Monday, June 30, 2014

Where Do We Go From Here? - The Green Party of Ontario & the June 2014 Provincial Election

With the June 12, 2014 Ontario provincial election now in the rear-view mirror, two of Ontario’s four major political parties have been going through a fair amount of public soul searching after less than inspired electoral outcomes. Tim Hudak’s PC party ended up losing 9 seats, while Andrea Horwarth’s NDP ended up with the same number of seats the NDP held at dissolution (21), having lost three key City of Toronto ridings while picking up three smaller urban seats in compensation – the NDP bettered its 2011 election result by 4 seats, and held onto all of their by-election gains.

We’re pretty familiar with the fact that Tim Hudak announced on election night that he was stepping down as Progressive Conservative party leader, but even that wasn’t enough for PC supporters, who had the knives out to filet Hudak anyway, after he had suggested he’d stay on to chaperone the party until a leadership contest was held. A few days later, after a raucous caucus meeting with remaining MPP’s, Hudak stepped away completely from any leadership role with the PC’s. The rules for a leadership contest are now being put together by the PC’s Executive, and already a front-line contender, MPP Christine Elliot, has stepped forward to announce she’ll be running for leader. Other high profile provincial and federal Conservatives are expected to announce soon.

Andrea Horwarth, despite some internal dissent within her own party, has opted to stay on as NDP Leader. She’ll be facing a mandatory vote of confidence at the Ontario NDP’s next convention – a vote she’ll likely win, albeit with some expression of opposition to her staying on. Horwarth was roundly criticized by many in the labour movement for voicing opposition to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s budget, which precipitated the election when Wynne marched over to the L-G’s one day after delivering the budget. Insiders speculate that Howarth’s team was caught off-guard by the quick dissolution of parliament, and the NDP’s very slow start to the election (their platform didn’t roll out until the third week – and the 2011 election platform wasn’t taken down from their website for more than two weeks after parliament was dissolved) suggests that there’s some merit to that. Had the NDP been faster out of the gate, this election’s outcome might have been different for that party.

2014 Ontario Election – Mostly the Same

Generally speaking, though, not much actually changed at the ballot box in this past election. The biggest story at the ballot box was probably the increase in voter turnout (up from less than 50% to almost 54%). This slight shift in voter turnout may have contributed slightly to the change in actual seat counts for each party, despite the very modest changes to vote percentage. The Liberals saw their vote share go up just 1%, yet they picked up 5 new seats over 2011 results (and were up 10 seats from dissolution). The NDP did a little better, gaining just over 1% from 2011 totals, and rising by 4 seats (0 seats from time of dissolution). The PC’s were the biggest loser of the night, seeing their vote share drop by 4.2% from 2011, and their seat count fall by 9 (2011 and dissolution).

The biggest winner of the night, though, based on voter percentages, was clearly the Green Party of Ontario, which saw its vote share go up by almost 2% - almost double that experienced by the Liberals and the NDP. However, despite the increase in voter share, the Green Party failed to elect anybody at all.

Greens in the Wilderness

It’s a crying shame that the relatively minor shifts in vote percentages can (and do) lead to perverse electoral consequences in Ontario and throughout Canada. Now, in Ontario, we have a party with a so-called “majority” government, which less than 39% of votes cast, and about 22% of votes from all eligible voters (45% of whom decided not to cast any ballot at all). The electoral outcome is a clear travesty, and an affront to the concept of democracy. Yet, in the latest election, the issue of electoral reform was nowhere to be found amongst the three parties which elected representatives. Only the Green Party was talking about the need to change the way in which we democratically elect our representatives.

Yet, most Ontarians were probably unaware of that fact, just as most were probably unaware of almost everything that the Green Party was campaigning on. Once again, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner was left out of all of the Leader’s debates (televised and otherwise), and the Ontario media did a pretty good job of ignoring the existence of the Greens (save for TV Ontario). The only Green issue which seemed to bubble up to the election surface was the call to merge publicly funded school boards. Besides that, most voters were probably quite unaware of where the Green Party stood on any issue.

The Green Party – Where Do We Go From Here?

Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner will be facing a mandatory leadership review of his own this coming September, when the GPO holds its annual general meeting in Toronto. Schreiner was elected Leader by Greens in November, 2009, after a gutsy, but ultimately unsuccessful by-election challenge earlier that year in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock (where he received less than 7% of the vote, finishing third), a by-election notable for the defeat of PC Leader John Tory at the hands of the Liberals. Schreiner became just the second leader of the Green Party of Ontario, taking over from Frank De Jong, who was elected Leader of the Greens in 1993, five years after the founding of the Party. De Jong led the Green Party to its best electoral showing of all in 2007, when Greens picked up 8% of the popular vote (but still failed to elect anybody).

Since then, Mike has led the Greens to general election shut-outs in 2011 (where he finished fourth in Simcoe-Grey with less than 9% of the vote) and again recently in 2014 (where he finished third in Guelph, with just over 19% of the vote, behind the incumbent Liberal candidate and PC challenger).

Greens – Looking for “Success”

Now look – I understand that “success” is a loaded term, but I think that most readers would agree that the Green Party of Ontario has experienced “success” in a very narrow, limited context, and it’s likely more accurate to suggest that the GPO, a party which has been in existence since 1987, has so far failed to make the sort of inroads with the electorate that a political party needs in order to unequivocally state that it has experienced “success”.

Tim Hudak resigned on election night 2014 after dropping just over 4% of the vote. Hudak made gains for his Party in 2011, increasing its seat count by 11, and its vote count by over 3%. Contrast those numbers with the Green Party’s: In 2011, the Green Party of Ontario dropped over 5% (2007 – 8%; 2011 – 2.9%) and still failed to return to 2007 levels in 2014 (4.84%). Taken together, the Green Party under Schreiner has lost more ground than the PC’s have since 2007.

Greens may not be as eager as PC’s to bring out the long knives – who, after all, is waiting in the wings to replace Schreiner if he steps down (or if Greens vote for a leadership review in September)? Also, it is absolutely fair to say that Greens don’t believe that our lack of good showing was in any way reflective of our Leader’s efforts or campaign mistakes in the same way that many PC’s (and some New Democrats) view the decisions made by their party leaders. I’d strongly suspect most Greens believe that Schreiner gave it his best shot, and that circumstances have simply conspired to keep Greens out of Queens Park. Again.

Leadership

I like Mike Schreiner. I don’t know that I’ve ever met any Green that’s met Mike and whom doesn’t like Mike. I don’t know that I’ve heard much in the way of negative feedback about Mike, except for general comments about his invisibility – something which I know Mike tries hard to overcome. But let’s face it: Mike has never enjoyed the same sort of profile that Elizabeth May brought with her when she became the Green Party of Canada’s Leader. And even then, it took two heart-breaking electoral losses for May to finally win one for the Greens in 2011.

Putting aside Mike’s likability, however, the question needs to be asked: what can the Green Party of Ontario do in the future to change the sorts of electoral outcomes which Greens have become used to? In hockey, it’s easy for a losing team to fire its coach and expect different results under different leadership. In politics, that’s not always the case (nor is it in hockey, as a matter of fact), yet too many political parties are quick to make those kinds of moves. Green parties, however, often don’t put a lot of credence into Party leadership (recall that Frank De Jong became the party’s first leader over 6 years after the founding of the Party – there’s a reason for that, and its rooted in the consensus culture of Green Parties throughout Canada and the world – a culture which is often at cross purposes with electoral politics in this nation and its provinces), preferring to downplay Leaders and keep their power in check through constitutional and by-law mechanisms. Green leaders enjoy significantly less latitude than the leaders of other parties when it comes to so many of the political tools which other parties leader can employ to change course.

In that context, it’s a lot easier for PC’s and New Democrats to blame their leaders for less-than stellar performances.

Meeting the “Enemy”

So if Greens can’t blame Schreiner for yet another lack of electoral “success”, who do we blame? Actually, the list is quite long – the media, the other parties, the electoral system, etc. Look, it’s easy to point fingers at any and all of these hurdles which the Party has to figure out a way to overcome if we’re going to elect anybody. But ultimately, I think we need to take a very close look at the real levers of power within the party and start pointing some fingers in that direction.

Those fingers, of course, should be pointed right back at us – the members of the Party who make the policy and constitutional decisions about how the Party works and what the Party campaigns on. We the members of the Party are also primarily those who provide are time and financial resources to the success of the Party. We are the ones who step up at election time to be local candidates (or find others to do it on our behalf).

We are the ones who have again failed to connect with voters, after all of our struggling, our financial outlays, our social media use and door knocking. We didn’t do it in 2014. We need to start asking ourselves some tough questions now about what we’re going to do differently in 2018. We can’t sit back and pin all of our hopes on Mike Schreiner to gain a beachhead for the Party in a single riding. We need to start taking some responsibility for dynamic campaigns in our own local ridings. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

The Key to Future Success

In short, we need to start getting better organized. Luckily, we’ve got a pretty good opportunity to do just that coming up in 2015 with the federal election. The trick is going to be holding on to some of the momentum from 2015 should a majority government be returned federally, because that will mean almost three years will go by before Ontarians head to the polls for a general election at the federal or provincial levels.

In this context, it really doesn’t matter who our provincial leader is (although I personally hope that Mike Schreiner decides to stay on for the 2018 election – but I would also understand if Mike decides it’s time to turn over the leadership to someone else, with the hopes that a leadership contest could generate some interest in the Party in advance of the 2018 vote). Our focus now has got to turn to organization – something which Green Parties throughout Canada have been challenged to do effectively. 2015 might help – but what we really need is for our engaged members to recruit a few more engaged members and start building healthy, dynamic and publicly accessible Constituency Associations with the goal of having a vibrant and recognized presence in our communities.

We know that organizing isn’t easy. But it can be a lot of fun. And it’s essential that we engage in this activity in our local communities.

The Green Party of Ontario just doesn’t have the luxury of placing our blame on the shoulders of our leader. We’ve got real work to do, and we’d better start doing it – else we ourselves risk experiencing the definition of insanity which so many of us are keen to share with voters as justification for supporting the Green Party: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 4: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Timely


Candidates running for Council try to distinguish themselves throughout the campaign period by making proposals which, they hope, voters will buy into. Of course, once elected, selling one’s campaign idea to the rest of Council can be a difficult task, especially if those ideas are ones that no one else was talking about during their own campaigns. In 2011, Greater Sudbury Mayor ran on changing the City’s store hours by-law. When she brought her idea forward to council shortly after her election, there was no appetite on the part of Council to consider it.

Some ideas really do have merit – even Matichuk was ultimately able to resurrect the store hours by-law debate after a bit of a public outcry was made. Now, Sudburians will be deciding through a referendum whether we want to amend the by-law.

Some ideas, though, just never catch on with the public or with Council. Maybe they’re too parochial, or limited in application to just one or two wards. In Greater Sudbury, our inner-city / outer-city dynamic often comes into play on certain issues. Consideration of changing Official Plan policies to allow for more expensive-to-service rural residential development comes to mind.

It’s late June, and the municipal election campaign which began on January 2, is more than half over. Although a record number of candidates have thrown their names in the ring, we’ve seen very little in the way of policy proposals being brought forward. Now, it’s true that at least some candidates might have a lot of ideas to share with the City, but little way of communicating them. If you build a webpage, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will come.

Let’s look at four ideas which are being talked about in this election – all four of these proposals are ones which I believe we’re going to be hearing more about as time goes on.

The Good – Ward 1, Matt Alexander - Participatory Budgeting

First-time Ward 1 candidate Matt Alexander has offered up a real winning formula to deal with the City’s much-maligned Healthy Community Initiative (HCI) funds. You may be familiar with the HCI, or “slush” funds - $50,000 in spending a year which incumbent Councillors get to direct towards leisure/community improvement. The funding for community improvement isn’t really the problem – it’s the way that each local ward Councillor gets to dish it out to needy organizations in “their” wards. Some have suggested that the slush fund gives incumbents a $200,000 unfair advantage over other candidates.

Well, Alexander doesn’t have that problem in Ward 1 any longer, now that the voters have Sudbury have sent Joe Cimino off to Queens’ Park. Alexander proposed to keep the HCI funding, but change the way in which it is distributed. While other candidates want to throw out the baby with the bathwater (see: The Bad, below), Alexander wants ward citizens themselves to decide where the money gets spent through a process being used elsewhere in Ontario called “participatory budgeting”.

As Alexander outlined at his campaign launch last night, there no reinvention of the wheel required – something Sudbury voters should take solace in. They’ve been doing participatory budgeting in Hamilton and elsewhere for some time now. If the City believes it is a priority for community improvement funding to be spent equitably in each ward, then it only makes sense for the citizens themselves to make the specific decisions about where and how much.

And finally, unlike changing the store hours by-law, Alexander doesn’t need the buy-in of Council to make this change – at least, not in Ward 1. As long as Alexander adheres to the accountability section of the by-law, and those engaged in participatory budgeting processes follow the funding eligibility criteria, Alexander can lead by example by working with Ward 1 citizens to set up a participatory budgeting process for HCI funds.

For more information about Alexander’s participatory budgeting proposal, you can visit his website.


The Bad – Ward 9, Aaron Beaudry - Subsidizing Doctors

First-time candidate Aaron Beaudry is running in Ward 9. He’s got a completely different take on HCI funding, which, although it tries to address an important issue in the municipality, has got to fall into the “bad” category.

Beaudry’s platform indicates that 1 in 5 Greater Sudburians are currently without a family doctor. Access to timely, professional health care is a very real issue in our community, and it could very well be that the City ought to be doing more in the way of developing a workable strategy to attract and retain health care professionals.

Unfortunately, Beaudry has targeted the community-building HCI funds as his chief means of investing in attracting and retaining doctors. Rather than using those funds to create community infrastructure, like playgrounds, or investing in community organizations which seek to make our City more livable, Beaudry wants to take the entire lump sum and use it to help off-set the relocation costs of doctors and reward them for sticking around.

In short, Beaudry wants to reward rich doctors for making Sudbury their home at the expense of building the kind of community in which doctors, and everybody else, want to live in.

And that’s why the proposal is completely unacceptable. Kudos to Beaudry for recognizing the need to do something about our health care professional deficit, but here’s a failing grade to him for wanting to use $2.4 million (over four years) in money marked for community projects to subsidize wealthy doctors by helping them buy big houses. It’s a bad idea.

The Ugly: Mayor, Dan Melanson - Closing Down Community Arenas

Mean-spirited mayoralty candidate Dan Melanson is fast earning his “anti-family” moniker by promising to cut a slew of public services on which families have come to rely. Along with selling off Pioneer Manor, closing day care facilities and parks, Melanson has also been musing about closing down Greater Sudbury’s many arenas.

“I don’t see that as a core service, frankly – Sudbury Arena, and arenas in general” Melanson mused aloud at his campaign launch event (see: “Melanson opens mayoral bid in with call for leaner government”, the Northern Life, June 20 2014).

Seriously? Melanson, the former head and founder of the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association, is a known hard-right ideologue – but his desire to close down municipal arenas because they aren’t, in his opinion, “core services” dives into territory which even former PC leader Tim Hudak wouldn’t have dared to venture.

Look, arenas are part of the fabric of our community. They are places where children and families recreate. They are part of what makes our community – and any community, for that matter, a better, richer place to live one’s life.

Melanson might eventually temper his stance somewhat – maybe he’ll only advocate that the arenas be sold, rather than simply closed down – but the fact of the matter is that our arenas are not money-making enterprises. They are subsidized by taxes for the common good of our citizens. Private sector owners will not be breaking down the doors to pick up these assets – and even if one or two do get snapped up, rest assured that user fees will go through the roof – and only Melanson and his rich buddies will be able to afford the price of admission.

What’s next for “Grumpy Dan” the ideologue? Will transit and libraries also be on the chopping block, because he deems them not be “core services” and because they don’t make money? Apparently, not making money doesn’t matter so much, as Melanson also wants to end the City’s relationship with our municipal energy and water service provider, Greater Sudbury Utilities. If Melanson gets his way, it’ll be years of non-stop chop at City Hall.

Yet, if you visit his promotional website, you won’t see any of Melanson’s choice items for cutting listed, save for Pioneer Manor, which he obviously has a special hate-on for, given that it is staffed by unionized employees receiving living wages. Thank goodness Melanson likes to blab to the media, else we might never have discovered his anti-arena stance. Let’s wait to see if he speaks out against the Farmer’s Market, dog parks, splash pads and public beaches, too. I hope the media starts asking some of these questions, because it’s clear that Melanson is trying to pull a fast one on the electorate.

Melanson’s putting our community arenas on the chopping block will lead to a colder, diminished Sudbury. It’s a very ugly idea.

The Timely – Ward 10, John Antonioni - Flouride

Ward 10 candidate John Antonioni (who needs to up his online presence if he truly wants to have the chance to make Greater Sudbury a more “livable, affordable and progressive community”) recently tweeted, “MONEY DOWN THE DRAIN Sudbury rate payers pay apprx $200k to add FLOURIDE to water. But less than 5% of that supply is ingested. Is that OK?”

Now, since this was the first that I had heard any candidate muse about wanting to take fluoride out of our drinking water, I questioned Mr. Antonioni back in a twee, asking him if he were going to make this an election issue. The response was clear: it’s his intention to do so. Antonioni cited a number of reasons which motivate him to want to take fluoride out of drinking water, including fiscal reasons related to our infrastructure deficit, and the notion that silicofluoride is a pollutant.

In November, 2011, Mayor Matichuk mused that it was time to have a serious discussion about fluoridation. After revealing that adding fluoride to our drinking water (something that Sudbury has been doing since 1952) cost between $95,000 and $115,000 annually, and that upgrades costing $2.2 million would be needed to continue the practice, Matichuk expressed reservations. “It’s very costly to have fluoride in our system, but there is also potential risk factors to our employees who have to handle the chemical in its pure form. The amount in our water is very minute, but people need to take it upon themselves to be educated on fluoride.” (see: “It’s time to discuss water fluoridation: Matichuk”, the Northern Life, November 28, 2011). Despite Matichuk’s assertion that it was time to have this discussion, she quickly fell silent on the issue and no discussion has ever occurred.

Fast forward three years, and to Ward 10 council candidate Antonioni’s twitter musings. With cities such as Kirkland Lake, Orillia, Windsor and Calgary all voting to remove fluoride from drinking water, the time probably has come for Greater Sudbury to have an adult conversation about fluoride being added to our water. There remains significant debate around the issue of whether fluoride really does provide the public benefit to dental care that has long been claimed. With many unflouridated jurisdictions reporting no statistical difference in rates of tooth decay, Antonioni and others, like Mayor Matichuk before, are on the right track to question whether taxpayer’s money should continue to fund the addition of fluoride to our drinking water. I sincerely hope that other candidates weigh in on this timely issue, because it’s a debate and discussion whose time has come.

Antonioni might face some backlash for bringing this subject up. Certainly, it’s never an easy idea for politicians to champion – especially unelected ones. Kudos to Antonioni, though, for having the courage to bring it up, despite the potential for criticism. That’s what leadership is about.

Now if only he had a website which he could direct the public to for more information on this topic. Pssst! John – and all of you other candidates without a website: get a website. Now. It’s one of those “must have” tools for election. LinkedIn and Twitter just aren’t enough!

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Northern Ontario Could Be Canada’s Biggest Loser from Northern Gateway Decision


The recent federal government approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline may prove to have far reaching consequences for Northern Ontarians, and ultimately may shape the development of the Ring of Fire.

There is little current need for Northern Gateway and other proposed pipelines such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain and Keystone XL . These pipelines are proposed to facilitate the expansion of the tar sands industrial enterprise, something Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and previous Liberal governments, have been pushing.

Successive federal governments have failed to develop a national climate change strategy. Canada doesn’t even have a national energy strategy. Instead, we have a highly politicized Economic Action Plan which puts all of our eggs into a bitumen basket, while ignoring the economic perils which lie ahead when the carbon bubble bursts.

Harper’s Plan calls for a rise in tar sands production from 1.9 million barrels per day (2012) to more than 5 million barrels per day by 2035. In this scenario, Canada’s bitumen will be exported to refineries in Asia and the U.S., where value-added processing will take place. Pipelines must be built to move the bitumen to tidewater ports.

The Joint Review Panel, which recommended approval of Northern Gateway, subject to 209 conditions, didn’t bother to assess greenhouse gas emissions in its report, deeming climate change issues to be beyond its scope of review. The Panel’s report, which the Harper government relied on to approve Gateway, trumpeted the perceived economic benefits of tar sands expansion, while ignoring associated climate-related costs. The Enbridge decision was based on both bad science and bad economics.

At Copenhagen in 2009, the global community, including Canada, committed to holding global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold at which the best available science has warned we dare not exceed. Stephen Harper further pledged to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions 17% from 2005 levels by the year 2020.

Environment Canada data shows that we’re not on track to achieve our emissions reductions target, despite some pretty heavy lifting done by Ontario by ending coal-fired power generation. All of the Canada’s “wins” at reducing emissions have been wiped out by uncontrolled tar sands growth.

Although Stephen Harper doesn’t take the climate crisis seriously, other nations are. Canada’s day of reckoning for our lack of action on curbing emissions is just around the corner. Recently, in Montreal, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, rebuked governments, saying, “We are subsidizing the very behaviour that is destroying our planet, and on an enormous scale” (see: "IMF's Lagarde praises Canada's energy sector, calls for a carbon tax", from canadianmanufacturing.com, June 9, 2014)

When that reckoning comes, regions such as Ontario may be forced to do more than their fair share to reduce emissions in order to offset the tar sands. Energy-intensive industrial projects, such as the Ring of Fire, may be jeopardized in a last-ditch bid to live up to our international commitments. Northern Ontario’s dream of a value-added stainless steel industry built around Ring of Fire chromite may need to be sacrificed so that we can continue shipping raw bitumen to Asia.

A smarter idea would be to slow the growth of the tar sands as part of a national economic and climate strategy. Generous public subsidies to rich multinational oil companies need to come to an end. A real national energy strategy should promote Canada’s long-term energy security, rather than making a quick buck by exporting raw resources.

In a world which finally gets serious about the climate crisis, all of Canada’s regions will find themselves at risk should we continue along our present, dangerous path. Northern Ontario could end up being the biggest loser from Canada’s so-called Economic Action Plan.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, June 21, 2014 online as "May: North Could be Loser in Gateway Approval", without hyperlinks.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 3: Melanson Tears a Page from Hudak's Anti-Family Playbook


With the first day of summer having come and gone, things are starting to heat up in Greater Sudbury’s political arena. On the same day that current Mayor Marianne Matichuk announced that she would not be running again for municipal office, ultra-right-wing candidate (and former Matichuk campaigner) Dan Melanson formally launched his campaign in a media event a Buzzy Brown’s. Melanson, who appears to be helming a well-oiled election machine, is now wearing the mantle of frontrunner, as the campaigns of other high profile candidates, including former Greater Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez, and Ward 5 municipal councillor Ron Dupuis, appear to have stalled. Indeed, Mayor Matichuk claimed that part of her rationale for announcing that she was not seeking re-election was the hope that maybe somebody else would be emboldened to step forward to seek the Mayor’s office. That’s hardly an endorsement of any of the current candidates.

The Conservative Party at the Municipal Level

Not that Melanson seems particularly concerned about receiving Matichuk’s endorsement. Earlier this year, Melanson announced that the organization he has headed now for several years, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers’ Association (GSTA), would directly intervene in the City’s municipal election by hosting all-candidates meetings in each ward, likely focused on the narrow range of small-government issues important to the GSTA. Of course, although masquerading as a citizens group, the GSTA is really little more than the Conservative Party at the municipal level. Since guiding his group forward to directly intervene in the election, Melanson stepped down as its head in order to run for the Mayor’s chair, in a transparent attempt to use the GSTA to stack the deck in his own favour.

In 2011, Matichuk’s campaign out-raised and out-spent any of her competitor’s campaigns – a pretty impressive feat for a candidate who had almost zero local profile in her community. Clearly, a monied machine was backing Matichuk. Likely, many of those involved in her successful bid for Mayor will be backing Melanson this time around. Since money speaks very loudly at elections time, other mayoral candidates are going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Uninspired Campaigning

And it may be an insurmountable one. Since announcing their intentions to seek the Mayor’s Chair earlier this year, both Rodriguez and Dupuis have been invisible. It could be that they’re planning on using the summer bbq circuit to shore up their support, especially with the unions and their potential supporters in the Sudbury and Nickel Belt NDP associations, but right now, their silence has been deafening.

And let’s face it: both Rodriguez and Dupuis are carrying quite a bit of baggage which they’ll have to figure out a way to jettison. Rodriguez in particular has a pretty massive challenge in front of him, after losing the last election to Matichuk, after 4 years in office riddled with questionable decisions and political cover-ups. Rodriguez’s only hope may be that Melanson ends up alienating more voters than he inspires with his hard right-wing anti-family agenda. Rodriguez’s campaign may have to wade into unfamiliar territory and play the fear card – a difficult option for a man who likes to speak positively about his community and Council.

Slash & Burn Politics

But the fact is that there is a lot to fear from Melanson. At his campaign launch, Melanson mused openly about selling off Greater Sudbury’s arena’s and recreational centres (see: “Melanson opens mayoral bid with call for leaner government”, Darren MacDonald, the Northern Life, June 20, 2014). Melanson questioned the need to continue paying for services and programs which municipalities aren’t “mandated” to pay for – although it’s unclear to whom or what Melanson was referring to with the term “mandate” (last I checked, the citizens of a municipality held the ultimate mandate with their votes – but I suspect that Melanson subscribes to a different view of where a council’s mandate comes from). Already, rumours are filtering throughout the City that Melanson and his small-minded GSTA backers want to have a public service fire sale, with everything from arenas to libraries to parks to seniors homes to children’s splash pads potentially on the “to be tossed” list.

Greater Sudbury voters recently saw another politician want to gleefully cut the very public services and programs on which their families relied upon for their quality of life. Melanson, like Tim Hudak before him, seems to relish the idea of handing out pink slips – certainly, during his tenure as the GSTA’s leader, there was no shortage of media releases calling for one or another public servant’s head on a platter. Using the tactics of bullies, Melanson and his crew successfully forced their way onto the municipal agenda, thanks to a compliant media that likes an easy to tell story.

Positives vs. Negatives

And that’s going to be another problem for Rodriguez and Dupuis going forward. Their election narratives will likely focus on the positives in our City, and their desire to build according to shared values and vision. Rodriguez in particular likes to talk about that vision thing at every opportunity. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that – indeed, I’ve always applauded him for doing so. But when your primary opponent has the ear of the media, which is the case with Melanson, trying to get print out of vision becomes that much more of a challenge.

The media likes to play up the game and goes for the stories which are easier to describe. We can expect Melanson and his crew to start slagging Rodriguez and Dupuis with dirty, nasty personal attacks – the moment that Rodriguez and Dupuis decide they really want to be in this game and start seriously campaigning, that is. Greater Sudburians deserve better than the disgusting, personal negative attacks that we’ve seen from GSTA supporters over the past four years (especially in the online comments section of our two newspapers, where the cover of anonymity has led to some pretty vile and truly disgusting remarks almost daily). However, Conservatives know that negative campaigning works – and it’s something at which they excel.

Selling Fear - No Hope Campaigns

Again, though, if the recent provincial election taught candidates anything, it’s that fear sells. Can Rodriguez or Dupuis take on the role of Kathleen Wynne (at least the role she played in the last two weeks of the provincial election campaign), and sell themselves as the anti-Melanson? Can they strike enough fear into the hearts of voters that Melanson’s anti-family slash-and-burn bully approach to municipal leadership will put the entire community at risk?

Melanson certainly likes to fuel that fire, and a like a leopard who can’t change his spots, no matter how often Melanson says that he’s a “consensus builder” his my-way-or-the-highway bull-headed bullying approach to getting want he wants seems to come out (see, “Dan Melanson willing to’butt heads’ with Sudbury council”, CBC, April 9, 2014). In that respect, there should be a lot for Rodriguez and Dupuis to work with, should they start finding their campaigns faltering on the message of "hope".

Melanson: A Cold, Uncaring and Diminished Sudbury

But being up against a candidate who will likely spend over $100,000 to become our next Mayor, who has turned into a media darling, and who has the benefit of a pretty serious campaign machine – well, it’s not going to be easy. Progressive forces in our City ought to take note: while it’s true that the Mayor is just one person on Council, Melanson and other small-minded core-services candidates backed by the GSTA machine are a clear and present threat to our quality of life. Rather than marching boldly into the 21st Century, Melanson wants to take Greater Sudbury back to the 1950s – and maybe even further back than that – to a time where property owners looked after themselves and didn’t give a hoot about community infrastructure which they couldn’t touch, like roads and sewer pipes. If you couldn’t afford to put your kids in hockey, too bad – the response was “get a job” (usually followed the flip of a middle finger).

Melanson’s “vision” of a cold, uncaring and diminished Sudbury is exactly the sort of landscape which progressives have to come together to oppose. An “every man for himself” attitude to municipal governance isn’t what our community needs to collectively face the numerous challenges of the 21st Century. An anti-family, pro-rich trickle-down economic platform would kill many of the worthy community-building initiatives underway in this City, including those related to transit and alternative transportation, enhancing the downtowns of Sudbury and our outlying communities, and enhanced citizen engagement in public processes.

Melanson may be the frontrunner, and he may have a lot going for him over the next several months. He’s going to try to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens (whom he constantly refers to by the belittling term as “taxpayers”). Are Greater Sudburians going to buy what he’s selling? We might end up doing just that unless an invigorated and truly progressive candidate steps up to the plate to oppose him and his small-government tea party.

After all, we’ve already bought it once before.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Prideful Boasts of Non-Participation from Eligible Voters a Troubling Trend for Ontario, Canada

(originally published online as a comment to “Sudbury voters interested in P.C. message: Peroni”, published by the Sudbury Star, June 6, 2014). I’ve decided to publish this comment on my blog, because the issue I’ve discussed is one which is vitally important to me – and one which I continually worry about)

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Thank you, Paula Peroni, for talking about a bit of a disturbing trend which has vocally emerged during this election campaign. We’ve known for a long while that fewer voters are casting their ballots, but what has emerged recently is that an increasing number of citizens are proudly proclaiming that they’ve opted out of our electoral system altogether, almost as if the voting has become a bit of a shameful act – or at the very least, non-participation has become a prideful one.

It’s a very troubling trend, and one that is going to prove hard to reverse moving forward. There are options available, however – but first, those whom we elect have to acknowledge that something has gone terribly wrong with our electoral system. And that’s certainly something that we haven’t been hearing about from any of the old-line parties during this election, despite the numerous media pieces on how the latest polls are now reporting results based on those deemed “likely” to vote. It’s clear that we’ve got a problem – why aren’t the PC’s, Liberals and NDP talking about a solution?

Some of the problem has to do with the idea that political parties and candidates simply aren’t discussing the issues which are important to voters. As political parties have moved to narrow-cast their messages, trading big-picture visionary ideas for retail buffet politics and PR, it’s no wonder that citizens feel that the parties aren’t speaking to them – because they’re not. They’re speaking largely to their base, trying to motivate that base to get out and vote. In our current electoral system, we can elect a majority government with just a small minority of votes. Canada did just that in 2011 when the Conservative Party came to power with a “strong, stable majority” of just 22% of the vote from all eligible voters. In Ontario, our current Liberal government received a mandate of less than 19% from eligible voters.

Paula Peroni suggests that part of the problem is also that many voters believe that they’re votes don’t really count. The reality is, she’s right – most votes don’t count. If you vote PC in Sudbury, your vote doesn’t matter – it’s not going to elect anybody. If you vote NDP in Nipissing, the same is true. In our first-past-the-post winner-take-all electoral system, we dis-incent public participation.

What if we had an electoral system in which every vote really did count? What if you knew, before going into the polling station, that your vote really would make a difference? Would that be something more likely to incent you to vote?

That’s what an electoral system of proportional representation would do – make every vote count. Make your vote matter, even if you don’t pick the winner. Most democracies use this form of election process – certainly, the political parties running in the Ontario election use this process themselves to elect their own leaders. Why, then, has it been left to the Green Party alone to be talking about making this change to our electoral system to better restore health to our ailing democratic processes? Where are the other parties on this?

We can’t continue to ignore this. We believe that by electing governments, the people have consented to give elected officials the right to govern. But can this remain the case when far too many of us are opting out of the process – and in doing so, proclaiming the legitimacy of non-participation? When people feel that they have not consented to be governed, what then? There may be general toleration for a while, but don’t count on its continuation.

When our governments (and those seeking to govern us) behave in anti-democratic ways, we ought not be surprised when the general population begins to lose faith in democracy. Canada is heading down a dangerous road. If we value democracy – and I believe that most of us profess to, including the vast majority of those who will not cast their ballots on Thursday – if we truly value democracy, we need to seriously look into how to make it work better for people. Because it’s pretty clear that it’s not working very well right now.

Good for Sudbury PC candidate Paula Peroni to bring this up in her interview with the Star.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On Ethics, That's a Wrap: Ad Buy Confirms NDP Has Lost Moral Centre

As I was walking along the street today, I turned to take a look at the latest headlines in the newspaper box. To my astonishment, the front page of the Sudbury Star featured a big picture of Andrea Horwarth. Since Horwarth wasn't in town yesterday, I figured that the front page must be covering last night's “chosen” leaders' debate, as unlikely as that seemed. From my own observation, confirmed by most of the political pundits who burst out of the gate last night with their analysis, Horwarth's performance was adequate, but certainly not stand-out – or even the best in last night's debate. What on earth was the Sudbury Star on about with their prominent coverage of Horwarth?

Before going any further, it's disclosure time. I write a monthly environmental column for the Sudbury Star, so I do have a professional relationship with this media organization. The Sudbury Star is a Sun Media newspaper.

OK, back to my blog. After a quick online search of columns and articles published in the Star that day, and finding nothing which would have led to a front page pic of a beaming Andrea Horwarth, my itch of curiosity needed to be scratched, so I picked up a hard copy of the newspaper. Upon closer inspection, I read the headline, “Horwarth leads”, with a graph published below the fold showing that most voters polled indicated that they preferred Horwarth for Premier over Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak.

Strange. What poll was this? Did I, keen political watcher that I think I am, miss a recent poll which would have contradicted virtually every poll in the election? Horwarth's approval rating (38%) as published on the front page below the fold in the Star wasn't significantly higher than Wynne's (32%) or Hudak's (30%), so her “lead” couldn't be the story – certainly not a story to justify the entire front page. In fact, where was the story? There didn't appear to be one at all.

That's a Wrap

And there wasn't. Turns out what I was trying to figure out is what they call a “wrap”: paid advertising which covers the entire front page of a newspaper. When I was growing up, you would never see this kind of thing, but given the financial health of the newspaper industry, “wraps” are becoming increasingly common. Most often, ads are placed over top of the real front page, “wrapping” it like a gift. In today's Sudbury Star, though, the “wrap” was the front page, and the paper didn't publish a regular front page at all. The wrap actually took up both the front page and Page 2, along with the last page. There was also a full page ad buy from the NDP in the middle of the paper.

Ironically, the Sudbury Star reported on the latest leader poll, which showed Horwarth sitting in third place behind Wynne and Hudak, contradicting what was published on their front page. On closer examination, the front page graphic referred to an Ipsos Reid poll from May 22nd – hardly current news in Ontario's 24-hour election cycle.

So what gives? Clearly, the NDP is at it again: taking front page newspaper ad buys in an attempt to deceive voters about today's news. Sorry, I'm calling it as I see it – the NDP's ad buy is an attempt to completely mislead Ontarians about the news. It's reprehensible and it speaks volumes about how low today's NDP have slunk in their effort to confuse and mislead voters.

It's also completely legal and a brilliant campaign move by the NDP. They pulled something like this off earlier in the campaign with the Toronto Sun, purchasing a wrap which showed Wynne and Hudak in a negative light (literally – see this article in today's Huffington Post about the NDP's front page wrap in free Toronto daily Metro, for coverage of today's wrap stories, and a pic of the earlier “Nonsense” wrap: “PC's, NDP Buy Front Page Newspaper Ads For Morning After Debate”, Huff Post Politics, June 4 2014).

PC's Gaming the System Too

If you read the Huffpo article, you'll quickly discover that the NDP wasn't the only political party playing games with Ontario voters today through purchase of a wrap. The Progressive Conservatives too set out to deceive voters by having the front page of the 24 Hours news publication. The PC's at least tried to keep their ad current by trumpeting their belief that Hudak won the debate – although as Huffpo notes, unlike the NDP, the PC's didn't indicate who paid for the ad (and I suspect that omission is going to cause some trouble with Elections Ontario down the road – the Huffpo piece references Elections Ontario rules about political advertising, and clearly says that all ads must identify who paid for them – if what Huffpo is reporting about the 24 Hour wrap is correct, the PC's – if this was their ad buy – have some explaining to do).

Our Expectations of the News Media

Clearly, the front page of our newspapers aren't what they used to be. Ads have been creeping onto front pages for years, and in the past 5 years or so, full page wraps have become, if not common, certainly not unheard of. And that's a problem for citizens who have certain expectations about the mainstream newsmedia – specifically that newspapers should be reporting the news.

Look, I don't like these wraps – but the fact is that newspapers have had to figure out ways to continue to remain relevant in the internet age. Today's ad buy in the Sudbury Star probably cost more than the combined election campaign budgets of the Green Party in Sudbury and Nickel Belt. Needing money to survive, it's no surprise really that newspapers have turned to this sort of advertising. But it is unfortunate, because people just don't expect to see advertising in certain places – like national parks, funeral homes and the front page of newspapers.

The times they are a-changing, as Bob Dylan sang about something completely different. Fact is, advertising is everywhere and we can't base current assumptions on our expectations shaped by past experiences. Critics of those like me who were offended by today's ad buy rightly point out that the wraps were clearly labelled “advertising”, no matter how small the print, and that newspapers have been running ads on front pages for some time. So what's the big deal?

For the newspaper industry, maybe nothing – except for the “big deal” in dollar signs with news media organizations stand to make by selling their front pages. We're going to see more of this before we see less of it – news consumers and those casual headline readers wandering our streets pausing at the paper boxes had just better get used to it.

Ethical Challenges

That being said, expectations persist. Conversations that I overheard today questioned the legality and ethics of these wraps. Clearly, they're legal (when executed properly, as the NDP's wrap in the Sudbury Star seemed to be and the PC's wrap in 24 Hours might not have been). About ethics, though, well, that's a completely different matter.

I took a quick look for some guiding principles which print media organizations use to assist with issues of ethics, and I couldn't seem to locate much which suggested that a wrap identified as advertising was necessarily unethical. If not unethical, it's certainly misleading, and it takes the newspaper publishing industry into a bit of a grey area, in my opinion. But grey is just that – grey. I suspect that a lot more is going to be written about newspapers who engage in the practice of using wraps. I'll move along now to the other issue of ethics.

When Did the Letter of the Law Become Ethical Sign Post?

After closely watching the behaviour of Ontario's three main political parties during this election period, far be it for me to suggest that political parties have anything akin to ethics at all. That's part of a larger trend about obtaining and retaining power. Lately, it seems that there are few ethical political lines which our politicians won't cross, and that the only guide to truly offensive behaviour is the law. In the minds of some politicians, if no laws were broken, what's the problem?

This is just my opinion, of course, but I think that it's one shared by most Canadians: adhering to the letter of the law simply isn't good enough in those we entrust with our votes to represent us in our legislatures. A certain degree of ethical behaviour is expected and required, and when wrong-doings occur, even those within the letter of the law, if the public trust is violated, we expect there to be consequences. These expectations are based on our past experiences and, frankly, on our own personal codes of behaviour and our social mores.

The Democratic Deficit

One of my personal concerns with regards to politics has to do with the health of our democracy. Voter suppression tactics are becoming commonplace in our elections, as political parties narrow-cast their messages to select groups in an effort to game the electoral system by winning a plurality of votes. In our current and archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, that's often enough for a political party to form government, and it leads to absurd situations where a party can govern with a “majority” without having received a majority of votes cast.

In this situation, it's no surprise really that political parties will do what they can to manipulate winning. This includes misleading the public about policy – those of one's own party and especially about those of the other parties – and, lately, about “facts”. It used to be that facts were generally agreed-upon starting points for public policy discussion. Today, increasingly, partisans can't even agree on the facts.

Facts No Longer Facts

Case in point in this election. Tim Hudak's PC's came out with a plan to create “one million jobs” - that's a pretty specific number. When economists and others took a close look at the background information upon which this specific number was based, it quickly turned out that the PC's made a basic error of math – by counting one “person year” of employment as a job, even though a job, if it lasts for more than one year, will consist of several “person years”. After the numbers were crunched, it became clear that the PC's were counting some jobs up to 8 times. So based on their own figures, the PC's “million jobs plan” wouldn't actually create a million jobs.

The PC's, though, have refused to acknowledge the fundamental math flaw in their plan. Even in last night's “chosen” leaders' debate, Hudak repeated that he would create one million jobs in Ontario in 8 years. He even upped the ante by insisting that if he failed to live up to his platform promise, he'd resign on principle. I'm not sure whether Hudak was using the new or old math for this latest promise, but if he can't acknowledge a “fact” which is staring him in the face – and worse, if he can't come clean with Ontario voters about the facts – I'd like to think that most Ontarians won't care what he promises. Hudak's behaviour on the hustings by continuing to repeat a lie of his own making are unethical and a slap in the face to Ontarians. For that, he may end up with a majority government come June 12th.

NDP's Contribution to the Democratic Deficit

Back to today's NDP wrap buy in the Sudbury Star. Clearly, the NDP has slunk to a new low in this campaign in their unethical attempt to mislead voters about the news. Although no laws were broken, the NDP's deception with their wrap buy is another slap in the face to Ontario voters. I say this not just because they selectively chose to highlight the one poll in which their leader Andrea Horwarth was identified as leading in (although that, too, says a lot about the NDP, and a little bit about the dismal state of the current NDP campaign). The thing is, the NDP wrap in the Sudbury Star is a blatant attempt to defraud the voting public – to deliberately mislead them into believing something is “news” when it isn't.

I realize that on the one hand I am being critical of the NDP for their wrap purchase, and not particularly critical of the Sudbury Star for selling its front page to the highest bidder. That might seem like a contradiction. It isn't. While I continue to suggest that the expectations of citizens regarding our print media publications need to change, that does not forgive the unethical behaviour of the NDP as demonstrated in today's wrap buys. Again, there was nothing illegal about the ad buys – but given the existing, current expectations of the public, it's pretty clear that the NDP only bought today's wrap in order to mislead voters.

And the NDP can't even claim that they were trying to communicate something. Talking about a two week old poll and coming to the conclusion that Horwarth was somehow “in the lead” based on that one dated outcome – it's a complete deception. And it's an insult to voters. And it contributes to our democratic deficit and damages our democracy.

Supporters Growing Tired with NDP Antics

Frankly, this kind of tactic isn't really new for the NDP. But it is one which is turning off more and more of their base supporters. A good many of the people whom I spoke with today about the Sudbury Star wrap are people who have supported the NDP in the past. There was nothing positive said about the wrap by anybody – except for me, who argued that it was a brilliant campaign strategy.

And it is a brilliant strategy. If you can't reach or engage voters on your policies or platforms, on the strength of your candidates or your leader, then really you're going to have to engage in deception. Stretching the truth – as the NDP has done in Sudbury with their “promise” to four-lane Highway 69 by 2016 – is just the tip of the iceberg. Advertising which has the sole and only purpose to mislead voters about the NDP's popularity is something different all together, but it's only going to get more common in future election campaigns.

That the NDP would stoop so low to win the Sudbury and Nickel Belt ridings has clearly come as a shock to many NDP supporters (and especially to those who can't countenance their political donations going into the pockets of a loathed Sun Media publication – say what you want, but aside from paid advertising, Sun Media has been no friend to the NDP, ever, period, end of story). It shouldn't. The NDP has been moving away from its core for years, both provincially and federally. It's morphed into a champion of the status-quo, abandoning its principles and values in pursuit of power. It's a party which has lost its moral centre. In an effort to be competitive, the NDP has sold its soul.

Unless it finds its way back, the NDP may become irrelevant by the end of the next decade. After all, does Ontario – or Canada – need two Liberal parties?

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Real Costs of Urban Sprawl Are Unsustainable

When Northern Ontarians contemplate urban sprawl, we may think of homes and businesses creeping up Highway 400 on our drive into Toronto. We may shake our heads at the loss of productive farmland, and wonder how it is that Southern Ontario decision-makers have embraced such an unsustainable form of urban development. As we sit in traffic on the 401, we may feel grateful that in the North, we don’t have to deal with the problems of sprawl that our Southern neighbours face every day.

However, we in the North seem to be equally enamoured with the development form known as “urban sprawl”. We’ve convinced ourselves that there is a demand for low density subdivisions on the fringes of built-up areas. We believe that it’s better for the City to collect taxes from people’s homes than from vacant lands. We justify sprawl because we perceive it to be less costly to build and maintain than new higher density developments in existing areas.

Unfortunately, the arguments in favour of suburban sprawl - demand, tax revenues and development costs – are part of an interconnected myth which too many elected officials throughout the Province continue to subscribe to.

As with everything, it’s important to look at a complete range of costs and benefits before determining whether a project is sustainable over the long term. James Howard Kunstler, author and urbanist, describes the North American project known as “suburbia” as being “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Recent studies which looked at the costs of sprawl in Canada seem to confirm Kunstler’s opinion.

Many believe that suburban development is driven by the market demand of homebuyers. In their October 2013 report, “Suburban Sprawl: Exploding Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations”, Sustainable Prosperity determined the biggest factor for home buyers was the price of a home. Purchasers often favour a home in suburbia which is initially cheaper to buy than a comparable home in a built-up area. However, when long-term costs are factored in, such as the ever-rising cost of vehicular transportation, suburbia begins to look less attractive for a homeowner’s bottom line.

Certainly, suburban homes are far less attractive options for municipal governments, which must extend hard services such as roads, sewer and water lines to new subdivisions. Low density homes hardly ever covers the true costs of servicing, and taxpayers are left to pick up the tab for new roads and pipes. The idea that “development pays for itself” due to higher tax revenue is certainly not what municipalities across Canada are actually experiencing.

Development charges, where they exist at all, often don’t differentiate between urban in-fill and suburban greenfield development. In some parts of Ontario, that’s changing, as municipalities like the City of Kitchener are area-rating development charges. By charging more for costlier-to-service low-density residential, Kitchener’s development charges are helping direct new development to less expensive locations.

Keen to collect new taxes, the real costs of sprawl are often hidden to growing cities. In booming Southern Ontario, municipal decision-makers have relied on increased revenues from new taxes and development charges to keep property tax hikes in check. However, with the pace of growth starting to slow in some of the GTA’s inner suburbs, like the City of Mississauaga, property taxes are starting to rise, as cities look for sustainable ways to pay for infrastructure maintenance.

In Northern Ontario, where tax growth from new development will be modest, it’s even more important that we question the need to build new roads and lay more pipes for development on our urban fringes. We simply can’t afford to continue buying into the myths of sprawl.


(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, May 24, 2014 (online: “May: Real costs of urban sprawl unsustainable", May 24, 2014), without hyperlinks.