Thursday, February 17, 2011

Per-vote funding fairest to parties, voters and taxpayers

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Understanding a democratic bugaboo". Then re-published two weeks later under the title "Parties should be funded more fairly"

Canada is embroiled in a slanted debate about political finance, deliberately framed by one party to their own advantage. Hopefully voters will seek a deeper understanding, for shallow decisions will diminish democracy.

The bugaboo is Canada’s per-vote funding system, whereby each federal party receives $2 annually for each vote earned in the election. The Conservatives have their gun sights on this, hoping to kill it, effectively maiming other parties. That’s because the Conservative Party makes the most effective use of other public subsidies, ones they don’t mention or propose to kill.

Democracy costs money. Crafting effective policy, organizing, and communicating with voters isn’t free; without it, we can’t have good platforms or an informed vote. Money must come from somewhere, and where it does determines the bias of political parties. Funding based on vote share encourages parties to seek greater public support. Private donations leave parties beholden to those with cash to spare for political causes – currently fewer than 2% of Canadians.

But make no mistake, those “private donations” are also publicly-funded, through tax rebates starting at 75%. So while some parties cater to the political wishes of their wealthy donors, your tax dollars pick up the tab.

We also have election rebates: candidates can get 60% (and parties 50%) of their election spending repaid. Available only to candidates over 10% vote (or parties over 2%), this favours established parties with deeper pockets.

Of these three subsidies, which do you think matter the most to the Conservatives, and which is proportionately their least important? If you guessed they benefit the most from tax and election rebates and least from per-vote, you guessed right.

Per-vote funding makes your vote more powerful, because even if it doesn’t elect the MP of your choice, it supports the party that best represents you. By withholding your vote from a party, you withhold money, too.

Top pollster Nick Nanos believes if we eliminate this democratic funding, the result will be a two-party system, leaving us just centre-left and centre-right. Most Canadians believe there are more than two approaches; limiting choice is no way to fix our democratic deficit.

Do you prefer party funding and power determined by how much money they attract from rich private interests, or a fair system based on share of public support? Should those with the most money have the most influence, or should every voter count equally? Should parties be trying to attract more money, or more votes? Cancelling all political subsidies will just tighten wealth’s grip on the levers of power. If subsidies must go, it should be rebates to donors and candidates. Fund parties fully and fairly based on how much voter support they earn, and preserve democratic choice.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Electricity power play just a cheap trick

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, based partly on discussions Peter Bursztyn and I had on Tony Geurgis Live on Rogers TV.

Bad news came in my mailbox: electricity costs are going up. But the good news is electricity costs are going down. Confused? So am I! Apparently this is what passes for energy policy in an election year.

The truth is electricity will get more expensive. But the unspoken truth is that it’s been too cheap in the past. For decades, Liberal, NDP, and PC governments alike underpriced electricity to hold voter support. “Too cheap to meter” nuclear cost far more than was promised. Coal, the other “cheap” power source, creates huge health burdens, while smog reduces crop yields and farm income. Although these costs have not appeared on our electric bills, we still pay.

Our grid is aging and in need of expensive upgrades; old, dirty energy must be phased out and replaced with cleaner methods. That won’t be cheap.

Since electricity was underpriced before, it now seems even more expensive. And because the government sets the rate, we come to believe they decide the cost. But they don’t – the price of electricity is what it costs to build and maintain the grid, and to generate power. Government can influence these costs through long-term energy plans. Poor planning increases costs, and there is no fast way to reduce them.

But under pressure, most of our politicos avoid real solutions and instead offer cheap tricks. The PCs promise we can “opt out” of time-of-day pricing, even though electricity has real time price differences which must be paid. The NDP promise to take HST off energy bills. And now the Liberals are dropping your bill by 10% for the next 5 years. None of these “solutions” actually makes electricity cheaper, they are just shell games, moving the costs around. Ultimately, they make the system inefficient and unfair, as your other taxes pay for your neighbour’s wasteful practices.

Another political deception is pegging renewable energy as the culprit, based on high feed-in-tariff (FIT) rates. That’s a red herring; wind is only 2% of today’s electric supply, and solar almost none. FIT rates have negligible effect on your bills. The 2030 projection has wind at 10% of supply and solar a mere 1.5%, so even over 20 years FIT won’t be driving higher rates.

The worst choice, of course, is to build up more debt and make our children pay. The more we demand lower hydro bills today, the more costs we leave to future generations.

We, as a society, must make serious decisions about how to supply our energy needs, now and in future. And we must begin by acknowledging the real cost of electricity, and paying for it on our bill. Shell games or scapegoats will only make things worse. Demand better.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Weekend of Reel Stories

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Reel Stories event promises to be real great"

Ever watch 6 films in one weekend? With the lineup for this year’s Reel Stories festival, I’m hoping to find out what that’s like.

Held during Barrie’s Winterfest, Reel Stories is a project of the Barrie Film Festival featuring documentaries or films based on real events. Film programmer Julinda Morrow has created a stellar line-up this year; there isn’t one film I want to miss.

The lead-off is a bio-pic I really want to see, Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie. Although I’ve met and spoken with Dr. Suzuki before, there’s something I still don’t understand: how did he forgive us? When he was a child, our country took his family’s home, business, and savings just because their ancestors were Japanese. Then we worked his family at menial jobs to pay rent for their own confinement. Even after the war, we didn’t return what we stole. How, then, is he so giving toward us? When my own grandfather was treated similarly, he abandoned his ancestral home for the uncertainty of a new life in a new continent. He never forgave the Nazis for the 11 years of his life they took, and I don’t think I could, either. So what’s Suzuki’s secret? Perhaps this Friday I’ll learn.

Saturday’s theme seems to be crime & confinement. Inside Job combines research and interviews to explain the roots of 2008’s global financial meltdown which still affects us today. Most amazing are the unrepentant financiers who feathered their own nests while risking the livelihoods of millions of regular folk. Prepare to be appalled!

It’s Kind of a Funny Story stars Zach Galifianakis as a psych ward mentor to a troubled teen. Based on true experiences of author Ned Vissini, the trailer indicates this film is a funny yet profound exploration of friendship, adolescence, and self-discovery.

Wrapping up Saturday, Canadian blues goddess Rita Chiarelli will personally present Music from the Big House, a documentary about her pilgrimage to meet the violent criminals who live new lives through the soulful power of the blues at Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison.

Sunday’s films explore art and creativity from two very different angles. Waste Land looks at the indigents who live off the world’s largest garbage dump, outside Rio de Janeiro. Celebrated artist Vik Muniz collaborates with them to create valuable and critically-acclaimed works of art, transforming their creators and bringing back much-needed money.

The fest concludes by exploring the ownership of art in The People vs. George Lucas. Through samples of myriad forms of fan-art (amateur filmed remakes, drawings, claymation, even Lego) true fans explore their love of the original Star Wars trilogy. Yet uncensored interviews also capture their anger at Lucas’ prequels and revisions. Who owns the cultural touchstones that define our lives, and who has a right to control, change, or withhold them? It promises to be both funny and impassioned, and no fan should miss it.

See you at the movies!

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.