Thursday, December 31, 2015

Arguing for a referendum is arguing for PR

I wonder what will change in 2016: will the year bring any great leaps, other than February 29? Or, as usual, will it be much like the old year, just more of the same?
For once, I expect a lot more difference than usual, and the reasons are purely political. This past fall, our flawed electoral system did what it does best; based on a relatively small swing in votes, it took false majority power away from one party with minority political support and gave it to another, leading to a massive and ongoing reversal of the past decade of Conservative federal policy, at great expense to Canadians. While I do support many of the new directions this government is taking, such as a more human face to our foreign policy and a strong leadership role in international climate action, this radical shift demonstrates the flaws in how we elect governments. It still doesn’t make sense for 39% of voting Canadians to choose a government that has 100% of the power.
Them's electing words!
Yet that, too, may change in the coming year or two. One of Prime Minister Trudeau’s signature election promises was that we have had the last election under first-past-the-post, our thousand-year-old, obsolete electoral system. While many expect the Liberals to simply tinker with the system by adding an element of instant runoff, also known as alternate vote or ranked balloting, the promise to “make every vote count” implies some measure of actual proportionality. Under our current system, or ranked voting, every vote is counted on election day but only the “winners” of a “majority” count toward making policy, while votes for other candidates or parties are effectively discarded. Given constant progress in all technologies, there is no reason not to adopt a 21st-century voting system.
But what’s funny about this likely change are the demands, mainly from supporters of the status quo, that any electoral system reform come only after a successful referendum vote where more than 50% vote for the change. This flies completely in the face of the underlying value of our current electoral system, the one they would have us retain, where decisions aren’t made by a 50%+ majority, but by the “majority” of MPs elected with a mere 39% of votes. Our system didn’t require a referendum to erase the Navigable Waters Act, an important law dating back to 1882. It didn’t take a referendum to cancel the federal long gun registry. Despite a clear majority ofvoters supporting climate action and an investigation into missing and murdered aboriginal women, those actions were snubbed by our former government. Certainly they didn’t put it to a referendum when they tinkered with many key aspects of our voting system in the so-called Fair Elections Act. On many of those files, they invoked closure in the House so there wasn’t even a full debate among MPs before the “majority” government had their way.
The basic principle behind first-past-the-post is that whichever party forms a “majority” based on enough local riding pluralities gets to make (and change) the laws. Anyone who argues that such changes should instead require support of 50%+ of voters in a referendum is, in effect, arguing for proportional representation, because under PR, only laws that have more than 50% voter support will pass. So which do you want, the “powerful, stable” false majority governments that FPP elects, or a proportional system that actually reflects voter desires? Because you can’t use the latter principle to argue for the former.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Tinkering with the voting system"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Canada is back to leading on energy and environment

Everything this week seems to be about energy. On the negative front, Ontario’s electricity system has been mismanaged, causing excess costs, or so Ontario’s Auditor General has reported. While some of this seems to be a misunderstanding, since, as I wrote almost a year ago, having enough electric supply when we need it requires having too much at other times, I have seen other instances where political expediency or rank incompetence has run up the bill. But while renewable energy seems to be the whipping-boy for those, mostly to the right, who despise everything Liberal, there are a couple of other decisions which are going to be far more consequential for our pocketbooks. One is a pending investment in more nuclear power, the most expensive and underwhelming option in Ontario’s power book. Every nuclear build or re-build in Ontario’s history has been way over budget and taken far longer than promised, and there is no reason to assume this will be otherwise.
The other is the cap-and-trade scheme by which Ontario, along with Quebec, Manitoba, and California, will somehow issue emission permits, some for money and others free, requiring all emitters obtain sufficient permits. The potential for gaming this system for private gain is huge, as is the potential for subverting and exceeding the supposed limits. The only thing we can predict for sure, in the absence of more details, is this will be a very expensive way to achieve emission reductions.
Other promised measures hold out more promise. Ontario’s recent promise to install thousands of electric vehicle charging stations is a big move in the right direction. Getting cars off polluting gasoline and onto our relatively clean electric grid can only help reduce climate emissions and improve air quality. Convenient charging stations will allow more people and businesses to make the switch to electric. (Then you just have to remember to plug in! Oops…)
And now there is talk of putting serious money into retrofitting our buildings. These initiatives are a win-win-win, because not only do they reduce energy waste, they also save you money every month on your electric and gas bills, and create lots of good local jobs that can’t be offshored. Only a tiny fraction of our buildings have been retrofitted or built to high energy standards, so there is huge potential on this front.
I don't know the guy standing,
but I know two of the ladies sitting beside him.
And if the word from Paris is anything to go by, we need to find the areas of most potential, and soon. That’s because our own Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catharine McKenna, just called for a global target of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, much safer than the 2 degrees earlier consensed. Finally, Canada is showing strong leadership on the climate file! This target is very ambitious, and will require not just the federal government, but all provinces, cities, businesses, and even families to take concrete steps to cut back their emissions.
Komm vit mir if you vant to liff.
Luckily, with new climate-conscious government in Ottawa and Alberta and with oil patch unions heeding the call, the will may finally be here to transition our nation off fossil fuels entirely. As former California Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger noted this week: “A clean energy future is a wise investment, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either wrong, or lying. Now come with me if you want to live.”

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Will strong to dump fossil fuels?"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time for Canada to flex its climate-fighting muscles

The tragic Paris attacks sharpened the world’s awareness of the reach of violent struggles in Syria, and cancelled a demonstration in Paris expecting 200,000 marchers the eve of the international climate conference now engaged.
But that’s not the only link between terror attacks and global warming. For a decade, the Pentagon’s official threat assessments have pegged global climate change as a major driver of conflicts and wars around the globe; the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the first and most visible proof.
In 2007-2010, Syria experienced unprecedented drought, surely amplified by a warming climate. With 80% livestock death and 60% farm failure, desperate millions left the land for cities unprepared to accommodate them. Overcrowding, with an influx of Iraqi refugees, created ideal conditions first for uprisings and civil war, then the shocking growth of an evil organization just waiting for the opportunity to pounce and seize power.
For it is no coincidence that out of 1.6 billion or more Muslims around the world, including 50 majority-Muslim nations, the Islamic State targetted this area of extreme instability to birth their new “caliphate”. Their brand of evil and violent politics can only find fertile ground where the real ground has been destroyed by war, weather or both.
Proof of the Pentagon’s dire predictions should sharpen our will to address climate change with a global consensus: the time for dithering has passed, we need binding agreements to reduce emissions, everywhere, sufficiently to limit global warming to what we have already “locked in” with our actions so far. If not, where will be the next drought- or flood-related disaster, driving millions of climate refugees into nations already straining to feed their own populations?
Sadly, there is still a lack of will to do what must be done. The general excuse, as always, is the fear of acting first, or of going further than others, and losing some kind of economic advantage to laggards who ignore the threat or take advantage of other nations’ reductions to delay their own.
There's a line in the sand.
There is only one way to overcome such hesitance: leadership in action. Smaller nations and developing countries always look to larger or more advanced peers for guidance and, even if subconsciously, model behaviour after them. Which means that even if we don’t manage, at the end of the Paris talks, to get sufficient or binding commitments from every nation, we must not give up or shirk our own duty.
Canadians often think of themselves as globally insignificant, an attitude climate deniers like to twist to their own ends. But we are the 10th-largest economy in the world, at the highest general standard of living, with trade ties all over the planet. When we do things, the world notices what we do and how we do it.
Although Prime Minister Trudeau entered the climate talks with the insufficient reduction pledge former Prime Minister Harper wrote, there is still time, between now and when the agreement takes effect in 2020, for Canadians to show that we can do more and better, and on top of that, prove that we can prosper while aggressively reducing emissions. We have the technology, such as our growing clean tech revolution, we have proven policy tools, like BC’s successful carbon tax shift, we need only flex our leadership muscles to move from climate change pariah to hero. Let’s do it!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.