Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 8: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly


The Good – Connecting Candidates and Voters

70 candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for 13 seats around the Council table (12 ward councillors and 1 mayor).  Many of these candidates are developing platforms or key messaging with regards to what they feel the priorities are for the City and/or their respective wards.  Many of the candidates have websites which they are using to post this information, along with information about themselves – so that voters have a bit of an opportunity to get to know the candidates.  Some of the candidates are using Facebook to broadcast messages, while others are actively engaging on Facebook with voters.  A number of the candidates are even on Twitter.

For voters looking for information about candidates, the internet has rapidly become the “go to” place. Traditional media can only accomplish so much, and while we’re hearing that a municipal elections website is in the works at Northern Life, and CBC has been profiling some of the candidates responses to surveys, the fact is that social media provides unique opportunities for voters and candidates to interact with one another.

To that end, a number of innovative offerings have sprung up.  One of the first that I noted was Mike Bleskie’s “Sudelec Candidates” list on Twitter.  Here, Mike has been maintaining a list of candidates who are on Twitter.  The “Sudelec” name was chosen as a result of the City of Greater Sudbury tweeting their election updates using the #sudelec hashtag – a hashtag which certainly has not caught on with candidates and Sudbury voters.  Indeed, both the #sbypoli and #Sudbury hashtags appear to contain just as many election-related tweets as #sudelec, which means that those tweets are that much harder to find (note to readers: I am only tweeting election-related tweets using the #sudelec hashtag).

Not many Sudburians are taking advantage of this fantastic resource – as of today, the List has only 9 subscribers (I’m two of them, along with a stuffed turtle).  Mike has added 39 accounts to the list, of which as many as 34 may actually be candidates in the Greater Sudbury election (Mike needs to do a little house-cleaning to remove the accounts of those who have left the race, or those, like “SudburysNextMayor”, who never joined).  Unfortunately, although Mike Bleskie is himself a candidate, Twitter doesn’t allow the account of a list-maker to be included in the List.

Over on Facebook, there’s a really great group called “Meet the Votes of Wards 5, 6 & 7”, where Facebook users can (and do) interact with some of the candidates running in these words.  Since success breeds success, a new “Greater Sudbury’s 24/7 Online Candidates and Voters Debate” group has sprung up, ostensibly for all Council races in the City, although it’s not yet developed the popularity of the “Meet the Voters” group, which was advertised considerably in the very popular Valley East Facebook group (2,500 + members).

The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury has developed its “Sudbury Candidates” website, where candidate information and platform/messaging about issues critical to the City can be found.  This website also provides an updated calendar of election-related events which are taking place around the City.

Offline, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association has announced that it will be hosting all-candidates debates in each of the City’s 12 wards (which will be taped and uploaded to YouTube), while 3 mayoral forums are planned.  The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, ReThink Green and Citizens Climate Lobby have partnered with a number of other community-based groups to develop a citizen-driven “Good Green Questions” survey for candidates, which is being followed up with their Good Green Town Hall for mayoral candidates on Wednesday, October 1st at 6 PM at St. Andrews Place (ward candidates have also been invited to table in the foyer prior to the mayoral candidates forum).  Friendly to Seniors is hosting a form on Thursday, October 9th at 1:30 PM at the Parkside Centre.  And, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce is holding its debate on Wednesday, October 15th, 7:30 PM at the College Boreal Concert Hall).

Connecting candidates to voters, who are very busy with their own lives, can be extremely challenging, especially in this day and age when the mainstream media lacks the resources to focus on municipal election issues.  That being said, opportunities like the ones I’ve listed above abound – but let’s face it: not everyone is an active user of social media, including many of the candidates who have stepped forward.  Indeed, some of the candidates have provided very little contact information at all, and voters must be left scratching their heads about how to get in touch with them to ask questions.  Interestingly, there are seven incumbents running to be returned to their seats at the Council table (in Wards 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11 & 12) – of these 7, only 4 have provided phone numbers, 3 have identified email addresses, and only 1, newly-minted Ward 8 Councillor Al Sizer, has bothered to put up a website.

If candidates aren’t serious about connecting with voters through the many ways that we now all connect with one another in this day and age, I think that’s a pretty good sign to voters to give those candidates a pass at the ballot box.

The Bad – Transit

This past Sunday, Friends of Sudbury Transit challenged all municipal election candidates to join them downtown at 1:30 to discuss transit issues.  To get downtown, the Friends suggested that candidates ride the bus, in order to better experience issues related to transit, especially those issues unique to Sunday’s reduced level of service.

What a great idea!  While I ride the bus almost every day, I don’t often ride it on Sundays.  I thought that maybe I’d use the Friends of Sudbury Transit’s opportunity to try things out for myself – and to experience Greater Sudbury Transit’s stroller policy.  In advance, I chose a stop close to the downtown – on Riverside Drive – to catch the bus with my three kids.  I started planning this outing on Thursday, last week – finding information at the bus depot about the route along Riverside Drive.  Turns out there are two routes: the 501 Regent/University and 819 Copper/Four Corners.  The 501 heads west along Riverside from Broadway, while the 819 goes east from Broadway.  They alternate every 15 minutes during the day.  So there’s pretty good coverage along that corridor, especially close to Broadway.  And that’s one of the reasons why I chose that stop – that and my wife could drop me and the kids off there on her way to work – and if for some reason we missed the buses, we could still probably walk to the depot before the candidates dispersed.

After looking into matters a little further, it quickly became apparent that neither of these buses actually runs on Sunday.  I would need to rely on the 502 Regent/University/Four Corners hybrid route to get downtown.  According to the bus schedule, the 502 would be arriving at the “SRH Memorial Site” at 1:00, and then at the downtown bus depot at 1:15 – 15 minutes early for us to wait for the event (which is just on the edge of acceptable when travelling anywhere with 3 kids four and under).

First off, I had to figure out what the heck “SRH Memorial Site” is, as listed in the Transit Schedule.  Turns out that’s an old reference to the Sudbury Regional Hospital Memorial Site – something that the building at York and Regent hasn’t been for a number of years (it’s now the Health Sciences North Sudbury Outpatient Centre).  Why the 2014 transit schedule continues to refer to the name of a building that it no longer has is beyond me.  Certainly, it created some unnecessary confusion with this frequent transit user (although probably no more than those riders of the 703 & 704 Valley buses who may be perplexed about the “Grill Marks Bistro” stop just north of Valleyview, but I digress).

OK, so if the 502 bus is going to be at Regent and York at 1:00, and downtown at 1:15, it should be arriving at Riverside and Broadway sometime between those two times.  Factor 5 minutes for an early arrival, and chances are the bus would show up around 1:05.  I figured if we were at the bus stop at 1:00 PM, we should be fine.

Wrong.  We showed up at a little before 1.  With my oldest daughter at my side, and the two youngest kids were in the double-length (not double-wide) stroller – which should be acceptable to Transit – we waited for 20 minutes for the bus to arrive.  It didn’t.  And it began to rain.

Dashing as fast as four-year-old legs could go, we raced for the underpass to get out of the rain.  Eventually, we made our way to the bus depot, where after checking that I hadn’t misread the schedule, I noticed that the candidates were gathered across the road (I guess out of concerns about campaigning on municipal property – but that’s another blogpost), so I ventured across Cedar Street with three damp and cranky kids.  We didn’t stay long.

(Note: that picture isn't from a grade 9 science project. It's the one and only transit schedule available to transit riders at our bus depot. Yes, there are 160,000 + people in Greater Sudbury, and this is the best that we can do for transit riders. Admittedly, the online Schedule is much better, although still convoluted. There used to be a publication available for riders, but it's since been replaced with individual photo-copied pamphlets, many of which aren't available for certain routes at any given time - including for me the 501 and 502 route).

Back to my story. Now, I realize that I could have whipped out my cellphone and called to find out when the bus would actually be arriving, by giving the number of the stop plastered on the transit sign beneath which we waited.  I guess I could have done that – and maybe I would have taken that action if I had the faintest idea what the phone number for Greater Sudbury Transit was.  I guess I could have looked up the phone number while standing in the rain with three kids – but I had checked the schedule just a few days before, in preparation for going to this event.  Could I have messed it up that badly?

Or was I in fact experiencing one of those Sunday transit headaches so often experienced and recounted by members of the public who rely on our transit system for their mobility?  I mean, I’ve been a regular user of the bus for a number of years, most recently the 703.  I have come to expect that the bus is often delayed – and that, every now and then, it arrives early (when I was taking the 006 West End bus, I can remember running down one street and up the next to catch the bus which I had just witness blow through my bus stop, as it made its circuitous way through my neighbourhood).

Truthfully, I have no clue whether the bus was early or if it just didn’t come at all.  Either way, I was one irritated transit rider (well, irritated pedestrian, as it turned out).  But I wasn’t relying on transit to get me to my job or to an important meeting, the way that so many others do on Sundays.

Being a frequent transit rider, it’s my observation that we’ve got a pretty good transit system, which I’ve typically experienced to be reliable in getting me from home to work.  That being said, I have often protested that I am at the whims of a transit service which has remarkably little flexibility – and that if I have missed my bus (which I have on more than one occasion), I may have to wait as long as two hours for the next one to arrive.

That's not to suggest that there isn't a lot of room for improvement. Ridership has been steady, if declining somewhat, over the past few years. And although an adult fare is now a costly $2.85 per ride, each ride taken by transit user is subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of $1.96 – projected to increase over time due to rising operating costs. Rising costs, increasing fares and declining ridership are hardly the place that we want to be in if the goal is to create a truly sustainable public transportation system for the City. Check out this pic for some details about recent transit trends in the Greater City.

Transit is certainly making its presence felt as an issue in this election. I've seen a lot of talk from candidates about the need to improve the system, expand routes, provide more service – but I've yet to see anyone address how they intend to do all of these things. The fact of the matter is that our City has been designed in a way which frankly does not facilitate public transportation in any significant way, and with only modest growth projected over the next 20 years, it's going to be very difficult to provide better service to low-density and sprawling areas, particularly in our outlying communities.

If candidates who are serious about transit want to steal these ideas, I encourage them to. Promoting densification of our built form through intensification and redevelopment and through the promotion of additional rental units in existing houses would be a good start for supporting transit. Providing a better alternative to driving means prioritizing transit in our public spaces, such as on our roads. This can be accomplished through creating high occupancy vehicle lanes on major corridors for car pooling and buses. Charging more for parking than for a transit pass in our downtown core would be another way to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Encouraging commercial users to pass along the real costs of parking to the public through user fees would be another way to make transit more attractive and single-occupancy vehicles less attractive. Reducing fares for transit would also be a great idea, complimenting these other initiatives.

In the City of London, they've looked at creating a sustainable public transit system as an investment in the City's future(see: "City transit an investment, not an expense", London Free Press, September 12, 2014). London's system has a different set of issues than does Greater Sudbury's: it's not keeping up with demand. They've hit upon the notion of rapid transit corridors to assist with the job of moving people quickly from various high-volume hubs. In fact, London has made rapid transit a "cornerstone" of its Transportation Plan, which will inform the creation of land use planning policies in its municipal Official Plan. Here in Greater Sudbury, we've completely missed that boat, with yet another 5 year review of our Official Plan underway, reliant on a Transportation Plan which inexplicably doesn't even look at public transit. And that's just incomprehensible.

Of course, realistically, no one is going to promise to make driving more difficult by encouraging users to pay their fair share. And that's the reason why, realistically, our transit system is not going to meet our future needs. With fuel prices only increasing, and fewer Sudburians choosing to drive (already, one third of Greater Sudburians don't have full-time access to a vehicle), it seems apparent that other hard decisions are going to have to be made. That may mean cutting and discontinuing routes which aren't viable in favour of those where ridership levels find themselves on the rise. Of course, this is likely to pit inner-city residents against those in the outlying areas, and therefore they won't be easy ones to make politically. Having an actual stragey focusing on sustainability might be a starting point, but it seems that we're far from even thinking along those lines.

*Sigh*

Anyway, kudos to Friends of Sudbury Transit for organizing this event (which they’ll be repeating on Sunday, September 28th, for the benefit of candidates that were unable to attend).  A lot of candidates took the Friends up on their challenge – and it was nice to meet a few candidates in person after only having interacted with them online.

The Ugly – The Gender Gap

What on earth has happened here in Greater Sudbury?  With one of the busiest fields of candidates ever stepping forward in the City – 70 candidates for 12 Wards and the Mayor’s chair in total – why on earth is it that only 7 out of 70 candidates are women?  What is going on?

I’m actually completely baffled by this.  I realize that men typically outnumber women in Canadian elections.  At federal and provincial levels, all of the mainstream political parties have implemented strategies of one form or another to better achieve parity between men and women standing for office.  Without political parties at the municipal level, it’s basically every man for himself – and in this Greater Sudbury election, that’s almost literally the case with only 10% of the candidates being women.

It may be easy to suggest that the poisoned political environment has turned many women off of seeking a place on Council – but that would also be true of many male candidates.  I can’t chalk this up to a poisoned environment, however.  I just don’t know what has happened that’s led to this circumstance.  I’m completely baffled – and upset.

I guess if there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that many of the women who have stepped forward as candidates are quite likely to end up on Council, giving the gravity that they are bringing to the campaign.  Ward 4’s Evelyn Dutrisac and Ward 12’s Joscelyne Landry-Altmann, both Council veterans, stand a good chance of being returned to Council on October 27th.  Further, Ward 10’s Mila Wong and Ward 11’s Lynne Reynolds, are also experienced members of Council who will challenge the other candidates in those wards to step up their games.  And in Ward 9, two strong first-time competitors are facing off against each other: Deb McIntosh and Lin Gibson.

This means that there could be as many as 5 women occupying council seats after the October election (I don’t have any confidence that Jeanne Brohart is going to end up in the Mayor’s chair), which still isn’t quite representative of the gender composition of our community, but it’s a lot better than 10%.  That being said, it’s certainly not a given that there will be any women at the Council table over the next four years – a circumstance which I would find quite unbelievable in this day and age.  In fact, I would find it a truly embarrassing and ugly situation for our City to find itself in.

(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, September 12, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 7: Candidates & Voters, Making Connections

With a record number of candidates seeking positions on our municipal Council, it’s going to be very difficult for voters to find out information regarding whom to cast their ballots for. In the past, our mainstream media used to play the role as the primary source of voter information, but over the last decade, the mainstream media has found itself backing out of covering local issues, due to the changing nature of media with the rise of online and social media, and the scaling back of traditional media use. Simply put, fewer people are reading newspapers, watching television and listening to the radio. If you’re reading my blog, there’s a good chance that your own “go to” media source is probably found online – which has become problematic for a mainstream media without a good financial model for capitalizing on this trend.

Younger voters in particular are increasingly turning away from mainstream media. With fewer people watching TV, listening to radio, or buying newspapers, our local media really has begun to scale back. With limited resources, local coverage is often the first to go, creating a vicious cycle.

So, what’s a voting public, hungry for information, to do?

Name Recognition

Studies have shown that name recognition is one of the biggest factors which voters use in determining whom to vote for. At the federal and provincial levels, party affiliation often takes the place of name recognition – people cast their ballots for a particular party, or maybe based on the leader of a party. The pull of local candidates often isn’t significant for voters, unless the local candidates themselves are recognizable in their communities.

At the local level, however, in absence of political parties publicly lending their names and logos to affiliated candidates, getting one’s name out to the public can be challenging. Candidates who are already recognizable to a segment of the public therefore start with huge advantages – and that’s why at the municipal level, the best predictor of winning is incumbency. People are familiar with a candidate who is already on Council, and therefore under most circumstances, there is an increased likelihood that they’ll cast their ballot for incumbents.

That scenario might not be at play in Greater Sudbury’s municipal election this time around. Certainly, if I were an incumbent, I wouldn’t be relying on my name recognition alone to have the voters return me to office – although even I believe that our incumbents are starting with an advantage in terms of name recognition (and I’m predicting that a good number of them will, in fact, be returned to office).

Spending Money

Non-incumbent candidates, then, have to rely on other means to “get the word out” to voters that they’re even in the race. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the best means available for them to do so appears to be advertising. And that costs money. With campaign spending capped at a certain level (dependent upon the number of electors eligible to vote), what we end up with are relatively low spending limits for those running for Council at the ward level (maybe around $10,000 – which can be spread out over as much as 10 months, if a candidate registered on January 2nd), and much higher limits for those running for Mayor (Marianne Matichuk, Greater Sudbury’s current Mayor, spent about $150,000 on her campaign in 2010, about twice as much as the next highest spender).

In short, money buys exposure. If you’ve got money in your campaign pockets, you’re ahead of the game. Money clearly had an impact on our City’s mayoral race in 2010 – it may end up having the same impact this time around, too.

What ends up happening, of course, is that the focus on municipal elections comes down to the mainstream media looking at only those candidates capable of buying recognition. Those in the media believe that if a candidate is serious, they’ll be able to raise money to run. Non-serious candidates will raise much less money. Serious candidates get the coverage – non-serious candidates don’t. Therefore, seriousness is equated with spending money – and the vicious cycle of consumer-driven politics continues.

And at the ward level, unless a candidate can somehow demonstrate that seriousness in another way (hampered as they are by spending limits), they’re going to garner little coverage from a mainstream media already stretched to the limits of its own dwindling resources, and who may also have concerns about providing equitable coverage for all ward races. In short, if you’re running to be a Ward Councillor, the mainstream media isn’t going to give you a lot of exposure – and therefore voters really can’t rely on the mainstream media to be of great assistance.

Social Media

So how does a ward candidate gain exposure? Some believe that the rise of social media is starting to change things. Maybe it is – but I’m certainly not going to bet on it. The really innovative tools of social media are only being embraced significantly by younger people – the very same people least likely to vote, especially in municipal elections. Social media sites from the previous decade, like Facebook, which have a higher number of middle-aged users, are really only marginal vehicles for candidates to get the message out. Ditto for websites, to which traffic must be somehow driven. That being said, having your own website, Facebook page or group has become a standard hallmark of how serious an election candidate is. Frankly, if you’re not on Facebook, or if you don’t have a website, you’re not serious about communicating with the public – even if you do manage to get yourself elected.

Note to those candidates who don’t use email: I’m just appalled. Email is a 20th century communications technology. It’s basic. Are you relying on the telegraph or fax machine to get your message out?

Wesbsites and social media clearly aren’t the right vehicle at this time for low-profile candidates to get their messages out, even if they do need to form a basic part of one’s campaign. So, what is the best way for a candidate to grow their name recognition?

The best way is also the hardest way. Earn it.

Door Knocking

Knocking on doors and making real, personal connections with voters is the best way to earn recognition. Having conversations with voters, maybe several at a time, over coffee or whatever, also helps. When you make a positive personal connection with a voter, chances are that voter is going to pass along that impression to other voters. Knocking on doors is essential – and those candidates who registered to run back in January AND who started knocking on doors at the same time will be the ones who are already demonstrating their advantage over other candidates.

Of course, we all know that most candidates have only recently started door-knocking, even those who did register much earlier in the year. Why they’ve surrendered this opportunity for advantage is beyond me. Well, no, it’s not actually beyond me – I know very well why. Knocking on doors is hard. And it can be downright depressing – especially when voters give you feedback that they’re not interested in hearing about yet another election campaign – one which is many months away, too.

Persistence in the face of opposition, though, has a big return. It’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to win when nobody knows who you are.

Signs

The second best way of getting your name out there is to advertise. With limited budgets, there’s really only one way for ward candidates to do that – and that’s through election signs. As much as these signs are annoying and create a form of visual pollution which irritates citizens to no end, they are also largely tolerated by a voting public which recognizes the limited opportunities which candidates have to get recognized.

Signs create the perception of campaign momentum. As they are seen by members of the travelling public, they begin to imprint themselves in the minds of voters. When voters see a lot of signs belonging to a particular candidate, even when voters aren’t consciously thinking about it, those signs begin to register. Candidates who have fewer signs risk voters subconsciously dismissing them as serious candidates (because the visual cues are largely missing) and consciously as well (“Where are John Dough’s signs? I don’t see any so he can’t be serious).

Sometimes candidates opt not to use signs, for whatever reason (often, environmental reasons are given). While it may be that incumbents can get away with this approach (did Hazel McCallion use signs at all in her last half dozen or so elections?), good luck to those relatively unknown candidates who don’t want to use signs out of fear that they generate waste. My advice is that while I share your noble ideals, they would be easier to implement with you on the inside of the corridors of power, rather than on the outside, where you’re far more likely to find yourself after election day. Take note, Greens – signs are a necessary evil. Just please try to recycle them.

Signs – Placement

In short, signs are a pretty good proxy for doing some of the hard work needed to get elected. Why only some? Well, coming by some sign locations can be fairly easy. Is that a sign from one of your competitors on a commercial property? Call up the property owner, who might not even be able to vote in your ward, and ask their permission to put up one of your signs too, out of the interests of equity. Or maybe some candidates just put up a sign anyway, knowing that they’re running the risk of the property owner’s wrath – if they bother to check whether they might have given you permission to put one up or not when there are signs for Mayor, a half dozen councillors and a hand full of school trustees littering a narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and a parking lot.

Those commercial properties often have good visibility to the travelling public – and they’re easy wins. But for keen observers, it’s the signs on lawns which often tell a more important story. Those lawns are owned by voters who are actually liable to vote – they’ve gone through effort of deciding to publicly support a particular candidate. Those signs represent real votes – and often are the result of the up-front investment of time a candidate has made knocking on doors.

Oh Yeah – Issues!

Oh – what about the issues? Don’t voters want to hear about the issues? Isn’t your stance on the ombudsman or healthy community funds important? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s good to have stances on issues of local importance, and it’s even good to have a few more fully fleshed out ideas about what you’d like to do should you become Councillor (a good plan is to take a position on a matter important in your ward and add some structure to how you would make it work – or, more easily, oppose something that’s not wanted – as an aside, here’s an example of that from Ward 10 candidate Hannu Piironen, opposing a downtown casino for Ward 10: “Ward 10 candidate comes out against casino”, the Sudbury Star, September 12, 2014).

Some candidates believe that they’ve got to take positions on everything. I’d suggest that while it’s a good idea to have some ideas to campaign on, candidates are wise to do a lot of listening to voters when they’re knocking on their doors, rather than telling voters what they would do about every little issue. When you listen, you connect with people. Telling voters your plan often sounds a little dictatorial – and if voters take issue with even a small part of your comprehensive program, they may very well opt to be dismissive of it in its entirety.

As a member of the Green Party, I happen to know a thing or two about this. How often have I heard, “I love your policies on the environment and health care and trade – but that marijuana policy just turns me off. I can never support you.”

Pulling a Hudak – Playing Fast & Loose with Facts & Figures

But if you are going to talk policy, make sure that you’ve got it straight. It’s fine to tell someone that you want to do such and such a thing, but if you don’t know how you’re going to do it, or how you’re going to pay for doing it, you’re going to run into trouble quickly. Or, if you tell voters that you’ll do something that you actually can’t do, it really shakes your credibility. By way of example of the latter, Mayoral candidate Dan Melanson has already run afoul by claiming he’d use municipal bonds to fund needed watershed studies – something which legislation says quite clearly he can’t do. When you make this kind of mistake, voters can’t help but wonder if you’re deliberately trying to mislead them, or just incompetent – not a choice that you want voters to have to make about you.

Playing fast and loose with numbers and statistics is also very problematic and should be avoided. Look at what happened to Tim Hudak with his made-up job creation numbers. If you want to cost your platform, go ahead – but use the best available data, cite your sources, list your assumptions, and be ready to be challenged – because you will be! Don’t pull a Hudak.

Listening to Voters and Sticking to Messages

As much as it pains me to write this, your policy and platform aren’t going to get you elected, no matter how well-thought out it is, or how much work you’ve put into it. A much better use of your time is, well, knocking on doors and making those personal connections with voters – and inviting them to put up one of your signs. Even people like me who live and breathe that policy stuff often find themselves swayed by personal connections made at the doorstep or at a coffee shop or in a friend’s kitchen.

In 2008, Stephen Harper famously ran a federal election campaign on just 5 points – 4 of which nobody can remember, and the 5th being to cut the GST by 2%. In 2010, Marianne Matichuk ran for Mayor on just three points: more flexible shopping hours, a line-by-line budget review and, “I’m not John Rodriguez”.

For Candidates

To candidates I say, stick to your core messages, deliver them well, and listen. Get your signs up wherever you can. And keep knocking on doors. With all of the candidates in the race in your ward, you could win this thing with only 25% of votes cast – so something like 13-15% of eligible voters in your ward, thanks to our archaic first-past-the-post voting system.

For Responsible Voters

To voters looking for information, I suggest that you scope your investigations to those candidates who seem to be taking the election seriously – and while this might still be the majority of candidates, it’s certainly not everybody. Don’t rely on the mainstream media for your information (and don’t bemoan the lack of information they’re providing – they’ve got a lot of issues of their own) . Signs can tell you where campaign momentum might be coming from, but they tell you nothing more than the theoretical popularity of a candidate.

There are good sources of information out there online which might help you decide how to vote. Visit the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury’s “Sudbury Candidates” website – they’ve distilled candidate responses on a range of issues there. Also, check out conversations on Facebook Groups such as the innovate “Meet the Voters of Wards 5, 6 and 7” – a group where voters can throw questions out there, and candidates who are active on Facebook can respond.

Visit the websites of candidates in your ward - most probably have them. If there’s something that you want to explore further, send them an email and see what they say in response. If you like what you hear, consider taking a sign – while your vote on election day is going to be a big help, I hope that after reading this post you would agree that signs are very important to ward candidates.

Yes, all of this takes time – and it would be so much easier if we could just read about candidates in the media. The media, though, will always have its own bias, which favours what they perceive to be the front runners. Keep in mind that voting is a responsibility and as such, probably should involve a little bit of personal investment on your part. I know that since you’ve read this blogpost up to this point, that you’re very capable and able to put some of your time into finding out more about the candidates running in your ward – or at least about those candidates who have made an effort.

And if a candidate knocks on your door – please take the time to talk to him (spoiler alert: for me, that’s the real story of our municipal election here in Greater Sudbury – the fact that 9 out of 10 candidates who are likely to knock on your door are men – more on this appalling development later). That personal connection might ultimately be what informs how you vote – and it also may very well inform how a candidate who listens to voters ultimately represents their views and opinions.

(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, September 5, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 6: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly & the Simply Magical!

Welcome to Part 6 of an on-going series devoted to my latest hobby: municipal election watching! Note that the "Ugly" section of the original post (September 5, 2014) has been updated based on feedback I've received (updated: September 9, 2014)

The Good: Dan Melanson’s Campaign

The municipal election campaign kicked off on January 2nd, although it took some time for the current compliment of Council-seekers to collectively enter the race. A 10 month electoral period is a long time, and brings with it both advantages and disadvantages. Campaigns have to figure out how best to harness their energies. Do you go big early and risk losing momentum to other candidates later on? Or do you keep your cards close at hand and play them only when you believe the public’s attention is focused on the election?

There’s really no conventional wisdom on this issue, but there are some rules of thumb which are often followed. First, if you’re relatively unknown to the general public, it’s often best to get yourself out there as early and as often as possible. Those candidates who registered to run in early January had an advantage over the ones who have just registered last week. Have they used it well? Have they been out knocking on doors, meeting with their neighbours and neighbourhood associations? Have they been identifying their supporters, taking sign requests, recruiting volunteers and campaign contributions?

Of course, sometimes unknown candidates can do quite well without doing any of these things until the last minute. Look at Marianne Matichuk, who registered to run for Mayor on the day that nominations closed. Of course, she had two advantages which worked in her favour, even though she was relatively unknown by the general public: first, she faced a pretty lacklustre field of competitors – an incumbent who carried significant baggage, and a council member who just didn’t inspire voters. Two, she had money – lots of it. When it was all tallied up, her campaign spent close to $150,000 – more than twice that of John Rodriguez, who finished second.

Dan Melanson doesn’t have the same profile as many of his competitors for the Mayor’s chair. Clearly, though, Melanson has been doing the things that a candidate for Mayor should be doing if they are serious about winning. Melanson has inherited the machine which put Matichuk into the Mayor’s chair in 2010 – there can be no doubt that he will be running a well-funded campaign. Money matters – and although it may be the most important part of a campaign, it’s not the only important part. Knowing how best to spend the money helps, too. And having some policy proposals to hang one’s hat on are probably a good idea, too, but as with Marianne Matichuk’s 2010 campaign, these proposals don’t need to be more than a few bullet points in length (and it pains me to write that).

Melanson, though, has been initiating conversations in our community about ideas – not just policy proposals either (although he has had a few of them, such as eliminating tipping fees at our municipal waste facilities). His announcement in August regarding bringing an aerospace industry to Greater Sudbury really falls more in the “idea” category than policy. And recently, Melanson has been musing about eliminating development charges in our City, although he’s not yet committed to championing the idea (at least not that I’m aware of).

As a candidate, sticking to ideas is probably a better way to go than putting out very specific policy planks. Policy can be easily dismissed, even by those who are generally in favour of the outcome, when people get hung up on the details. Ideas aren’t nearly as easily written off, because they lack specificity, and lend themselves more towards conversations and engagement. You may not like a particular idea (for example, I’m not at all a fan of reducing/removing development charges), but the fact of the matter is, here I am writing about the idea and attaching Melanson’s name to it. Based on Oscar Wilde’s imminently relevant assessment for Society, which has considerable application for political candidates (“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”), Melanson wins.

Melanson’s ideas have gained more media exposure than his competitors have. They are also resonating more with the public, because some of the ideas/policy proposals, such as ending tipping fees, will directly impact people in a way that lobbying provincial and federal governments won’t.

Melanson has also run a fairly positive campaign so far, emphasizing both big ideas (aerospace) and little ideas (such as videotaping all in-camera meetings of Council for record-keeping purposes – an activity long championed by Provincial Ombudsman Andre Marin), as well as his leadership qualities (leadership being something which no Mayoral candidate can afford to ignore). There may be some negativity coming up, but the election dynamic has taken an interesting turn now that Auditor-General Brian Bigger has entered the race.

So far, Bigger’s strategy seems to be focused on his opposition to the day-to-day workings of City Hall, and the accountability (or lack thereof) of Council. Clearly, this strategy puts mayoral candidates John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis in the firing range, given their current and past involvement with Council. If Bigger remains focused on this strategy (and I don’t think he will), it may allow Melanson to take the high road. While Bigger fights history, Melanson will be able to point to himself and say “I’ll rise above all of that – here’s what I’ll do as your Mayor going forward.” And that’s a compelling narrative for voters.

Although I continue to believe that Dan Melanson as Mayor would be an unfortunate choice for our City, I can’t fault him for doing what he needs to do to become that person. Melanson is running a winning campaign – he’s been running it since the day he entered the election, probably even since before that. If I’ve one quibble to make, it’s with regards to the rather sinister-looking election signs which have popped up en masse throughout the City over the past week. Black election signs should be avoided by all candidates, period. But that’s a pretty minor point, I think.

The Bad: John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis Staying in the Mayor’s Race

So, if Dan Melanson’s campaign is the “good”, then the “bad” has to be the campaigns of mayoral candidates John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis. Dupuis registered to run for Mayor in March, while Rodriguez threw his hat back in the ring this past May. Aside from a few statements from Rodriguez, both he and Dupuis have been largely invisible since entering the race. Yes, Greater Sudburians are a lot more familiar with both Rodriguez and Dupuis than we are with all of the other mayoral candidates – but in this election, that’s not necessarily an advantage.

Rodriguez, the incumbent Mayor, ran and lost the Chair’s seat in 2010 by a healthy margin to a political newcomer who, despite being well-financed, had a number of challenges to overcome (and again, I can’t help but suggest that somebody in the know really should write a book about how Marianne Matichuk became our Mayor in 2010, because the campaign which led to her election was brilliant). In short, what I’m getting at is voters rejected Rodriguez in 2010 – what’s the compelling reason for voters not to do the same now?

Rodriguez was openly musing that he was going to run for Mayor as long ago as the fall of 2013. Say what you want about Rodriguez, given his past electoral successes as Mayor and, before that, as federal MP, Rodriguez commands respect in a way that few Greater Sudburians do – and with that respect comes access: access to the media, access to organizations (and their infrastructure), access to information. Yet, since joining the race in May, Rodriguez has done very little to provide voters with anything resembling a compelling reason to vote for him this time around. Essentially, he’s squandered 4 months and will now have to play catch-up to Melanson, and face an unknown in Brian Bigger.

And if John Rodriguez has done little since entering the race, Ron Dupuis has been all but invisible. It may very well be that both Rodriguez and Dupuis have been quietly working away on their campaigns, behind the scenes, building up their war chests and getting ready to unleash some sort of shock and awe campaign with which to overwhelm the media and the voting public.

But probably not.

Dupuis signs are starting to crop up throughout the City in a way that Dan Melanson’s signs aren’t – which is to say, they are few and far between, and hardly indicative of electoral shock and awe at play. Yet, they are signs of life nonetheless, although maybe more accurately they are signs of a campaign on life support.

If Dupuis and Rodriguez were in classic frontrunner campaigns, their silence on issues might be expected (the Justin Trudeau campaign model). However, if Dupuis and/or Rodriguez think that they’re the frontrunners in this election by virtue of both having been on Council (experience lacking in all of their competitors), well, let me just say politely that’s not the case.

The Dupuis and Rodriguez campaigns aren’t the “bad” per se. What the “bad” is has more to do with the fact that both candidates appear to have made the decision to stick around in this election, after Brian Bigger announced that he would be seeking the Mayor’s chair. Given where Bigger has been going with his election strategy so far, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both Rodriguez and Dupuis will find themselves playing defense far more often than they’ll get a chance to play offence. If one were an incumbent Mayor, it might not be so bad to run on one’s record, even a controversial one. But Dupuis, although on Council, isn’t the Mayor – and Rodriguez already took a drubbing in 2010 when he ran on his record then.

Dupuis and Rodriguez each need to present a compelling case to voters regarding why, now, we should vote for them. With Bigger in the race, their media oxygen is at risk of being used up defending their records, rather than on enunciating their ideas and platforms. Essentially, they risk becoming Bigger’s whipping boys.

The “bad” is that both have decided to stay in this race.

The Ugly: Lynne Reynolds' Accusation

I’m not sure what the “ugly” is here, so let me tell the story. The other day, I came across a tweet from Ward 10 candidate Lynne Reynolds, which accused current Ward 10 Councillor and election candidate Terry Kett of using taxpayer’s money to fund his election campaign. Reynolds tweet included a link to her blog, where she expanded her accusation, and accused Kett of violating the Municipal Elections Act. And those are pretty serious accusations to make.

So, what’s her evidence? In her blogpost, Reynolds accuses Kett of distributing a newsletter in which Kett asks voters to re-elect him. Since my original post, Reynolds has updated her blog to now include an image of the "newsletter". The question is whether this "newsletter" is really campaign material, given that it's emblazoned with "Re-elect Terry Kett" across the Councilor's picture. Kett's contact information includes an email address which appears to be in keeping with the format of the City of Greater Sudbury's email addresses for employees and Councilors - which, if the newsletter were campaign material, might be problematic. All of this begs the question: what's really going on here? It remains unclear who has paid for the distribution of this newsletter - something Terry Kett really needs to address - properly, this time.

The Magical: Ward 8 Candidate Stefano Presenza

Municipal election candidates come from a wide range of backgrounds. In this election, we’ve got a number of real estate agents, administrators and even a hard rock miner running for positions on Council. None of that is particularly unusual, and may even be considered typical for an election in Greater Sudbury, or elsewhere throughout Ontario.

However, in Ward 8 candidate Stefano Presenza, I think it’s fair to say that Greater Sudbury can boast the only magician who is seeking municipal office in Ontario! I mean, think of the opportunities created by having a real, live magician on Council. Need to increase taxes to maintain service levels? Abracadabra – look, no tax increases and the books balance!

In all seriousness, though, Presenza has just announced that he’ll be hosting an interactive website where responses to voter questions will appear in videos within 24 hours - “almost as if by magic”! (see this link in the September 5th edition of the Sudbury Star; or, go here to submit a question to Presenza to get your very own video reply). It’s a great, innovative idea for candidates (and later, for Councillors) to use when communicating with the public – an idea that I’m certain other candidates will try pulling out of their own hats. And that’s good for Greater Sudbury.

Bravo, Stefano!

(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, August 26, 2014

Is Greater Sudbury Ready to Host Aerospace Industry?

Last week, mayoral candidate Dan Melanson called for the City to create the economic circumstances to work towards establishing an aerospace industry in Greater Sudbury. Melanson believes that the timing is right for the City to pursue some of North America’s largest aerospace companies, and smaller companies who do business with those companies, to come to town and set up shop. Tax incentives would be the carrot Melanson employs to make our City more attractive to industry. Well-paying, high-tech and industrial jobs would be the spin-off for Greater Sudbury.

It’s an exciting idea, but how realistic is it? Melanson acknowledged that there will be challenges, given that other centres, such as Prince Edward Island, are also trying to attract aerospace companies, and they’ve got a head start on places like Greater Sudbury, which hasn’t gone about pursuing aerospace industries in any meaningful way, despite the Sudbury Airport Development Corporation’s ownership of our airport, and it’s desire to expand a range of complimentary facilities and operations on site.

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads

Melanson thinks, however, that Northern Ontario is ripe for investment from the aerospace sector, and that existing mining and supply operations, some of which are very high tech in nature, will have a cross-over effect on aerospace start-ups. I think that he’s right about this. I believe that we are entering a time of significant opportunity for Northern Ontario, and that if Greater Sudbury is able to seize this moment, it will lead to long term economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, our City finds itself at a bit of a cross roads – we look ahead toward the future, but we find ourselves in the midst of a bit of a crisis regarding which way to turn in order to get there. Dan Melanson’s candidacy for Mayor is a case in point. It’s clear that Melanson views the creation of a high-tech aerospace sector as a healthy means of creating wealth and prosperity. Yet, other than suggesting the use of tax incentives to kick start that industrial enterprise, the direction that Melanson wants to take our City will ultimately prove to be detrimental to establishing an aerospace industry here.

Aerospace as Part of Larger Industrial Strategy for the City

Some are writing off Melanson’s scheme as air-brained, pointing to the fact that Melanson owns an aviation company and seems to be more concerned about greasing the wheels and wallets of his buddies and, potentially, his own. That’s nonsense, of course. It’s because Melanson is experienced in the business of aviation and has contacts with companies that he has come out with this idea – who, really, knows better what the lay of the land is for aerospace start-ups in Greater Sudbury than someone who is immersed in the day to day operations of the business? If anything, Melanson’s personal business success shows that he knows what he’s talking about – at least when it comes to this idea.

The challenges, however, are numerous. First and foremost, the City has lacked anything resembling a comprehensive industrial strategy – and that’s likely one of the reasons that our airport seems to have been left largely on its own to fend for itself, while other Northern centres like the City of North Bay have gone out of their way to focus development activities in and around their airport. North Bay recently developed an industrial park in proximity to its airport, in order to better attract aerospace companies. Although located in wetland, the industrial park has started to grow, thanks in large part due to North Bay’s pro-business policies related to the park (as an aside, the choice to locate their business park in a significant wetland may ultimately prove detrimental to the success of the business park, and not just for environmental/flood-related reasons. As corporations are becoming increasingly aware of their social responsibilities to communities, it may start becoming difficult for industries to justify locating in areas of higher environmental sensitivity – and especially in those areas which have been transformed from their natural functions into locations for new greenfield development).

The Sudbury Airport Development Corporation (SADC) bills itself is an independent corporation which doesn’t rely on municipal tax revenue for its operation. It was created in 2000, when Transport Canada transferred ownership and governance to local authorities across the country. SADC’s Board of Directors has two spots reserved for municipal Councillors, so although the corporation acts independent of the City, it remains integrated to a degree in the fabric of the City’s governance structure.

And that’s why it seems to me that the City has been missing out on an opportunity to grow both the airport and related jobs. SADC’s mission statement indicates that the airport should be Northern Ontario’s preferred gateway, and that the airport should drive economic development in the City of Greater Sudbury. And SADC seems to be doing its part. After taking a hit in the annual number of passengers in 2009 and 2010, during the economic downturn, annual passenger levels in 2012 and 2013 have been the highest seen at the airport. Inexpensive flights might be part of the reason, but likely this uptick has a lot more to do with the amount of money entering Northern Ontario through the mining, supply and exploration sector.

Greater Sudbury as the Focus for the Sustainable Development of Ontario’s North

Greater Sudbury is one of the world’s mining, supply and exploration centres after all. And the mineral wealth of Northern Ontario could very well continue to drive prosperity in our community throughout the 21st Century. Our City has the infrastructure in place to be the base camp for operations in the Ring of Fire, and given that region’s remoteness from larger urban centres, it’s clear that an active aviation hub would bring benefit to our City.

Mining exploration and supply is hardly a new business to Northern Ontario, even if the stakes have now never been higher. With this in mind, it is very clear that Greater Sudbury isn’t positioning itself to take advantage of our assets. Appropriate planning, starting with an industrial strategy, will be critical if the City is to move forward to seize the opportunities presented by the Ring of Fire and other mineral enterprises which will come on stream with the sustainable development of Ontario’s northern hinterlands. We are truly in the midst of an “all hands on deck” moment in Greater Sudbury, but not all of the hands appear to be working at complimentary purposes. That’s got to change.

Attracting Business Investment - Greater Sudbury’s Strength and Weaknesses

The location of the City’s airport approximately 25 kilometres from the downtown will prove a barrier to creating a vibrant aerospace industry. Too often, the effects of past decisions and bad planning have rippled into our future, leaving us with costly remediation bills. There’s probably nothing that can be done regarding the airport’s location – we’re stuck with it. While some might argue that the remote location will allow for a greater range of potentially noisy industry, the fact is that the high-tech employees of the future (and let’s face it, of today) aren’t going to be too thrilled to travel to and from this remote location to work.

Our City has a lot to offer employers who are interested in creating high-tech jobs. Our City offers a livable experience which would be the envy of any City in the Greater Toronto Area. Recreational opportunities abound. Our roads are relatively free of congestion. Culturally, we continue to punch above our weight class. And our house prices are a bargain compared to those in the GTA. With an increasing focus on redevelopment and infill in order to better keep taxes and service charges down, Greater Sudbury is primed to accommodate opportunities for population growth should it be needed to service remote northern development opportunities.

I don’t write any of this lightly – I’m not exactly known for taking pro-growth stances, as I believe that true sustainable development doesn’t require growth. But, the fact of the matter is that the sustainable development of Ontario’s remote north will require an infusion of both labour and capital – but it’s not going to benefit the entirety of Northern Ontario’s geography. In the bid for new capital and labour investments, not every location will prove attractive. Those that can make the case are much more likely to attract new investment – whether it’s wanted or not (and we should keep in mind that investment isn’t always wanted, depending on the type of facilities being proposed). In that context, it only makes sense for a community to plan for likely outcomes. For Greater Sudbury, a likely outcome is that we are going to see some of that investment happening here. A better outcome would be, given the relative strength and flexibility of our numerous assets, would be to see a large portion of those resources made available to our City.

Livability at the Heart of Municipal Investment Strategy

If we’re going to do that, however, we’ve got to get our act together. Although our City already has many reasons to attract employers creating well-paying jobs, there are an increasing number of obstacles which are becoming apparent in terms of this City’s livability. What was once attractive in the past – larger homes on large lots, located in suburban settings, each with two and three car garages – isn’t nearly as attractive today, especially to younger workers – both those with and without families.

Yet our City’s focus regarding “livability” continues to prioritize large roads to service cars over just about everything else. If we don’t start seriously shifting the focus away from a car culture of convenience and onto creating truly livable communities in our City, Greater Sudbury may find that what was once a local advantage for highly paid employees has lost a lot of its lustre. And big business is taking note of these aspects like never before. Happy employees are more productive employees. Time loss to long commutes stuck behind the wheel of a car is time that might otherwise be spent with families, or used for leisure activities. Working closer to home is becoming increasingly important for a growing number of people. Getting to and from work through the use of active transportation, such as walking and cycling, is also becoming more important.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just Google “Richard Florida Creative Class” and read about the sorts of communities that Florida describes as being poised to seize tomorrow’s prosperity. And then ask yourself how well Greater Sudbury fits the bill today – and then try to think about to 10 or 15 years ago, and ask yourself again if we’ve come very far in that amount of time. I think we’ve made some progress, but the pace of that progress has been pretty darn slow. If we are going to make the 21st Century as prosperous as it might be for Greater Sudbury, we can’t continue to afford missing out on creating the City we really do need to attract investment that’s going to go somewhere. It doesn’t have to come here just because we consider ourselves to be the Capital of Ontario’s North.

Innotech Park

In some respects, the City is laying the groundwork for future investment in the high-tech sector. The City’s award-winning Downtown Master Plan, for example, includes a call for the creation of a high-tech business park (Innotech Park – intended to be a hub for innovation and technology, hence the name) just east of Lorne Street and south of Elm, on lands currently occupied by under-used parking lots west of the rail line. The Master Plan points out that this is one of the largest vacant land assemblages in any downtown in Ontario. It’s already serviced, and it sits in the heart of the City. If the City were serious about moving forward with mining and aviation clusters, it would be doing all that it can to make Innotech Park a reality for high tech jobs.

But, for the most part, the City’s Downtown Master Plan is collecting dust on a shelf. The Innotech Park lands are currently under consideration for the development of a casino, precisely because of the massive amount of cheap surface parking they could provide. So rather than being the hub of a long-term job-creating high-tech corporate sector as envisioned by the Master Plan, our City may sacrifice this significant opportunity at the altar of expediency, creating a hand-full of middling jobs, and missing out on any opportunity to make our core more livable. By all means, Greater Sudbury, put your casino downtown – but this isn’t the location for it. Another proposal suggests building the casino on top of the Rainbow Centre, using underutilized space better. We should be doing what we can to encourage that sort of intensification, rather than exhausting our vacant land supply in our core for a facility with questionable economic outcomes for our City.

In this “all hands on deck” moment, the City should be doing what it can to make Innotech Park a reality, and to preserve industrial and commercial lands in sensible locations throughout the City. Again, a real industrial strategy for our City might have something to say about all of this – but that’s not what we’ve got.

Strategies for Future Prosperity: Investment vs. Divestment

Getting back to Dan Melanson’s idea – I think that Melanson is largely on the right track, but I’m not sure that he’s thinking big enough – or strategically for that matter. Much else of Melanson’s campaign is based on the idea of the City divesting from the very things which Florida and so many other futurists are calling on municipalities to invest in. Melanson’s small-minded focus on core services – which he essentially defines as roads and pipes – will disadvantage Greater Sudbury’s pursuit of an aerospace industry to an extreme degree.

Creating the underlying circumstance for business investment in a community involves far more than simply giving tax breaks as Melanson would have voters believe. Yes, tax incentives probably should play a part in growing business and industry, especially those which create good, local jobs (like the aerospace industry certainly does). But tax breaks alone can’t be relied on to achieve the outcomes that Melanson – and others, including me – aspire to for our community. This “all hands on deck” moment certainly can’t be fuelled by cutting cultural supports for our community, or making our City friendlier to cars. Sure, go ahead and find efficiencies with municipal spending – but let’s not lose track of the significant role that spending plays in making our City vibrant and healthy.

An aerospace and aviation hub may very well be a critical part of the City’s industrial strategy – I think if we are going to seize our moment with the Ring of Fire, aviation and aerospace must be a part of the strategy. Yes, there will be challenges to overcome, but that’s not a reason to do what we can to make our City a better place for future generations. Appropriate planning, starting with a sound business and industrial strategy which has at its heart long-term sustainability and livability, would be a good place to start – now!

(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)

Monday, August 25, 2014

What might a Bloc Collapse mean for the Green Party of Canada?

Many of Canada’s politically engaged are watching with glee the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois. Election night, 2011, saw the Bloc return to Ottawa with a tiny cadre of 4 MPs (which ultimately grew by one when Claude Patry, elected under the NDP banner, crossed the floor to sit with the Bloc). The rise of the NDP in Quebec was clearly at the expense of the Bloc, and to an extent, the Liberals. Unlike the Liberal Party, however, the Bloc hasn’t been able to find a way forward. Their new leader, Mario Beaulieu, elected by old-guard sovereigntists on a platform pushing aggressive separation, simply isn’t resonating with voters, or elected members of his own Party.

Two of five Bloc MP’s have already left the Party – Marie Mourani was kicked out last year for being less than supportive of the Provincial Parti Quebecois’s so-called Charter of Values. Last week, Jean-Francois Fortin left the Party to sit as an Independent, citing Beaulieu’s leadership and the direction he is taking the Bloc. Today, Andre Bellevance announced that he will be sitting as an Independent in the House, and that he won’t be seeking re-election in 2015. That leaves just Patry, who has said he won’t run in 2015, and Louis Plamondon, who was first elected to the House in 1997. The Montreal Gazette is reporting that Plamondon has apparently advised a local newspaper that he will stand for re-election in 2015 (see: “MP Andre Bellevance leaves Bloc Quebecois”, Montreal Gazette, August 25, 2014).

Not many outside of Quebec are going to miss the Bloc. I’m certainly not.

Canada's Changing Political Landscape

What is becoming evident now is that the federal electoral landscape continues to shift, and in so doing, it will have a national impact. Recent polling by Abacus Data (see: “Federal politics without the BQ”, August 21, 2014) suggests that the NDP, and to a lesser extent the Liberals, would see gains should the Bloc collapse and/or disappear altogether. Certainly, without the Bloc (or with a Bloc that voters perceive to be a significantly less serious party), Tom Mulcair’s chances of holding the NDP’s “Fortress Quebec” are enhanced, and will likely deprive the Liberals from a handful of seats that it might otherwise covet to push Justin Trudeau’s party into majority territory.

Ultimately, though, Trudeau’s popularity in the rest of Canada might be enough for the Liberals to get their majority anyway. But a strong Bloc splitting a handful of ridings with the NDP might have allowed a few Liberals to come up the middle. What’s uncertain is whether Liberals winning tight three-way races might offset Liberals winning straight-up fights with the NDP after having picked up some of the Bloc’s former supporters.

The Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party in the House

Beyond potentially determining whether Canada ends up with a majority or minority government, I believe that a collapsing Bloc may end up having another impact on the 2015 election in the rest of Canada – one that directly affects the Green Party. So let me dive in and talk shop for a few minutes – but throughout this conversation, I’d ask that you keep in mind that I remain glad that the Bloc seems to be removing itself from the Canadian political landscape, as I believe that Canada’s broader interests don’t include a contingent of MP’s whose main reason in the House is to promote the break-up of our country.

The continuing presence of Bloc MP’s in the House of Commons, though, works in favour of the Green Party’s electoral prospects in 2015. Keep in mind that neither the Bloc Quebecois or the Green Party are recognized as an “Official Party” in the House, as neither meets the 12 MP threshold (the Bloc is down to 2 MP’s, while the Green Party is up to 2).

Electoral Success for Greens in 2015

The Green Party is hoping to for a breakthrough in 2015 by finding a way to entice Canadians to elect Greens in a couple of dozen ridings throughout the country. One of the Green Party’s biggest challenges, though, is making connections with voters. A lot of Canadians don’t know what the Green Party stands for, beyond the notion that the Party is pro-environment. A lack of historic success with voters has meant that the Green Party continues to be viewed as “unelectable”, even by voters who are aware of our position and policies, and whom otherwise might want to vote Green.

Greens simply don’t get the media coverage that the other parties do. Pollsters don’t always include the Green Party in their polls. Other party leaders are reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of the Green Party (when was the last time anybody heard Tom Mulcair, or any elected NDP MP, refer to the “Green Party” by name? This is a great tactic that the NDP uses to de-legitimize Greens). All of this creates a significant challenge for the Green Party to gather any oxygen between and during elections, and makes connecting with voters that much more difficult.

One thing Greens are counting on is the more prominent exposure of our national Leader, Elizabeth May, in the upcoming 2015 election campaign. Although May will probably be spending most of her time in just a couple of dozen ridings, her presence at the national televised leader’s debate will bring exposure to May and the Green Party into the living rooms of a lot of Canadian households. A successful performance at the debate may very well generate additional coverage for May and the Party in the small number of days between the leader’s debates and the election.

The Green Party and Televised Leaders' Debates

When May was in the televised leader’s debate in 2008, the Green Party’s vote share rose to its highest ever – almost 7%. In 2011, without a leader in the televised debates, the Green Party was back down to just 3% of the national vote.

Many Greens believe that May’s presence in the House of Commons (along with that of Bruce Hyer) all but guarantees her participation in the televised leader’s debates, based on past precedent. These Greens should be reminded not to pin too much hope on the unelected and unaccountable Broadcast Consortium, which manages the leader’s debates and essentially gets to make up the rules as it goes along. The Broadcast Consortium, in negotiation with political parties (which does not include the Green Party, as Greens are without official party standing in the house). In the past, the Broadcast Consortium has tended to allow the parties to take a leadership role in defining who is invited to the debates, and to the format of the debates.

In 2008, when Stephen Harper broke his own fixed-dated election law and dissolved parliament, the Green Party had 1 MP in the House. Blair Wilson had joined the Green Party earlier in the weekend, and although he never technically sat as a Green, he had been very public about his intention to do so. I remember this time very well, as the thrill of finally having an MP in the House was tangible for me and other Greens. A Green MP meant an opportunity to have our Leader in the televised debates, just as it had meant the same for Preston Manning’s Reform Party in the 1993 election.

But May was initially disqualified by the Broadcast Consortium. Reports at the time indicated that the Conservatives and the NDP had disagreed with having May at the debate, because both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton believed that the no-compete agreement between the Liberals and the Greens in each leader’s riding meant that the Green Party was really the Liberal Party in disguise. The arrogance of this thinking, and the Consortium’s decision, didn’t sit well with many engaged Canadians, particularly those in the New Democratic Party. Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion had both offered lukewarm endorsements for May to be invited.

Under pressure from within, Layton eventually changed his mind, and May was invited to the debate. In 2011, however, Layton and then-Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had no concerns about silencing the Green Party – May was sidelined from the Leader’s debate.

Blocking the Bloc

Could the same thing happen again in 2015? At first blush, it would seem that it can’t. May’s participation in the televised leader’s debate ought to be a given. With two MP’s in the House, one of whom (May) was elected as a Green, based on past precedent (see: Deb Grey, and May herself in 2008), there should be no reason to keep May out.

However, May’s presence in the debates means that Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu, who can hardly be described as telegenic, especially in English Canada, must also be given the opportunity to participate. And you can bet your bottom dollar that both the Liberals and the NDP, which will be battling hard for Quebec votes, will do all that they can to keep Beaulieu out of the debates.

Tom Mulcair’s NDP and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are doing what they can to show that the level of crassness and political opportunism which exists in their parties rivals that of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Rather than putting the interests of Canadians, and the interests of democracy front and centre, what we’re seeing from Mulcair and Trudeau is ultra-partisanship and game-playing. Moving ahead towards the 2015 general election, it’s certain that Canadians will only see more of this.

Working together to keep Beaulieu out of the debate might be a double-edged sword for the NDP and Liberals in Quebec. Certainly, neither party will want to take ownership of the decision to silence the Bloc, and will instead point fingers at the Broadcast Consortium, which ultimately does have the authority to determine who gets invited to participate. Keep in mind, though, that the Consortium takes its marching orders from the parties – so if Beaulieu isn’t invited, it’s because the NDP and Liberals don’t want him there.

And if Mario Beaulieu isn’t allowed to participate in the televised leaders debates, Elizabeth May will have to sit them out too.

The good news for the Green Party is that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, from a purely crass partisan political point of view, might want Beaulieu to participate in the debates, with hopes that the Bloc might be able to steal a few seats in Quebec away from the Liberals and NDP, which will make obtaining a majority government that much harder for those parties. Of course, it may very well be that the Conservative Party ends up supporting sidelining the Bloc from the debates – as a matter of principle and in the interests of a united Canada!

Bumping Beaulieu

What about the people of Quebec? Don’t they get a say in whether the BQ participates in the debates? Well – no, they don’t. Not unless you count the results at the ballot box as an opportunity for expression. And based on what happened to the Green Party in 2011, if I were a Bloc supporters, I wouldn’t want to rely on voters protesting Beaulieu’s exclusion from the debates at the ballot box. It’s far better to have one’s leader in the debates than not. Credibility certainly takes a hit – especially if the leader was there in the past, and not in the present.

If both Bloc MP’s Patry and Plamondon decided that they weren’t going to run again (as Patry has already indicated for himself), the rationale to exclude the Bloc’s unelected leader from the debates becomes that much more compelling. If neither Patry or Plamondon finished this session of the House as Bloc MPs, it’s almost certain that the Bloc Quebecois would be shut out of the leader’s debates. Does any of this mean that May wouldn’t be invited?

The Consortium Speaks

It’s not a given, for sure. Even without a Bloc Quebecois in Parliament, the Consortium might still agree to invite May. But the case against May’s participation becomes easier to make. Take a look at what Bob Weiers, Senior Producer, CBC news had to say about determining how party leaders were invited to the televised leaders debate in the recent Ontario provincial election (see: “Ontario Election 2014: How to Make a Debate”, Bob Weiers, CBC, June 5, 2014)

Weiers, who produced the Ontario leaders debate television program, has probably given us the most insight into how the Consortium decides which leaders to invite. The rationale Weiers uses to come to the decision to exclude the Green Party of Ontario’s Mike Schreiner from the debate is interesting and worth noting. Weiers notes that the networks want to create both a “watchable” and “journalistically sound” program.

Watchability and Journalistic Soundness

Green supporters might automatically think that May’s presence in any televised debate would certainly contribute to the debate’s journalistic integrity and watchability (I know that I feel that way). But we’ve heard far too often that the number of people in any debate really detracts from watchability – and frankly, it’s hard to argue otherwise (although some of the 2011 GOP Presidential primary debates in the U.S. weren’t bad, just tune in to any City of Toronto mayor’s debate and you be the judge). Anyway, I don’t think that Greens should rely on the Consortium inviting May because she’ll contribute to watchability.

So what about journalistic soundness? Well, Weiers goes on to suggest that the Green Party of Ontario really failed to meet the test of being journalistically interesting? Here’s the full excerpt from Weier’s insider piece:

“One contentious issue that the seven broadcast organizations decide alone is who to invite to the debate. It's an issue we agree on unanimously. There are 23 registered political parties for the current election. Clearly, a 90-minute debate that includes all of them is not an option. The criteria we used as a guide is as follows:

• Is the party registered with Elections Ontario?
• Does the party have an identified and full-time leader?
• Are they running candidates in all, or nearly all of the 107 ridings?
• Does the party, based on reliable polling data over a period of time and recent political history, have a legitimate chance to win the government?
• Does the party hold a seat in the legislature that they were elected to in the last vote? (Floor crossers don't count)

The Green Party of Ontario meets some of these criteria. But they did not win a seat in the last election or in a subsequent byelection. In 2011, they received only 2.92 per cent of the popular vote.

That said, if the Greens win a seat next Thursday night and hold it until the next election, there would be a very strong case to be made for them to participate in the next debate.”

Will 'Legitimate Chance to Form Government' Exclude Greens & Bloc?

So, based on Weier’s analysis, since Elizabeth may won a seat in 2011, the Green Party of Canada should be able to make a “very strong case” for participation in the 2015 leader’s debate. So why am I concerned? Well, take another look at that second-last bullet; the one about having a legitimate chance to win government, based on past performance and reliable polling data? I think that it’s fair to say that in the context of the Green Party of Ontario, and the Green Party of Canada, neither Party meets that test.

In the past, it could have been argued that the federal NDP certainly never had a realistic chance to form government. Or the Reform Party for that matter, when they were only running candidates west of the Ontario border. And the Bloc Quebecois throughout its history, never had a chance to form government, given that they’ve only ever run candidates in one province. Yet NDP, Reform and Bloc Leaders have all participated in the debates. Why change the criteria now?

I actually don’t see any good reason to change it – but I’m not the Broadcast Consortium, trying to make the debates watchable and interesting to an ever-decreasing pool of Canadian voters who get upset about having their prime-time shows pre-empted for largely bland political theatre – especially politically theatre which includes the hapless and unknown Mario Beaulieu. Despite Weier’s suggesting that May would have a compelling case, the criteria that he outlines could clearly be used by the Consortium to sideline May – and Beaulieu too, for that matter.

Silencing Greens Gravy for Liberals, NDP

Given that the NDP and Liberals will have the knives out for Beaulieu, sidelining May and the Greens will really just be gravy for them. With the Green Party polling around 15% in battleground British Columbia (where all three of the other national parties believe they can pick up seats – and with redistribution, they might just do that), keeping May and the Greens off of the national front pages of our print media and off of the television sets of British Columbians furthers their ambitions.

The cards are being stacked against Elizabeth May and the Green Party, by both the mainstream media and the other political parties. The only thing which might save May from being shut out of the debates is the continuing presence of the Bloc Quebecois in the House. With MP Louis Plamondon insisting that he’ll run again for the Bloc, it may ultimately be difficult for the Broadcast Consortium not to invite Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu to the debates – even with Weiers criteria in their back-pocket. If Beaulieu participates, there can be no case against keeping May out – especially if each Party’s caucus consists of one elected MP / one MP who joined after the last general election.

Sinking Bloc Might Sink Elizabeth May Too

If anything, May’s case is much stronger, given that she is the leader of the Party and has a seat in the House, and that her Party will be running candidates in ridings throughout Canada – a likely outcome now that May and the Greens overtures for co-operation have been completely rebuffed by the go-it-alone NDP and Liberals.

But my money is against May and Beaulieu’s participation, for all of the reasons identified above. Yes, Canadians should be up in arms if May isn’t invited to participate – just as Canadians should be up in arms if Beaulieu isn’t invited to participate. Oh…wait a minute. We can’t apply our outrage towards biasing democratic processes selectively? Uhm, so if want to foment a popular early-election uprising like what happened 2008 to get May in the debates, we’ve got to take Beaulieu and his separatists too? Or be labelled hypocrites?

Sorry, folks – that’s not going to happen. Canadians from cost to cost to cost will not be calling into Tom Mulcair’s or Justin Trudeau’s office to insist that they change their minds about Elizabeth May knowing that it means Mario Beaulieu and the Bloc would also have to participate in the debates.

I’m just going to cross my fingers that those in charge of the Broadcast Consortium’s federal debate planning didn’t get Weiers memo, or that if they did, they’ll add their own bullet to the equation: that of past precedent. But I’ll believe it when I see it – when I see Elizabeth May in the debate, that is.

Unfortunately, if May appears on my tv screen, I’ll also have to endure watching a man who wants to break up my country debate legitimate national party leaders.

(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, August 19, 2014

Better Planning Needed to Minimize Risks to Drinking Water

Earlier this month, officials in Toledo, Ohio issued an urgent plea for residents to stop drinking the City’s water. 400,000 residents went without tap water for several days because a massive blue-green algae bloom in Lake Erie had contaminated the municipal water supply with microcystin, a toxic by-product of blue-green algal blooms (see, "Toledo water improving by toxins still a concern for 2nd day", CBC, August 2, 2014).

A combination of warm temperatures and human inputs of phosphorus and nitrogen, mostly in the form of agricultural surface runoff, created a dangerous pea soup out of western Lake Erie.

Here in Northern Ontario, we don’t have the same issues with agricultural runoff as do farming-centred communities around the southern Great Lakes. Yet, blue-green algae is a persistent problem in many of our water bodies. Greater Sudbury’s jewel, Ramsey Lake, one of the City’s major drinking water sources, recently had its recreational beaches closed due to algae.

While algal blooms occur naturally, two factors in Northern Ontario are exacerbating their presence: increased urbanization, and a warming climate.

Storm water runoff from hard surfaces like parking lots and roads flows more swiftly into receiving water bodies. This runoff carries contaminants like motor oil and road salt, along with nutrients like phosphorus. The cumulative impacts from urbanization are the most serious threat to the health of our lakes.

As waters warm, these additional nutrients create a feast for blue-green algae. With a changing climate, our lakes are beginning to warm earlier in the year, and are staying warmer for longer periods, creating more opportunities for algae to bloom.

Closed beaches are merely a summertime nuisance. The disruption of a municipal drinking water supply, as happened in Toledo, is a clear and present risk to human health.

The City of Greater Sudbury took a proactive step in 2012, passing a by-law regulating the application of phosphorus fertilizers on residential lawns. However, additional measures to help minimize risks have proceeded slowly. The City’s Official Plan, adopted in 2005, calls for the development of watershed studies to better direct urban growth. Funding was allocated for a Ramsey Lake watershed study only in 2013 (see: "Watershed study applauded", the Sudbury Star, May 21, 2013), and completion of that study remains years away.

Conservation Sudbury’s Source Protection Plan has yet to be approved by the Ministry of Environment, despite being a requirement of the Clean Water Act, 2006, which was the province’s response to the Walkerton drinking water disaster.

We know how to minimize the risks to our lakes. Natural and human-made storm water treatment can positively impact both the quality and the quantity of water, better filtering contaminants and slowing runoff before entering water bodies.

Doing things right the first time may add some initial costs to development, but it will save taxpayers money in the longer term. Here in Greater Sudbury, the Vale Living With Lakes Centre has a great example of a natural storm water filtration system designed as integral component of the facility. Permeable lockstone in the parking lot permits water to be absorbed more easily by the ground. A bioswale, essentially a ditch with native vegetation, slows and directs runoff towards a collecting pond, where additional filtering occurs before it ends up in Ramsey Lake.

In many cities, bioswales are being considered as elements of integrated transportation and storm water management systems at the time of new road construction, as the installation of remedial storm water infrastructure after development occurs can be expensive.

Planning ahead to address known cumulative impacts in high-risk areas will improve the water quality of our lakes. When it comes to protecting our drinking water sources, we can’t afford to keep pursuing a business-as-usual approach when the underlying circumstances are being constantly altered due to increased urbanization and climate change.

(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, August 16, 2014 online as "May: Planning needed to protect water", without hyperlinks)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Knee-Jerk Reaction on Parking Lot Approval Another Missed Opportunity to Prioritize Livability in Greater Sudbury

Here we go again. Today, Greater Sudbury's was asked to approve approximately 1,000 new surface parking spaces at Health Sciences North, Sudury's (relatively) new one-site hospital. Parking has been at a premium since the day the one-site facility opened, having been constructed with a shortfall of approximately 225 surface parking spots. Employees, for whom today's approval of the additional parking spaces is intended to largely serve, have been taking shuttles from the parking facility at the former St. Joseph's Hospital site, which will soon be unavailable due to a condominium project.

The Costs of Traffic

Rather than looking at any alternatives, Greater Sudbury's Planning Committee simply accepted the need for a significant amount of new surface parking at our Hospital by greenlighting the zoning by-law. The zoning request sailed through Planning Committee on the recommendation of municipal staff, despite a number of what appear to be pretty significant planning obstacles for new parking in this location. The 1,000 new parking spaces are certain to have an impact on traffic volumes at the Paris/Centennial intersection, and at the intersection of Paris and Ramsey Lake Road. A major traffic study to look at intersection redesign options, estimated to cost about $300,000 will now be moving forward, with just $75,000 being contributed by Health Sciences North. The remainder of this bill will be picked up by municipal taxpayers. The study is only necessary as a result of the parking lot approval.

The intersection of Paris and Ramsey Lake Road is already very congested, especially at peak hours (which happen to coincide with shift changes at the hospital). The Ramsey Lake Community Improvement Plan, a municipal land use planning document, discourages new development which would significantly increase traffic on Ramsey Lake Road - the very sort of development that our Planning Committee today greenlighted. The Community Improvement Plan provides some very good guidance to our municipal decision-makers: rather than compound traffic problems along this corridor, it indicates instead that future travel needs ought to be addressed through improvements to transit.

Currently, transit access to the Hospital is pretty good during the day. Are there opportunities for further improvements? Absolutely - but none of them were explored before Planning Committee rushed into today's decision. The Council-accepted Sustainable Mobility Plan (2010) provides some recommendations for alternatives to facilitating motor vehicle traffic at each and every opportunity. It encourages the Sudbury Transit to consider partnerships with major employment centres, offering up the "Sudbury Regional Hospital" (now Health Sciences North) as an example of a facility for which partnerships should be explored. Currently, Sudbury Transit partners with Laurentian University (whose campus is located at the end of Ramsey Lake Road) to provide inexpensive bus service. Why weren't similar options explored for the staff of Health Sciences North prior to moving ahead with rezoning for 1,000 additional parking spaces?

Protecting Our Drinking Water

Other than being a major traffic generator, one of the other issues with this proposal is the fact that a new and significant hard-surfaced area will be introduced into the Ramsey Lake watershed. Surface runoff from the parking lot will end up in Ramsey Lake. Additional contaminants in the form of road salt and motor oil will end up in one of Sudbury's major drinking water sources. Additional natural filtration for surface runoff wasn't considered as part of the rezoning request. It's unclear whether existing stormwater facilities for the southern end of the parking lot are up to the challenge of handling run off in that location. Between the northern part of the parking lot and Ramsey Lake, there's nothing in existence of planned to help further filter runoff. This situation is further exacerbated by the loss of natural vegetation in this location; storm water filtering vegetation will have to make way for the new parking lot.

We continue to develop in the Ramsey Lake watershed at our own peril. Already, contamination from road salt exceeds 20 micrograms per litre - the level at which the medical officer of health has to be notified, due to potential health-related impacts. While still within provincial drinking water guidelines, sodium content in the lake is trending upward. This is entirely due to runoff from urbanization.

A Preference for Livability

Look, this post isn't about being against something - it's about being in favour of alternatives which would truly make our community more livable - and questioning why none of these alternative were explored prior to making a decision which will adversely impact our City's livability. At the very least, natural options for stormwater infiltration, such as the permeable pavers and bioswales already at use at the Living With Lakes Centre (also located on Ramsey Lake Road in the Ramsey Lake watershed) should have been a condition of approval. Another asphalt parking lot is, frankly, the last thing the watershed needs.

And do we really need to have 1,000 more spaces? This is a pretty hefty increase over the previously-identified shortfall of 225. The application for rezoning indicates that the intention is that most of these spaces will be used by staff. What about car pooling options, along with transit and cycling? Is there really a demonstrated need for all of these additional spaces?

Clearly, there is a real issue with accessibility for users of Health Science North, including for its staff. With that in mind, there should have been a number of different options explored to address the issue, rather than quickly jumping on the very costly solution of creating a massive number of new parking spaces. With a budget increase proposed next year totaling 4.9%, our Council really should be looking at all options before committing to forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars on a traffic study and improvements for intersection upgrades for intersections which were "improved" within the last 5 years. Especially when less expensive options might have achieved the same results.

Frustrating Our Future

To me, it seems that our Planning Committee has made another knee-jerk approval, without considering all of the options. In defense of Planning Committee, however, the staff report presented to them today also failed to consider many of the options under discussion, or assess a complete range of potential costs resulting from this decision. Both staff and Planning Committee were, however, in possession of an eye-opening letter from the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, which explains and expands on a number of the issues I've identified here, but much more succinctly and without my angry editorializing.

Yes, I am angry. We had a chance to start doing something right, to start building for the future that we want to have here in Greater Sudbury - for the future that we need to be competitive and prosperous in the 21st Century. Instead, we've continued to embrace the status quo's expensive solutions, which would have been a much better fit for the mid-20th Century and cheap fuel prices. We've chosen to yet again ignore the need to get things right the first time, especially those things which pertain to our drinking water, in favour of doing what's expedient because we've always done things a certain way. No, this isn't the way forward. Today's decision takes us only backwards. We can do so much better than this. We must start. We can't afford to keep going down this road.

(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)