Category Archives: democracy and good government

Mandatory Minimum Accidentally Applied to Powerful White Man

Many political observers in the Canadian province of Ontario are calling for a change to the law after a mandatory minimum penalty was accidentally applied to a powerful white man.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s seat has been declared vacant by a judge after Ford was found to have violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which also contains the harsh requirement that he lose his job.

“It just doesn’t seem right,” said area man Scott Johnston, who noted that he was more comfortable with mandatory minimums being used for laws typically prosecuted against poor people, black people, and generally “people who, I don’t know, aren’t like me?”

Frank Rashton, political science professor at the University of Toronto, said that enforcing the MCIA sets a dangerous precedent for other laws meant to hold political leaders to account. “I mean, what’s next,” Rashton asked, “we start enforcing election laws too?”

Pointing to a number of examples where elected officials have admitted breaking election laws in order to gain power, as well as ongoing cases where political parties are accused of engaging in systemic voter suppression, Rashton said “expecting politicians to be accountable under the law” would “[open] up a whole new can of worms.”

“I don’t think we’ve seriously considered the implications of going down that road,” he said.

Others argued that the real problem is not the law itself, but that in this particular case there weren’t enough loop holes designed to be exploited by powerful people. Columnist Sarah Simmer, who called the decision “Conrad Blackian*,” said that while it’s true enforcing other similar laws would be dangerous, it’s unlikely to create a rush on the courts since most of those laws already have built-in exceptions. “Look at Ontario,” she said. “A minister was set to be held in contempt by the legislature, but the premier was thankfully able to step in and stop it.”

Simmer said it would be dangerous to simply get rid of the MCIA’s penalties, because they’re “important for the appearance of accountability.” It would be better to instead ensure the penalties are never applied, she said.

When asked, outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty disagreed with Simmer’s interpretation. “We’ve been very clear. Using power to avoid accountability is only wrong when Conservatives do it. In the case of Rob Ford, it would not be appropriate.”

McGuinty also said that since municipalities are the responsibility of the province it would have been helpful if the legislature were sitting right now in order to respond to concerns about the MCIA, as well as questions regarding how the MCIA relates to municipal codes of conduct, before adding “hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”

Chris Tindal is on Twitter.

* The author and publisher of this post would like to make it exceedingly clear that they don’t believe Conrad Black has ever done anything wrong ever and that that Simmer person was totally out of line, even for a fictional person employing parody.

Who is Andrew Frank?

Andrew Frank, who on Monday was fired from ForestEthics for going public with accusations that someone in the PMO labeled the organization an “Enemy of the Government of Canada” and of the “people of Canada,” was an annoying classmate. Actually, he could be a complete pain in the ass. Unlike the rest of us Radio and Television Arts students at Ryerson University in Toronto, Andrew had no aspirations of being a writer, director or broadcaster. Unlike the rest of us, he wasn’t after fame and the media spotlight. Instead, having decided that news and entertainment media were having an unduly negative influence on society and culture, Andrew moved from a small British Columbian community to Canada’s largest city simply to understand those forces better. To become better equipped to operate in a media-dominated world.

But that wasn’t the most annoying thing about him. He was indisputably one of the best of us. Nothing you did or created ever looked remotely impressive next to Andrew’s projects. When Andrew decided to shoot a pseudo-demonic  birth scene in a candle-lit church using a tracking shot, there was no going half-way. He somehow convinced a downtown Anglican church (even after they had seen the script) to let him move in, light the candles and build the track. When he decided that the perfect music to underscore this scene was a Led Zeppelin song, he didn’t settle for one of the widely-available rip-offs, nor did he do what many students would probably do and just use the song and hope he didn’t get caught. He went and secured the damned rights to the damned Let Zeppelin song. (All of this for a scene that, to my memory, was just a brief flash-back in an otherwise straightforward video.)

That wasn’t the most annoying thing about him either. If you were lucky enough to get to work on one of his projects, he’d run you ragged. While creating what we believe to be North America’s first TV pilot written and directed in American Sign Language by deaf (some identified as Deaf) actors and improvisers, we worked 18-hour-days, mostly outside, in the winter, for weeks. At 1 a.m. when you can no longer feel your hands, are running on 4 hours sleep, know you’re starting again at 6 a.m. and still have to strike the set and load the truck, it’s easy to decide that “that last take was good enough.” But Andrew always wanted to get one more shot. He knew it could be better. He knew what “right” looked like, and he wasn’t willing to compromise.

That was the most annoying thing about him. Andrew’s success, from what I could tell, was the result of two things: the exceptional amount of effort that he put in, and the high standards he refused to let go. Even while still at school, those values extended beyond school projects into activism. At the end of our program Andrew moved back to B.C. and became a full-time environmental campaigner, often working for free on initiatives he either created himself or strongly believed in.

Most of us don’t operate with such a strong unwillingness to compromise, especially when it comes to our own employment. In their response to Andrew’s open letter, ForestEthics doesn’t give any indication that the very serious accusations he makes aren’t accurate. In fact, by saying that Andrew was fired for “[violating] the confidence of the organization,” they suggest that what he revealed is accurate information the organization hoped to keep secret in the interest of not biting the hands that feed them. And as Andrew himself points out in a blog post this morning, denials coming from the PMO and Tides Canada (an organization that funds ForestEthics) aren’t as absolute as they could be either.

I haven’t yet spoken with Andrew about what happened. I don’t know anything more than what’s been publicly reported. What I do know from my years working closely with him is that Andrew is not motivated by fame, sets high standards for himself and those around him and strongly values honesty. I know that when he’s a pain in the ass, it’s usually because he’s doing what needs to be done when no one else will do it. And when he decides what’s right, he doesn’t settle for anything less.

Regardless of what you think of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, if you believe Canadians deserve to know the truth about what kinds of chill tactics are being used against NGOs and ordinary citizens, please join this cause.

Becoming an MP

During the ill-fated campaign to introduce MMP voting in Ontario, critics often argued that one of the biggest problems with MMP was that it would allow parties to choose candidates, and that that process would be heavily influenced by the party establishment. I found this argument perplexing, since it’s an equally (if not more) valid description of how the current system ends up placing candidates on a ballot and, subsequently, in a provincial or federal seat.

It would be difficult for a reasonable, disinterested person to conclude Craig Scott is anything other than very qualified to be a Member of Parliament. The human rights lawyer has a bio that hits all the right notes: he’s worked for human rights around the world and here at home, recently turned his focus to environmental justice and is active around housing and poverty.

Additionally, at the Toronto Danforth NDP nomination meeting Monday night, he gave the strongest speech, both in content and delivery. He’s able to comfortably speak to a wide range of federal issues without sounding like he’s just reciting a list of talking points. Verbal cues, like a nod to “evidence-based policy,” hint that there is hopefully more depth to his thinking than can ever be fully apparent in a short campaign speech. And he managed not only to move the room of party faithfuls, but also cause this often-NDP-critic to repeatedly nod his head.

In addition to those qualities, Scott brought with him the largest selection of influential NDP endorsements. Backing from impressive individuals like environmentalist Rick Smith, Rev. Brent Hawks and Maher Arar was paired with the green light from his party’s political establishment: current MPP Peter Tabuns, Toronto and York Region Labour Council President John Cartwright and past President of the Ontario NDP and Toronto Danforth Riding Association Janet Solberg.

I do not suggest that any of these endorsements were anything less than honestly earned. They are, however, somewhere between difficult and impossible for another candidate to overcome. In that way—barring a shocking underdog victory—a small group of well-connected people chose Craig Scott as the next MP for Toronto Danforth before the NDP or any other party had even held a nomination meeting.

There are three main ways in which I see these endorsements exerting an influence on the voting membership. Most obviously and legitimately, the approval of respected like-minded individuals makes a candidate more attractive. Party members are very similar to voters in a public election in that they are busy individuals who don’t have a lot of time to fully vet each candidate. In both party and public elections, quality endorsements serve as a helpful shortcut for voters. That doesn’t mean voters will vote strictly based on endorsements, but they’re likely to take well-endorsed candidates more seriously and begin their decision process with a bias towards them.

Further, some endorsements come with critical campaign resources like lists, volunteers and money. Key party and labour individuals have increased access to these resources, which can be deployed to help win both the nomination and the public election. Some savvy voting members may also see the writing on the wall and conclude that nominating a candidate with these kinds of connections is the best way to ensure future electoral success, though that’s more difficult to demonstrate.

Finally, and of greatest concern, is the dissuading effect enough of these endorsements can have on other prospective candidates. Within political parties, prospective candidates who come up against the chosen individual of the party establishment often feel pressure not to run at all, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes those candidates declare themselves and then withdraw (in the federal riding of Toronto Centre, Liberal Rob Oliphant dropped out to support Bob Rae, and, provincially, former George Smitherman staffer Todd Ross dropped out to support Glen Murray when Murray received Smitherman’s nod) and sometimes we never really learn what might have been (many believe that former Toronto budget chief and Liberal party member Shelley Carroll would have run for mayor if the Liberal establishment hadn’t anointed Smitherman instead).

In other words, we know Scott was the best and most qualified candidate on offer to NDP members Monday night, and may end up being the best candidate the residents of Toronto Danforth get to select from when a by-election is called. We don’t and can’t know if he was the best of all the candidates who may have considered a run. And, after all the other parties have gone through a similar process to pick their candidates, voters will get to choose from the candidates the parties have already chosen, never knowing who else might have been on offer.

Reasonable people will disagree on if this really represents a problem and, if it does, how best to fix it. But we should all at least have a better understanding of the process that goes into becoming an MP, especially if we hope to improve our democracy through voting or other reforms. It’s not as straight forward as simply letting the voters decide.

An off-the-cuff open letter to Charlie Angus

Dear Charlie,

Jane Taber reports over on globeandmail.com that you want MPs like yourself to be banned from Twitter “to save politicians from looking like idiots.”

“Here’s a better idea,” wrote Jeff Jedras. “Stop being idiots.”

We could probably just leave it there, Charlie, but I want this point to be very clear. Our MPs are letting us down disastrously. There are many good individuals who sit in the House of Commons and you may well be one of them, but as a group you are delivering concentrated packages of FAIL on a daily basis. Our MPs do act childish, they do play games, and they have created a complete vacuum of leadership at a time when we need it the most. The solution is not to hide that disgrace, the solution is to change it.

I’m surprised that anyone who believes in transparent and accountable democracy could conclude that a tool that  ”exposes” a problem with how Parliament (doesn’t) work should be removed from the equation. On the contrary, anything that exposes the pathetic sideshow that is the current Parliament should be amplified in the hopes that it will snap us out of our collective slumber and elect a group of people who will actually work together for the good of the country.

And Charlie, those of us who follow the tweets of public figures? We’re not “imaginary friends,” as you called us. We’re people, voters, citizens. Don’t call us names.

As for your claim that banning Twitter would somehow force MPs to treat each other like humans because they wouldn’t have their noses in their mobile devices all the time, I’ll grant you that sounds like good meeting etiquette. But when I read that you’re someone who “freely admits that he couldn’t do his job without his BlackBerry — he uses it at committee to check facts with his staff and to Google other points of discussion,” it seems like you’re specifically targeting tools that allow politicians to communicate with the public while giving a pass to other equally anti-social BlackBerry habits.

There, rant over. Let’s get back to work. It’s getting hot in here.

Best,

Chris