Democracy on the ropes

Good governance versus the black arts of persuasion

On December 10, city council’s legislative task force debated rules for reporting gifts to the mayor and council. We learned that though the mayor apparently has a stash of gifted coffee mugs and socks, and has never received anything valued over about $100, he believes rules are required to “avoid the appearance of impropriety” in council decision-making.

The discussion about gifts and governance might seem rather mundane, but in fact last week’s council debate on a growth management motion initially drafted by the development industry is a clear example of why good governance is critical to the future of our democracy.

Climate change is another governance issue of municipal, provincial and federal concern. According to research published this week in the journal Nature, climate change is real and those rudimentary computer models of the 1990s have proven surprisingly accurate. Though the science and economics of climate change leaves no doubt about the urgency of decisive action, and although polls consistently show Canadians want to see real action, our government has dithered for 20 years.

The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is the sorry state of our governance. The make-up of Parliament does not represent Canadian opinion; the fossil fuel industry lobby shapes government policy; shadowy political campaign financing erodes democracy; and too many Canadians have given up on an unrepresentative electoral system.

In the recent Calgary Centre byelection, the self-identified “progressives” won over 60 per cent of the vote. But with no progressive candidate having a decisive edge, the Conservatives, with 37 per cent of a dismal voter turnout of 30 per cent, won the right to represent Calgary Centre with the support of only 11 per cent of eligible voters. This is not an atypical result. The Conservatives hold a majority in Parliament, having gamed the system to win 54 per cent of Parliamentary seats while capturing only 38 per cent of votes cast — a mere 23 per cent of eligible voters.

If this were an anomaly we might chalk it up to bad luck, but this happens regularly in federal and provincial elections. In British Columbia in 1996, the New Democrats actually lost the popular vote yet won a majority in the legislature. Even more incredibly, in New Brunswick in 1987, Frank McKenna’s Liberals won 60 per cent of the vote, and every seat!

In a report funded by the Institute for Advanced Policy Research, Calgary was found to have one of the most lax election campaign finance regimes in the country. In our city, the development industry is a much more prominent campaign financier than in, for example, Toronto. The lion’s share of their dollars goes to incumbents, with the result that sitting aldermen and mayors are less likely to be challenged and more likely to win than in the more balanced process in Toronto.

Last week the Polaris Institute released a report raising the veil on yet another governance issue — lobbying. Between 2008 and 2012, the country’s largest oil and gas companies and industry associations registered 2,733 communications with federal bureaucrats and politicians.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was responsible for 536 of those communications. Along with the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, CAPP recorded 78 per cent more communications than the two primary Canadian mining industry associations, and 367 per cent more than the two major automotive industry associations.

This rapid increase in oil and gas industry lobbying coincides with the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the rewriting of over 70 federal laws via Bill C38, and a major multimedia public relations effort by both government and industry designed to counter increasing opposition to the tarsands.

Huge numbers of Canadians have given up on our electoral system. Calgary’s municipal voter turnout oscillates between a dismal 18 per cent in 2004, to a barely respectable 53 per cent in 2010. Provincially, voting rates of 80 per cent or more in the 1930s have plummeted to as low as 40 per cent in 2008. Federally, in election after election we struggle to hit the 60 per cent mark.

Governance is really about how we as a society make decisions. Good decision-making requires robust, fair and transparent processes, and an engaged citizenry.

On December 2, in the wake of the Calgary Centre byelection, a group of 80 citizens gathered at Broken City under the banner of Progressive Tuesdays to talk governance. They meet the first Tuesday of every month.

In January, Sustainable Calgary will be inviting Calgarians to a series of workshops to choose a set of governance indicators for the State of Our City Report. Sign up and weigh in.



Comments: 9

Drew Anderson wrote:

This article was updated. Progressive Tuesdays occur on the first Tuesday of each month at Broken City, not every Tuesday.

on Dec 13th, 2012 at 4:51pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

So, another little cabal, not enough central planning from Civic Camp.
Money to buy elections, such as the slush funds used by sitting members of Council to legally bribe groups to vote for them? (Or provincial lefties such as Alison the Red to buy the teachers votes?)
Yes, the electoral system is highly unrepresentative. The spend crowd is already overly represented. Spend until they put everyone that has a real job into poverty, increase taxes until seniors are forced into poverty and thus must beg the omnipotent state to survive.
The technology exists, the banks do it, eBay does it. Let the citizens vote. Put Plan It to a vote of the people. Put the City budget, category by category to a vote of the people.
But Noel, you don't want that type of democracy, because most of what you hype, would be rejected.
You talk endlessly about "sustainability" ... but when you dictate where people should live, what type of housing they should live in, what type of community that they will be allowed to live in, how they will be able to travel around the city, you ensure a transient population.
The concrete monstrosities of "University City" are rising from the pits ... concrete canyons and the destruction of the adjacent communities. But you favour removing choice from individuals, giving no option but little concrete cubicles, you want densification so single family home communities must be destroyed, you want transit use so congestion on the roads must be increased.
Yes the electoral system and all the self-appointed NGOs are not representative. Those of us who liked our communities, because we chose them and have lived in them for many decades, those of us who favour fiscal responsibility because we pay the taxes and lose our savings to government imposed inflation are not represented, not at any level of government.
If you want democracy, then the citizens must vote directly.

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 8:31am Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Thank you Clairvoyant for weighing in. So in terms of good governance I would say you are suggesting direct voting - would that be on every issue and if not what criteria would you use to decide when direct voting should happen?

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 2:43pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

And what about the issue of campaign finance? What would you do differently? No private campaign financing? Mandatory disclosure of all contributions as they come in? Spending limits? IF we get rid of 'slush' funds could we have something like participatory budgeting so citizens decide how money should be allocated? You feel unrepresented so what initiatives would you take to ensure you feel (are) represented?

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 2:48pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Noel: Thanks for reading, and thanks for the questions.
For direct voting, there are three types of issue that should go to the citizens:
First, global policies & strategies, e.g. Plan It
Second, money bills, e.g. the budget (broken into departments, with five different expenditure options for each; e.g. major projects such as West LRT, Airport Tunnel, Calatrava Bridge, affordable housing development, 16th Avenue corridor, Memorial Drive
Third: rezoning & redevelopment proposals: this one is more difficult because those voting should be the "directly affected", and it should be property owners, e.g. for Brentwood, it would be all property owners within two kilometers of the edge of the redevelopment.
For the voting to be effective, there must be real information, and that means that the proponents must pass through a quasi-judicial hearing process similar to that of the ERCB for oil & gas projects, in which the company proposing a project MUST answer all questions.

Campaign financing becomes much less important if there is direct voting by the citizens.
Changes that I would make: disclosure of any donation over $100 within two business days; for any corporate or union or organization, the name of the CEO or CFO or equivalent attached to the information on the donation; deadline for donations of five business days before election day.
Slush funds are a disaster and should be eliminated. Yes to participatory budgeting ... but also accountability for "as spent". And some budgeting, and taxes, must become local ... e.g. if you want speed bumps on your street, that should be voted on & paid by the those on that street; if you want the Calatrava Bridge (given that there were already four crossings within ten blocks), that should be voted on & paid by Sunnyside & Kensington. Elimination of slush funds does not mean elimination of contingency funds: many departments have costs which cannot be predicted with absolute accuracy: e.g. road clearing ... so there is a base amount, and a contingency ... which may or may not be spent in any particular year depending on the weather; similarly, garbage pickup ... again a base amount, and a contingency to deal with an unpredictable increase in the price of diesel.

I am unrepresented, and I think I am part of what is largely a silent majority. Having worked for candidates in four political parties, I no longer see any possibility of representative democracy working: direct democracy, that way alone lies hope.

Cheers and Merry Christmas.

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 5:43pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Thanks for the comments.

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 6:36pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

My thoughts and passions largely revolve around energy; how its production and use impacts our lives, and how changing the types and ways we use energy could have numerous positive ripple effects.

Last night I listened to my Alderman, Gian-Carlo Carra, talking on CBC Radio about finding new solutions to congestion on Crowchild Tr. I, too, breathe a sigh of relief that Council voted against spending a billion bucks on freeway expansion. When he was talking about Calgary's foreseeable budget constraints, I was reminded of a key part of the solution.

Tax fuel. A slowly but predictably rising price of gasoline would encourage more people to walk, cycle, or take public transit. It would increase telecommuting. Some people would even choose to move either their place of residence or of work, in order to lessen their daily commute.

All of these would pull cars off the road, allowing traffic to move more smoothly for the remaining motorists.

Oh, and people would be buying more fuel-efficient cars. Hybrids already use auto stop/start technology, but car manufacturers are moving towards using this much more broadly.

Oh, did I mention tackling climate change and improving air quality?

The City could use the revenues to redesign a more sustainable City where we could all live comfortably using less fuel.

Or, we could continue to hold to a 1950s mentality that fossil fuels are cheap, abundant, and consequence-free. Good luck with that.

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 10:59pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

Being pretty passionate about energy, I started an anonymous, 2-minute online survey, seeking Canadian opinions on climate change. Please do the survey, and a "Like" on Facebook is always helpful!

on Dec 19th, 2012 at 11:02pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


University City is a Chinese Triad money laundering pool, with smurfs brought in on the Investor visas. The project was blitz marketed in the PRC press well before development permits were granted, and many of the investors put down payments (that's DOWN PAYMENTS 0f 5%, not actual purchases) on as many as ten units each. This project is not adequately capitalized to ensure completion. And the condo market is already severely glutted. What is happening in Calgary is a transplanted version of the Chinese condo bubble:

The project got approved because Druh Farrell got a large campaign donation from University City developer Knightsbridge Homes, which also got speedy approvals for infills in Ward 7. Farrell also got a large donation from the LaCaille Group (Louise Station TOD), and we all know where that lead:

Note that Naheed Nenshi also received a large donation from developer Geo Energy, which is infilling Shawnee Slopes.

Forget gifts and swag. There needs to be an absolute ban on all business and union donations to civic candidates, as in Federal campaigns. Business entities and unions (e.g., Chamber of Commerce, Calgary Homebuilders' Association, ATU) should be forbidden from lobbying candidates, or hosting debates. And there has to be a severe cap on the amount individuals can donate--really, a hundred bucks and no more. Unless we take these sorts of campaign donations out of the equation, we will continue to have defacto bribery in politics. Also, as in Quebec, the Canada Revenue Agency needs to get court orders for the financial records of both Calgary, and past and present politicians. Something stinks, when an auditor is fired for uncovering corruption:

on Jan 2nd, 2013 at 7:36pm Report Abuse

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