Saturday, October 30, 2010

Our Conservative Government Threatens our Economic Health By Ignoring Action on Climate Change

There were very few successes to come out of the disappointing Copenhagen climate summit (COP-15) last year. The non-binding “Copenhagen Accord”, however, did acknowledge the importance of limiting the level of global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. There is a significant understanding throughout the global scientific community that warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius will lead to the creation of uncontrollable feedback loops and runaway global warming. These feedback loops include the melting of arctic permafrost and the release vast quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, along with the drying out of the Amazon rain forest and the melting of polar ice caps.

Despite recognizing the urgent need to hold global warming in check at no more than 2 degrees Celsius, the international community has taken very few steps to actually make this outcome happen. Indeed, the few steps forward have been offset by the many steps backwards. Although we understand in very fine detail the relationship between increased greenhouse gases and the threats which they pose to our economy, environment, and security, most nations have failed to follow through on measures meant to curb the reduction of carbon being spewed into our atmosphere.

Governments, including Canada’s, while acknowledging the need for action, have continually failed to protect the future of their citizens by outlining a plan which will actually lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada agreed to an emissions reduction target of 25% of 1990 levels by the year 2020. Canada, under Stephen Harper, has proven to be the only signatory nation to the Kyoto Protocol to abandon its international commitment to reduce emissions. Our current target for emissions “reduction” is intensity based, and will actually lead to an outcome of 3% above 1990 levels by 2020. We can only reach even that woeful target if there was a concrete plan in place to reduce overall emissions. Currently, we have no plan, and the Conservatives maintain that they will not develop a plan until the United States makes the first move.

Inaction is often justified by governments by referencing the false dichotomy that economic growth can not be constrained by environmental factors, such as reducing emissions. In fact, without reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect as a certainty a significant disruption to our local and global economies, caused by the impacts of a changing climate. The impacts of runaway climate change, if we let it happen, are sure to negatively impact our economy, our health, and all aspects of our society. Indeed, climate change poses a significant national security threat to Canada, due to expected global food shortages triggered by climate events. Almost every aspect of our society will be stressed by the impacts of climate change.

Lately, elements within the government have begun discussing climate change, albeit in a way which disguises the anticipated negative impacts within a cloud of misdirection. The Conservatives have engaged in a climate change branding exercise, through the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy. This Owellian marketing campaign would have Canadians believe that climate change will be an economic boon, as melting northern sea ice and permafrost will open up access to vast oil, gas and mineral resources, create shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage, and allow farmers to plant crops farther north than ever before. Indeed, in this happy world of make-believe, the devastation wrought by a warming planet will be offset by investment opportunities for Canadians.

Critically, the Conservative’s “Climate Prosperity” branding exercise fails to take into consideration the need to hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the impacts of runaway climate change. They would have us believe that the hotter it gets, the better off we’re going to be, save for some minor inconveniences such as “increasing demand on peacekeeping and diplomatic resources from conflicts over water and food scarcity in parts of the world.” In other words, that means war over a lack of food and water throughout the world.

Later in November, nations will gather in Cancun for the United Nation’s sponsored COP-16 climate summit. Expectations for a successful outcome are low, due to a lack of engagement between national governments and their citizens on the issue of climate change. While people throughout the world are clamouring for their governments to take action, our governments largely continue to ignore the wishes of their citizens.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been a particularly obstructionist force at past climate change conferences in Bali and Copenhagen, and we can expect Harper to advocate for a do-nothing approach in Cancun. Such an approach is not what the majority of Canadians expect out of their government. We expect our government to demonstrate real leadership, which includes setting realistic and appropriate targets for reducing emissions, and developing a plan to achieve results. Canada, as a major greenhouse gas emitter per capita, must do its part to help limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

While Canadians will hope for the best in Cancun, the reality is likely to be that our Conservative government will continue to fail us all. Their failure is certain to impact our economic fortunes in the years to come.

(Note: An edited portion of this blogpost has been submitted to the Sudbury Star as a letter to the Editor for publication)

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Sudbury Star Claims Municipal Voters Turned Out in "Record Numbers" on Monday. Unfortunately, That's Just Not So. Here's Why.

I encountered a very interesting article in yesterday's Sudbury Star regarding this week's municipal election, titled, "Sudburians voted in record numbers". Initially, I was quite excited to think that voter turn out might have been at an all-time high here in Sudbury. While I had successfully predicted the outcome of each and every race for Council (Mayoralty and Ward races), I did not yet know whether my prediction regarding voter turnout would prove to be correct.

(For the record, I made my predictions known only to my dog, Leo, who I trusted not to shame me should those predictions prove wrong. A while back, in one of my famous year-ending blogposts, I tried to predict a number of happenings for the next year; I'm still living down my famous "the Vancouver Canucks will win the Stanley Cup" crystal ball prediction. I figured I was safe with Leo; but given my profound level of accuracy, I'm regretting that I didn't tell someone who could actually confirm that I made these predictions. How often have I lamented that Leo, my dog, can not speak. Well, maybe come to think of it, I'm likely better off that he can't).

My prediction for voter turn out was for a modest increase, due to the excitement of the Mayor's campaign. I was a little concerned, as 2 Ward races didn't occur, due to acclamations. However, I was envigorated by Greater Sudbury's attempts to connect with voters by setting up advanced polling stations in malls throughout the City (including the outlying areas).

The Sudbury Star, in Thursday's article, reported a voter turn out of 49.75%. Wow. That's pretty good for a municipal election. Not really great for democracy in general, but apparently better than the 43.17% we had come out for the 2006 municipal election. That's pretty good, I though, and in keeping with my original prediction. Way to go, Greater Sudbu....

Wait a sec. Hold on. What's this? "49.75% of all registered voters". Ok, so that's not a percentage of all eligible voters then. That's just a percentage of those on the Voter's List.

Hmmm...I was at a polling station in Ward 1 for about half the day during Monday's election. I seem to recall City staff going crazy over the Voter's List. Voters were showing up, many with voting cards they'd received in the mail from the City, only to be told, "Sorry, you're not on the Voter's List, you're going to have to go and stand in another line and go through a process to amend the list before you can vote."

Many voters were irate, particularly those who had received cards. They couldn't understand why there was a disconnect between the having received a card mailed to them by the City and their names not appearing on the lists. Frankly, polling station staff didn't understand why there was a disconnect either. Some people, who had lived at the same address for decades, also discovered that they weren't on the List, even sometimes when their spouses were. In one case, the residents of an entire apartment complex were omitted from the List.

Now, in part, these omissions from the Voters List were made up for by the inclusion of children and under-18 teenagers whose names appeared on the List, but really, the difference was only fractional.

In short, no one really understood just what was going on with the Voters List. But clearly, there were problems.

The Sudbury Star reports that there were actually 12,465 fewer voters appearing on the 2010 Voters List than which appeared on the 2006 Voters List (2006: 127,783; 2010: 115,318). This despite the fact that Greater Sudbury's population appears to have grown by about 8,000 people during this time frame. Population demographics show a significant trend towards an older community, so clearly those new additions to the population likely weren't under-18's.

All of this points to a significant number of eligible voters having their names left off of the Voter's List, which is the starting point which the Sudbury Star used to determine that voters voted in "record numbers".

With all due respect to the Sudbury Star, it appears that they've simplified the story of voter turn out to the point that their headline is actually misleading, and may be outright untrue. Using an extremely flawed Voter's List as a starting point has led to a situation where it might appear that voters participated in the democratic process in record-setting numbers, but the fact is, it's just not so.

All the more reason to be careful when statistics are used. Unfortunately, those of us "in the know" here in Sudbury are now going to have to correct the record every time this little bit of information about "record setting voting" is trotted out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Greater Sudbury's Municipal Election Results and What Suburians Can Expect in the Upcoming Federal Election

Since publishing yesterday’s blogpost, I’ve been receiving some critical feedback (which amazes me to no end, I have to tell you. It just blows my mind that there are people out there who actually read this blog…thanks, by the way. It makes me want to keep writing). Based on the feedback, I think that I have to clarify a couple of things, which will actually help with regards to this post. When I was writing yesterday, I was envisioning two posts about the municipal election; the first discussing what happened here in Sudbury, and the second about how this might impact upcoming federal election campaigns.


The first thing for me to clarify, though, is that while I believe that Marianne Matichuk’s campaign was absolutely something to behold, that this does not mean that I endorse in any way the strategy and tactics she employed to achieve success. My point, which maybe wasn’t expressed as clearly as it could have been, was that Matichuk was able to exploit local circumstances in such a comprehensive way that it absolutely needs to be recognized and understood, because we are going to see campaigns which try to repeat what she accomplished.

Some of the “Lessons Learned” which I wrote about yesterday really fell flat with some of those who have provided me with feedback, especially when I tried to make connections regarding the campaigns of Green candidates. I also believe that I didn’t explain what I meant by “negative” campaigning as well as I could. So, if you will indulge me for a few moments, let me try again.

For me, the concept of “going negative” is quite broad. The idea behind negative campaigning is to draw attention to the flaws of your opponent(s) whatever they may be. That leaves a very wide range of things to discuss. Flaws could be related to policy positions, priorities, past voting records, what they’ve said publicly, their appearance, the sound of their voices, sexual infidelity and other family issues, their ethnicity, etc. Clearly, for many Greens, there are a lot of things which would never be “in play” during a campaign. Nevertheless, though, we have to acknowledge that while we may consider some of these topics to be out of bounds when it comes to discussing our opponents, the same can not always be said for our opponents when talking about us (or, more often, their other opponents, because slagging Greens usually doesn’t have much of a political payoff for other candidates, because we’re not usually perceived to be that big of a threat).

In contrast, a positive campaign means that a candidate is going to talk about what that candidate can bring to the table, and why a voter should vote for the candidate. It starts from the (what I consider to be) principled position that the candidate is providing information to a voter about themselves and their Party for the voter’s sincere consideration. Rather than attack the opposition (negative) and attempt to sway voters to vote for a candidate because of what they are not, a positive campaign will provide voters with reasons why they should vote for a particular candidate.

Very few campaigns will ever be completely negative or positive; Greens, though, have this habit of campaigning primarily in positive territory. I think that’s good for many Green campaigns. However, if Greens are going to win, I continue to believe that there must be elements of negative campaigning present. And I think that, generally speaking, Greens tend to emphasize the positive a little too much.

The Matichuk campaign was overwhelmingly a negative one, although it was punctuated by short positive bursts, which were often not particularly deep in terms of content. Nevertheless, they were present, and some of her main messaging were predicated on these positive statements. She did not simply wag her finger at Rodriguez (although she mostly did this); every now and then, she would say what she would do if elected, although often even these efforts were structured in such a way as to contrast herself with Rodriguez.

Anyway, again, my point wasn’t to suggest that Greens must campaign negatively in the next election. And while I think that some negative campaigning might be good for Greens, campaigns in most areas should largely focus on the positive. Here in Sudbury and in Nickel Belt, primarily negative campaigns like Matichuk’s may work – but not for Greens.

The Upcoming Federal Election

Whenever we have the next federal election (and my bet is we’ll have one this spring), we’re likely to see some of the strategies employed by candidates who just ran for Mayor municipally here in Sudbury. In fact, I believe that there are a number of similarities between the Mayor’s race and a future federal race. Of course, though, there are also some differences. Let’s look at the differences first.

The biggest difference between any Mayoralty race and a federal election is that Members of Parliament are almost always affiliated with a political party, while ostensibly, in Ontario, our candidates for Council and Mayor are independents. The theoretical absence of party politics at the local level, however, is really just that: theoretical. Nevertheless, even in theory, this can lead to some significant differences.

The biggest difference is the absence of a much larger, national-based, Leader-driven campaign. When you’re running for Mayor, it’s just you and your team. When you’re running for MP, your Party is helping out by providing national exposure for the Party which rubs off on you. If your Party’s Leader is doing well on the campaign trail, you’ll likely receive some benefit. If they falter, chances are you might as well. And if your political party has a hard time getting any exposure at all, chances are that you may also experience a disconnect in getting your message out.

That being said, all politics is, to a certain and maybe significant degree, local in nature. You could have a very popular national leader stumping for a candidate, but if that candidate is held in contempt by local voters, there’s going to be trouble. The local circumstances always need to be considered by campaign planners. In part, that’s why it’s so difficult for pollsters to gauge seat projections based on provincial-sized sampling, and it’s also why campaigners look at each riding as a little individual war to be fought and won. The local elements of a campaign remain significant.

Just how significant will depend upon a few things. Here in Sudbury (and to a lesser extent, in Nickel Belt), they are probably a little more significant than in many other parts of Canada. That’s because we inhabit a geographically isolated urban community, separated from other areas by lots of trees and rock and several hours worth of drive-time. We also have our own local media which many in our community rely on for their source of news. That includes two newspapers (one daily, one bi-weekly); CBC radio in French and English; and a regional CTV news affiliate. There is a significant sense of community belonging here (in fact, according to the recently published Vital Signs 2010, 71.2% of Sudburians reported a strong or somewhat strong sense of community belonging, compared to a provincial average of only 66.4% and a national average of 64.8%).

That means to me that there exists here a greater opportunity for the successful exploitation of local circumstances during any campaign. Contrast our situation to that of mid-town Toronto, for example, where over 30 other candidates from one’s own party are vying for limited media attention.

John Rodriguez, Greater Sudbury’s out-going Mayor, was an MP for Sudbury from the NDP. He has retained strong ties with the NDP throughout his 4 years as Mayor. He defeated the conservative Dave Courtemanche in 2006 to become Mayor.

Our MP for Sudbury is the NDP’s Glenn Thibeault. He became MP after defeating long-serving Liberal MP Diane Marleau in 2008. Claude Gravelle, the NDP MP for Nickel Belt, succeeded long-serving Liberal Ray Bonin, who chose not to run in the 2008 election. Historically, contests in Sudbury and Nickel Belt have primarily been battles between the NDP and the Liberals, although the Conservatives have always been there in the background. The recent addition of the Green Party to the mix really hasn’t had a substantial impact, despite that some Liberals blame Green Gordon Harris’ capturing 7.8% of votes in the 2008 election as part of the reason Glenn Thibeault was able to take Sudbury from Diane Marleau.

So, a one-term NDP Mayor was just run out of town by a populist, unknown Conservative candidate. Populist unknown conservatives have been getting a lot of press this year, especially south of the border, where the Tea Party movement has taken hold. Here in Sudbury and Nickel Belt, we have two, one-term MP’s who are both likely to be battling it out for their jobs when the next federal election happens. Should the NDP be concerned about what might happen? I absolutely believe that they should, especially in Sudbury.

While I won’t venture to say that socialism is a spent force, it’s certainly in retreat across North America, for a lot of reasons. The NDP have always been divisive, raising the ire of voters as much as capturing their attention. Recently, the NDP has suffered some setbacks as a result of the long-gun registry vote, in which that party caught flack for it’s flip-flopping approach. The long-gun registry is an issue which resonates with Sudburians, as both Thibeault and Gravelle reversed themselves between second and third readings, and voted to keep the registry. This will be something which Conservative campaigners will try to exploit.

Now, I wrote earlier that Sudbury and Nickel Belt are usually NDP/Liberal battlegrounds. Well, that’s true, but what about trends? The NDP had steadily been gaining ground on the Liberals in Sudbury since the 2000 election, and finally in 2008, they overtook the Liberals by 5% (in 2000, the gap was 44%). The Conservatives, too, have been increasing their vote share in Sudbury. So, it’s fair to say that the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives have been drawing themselves closer together in Sudbury (2008 results: NDP: 35.1%; Liberals: 30.2%; Conservatives: 25.8%). Throwing the Green Party in their just muddies things that much further. Therefore, while traditionally this area has been a Liberal-NDP battleground, the Conservatives absolutely remain in play.

We’re in the midst of seeing North American voters turn increasingly to those on the right of the political spectrum, or at least, the right has been doing something right lately. Mayor John Rodriguez may have lost his recent bid for re-election in part as a result of this larger trend, although for me, it’s more likely because he wore the significant mistakes of his 4 years in office. Together, the trend towards right-wing populism and the desire to defeat a wounded incumbent, coupled with a safe and lacklustre campaign, was the end of Rodriguez. conservative/populist Matichuk was able to exploit all of these factors, while the more traditionally conservative Callaghan could not, and Derek Young’s appeal to youth and voters with an urban vision found no resonance whatsoever. In short, Greater Sudbury voted John Rodriguez out of office, rather than voting Matichuk in, although the result is that Matichuk will be our new Mayor.

Could something similar happen to Glenn Thibeault and Claude Gravelle? Let’s look at Thibeault first. Clearly, Thibeault hasn’t bungled things to the same degree that Rodriguez did, however Thibeault is just a small cog in a larger political party. What then of the Party itself? While the NDP hasn’t really accomplished very much in the past several years, it can’t be said that they’ve dropped the ball on too many things (the long gun registry excepted, and maybe on the mining bill last night). However, they’ve not shone either. Looks to me like Thibeault and the NDP come out looking brighter than Rodriguez, so maybe they won’t be in as much trouble.

Here is a problem for Thibeault, however. The Liberals have nominated Sudbury Regional Hospital CEO Carol Hartman to carry their banner during the next election. Now, I don’t know Hartman, but I can tell you that the electorate will perceive her as carrying a significant amount of baggage. Rightly or wrongly, that’s going to be the perception, because the newly built regional hospital has been a local fiasco story. Further, as a Liberal, Hartman is encumbered by the very lacklustre performance of Leader Michael Ignatieff. And then there’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty to consider as well. Right now, Liberals aren’t the most popular bunch in Ontario. Yes, all federal polls indicate that the Liberals and Conservatives are going to battle it out here in Ontario. But that’s not going to help Hartman, and it’s not likely to help Thibeault.

The Liberals don’t tend to engage in negative campaigning on the same level as the NDP and Conservatives. In Hartman’s case, this leaves her at a distinct disadvantage, because you can bet that the Conservative candidate is going to come out swinging for Thibeault’s head.

Conservative nominated candidate Fred Slade has everything going for him right now. Whether anyone in Sudbury knows it or not, that’s where the momentum in the upcoming federal election already lies. This trend towards right-wing, populist politics will help Slade, as will Conservative Leader Stephen’s Harper continued popularity. Unless Harper drops the ball big-time, Fred Slade here in Sudbury might yet end up as the MP.

I don’t know Fred Slade, but I keep seeing him around everywhere I go, whether it’s driving his car covered in Conservative Party decals, or just wearing his Conservative Party jacket. He was at a number of municipal election events. I see him at the farmer’s market. He was at the mall the same time as me the other day. Maybe we just like going to the same places, I don’t know. More likely I keep seeing him everywhere because he’s making the effort to be everywhere. He’s getting noticed, and he’ll continue to get noticed. In short, Slade has been campaigning since he received the nomination. Given that he has been very involved with his Party for many years, it’s fair to say that he’s a political animal with good instincts and that he knows what to do to win.

And what he will do is go negative all over Thibeault. Just as Matichuk attacked Rodriguez, so too can we expect Fred Slade to rage on the warpath.

One slight difference to consider, however, is that Thibeault, unlike Rodriguez, will be running a negative campaign himself to some degree. Whether he wants to or not, he won’t have any choice when Slade comes out of the gates. And unlike Rodriguez, Thibeault is able to mix it up with the best of them.

Anyway, it’s going to be something to watch when it happens. I don’t know which of these two is going to have the upper hand. Frankly, who gets the upper hand in this battle isn’t as important as something else which I wrote, that being “which of these two”. For unless Carol Hartman goes negative quickly and more successfully than Slade, she’s going to be sidelined in the election, just as Ted Callaghan experienced municipally.

I predict that the next federal election will end up being a contest between Thibeault and Slade, because Thibeault, being an incumbent with only a few pock-marks to blemish his otherwise lacklustre record, will have to be front and centre; Slade will be there because he and his team put him there. And that puts Thibeault’s success in danger, especially if Sudbury voters decide it’s time for him to go and support coalesces around the perceived front runner, Slade. In fact, Slade even stands to benefit more if Stephen Harper’s national campaign falls off of the rails a little bit, and it begins to look like a majority Conservative government is put out of reach. In that scenario, even more voters might shift their support from Hartman to Slade.

Thibeault better hope that Hartman at least makes a show of things, or else the local media is going to focus its efforts all on Slade. He would likely hang on in a three-way race. He is much more vulnerable in a two-way race between him and Slade.

And where is the Green Party in all of this? If Thibeault is Rodriguez, and Slade is Matichuk, and Hartman is Callaghan, I guess that leaves the Green Party’s Fred Twilley to play the role of Derek Young. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, but I believe that the next election is going to be a significant challenge for our Party here in Sudbury. Remember, we’re still a fairly new party on the political scene in Sudbury, and although we more than doubled our vote total between 2006 and 2008, we’re still a ways back of the pack.

The next election campaign in Sudbury is going to be quite different than 2008’s. For starters, Conservative Fred Slade is going to show up. In 2008, Conservative Gerry Labelle was largely absent, likely having been muzzled by his own Party (as so many Conservatives were) after speaking out against a decision made by Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement. Labelle did not engage in negative campaigning, or much in the way of any campaigning. Diane Marleau, the Liberal incumbent, was walking wounded. There was a significant local movement to dump her in favour of pretty much anybody. Glenn Thibeault, a relative unknown, was young and dynamic, and ended up spending a lot of money to get himself elected. Gordon Harris had a good showing for a Green, but ultimately that’s a relative comment. While there was bad blood between Marleau and Thibeault (who engaged in negative tactics), for the most part, the campaign was a staid affair. But might the outcome have been different if Labelle had campaigned at all, and negatively at that? I guess we’ll never know.

It’s because negative campaigns so often capture the attention of the media and get everyone talking that they are so successful. If you’re going to rely on policy pronouncements and inspiring, visionary messages as the theme of your campaign, that’s all well and good, but I hope that you’re not the one coming under attack.

Nevertheless, the best route to victory available for Fred Twilley and the Greens is the following: don’t engage in the negative. Play honest-broker. Offer up ideas to the public. Talk about policy. Tell voters why the Green Party is different. And above all else, connect with voters on a personal level. This type of principled campaign is going to be a lot harder for anyone to run, much less for the Green Party, short on resources, name recognition, national campaign etc., as we are. What’s needed is a slew of volunteers, some money, and constant campaigning. If the Green Party has any hope of electing Fred Twilley it’s going to be because of those personal connections.

As a result of all of this, Twilley and us Greens can expect less media coverage in the next election, as the media will be attracted to the story of the Slade/Thibeault battle. They may even try to stoke that blaze in the same way that they did by intervening in favour of Matichuk against Rodriguez. And with a national campaign which will see our Leader less than we did in 2008 for several reasons (focus on her own riding; the fact that she is 3 hours behind us, and running in an area with little national media coverage; not to mention that she will likely wrongly be shut out of the national televised debates), we Greens are going to have to create our own opportunities. Again, they’re going to have to be through personal connections, one voter at a time. And that’s going to be our big challenge.

Nevertheless, we have to rise up against this negativism, at least here in Sudbury, as we will gain nothing if we go negative. Due to our relative size and experience, even if Twilley comes out with the best one-liners ever written, we’re not going to be the media’s story in this campaign. What we have to figure out how to do is to come up the middle by using the personal touch, and by identifying our voters and getting them out to the polls. Our ideas, and our personal stories are going to be our assets. Not how loudly we can shout others down.

So rest assured, Greens, when I wrote about the benefits of negative campaigning yesterday, I did not mean to suggest that we here in Sudbury should be stooping so low. Politics is local, and a successful campaign must consider local circumstances. It also must consider what our own inherent strengths are, and as Greens, we have many of those (and they are quite different than what is being offered by the other parties). Here in Sudbury, our success depends upon our sincerity, upon our ideas, and our values. And upon getting the message out to voters about all of those things.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Greater Sudbury Municipal Election, 2010: Some Hard Lessons for Greens

As many of you know, I’m an election junkie; I just can’t seem to get enough of elections. So this past week, I’ve been able to drink my fill, with municipal elections throughout Ontario having taken place on Monday, October 25th. There were lots of interesting results on which I’d like to write about, but for the sake of time, I’m going to share my thoughts with you on the municipal election which took place in my home town of Greater Sudbury.


Some quick background: Greater Sudbury has a 12 ward system, where one Councillor is elected per ward, and the Mayor is elected at-large. Our ward boundaries must be the most screwed up boundaries of any municipality in Ontario, however there is a reason that they are this way. Municipal amalgamation, forced on the former Sudbury Region and its 6 lower-tier municipalities by the Mike Harris provincial government required an “inside/outside” balancing act, due to the fact that the urban core of the newly created “Greater Sudbury”, the former City of Sudbury, had about two thirds of the population of the new municipality. The remaining one third occupies an area which today is often referred to as the “outlying areas”. However, this is not to imply that these are rural, ex-urban areas of the municipality. On the contrary, about half of the population in the outlying areas are located within smaller urban centres, such as Chelmsford, Lively, Garson and Conniston. Hence we have these crazy ward boundaries, which radiate outwards from the downtown core, almost like spokes on a wheel.

Of the 12 Ward Councillors who have sat on Council for the past 4 years, 9 Councillors chose to seek re-election. Two Councillors decided not to run again, and one Councillor decided to run for Mayor. Two of the returning 9 Councillors faced no opposition, and were acclaimed. The Mayor of Greater Sudbury decided to run again. Therefore, at the municipal level, there were 11 separate contests, 8 of which included an incumbent (7 Councillors + 1 Mayor).

Greater Sudbury Votes for Change (?)

Tuesday morning’s headlines in the Sudbury Star alluded to the circumstance which swept Mayoralty candidate Marianne Matichuk to power in Greater Sudbury: Sudburians wanted change, and we apparently voted for it on Monday. Matichuk, who was campaigning on the idea of “real change now” (as opposed to not real change at some indeterminate time in the future, I guess), convincingly defeated Mayor John Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who was the acknowledged frontrunner through the contest, lost by about 10% of the vote (Matichuk: 46.1%; Rodriguez: 36.4%). Ted Callaghan, the Councillor for Ward 8 who decided to run for Mayor, received 13.4% of the vote. The next best-finishing candidate was Derek Young, who received 2.6%.

In the Wards, all 7 incumbents were returned; 6 by extremely healthy margins. One Councillor, Frances Caldarelli of Ward 10, was returned by only 5 votes. A recount has been requested by her rival, Fern Cormier, and by all reports Caldarelli agrees that a recount makes sense. Now it will be up to Council to decide whether a recount will occur (I expect that they will agree).

Of the 3 wards without incumbents, two of those wards returned former Councillors to Council. Only Ward 8 can boast a brand new face on Council, with local business-owner Fabio Belli handily beating 8 other rivals in this empty ward.

Official results are in the process of being announced, but the media is reporting that fewer ballots were cast in this election than were cast in 2010. Given that Greater Sudbury has grown by a few thousand people since 2006, it looks like voter turn out is likely to be down. I’ll admit that I’m surprised that this is so, even though in two wards, councillors were acclaimed. My surprise, however, is based on the very high profile Mayoralty contest which I’m about to tell you about.

To me, it looks like a rather uninspired Greater Sudbury in fact returned tried and true hands to Council, and save for the Mayor’s position, the City opted for the status quo. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the change which so many in my community are so very excited about.

The Race for Mayor

But of course, when a new candidate defeats an incumbent Mayor, it’s hard not think that maybe change is in the air. As far as the Mayor’s race goes, maybe there is some merit to it, as political outsider and relative unknown Marianne Matichuk threw her hat in the ring at the last minute and swept to victory over the existing Mayor, Rodriguez, and 17-year Council veteran, Callaghan. As far as Matichuk is concerned, it is fair to say that Greater Sudbury voted for something completely different. By vesting its votes in Matichuk, an unknown quantity, we’ll have to see just how much change we’ve actually voted for. However, Matichuk’s victory was clearly the only change Sudburians opted for on Monday. Why was this?

Well, frankly, there are a couple of reasons. First, Matichuk ran a well-disciplined and organized campaign which did not rely on any grand visions. Instead, Matichuk rolled out a few populist and divisive policy concepts, including Boxing Day shopping (which, believe it or not, Greater Sudbury doesn’t have), a line-by-line review of the budget, and…well, I can’t actually think of a third. Oh yes, I can: one of her other priorities is to allow hot-dog vendors on the Jim Gordon Boardwalk at Bell Park. Clearly, for Matichuk, these were the issues which were burning in the minds of Sudburians which she wanted to address.

Matichuk offered a lot of empty slogans and ideas, such as “cutting red tape” and making Greater Sudbury more “open for business”. She offered very little for the public to get confused about regarding just how she would implement these ideas. However, she was successful in conveying the message that there’s a lot wrong at City Hall, and that she’s going to be the one to fix it. Sudburians apparently believed her, even without concrete ideas. She was very convincing.

The tone of Matichuk’s campaign was almost entirely negative. She started out by attacking John Rodriguez’s record, and she finished up the same way. Her well-disciplined populist, vacuous, vision-less, negative campaign resonated with a great number of residents.

I have to admit, as far as election campaigns go, Matichuk’s was masterful. I may not like this style of campaigning, but I can’t help but acknowledge that when done correctly, the successes can be significant. Given that hardly anybody in Greater Sudbury has ever heard of Marianne Matichuk before September, and that she’s now going to be our Mayor, the success speaks for itself.

Matichuk, though, had three secret weapons: 1) the machine; 2) the media; 3) the Mayor. Let’s look at each in turn.

The Machine

Where did Marianne Matichuk come from? There were several rumours flying around the during election: some said that she was a front for Brazillian mining giant Vale, who purchased INCO a few years ago, and who kept its workers on picket lines here in Sudbury for over a year. Others suggested that the Conservative Party was behind her, both in terms of money and volunteers. Certainly her campaign manager, Paul Demers, has long been associated with the Conservatives, having run for the provincial Conservative Party in the Nickel Belt riding in the recent past.

That she had a maching, though, was evident, because out of nowhere appeared large and professional signs, a slick website, and a social media campaign, run through Facebook, and the online comments section of the Sudbury Star. I also understand that she used new mass-dialing programs to connect with voters through the telephone. Slick brochures, skimpy on details and heavy on rhetoric and graphics, found their way into many blue-boxes. An active door-to-door campaign was also in place. These were all of the positives which her campaign machine engaged in.

Interestingly, it’s worth mentioning a number of the things which her campaign chose not to do. Specifically, her campaign refused to engage in most special-interest events. In Greater Sudbury, a number of organizations asked candidates to answer questions in surveys, for later publication. One organization hosted an environmental-themed Town Hall meeting for Mayoralty candidates, where questions were to be posed to candidates based on their earlier responses to a survey. Matichuk and her team provided no responses to the survey, and skipped the town hall, indicating that she was double-booked. She also avoided surveys conducted by the Sudbury Cyclists Union, and failed to take the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury’s Sustainability Pledge. Clearly, there were a number of issues which Matichuk was not going to offer an opinion on (and yes, I include environmental issues here, despite her releasing her Green Vision for Greater Sudbury on the same evening as the Good Green Town Hall; this “vision” was so narrow in scope and focussed on economic benefits as to be, in my opinion, greenwashing in the extreme).

She took this avoidance further. I attended the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce’s All Candidates debate. When confronted with questions relating to lake stewardship, urban sprawl, youth employment and homelessness, she was either at an almost complete loss to sound coherent, or deftly deflected the issue so that she wouldn’t have to say much about it. One question sticks out in my mind. She was asked, “Ms. Matichuk, you have a lot to say about Boxing Day shopping, but what about the plight of the homeless here in Sudbury? Don’t you believe that homelessness is a much more important issue for Sudburians?” She answered, “Yes, I do.” And then she proceeded to spend the next minute and a half talking about Boxing Day shopping!

However, from a campaign perspective, these avoidance techniques can be considered masterful. If she doesn’t say anything about something, she certainly couldn’t be challenged by the other candidates! And since social, environmental and youth-related issues simply were not on the minds of most Greater Sudburians, what did she lose by remaining silent? Nothing. Nil. I think it’s fair to say that most Sudburians who identify those issues as being more important than roads and taxes likely weren’t going to vote for Matichuk anyway. So Matichuk chose the right focus for her campaign: taxes, and to a lesser extent, roads (which was also smart of her and her team: by saying little about what she will actually do about roads, when she, too, fails as Mayor to have any impact on road quality, at least the public won’t be able to point to her and say, “But you said that you were going to do this…”, naming a specific remedy. Rodriguez, when running for Mayor in 2006, insisted that he would get the snowplows to raise their plow at the foot of driveways. He never delivered. It was an election issue).

The Media

While not officially part of the Matichuk Campaign Team, our local daily, the Sun Media-owned Sudbury Star, bent over backwards to provide her with the kind of coverage that most candidates can only dream about. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was necessarily because of a convergence of right-wing views (Matichuk’s and the Star’s owners), although I’m not going to rule it out either. Maybe she received such extensive and positive coverage because she was the only candidate to actually go out and make news. She did this largely by attacking John Rodriguez, often with the pointed quips which made for good soundbites on the radio and TV.

Since our local media decided for the most part not to cover the Ward races (and since there was very little to cover there anyway – more on that later), this left the media to focus on the Mayor’s race. Although there were 8 names on the ballot for Mayor, two individuals did not campaign and 2 others were perennial fringe candidates. That left a field of 4 for the media to cover, which still was apparently too large for most of our local media outlets. 32 year old Derek Young, who offered a concrete vision and fiscally-responsible platform to voters, had a very difficult time getting much coverage at all for his campaign. Interestingly, both Young and Matichuk were relative unknowns at the outset of the election, although Matichuk received all kinds of coverage and Young was written off as a non-entity (actually, Young had a much higher community profile than Matichuk, as he had previously run for Council, owns a local downtown business, and is involved in organizing community events such as the Celtic Festival).

When Ted Callaghan offered an incredibly lack-lustre campaign, the media decided to turn things into a two-horse race. Callaghan, who ran a subdued “what you see is what you get”, sincere campaign which offered a good mix of vision and prudence, just couldn’t break through the momentum of Matichuk’s campaign of negativity. With about two weeks to go, Callaghan was written off, and polls showed his support plummeting, including falling 11 percentage points in the final week. Given that Callaghan had positioned himself to receive the right-wing, anti-Rodriguez vote, it’s fair to believe that most of his supporters abandoned ship for Matichuk.

After endorsing the unkown Matichuk for Mayor on the Friday before the election, the Sudbury Star published a very strange story in its Saturday edition, about how Council expensively bungled the letting go of a manager four years previous. Apparently, this story was based on information the Star had received in a brown envelope earlier in the week. As near as I can gather, the accusation was that when this manager was let go, he was given a golden handshake. Certainly that’s not new in Greater Sudbury (remember Mark Mieto?), or in most municipalities when employees are let go prior to their contracts ending. This often happens when a new Council comes in and wants some new faces in the bureaucracy. Why this should be front page news 4 years after the event happened can only be attributed to the fact that there was an election on.

Yes, I clearly believe that our local daily was biased in its coverage of Matichuk throughout the entire campaign. I do not believe it was collusion, but rather a happy coming-together of circumstances: a right-wing, newsmaking campaign and a right-wing newspaper unhappy with the current left-wing mayor, who had certainly done a lot to frustrate that newspaper’s reporters in the past four years.

The Mayor

I like John Rodriguez. Other than Derek Young, he was the only candidate who offered Sudburians much in the way of a vision for the City, even if only tepidly so. The fact is, the concept of vision isn’t what voters here are looking for. This was shown to Rodriguez time and again throughout his past four year term. Coming into office four years ago, Rodriguez wanted to create a couple of massive “legacy projects”: a multi-pad arena and a performing arts centre. After much acrimonious debate, focused on price and need, these projects were killed by Council. Much of the debate centred on the argument that the money would be better spent on improving our roads, or returned to the wallets of taxpayers.

Rodriguez also stepped into it big-time with the Elton John Ticket Scandal. I won’t go into specifics here (there’s probably a whole page about this on Wikipedia), but I have to say that this scandal was a significant blow to Rodriguez. He was repeatedly forced to acknowledge his mistakes throughout the campaign.

Rodriguez heavily favoured the Union during the Vale strike of 2009-10 to the point that many Sudburians deeply questioned whether or not his lack of neutrality was a good thing for our community.

Clearly, Rodriguez was a wounded incumbent Mayor, and a polarizing force in the City. Ultimately, this paid off for challenger Matichuk. When it became clear that Callaghan wasn’t going to be a force in the election, all of the local opposition to Rodriguez fused into support for Matichuk. And that’s what her campaign had counted on all along.

The Election in the Wards

Most Ward Councillors simply didn’t show up to campaign. Yes, sure, there were signs (and lots of them!), but as far as door-knocking, flyers, phone calls etc. were concerned, the incumbents largely sat things out. Many didn’t respond to surveys from local organizations. They received little or no media coverage. Only Frances Caldarelli was actively campaigning for her seat.

Yet all of the incumbents were returned with large majorities, except for Caldarelli! What happened?

A lack of well-financed campaigns on the part of challengers was likely the reason for the immense silence from incumbents. Only Liberal Fern Cormier was able to offer anything resembling the sort of campaign needed to capture a seat at the Council table. Money and volunteers were present for Cormier, and noticeably absent for almost all of the other challengers.

Now, this isn’t to say that there weren’t some innovative and inspiring campaigns by some of the challengers. Peter Albers in Ward 2, Richard Paquette in Ward 4, Christine Guillot-Proulx in Ward 6, Gordon Drysdale in Ward 7, Fern Cormier in Ward 10 and Jeff MacIntyre in Ward 12 (along with Tom Fenske in Ward 11) were all over the internet, using social media tools to engage the electorate. Pacquette in particular tried to break through into the mainstream media, experiencing some successes (particularly when he was criticizing his opponent, incumbent Evelyn Dutrisac). Largely, though, the campaigns run in the Wards were positive affairs (including Paquette’s), based on ideas, vision, and the need for better communication. Hmmm…is it any wonder that of all of the names I’ve identified here, only one is over 40 years old?

Anyway, it’s fair to say that these sort of positive campaigns did not resonate at the ward level. They also received little in the way of media coverage. Only when Paquette was on the attack, or when a number of these candidates banded together to issue a joint press release criticizing absent incumbents by describing their election experience as being akin to “campaigning against ghosts” did they receive much coverage.

The Empty Wards

Just some really quick comment on the wards which lacked an incumbent. Two of those wards were contested by individuals who previously been on Council (in fact Ward 11 was contested by two former Councillors). In both of those wards, the former Councillors were returned. In the other ward, Ward 8, newcomer Fabio Belli handily defeated a handful of other newcomers. I recall telling my wife back in late August that Belli was going to win. Not that I knew anything about Belli at that time. But Belli had one thing going for him which was a masterful stroke as far as campaigns go: he had printed up coloured signs with his picture on them. Ward 8, without media coverage, without any well-known names, and with a plurality of candidates in the running, was going to be won on the basis of lawn signs. That was my conclusion in late August, and based on the outcome, I continue to stand by it.

Lessons Learned

I think it’s important for Greens to learn some lessons from this municipal election, although clearly not all lessons are going to be translatable to provincial and federal campaigns, given the differing dynamics which leader-based party politics brings. However, a few things are worth pointing out.

First, when an incumbent has a certain strong core of support, as did the NDP’s John Rodriguez, where that figure is also a polarizing force, there exists an opportunity for exploitation. The question then becomes how best to exploit it. A strong incumbent is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to knock off anyway, especially if they haven’t done too much to engender the wrath of voters. Here in Sudbury, Rodriguez was a wounded force with strong backing.

The lesson to take forward here is, I believe, the following: give the voters what the want, and no more. Campaign hard, smart and negative: go after your intended victim, and draw only that attention to yourself which is based on your strengths. Stick to your core messaging at all costs. Repeat. And repeat again. Make sure you have a lot of money. Make sure you have a good number of volunteers. Make sure you plant a lot of good-looking lawn signs. Make sure that you are ready to exploit the anti-incumbent feeling of the electorate to your advantage: when the vote begins to collapse for your opponent, make sure that you position yourself as the only one able to defeat the incumbent. And make damned sure that the local media knows who you are, to the point that you must become the newsmaker. Do not rely on press releases, policy discussions or grand vision to achieve the status of media darling. You must give the media what it wants: a really good story.

Does that sound cynical? Absolutely. Clearly, it’s not going to be the strategy to employ in all cases. And it’s certainly an electoral strategy which is alien to the vast majority of candidates who carry the Green banner at election time.

But, look at what negative campaigning achieved here in Sudbury (and in Toronto, and so many other places). Here in Sudbury, an unknown individual quickly became the media’s darling, because she had the audacity to make news by calling her opponent names and trampling his record in a very public way. This media coverage boosted her fortunes considerably.

For me, the best comparison in the Mayor’s race was not between John Rodriguez and Marianne Matichuk; rather, it was between Marianne Matichuk and Derek Young. Young tried to campaign on a shoe-string budget while offering concrete yet realistic plans and a vision of a better city. His idealism was ultimately his downfall. By offering voters real leadership and a chance for significant change, his message was one which would not and could not resonate here. Does that sound familiar, Greens?

Matichuk, also an unknown, followed her script very well, used her resources to run a smart campaign, and roasted the unsuspecting and ill-equipped Rodriguez over an open fire. The momentum she exhibited throughout the campaign was a wonder to behold.

Greens, we need to take these lessons seriously, as much as they are offensive. We need to be looking for opportunities where we can apply these lessons (because clearly, we’re not going to find them everywhere; in circumstances where we have to rely on our ability to “come up the middle”, a more visionary campaign might be the order of the day. Look no further than Naheed Nenshi’s recent victory in Calgary).

Where there is a wounded incumbent in play, however, negative campaigning is likely the way to go. Would we risk alienating our own core voters in the process? Can Greens afford to go negative when we can’t even communicate our core values and policies to the electorate anyway? I believe that the answer is yes, because part of the advantage of negative campaigning is that you don’t really have to say much about yourself and what you stand for (Matichuk certainly didn’t). Just as long as you get coverage in the media, things will likely work out. The degree of negativity need not be that significant (even Matichuk’s negative campaign paled in comparison to many campaigns that I’ve seen in Canada and especially the States), but it needs to be present. I suspect that even Shane Jolley might have questioned Bill Murdoch’s record once or twice during his provincial campaign back in 2007; goodness knows, there was a lot to question! I draw this parallel not to suggest that Jolley engaged in negative campaigning (because by all accounts, Jolley's message was one primarily of vision and change), but rather because the circumstances in which he fought his campaign, deemed to be one of the most successful Green campaigns in Canada, mirror those circumstances that I’ve described here in Sudbury, especially with regards to Jolley’s use of the mainstream local media. In a tight two-way race, you’re going to have to mix it up. It’s the getting to the two-way race where, often, negative campaigning helps.

I appalled with my own analysis here. It goes against so much of what I believe politics should be about. But it’s very hard to ignore these obvious lessons, as much as they might gall us.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Some Recent Facebook Wall Posts - A Buffet of Links

Here is a veritable buffet of posts which I've made to my Facebook account in the last few days. All have links to external sources. I'm reposting here for those of you who aren't yet my friends on Facebook! *hint hint*


No Plans to Address the Budget Deficit
A good article from MacLeans magazine which exposes the fact that neither the Liberals or Conservatives have any idea how they're going to get our $56 Billion deficit under control. At least no plan that they care to discuss with the public. Sure, there's a lot they could do -- spending cuts, raising taxes -- but neither Party is going to come clean on what their "sound financial plan" actually details before an election is called. MacLeans refers to this as a political "strategy", presumably one parties engage in to fool voters and avoid meaningful discourse. Well, guess what? Taking an axe to a $56 Billion deficit is something which Canadians need to be engaged about. Our input is necessary, before an election. If the Liberals and Conservatives want to pull the wool over our eyes and shut down any discussion, they'd best think again. What about those fighter jets? Massive new jails? Rolling back corporate tax cuts? Implementing a price on carbon? In the Liberal/Conservative world, it's just best not to talk about that sort of thing.


Front Yard Gardens - Things You Didn't Think of When You Planted Those Pumpkins
I initially thought that this might be an interesting story about a City persecuting its residents who have the audacity to grow produce in their front yards rather than their backyards (and certainly the story is spun that way). But really, the "Letter" from the City here references only growing a food garden in the municipal right-of-way, which is technically public property. I suspect that Toronto's Transportation Department would rather see grass growing in the right-of-way because it's better for sight-lines than tomato plants. Still perhaps worth a read, if for no other reason than to witness one-sided spin in action. The moral of the story, though: keep your gardens out of the right-of-way!


Liberals Like Scabs
The Liberals vote to kill federal legislation which would prohibit the use of replacement workers used during a strike. Now, as this legislation was proposed at the federal level of government, the reality is it would have only impacted strikes involving federal government unions, so it's application would have been extremely limited. That's not the point, however. What this vote by the Liberal Party is telling Canadians is that Liberals, like Conservatives, will continue to put the interests of big business over that of individuals. In the Capital vs. Labour situation, Libs and Cons consistently come down on the side of monied capital. Thanks to Jack Layton and the NDP for pointing out yesterday's vote. And if anyone is curious about where the Green Party stands on this issue, The Green Party of Canada has also consistently supported anti-scab legislation at the federal level. Green MP's would work with the NDP to make anti-scab legislation a reality.


Sudbury Cyclists Union Municipal Candidates Survey
Here's some great coverage of the Sudbury Cyclists Union's first-ever municipal candidates survey! Kudos to Dan and Marisa and everyone else who was involved in putting this survey together. For the first time ever in Greater Sudbury, municipal candidates responded to a survey which dealt specifically with the needs of the cycling community! Check out the coverage, and then check out the survey!


Jeff MacIntyre for Ward 12 Councilor
Here's my great, green friend, Jeff MacIntyre, in action on the opening night for his municipal campaign office. Jeff, who is running for Councilor for Ward 12 (which encompasses the northern downtown, the Flour Mill and a good chunk of New Sudbury west of Barrydowne), is talking about building a better, smarter community. He's got his priorities straight, that's for sure.


Richard Pacquette for Ward 4 Councilor
Richard Paquette wants to be Councilor for Ward 4. With the election only a few days away, he sets his sights on criticizing traffic calming measures here in Ward 1. Good for Paquette! Clearly, he is going to stand up for what he believes in throughout the City, and not just focus on ward issues and politics.

And he'...s absolutely right about using cycling infrastructre to calm traffic. That's two points for Richard!


Preston Manning Calls Out Lousy Political Debates
I've long believed that our politicians and our media have been doing us all a disservice by dumbing down public discussion and debate about so many of the issues which are important to Canadians. Looks like I'm not alone, as former Leader of the Reform Party Preston Manning writes about this in today's Globe & Mail. ... Manning offers some great insight into how our public discourse has devolved into name calling. I particularly enjoyed that Manning tackles the question, "So what can we do about this?" and offers some very concrete answers. One of those answers: since extremism sells newspapers and generates ad revenues for radio and TV, ignore the soundbites from debates proffered by the mainstream media as "newsworthy" and instead go directly yourself to source materials for real answers. Way to go, Mr. Manning!


George Monbiot Looks At Who Gets the Short End of the Austerity Stick in the U.K.
George Monbiot looks at austerity measures introduced in Britain from the point of view of what programs and agencies weren't cut by Britain's Conservative/Liberal government. Guess what? Programs and agencies to finance big environmental polluters and line the pockets of corporations and their cheque-writers won out.... Will Canada follow suit under a future Liberal or Conservative government? With a $56 billion defecit to address, I'd certainly bet on it. Monbiot refers to this approach as "Disaster Capitalism", which is using a disaster (in this case, economic) as cover for ideologically-driven "reforms" to reshape the economy for business interests.


Alberta vs. Norway: OECD Critical of Alberta Spending Oil Bounty
Alberta fritters away its future, and plans to invest in wildly expensive carbon capture and storage technology, which might not even work.


The B.C. NDP - Say One Thing, Do the Exact Opposite
An interesting blogpost from Chrystal Ocean, left coast commentator, regarding the B.C. NDP's recent problems with saying one thing but meaning something completely different. Carole James needs to figure out a way to shape up, or she'll be shipped out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Degrees of Climate Change: There's Money to be Made!

Or "How I Learned to Live With the Looming Climate Catastrophe and Love My SUV"


As some of you know, I’m the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury’s representative on the Greater Sudbury Climate Change Consortium. The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury (CLS) is one of the managing partners of the Consortium, which was formed last year in an effort to make recommendations and provide leadership at the municipal level related to climate change impacts. Adaptation to climate change appears to be the focus of the Consortium’s mission, which is still under development. It’s fair to say, though, that mitigation efforts will also likely play a role in the Consortium’s future.

At last week’s managing partners meeting, Dr. David Pearson of Laurentian University, gave a stark presentation to attendees regarding the multiple reasons why we need to start thinking about how we’re going to adapt to a changing climate. I’ve seen Dr. Dave in action before, having had the privilege of attending a few of the public seminars he’s hosted over the past decade. Needless to say, he’s been completely ahead of the curve on climate change, and his scientific observations and recommendations have formed my opinion on this subject.

I recall attending a session which he gave to Northeastern Ontario municipal leaders back in 2002 or 2003. What stuck in my mind from that session, and which still has not become a generally well-known fact, is that even if we turn off the carbon tap today, the carbon which we’ve put into our atmosphere in the past will remain there for hundreds more years, having an impact on our climate. While today I think that there are more and more people who understand that climate change is going to pose a very long term challenge for humanity, I still believe that they are in the minority.

Near the end of Dr. Dave’s presentation last week, he threw up a slide pertaining to a very recent event, that being the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy’s recent release of a report on which they partnered with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. I recall seeing a few articles about this report in the Globe & Mail and elsewhere; these articles contained a reproduction of a document included as a poster insert in the October, 2010 edition of Canadian Geographic Magazine. The poster, “Degrees of Change”, shows what sorts of changes we can anticipate happening to Canada’s climate should temperatures rise between 1 and 5 degrees Celsius.

Upon reading the news articles and taking a quick glance at the “Degrees of Change” poster, I have to admit that something seemed askew, beyond the fact that Canadian Geographic and the National Roundtable seemed to be downplaying the anticipated and considerable negative impacts of climate change in favour of some potentially good news stories for Canadians (such as longer growing seasons for farmers and the potential for bringing new farm land into production in northern climes). I’ll admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the poster, given that it didn’t fit in well with my own preconceived notions of the anticipated effects of climate change.

(As a quick aside here, I too find that a little interesting: because what I was looking it didn’t jive with my own bias about a particular topic, I was dismissive of the product itself to the point of disinterest. Ironically, on October 11th, environmental commentator for The Guardian, George Monbiot, wrote about this. Monbiot wrote about human decision making: “Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them.” Seems to me that I fell into that trap in my values-based rejection of the “Degrees of Change” poster)

Although I later received Facebook updates and Twitter tweets about “Degrees of Change”, it wasn’t until Dr. Dave’s presentation that I understood the full impact of this document, and the initiative to which it is attached. It struck me like a blow to the face, and I was physically shaken. I hate it when that happens, as I don’t like being caught off-guard (especially over something which I should have realized myself).

Degrees of Change is available in .pdf form by following this link, and using the "Download Diagram" button the right-hand side of the webpage.

You may want to take a closer look at it yourself.

Dr. David Pearson impressed upon us all how this document was incredibly misleading to the public with regards to the anticipated impacts of climate change. For example, at the 2 degrees C section under “Resources & Industries”, there are a couple of gems which Canadians might be excited about: “Greater access to northern oil, gas and mineral resources” and “Timber gains from enhanced tree growth in some northerly locations”. Also at 2 degrees C, under Service Industries, “Degrees of Change” notes “Northwest passage opens to commercial shipping”.

Along with these anticipated positive changes for Canadians, “Degrees of Change” also identifies a fair number of negatives at 2 degrees C, including “Lyme disease range expanded to 1,000 km” and “Increasing costs of providing community service”. Not that most of us really understand how broadening the extent of Lyme disease is going to materially harm us as individuals. And not that municipal infrastructure and service costs aren’t going up every day of our lives anyway. So, while there are some examples which are undoubtedly anticipated negative impacts from climate change, these negatives are presented in such a way that they are not particularly compelling or understandable.

And they are done so in the same size font as the positives. Almost as if all these anticipated changes are “value free”. The very format of the “Degrees of Change” poster gives the reader the impression that no change is more significant than any other. While that seems to be a very objective approach on the surface, is the document itself then really providing a service to the reader?

Dr. David Pearson’s next slide was very telling. That slide included the “Degrees of Change” poster, but with a great big fat black marker taken to everything to the right of 2 degrees C. His statement to those of us in the Climate Change Consortium was unequivocal: “We can’t go there.”

Duh. That was what I missed when I first looked at the document. Sometimes, I'm not the swiftest runner in the race, that's for sure. In my defence, though, Dr. Dave outranks me considerably in the credentials department, I think he even gets paid for some of the great work he does to raise these issues. I'm...well, a volunteer at best. And you get what you pay for. Now, that's not a reason to stop reading this blog.

Anyway, we’ve known now for a number of years that if we are to alter our climate beyond 2 degrees Celsius of warming that we will considerably risk triggering feedback loops, taking us into runaway climate change scenarios. World governments agree that we need to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. A benchmark of 450 ppm of carbon in our atmosphere will roughly translate into a global temperature rise of 2 degrees C.

In an effort to curb the expected amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the international community came together in Copenhagen in December, 2009, and agreed to an accord will provide restrictions and lead to reduction. Of course, when the numbers were crunched, the anticipated amount of carbon in our atmosphere at the end of this century, as per what was agreed to at Copenhagen, is expected to be about 770 ppm; nevertheless, that’s less than what we’d been working towards under a business as usual scenario. Yes, yes; there are significant assumptions built into the 770 ppm, including a growing global economy; nevertheless, it remains clear that Copenhagen was an epic failure, despite the fact that the political leaders of industrialized nations announced it as a triumph.

We Canadians continue to be sold a load of nonsense regarding climate change. The “Degrees of Change” partnership between the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (who really ought to have known better) and the Canadian Government’s National Round Table on Environment and Economy continues to perpetuate the false notion that action is being taken to address the climate crisis.

Oh, wait a minute. Did I say “climate crisis”? Sorry, folks, but that’s not the kind of talk that’s going to get you very far in Ottawa’s political circles. Sure, they’re talking about a changing climate at the highest levels, but as you might have guessed, our government is taking a different approach, one which focuses on the opportunities that a changing climate will provide for Canadians. And no, I’m not even kidding. Check out the National Round Table’s website for yourself: Climate Prosperity: A Canadian Initiative

So rather than telling Canadians the complete story about those impacts identified in “Degrees of Change”, what we have is a climate change branding exercise from our government, financed with your tax dollars, which trumpets how a warming planet is going to be an economic boon to Canadians and their children in the years to come! Hip Hip Hooray! Let’s hear it for global warming, and let’s start making all of those investments in northern oil and gas exploration! Climate Change: There’s money to be made!

Dr. Pearson provided the last little bit of trivia here, regarding the “Degrees of Change” poster. In the same font, at 2 degrees C, under “Security and Trade”, right at the very bottom of the poster, we find the following anticipated impact: “Increasing demand on peacekeeping and diplomatic resources from conflicts over water and food scarcity in parts of the world”. There’s no mention in which parts of the world we can expect these impacts to be occurring when the temperature rises between 2 and 5 degrees globally, but it seems that “Degrees of Change” is implying that water and food scarcity are going to be problems for some “other” locales. That lack of specificity is a little scary. Surely Canadians will also be impacted. Certainly if not directly, than indirectly.

What this last little line, trivial-sounding in its presentation, which evokes that oh so-Canadian instituation of keeping the peace in far-flung regions of the planet, what this line really means, as Dr. Dave so pointedly expressed, is war. How Canadians will find themselves immune to global civil unrest is not at all clear to me.

But massive civil unrest and war is absolutely what Canadians (and everyone else) can expect should we foolishly allow global warming beyond 2 degrees C to occur. The preservation of our global society, surely, must be more important than short-term warming-induced profits for the rich minority of the world’s citizens? One would think.

Yet rather than engage Canadians about the reality of the situation which is looming just around the corner, our government would rather toot the horn about how much money we stand to all make! Of course, that was also Stephen Harper’s initial reaction to the 2008 meltdown of the global economy, when he stated that there were some good deals to be had for investors. I guess there's something to be said for consistently. But "consitently bad" is something I'd rather not personally experience. Too bad that Harper guy remains my Prime Minister.

Look, dollars and cents are important. But making money isn’t nearly as important as the human tragedy which is expected to unfold with 2 degrees of global warming. Despite the National Round Table on Environment and Energy’s recognition of global conflict occurring at 2 degrees C (even if expressed in an underwhelming font, in weasle words, at the bottom of a questionable poster), our Conservative government still doesn’t seem to get it. Maybe they, too, are blinded to the truth by their own values.


Addendum (added October 20th, 2010): Looks like I'm a complete Johnny-come-lately to this issue. DeSmogBlog was totally out in front on the government's propagandization of climate change, back on October 6th. Check out: Climate Change: Canadian Government Launches New Campaign to Spin Global Warming as Good for Canada. I hadn't read this at the time I wrote the above post.

Naheed Nenshi and Chris Tindal: Defying Mainstream Media in Municipal Elections

I've been following the municipal elections which just took place in Alberta only half-heartedly, given that Ontario goes to the polls next Monday, and there are several Greens running throughout my home province, including rising star Chris Tindal. Nevertheless, it's been hard not to be engaged by what's been going on in Calgary. And after last night's results were announced (which I've only just read about this morning), it's hard not to be excited!

Progressive Naheed Nenshi was elected Mayor of Calgary. He defeated two candidates with considerably more money backing them. Council member Ric McIver was the early favorite, after out-going Mayor Bronconnier announced that he wouldn't be seeking re-election. McIver was joined by former CTV anchor Barbara Higgins, a late entry into the fray. Higgins brought considerable name recognition, and her entry may have ultimately paved the way for Nenshi to become Mayor.

Like it or not, vote splitting is a reality. It looks like Mr. Nenshi's team capitalized on the opportunity created by having two credible right-wing candidates vying for the same votes. With the conservative vote split, Mr. Nenshi was able to come up the middle. And literally that's what appears to have happened. It was only a few weeks ago, well into the campaign, that the mainstream media began to rumble a little about Mr. Nenshi, and even than only to recognize that there appeared to be some momentum to his campaign. Certainly no media outlet that I'm aware of predicted that on Tuesday, October 19th, Nenshi would be Mayor.

Yet Mayor Mr. Nenshi has become. Nenshi and his campaign team ramped up their efforts in the past couple of weeks, taking advantage of the fact that they were offering the only credible progressive candidate to a City which has a long history of being the bastion of conservatism. But that's a misnomer to an extent, given that there exists a very active progressive counterweight in Calgary politics; it's just that usually the numbers don't add up.

Calgarians and progressive Albertans must take note of Mr. Nenshi's upset victory. You should be emboldened by what Mr. Nenshi and his campaign team have accomplished. With provincial elections in a few years, and the upstart ultra-right-wing Wildrose Alliance prepared to vie for the same conservative votes as Ed Stelmach's (so-called) Progressive Conservatives, there are certainly opportunities for the campaigns of progressive Liberals and NDP candidates (and others) to come up the middle.

Without money, though, it's difficult to win an election. However, by all accounts, Mr. Nenshi ran his campaign on a shoe-string budget. He seriously tried to invigourate the electorate, and engage those who might otherwise not vote, especially youth. He used social media to get his message out, and apparently experienced some success in doing so. He's shown us all that limited resources need not stand in the way of running a credible campaign, even in situations where the mainstream media fails to engage the public. He forced the mainstream media to take notice of his campaign to the point that the Calgary Sun actually endorsed him.

Maybe Mr. Nenshi's campaign says a little something about the waning influence of the mainstream media, given that they were playing "catch-up" with Mr. Nenshi throughout his campaign. I'm not yet prepared to state categorically that the mainstream media is playing less of a role in elections; perhaps, though, what we're seeing might be considered the beginning of the end for MSM's strangle-hold on influencing election outcomes.

There are a couple of other lessons here. With limited resources, progressive campaigns have to be that much smarter. It looks like Mr. Nenshi's campaign did everything right, and were lucky to boot. Barbara Higgins entry into the race was probably the biggest factor in Mr. Nenshi's victory. Sure, it didn't hurt that Mr. Nenshi offered a compelling and practical vision for Calgarians, which may have resonated with many (it's always good to have one of those), and that he was able to communicate that vision effectively. But having two front-runners daily bashing one another in the media, and playing to the politics of negativity, while vying for the same votes, was certainly a significant help to Nenshi.

Further, there was no incumbent in this race. Incumbency, especially in municipal elections, is usually the most determinative factor in the outcome of an election. Even when incumbents lose a race, their incumbency is usually cited as the determining factor; most often incumbents "lose" rather than having their opponents "win". In Calgary's case, a lack of an incumbent opened the field somewhat, and even through both Councilor McIver and media personality Higgins brought with them significant name recognition, it was hardly on the level of Calgary's Mayor Bronconnier, a household name (in Calgary at least).

A lot of Greens are learning these lessons. Take Chris Tindal, running for municipal Council in Toronto's Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale). His situation is similar (although not identical) to Nenshi's, and certainly worth a close watch next Monday. Ward 27 has no incumbent, with long-serving progressive Councillor Kyle Rae having stepped down. As a result, there are about 15 candidates running for Council. The Toronto media has dumbed-down this ward election to a two-person race (likely as a result of the extremely limited ink they've been allocating to ward races throughout Ontario; it's certainly not just a Toronto issue). The mainstream media would have us believe that either Kristyn Wong-Tam or Ken Chan is going to be the next Councillor. Both are somewhat progressive (Wong-Tam is backed by the local NDP machine, I believe). Former federal Green candidate Christ Tindal's name is barely mentioned by the mainstream.

Yet Tindal is all over the internet, using social media to raise his profile. He's also unique in that he probably already has the highest level of name recognition of any candidate running for Ward 27, due to his past federal level election activity (he finished third, just a few votes shy of second, in the 2008 bye-election which brought Liberal Bob Rae onto the federal scene). Only "Supermodel" Enza Anderson, also running in Ward 27, has the same level of name recognition as Tindal.

Tindal is also running a fully funded campaign, in part as a result of progressives throughout the City (and indeed, the province of Ontario) recognizing that his election to Toronto City Council will be a victory not just for the good people of Ward 27, but for the rest of us as well. Like it or not, what happens in Toronto matters to the rest of us. Toronto is often the leader which drives provincial issues, and governments too. That's just the way it is. And that's why Toronto's local politics matter as much as they do for the rest of us in this province. Tindal's voice and work on Council will assuredly be a good thing for all of us.

So, there are definetly some similarities between the Tindal and Nenshi campaigns; to me, though, it looks like Tindal might actually be in a more advantageous position than Nenshi was prior to yesterday's vote. Let's keep our fingers crossed for Tindal, and do what we can to help him.

And let's congratulate Nenshi and his campaign team for a superb effort. Nenshi's success at the polls is something which we can all take heart in.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

David Popescu, Hate Speech and Democracy in Greater Sudbury

On the very same day that it was announced that imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize, we here in Greater Sudbury experienced an issue regarding democratic freedoms and how far a democratic society should go in accommodating democratic values. The case here is an interesting one, and for those who are proponents of democracy, it’s also a frustrating one.

Background: 2008 Federal Election

This all started back in 2008, during the last federal election. At that time, independent Sudbury electoral district candidate, David Popescu, made remarks at an all-candidates meeting being hosted at Sudbury Secondary School which were incredibly offensive. Specifically, he advocated for the execution of homosexuals, based on his own interpretation of the Bible. While I wasn’t at the debate, I understand from media reports that the students themselves vocally challenged Popescu in such a way that the debate came to an abrupt end. As an immediate result of these comments, three things happened: the Rainbow District School Board banned Mr. Popescu from attending any further debates; the other candidates running in the election issued a release saying that they would not participate in any further debate with Popescu; the matter of his comments were brought forward to the Sudbury Regional police which then initiated a hate crimes investigation.

Shortly after Popescu made those incendiary remarks, he was asked to clarify what he meant on a Toronto radio show. His further remarks essentially clarified that he believed that the execution of homosexuals should be a state responsibility, and that he wasn’t trying to tell people to indiscriminately kill homosexuals. The radio interview also involved EGALE Canada Executive Director, Helen Kennedy; Popescu pointedly remarked that Ms. Kennedy should be executed because she is a homosexual. These broadcast remarks, made in Toronto, led to a second hate crimes investigation being initiated.

The 2008 federal election came and went, and despite these hate-filled remarks by Popescu, he still managed to capture 80 votes here in Sudbury, to the greater shame of my community. The hate crimes investigations were later transferred to the Provincial Ministry of the Attorney General, and charges were laid against Mr. Popescu. Eventually, after a trial (in which he represented himself), he was convicted of having engaged in hate speech, and received a suspended sentence, and was put on probation for period of 18 months. That was back in August, 2009 (which was actually less than a year from the initial crime being committed).

Background: 2010 Municipal Election

Fast forward to the municipal election now underway here in Greater Sudbury. Residents of all municipalities will be going to the polls to elect new municipal councils on October 25th. David Popescu is this time seeking the position of Mayor. In fact, this is at least the 7th time that Popescu has put his name forward seeking a position of public office, whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level of government.

On Wednesday, October 6th, Mr. Popescu, along with Greater Sudbury mayoralty candidates John Rodriguez (incumbent Mayor), Ted Callaghan (current councillor for Ward 8), Derek Young and Edward Pokonzie, participated in a town hall discussion hosted by a new organization known as Good Green Questions. The Good Green Town Hall was held at Tom Davies Square that evening, between 7 and 9 pm. All candidates listed as running for Mayor were invited to participate in the Town Hall. Prior to the town hall, Good Green Questions had sent a questionnaire to all of the candidates for mayor, for completion in advance of the town hall meeting; candidates Rodriguez, Callaghan, Young and Popescu all provided responses.

3 of the listed mayoralty candidates did not attend the Good Green Town Hall, nor did they provide responses to the questions. Of these 3 candidates, 2 have been pretty much missing in action since the election commenced. The third, however, Marianne Matichuk, has been aggressively campaigning for the position of Mayor. Ms. Matichuk, although she did not complete the Good Green Questions questionnaire, did indicate to the event organizers that she would be unable to participate in town hall as a result of a prior commitment. On the same day as the town hall, Matichuk released her “Green Vision” for Greater Sudbury via a local media outlet’s blog site (the Sudbury Star’s site).

The Good Green Town Hall proved to be an interesting, if somewhat uninspiring, affair ("uninspiring" given the answers offered to the questions!). With regards to Popescu, he didn’t end up saying anything which could be construed as being hate speech. Having said that, he used the Good Green Questions Town Hall as a further opportunity to advance his bible-based interpretation of what the community needs to do to rid itself of sin, and thus improve its standing in the eyes of the Creator. While he at least tried to tie his message to that of the environment and green economy, despite his assertions that climate change is a manifestation of the Creator’s punishment, he failed significantly to provide any serious answers to questions put to him. In my opinion, Popescu’s participation in this debate proved to be a waste of everybody’s time, including his own.

On Friday, October 8th, the Matichuk campaign posted on the Sudbury Star’s blog site a letter they had written to the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce with regards to Popescu’s planned participation in the Chamber’s debate, taking place on Thursday, October 14th, also at Tom Davies Square. Matichuk expressed concern with the Chamber’s invitation to Popescu, who has engaged in hate speech during an election campaign in the past. She called for Popescu to be banned from the Chamber’s debate (although she also indicated that she respected that this decision was for the Chamber to make, and that she would participate with or without Popescu’s presence at the debate).

In an article published in Friday’s Sudbury Star, "Bar Popescu, Matichuk says", Debbie Nicholson, President and CEO of the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, indicated that it has been the Chamber’s longstanding practice to invite all nominated individuals to its debate, and that this practice was not going to change.

An editorial appearing in the Sudbury Star on the same day called for banning Popescu from public debates, because he is not a serious candidate, and ends up detracting from public discourse.

I, as a private citizen interested in democracy, wrote a letter to Debbie Nicholson, offering my support of the Chamber’s position to continue to insist that Popescu be invited to the public forum. I copied my letter to all of the mayoralty candidates. I received an initial response from candidate Young, which he had copied to the Chamber, which expressed his support for the Chamber’s position. I eventually received a response from the Matichuk campaign, which had been copied to some of our local media. In response to the Matichuk campaign’s reply, I provided a further response, which I also copied to the local media. My original letter to the Chamber is posted here on my blogsite.

The Issues

There are a couple of issues here, a few of which are important; the other one is instructive to those engaged in any political process. I’ll offer my opinion on those important issues in this blogpost, and I may return to the politically instructive one in another post. I don’t want to leave any confusion in the reader’s mind regarding what’s really important here, versus what’s just an interesting political tactic.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this situation since this issue came up on Friday. In short, I believe that there isn’t any one good answer here. I agree with many in my community that Popescu is a waste of time, and that there remains a high probability that, despite being on probation, he may engage in hate speech directed towards homosexuals again. Certainly, it is abundantly clear to me that Popescu uses election processes to bring attention to his pet issues; attention that he would otherwise have no way of getting. In the last election, his pet issues ventured into the territory of hate speech. Although he was charged and convicted, based on recent comments he has made to the Sudbury Star, it doesn’t appear that he’s changed his position on killing homosexuals (although his recent comments were a little more cagey).

I can understand that there are those in this City who want nothing more to do with Popescu. I’m certainly one of them. I sincerely wish that this hate-filled man would go away.

Some have suggested that the best way to deal with this man is to silence him. Certainly, there are a few mayoralty debates which are being hosted by local media where I understand that Popescu has not been invited to attend.

The concerns raised specifically by Matichuck and her campaign team are, in my opinion, valid. Popescu has proven himself to be someone who will engage in hate speech. He uses public debates to advance his own agenda. Why should we continue to provide this man a venue for his (potentially hate-filled) rants?

In my letter to the Chamber of Commerce, I weighed in with my own opinion regarding why it is important that we continue to afford Popescu, and others like him, the opportunity to speak – with the caveat that speech can not venture into the realm of hate speech. The problem with my approach, though, is that you can only ever address the issue after the fact. You can only ever lay charges against Popescu after he crosses the line between free speech and hate speech.

I’m obviously troubled by this. Yet I must continue to maintain that in the interests of democracy, Popescu be afforded equal opportunity to engage the public. He has a right to run in an election. He has the right to advance his platform. He should also have the same rights to be permitted to access the public.

Now, that’s important. That’s not the same as having an equal right to access the public as other candidates. Certainly in our electoral system, those with greater money and media exposure and larger campaign teams will have a greater ability to access the public than those with less of all of those things. Instead, what I’m talking about here is that all candidates should be afforded an equal opportunity to access the public. Whether (or even if) they can act on the opportunity will be for the candidate and their team to decide.

This means that things like a voter’s list should never be denied a candidate, no matter what kind of vile track record that candidate might have. Candidate’s names should appear on a ballot (and not have to be written in). I don’t think that there are many Canadians who would disagree with this form of access.

Now, what about access to participate in a public debate or meeting? Here’s where things get a little trickier. Certainly, it would seem that organizers of these sorts of events can exercise some discretion, although I would continue to argue that if there are some who are standing for public office who don’t receive an invitation to participate, we are not doing all that we can in terms of democracy. When we limit participation, we always diminish democracy.

But sometimes it’s necessary. What if, based on the sheer number of candidates alone, it’s simply not practical to engage everybody? Shouldn’t event organizers try to undertake that which is likely in the interests of a majority of the voters, and limit invitations? We certainly see this happen in practice. What needs to be kept in mind, though, as the event organizers, by limiting participation, are not providing a complete service to the public. Nevertheless, even an incomplete service could be considered better than no service at all.

Ultimately, these are issues which event organizers have to wrestle with. These decisions might also ultimately impact where an event is held. You see, if you’re going to hold a debate at a publicly-funded location, such as a City Hall, public library or other municipal facility, I would strongly suspect that the municipality is going to require an event organizer to invite all registered candidates. For example, in the case of David Popescu, he pays his taxes to the City of Greater Sudbury, just as I do, and just as the other candidates to do. If something like a Good Green Town Hall or a Chamber of Commerce debate are going to use City Hall as their venue, it would be highly inappropriate to not invite all candidates, even if they have used debates to engage in hate speech in the past. Unless a specific candidate has been legally banned from setting foot into City Hall, the City’s doors must be open.

That alone isn’t an argument to continue to invite Popescu to debates. Certainly, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce is free to change its venue, and to then invite whomever it pleases. I continue to be glad that they have not done so, however, based on my view that democracy can be a messy business, and we have to take the good with the bad.

Compromising Our Democracy

In reading some of the comments which have been provided (in most cases anonymously) on the Sudbury Star’s website, both for and against the inclusion of Popescu in public debates, it’s been suggested that there need to be further restrictions placed on our democratic processes in order to protect us from people like Popescu. I recall one commenter who indicated that we should be teaching democratic values to our children, yet here we are exposing them to Popescu’s hate speech. Some believe that the problem is with our democracy, which is too free and permissive in terms of who is eligible to run in an election.

Of course, further restricting the opportunity for candidates to run in an election might be worth consideration. Already, we restrict people from running in an election by providing rules which require a certain amount of cash being made available upfront (in the case of federal elections, you’ve got to pay $1,000). This financial requirement is a significant impediment to democratic engagement, especially for the poorest of us who might otherwise think of running for public office. I’m not sure when economic wealth equated with having good ideas, but clearly this restriction remains one endorsed by our society. Age, of course, is another restriction, and again, I’m not sure that good ideas are found only in those over the age of 18.

Given that we have restrictions in place already, it’s easy to see why some would call for further restrictions, especially when faced with the likes of a horrible individual like Popescu. Yes, calls for further compromising our democracy obviously have resonance in these situations. But that’s not the answer. It’s not the answer, because the problem isn’t with democracy, or with our democratic processes.

The problem is with David Popescu, and others who choose to abuse our democratic processes for their own ends.

And that’s a problem for which there isn’t any easy solution. As long as Popescu and others who are filled with hate exist in our society, they are likely going to abuse our democratic institutions for their own ends. Their existence, however, doesn’t mean that we need to force ourselves to change. We’re not doing anything wrong by having a democratic system in which to practice a democratic electoral process.

Our system is already considerably imperfect. I, for one, certainly believe that change is needed. But not the sort of change which further disenfranchises voters and candidates. We should not stand for change which further diminishes our democratic institutions. That applies even in circumstances where the likes of a David Popescu continues to be afforded an opportunity to abuse democracy.

Some have suggested that because I believe that standing up for democracy is more important that banishing Popescu from having a forum to spew his hatred, that I am supporting Popescu. Let me be clear about this: I am not supporting Popescu. I think that Popescu is vile, and I am angry that he chooses to abuse our democratic proccesses, by using elections to engage in unincompromising discourse. His hate-speech activities during the 2008 federal election were vile, and in my opinion, he didn't receive enough of a punishment from our legal system. Again, just because I support Popescu's right to participate in the democratic process, it does not mean that I support Popescu.

Democracy is bigger, far bigger, than the likes of David Popescu. We shouldn’t be afraid of confronting those who are filled with hate. We should not call for further diminishment of our democratic institutions in the name of protecting ourselves from the possibility of hate (or whatever). Instead, we together can easily rise above Popescu, safe and secure in the knowledge that democracy is paramount, and certainly worth fighting for.

Just ask Liu Xiaobo his opinion of whether democracy is an institution worth fighting for. I think that he might be able to offer an interesting and instructive perspective. That, of course, is if his government ever allows him the opportunity to speak his mind again.

*Updated* (10:08 PM) - I've just learned that tonight's Northern Life / Eastlink debate is taking place at Tom Davies Square. So much for my theory about debates being held at taxpayer-funded public venues having to extend invitations to all candidates! Although I really should check my source's accuracy regarding whether Popescu was invited or not. If he wasn't invited, I think I owe my readers an explanation as to why. I'll get back to everybody on this.