New Zealand’s experience with electoral reform

I sat down with Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, to talk about her country’s experience with electoral reform. She was in Kamloops on June 21 at a reception held at a local pub where about 70 people had gathered.

   image: Wikipedia

“You have five minutes for the interview,” the organizer of the event told us. We made our way to a quiet table.

Two referenda were held in New Zealand, she told me. The first in 1992 was non-binding. It asked whether voters wanted to retain the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or if they wanted a change. And if they wanted a change, which of four systems of proportional representation did they prefer?

The results were overwhelming with 85 per cent in favour of a change. Of the four systems, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), was a clear favourite.

A second referendum was held a year later. This time the referendum was binding and the results closer with 54 per cent choosing MMP over FPTP.

I wondered how proportional representation had changed the culture of political parties. MMP leads to minority governments, Ms. Clark told me, which means that parties need to get along, not only after election but before. “Be sure to make friends”, she said, “you never know when you’ll need them later.”

After 20 minutes, I had asked all my prepared questions and we just chatted. “I thought the interview was only going to be five minutes,” the organizer scolded when he found us. Ms. Clark returned to the group where photos were taken and she gave a speech.

Afterward, I thought about the similarly of our upcoming mail-in referendum this fall to the one in New Zealand.

Two questions make sense to me: Do you want a change? If so, want kind do you want?  However, a B.C. lobby group called Fair Referendum disagrees. In a robocall call, they said that there should be just one question. I had to chuckle. The Fair Referendum proposal illustrates what’s wrong with our voting system. They want a single question with four choices, three of which are a type proportional representation and one being the existing FPTP. Those in favour of change will have their vote split three ways and those who don’t want change will have one choice. The ballot is rigged so that even if, say 60 per cent want change, 40 per cent will make sure it doesn’t happen. It seems obvious that’s what Fair Referendum hopes for.

The referendum, to be held from October 22 to November 30 by mail-in ballot, is shaping up along party lines. The Greens and NDP favour proportional representation and the BC Liberals oppose it.

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone says the referendum would be biased in favour of the NDP and that’s probably true –but only because the BC Liberals choose not to cooperate with other parties.

The Greens and NDP have made an extraordinary effort to be nice to each other because, as Ms. Clark suggests, it’s the only way that future governments under proportional representation will work. It’s a shift in party culture that the BC Liberals have yet to realize.

 

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Empty pipelines spill no oil

The Kinder Morgan pipeline should be built for the same reason as the pyramids –as a national monument.

The pyramids employed workers but served no practical purpose other than an grand burial site for the pharaohs. The humble graves of the workers would have served the pharaohs just as well.

   Composite: David Charbonneau

Construction of the People’s pipeline will employ well-paid union workers. It’s supposed to carry crude oil to Asia but that market doesn’t exist. Therefore, it will serve as a wonderful monument to the “National Interest.”

The pipeline should be built because it serves political interests. Premier Notley’s hopes to be re-elected depend on completion of the pipeline. In her letter to Maclean’s, she said:

“And together, we are building this pipeline — with B.C. workers, using steel made in Saskatchewan, from ore mined in Quebec. Now, it’s time to pick those tools back up, folks. We’ve got a pipeline to build.”

While I’m less optimistic about the future of fossil fuels than Notley, I would rather see her re-elected than Jason Kenney, leader of United Conservative party of Alberta. A progressive premier with delusions about the future of oil sands is better than a retrograde one with similar delusions.

The People’s pipeline will bring the feuding NDP family members back into the fold where they can return to civility. This spat has been an embarrassment for the NDP for the new leader Jagmeet Singh.  Until recently, the NDP was one big happy family; unlike other parties, there is only one party provincially and federally.

The pipeline should be built to strengthen our federation. Prime Minister Trudeau is correct in asserting the nation’s right to move goods to market over the objections of provinces. One province should not have the ability to stop the national transport of commodities.

While the symbolism of the pipeline is strong, the financial rationale for the pipeline hinges on flawed logic. Finance Minister Morneau claims the pipeline is required to get oil to “tidewater” so it can be sold at higher prices than in the U.S.  Economist Robyn Allan is not so sure:

“The facts don’t support the argument. The economics aren’t there. This project is financially compromised and not commercially viable (Globe and Mail, June 2, 2018).”

The fantasy is that Asia will pay more for the goop than it could be sold for in North America. However, in recent years, heavy crude has consistently sold for significantly less in Asia than the U.S.  Refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are ready; they have been re-engineered to process the heavy crude of the oil sands.

Just one per cent of the oil in the existing pipeline flows to Asia. Another pipeline won’t change that fraction. Most oil goes to California and Washington State where it is refined and sold back to Canada as expensive automotive fuel.

The financial reality is that TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. is a better bet in getting crude oil to market. The off again/on again pipeline is breathing new life under the Trump administration.

The pipeline should be built and remain empty. Everyone will be happy, workers and environmentalists alike.

Facebook is a Canadian utility

So many Canadians use Facebook that it should be regulated like any other Canadian utility. No broadcaster or telephone company would operate in Canada without government oversight. We should make it comply with our regulations as with other communications utilities.

      image: Tod Maffin

It’s the most-used Canadian social media. Ninety-four percent of Canadians aged 18 to 44 have a Facebook account. Overall, 84 per cent of us have an account and 80 per cent check the site daily according to The State of Social Media in Canada, 2017.

Now, Facebook is about to become more integrated into our lives with an announcement May 1, 2108, of a dating service. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “And if we are committed to building meaningful relationships, then this is perhaps the most meaningful of all.”

Facebook’s phenomenal rise has made it a monopoly. Canadian professors Andrew Clement and David Lyon say:

“In light of Facebook’s overwhelming grip on the social networking industry, the commissioner of competition should investigate the company for its monopolistic behaviour (Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018).”

Facebook’s ascent has left governments behind. Other communications industries have taken decades to mature and regulations have kept pace. Regulators have had time to insure that TV, radio and telephone companies meet Canadian standards of privacy, identity and sovereignty.

“The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) should learn to treat social-media enterprises as utilities,” says Clement and Lyon.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of Facebook’s grip. It seems so personal that there’s a conspiracy theory claiming Facebook is eavesdropping on people’s conversations through their smartphones and using that insight to serve ads. Tech expert Avery Swartz finds this ironic:

“People find it hard to believe that computers could know so much about them, even though they are voluntarily feeding their information into the machine. For private citizens, Facebook’s targeted advertising is creepy. For advertisers, it’s captivating (Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018).”

Facebook doesn’t sell users’ data to advertisers. It sells access to data, so advertisers can target their ads to specific audiences. No wonder that advertisers like Facebook. They can place an ad for as little as one dollar a day and ad campaigns can be created for $100.

Targeted advertising is hardly unique to Facebook. It’s been around much longer than the internet. Big businesses target consumers by placing ads on certain TV stations at specific times. They distribute flyers to targeted neighbourhoods.

However, the issue is not targeted advertising. It’s the way that Facebook treats Canadians and whether its practices align with the values and practices imposed on other communications utilities.

There’s been a campaign to #DeleteFacebook but given how integrated the social medium is in the lives of Canadians, it’s not likely to succeed. An Angus Reid survey revealed that only four per cent plan to delete their accounts.

“Given its business model,” add Clement and Lyon, “Facebook on its own cannot meet the objectives of Canadian media regulations – advancing Canada’s identity and sovereignty, its social and economic fabric, universal accessibility, neutrality, affordability, openness, public accountability and rights protection.”

Canadians like Facebook. Now’s the time help Facebook like Canadians by making it truly ours.

The financialized self

We have become entrepreneurs in the era of globalization.

Each of us is a little business, left to navigate the risky world of investments and the stock market. As a consequence, the role that the state plays in the welfare of citizens has been reduced.

    image: Proxim Group

Now retirement depends on how well we strategize financial speculations. It used to be that pensions were determined by salary and years of service, now it’s risk management.

As financialized subjects, we must consider economic cost–benefit calculations as the natural criteria for evaluating life choices.

The ethos of the financialized self is one of expertise in planning and managing investments. The study of finance has become the key to success. Kyle Liao and Jonah Butovsky explain:

“In viewing their actions through the prism of financial literacy, the individual (entrepreneur) becomes personally and solely responsible for the day-to-day ‘business’ of their lives (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2107).”

We are exposed to the machinations of capitalism. If we aren’t skilled in managing our finances, it’s not the fault of capitalism -it’s ours for not being shrewd investors. And when we seek financial advice, it’s from advisors who are also trying to claw their way to the top. We become keys to their success.

TV shows reflect the financialized self. They become grim lessons of what happens when you are not a shrewd manager. Money Moron and Til Debt Do Us Part profile the financial mistakes of ordinary families.

In CBC’s Dragon’s Den, aspiring entrepreneurs pitch business and investment ideas to a panel of venture capitalists (“Dragons”) in the hope of securing business financing and partnerships. U.S., contestants competed for a one-year $250,000 contract to run one of Donald Trump’s companies in The Apprentice. Trump’s pretence as an astute entrepreneur propelled him to the presidency.

The message in both shows is obvious: We, the clever people who have made it to the top, will judge you poor schmucks and your pathetic ideas. The format reminds me of the movie They Shoot Horses Don’t They? in which the lives of a group of contestants intertwine in an inhumanely gruelling dance marathon that is rigged for all to fail.

Of course, the rich are not always that clever. In the Great Recession of 2008, the geniuses who invented dubious investments brought the world to the brink of financial collapse. We, the reluctant citizen entrepreneurs, paid the price. The TSX lost 35 per cent of its value and it took five years just to get back where we started.

With interest rates so low on savings, and with wages that haven’t kept up with inflation, we have little option but to compete in the grim dance of capitalism. The FIRE industries (finance, insurance, and real estate) play the tunes.

Films, biographies, novels, television shows and online content about finance and financiers (lionized or demonized) are more popular than ever.

The inescapable logic of finance shapes public policy and social institutions, from hospitals and schools to scientific research labs, where the prime dictum is ‘risk management,’ ‘return on investment,’ and ‘market efficiency.’ The benefits of pure scientific research are abandoned.

The evolution into financialized citizens has had a profound effect on society. It reduces cooperation and treats everyone as competitors in the marketplace.

Basic income in the new world order

A basic income has been promoted from the left and right for years but nothing has come of it. Maybe new leaders and a new world order will change that.

  image: Steemit.com

Sometimes called a guaranteed annual income, it has been supported by progressives and neoliberals alike. Progressives argue that a basic income would help reduce poverty. Neoliberals say it decreases government bureaucracy by combining a number of social services like welfare, child benefits, employment insurance, and Old Age Security into one.

What politicians have failed to do, the leaders of technology may accomplish. They clearly see the loss of jobs due to automation. Innovators such Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space X, says:

“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” Musk told CNBC in an interview last year.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg sees it differently. A vital society depends on everyone having the opportunity to create new ideas. That’s why billionaires like him should pay for a financial safety net that allows everyone to find their purpose.

“The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail,” said Zuckerberg. “Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”

Zuckerberg is on to something when he suggests a new social contract. The failure to implement a basic income takes place in an old world order that values industrial jobs and resource extraction above those of human interaction. Industrial jobs have been reduced and more automation is on the way. Resource extraction is pushing the limits of what the earth can deliver, and pushing the conditions under which humans can live.

Jobs that involve human interaction, such as child and elder care workers, have been low-paying. What kind of crazy world order invented a system where monotonous, often dangerous, planet-threatening, industrial jobs pay more than jobs that nurture our future in children, and care for the frail and elderly?

A new world order would include Zuckerberg’s transfer to the poor through a new social contract and much more. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis envisions an end to globalization and the start of a new era in which a basic income would be part:

“And we need a universal basic dividend that would be administered by the New Bretton Woods institutions and funded by a percentage of big tech shares deposited in a world wealth fund.”

By Bretton Woods Institutions, he means the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They helped rebuild the shattered postwar economy and to promote international economic cooperation.

Varoufakis is leading the post-globalization era in Europe with The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. President Trump (don’t laugh) is leading the post-globalization era in the U.S.

Trump’s grip on reality may be somewhat tenuous but he does understand turmoil; he thrives on the thrill of the circus. His constituents have had it up to here with the existing order. Trump is tearing globalization apart with a world tariff-war.

These are exciting times. Where politicians failed, maybe tech leaders, global visionaries and clowns will excel.

 

The multi-tent government of B.C.

Big-tent parties are standard in politics but in government, they rule from a small room.

Image: TentPictures.com

Getting as many voters into your tent ensures a win in the first-past-the-post system. Once elected, a relatively small group will determine the direction of government. A smart leader will pick cabinet members with diverse opinions. An arrogant leader will dictate the agenda.

Site C dam was one of those ideas that should have been halted early once it became obvious it wasn’t needed. Former Premier Christy Clark blindly proceeded with it.

For all who could see, it was doomed.  Even to me, it was obvious. Three years ago, I wrote:

“An independent review of the project found that BC Hydro could supply the province with electricity, without the new dam, with modest growth in LNG production, until 2028.”

Clark forged ahead with Site C dam in the face of calamity, even as markets for LNG collapsed.

Premier Horgan was left with a no-win situation. If he cancelled Site C, he would make the thousands of unionized workers unhappy. If he approved it, it would make environmentalists unhappy. Horgan chose the pragmatic solution. David Eby, B.C.’s Attorney General, explains.

“The strategies of the previous government to avoid oversight and push the project ‘past the point of no return’ with the hope, achieved, of visiting financial ruin on the books of any government that would seek to cancel it, are unforgivable.”

The cost of competing dam, Eby says, was the same as cancelling it; except in the first case you end up with an asset, essentially a mortgage paid over 70 years. Cancelling it would result in a debt, leaving the government with less money to spend on health, schools.

Horgan’s decision was sure to disappoint. You would think his fragile government would be doomed. However, Green leader Andrew Weaver is not keen to take down the government any time soon for two reasons. No one wants another election.

And both the NDP and Greens are eager to see proportional representation (PR) come to B.C. Since minority governments are typical in PR, it’s in the best interests of both the NDP and Green Party to see this government last as a demonstration that minority governments work.

Multi-tent governments can hold opposing views. While the overarching progressive banner would fly over government, different flags can fly over each tent. Pragmatists can huddle in one tent and environmentalists in another, grumbling at the other but placated in the comfort that they share the same basic values of fair wages, poverty reduction, human rights, and equality.

Multi-tent governments are a novelty in Canada. If a faction in one tent feels betrayed, they can vote to be part of the other tent in the next election –essentially an opposition built into government. With a divergence of ideas, the best plan is more likely to prevail.

Had a multi-tent government been in place when the BC Liberals were in power, Site C would probably not have proceeded. Instead, a premier with a big ego and tunnel-vision pushed the plan beyond the point of no return.

B.C. Government offers help to opposition in drafting bills

There’s more than practicality and clever politics behind the government’s offer to help the opposition to draft winning bills.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby (right). Photo: CBC

As a practical matter, it’s inevitable that opposition parties will get together and propose legislation that the government disagrees with. Since the Green and BC Liberal members outnumber the NDP, the proposed legislation would pass.

If they’re going to pass, the bills should be well-written. Attorney-General David Eby says:

“It’s an art to draft effective legislation, and we want to make sure the other parties have access to the professionals, if they are putting forward amendments that might actually pass (Globe and Mail, Oct. 18, 2017).”

The offer is politically clever because even well-drafted bills may never make it because the government has the power to call the bill to be debated or not. It could simply expire at the end of the current sitting. In fact, that’s what happens to most private-members bills –the government ignores them and they go away.

If the bill passes, it’s because the government wants, or will allow, it to pass. BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver’s private-member bill is a good example. It would allow ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber into the provincial market. The BC Liberals are in favour of Weaver’s private-member bill. The NDP want to “study” it further because some supporters are not in favour of the gig economy.

If Weaver’s bill is allowed to pass, the NDP can have it both ways: constituents who like Lyft and Uber will be pleased, and to those who are opposed the NDP can say “the opposition made us do it.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal critic for the Attorney-General, is suspicious:

“It’s a trap,” he said. “It’s designed to make the Greens feel they are involved in the legislative process. BC Liberals recognize this as a false promise.”

Beyond practicality and clever politics, there is electoral reform to consider. The NDP and Greens are committed to electoral reform through proportional representation (PR).

The advantage to Greens is obvious.  They won only three per cent of the seats with 17 per cent of the popular vote. They could have won 15 seats based on PR (the actual number dependent on the model of PR.)

The existing system of voting hasn’t worked that well for the BC NDP, either. Since its founding in 1933, the NDP has only formed government for 13 out of 84 years. Their chances are greater under PR. In the last election, 57 per cent of British Columbians voted Green or NDP. Proportional representation often results in minority governments and that would put the NDP in power.

The BC Liberals oppose PR because division of the progressive vote puts them in power.

Electoral reform is more likely to pass in the next referendum with support of the NDP government in educating the public –support that the BC Liberals didn’t provide in the first two referenda.

The offer of help to opposition parties demonstrates that minority governments can work. Sonia Furstenau, Green’s spokeswoman for electoral reform, is enthused:

“This is great. This is a step toward having a legislature where all 87 members have the capacity to contribute to policy making. This is what democracy should look like.”