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Posts Tagged ‘Harper’

Artwork by Gillian Hickie

As Canada approaches its third federal election in five years, Canadians are more skeptical than ever about our democracy. In the last election, over 40% of the voting population didn’t even bother recording their opinion in the polls. At 58%, 2008 marked the lowest voter turnout in Parliamentary history.

While it’s tempting, I’m not going to lay blame for declining levels of civic participation on Harper’s autocratic leadership style, or his government’s manipulation of Parliamentary process, or even his being found in contempt of Parliament. And, while equally tempting, I’m also not going lay blame entirely on the polarized environment created by a minority parliament and the growing intensity of party politics that force representatives to draw party lines before defending their constituents – though they are certainly contributors. But ultimately, party politics and an election campaign full of mud slinging and reputation crushing attack ads are not unfamiliar to Canadians. No, what I believe to be compromising Canada’s democracy and the willingness of Canadians to participate in it is much more fundamental.

The premise of a democratic governing system is that all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. One citizen = one vote. In 1867, Canada’s Constitution decided a minimum number of seats per province, though no maximums – theoretically to allow representation in the House of Commons to expand alongside population growth. Constitution also determined that each province would have at least as many seats in the Senate as it does in the House.

We’ve known for some time that as Canada’s population shifts toward urban concentration, that the population distribution among electoral ridings has become skewed. But how skewed? According to a 2010 report by the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation – an independent, non-partisan public policy research centre at the University of Toronto – so skewed that Canada’s electoral system no longer meets international democratic norms. No kidding. If you thought American politics is messed up, you’ll be interested to know that the relative equality of a Canadian vote deviates seven times more than in the US! That means that the inequality experienced by Canadians is more than seven times as great as that experienced by Americans. Ironic, isn’t it…

According to the Mowat report, a whopping 61% of Canadians are underrepresented in the House of Commons. The report explains that the allocation of House representatives-by-population is what determines the overall ‘fairness’ of a democracy. Canada’s current formula is not only substandard to international norms, but it also violates the standard outlined in the Canadian Constitution.

Current rules state that provinces must have an equal number of House and Senate seats, and no province can have fewer seats than it did in 1985 – presumably protecting the voice of declining rural populations in Canada. The Mowat report notes that these rules have created “serious distortions in representations across the provinces”.

Particularly disadvantaged are voters in BC, Alberta and Ontario, with a relative vote weight of between 0.90 and 0.92. The concentration of youth, visible minorities and newcomers to Canada in these provinces with more populated ridings also contributes to a targeted, though unintentional, disadvantage for these voting groups. Comparatively, Quebec voters weigh in closest to the average at 1.01. Nova Scotia votes count for 1.18 while Saskatchewan voters are particularly influential, weighted at 1.39, along with PEI voters at 2.88.

So, how does the weight of your vote impact electoral results? Consider this: Fair Vote Canada – a multi-partisan national citizens campaign promoting fair voting systems for use in elections at all levels – highlight these stats from the 2008 federal election:

• 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
• In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
• Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
• New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

Fair Vote Canada notes that Canada is one of the few major nations still using the first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP). Most countries have implemented other fairer systems because FPTP generally fails to provide representation for all voters and it usually fails to provide legitimate majority rule. What it does do is “distorts the will of voters, exaggerates regional differences, results in low percentages of women and visible minority MPs and creates apathy, cynicism and negativity among voters”. Sound familiar?

As election results become increasingly distanced from how individual Canadians are voting, our elected government will become more and more distanced from the values of most Canadians. It’s no wonder that we’re having an election every two years and engaging less and less each time. Does your vote really count? As the Mowat report points out, discussion around the issue over the last 30 years has focused primarily on protecting representation in areas with declining populations, while little has been done to address the weakened value of votes in more populated areas. While achieving perfect representation is not necessarily feasible or the desired goal, the current situation is dangerously compromising Canada’s valued democracy. With democracy at the centre of many election campaign conversations, the time is ripe for renewed discussion about electoral reform. Before you cast your ballot on May 2nd, ask your candidates how they will work towards electoral equality for Canada. Until we correct the issue of representation in the House of Commons and legitimize our democracy, we will continue to elect governments we don’t really want.

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Watch this short video produced by Fair Vote Canada to see how votes are counted using Canada’s current electoral system.

Big Parties from Fairvote Canada on Vimeo.

And, here’s a Toronto-based initiative led by self-proclaimed ‘community choreographer’ Dave Meslin called RaBIT: Ranked Ballot Initiative worth checking out.

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continued from previous post…

Part Two – Advocacy, Lobbying and Election Campaigning with Americans for the Arts

US Treasury

The folks at Americans for the Arts (AFA) – a national arts advocacy organization – are on the brink of their annual Arts Advocacy Day, organized roughly around the same time as key federal budget decision-making. Throughout the year, 20 mostly Washington-based National Arts Service Organizations meet monthly (with secretariat support from AFA) to decide on advocacy messages and priorities for the current year, focusing on issues that are strategic and reflective of the current political climate. This group is also involved in developing key issue briefs that are included in a comprehensive Arts Day advocacy toolkit containing other goodies like the voting records of each of the 435 Members of Congress, arts activity profiles of each Congressional District, speaking notes as well as pages of useful facts and figures compiled by AFA staff.

The day before Arts Day, each participant is provided with this handy resource prior to Congressional meetings – THE advocacy guidebook that accompanies the day-long pre-conference where advocates partake in sessions like ‘Lobbying 101: The ABCs of Meeting with Legislators’, ‘Advanced Federal Arts Policy Training’, and ‘Facts and Figures to Make Your Case’. There’s even a ‘Veteran’s Track’ for those that have done it before. The day closes with a trip to the Kennedy Centre for the Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, this year featuring Kevin Spacey.

US Government building

One of the keys to organizing such an event is the system of organization employed by AFA. Over 500 individuals from all 50 states participate each year and this uptake in participation seems to have a lot to do with the 47 State Arts Alliances (not to be confused with State Arts Agencies) that exist across the country. Active in almost all 50 states, the alliances are service organizations with an advocacy mandate (among other service priorities). During Arts Day, they are critical partners. Heads of State Arts Alliances act as team captains for meetings with representatives of all the Congressional Districts in their State. They convene and brief participants from their region on the Congress people they’ll be meeting with and articulate the game plan for each of the following day’s meetings. They also maintain these relationships beyond arts day, encouraging meetings between Congress People and members of the arts sector year round. A well-oiled machine makes for a successful and impactful event*. Canada’s recent Arts Day on Parliament Hill, organized by the Canadian Arts Coalition in November 2010 was modeled to some extent after the American version.

Lincoln Monument

Seeing as Canada is now facing yet another federal election (made official around 2:30pm EST Friday, March 25th when the House found the Harper Government in contempt of Parliament for the first time in Canadian history!), I took the opportunity to inquire about how AFA engages in election campaigns. During election time, the Arts Action Fund (AAF) – a sister organization of the AFA – springs to life. Unlike a typical non-profit organization in the US, coded and often referred to as a 501(c)3, the AAF can engaged in lobbying and political campaigning as a 501(c)4, which is basically a separately distinguished type of non-profit organization. A 501c3 and a 501c4 are essentially the same from a tax perspective, though the key difference is that 501c3’s are limited in the amount of time and/or money they can put into lobbying and when it comes to elections, they “cannot in any way support or oppose anyone running for public office, though they may be involved in political campaigns by way of non-partisan public forums, voter registration drives, etc.” A 501(c)4, on the other hand, can engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying activity, and during elections “can engage in political campaign activity, so long as this is consistent with the organization’s purpose and is not the organization’s primary activity”. They cannot, however, receive government grants or other monies.

WWII Memorial and the reflecting pool...under construction

The AAF is a 7-year-old organization and has a quickly growing membership of over 30,000 individuals interested in the well being of the arts in America. While there is no membership fee to join, some members of this group make donations during election campaigns – to the tune of about $150,000. This money is used to engage in partisan (but not party-based) lobbying activities. AAF will endorse and even donate cash to candidates. Individuals can donate up to a max of $1000 to any given candidate, but Political Action Committees (PAC’s), like the AAF can donate up to $5000 per candidate. With raised funds, AAF contributes election campaign money to candidates (typically to a max of $1000 per candidate) using a mix of criteria. Generally speaking, they want to contribute to pro-arts candidates, a mix of Democratic and Republican, key individuals like incumbent committee chairs, and a collection of open seats. They also use raised funds to host an election event in one of the key congressional districts and encourage their membership to actively volunteer on recommended candidate campaigns. Through AAF, arts supporters help certain candidates get elected, which is key to building strong relationships in Congress.

To be continued…

*Check out my video blog from the Spring 2010 Arts Day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. or read my article on the Fall 2010 Arts Day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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As of today, two of Toronto’s front-running mayoral candidates have announced their policy and investment plans for the arts and culture sector.

First out of the gate, Joe Pantalone released his ‘Cultural Capital Plan’ on June 29th. The platform contains three major ideas. To increase investment from $18 per capita to $25 per capita over 5 years, to create a new ‘Cultural Access Pass Program’ for new Canadians that would give new local immigrants free access to major cultural offerings in the city for one year, and to better market Toronto as a screen industry leader.

As a City Council veteran, it’s no surprise that Pantalone makes mention of the city’s existing Culture Plan for the Creative City, adopted by Council in 2003. He advocates a need to adopt the next generation of the plan and prioritize new investments, beginning with new support for local artists and arts organizations across Toronto.

Referencing the Toronto Arts Council’s Neighbourhood Arts Network ‘block-by-block’ program, Pantalone also commits to improving arts involvement in Toronto neighbourhoods through things like arts in the parks, audience development initiatives, arts programs in the schools, and Culture Days involvement and funding. No detail is provided on how this might be achieved and whether investment in these initiatives would be over and above the committed $25 per capita over 5 years.

Finally, Pantalone underscores that “arts and culture activities have a significant role to play in city-wide priorities such as economic development, public engagement, infrastructure, public transit, the environment, employment, tourism, social programming, city beautification, and civic participation”. He commits to making culture more fundamental part of city building.

Today at Harbourfront Centre, Rocco Rossi announced his arts platform with two bold commitments: to increase investment in, and influence of, the arts in Toronto.

His plan, Creative City, would immediately increase per capita investment to $25, with the goal of reaching parity with competing North American cities by the end of his first term. He goes as far as to outline how he would financially achieve the first leap to $25 – by applying an estimated $11.5 million in new revenues from the billboard tax (accounting for two thirds) and finding the other third (about $6 million) in operational efficiencies.

To improve culture sector ‘clout’, as he calls it, he proposes the appointment of an Arts and Culture Commissioner to “develop a new generation of the city’s Culture Plan, with new targets and investments, with the goal of achieving funding parity with our major North American competitors in the arts…”. No detail is provided on which cities are viewed to be competitors or which cities we might be trying to achieve parity with. Hey, New York, Chicago and San Francisco are investing more than three times what we are. That would mean a significant leap (like, over $100 million in new cash) over four years. That said, I appreciate the bold vision. Public cash is spent in greater amounts for lesser things. Like G20 security, for example.

Notably, Rossi makes reference to the ‘arts deficit’ we face in many areas, including the need to capture more of the film and television production market, and for new and revitalized mid-sized theatre spaces, among others. A recent Globe and Mail article titled ‘Great Play – Too Bad About the Dumpy Theatre’ comments on the latter. The title sort of says it all.

Learning a lesson from Harper’s gaffe in the 2008 federal election campaign, it’s clear that these two Mayoral candidates have been taking notes when speaking to arts and culture stakeholders about their goals for the city. (See ArtsVote for details on arts sector election priorities). Instead of speaking dismissively about over-subsidized gala-going artists, they are celebrating the value of artists as leaders in the creative economy and are positioning the sector as a key contributor to economic development, suggesting further integration into city planning agendas.

Could it be that our political leaders are finally acting on what we’ve known for some time now? The arts are a damn good investment. And, there’s nothing like a competitive election campaign to get politicians to put money where their mouth is.

Looking forward to hearing from George Smitherman, Sarah Thompson, Rob Ford (I’m not holding my breath on that one), and others.

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