Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Not So Fast, Prime Minister Trudeau: We Need a Referendum on Electoral Change

Democracy in Canada is too important to leave to politicians alone.
No matter which system Liberals choose, Canadians should have the final say.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday December 15, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

"No government has the moral right to alter the precious process of elections without the approval of the people."

- Professor Patrice Dutil, Ryerson University

If you think democracy means that voters get to decide how we elect governments rather than politicians, get ready for one hell of a fight.

That's because the new Liberal government has promised to radically change the way we elect governments -- but without giving Canadians a vote through a binding national referendum -- and that's totally undemocratic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal campaign platform said: "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system."

But the Liberals did not even indicate what kind of electoral system they would introduce, how it would work or what process they would follow to get there.

Change that lasts

How we vote in a democracy is an absolutely fundamental question requiring Canadian voters to give their approval through a binding national referendum -- because it will affect every election thereafter in a way far more important than any budget or policy decision.

And an electoral system change would last long after this Liberal government's term is over.

Think about this contrast: at my strata condominium, our government-mandated rules state that on key questions the owners must vote 75 per cent in favour for many changes to pass.

So why would we fundamentally change our entire Canadian electoral system indefinitely without at least a binding majority vote by Canadians?

If major issues in a strata condo like buying a new boiler with reserve fund need a three quarter majority, why would the country's electoral system be deemed less important?

The disparity is unbelievable.

It should not be easier for Canada's Members of Parliament to change how we elect governments forever than for condo owners to repair their roof!

This undemocratic proposition cannot stand.

Canadians must come together to demand that Parliament put a clear proposal on electoral change to a national binding referendum -- regardless of personal preference, only a vote can make that decision.

Nothing else is fair. Nothing else is democratic. And nothing else will do.

Democracy comes first

Some may say the Liberals are just keeping their election promise. Rubbish -- the Liberals did not promise not to hold a national referendum on electoral change.

And they are already breaking significant promises -- with some understandable reasons -- such as the pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year's end or to keep the federal deficit under $10 billion.

The New Democrats and Greens are also wrong in not backing a national referendum.

While the Conservatives now demand a referendum, they made a number of negative changes to electoral laws with no mandate and no referendum when they were in power.

So no party has completely clean hands -- but they can all make that right by now promising to support a fair, democratic vote on electoral systems.

There is at least some hope that common sense will prevail.

Liberal government House leader Dominic LeBlanc said last week that: "I never thought that one party with a majority rewrites the rules that apply to everybody else."

That's a good start.

But now we need a solid Liberal commitment to a national referendum on a clear question and for the NDP, Conservatives and Greens to back that position. Anything less is unacceptable.

Fair and informed lessons

I have been through two B.C. binding provincial referenda on electoral systems before, in 2005 and 2009.

As volunteer president of NO BC STV I helped lead opposition to an electoral change proposal that would have meant a radical change for the province. The Single Transferable Vote was rejected the first time because it did not reach the required 60 per cent in favour set by former BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.

Campbell rightly believed such a change required a strong majority in favour because the consequences would last lifetimes.

That decision was proven correct in 2009, when after four years had passed and a more fulsome public discussion took place, British Columbians rejected the STV proposal overwhelmingly with 60 per cent against, 40 per cent in favour.

Those results mirror those in the two other provinces that held electoral change referenda -- Ontario rejected proportional representation by a 63 per cent vote in 2007 and Prince Edward Island voted 63.5 per cent against it in 2005.

The United Kingdom did the same in a referendum on electoral systems in 2011 where 68 per cent voted "no" to an alternative vote system.

That's how it should be -- in all three provinces, like the UK, voters could get all the information they wanted and then made an informed choice -- and they decided to keep the first-past-the-post electoral system that has served our democracies well here since 1867.

But those who want change have every right to call for it -- I have no disagreement there whatsoever and support a full and free debate on what would serve Canada best -- so long as it is decided by a national referendum.

However -- and amazingly -- an advocacy group called Fair Vote Canada that claims it wants more democracy refuses to demand a binding vote by Canadians.

"This election was a referendum on the last false-majority government," Fair Vote Canada said in October after the election.

"Fair Vote Canada and its supporters are asking Justin Trudeau to be brave. We are asking him to lead and put the country and its citizens before his party and build a representative democracy where all Canadians have the opportunity to equally participate in the governance and policy making of our country," their news release of Oct. 20 reads.

They want a "fair vote" in the next election -- yet won't demand that Canadians fairly vote on any proposed change to the electoral system -- hypocritical and sad.

Let voters decide!

Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute that purports to show support for a change in electoral systems to proportional representation actually produced an interesting result.

While 42 per cent thought the electoral system requires major changes or needs to be changed completely, 58 per cent of those polled said they believe the system only needs minor changes [41 per cent] or no changes at all [17 per cent].

And of the five top issues cited by respondents, the first four are achieved by our existing system.

Those five are, in descending order of priority:

    A simple, understandable ballot;
    A system that produces stable and strong governments;
    Direct election of MPs who represent their communities;
    Governments that represent all regions; and lastly
    A system that closely matches number of seats to levels of support throughout the country.

First-past-the-post -- our current system -- clearly meets the first four priorities and is not dramatically off on the fifth, while other systems are not close by comparison.

Advocates of mixed-member proportional, STV, preferential ballots and a host of other electoral systems will clearly disagree -- and their point of view is very welcome.

But that's exactly the kind healthy, democratic debate Canada needs -- not the imposition of another system to replace our existing one -- without the full and explicit support of voters through a national referendum.

If the other systems are so superior, their advocates should have no complaint about letting the voters decide -- not a handful of politicians without a clear mandate to implement an undetermined change.

If you think democracy means voters get to decide instead of politicians on how we elect governments, please join my new Facebook group Canadians for Democracy on Electoral Change and send all parties a clear message -- no change without a vote!


Friday, December 11, 2015

What Would Jesus Do? Close Food Banks. They Have Become "Perpetual Poverty Machines" That Don't Change Society

Food bank use in 2014 across Canada - numbers are up again in 2015
Jesus would see that food banks – worthy as their work is - are no solution to poverty, and never will be.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday December 8, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

- Hélder Câmara, Brazilian Catholic Archbishop, 1909-1999

If Jesus came back to Earth on his birthday this Christmas, one of his first missions would be to close food banks -- all of them.

Not because they aren't vitally important in feeding the poor but because food banks are not a solution to poverty -- and never will be.

Here in B.C. food banks were first started 33 years ago as a temporary measure to deal with growing numbers of people going hungry.

It's definitely not working.

More than 100,000 people visited a food bank for help in B.C. this past March, a 2.8 per cent increase over last year. And nationally, 852,137 people needed groceries from a food bank, a one per cent jump, with over one third served being children.

"Food banks don't solve the problem, they ameliorate the problem," says Bill Hopwood of anti-poverty advocacy group Raise the Rates. "We know people are hungry and we know they need food."

Treating a symptom

Jesus said 2,000 years ago, according to the Bible: "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed."

And Jesus told the rich to sell their goods and give them to the poor.
Hopwood told me in an interview Sunday that food banks are merely treating a symptom, not the problem.

"If people kept falling off a cliff and injuring themselves you don't build a hospital at the foot of the cliff, you put up a fence at the top," he said.

And yet B.C. is the only province with no poverty reduction plan to put up that much-needed fence, despite more than 400 organizations calling for one.

Even worse, the BC Liberal government has frozen abysmally low welfare and disability benefits rates since 2008 -- meaning already inadequate financial support for those in need has been eroded by cost of living increases.

Could you live on just $610 a month for shelter and food and all other expenses?

That's the pathetically low amount single people on welfare get. And those with disabilities that prevent them from working only get $906 monthly.

Premier Scrooge

Why won't Premier Christy Clark -- a regular churchgoer -- follow the Bible and find a way to help the poorest among us with a rate increase?

That's urgently needed, Hopwood says, along with more affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage and accessible childcare.

But the BC Liberals are doing next to nothing on those either.
Hopwood also questions how the media handle poverty issues.

Every holiday season the media make special efforts to raise funds for food banks and other worthy causes that help those in need -- and I applaud that as well as donate.

Unfortunately, media don't do such a good job explaining why increasing poverty exists in an extremely wealthy society -- and why food banks are not the answer.

Raise the Rates held a "Poor People's Radio" protest with about 80 attending outside CBC Radio and Television's Vancouver headquarters last Friday -- and issued a news release urging CBC to talk about ending poverty on Food Bank Day and question politicians on air about it.

But Hopwood says neither CBC nor any other media covered the event or called about it.

"The media feel that tackling the root causes is too difficult and we have to do something now," Hopwood told me. "The amount of money the CBC raises will feed each person who uses food banks in BC for two days.

What about the other 363 days of the year?"


Beggars don't choose

Hopwood is very clear that Raise the Rates is grateful that CBC and the many donors it encourages are helping out. The CBC raised $537,000 this year.

Johnny Michel, CBC's B.C. and Alberta senior managing director for English language services, wrote Hopwood responding to the call for more investigation of poverty.

"We cover these topics year-round and, as is our tradition, put additional focus into them in the weeks leading up to Open House and Food Bank Day. This includes issues of poverty and hunger and the need for sustainable food security options," Michel wrote.

"We agree that existence of food banks is not a permanent solution to hunger and poverty," Michel concluded. "However, it's a critical need for thousands of people and CBC will continue to support where we can."

Hopwood agrees on that but points out that after 29 years of CBC Food Bank Days, the problem is getting worse.

And CBC Radio host Stephen Quinn acknowledged the challenge facing media in a 2012 Globe and Mail column about previous Raise the Rates protests at Food Bank Day.

Quinn pointed out that most on welfare or disability benefits are:

"People who, through no fault of their own, have ended up where they are. Those people deserve the same right to dignity as anyone else. My mother always told me that beggars can't be choosers.

"That will be true as long as we make them beg," Quinn wrote.

Charity industrial complex?

It all raises even more difficult questions about the very tenets of charity.
Peter Buffett, chair of the NoVo Foundation in the United States and son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, wrote a provocative article for the New York Times accusing the wealthy of using charity as a pressure valve that avoids the need for social change.

"It's what I would call 'conscience laundering' -- feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity," Buffett wrote.

"But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over," he argued.

"But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we've got a perpetual poverty machine. It's an old story; we really need a new one."

It's a story as old as the Bible -- and the ending isn't getting any better every Christmas since.