Friday, 27 February 2009

House of Commons Online Voting Records – The Back Story

I would like to thank The Enlightened Savage for drawing my attention to this article from Canwest News Service.

Unfortunately there is some missing and misleading information in the article which states:

OTTAWA - The House of Commons is developing a system to put every MP’s voting record on the web, shining light for the first time on information that has long been buried deep within House of Commons records.

While voting records of elected officials in other countries are often easily accessible, the House of Commons currently provides no comprehensive records of how MPs vote on bills and motions in Parliament.

The information can only be found by searching through thousands of pages of Hansard, the official record of the House of Commons debates, and extracting the listings for results of each individual vote, a process that would be extremely time-consuming.
What is true about the article is that there is not yet a user friendly online way to directly access House of Commons voting records. However, for at least ten years, an automated voting records system has been in place and MPs voting records have been provided on request. The system, which certainly has it's faults, has been developed and improved over the years but cannot be accessed directly by users. The main clients of the service have been Members of Parliament's offices and the media, so it is surprising that the Canwest article ignored this fact.

And even before this, the results of every vote were readily available in the Journals of the House of Commons, though not in a database format.

But what is most important is the question of the usefulness of such a system and the type of information it should provide.

We first of all have to acknowledge the very strong party system in Canadian federal politics and the House of Commons. Well over 90 per cent of the time MPs are going to vote with their parties. So if you want to get useful information from a voting records system you need to be able to track how the parties voted and identify the anomalies when MPs did not vote with their parties.

If I was designing the system, as well as having the ability to generate individual Members of Parliament's voting records, I would also design it to be able to automatically generate the following information. There are probably other standard things to track that could be added to this list.
- percentage of votes won by the government

- percentage of times each party voted with the government

- MPs that voted against their own party, and the votes where they did

- comparisons by party of MPs voting against their party by percentage

-ability to track votes by subject

-ability to track the rare occasions when a vote is declared a “free vote”
There is a whole other factor that comes into play as well – the fact that huge numbers of votes on amendments, particularly at report stage, can skew the statistical results. It would be useful to be able to exclude these votes from the results on certain occasions and just analyze the results for the main votes on each stage of bills and motions..

The system should also provide the ability for users to write their own queries.

We can only hope that this online voting records system will be comprehensive enough to be useful and provide more information than could simply be determined by knowing which party each Member of Parliament belongs to.

The most important factor in such a system, though, will be the users knowledge and understanding of the Parliamentary system and ability to actually understand what the results of a query on of the system actually means.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

A Lesson for PETA in Biology and Ethics

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and others of their ilk, claim to be concerned about the ethical treatment of animals.

Let us talk about science. Animals can be classed as carnivores, herbivores or omnivores. It is natural for carnivores to eat meat, herbivores plants, and omnivores both.

People are animals. To be more specific, people are primates, mammals and omnivores.

Let us talk about ethics. It is highly unethical to try to make an animal go against it's own nature. For example, to try to force feed a herbivore meat or a carnivore plants. It is equally as unethical to try to coerce people into going against their own nature and eat only plant matter, and extremely unethical to suggest that it is immoral for people to act in a perfectly natural way, as the omnivores that they are.

And while I may enjoy PETA's rather sexist topless protests I find it rather odd to see the “I'd rather go naked than wear fur” protesters dressed in high “leather looking” boots. I can only assume that they are synthetic and that PETA, who try to claim to be environmentalists, believe it is better to wear boots made from petrochemicals from the tar sands, than wear boots made from natural renewable animal products.

We need to send PETA, and their followers, back to school for some basic lessons in biology and ethics. I have selected a few sources that might help them understand.

Omnivores - Kid's Corner - Sheppard Software

Carnivore, Herbivore, or Omnivore?

What is an omnivore?

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Migraine Hell and Other Thoughts

The Fifth Columnist has just gone through migraine hell, spending two weeks with an almost continuous migraine. Thus blogging was sporadic over the last couple of weeks. After a visit to emergency, and a CT scan determined my brain was normal and a visit to the doctor put me on new medication, I am actually feeling quite optimistic that my migraines may now become much fewer.

Unfortunately a lot was happening and I was thinking about blogging about things but was not able to – like how pissed off Stevie must have been when Michaëlle shared the front page photo of the Ottawa Citizen with Barack, rather than him, especially as he tried so hard to hide her from the press, but she and they would have none of it.

The other thing I contemplated was other “controversial” ads that OC Transpo could ban from their buses, like:

The Earth is Not Flat, Stop Worrying You Won't Fall Off The Edge

Gravity Keeps You Down – Don't Worry If You Run Out of Crazy Glue

The Climate is Changing and it's Our Fault – Don't Worry, Do Something About It

The interesting thing that all these slogans have in common with “there’s probably no god”, is that they have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with science. It is a sad day for Canada when scientific facts become too “controversial” for the side of a bus.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

If there was a god …

these ads would not be allowed on OC Transpo buses...


and these ads would.


NOTE: the Gods of Rock ads have been withdrawn, no thanks to OC Transpo or any mythical creature, but due to Virgin Radio listening to the people. Now will OC Transpo listen to reason and allow atheists the same freedom of expression they allow religionists on OC Transpo buses.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Random Observations

OC Transpo Screws Up Scheduling On First Days Back

On the first Saturday and Sunday of post-strike service OC Transpo managers, the people who want to take more control over OC Transpo scheduling, screwed it up so that drivers ended up being paid overtime, even though the system is at reduced capacity and drivers are sharing limited working hours.

As the Ottawa Citizen reported “Under questioning from River Councillor Maria McRae, OC Transpo director, Alain Mercier, said when the company made up schedules for drivers returning to work, an error was made and extra drivers had to be called in to cover all the routes.”

Pete Seeger Receives Apology – Better Late Than Never

As the CBC reported:

Nearly a half century ago, amid suspicion and fears of McCarthyism, folk singer Pete Seeger faced an ultimatum from the San Diego school district: Sign an oath against communism or cancel a concert he planned at a high school auditorium.

Seeger, who at the time of the board's demand was under scrutiny for his leftist politics, refused to sign the oath. A judge allowed the concert to proceed anyway.

Decades later, the school board wants to make amends. In a resolution approved Tuesday night, the school district declared that the board "deeply regrets its predecessors' actions" and offered an apology to a man who has become "one of our dearest national treasures."

The 89-year-old songwriter appears willing to accept the board's apology, saying the board's resolution is a "measure of justice that our right to freedom of expression has been vindicated."
E-Cigs – I Got Spammed

As one who thinks that smoking is not cool, but a disgusting habit, I really do not know what to make of this. A SPAM message about this was posted as a response to my post about the Economic Crisis Opportunity. I have deleted it but I do not know what to make of it. Is this a legitimate form of harm reduction or a tool to quit smoking, or just a SCAM. The proponent seem to be marketing it to anyone and everyone, from those that think smoking is cool to those that want to quit, and are clearly only interested in the profit they can make from selling this product.

Canadian Poll Results and Electoral Projections – ThreeHundredEight.com

I was recently asked to promote this website so I went to take a look at it. It reports on Canadian electoral polling and uses a weighting system to predict election results.

I have not analysed their methodology but I doubt if my one Poli Sci statistics course would qualify me to do so anyway. This is a really interesting idea and the site is worthwhile, just to be able to find all the different polling results in one place.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Right Wing on Child Soldiers and War Resisters

The right wing believes that a fifteen year old child soldier (according to the United Nations definition) accused of killing an American soldier (based on questionable evidence) in a war zone should be treated as a terrorist.

The right wing also believes that American soldiers taking refuge in Canada after refusing to fight in an illegal war, where they might be required to kill innocent civilians, should be returned to the United States to face punishment.

Go figure.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Economic Crisis Opportunity – The Short Term Response

With the global environmental crisis comes a global economic opportunity. Just as the response to climate change involves solutions that we should be undertaking anyway, so does the global economic crisis. In the long term we have to change our way of living to save the global environment and the global economy.

In the long term we have to move from an unlimited growth economy to a limits to growth economy. In the short term we have to preserve the livelihoods of working people while preparing for long term changes. That means we need short term economic stimulus and job creation.

Short term governmental budget deficits are going to be a necessary part of this response. We must bear in mind that budget deficits shift payments to future generations so they should be utilized in a manner that benefits future generations.

First of all they must not be used to transfer money from future generations to the present generation via tax cuts. The use of tax cuts at this time to stimulate the economy is a flawed approach anyway as people are more likely to save during times of economic uncertainty, rather than spend, because it is the prudent thing to do. The only people who will spend the tax cut funds are those that do not need them. Using deficit funding for tax cuts is simply stealing from our children and grandchildren.

The most important thing we can spend stimulus money on is dealing with the infrastructure deficit. If your roof was leaking and you had to borrow money to fix it – would you do that or leave it to deteriorate till the repairs could not be avoided and the costs had multiplied many times over what borrowing to fix it would cost you. That is what we have done with our infrastructure, except future generations will be saddled with those inflated costs. In our short-sighted concern about avoiding budget deficits we have let our country's infrastructure go into a deficit. Using deficit financing to eliminate the infrastructure deficit will save, not cost, future generations money.

As well, damaged transportation infrastructure increases transportation costs, as poor infrastructure leads to more necessary repairs on private vehicles, as well as public transit vehicles, and greater fuel consumption with it's environmental costs. Decaying water and sewer systems have health and environmental implications. Inadequate educational infrastructure affects the quality of our children's education and our society's readiness for the future.

The other component of economic stimulus that should provided by deficit spending is preparing for the new future. We should not be spending any government funds, and in particular funds that future generations will be paying for, on the old failed economy.

No funds should go to fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Funding of the energy sector should be targeted at renewable and environmentally friendly energy sources,

Industrial funding should be targeted at low energy and environmentally friendly infrastructure and sustainable industries. Funding for the automobile sector should be target to next generation environmentally friendly vehicles and public transit infrastructure.

We must prepare our economy, and the public, for the transition to a limits to growth economy and for the need to share the planets limited resources more equitably between those who now live in abject poverty and those who live in wasteful abundance driven by greed. This will be an economy with the emphasis on self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability, an economy based on a sense of community, locally and globally.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

For Gmail Users - MailStore

Special Sunday Fifth Column

I do not usually post software reviews here, and this is not a full review, but something I stumbled upon.

I love Gmail, especially it's LABELS, which allows one to put messages in multiple virtual folders. My one big concern was not having my mail stored on my own computer. I now have a very easy and simple and intuitive way to do that using free software called MailStore.

This is one of the most intuitive programs that I have ever used. I had it up and running and tested the retrieval function on two Gmail accounts in under ten minutes.

MailStore can be downloaded here.

I will still store and retrieve my mail from Gmail online but I will have peace of mind knowing I have it duplicated offline on my own computer.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Building A New Society From The Collapse of Capitalism

This is the first of a series on the economic crisis opportunity.

Karl Marx said “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. In other words we are all expected to contribute to society what we can and only expected to take what we need. Under socialism laziness and greed are both vices.

Unfortunately under modern capitalism greed is considered more of a virtue than a vice and has become the driving force of the economic system. It is greed that has brought capitalism to where it is today.

So is socialism the answer. Rather than try to insert a lengthy treatise into the middle of this post let us just all agree that we are not ready to move to that stage at this point in time.

But we do need to change our way of thinking and the way we live in this world for the good of the planet and it’s peoples.

Capitalism has simply gotten out of control, especially American capitalism where most corporations today operate on the principle that “corporate officers have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value”, that is profits, without regards for employees or customers, or communities, or the broader public good.

We have seen it in our communities with the decline of local businesses and the growth of mega corporations. As owners become more disconnected from their businesses concerns for workers and customer value disappear to be replaced by the pursuit of, not just a fair profit, but maximized profit.

And we are all complicit as we sell out our friends and neighbours who worked in the locally owned businesses and local factories, for cheap goods produced abroad by near-slave labour.

Alongside greed, but driven by it, are false assumptions. The first false assumption is that wealth creation is all that matters, and wealth redistribution is an evil of socialism. The assumption being that as long as we keep creating wealth the rich will keep getting richer but enough “crumbs” will trickle down to working people and the poor to keep them happy. This is based on the same theory that sees recessions as the worst thing that could possibly happen. But it is a theory based on continuous and unlimited growth, a dangerous false assumption, The planet simply does not have the resources to support unlimited economic growth without self-destructing.

So where do we go from here. For the moment those responsible are still living their lavish lifestyles, pausing only to fly to Washington in their corporate jets to ask the common people to bail them out with their tax money. But the fact is that the American economy, and even the Canadian economy is so dominated by these mega corporations that their failure would have serious implications for working people.

In the short term governments need to keep the economy from collapsing, for the broader good, But they should not do it on the corporations terms but in a way that serves the common people. In the long term this is an opportunity to change the way the economy works – to an economy that serves the common good, not just corporate interests.

We have seen that countries with mixed economies, in particularly Canada, with a greater degree of government regulation and involvement in the economy have done better than the American pure capitalist approach. We need to learn from that, and build on it. But we need to go much further in building an economy for the people and the planet rather than an economy just for the corporations.

We can build an economy that can provide everyone with a decent quality of life if we responsibly and sustainably utilize and distribute the planet's resources.

Future posts will look in more detail at what we need to do in the short and long term.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Labour-Management Relations at OC Transpo – Moving Forward After The Strike

This was a strike that had to be, but never should have been. After over 50 days of the workers going without pay and the city going without transit service, and the hardships resulting from that, we ended up with a settlement that we could have had without a strike.

But the fact is that it took a strike for OC Transpo and Mayor Larry to realize they could not impose their position (the main issue being the rollback of previously negotiated contract provisions) unilaterally.

At this point we have very ill will between workers and management and the potential for a “poisoned work environment”. How do we move forward from here.

The irony of it all is that the very contentious scheduling provisions that we're at the heart of the strike were negotiated as a solution to the ill will between management and workers and a “poisoned work environment”.

The solution put forward at that time, by the consulting group KPMG, was to get both sides to work together for the common good using interest-based bargaining, rather than the traditional confrontational demands-based bargaining. Out of that came a management proposal to change the scheduling system to give the workers more control over their lives. And things did improve.

Then Larry O'Brien was elected Mayor of Ottawa, and he obviously did not bother to learn the history of OC Transpo or he chose to ignore it.

We can no longer ignore history. We not only need to rebuild OC Transpo ridership, we also need to rebuild trust between workers and management. We need to go back to the non-confrontational approach.

Their may be a need for improvements to the scheduling system. If so, they should be designed the same way the existing system was designed, by workers and management taking the time to co-operatively design a better system together.

There will be a lot of challenges to rebuild OC Transpo and rebuild ridership. The chances of success will be a lot better if workers and management do it together co-operatively. We are at the stage of moving into a whole new phase of public transit in Ottawa. We can only succeed if we work together and take advantage of, not only the expertise of hired consultants, but the expertise of our own front line workers who are in contact with transit users everyday.

Both sides could start by providing transit users with an assurance of continued stable transit service by agreeing to use interest-based bargaining for the next collective agreement and agreeing to send any outstanding issues to binding arbitration with no preconditions.

They could start working immediately by establishing a worker-management brainstorming group to develop ways of improving transit service in Ottawa. Not only might this come up with some novel ways to improve service, it will get both sides working together for the common good.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

André Cornellier – Working Class Hero

Special Sunday Fifth Column


He may be the most hated man in Ottawa . During the OC Transpo strike he certainly did not endear himself with the public and he never said what he was supposed to say. Indeed I called him “the world's worst communicator”. But he spoke straight from the heart and the gut. In the midst of the chaos and hardship of the OC Transpo strike he made it clear that there was only one thing he cared about – his members' rights and their struggle against and OC Transpo's attempts to roll back previously negotiated contract provisions and Mayor Larry O'Brien's goal of breaking their union. He fought for them to the end not caring what anyone thought of him, only thinking about winning the battle for the workers he was leading.

An old school labour leader, he may not be the right man to lead the workers during the next stage of labour management relations at OC Transpo, that will be for them to decide, but he is still a true Working Class Hero.