A couple of days ago, the Washington Post published an opinion piece about the actual state of democracy in Canadian government that I disagreed with. I didn’t have the knowledge or time to back that up in any kind of concrete way, but most of it just didn’t make any sense.
One day later, Drew Brown at Vice published a piece that directly responded to the opinion of J.J. McCullough, and I am hoping to point people to that piece, since it did such a great job of thoroughly and thoughtfully debunking almost every single thing I felt was wrong in the original letter.
I know in my heart that while Canadian government is not perfect (as Drew readily admits too), it takes a massively crooked perspective to twist words like J.J. does to make Justin Trudeau and his party seem like dictatorial despots.
Last time we had a conversation about electoral reform on this site, it was in the fall of 2016. The post came in the aftermath of the publication of a report from an all-party Special Committee of the House of Commons that was specifically tasked with studying options for electoral reform in Canada.
This month, the Liberal Party published a new document in response to an official electoral reform petition submitted to the Government of Canada’s petition website. The response effectively summarizes and clarifies the justifications the Liberals are using in abandoning their campaign promise of electoral reform.
On the face of it, the current Liberal majority government might deserve a little credit for looking into electoral reform at all right after sweeping in to power in 2015. However, there are a few facts in that election that show exactly why the Canadian system needs to be reformed:
While the Liberals did win a majority of seats in Parliament in the last election, all three left-leaning political parties are fundamentally pretty close. In this system, where a minority government is worse than useless, voters on the left tend to align en masse, to the detriment of the other left-leaning parties. In 2015, it was the Liberals that benefited from this.
In the previous (2011) federal election, the NDP won a third (103/308) of the seats in Parliament, nearly tripling their seat count from 2008. In 2015, that seat total was back near where it started, at 44 seats. This comes from the aforementioned mass movement of voters (leaving Liberal and PQ in 2011, moving back to those parties in 2015) attempting to counter the unified Conservative voting block.
Even though the Liberals did win a majority of seats in Parliament in 2015, the party only managed to win 39 percent of the vote, a clear sign of a broken system.
Finally, the fact that this election was described as a ‘change’ election, and whether you believe that narrative or not, people did want changes to the political landscape, and that includes the way elected officials are chosen.
One of the main points of the Liberal response to electoral reform is the idea that in consultation with MPs, voting experts, and voters, no clear alternative to first-past-the-post presented itself. Therefore, the report concludes, the best option at present is to change nothing, as though a new clear alternative voting system will suddenly present itself at some point.
This is some bullshit.
Electoral systems are like climate science. They do not care if you believe in them. A good system doesn’t get your party into power unless you represent a majority of voters best. A bad electoral system may elect the best-suited party or candidate, or it may not. A key point here is that when the Liberals promised electoral reform, they didn’t promise to look in to other options for holding more representative elections. The party platform specifically promises that the 2015 election would be the last one held under first-past-the-post, and that a plan to do better would be presented to Parliament within 18 months of the election.
One of the biggest problems in politics today is that there is no motivation for a party not in power to present a clear policy alternative to the ruling party. The Liberals ran on ‘NOT first-past-the-post’, but never actually came up with anything to replace it. This is a clear sign the party didn’t want to reform the system, they just wanted to benefit from its flaws in the election.
Another example from the last year is the Republican-proposed American Health Care Act, which failed miserably even among hard-line conservative Republicans. This is because for at least 7 years, Republicans in the US House of Representatives ran and voted on ‘NOT Obamacare’, without spending much time (it seems) thinking about a health care system that actually stood a chance of passing through the Republican legislative branch.
One possible reason for this massive disconnect between parties in power and opposition parties is that an increasing amount of time in a politician’s day (especially one trying to get elected) is spent campaigning (fundraising). After becoming a member of the Liberal Party, I saw first hand just how many emails and phone calls active voters get encouraging them to donate as much money as possible to the Party.
These emails make it very clear that the goal is to ‘beat’ the Conservatives, but fails to make the link between money raised campaigning and actual changes in vote tallies. I have never contributed any money to a political campaign, because I have yet to be shown a good reason to do so, or even why campaigns raise money (other than to allow them to campaign even more).
Even campaign ads, on television or on lawn signs, don’t typically give reasons why voters should choose a given candidate, just that voters should vote for their preferred party, whoever the candidate is. Given massive fundraising totals, it does seem like this tactic works pretty well, though it isn’t very clear why.
It could be that parties have decided that the optimal strategy is to make any political opponents into nemeses, positioning them as enemies in the legislative battlefield. While this might work in a two-party system, positioning the NDP as a bad choice compared to the Liberals seems counterproductive at best. With multiple parties and several decent choices for small-L liberal voters in abundance in Canada (and elsewhere), it seems as though a combination of electoral change and some cooperation would lead to some real social progress in the near future.
The obvious shortcomings in the current Canadian political system are well-described and well-known. The Liberals are in power with 39 percent of the vote. The Green Party consistently gets 4-6 percent of the vote, but has never had even one percent of seats in Parliament, almost certainly because any splitting of the vote on the left would give the Conservative Party a plurality of seats.
Any of several changes to the electoral system would undoubtedly balance voting and hold big parties accountable to voters in a consistent way. If asked, I have no doubt MPs and voters would choose a different voting system, but that option was never presented by the Liberal Party.
A referendum would be no better than the nationwide mydemocracy.ca poll in terms of informing the government of what voters want. Because voters aren’t necessarily even aware of what the options are, an all-party committee that discusses what changes to make, as opposed to whether or not the system needs reform. With all parties at the table, at least some discussion can be had, in order to make the system more representative, no matter what changes are made in the end.
Politics has becomeis a horse race, with winning election being the main goal. This destroys most opportunities for meaningful debate around what’s best for Canadians and the world, and removes incentives to compromise, instead rewarding efforts to ‘win’ political points.
The Liberal Party should at least put in some effort in if they actually want to prove that a clear majority of the Canadian people actually don’t want reform. Saying that Canadians aren’t in agreement over what system to use is irrelevant when it’s so clear we are all ready for some Real Change.
For the last several months, I have been ‘making’ a lot less than I’m used to. There are various reasons for that, as things like motivation tend to ebb and flow, and starting a new job in December of 2016 have meant I’m learning a lot more and facing new challenges at home and at work.
However, another reason that I’ve been somewhat less visible is that for the better part of the last 3 months, I’ve been dedicating a *LOT* of free time to changing the way my online life is structured.
For anybody who is not familiar, I started writing online using Blogger, a now-antiquated platform that was relatively simple, allowing me to slowly learn programming and web design, while being extensible enough to suit most of my needs, and controlled enough that I couldn’t get myself into trouble.
However, back in the beginning of 2016, I began to tire of Blogger, as it seemed like the platform was constantly holding me back, and failed me in a number of fundamental ways. At the time, I was running 4 different websites on Blogger, and hitting frustrating limitations every time I tried to do something new.
By the spring of 2016, I had started seriously looking in to WordPress to host the content I wanted to continue to produce. This was not my first foray into the world of WordPress, as I had tested out WordPress.com before finally settling on Blogger back in 2011. However, since paying for WordPress.com didn’t interest me in the least, I opted instead to try WordPress.org.
For the large majority of people, WordPress is WordPress, and there is no meaningful distinction between the two systems. And, in fact, WordPress.com has worked very hard to cater to WordPress.org users, which is a very nice added bonus. Here are the basics:
A little side-note on WordPress.com
A WordPress.com site is free to start, but is very rigidly templated, and you will have to pay a lot of money very quickly if you want to customize the site or have any control over the way it works other than the words written on the page. This is very similar to Blogger, except that with Blogger, no amount of money paid will give you any more powers to customize a website.
I would say with a good deal of certainty that over 90 percent of WordPress.com blogs are either abandoned entirely, or converted to WordPress.org or another blog platform within 3 months. This is probably fine with Automattic (the owners of WordPress.com), since they have other, better customers, mostly converted from humble WordPress.com beginnings.
And now back to WordPress.org
As an ‘amateur’ blogger and programmer who comes into blogging with a unique set of needs, it turns out that WordPress.org is actually pretty much perfect for me. With a willingness to put some effort in to learn a new platform, the open source version of WordPress that can be installed and run on any computer anywhere for free is an amazing product.
I have written for a few independent publications that use WordPress powered sites in the last 5 years, but having no experience with servers, I lacked the knowledge to start a WordPress site of my very own, unless I was willing to learn how to do that from scratch.
This brings us to the spring of 2016, and me deciding that I was going to figure out what it takes to create a WordPress blog, entirely from scratch. The first thing you need to run a modern website or application on your own is a server. After hearing for months about the Clintons’ homebrew server setup, I decided it was neither affordable, nor practical, nor good security practice, to buy, run, and host a server of my own at home.
Fortunately for me, building and running a home server is not common anymore, and the modern, distributed internet has a much better solution to web hosting than a home server. There are MANY companies out there offering virtual servers, literally computers hosted in giant data centres around the world that you can ‘rent’ on a monthly basis for pennies per hour. These banks of computers are connected to the Internet and are the backbone of the modern web.
After doing research and hearing opinions from all over the internet about ‘the best’ virtual server, I settled on one from DigitalOcean (this is an affiliate link, ask me about it). This and other hosting companies have a number of options to run basic software automatically for almost no money, and that includes setting up a complete WordPress site for as little as $3.95 a month (if you sign up for at least a year at a time).
However, after even more careful consideration, I decided that I didn’t want my hand held and to run a website I didn’t completely understand, and so I opted to pay $5 USD a month for my own little computer hooked up to the web. My virtual server is the cheapest one they offer, and comes with a fast, but not particularly powerful computer, perfect for running a website or application.
Once I committed money to this endeavor, especially since it was a recurring cost, it was much easier to focus and actually get things running quickly. My ultimate goal at the time was to learn everything I could about virtual servers, and to get a modern blog website up and running, so that I had a place to write out my thoughts that I could change and control however I wanted.
However, throughout the summer and fall, things started to shift a little bit for me in the way that I wanted to run my web presence. I have published some of my best writing on this site, but was getting increasingly frustrated with things involving my podcast network, Unwind Media, and how annoying it was to maintain and update that site back on Blogger. Since making the move to the gloriously extensible WordPress, posting to Blogger seemed like handcuffing myself to a typewriter.
By this time, I was hoping to expand the network, adding new podcasts and diversifying the voices I could promote while keeping weekly overhead for myself fairly low. All the while, changes to iTunes and the launch of Google Play podcasts meant that I fundamentally couldn’t start new podcasts while still publishing to Blogger. Something had to give, and that thing was Blogger.
Armed with my brand new WordPress knowledge, I set out to begin the slow, most likely painful, transition of Unwind Media from Blogger to WordPress. Since I had done a bunch of work with Blogger already (hosting a podcast network is certainly not something a Blogger blog was built to do), most of the work involved with moving to WordPress was taking the concepts I’d already developed, and mapping them to the ways WordPress worked.
What followed turned out to be a pretty interesting journey, and I have learned a ton in the last several months about WordPress, PHP, Linux, and blogging platforms (though I know I’m still only just scratching the surface). WordPress, as it turns out, is much better suited to the kind of thing I was trying to do than Blogger ever could be. In addition to that, about 30 minutes after confirming that the WordPress website was live and the Blogger website had been properly replaced, I was able to successfully submit new podcasts to the iTunes and Google Play directories for the first time in months.
My journey isn’t over. I’m continuing to learn more and more about programming, and about PHP and WordPress. In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be moving a third site to WordPress on the same server, ottawhatpodcast.com. I love having a virtual server of my very own, and learning how to run it has been incredibly rewarding.
I also look forward to discussing these kinds of things more, and getting back to writing, now that so much of my mental space has been freed up by getting rid of the overhead that came from having these necessary changes looming.
A couple of other things that I’m currently working on:
My New Year’s resolution is to stand up and defend the rights of the people around me, like women, minorities, people with disabilities, those who choose to exist outside the gender binary or who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth (just to name a few). I said when I made this resolution that it would be a multi-year process, but I vowed to make 2017 the year I started. I haven’t done much so far, but a strong, vocal opposition to oppression, racism, misogyny and bigotry or discrimination in general is a huge part of who I am.
On a similar, but distinctly different, note, I am also trying to determine the best ways to get the Canadian government to reconsider electoral reform in future elections, as a more representative government should be the goal of any self-respecting democracy, even if changes to the electoral system mean than you get less power as a result. That is my only major complaint about the Liberal party in power in Canada at the moment, and next to the dumpster fire that is American democracy these days, I’m glad this is one of the few things we can really complain about.
Oh yeah, and if you or somebody you know has (or is thinking of starting) a podcast (or blog), but don’t know where to start, please feel free to point them in my direction. I have found writing on the internet so rewarding for the last half-decade, I would love the opportunity to pay it forward and share what I know.