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By Alvin Finkel

Opponents of strategic voting argue that it is an affront to democracy, and that sites like ChangeAlberta are all about denying choice to voters. That’s nonsense. Identification of individuals with a particular political party in Canada is actually quite rare. Only about one percent of voters in Canada have chosen to become members of a political party.

Now, of course, for those who have made that choice and believe in their party strongly, it sometimes seems unjust that people come along and say: your party and party y are similar enough and sufficiently different from party z, which I oppose heartily, that my vote will go to whichever of your party and party y seems to have the best chance of defeating z. If you belong to party x and feel, for whatever reason, that it alone embodies all that is good, fine, go ahead and vote for it. But don’t accuse others who view your party differently and don’t see it as all that unique of being undemocratic, of wanting to mislead the voters, etc. You live in a bubble that they don’t live in.

After all, even within the parties, and sometimes even among the activists, there are many people who choose to vote strategically. When they see that their party is unable to run a real campaign in their riding, and has no chance of succeeding, they decide that they do not want to waste their vote and so they give their vote to the candidate of one of the two top contenders in the riding. Now, of course, many other party stalwarts would never do that. They believe that in all conscience they can only vote for the candidate of their party and do not want to be in a position of choosing the least obnoxious of the top two choices. Some also rationalize that if their party is ever going to be a contender in a particular constituency, it needs to have all of its current supporters voting for it so that it has a base to build on for the next time.

But if you are not a member of any party or a fervent supporter–it seems strange not to join a party that you are fervent about since all the parties charge almost nothing to join and impose no obligations on members–the logic of worrying about future elections makes no sense. Nor are you likely to want to defy the logic of a first-past-the-post system by deliberately voting for someone who has no realistic chance of coming either first or second, that is someone who is not really in the race this time around. And if you do want to defy that logic, most strategic voters and strategic vote site operators respect your choice.

So, for voters, whether you are one percenters (members of a political party) or not, if you are more interested in defeating government members or candidates of a particular political leaning (whether left or right or separatist or anti-environmentalist) it certainly makes sense to consider strategic voting. You are then faced with the dilemma though of figuring out who the top two horses in a race are. Sometimes that’s easy enough and sometimes it seems rather difficult. The point of a strategic voting site is to give you information that will help you out with that decision. Obviously, as opponents of strategic voting harp upon, such sites make mistakes. Like you, they might misread the cues about what’s going on in the heads of your fellow constituents. But they are spending more time and resources in trying to figure it out than you might be able to expend. So, they are worth your consideration.

ChangeAlberta, the DRP-created strategic voting website, will be recommending candidates with a chance of defeating both the Tories and Wildrose in select constituencies (constituencies where someone who does not believe in either the tooth fairy or Santa Claus nonetheless believes that a candidate who is to the left of Genghis Khan still has a remote chance of winning). We won’t be favouring any party and we won’t be considering which candidates of the NDP, Liberals, Alberta Party, and Evergreens seem morally more worthy than other candidates. Each voter who wants to vote purely on the basis of party or the worthiness of individual candidates can make that choice and hardly needs a third party’s advice. But for voters who mainly want to throw the rascals (the Tories)out without replacing them with even worse rascals (Wildrose), or at least to have a large somewhat progressive opposition in the legislature, ChangeAlberta will offer a great deal of assistance as they ponder their vote.

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One of our members received a copy of this letter sent to the Vancouver Sun newspaper:

—- Original Message —–

From: John Fryer

To: sunletters@vancouversun.com

Sent: Saturday, March 03, 2012 2:14 PM

Subject: Letter to the editor

Dear Editor,

In January 2010 my UVic inbox had an e-mail invite from the Manning Centre for Democracy to a Campaign School. Intrigued,I signed up for the 3 day event. Topics covered included voter identification. Discussion ensued about suppression techniques. Instructors explained voter suppression tactics were borrowed  from those used by the U.S. Republican Party.

Many kinds of suppression calls were canvassed. Another instructor gave detailed explanations of how robo calls worked, techniques for recording messages plus costs involved. He distributed his business card upon request. Instructors made clear that robo calling and voter suppression were perfectly acceptable and a normal part of winning political campaigns.

The denials now expressed by the Prime Minister and his Parliamentary associates thus ring hollow if not something worse. Having attended this Campaign School it’s obvious that for Conservatives voter suppression strategies are standard in their playbook on how to conduct elections. Having thus lowered their standard of election ethics to that of their Republican cousins it is hardly surprising that the result is a so-called majority government that was voted for by 39% of the 61% who managed to get to their proper polling station. A majority government supported by a mere 26 percent of Canadians.

A more compelling case for changing to a system of proportional representation where each and every vote counts is hard to imagine.

Sincerely yours,

John Fryer C.M.

Adjunct Professor,

School of Public Administration,

University of Victoria.

by Phil Elder

Alberta’s political parties are tuning their engines and taking practice laps for the upcoming provincial election. With the latest poll showing the PCs at 53%, Wildrose at 16%, the NDP at 13%, Liberals at 11% and the Alberta Party at 2% (with the new Evergreen Party not included), it seems all over but the shouting. The only interesting question is which party will be a corporals guard Official Opposition.

But lets take a closer look. Strange things are happening. Several PC MLAs have defected to Wildrose. Former Minister of Finance Lloyd Snelgrove, no doubt unhappy about Premier Redford’s excluding him from her new cabinet, first announced he will not run again, and then peed in the pickles by deserting the PC caucus to sit as an independent. He’s also discussed some unspecified form of cooperation with Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

Why couldnt he have had the grace to wait 2 months and disappear quietly? We may hear more from him or others in the Tory caucus So the good ship Lollipop has sprung a few leaks, even if Captain Redford doesn’t run her on the rocks.

Another possible complication for the PCs, apart from the inevitable vote-splitting with Wildrose, is foretold in the poll numbers just quoted. Adding the Green (Evergreen) Partys loyal core vote to the above numbers, the combined centre-left vote could total 30% or more. The plot thickens. What would happen if many anti-Tories decided to vote strategically for whichever progressive candidate in their riding, regardless of party, has the best chance to knock off the 2 right-wing candidates? This could produce some big surprises – remember Joe Clark winning in Calgary Centre on an anybody but Alliance strategic vote? Or Linda Duncan receiving cross-party votes in Edmonton Strathcona? Let us recall that in 2008 12 victorious Tories received fewer votes than the combined total of Green, Liberal and NDP votes in their constituency. They could be vulnerable this spring.

The Democratic Renewal Project (DRP) will soon unveil a web-based strategic voting initiative, changealberta.ca, for the provincial election. Modelling the campaign on such websites as Project Democracy in last years federal election, the DRP plans to recommend the most likely winner from the four centre-left parties in most of Albertas urban electoral districts.
Given poll and past election results, we expect that both New Democrats and Liberals will get the nod in Edmonton, and the Liberals in Calgary, but decisions will depend on continued research – there could be a few surprises.

Of course much can change during the campaign – its possible that PC/Wildrose gaffes could change the numbers, or that a particular issue, such as electricity deregulation that NDP leader Brian Mason is pushing, could galvanize voters. But the best bet is that if Premier Redford’s progressive paint job wears thin, opposition candidates could get a big boost from strategic anybody but PC/Wildrose voters. This election could be fun. Or it could be just a replay of the same old Tory you’ve changed, we’ve changed song.

by Phil Elder

One critique of the Occupy movement claims it is unnecessary because Democracy is very alive and very well in this country … (Letter to the Globe and Mail, November 19). I only wish it were true. In fact, Canadian democracy has big problems. Politics is in disrepute and citizen engagement in politics voter turnout, political party membership and the number volunteering for political campaigns – is way down.

Why, and what can be done about it? These complicated questions deserve a book, but I think that the present electoral system and the Conservative governments disdain for Parliament and the rule of law are major contributors.

1. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system grotesquely distorts election results in Canada, frustrating the will of the people and thereby discrediting democracy.

With FPTP, all votes for losing candidates are useless. In Albertas 2008 election, the Progressive Conservatives received 52.6 per cent of the votes, but won 87 per cent of the seats. Almost half the voters supported other parties but had to be content with only 13 per cent of the seats.

In New Brunswick in 1987, Frank McKennas provincial Liberals received 60 per cent of the vote, yet won all the seats. That means that 40 per cent of the voters supported parties which were totally excluded from the Legislature. These voters might as well have stayed home.

Under Kim Campbells leadership in the 1993 federal election, her Progressive Conservatives received 16 per cent of the vote, but won only two seats. Yet in the same election, the Reform party with about 19 per cent of the vote won 52 seats, 26 times more, because its support was heavily concentrated in one region, the west. No wonder voter turnout has declined (although bitter partisanship and posturing bluster by politicians have also contributed to our democratic malaise).

There is a remedy for these egregious distortions of the peoples will: change FPTP to some form of proportional representation (PR), so that each partys seat count corresponds more closely to the overall percentage of votes gained. This should greatly increase voter turnout, especially among supporters of smaller parties whose votes today are mostly symbolic, as all votes would be counted when calculating percentages to top up the number of constituency seats won.

2. The Harper government has repeatedly shown disdain for parliamentary tradition and the rule of law. For example, Mr. Harper told Conservative senators to refuse to debate a bill on climate change passed by the House of Commons, so it died. This breach of constitutional tradition showed contempt for elected MPs.

In 2009, Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in mid-session, which killed all legislative bills in process. Then, he had the gall to accuse the opposition of refusing to pass this legislation. Part of the reason for proroguing was that the Conservatives were threatened with a potential contempt of parliament ruling from the Speaker of the House of Commons because of their refusal to provide documents ordered by the House of Commons concerning the treatment of Afghan detainees.

Consider Hon. Bev Odas decision to reverse the meaning of a CIDA policy recommendation AFTER officials had signed it, so that aid to church-backed aid organization KAIROS and its international relief work would not only be refused but it would seem that CIDA had so recommended. Reversing her earlier testimony at a Commons committee where she had claimed not to know who penned the extra word Oda revealed she had, in fact, directed an unnamed official to add the word not to the recommendation.

Yet the government backed her, even though she had apparently misled the House – traditionally grounds for a minister’s dismissal.

The Harper regime ignored a Commons motion demanding details about the costs of various plans to spend billions of tax dollars on corporate tax cuts, prison expansions and untendered stealth fighter jets. All expenditures are to be introduced into, debated and approved by the House of Commons. How can this be done if estimates are not provided?

Other examples exist, but the remedy seems obvious. Elect a different government. We had our chance (most of these examples preceded the last election), but elected a majority Conservative government anyway. Was the electorate asleep?

In fairness, other parties also have anti-democratic skeletons in the closet. But todays Conservatives consistently choose short-term partisan advantage over democracy, which is especially worrisome. It sometimes seems that were in the United States. Canadians are not alone in failing to perceive a gap between our democratic rhetoric and our politicians behaviour. For proof, see the powerful video pointing out the hypocrisy of American politicians who glorify the Arab Spring demonstrations, yet tell their own police to end the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Why have Canadian voters sloughed off these abuses of democracy? It seems cheap to suggest that we have just become fat and lazy. More probably, the increased pace of life and threats to our economic security have distracted us from our duties of citizenship.

It’s also partly because our educators don’t teach enough political history, so that students dont appreciate what it took to win our democratic system. Another reason is the shortened and increasingly superficial attention span of our communications media which rarely give sustained attention to serious issues. If the medium is the message, it seems that the message is that pretty visuals are worth more than a thousand thoughts.

Perhaps too, Canadians values have gone astray. Our former desire for social and distributive justice, and apparently the rule of law, has been warped by a neo-conservative con job about the glories of competitive individualism. But rugged individuals, untrammelled and free, never existed in the state of nature (or even in the state of Texas). In our original condition, we were a social and instinctively cooperative species. We must never forget this, in spite of the present sovereignty of greed.

So let our educators, and immigration officials, teach our rich democratic tradition and the rule of law and the protests and deep commitment which created them. Let the media stop dumbing things down and feeding a celebrity-obsessed popular culture. Let them resume fair but critical investigation and commentary about our collective project to live together more harmoniously and fairly. And let us all follow the golden rule, as politicians, leaders and citizens.

An edited version of this article appeared on troymedia on Nov. 21.

by Phil Elder

Last night I had the strangest dream that Premier Alison Redford hired me as a policy advisor. Heres what I told her:

1. Alberta needs its politicians to start an adult conversation about the budget. We also need our politicians to tell us what their parties promises will cost and how they will raise the necessary money. The public needs to know that we cant have the desired and necessary level of health, education, social or other important services without paying higher taxes.
It is childish to believe otherwise.
It is also foolish to spend our non-renewable resource patrimony on these recurring items. Instead, most of our billions of dollars of resource revenue should regularly go into the Heritage Fund. Tying annual expenditures to wildly fluctuating resource revenues is a mugs game, as Premier Kleins erratic lurching from
riches-to-rags-to-riches spending demonstrated.

2. It follows that we need to build a sustainable tax system to pay for necessary programs. That government is NOT best which governs and taxes least, in spite of the rhetoric of politicians like Danielle Smith, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (the latter contradicted himself by more than tripling the American federal debt). Remember Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: I dont mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization. Several possibilities exist. First, change the regressive flat-rate income tax, which favours high income earners, to the former progressive schedule. Second, start preparing Albertans for a sales tax, say 3%, to be harmonized with the GST. Third, shift more of the tax burden onto activities which we want to reduce, such as smoking, drinking, or emitting pollutants into our air and water.
Youll be accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, or worse, but ask your critics whether they prefer medicare to be gutted, or a mediocre education system, or more homeless people walking the streets.

3. The existence of food banks and thousands of homeless people, in the richest province in Canada, is an indictment of your partys rule. Raise income support levels (like welfare and AISH) and stop financially penalizing people who show initiative while on these programs. Increase support for low-income and cooperative housing. Even better, consider implementing a guaranteed annual inco me, instead of just massaging uncoordinated anti-poverty programs. Restore the mental health programs instead of dumping people with psychological problems on the street where they eventually cost us way more than if we had treated them appropriately in the first place.
Try diversion instead of jail sentences for non-dangerous offenders (within provincial jurisdiction, of course).

4. Regarding our enormous natural resources, follow Peter Lougheeds advice that Alberta should act more like an owner. To me, this means the province should take control of the phasing of oil sands projects, to even out the boom-and-bust cycle which raises costs and uncertainty, and also launch a sophisticated re-assessment of the structure and rates of royalties.
I also recommend that approval of future projects be made contingent on the environmental and energy balance performance of proponents past projects. In addition, allow queue jumping of project applications for high-level performers.

5. Without publicly criticizing the oil patch, we can privately agree that they needed to be prodded into improving their environmental performance and that neither the Department of the Environment nor the ERCB has pushed them enough. Push them harder. Toughen performance standards. Increase inspection and enforcement staff. Set up the monitoring agencies that scientists have called for. Tailings ponds, air and water quality are especially worrisome.
Its a self-serving myth that the industry cannot perform better look at the innovative technologies which they are at last
developing. What energy companies value above all is regulatory certainty: theyre tremendously adaptable. If they can perform in unstable areas with
shifting requirements like Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria, Iraq or Libya, they can certainly excel in Alberta. And if they threaten to go elsewhere when you gradually, and with notice, raise the still-too-low royalty regime, well, the resources will still be here when they retreat from these riskier areas.

6. Its clear that international pressure for Alberta to deal with both environmental and climate change issues will increase and that a propaganda response is not enough. The measures just suggested would help here too, especially if you announce a gradual increase of the timid carbon levy – say 6-8% per year for the next decade. And spending billions of public dollars to capture and sequester carbon is a dubious use of public funds. See Daniel Yergins book The Quest for more on the enormous expense and time necessary to create an adequate CCS infrastructure.

7. Still on the subject of energy policy, why not initiate a significant feed-in tariff for renewable energy projects (although not at the overly-rich European scale)? Your officials could estimate the cost per gigajoule, so you can compare it with the rich benefits available to the conventional sector. I recommended this to a former Minister of Energy, who replied the government wants to leave pricing to the private market.
Think of where (or if) Canada would be if your illustrious Conservative predecessors like Sir John A. Macdonald (the CPR) or R. B. Bennett (Trans-Canada Airlines, the CBC) had decided to leave these nation-building initiatives solely to the private market. Pragmatism, not ideology, helped build our country.

8. I dont accept many of your colleague Ted Mortons ideas – Im not a social conservative – but hes entirely right that true conservatives should act vigorously to conserve Albertas environment. This implies a robust and binding province-wide regional planning regime, although one which respectfully considers the views of local citizens before approvals are given. With the proper legislative direction, regulators should be able to distinguish unacceptable impacts from exaggerated nimbyism.

9. In the long term, the level of political discourse in Alberta (and, I suspect, of political engagement) would rise considerably if you made compulsory the study of Canadian history, civics and applied ethics in high school.

Madam Premier, your other advisors will say that if you do these things, Albertans will desert you for Wildrose. I doubt it. Havent the elections of you and Calgary Mayor Nenshi shown that Albertans have evolved well beyond the redneck caricature of yesteryear? Of course, there will always be stubborn rear-guard defenders of the status quo, but let them trickle away. Youll pick up scads of new supporters.
Its time for all politicians to stop pandering to cheap sloganeering and one-line sound bites and have faith in our
innovative and sophisticated population. Treat us as adults and youll get a grown-up response.
Good luck.