Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University
Was the Demise of Electoral Reform Inevitable?
Posted February 4th, 2017
After answering, more than a few times, what I thought of the prime minister’s decision to abandon electoral reform, I decided to put my thoughts to paper. Some tentative reasons for the demise of electoral reform were published in the Ottawa Citizenon February 3.
Bitter sweet: After 18 years, 3 new and risky heart surgeries, 3 pacemaker replacements, and countless ‘tune-ups’, today was Nathaniel’s last visit to the amazing Sick Kids Hospital. He “graduates” to Toronto General but it will be hard to match the superb care we received here. As a 5 day old baby he was flown from KGH to Sick Kids in a January blizzard. It took him 9 hours to get there. Since the plane and helicopter couldn’t land, they had to take him by ambulance. When we arrived in Toronto, we were given 3 options: a heart transplant, 3 risky surgeries or let him go. We chose the surgical option which had a high mortality rate and later heard that he was “one of those kids we didn’t think would make it”. The weather on the night of his first surgery was so bad that they put the entire surgical team up in a nearby hospital. The surgeon was there the entire day and through the night treating a very tenuous baby. That level of care would foreshadow the quality and dedication of those at the hospital for our entire time. We’ve been lucky to have had the same cardiologist, the uber competent, caring and unflappable Dr. Jennifer Russell throughout our journey who, when we began, was just starting out her career as a cardiology fellow. Both she and Christine Chiu-man, the pacemaker tech, have endured my endless questions with patience and good humour.
The cardiac floor — 4D — is a hard place to be for any length of time. We’ve seen friends thrive and others sadly not make it through. We’ve celebrated Easter in the hallway when the nurses turned a blind eye to the table we set up with our take-out feast complete with ‘grape juice’ we smuggled in. We’ve had countless friends and family bring us food and keep us company during our months-long stays. And throughout it all we’ve been grateful.
Nathaniel, post-Fontan not quite sure of the clown.
Nathaniel has wowed the doctors along the way. In cardiac failure as a three year old at 2 AM, he told the doctors “it’s time to wake up because my heart said so” immediately after getting his first external pacemaker hooked up. As an 8 year old, he told jokes to the surgeons as he lay on the OR table just before going under.
It’s a place that family-centred care is not just a buzzword. In hindsight I am impressed that no one laughed when during surgical rounds I shared my medline lit review on different surgical techniques used in the Fontan surgery and asked the surgical fellow to defend his proposed approach (making reference to the literature, of course!). Or when I pleaded with the surgical team that Nathaniel had chylothorax. The surgeon, Dr Glen van Arsdell, ever the empiricist, asked me to explain why I thought so. Five minutes later after making my case, he was rushed to ICU where he was treated for it immediately.
Cool surgical drawing, Dr. Konstantinov.
I’m not one to gush about institutions but The Hospital For Sick Children is really a jewel in our health care crown. It is deeply research intensive, innovative and multicultural in ways that frankly restore my faith in humanity. Doctors from all parts of the world are blind to nationalist, ideological or linguistic differences that might be evident in other contexts. The unrelenting drive for quality patient care restores my faith in our health care system and reminds me how much children, especially those of us who are lucky to live in Canada, are hostage to fortune.
It’s bitter sweet because while we are thrilled Nathaniel has survived and thrived, for 18 years we have taken comfort in returning to the place where we knew he would be cared for. Anyone who has struggled with a child with a complex health condition knows exactly what I’m talking about. We won’t ever be able to repay the psychological and real debt from Sick Kids and as we left today a part of me thought that while this is another day in their work it was a pretty profound one in ours.
On September 20, Kingston city council will make a decision on whether to amend a by-law to permit IN8 Developments to build a 15 storey building — seven storeys higher than the official plan.
The vote will be important for downtown and the consequences significant. As our elected councillors grapple with their decision, it will be vital that their vote be seen as acting in the public interest. According the Whig Standard, Councillor Adam Candon is a real estate agent who had a website that until a few days ago advertised the condominium. Does his professional work put him in a conflict of interest?
Source: Flickr, Spiros Vathis
According to s. 5 of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, the obligation is on the part of the councillor to declare a conflict. And therein lies a problem. In this case, Councillor Candon needs to think if voting on the amending a by-law to build a 15 storey building affect his “direct or indirect pecuniary interest”? If it does, he should exempt himself from the vote. I have no doubt that many, if not most, councillors exercise careful judgement when they decide to declare a conflict. And I have no reason to think that Councillor Candon would behave otherwise. But the problem is this is not a matter that should rest with an individual councillor.
The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act at a scant six pages may not provide adequate guidance for city legal staff or councillors to be prudent in their decision-making. At the end of the day, it’s up the councillor to decide if he or she is in a conflict of interest. But it shouldn’t be.
In Toronto, the city has an Integrity Commissioner who is an arms length, independent officer appointed by Council. He or she provides advice to Council on conflict of interest matters. (Fun fact: Toronto named Queen’s professor and Kingston resident David Mullan as its first Integrity Commissioner). If we had one, the decision about whether Councillor Candon was in a conflict would not lie with him but an independent and neutral umpire.
In addition to reporting on conflict of interest, the Integrity Commissioner has to the power to investigate matters that citizens raise about city council. This can be about personal behaviour as was the case with Rob Ford or whether a mayor gave preferential treatment to former campaign staff, an allegation made about John Tory (ultimately unfounded). The real value of this office is that in making its rulings it educates the public by publishing reports that provide transparency and reasons for actions, something that does not exist now.
The idea of having an Integrity Commissioner is not new to Kingston. The previous city council in Kingston voted 7-6 to proceed to hire one but in a unanimous 12-0 vote, this was “swiftly shelved by the new council” according to Bill Hutchins writing in Kingston Heritage. And I think that’s unfortunate.
The flaw at that heart of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act is to assume that it’s okay for a councillor to make a decision about his or her conflict of interest. In a modern, democratic system, this seems positively archaic.
The motion to amend the by-law passed 7-6 in favour allowing the Capitol project to proceed. Councillor Candon did not declare a conflict in that vote. Though this post was written before the vote, after the vote this got some attention on Twitter as a potential solution to the controversial outcome. Following that, the Mayor said that he would ask council to support the creation of a Integrity Commissioner.
At a subsequent Council meeting on Tuesday October 4, Council overturned its previous unanimous vote to not proceed with an Integrity Commissioner by voting unanimously to support one — ironically an exact inverse of their previous unanimous vote. Every single councillor had changed his or her mind.
It ended 45 minutes after it began with some random young woman saying “Nice job! Nice underwear”.
Lucy, Denzil and Nathaniel and I were at Battery Park which has a large almost enclosed bay. I went to show the boys how to get Lucy, our water dog, to retrieve balls in the water. She can do this for hours but recently has become obsessed with ducks.
Lucy diving for a ball at Battery Park, Kingston.
If there are ducks nearby, all bets are off and she will chase them wherever they go and however far out they go. So, the lesson tonight began with “Always make sure there are no ducks”. When we began there were no ducks. We had learned our lesson in early July when she chased ducks in Kingston’s Inner Harbour for about a half hour.
Lucy was perfect in bringing back the ball and we were ready to leave when she spotted a a family of ducks and all bets were off.
At first it was slightly amusing and the tourists who walked by laughed and I said hopefully through a tense smile, “She’ll come back”. After ten minutes or so my kids had enough and were fed up with my inability to get her back and left for home.
A more obedient Lucy at Battery Park, 2015.
People offered all sorts of advice. “You should whistle”, said one woman. Another said I should throw in bread to attract the ducks. When I told her I don’t carry bread with me, she huffed and walked away. Lucy continued to chase the ducks but tempted the growing crowd who cheered as she seemed to come back to shore only to be distracted by ducks who now seemed to be taunting her to chase them. She was up for it and off she went.
After 45 minutes of this including a boat that had herded her back unsuccessfully I figured I needed to get her.
Some young woman who apparently had been watching her said “I was just thinking of whether to go in after her”. I replied “I’ll go but can you keep an eye on my clothes?” I jumped in and “sprinted” after Lucy who first swam toward me quite happily. She then realized that she might be in trouble so began to swim away from me.
After I caught up to Lucy I swam back holding on to her. People on the shore were scaring away the ducks in case Lucy got away. There were also a disconcerting number of people with iPhones taking a picture of some middle aged brown guy swimming in his underwear chasing a dog.
When I finally got to shore, dripping wet, sheepish and with a bit of a crowd around, the woman who volunteered to get Lucy said “Nice job! Nice underwear”. All I could do was smile, get dressed and walk as if this were all completely normal.
Electoral Reform should focus on Principles not Systems
Posted July 26th, 2016
I’ve been asked to be an expert witness at the ERRE (The House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform) on July 28 where I will be elaborating on my thoughts in this column on the importance of focussing on principles in the debate on electoral reform. I will also be discussing what citizens’ assemblies might teach us about how to reason and deliberate about the complexities of this subject.
Here are my speaking notes for the ERRE committee. I may or may not follow them so they are only a close approximation to what I might say. Since I discuss principles, it’s worth noting how this government and others have framed the debate around electoral principles. My summary of what principles have been used and by which study is here.
The pre-eminence of advertising in Canadian elections
Posted July 8th, 2016
The three national parties have filed their election expenses and there are some surprises but the most important message from the filings with Elections Canada is the central role that advertising plays in modern election campaigns.
While no one would doubt its importance, the Liberals took it to a new level spending 64% of their election budget on advertising compared to the Conservatives who spent 45% of their election budget on advertising. The chart also shows that the Liberals have increased the percentage of funds to advertising over the last four elections.
In raw numbers as well, over the last two elections the Liberals are the dominant party when it comes to spending on advertising. While 2011 was a three way contest for advertising in the 2015 election the Liberals outspent the Conservatives $27 million to $19 million. These data are a bit partial because they don’t factor in the significant amount of money that the Conservatives spent on government advertising in 2015. Some of that might not be seen as partisan, though the party was widely criticized for using taxpayers money to do what the party should do.
The amount the federal government spent on advertising declined in 2014-15 from the previous year perhaps in part because government regulations prohibit advertising during an election which was the longest in modern history at 78 days. The effective earned media from government advertising before the election cannot be overstated.
The party advertising figures also have to be understood in the context of advertising done by the political parties outside of the election period. Parties don’t spend money on advertising unless it’s an election year and in 2015 the major political parties spent more money being thrown at advertising than ever before. Both the Liberals and Conservatives were competitive in terms of their spending with the Conservatives spending $1.4 million more. (Data aren’t available for the NDP which has a two month extension to file their party expenses).
In some ways, this is the most intriguing data. It demonstrates a loophole for political parties to get around spending limits during the election period. It’s much easier to spend outside of the writ but close to an election when there are no constraints on what parties can spend. What’s not indicated in the red and blue bars are the amount that was spent on radio. The amount of money the Conservatives spent on national radio during the election campaign was “innovative” according to Scott Reid quoted in iPolitics. This innovation apparently was seeded long before the writ: the Conservatives spent $6 million of their non-election advertising budget on radio compared to a paltry $860,000 by the Liberals.
These party financial statements confirm the centrality of advertising to political parties and may even underestimate it when non-election and government advertising are factored in. It may not be the nature of the Liberals ‘feel good’ advertising that worked. The party’s success might also be a result of the unprecedented resources it devoted to persuasion and the failure of the Conservatives to leverage the significant resources of government advertising it deployed to its cause.
Who should decide if we have ranked voting in Kingston?
Posted April 19th, 2016
Mayor Paterson of Kingston recently posted an on-line poll to ask Kingstonians what they thought of the prospect of ranked ballots for municipal elections.
While I think it’s a good idea for the Mayor to solicit feedback on such an important initiative, such polls can easily be hijacked by those in favour or opposed to change. Moreover, the fact that one of the Mayor’s choices is “I’m not sure. I’d like more information” is telling. People don’t know how this change would affect the outcome of an election or perhaps their choices. Why would they? Unless you grew up in Australia or voted in city of London, UK, you might not know how ranked ballots work.
Having a discussion of ranked ballots at the municipal level is similar to the conversation that I think we should be having about electoral reform at the national level. Politicians should use this opportunity as a public learning exercise to increase civic literacy.
One way to do this is to convene a citizens’ assembly of randomly selected citizens who could meet in Memorial Hall of City Hall for three Saturdays to learn about how these systems work in practice and what reasons there might be to adopt it in Kingston. A random body of citizens would be representative of the geography of Kingston as well as our demographics (e.g., students, seniors, unemployed, those engaged in politics and those disillusioned). They would meet with an open mind and learn in a neutral way both the advantages and disadvantages of the system. They would see how it works in Australia and in the city of London. They would consult their fellow citizens to hear what others thought. Such a process would be public and transparent so those not selected could observe. After an intensive deliberative process would they make a recommendation to council or better yet, would their recommendation be binding on council who would put their faith and trust in the wisdom of citizens. A citizens’ assembly process is marked by deliberation which is careful reasoning after examining all the evidence — something that is lacking in public opinion polls.
Citizens’ assemblies have been used at the municipal level successfully in Prince Edward County, Calgary, Vancouver among many other places. In the UK the Sheffield and Southampton citizens’ assemblies last year deliberated what powers ought to be devolved to the local government. In all these cases, the process of reasoning and deliberating only followed a phase of learning and information gathering. Unlike expert commissions or expensive consulting firms’ reports, their work is marked by transparency and meaningful public involvement.
There are many reasons to support or oppose ranked ballots in Kingston but there is no reason why citizens shouldn’t make that decision. A citizens’ assembly increases participation, citizen learning and creates legitimacy around a policy where the self interest of politicians is obvious.
Today is International Women’s Day and Prime Minister Trudeau took the opportunity to announce that a woman (other than the Queen) would appear on a Canadian bank note.
An Advisory Committee will recommend to the Governor of the Bank of Canada a suitable nominee. They will make that decision only after deliberating on choices made by Canadians.
The Bank of Canada has also created an Expert Panel to help design and implement a public engagement strategy to make that happen. That panel is comprised of Prof. Barbara Crow, Dean of Graduate Studies at York University and me. Our role will be to help develop the public engagement strategy and help the Advisory Council make its recommendations to the Governor of the Bank of Canada.
Source: Bank of Canada website.
I’m particularly impressed that the Bank of Canada, which is leading the process, wants to consult widely and hear from Canadians about who should be on the bank note. It’s the first time that a national Bank anywhere has used public engagement to solicit advice on whom should be the face of its money and is a great opportunity to have a national discussion about significant women in history.
I will have more to say about the process in the coming weeks.
In the mean time, feel free to nominate someone via the Bank’s webpage and also through social media using the #BankNotable.
Tasha Kherridan, Nick Loenen, me and Scott Reid at the panel on electoral reform.
On February 27, I was asked to speak on a panel about electoral reform with former B.C. MLA, Nick Loenen and Conservative critic for Democratic Institutions, Scott Reid at the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa.
Nick made the case that single transferable vote would be the best option for any reform while Scott argued that there were many unknowns about any reform and that the Conservative Party’s position was officially agnostic but that a referendum was essential in validating any electoral choice.
For my part, I argued first that the conversation about electoral reform has been wrong. It has placed the cart before the horse by talking about systems. Instead, any reform should begin with ideas about what values and principles should underpin the electoral system we want. The system is a product of those values. Second, I suggested that the process of reform (how we decide what we decide) should be deliberative and engage Canadians in a meaningful way. I don’t think traditional modes of consultation will be adequate but would love to see some kind of deliberative body, such as citizens’ assemblies, help the government frame the values and principles that should underlay any new system.
On the issue of the a referendum, there are compelling arguments on both sides but my position is ‘referendum if necessary, but not necessarily a referendum’. The benefit of a referendum is that it confers legitimacy but the biggest problem with it is that referendums are notoriously blunt instruments. A citizens’ assembly — where real learning, deliberation and consultation takes place — is actually a higher threshold for legitimacy than a referendum which is not known as a place where civic education and deliberation occurs.
The issue of whether a referendum may ultimately be decided by the Court which will make a determination about whether S. 44, Constitution Act allows the federal government to act unilaterally to make changes to our voting system. In the Senate Reference case, the Court held that it was not sufficient to act unilaterally as “the purpose of [consultative elections] is clear: to bring about a Senate with a popular mandate” and that such a change “alters its fundamental nature and role.”
The question that the Court would answer in a reference case on electoral reform is whether a change in voting system alters the fundamental nature and role of representation. I would argue that any electoral system change must maintain the principle of representation by population (S. 42(1a) Constitution Act) and thus does not alter the fundamental nature and role of MPs. There would, however, be a stronger case that the fundamental nature and role is altered if the electoral system that were chosen had multi-member instead of single member constituencies. The Constitution Act assumes implicitly that our representation is single member.