Friday, April 29, 2011

Canada's Facebook Election Changes the Face of the Nation

Yes, I've seen the latest polls and have jumped on the bandwagon. I'm putting aside the pessimist belief that the vagaries of the voting system would undo the sudden rise in support of the NPD.

There's something historic going on and it has more than just a shift in voting patterns. More importantly, this is the election that historians will point to as the election where social media, in particular Facebook, played a determining role in bringing about the electoral results.

In short, what has occurred is that the traditional media has lost its ability to control how elections will be played out. It no longer can decide on how the issues will be framed. Although it stills plays a role, the advent of social networking tempers what was a previously unchecked power to determine who will win elections.

In the case of this election, people entered into hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of political exchanges with their Facebook friends. Essentially, all of us who participated became media sources. As a result, traditional media was no longer privileged as an information source. On the contrary, it became more important to see how the issues were playing about on our News Feeds.

This is not to say that you wouldn't find links to articles stemming from the traditional media, but what is different is that when posted they were followed by comments that weighed the opinion and allowed for exchanges between the participants. This is a significant break from the one-to-many communication pattern that gives traditional media its power. Often, it is the comments that follow that are more informative than the original article.

As well, these millions of exchanges allowed Canadians to self organize in an unprecedented manner. At the beginning of the campaign, the Prime Minister framed the ballot question as a choice between a Harper majority or a reckless coalition. Canadians then took it upon themselves to talk it over and see what they could come up with.

Following the lead of Quebecers who have an uncanny ability to mobilize their vote in favor of the party that will go on to form a government, Canadians have responded to Mr. Harper's framing of the question and have decided that they would prefer to be governed by a coalition government and that this coalition should be led by the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, and it shall be formed without the support of the Bloc Quebecois.

Talk about the wisdom of crowds.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Canada's Progressives Are About to Get Screwed by a Corrupt Electoral System

The sudden rise of the NDP in the polls gives reason to hope that the political landscape is about to change fundamentally.

Don't bet the farm on it.

What the pundits don't say is that the NDP is far from playing on an even playing field. As anybody who is even vaguely aware of the way our electoral system actually works, national or even provincial percentages of the popular vote do not produce a proportional number of seats. It all depends on how the vote is distributed.

Concentrated support in smaller regions pays off whereas moderate support over large regions provides disappointing results. Add to mixture the possibility of a relatively even distribution of votes among opposing parties that allows candidates to triumph with only 30% of the vote and an electoral map that is gerrymandered to give rural ridings more voting power than urban ridings and you find a recipe for a democratic debacle.

For instance, it is most probable that in Quebec despite gaining more of the popular vote than the Bloc Quebecois the NDP will find themselves with less seats than they deserve. The Bloc will win more seats because of their strength in the rural regions and because of vote splitting between the federalist parties.

Likewise, across Canada the Conservatives will benefit from the vote splitting between Liberals and the supporters of the NDP. In fact, it is quite foreseeable that the Conservatives will win more seats this time around with a slightly smaller share of the popular vote as compared to the 2008 election. So much so, they will go on to win a majority government with slightly more than just one third of the popular vote.

Perhaps some will find solace if the NDP forms the opposition, thinking that they are only one election away from forming a progressive government. So close and yet so far from real power.

My advice for any of my progressive readers is to watch the results on election evening in a bar. You're going to need a stiff drink when reality sets it and you realize that the country is still ruled by a minority with whom you have little in common.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Are the Political Planets Re-aligning in Quebec?

Elsewhere in Canada, the political continuum is from right to left. Here in Quebec, the parties have been aligned on the basis of a federalist-nationalist allegiance for more than 30 years. The question on everyone's mind within the political class is whether the rise of the NDP signals a rupture with our recent political past.

Considering the current state of affairs in Quebec, accusations of corruption abound, it's not that surprising that Quebecers are seeking an exit strategy from the way politics are usually done. Essentially, the Liberals both at the provincial and federal level have been the default option for those who don't support the sovereignty movement. The Conservatives don't have much appeal for the vast majority of voters.

However, successive scandals involving the Liberal Party of Canada and the Quebec Liberal Party have rendered the Liberal brand toxic. At the same time, the fervor for sovereignty has waned. Consequently, the third federalist option, the NDP, has gained much in the way of support.

What is significant in the rise of the NDP is that the party attracts voters from both the federalist and the sovereignist camps. The party's left-of-center policies are in keeping with the political values of Quebec society. Yet for the last twenty years, the sovereignist Bloc Quebecois has been able to position itself as the protector of Quebec's social democracy. But will that tendency continue?

Perhaps, what we are witnessing is a demographic shift in political power in Quebec. Those born before the war are apt to continue in the Roman Catholic tradition of supporting the Liberals. The Quebec baby boomers defied their parents by supporting the sovereignist parties. Today, it's generations x,y, and zed's turn to define their political identity by rejecting the federalist-nationalist dichotomy altogether.

Certainly, it will take more than just one election to see how this plays out, but I have the feeling that we are at the beginning of the Internet generation's emergence as a political power.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The NDP Has Gone Viral in Quebec

I woke up this morning to see confirmation in two polls that with regard to voting intentions in the upcoming federal elections Quebecers have gone viral in their support of the NDP.

You need to know that the Quebec population is very closely knit. I'm not exaggerating when I say that there is only three degrees of separation. Changes in attitudes can occur quite rapidly.

What's happening right now reminds me of the June Quebec by-elections in 2002 when the ADQ won three out of four seats up for grabs and got 45% of the populate vote. Unfortunately for the ADQ viral epidemics reach their peak and eventually fall off quickly. One year later, the party received only 18% of the vote.

Consequently, as we know all to well timing is everything and it looks like the NDP has hit the perfect storm.

On Thursday morning, Quebecers woke up to the news of the polls. By Thursday afternoon the great provincial wide trek to visit the extended family during the Easter long weekend began. Across the province, hundreds of thousands of families are getting together and without question there will be considerable talk about the federal election. Quite often an influential family member will come and say who he or she is voting for, and this gesture tells other family members who are less inclined to invest the energy to make up their own mind on how they should vote.

Consequently, there can be a domino effect and with only a week to go during the campaign there might not be enough time to get the genie back into the bottle.

The important question to ask is how much further will the ascension continue before it tops out. At 35%, the NDP could win about 10 seats, but at 40-45% they could end up with the majority of seats in Quebec, 40-50.

This would change the power dynamics in Canada completely since it would probably put the NDP as the opposition, with the possibility that they could lead a coalition government with the Liberals. For this to occur, people in B.C. and in the greater Toronto region would need to take notice and to vote strategically. This way those who are motivated to vote against the eventuality of a Harper majority would vote strategically for the NDP instead of for the Liberals, a complete reversal of historic strategic voting trends.

Suddenly, what was a Seinfeld general election, a story about nothing, might become a historic event.

Friday, April 15, 2011

North America Has Become a Huge Fat Farm

Last year, I had the shock of my life when I visited the US. I had never seen so many super obese people in all my life. Statistics say that one in three Americans is obese, but I wasn’t prepared for how big people have become. During my vacation, I felt slim on the beach and by the pool as compared to the people around me, when in reality I could stand to lose 40 pounds.

In some ways, I can sympathize with my obese friends across the border. I have been working out four to five times a week for the last two years; I watch what I eat, cutting down on carbs, eating more fruits and vegetables, but after an initial weight loss of about 20 pounds, I’m stuck at my present weight, which is not a healthy weight.

I went for my annual check-up and my doctor said I was in excellent health despite my ample girth. I told my story and she told me that it was genetic, my pancreas is super- efficient and that I easily store the smallest amount of extra blood sugar as body fat. Apparently, if there were a famine, I’d be one of the last to die.

This was depressing news since I’m pretty close to my limits for working out. Much more and I would risk injury.

Then by chance, more precisely because of my personalized magazine application for my iPad, I received an article from the New York Times questioning whether sugar was toxic. Within the text, there is a link to what I believe to be perhaps the most important video on Public Health in the last thirty years, Sugar: the Bitter Truth.

In short, we are told that the decision thirty years ago to promote a low fat, high carbohydrate diet across North America has been an unmitigated disaster. Yes, we are eating less fat, but now we are eating more sugar in our diets as never before, about 140 pounds per person per year. Simply put, our bodies cannot metabolize this amount of sugar, especially when it contains fructose. So we pack on the pounds, add to our bad cholesterol, and increase our risk to heart attacks, diabetes and cancer.

The food industry and the regulatory agencies are largely to blame. High Fructose Corn Syrup is found in almost all of our processed food. Looking at the evidence presented in the video, it appears that Fructose is indeed a toxin. Unfortunately, regulators will not act to curb its use since it falls into the category of a substance that is not acutely toxic (it won’t kill you after just one meal) but is toxic with chronic use (it will make you sick after a 1000 meals.)

Consequently, food producers in North America are pumping out enormous amounts of cheap, sugar-laced processed food products unabated by government and the population is more than happy to gobble them up.

Driven by the profit motive, politicians representing the food industry and the interests in the health sector have come to realize is that there is a fortune to be made by fattening up the population, and the beauty of it is that no one is forcing anyone to consume the adulterated food stuffs. In fact, we are genetically programmed to seek and ingest that which is sweet.

First, the US government subsidizes the corn producers so they can provide the food industry with a cheap foodstuff that can be used widely and generates huge profit margins. Second, private health care providers can then capitalize on a disease ridden population, whose treatment is also subsidized by the state.

It has been estimated that the US government could save more than one trillion dollars a year by simply reducing the incidence of preventable disease among its citizens that is largely attributable to lifestyle. However, to do so would cut into the profits of the food-health service consortium. As a result, nothing substantial gets done to address the root cause of the obesity epidemic in North America, its addiction to sugar.

Is there anything more American than knocking back a Coke or wolfing down a double slice of apple pie?

Yeah, the insatiable greed that drives people to exploit as many as they can and sticking the government with the task of having to deal with the mess.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Sacred Cows No Politician Dares To Touch

Thank God the Stanley Cup Playoffs start this evening. This has to be the dullest federal election since Sir John A. swore off the bottle. Same old. Same old.

Yet, around the world things are different. Despots are being disposed, countries teeter on bankruptcy and severe austerity programs are being implemented in response to a perceived debt crisis.

Here, the election is being framed as the choice between the “reckless” coalition and the stability of a Harper majority government. In other words, the choice is between the Liberals in bed with the separatists and socialists or a Canada governed by a guy with a bad haircut.

These are the choices?

This election would generate a lot more interest if our politicians started focusing on the real problem facing Canadians, especially for those who believe that it is our social programs that keep this nation together.

Sky-rocketing health care costs coupled with an ideological belief that no new tax revenues can be raised threatens the continued viability of the Canadian social system. At the present rate of growth in health care costs, expenditures for health care will represent 50% of budget allocations at the provincial level by 2020, and this includes monies targeted for health care transferred to the provinces from the federal government. In other words, if we continue on the present course, we will not be able to adequately fund education, welfare, public transportation, environmental measures, debt reduction, etc.

Faced with such a dilemma, we need to cut to the heart of the matter and address two outstanding issues that politicians fear to discuss publically since it places them in opposition to the rich and the powerful. The first is the method in which doctors are remunerated in the public health care system, fee for service performed, and the second is the imposition of a financial transaction tax, which is often referred to as the Robin Hood Tax.

With regard to the former, we cannot endure the continued growth in health care costs. Technological advances in medicine combined with an aging population create a situation where the potential for the expansion of medical services to be performed will surpass our capacity to pay within the present payment structure. To rein in costs in the public system, all medical personnel will need to be salaried as is the case with other professionals employed by the state. No exceptions. Those wishing to continue working within the fee for service model can continue to do so within the private sector.

With regard to the latter, we need to be able to distinguish between no new taxes for those who are already taxed to the hilt and new taxes for those who pay no tax or very little tax at all. Presently, the financial sector escapes paying its fair share and receives preferential treatment. Remember the federal Goods and Services Tax replaced the hidden Manufacturers’ Sales Tax? Financial services were among the exemptions. Yet, even a ridiculously small levy of one tenth of one percent on all financial transactions has the potential to raise billions in revenue. This new revenue could then be used to pay down the debt thereby liberating billions in service charges that could be reallocated to continue making investments to promote the social well-being of the population.

Serious debate on core issues like these will generate genuine interest in the electorate. However, as long as the political debate is confined to peripheral issues the electoral campaign will continue to be a sleep fest.

Perhaps, that’s how the powers that be prefer to have the electoral campaign contested.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tired of Having the News Dumbed Down? Turn Off the Tube and Get An iPad!

I've enjoyed my iPad for about a year now. For someone who is an info-holic and works in communications, it's changed the way I access information and there's no going back.

High definition touch screen with which I get the news on line from around the world, watch the videos I want when I want, read e-books that take 30 seconds or less to download, surf the web, connect to social media, compose and post my blogs, send and receive email, read a personalized magazine dedicated to the subjects which are of interest to me, keep track of everything with powerful applications, and that's without mentioning all the fun stuff.

Lately, I noticed by the time I get home in time to watch the evening news, it's no longer news. Not only am already aware of the day's events, but I have already read the pertinent comments from my Facebook friends. As a result, I rarely find the so called expert analysis all that interesting. Moreover, the presentation of the news by the major television networks smacks of low grade propaganda. It goes out of its way to treat complex issues with trite explanations that fit easily with the dominant worldview put forward by the powers that be. Heaven forbid that a cultural myth is called into question.

Take advantage of what newer communications technology has to offer. I've already replaced commercial radio in my car with a satellite feed, and I enjoy not having my favorite tunes interrupted by the banal sales pitch trying to sell me something I don't really need.

So, I'm going to kick the filthy habit. I'm no longer going to park my ass in front of the Tube to watch the news. There's only so much time in the day and I'm not going to waste it being forced fed commercials that intersperse sound bytes featuring low information content.

Be a wise-guy or a wise-gal. Get an iPad or its equivalent and set your mind free. Not only will you become more intelligent, you will be less stressed out by having escaped thinking about all the crap the networks force you to attend to.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Canada the Powers that Be Conspire to Suppress the Emergence of Alternative Voices

Catch 22 for the Green Party of Canada. Because the Greens haven't won a seat in Parliament, their leader can't participate in the televised leaders debate. Because their leader doesn't participate in the leaders debate, the Greens can't win a seat in Parliament.

At first glance, this seems to be a rather straight forward number being perpetrated against the Greens that would be easy to fix. Change the electoral system or change the rules for the leaders debate.

Fat chance.

The powers that be: the political parties, the corporate sector, and the media, buttressed by a complacent judiciary, are just far too comfortable with the status quo to allow anyone else into the game, especially a political party that proposes to change the rules concerning the way the game is played.

That the political system has become out dated and dysfunctional is beside the point. If you play your cards right, life can be quite comfortable as long as the status quo is maintained.

That globalization has rendered many of our ways of thinking about how and what social services to deliver and how and when to intervene in the multiple spheres of economic activity obsolete is also a moot point as we continue to pile on the debt that we will ask future generations to pay. If the ship of the nation has veered off course, no matter as long as you're in first class.

In short, the social contract between the forces that be in Canada asserts that the political parties will ensure a socio-economic sphere that is favorable to wealth extraction by the corporate sector, the corporate sector will provide financial support to the traditional political parties, the media will act as the gatekeeper to what actually makes it onto the nation's political agenda, the political parties and the corporate sector will purchase advertising from the media, and the judiciary will ensure (I hope to be proved wrong on this point) that the rules of the political economy remain in place.

Dissent is fine as long as it remains contained within the confines of the existing power structure. Emerging political parties that attempt to change the "gentleman's agreements" in place will have their hopes dashed by an electoral system that either denies or severely distorts the representation given to smaller parties, closed doors when seeking funds, and hostile treatment from the media that will cast dispersions upon the capacity of the emerging party to form a government.

Moreover, those who are brave or foolish enough to put their name forward to appear on the ballot for an emerging party also face the the wrath of those who will use administrative means to make it as difficult as possible for someone to be a candidate.

On two separate occasions for two different political parties, I have been subjected to personal harassment from employers when I announced that I was to be candidate for a smaller party in which I expected and received only 10% of the vote. In one instance, I had my salary cut, and in the second, I received written notification that I would be fired if I did indeed become a candidate.

Needless to say, claims made about how Canada cherishes democratic values tend to make me scoff and wonder what is the person talking about when he or she mentions the word "democracy."

On this note a disgruntled democrat will sign off with the intention to examine what the term actually means and how it is being misused in my next blog.

In the meantime, I salute all those candidates who put their names forward knowing full well they have no hope of being elected. In doing so, they allow a great many of us to express our political beliefs in what is a sham of a democracy.

It warms my heart to know that the spirit of democracy is alive and well in the hearts of those who get it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Canada Should Look Down Under to Address Its Democratic Deficit

I think that most people would now recognize that the world has moved on and Canada is still stuck with it colonial system of governance. No modern democratic state has a lower house elected by first-past-the-post and an upper house that is unelected.

Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, in particular Australia and New Zealand, political institutions have evolved, and Canada would do well to look down under for a model to bring about democratic reform.

Both countries ditched first-past-the post: Australia uses the Alternative Vote to elect the representatives in the lower house and a proportional method for the Senate, while New Zealand uses a proportional method to elect the members to its unicameral legislature.

Either country could serve as a model depending on what Canadians decide to do with regard to the Senate.

If Canadians choose to abolish the Senate, a mixed member proportional electoral system found in New Zealand has the advantage of combining territorial representation, using a voting method Canadians are familiar, with a list method to ensure that the electoral results with regard to representation are proportional to the popular vote.

If Canadians choose to retain the Senate, the Australian system is also appealing. In short, the lower house retains its territorial representation, electing one member per electoral district, but does so by requiring the winning candidate to seek a majority instead of a plurality. To obtain the 50% plus one, electors are asked to rank the candidates and voting preferences are transferred until one candidate receives a majority of the votes. In the Senate, multimember region districts are in place and representation is awarded in a proportional manner based on the number of votes cast for each of the political parties. Taken together, voters maintain the strong link with an individual Deputy in the lower house and enjoy equitable representation in the Senate.

Where to begin?

It would appear that the best place to begin would be to replace the voting system used to elect representatives to the House of Commons. Again, we should look to New Zealand for a model to guide us with regard how to go about making the change. Importantly, a committee of citizens should be entrusted with implementing a two-round referendum to choose the new system. On the first ballot, there should be at least four alternative voting methods. The first referendum would determine the two most popular alternatives and they would appear on the second ballot. The second referendum would then determine the people's choice by obtaining a majority result.

With only a few weeks before Canadians choose to elect a fourth minority government in seven years or to award a false majority to a single political party, we would do well to consider how to replace a broken electoral system that is beyond repair.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

We All Lose When Only the Winners Gain Representation

While campaigning against the alternative vote option on the ballot in the UK referendum on the voting system, British Prime Minister, David Cameron makes the following analogy that underscores the dominant belief for those who support the first-past-the-post voting system:

"Just think forward to the Olympics. Usain Bolt powers home in the hundred metres but when it comes to handing out the gold medals they give it to the person who comes third. You wouldn't do it in the Olympics, we shouldn't do it in politics, we've got to vote no to this crazy system."

Clearly, this analogy asserts that it is the winner of the contest that deserves the prize, a seat in Parliament. Push the analogy a little further to include its intended audience and the assertion reads: you are the winners of the socio-economic game and, as a result, you are the ones who deserve to rule.

This is also the rhetoric heard during the 2011 federal election in Canada. Time and time again we hear Prime Minister Harper say it is only the "winners" that have the right to form the government and not the "coalition of losers".

In other words, only the strong should be allowed to rule, and the weak, even if they are in the majority, should submit to the rule of those who have been deemed fit to rule because of their performance in the contest to see who gets the most votes.

The obvious question is why should the formation of a government be reduced to a sporting contest? Why should representation be seen as the prize to be awarded based on the results of a winner-take-all contest?

There are other ways to form a government.

We could make it a game of chance. That's what the ancient Athenians did when they formed their government that gave birth to the term democracy, the rule of the demos, the people. Most office holders were chosen on the basis of drawing lots. That way domination by any one group could be avoided because the odds on being selected were equal for each citizen.

We could also make it a game of sharing the pie. Everyone gets their fair share. The size of the slice, the number of seats in the legislature, is proportional to the number of voters who support each party.

With regard to the results of this type of exercise, a fundamental question must be asked when choosing the rules of the game: is it our intent to give preferential treatment to some players or shall we be equitable in the treatment of all the players.

Let's not forget where we are coming from. Our political institutions have evolved over time from our inheritance of a political system from a class-structured British society. As little as 150 years ago, only white, male, Protestant, land owners had the right to vote. The entire system was set up to privilege this part of the population.

Over time, our political institutions have evolved: universal suffrage became the norm and the power of money to influence electoral outcomes has been significantly reduced. However, one powerful institution has not changed.

We still have in place a political system that privileges the so-called "winners" in Canadian society. Indeed, a winner-take-all electoral system leads to a winner-takes-most economy. The inequality of economic results reflects the inequality built into the political system. Yet, this inequality comes with a price.

Research shows that societies that have greater economic inequality experience higher incidents of social problems and the members of these societies have shorter lives, yes even the rich, than their counterparts in societies where the wealth is more equitably distributed.

So, let's do everybody in Canada a favor: drop the idea that forming a government is like winning a sporting contest and let's give everyone their fair share of the electoral pie.