Something interesting is happening. In a political culture dominated by fierce partisanship, a growing number of people are talking about cooperation.
During last year’s NDP leadership race, Nathan Cullen ran on a platform of cross-party electoral cooperation. He didn’t win the race, but he attracted (and boosted) the support, energy and enthusiasm of a growing movement for a progressive alliance.
Now, the Liberal Party is having a leadership race, and they also have a candidate who’s preaching constructive cooperation. Her name is Joyce Murray and when I heard about her campaign six weeks ago, I volunteered to organise her first public campaign event in Toronto. The gathering was fun, positive, and attracted people from across the progressive spectrum.
I just returned from the polling station, and proudly placed my ballot into a cardboard box. In six hours, votes will be counted across Canada and while the results are still up in the air we do know one thing: the seat count will be greatly distorted and the collective voice of Canadians will be twisted into an almost random distribution of seats in Parliament.
It’s no secret that Canada’s democracy is broken. Our prehistoric voting system gives some parties much more power than they deserve, while other parties receive less seats than they’ve earned at the ballot box. Our system creates artificial divisions between regions and provinces, and greatly exaggerates the rural/urban divide. Every riding experiences some degree of ‘vote splitting’, forcing people to vote ‘strategically’ rather than with their heart.
While various initiatives like Project Democracy, Catch 22 and Vote Pair attempt to do damage control, they are simply band-aid solutions. Hopefully, in the aftermath of this election, people will start talking about real democratic renewal and vote reform. For your reading pleasure, here’s a primer on the options:
Better Ballots has completed the public outreach component of our project, and is now moving into the electoral arena. After collecting hundreds of votes from citizens about which voting reform options they would like to see in Toronto, we want to ask our mayoral candidates which options they like and whether they are prepared to make any commitments to reforming our electoral system to make it more fair and inclusive. To do this, we’ll be hosting a Mayoral Forum on June 1st. (details to be announced)
But here’s our problem: There are 26 people running for mayor. We’ve only got about 100 minutes for the event, so if we invite all the candidates we’ll only be able to hear them each speak for about 4 minutes. Considering that we want to hear the candidates’ opinion on fourteen different reform options, this only leaves about 15 seconds for each candidate to talk about each option. That’s not very useful.
On the one hand, we don’t want to be unnecessarily exclusive. On the other hand, we don’t want to organise an event that doesn’t serve a purpose.
After some discussion, this is what we’ve decided:
As part of the Better Ballots dialogue, we’re exploring the pros and cons of fourteen possible reforms to Toronto’s municipal elections. One of those options is the introduction of municipal parties to Toronto. Personally I’m split 50/5o on the issue. I’ve heard some very good arguments in favour, and I’ve also heard some convincing arguments to the contrary.
In this post, guest writer Devin Alfaro looks at municipal parties in Montreal. How did they start? What role do they play? What are the benefits, and what are the drawbacks? What can other cities, like Toronto, learn from Montreal’s experience?
A few months ago, while researching municipal council structures for Better Ballots, I happened to find myself in Montreal the day before their city election. I managed to speak to a handful of activists and volunteers during the day and learned quite a lot about the local voting process.
While Montreal has a few similarities with Toronto (large Canadian city, forced amalgamation), there are some striking differences when it comes to municipal elections. I was specifically interested in their use of political parties and the existence of borough councils. The combination of these two features can lead to some interesting results. In this particular case, the City of Montreal was won by the Union Montreal party (led by Mayor Gérald Tremblay) while the Plateau neighbourhood I was visiting was swept by a new party, Projet Montreal, and elected their own local mayor from that party.
Parties and lower-tier councils both exist in Toronto, but in a much smaller way:
Parties play a role behind the scenes, but are unregulated and don’t have as much influence, visibility or control as they do at Queen’s Park or Ottawa (more on that later this week…).
And we have Community Councils comprised of councillors who represent certain geographic areas (such as the North York Community Council). But these Councils are not elected separately, do not have their own mayor, and do not have their own budget. Many of their decisions still have to be ratified by the larger City Council.
I asked Montreal-based writer Devin Alfaro to share his thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of parties and boroughs, as experienced in Montreal. Here is the first post, about boroughs. Later this week, I’ll post the second part about parties.
Despite recent media reports, I’d like to say that I’m having a good week. In fact, I haven’t been this excited about local politics in quite some time. There’s some really neat things happening across the city, and I’m fortunate to be involved with two specific campaigns that are rolling out the red carpet in April. Seven town hall forums have been announced this week: four for Better Ballots and three for the transit workers’ Let’s Talk campaign.
And what could better encapsulate the theme of public space than ballots and buses? Whether you’re passionate about moving people through the city or moving ideas through our web of local democracy, these two systems are what keep Toronto alive. One is a physical network of tunnels, tracks and routes and the other is a maze-like adventure filled with councillors, candidates, platforms, policies, ballots and regulations.
As you’ve probably heard, there are six people running for Mayor. You’ve read headlines about George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi, Giorgio Mammoliti, Joe Pantalone and Sarah Thomson. And as of this week, you’ve also heard that Rob Ford is running.
What you haven’t heard in the news, is that 21 other people are also running for mayor, a total of 27 candidates.
Electoral exclusion happens at all levels of government, but is most interesting and complex at the municipal level.
Provincially and federally, the exclusion is pretty straight-forward: if you’re not with the four major parties (libs, tories, new dems and bloc) then you don’t exist. The Greens have managed to gain enough popularity to get recognition from some media outlets, but that still leaves 14 parties who are completely ignored, meaning zero media coverage and exclusion from all Leader’s debates. Independent candidates are also excluded from media exposure and most debates.
It’s a democratic crime, but at least it’s a straightforward exclusion and quite transparent.
Municipally, however, there are no official parties. So the process of determining ‘fringe’ candidates from ‘credible’ candidates and identifying ‘front-runners’ is a vague and shady business with no clear answers.
As you’ve no doubt heard, this was the first week that candidates for Toronto’s city election could officially file their nomination papers and begin their campaigns. Mainstream media, social networks and the blogosphere are alive with updates about who’s running for Council and for Mayor.
It would seem to the observer that the election began on Monday. The headlines started to appear and races finally materialised. Rumours turned into campaigns. But the election actually began a long time ago and half of the process is already over. Due to the quirky nature of our out-dated election system, many candidates never even get a chance to appear on the ballot. There is an invisible process that occurs in the months leading up to the ‘beginning’ of the election process that determines who is in the election, and who is excluded.
The Better Ballots project has formally launched and our website is online! We’ll spend the next few months planning a series of public forums that will take place in the spring. We hope you’ll participate!
Visit our new website here
Sign up for our newsletter here