Friday, 25 May 2007

Do We Need Electoral Reform

Is our system of representative government broken. Does it require fixing.

Some will argue that, because the representation of parties in our legislatures does not represent their percentage of support overall within the country or the province, all people and ideas are not being represented. They may have a point, but if we accept that how do we fix it and retain a representative system. Do we want to retain a representative system.

The value of representative government is that our representatives are more than just legislators, they are representatives of communities. We do not just vote for party leaders or parties but for someone to represent our community. Our elected representatives act as our link to government, not just as legislators but as information conduits in both directions, from and to government. Much of a representative’s time is spent in an ombudsman role in what is referred to as “constituency work” and this work involves dealing with the elected government, Cabinet Ministers, as well as with the Public Service.

Most of the proposals for proportional representation involve party lists and two classes of representatives, some representing local communities (constituencies), and some selected overall from the party lists.

Do we want to have two classes of representatives. Do we want to have a system that puts even more emphasis on voting for the party and party leader than the local representative.

Or should we expect someone wanting to get elected to have to convince a majority in their local community to vote for them.

We do have a problem. The problem is what most call “strategic voting”, but what is really “negative voting” - choosing who to vote for based on who you do not want to get elected rather than who you want to get elected. It involves people not voting for their first choice but for the least worse of those they think have the best chance to win. Fear that the “wrong” person will be elected appears to be stronger than the desire that the “right” person be elected.

This practice does more to prevent independents or representatives of newer or “minor” parties from getting elected than the structure of the system itself.

There is a solution. It involves allowing people to vote for their first choice without “losing” their vote and it means all representatives will be elected by over fifty percent of voters in their community.

Voters will vote preferentially for as many candidates as they like. If they only want to vote for one candidate they only indicate a first choice, otherwise they will indicate their choices in order of preference for as many candidates as they choose. Votes will be transferred from candidates receiving the least number of votes to the voters next preference until one candidate receives over fifty percent of the votes.

I predict that such a system would result in a reduction in the imbalance between parties overall popular vote and percentage of elected representatives and will also see an increase in the number of independents elected, something that proportional representation proposals do not address.

In this age of electronic voting it is an idea whose time has come.

As for proportional representation, if we are not prepared to abolish the Senate, it might be an interesting experiment to try with the Senate.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Should The Peace Movement Align Itself With Forces Involved in Armed Struggle

An article by Don Butler, CanWest News Service in the National Post on May 8, 2007 reports that:

“Canadian activists were out in force at a recent conference in Cairo that sought to forge closer links between the international anti-war movement and Islamic resistance groups, including several on Canada's terrorism list.

About 20 Canadians attended the March 29 to April 1 Cairo Conference, the largest delegation from Canada in the event's five-year history. According to one report, it was also one of the largest delegations from outside the Middle East.

In total, as many as 1,500 delegates from the Middle East, Europe, South Korea and the Americas attended. Many of the Canadian delegates were from the Canadian Peace Alliance, the country's largest umbrella peace organization, and some of its 150 affiliated groups, said peace alliance coordinator Sid Lacombe, who attended the conference.”

We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In many ways terrorists are like war criminals, they are never on the winning side.

Indeed, by the current definition of terrorist put forth by the United States and adopted by most “western countries” I have financially supported a terrorist organization in the past. It was the National African Congress whose leader Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed the American revolutionaries, whom the United States celebrates as national heroes, would be considered terrorists by the current definition.

So we are not going to try and judge who is or is not a terrorist but simply look at whether the peace movement should be allied with any groups that believe armed struggle is necessary or appropriate.

There are a couple of simple answers.

● The peace movement believes in peace, not war. It should not be supporting violence of any kind.

● There will not be peace as long as there is oppression and the peace movement must support all struggles against oppression.

While the second option may be true, it may be impractical. How do you decide which struggle to support without allying yourself with actual terrorists. Do you support anyone who declares themselves anti-imperialist or do you have a bunch of hard core left wingers around the table arguing the fine points of ideology to decide who is a freedom fighter. Either approach is going to limit considerably the ability to build a mass public anti-war and peace movement.

That is not to say that there is not a place for solidarity movements with oppressed peoples. The question is whether it is appropriate to consider them part of the peace movement and whether doing so limits the broad public support of the peace movement,.

The first option my seem naive, in that it may seem to assume that armed struggle is never necessary or appropriate. But actually it does not. It just says that it is not appropriate for the peace movement to support armed struggle.

The first option is the only option capable of building a mass publicly supported peace movement. As that movement grows the ability to find alternatives to armed struggle increase exponentially. It is the role of the peace movement to build that momentum and find new ways to bring people together.

While the idea of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, building a peaceful Middle East together may seem hopelessly naive, at one time the idea of blacks and whites building a new South Africa together seemed equally as naive. And yes the armed struggle played a role, but inevitably peaceful reconciliation became the only alternative. We are seeing the start of that same process now in Northern Ireland.

The peace movement must be devoted to peace, not war.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968), "Strength to Love".

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Should Bicycle Helmets be Mandatory

This column was inspired by a discussion on MTB Kanata

Whenever I see someone on a bike without a helmet, whether on the trails or the road, no matter how expensive or fancy the bike might be, I always assume the rider is not a serious cyclist, because a serious cyclist would be wearing a helmet.

So should we be legislating common sense and requiring everyone to wear a helmet by law. I think we can all agree that legislation on it’s own is not the answer. We simply do not have the enforcement resources. Public education and changing attitudes is always the best answer. That is ultimately what reduced impaired driving, though increased sentences, as a sign that society’s attitudes had changed, was a big part of that.

However legislation can be an important part of a public education campaign. The example of seat belts is an excellent example of how that works. We have mandatory seat belt laws. The police do not devote extensive resources to enforcement but occasionally do blitzes as part of the public education campaign. We see these less and less as public attitudes have changed and we now have extremely high seat belt usage in Canada as a result of this combination of legislation and public education. This is how mandatory bicycle helmet legislation would work.

One of the biggest ant-helmet law argument is the individualist argument, or the right to be stupid it does not affect you argument. We live in a country with a social contract. This is not the capitalistic individualist United States. We have Canadian values that include caring about each other. But we also have a much more practical stake. We all contribute to a publicly funded universal health care system - and opting out is not an option. So we all have a practical stake in preventing needless deaths and injuries. As cyclists we also have a stake in keeping injuries down to avoid excuses to put restrictions on cycling. Mountain bikers, in particular, know the impact concerns about injuries and liability have on trail access.

Some have suggested we only have legislation for children, which is what we have now and it is not enforced and completely ineffective. The main reason it is not effective is because it is hypocritical. Children and young people do not respond well to hypocrisy. It is like the parents you see on the trails or paths everyday telling their children “don’t worry you only have to wear your helmet now when I’m watching, when you get older like me you won’t have to wear a stupid helmet”, which is what they are telling their children when they go out riding with their children and do not wear a helmet themselves. We teach best by example, and worst by hypocrisy. That is why we see so many young people, for some reason mostly girls, riding their bikes with their helmets dangling from their handlebars.

A huge part of public education in today’s society is the influence of role models. This is what started the discussion on MTB Kanata. Stunt riders performing at the Tour Nortel, ironically a fund raiser for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), were doing dangerous stunts without wearing helmets, setting the worst example you could find (unless the idea was to create future business for the hospitals head and brain injury wards). Yes, I’m shaking my head too. There was actually controversy about whether this was a bad idea with the suggestion if children follow the example of their heroes and get injured it is their own fault for being stupid and having parents that raised them to be “morons”.

Children, and adults too, are highly influenced by role models, their heroes, particularly in today’s mass media society. I remember seeing a photo of Lance Armstrong riding without a helmet in the Tour de France. It was explained to me that, while helmet use is mandatory during most of “The Tour” at certain stages it is not (apparently because the risk is less at those stages). This just sends mixed messages, particularly when you have photos of the world’s number one cycling hero riding without a helmet. If everyone always wears a helmet you would have a level playing field and you would be sending a message that hard core riders always wear their helmets, rather than the message that they do not, leaving children wanting to imitate their heroes, such as the helmetless riders at the children’s hospital fundraiser.

So if public education is the answer who should be doing the education. Public authorities such as schools certainly have a role to play, and the probably are not doing enough. You would also expect an organization that calls itself Citizens for Safe Cycling (CFSC) to perform that role. While CFSC does do rider safety training, their main emphasis, when it comes to helmet use, is to mount an extensive campaign against mandatory helmet laws while paying lip service to the benefits of wearing a helmet. Their position on bike lanes, that I and many other cyclists agree provide a safer and much less scary riding experience, is also really perplexing.

CFSC, and others, argue that requiring people to wear helmets will deter people from riding because of the helmet costs. Helmets meeting safety standards can be purchased for $20. They also argue that it will scare people away from cycling because they will think it is dangerous. Would anyone argue that young (or old) hockey players should not be required to wear safety equipment because it might scare them away from the sport. The fact is cycling does have risks, but learning how to cycle safely and wearing a helmet will make it a relatively safe activity. That is what should be promoted, not underplaying the risks to encourage people to cycle.

Read more about CFSC policies.

Then there is the “I only wear my helmet when it is dangerous” argument. I can remember an experience riding on a relatively tame trail (Old Quarry) with a much more experience hard core rider than me and he crashed on this easy trail. Of course he was wearing a helmet. We tend to concentrate more on the dangerous stuff and less on the easy stuff, which actually balances out the risk. You cannot predict when you are going to need your helmet to protect you.

One of the best reasons to always wear your helmet because if you do you will always have it on when you need it. Developing a habit is the best way to avoid forgetting to wear it when you need it. Let me tell you a story about a rider who always wears his helmet, except that he decided he did not need it riding his trainer in the basement over the winter. On the way back from his first ride of the season on his mountain this helmet use proselytizer discovered he was not wearing his helmet. Luckily I did not need it on that ride.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Workers of the World Unite

Today is May Day, also known as International Workers' Day.

The first day of May is a day of celebration and solidarity for working people around the world. International Workers’ Day celebrates the unity of workers and their unions in the cause of equality, justice and the daily struggle to improve the quality of life of our families and communities. (Canadian Labourt Congress)

On May 1, 1886, Chicago unionists, reformers, socialists, anarchists, and ordinary workers combined to make the city the center of the national movement for an eight-hour day. Between April 25 and May 4, workers attended scores of meetings and paraded through the streets at least 19 times. On Saturday, May 1, 35,000 workers walked off their jobs. Tens of thousands more, both skilled and unskilled, joined them on May 3 and 4. Crowds traveled from workplace to workplace urging fellow workers to strike. Many now adopted the radical demand of eight hours' work for ten hours' pay. Police clashed with strikers at least a dozen times, three with shootings.... Inspired by the American movement for a shorter workday, socialists and unionists around the world began celebrating May 1, or May Day, as an international workers' holiday. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries officially adopted it. The Haymarket tragedy is remembered throughout the world in speeches, murals, and monuments. American observance was strongest in the decade before World War I. (Encyclopedia of Chicago)

For more information see the May Day Archive.