think that is a temptingly straightforward solution but not one that satisfies the need to improve accountability. Much better I think to reform both at the same time and hold direct elections for regional government – with a Mayor for Metro. This is the solution that was adopted in London. Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council, but then balked at privatising and deregulating London Transport. It was the proverbial dog’s breakfast and did not last for long after she was deposed. The Greater London Authority and its directly elected Mayor now runs Transport for London – and some related issues that have been downloaded including taxis (which used to be run by the Home Office). Much of the transit service is contracted out, but there is a single integrated fare system, and some of the local train services have been transferred from the national rail system to the Overground.

The huge issue that I have not so far dealt with is the need for much more investment in transit as well as increasing need for revenue support – if only because the use of gas tax revenues has been a victim of the system’s very success at getting people out of their cars. Property tax is not going to be accepted, and the province needs to become much more responsive to the needs of people to get around without a car. This applies as much outside Vancouver as within it. It is absolutely baffling why the province refuses to set up a transit service along Highway 16 (“The Highway of Tears“) between Prince George, Terrace and Prince Rupert. That has to be part of the solution to terrible loss of life due to aboriginal women being forced to hitchhike as the only way to get to essential services. Victoria’s need for rail based transit could not be more obvious, nor so long obviously ignored. Restoring trains on the E&N is only a start.

So yes there is going to have to be more provincial money for transit, and the roads budget is the place to start. We simply cannot afford more freeways and gigantic bridges. We also need to raise money fairly and equitably. Income tax and corporation tax are the obvious places to start, and the odious fees and charges levied without reference to ability to pay have to be abolished. So much less reliance on BC Hydro, ICBC as revenue sources, no more MSP and a thoroughgoing reform of BC Ferries to make it once again a public service and not a pretend corporation. The wealthy can readily afford to pay more tax. There has to be an end to all the corporate welfare, especially subsidies and outright give-aways of natural resources. There will still need to be fossil fuels, but levying reasonable royalties (cf Norway) has to be central to public finance. Carbon tax has worked, to some extent, but the “revenue neutral” mantra has to be abandoned.  We have to switch away to renewable energy sources at a much faster rate, and a lot of carbon is going to have to stay in the ground. At the same time, we have to recognize that far too many people are currently living a hand to mouth existence, and cannot absorb more levies fees and tax increases. We have to be more socially responsible, but this also will often mean better ways of doing things. It is cheaper to house people than it is to cope with the costs of homelessness. The war on drugs is unwinnable, but recreational substance use can be a useful source of revenue – and self medication.

The idea that we can reform Translink by tinkering with its PR and “business model” (whatever that means) is delusional. And like any interdependent ecosystem, we cannot just pull on one or two strings and expect the web to stay intact.  But we can also readily identify where the current policies have not worked and cannot be made to work better just by getting tougher. Most of the knee jerk right wing responses are ill informed and unsupported by any credible data. Better policies are in place elsewhere and we can find better examples than the one we have been so blindly following. And none of this is a stand alone issue. It is long past time for some joined up thinking.

AFTERWORD

From the Globe and Mail Friday November 20

One change Mr. Fassbender said he’s not going to consider at all is another reorganization of how TransLink is governed. When the agency was first created, 12 mayors sat on a board that directed TransLink. The province changed that in 2007 to have the board composed of non-political appointees.

Mr. Fassbender emphasized that everyone needs to stay focused on what’s really important, not squabbles over how much TransLink’s CEO is paid or what the governance of TransLink looks like. “It’s important that we keep our eye on the goal – an integrated, working transportation system.”

 

Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm