Democracy on the ropes

Good governance versus the black arts of persuasion Published December 13, 2012 by Noel Keough in FFWD’s Viewpoint.

On December 10, city council’s legislative task force debated rules for reporting gifts to the mayor and council. We learned that though the mayor apparently has a stash of gifted coffee mugs and socks, and has never received anything valued over about $100, he believes rules are required to “avoid the appearance of impropriety” in council decision-making.

The discussion about gifts and governance might seem rather mundane, but in fact last week’s council debate on a growth management motion initially drafted by the development industry is a clear example of why good governance is critical to the future of our democracy.

Climate change is another governance issue of municipal, provincial and federal concern. According to research published this week in the journal Nature, climate change is real and those rudimentary computer models of the 1990s have proven surprisingly accurate. Though the science and economics of climate change leaves no doubt about the urgency of decisive action, and although polls consistently show Canadians want to see real action, our government has dithered for 20 years.

The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is the sorry state of our governance. The make-up of Parliament does not represent Canadian opinion; the fossil fuel industry lobby shapes government policy; shadowy political campaign financing erodes democracy; and too many Canadians have given up on an unrepresentative electoral system.

In the recent Calgary Centre byelection, the self-identified “progressives” won over 60 per cent of the vote. But with no progressive candidate having a decisive edge, the Conservatives, with 37 per cent of a dismal voter turnout of 30 per cent, won the right to represent Calgary Centre with the support of only 11 per cent of eligible voters. This is not an atypical result. The Conservatives hold a majority in Parliament, having gamed the system to win 54 per cent of Parliamentary seats while capturing only 38 per cent of votes cast — a mere 23 per cent of eligible voters.

If this were an anomaly we might chalk it up to bad luck, but this happens regularly in federal and provincial elections. In British Columbia in 1996, the New Democrats actually lost the popular vote yet won a majority in the legislature. Even more incredibly, in New Brunswick in 1987, Frank McKenna’s Liberals won 60 per cent of the vote, and every seat!

In a report funded by the Institute for Advanced Policy Research, Calgary was found to have one of the most lax election campaign finance regimes in the country. In our city, the development industry is a much more prominent campaign financier than in, for example, Toronto. The lion’s share of their dollars goes to incumbents, with the result that sitting aldermen and mayors are less likely to be challenged and more likely to win than in the more balanced process in Toronto.

Last week the Polaris Institute released a report raising the veil on yet another governance issue — lobbying. Between 2008 and 2012, the country’s largest oil and gas companies and industry associations registered 2,733 communications with federal bureaucrats and politicians.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was responsible for 536 of those communications. Along with the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, CAPP recorded 78 per cent more communications than the two primary Canadian mining industry associations, and 367 per cent more than the two major automotive industry associations.

This rapid increase in oil and gas industry lobbying coincides with the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the rewriting of over 70 federal laws via Bill C38, and a major multimedia public relations effort by both government and industry designed to counter increasing opposition to the tarsands.

Huge numbers of Canadians have given up on our electoral system. Calgary’s municipal voter turnout oscillates between a dismal 18 per cent in 2004, to a barely respectable 53 per cent in 2010. Provincially, voting rates of 80 per cent or more in the 1930s have plummeted to as low as 40 per cent in 2008. Federally, in election after election we struggle to hit the 60 per cent mark.

Governance is really about how we as a society make decisions. Good decision-making requires robust, fair and transparent processes, and an engaged citizenry.

On December 2, in the wake of the Calgary Centre byelection, a group of 80 citizens gathered at Broken City under the banner of Progressive Tuesdays to talk governance. They meet the first Tuesday of every month.

On March 16, Sustainable Calgary invites Calgarians to a workshop to choose a set of governance indicators for the State of Our City Report. RSVP here and weigh in.

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