Memories of twenty years of studying democratic reforms and the people I met.
That the existing political structures in Canada do not make any sense is something I have been aware of for as long as I have thought about how the world works. I was aware well before Fair Vote Canada ever came along that most other countries did electoral politics differently but that never seemed to me to be the most important problem. I was interested in ideas like government by referendum.
In the 1990s there was a lot of interest in the Porto Allegre experiments. This was where the city’s people had control of part of the city budget through assemblies attended by everyone. It worked pretty well whenever it was allowed to. It was even tried in a limited way in a few cities in Canada.
In recent years this system has withered away. It is not hard to understand why. It may have worked alright but it was a threat to the rising power of neoliberalism and globalism. As a general rule, corporate people do not want the public to gain any experience at self government, even at the lowest levels.
Likewise, referenda, planning charettes, consulta, and all these other ideas related to a direct democracy, were experimented with in many European countries. With the consolidation of the globalist European Union there, these ideas are now being suppressed. There is still a lot of talk and theorizing about direct democracy in those countries.
In at the start of FVC
Around the year 2000 I was frustrated by all these little groups that got together to discuss direct democracy. They never seemed to go anywhere. I also became aware of this Fair Vote group which seemed to exist only in Toronto. They wanted the country to adopt a Proportional Representation voting system.
A PR system is not hard to understand. Most countries use some form of it. Instead of electing a legislature through single member constituencies, multi member constituencies are used so the party standings closely conform to the vote count. This way, almost everybody has someone in the legislature whom they voted for. Power is more broadly distributed.
If you need to know more a bout it, here is FVCs primer; https://www.fairvote.ca/proportional-representation/ A better one is at https://rabble.ca/news/2016/04/proportional-representation-canada-primer
I was sceptical that just changing this would solve the problems of the political system. However, I thought it might create conditions where it would be easier to pass reforms which were really needed. At any rate, there was not much else interesting then regarding democracy reforms. After 2001, this group of people incorporated nationally as Fair Vote Canada.
I had a lot of trouble interacting with this group. My problem was that these were very middle class liberal types of people. I mean ideologically liberal, with all that entails. I was and am kind of an odd, outcaste type who does not dress well and just looks weird.
Foundations of FVC
They would talk about some new book about voting systems. I would ask for them to repeat the title of it, and give me an ISBN number. One of them bit my head off. He seemed to have the idea that someone like me is not supposed to be allowed, never mind not able, to read sophisticated texts like that.
I got hold of the essential readings on proportional systems and became reasonably expert on the subject. I had some caveats about all this. I pointed out that Hitler came to power through a proportional system. The FVC Toronto people were annoyed with me for this but had no answer.
I stopped attending their meetings for awhile. During this time they had some sort of great fight between people who wanted nothing less than the Mixed Member Proportional system adopted in New Zealand, copied from Germany, and those who wanted to also consider other systems. I do not know the details of this, but it seems some of the original founders of FVC stormed out and were never heard of again.
I have the uncomfortable suspicion that FVC was founded by people who really knew nothing about voting systems, did no research about it, but latched onto the reforms in New Zealand as the solution for what they did not like about Canada’s system. This would be the cause of the dysfunctionality of the group from its start. A feature of FVC since then has been an unwillingness to adopt an optimal form of PR for Canada based on objective research.
They are so terrified of dissention that they are pretty much useless. Instead FVC has become a kind of debating shop for everybody with a favourite voting system, often very ‘novel’ and often nutty. Obviously, that is not an effective vehicle for bringing about a reform such as PR.
FVC learns there is such a thing as STV
About 2005 British Columbia held a Citizen’s Assembly on voting reform. I followed this. I was really more interested in the assembly itself than in what it decided. They advocated a Single Transferable Vote system (STV) for BC.
What this is, is ranked balloting in multi member constituencies. Voters rank the candidates in order. First choices are counted, then second choices, and so on until all positions are filled.
BC-STV was put to a referendum. It won with 58% of the vote. The government rejected it, giving nonsense, after the fact reasons. I was concerned that the FVC chapter in BC never challenged this. Later a BC group emerged separate from the national FVC organization.
I was never impressed by STV. It was used in Calgary and Edmonton for many years to elect members of the provincial legislature from those cities. I grew up in Calgary and some of my older relatives and other old folks I knew, lived there when this system was in effect. They did not like it. They said that nobody could understand it, and really strange people kept getting elected.
STV has been the system of Ireland since its independence. The politics of Ireland certainly haven’t lived up to the ideals of a proportional system. For most of its history, the republic had a two party system; a right wing party and an even more right wing party.
On two occasions, I have been able to talk to people from Ireland about their voting system. None of them liked it. The problem cited is that it elects too many jokers with a big local following but who are unsuitable for office. Nothing seemed to keep this system in place but the difficulty in challenging the two big parties.
It could be debated whether STV is really a proportional system. However, I was concerned that it seemed to land on FVC people like a bomb; they had mostly never heard of it. The B.C. choice of STV led to some new snit-ons inside FVC and a few more people departing. This added further to the FVC phobia against controversy.
FVC learns that referendums can be lost
When the McGuinty government decided to hold a similar citizens Assembly on voting reform in Ontario, I reconnected with FVC, Toronto chapter. Again, I was really more interested in the process of the assembly than in its results. I was still more interested in direct democracy and did not care much about the exact proportional system that came out of it.
I regularly attended sessions of the assembly at York university even though they had the idea they did not really want spectators. They did not want outside groups trying to lobby the delegates and influence the deliberations, and rightly so. They considered the ‘Irish’ STV system but ultimately recommended the ‘New Zealand” MMP system for Ontario.
I thought then, and still do, that MMP is a silly thing. It is a way of mollifying people who are hung up on the idea of having ‘their’ MP or MPP. However, most normal people, ones who are not obsessed about politics, do not know or care who their ‘representative’ is. But they almost always know which party they support. That is probably the strongest argument for ‘straight list’ PR.
So we had a referendum in Ontario. The McQuinty liberals had the squeeze put on them by the forces of immobilism and turned against the idea and process they had launched. A serious campaign against MMP started. The strategy was not to debate, but to shut down all information about it until the last week and then flood the public with misinformation.
There was little possibility the 2007 Ontario randum could have been won in the face of this but we could have done a lot better. The problem here was some of the blockheads on the FVC national council, who for some reasons opposed staging any kind of ‘yes’ campaign. In a few places, supporters of PR rebelled against this and started such a campaign. In a few ridings PR almost won a majority. These were precisely where there was some ‘yes’ organizing on the ground.
I got tired of being pushed away and conducted my own mini campaign. I went into this improvised campaign headquarters and simply grabbed as many leaflets as I could carry from the piles which were just sitting there. For some reason there was a concerted effort to stop them from being distributed. I went out to high foot traffic areas and got them into people’s hands as fast as I could.
Someone who is from Canada and helped run the PR campaign in New Zealand came to advise us. He has been back a few times since. I think he is constantly bewildered by the Canadian PR movement. It absolutely cannot learn anything. As well, whatever anyone says or does, someone else stomps on it.
Taking a Seat
After the 2007 referendum I lost interest again in FVC for awhile. Then I started getting invited to stuff envelopes for this bunch in exchange for pizzas and nibbles. The organization had reached a stage where it was having to do mailings to 4000 members several times a year.
These days FVC has learned how to use computers. The main office is no longer in Toronto. I think the membership has shrunk greatly from those days. But for a few years I spent occasional relaxing evenings in the flower bottle room at an FVC board member’s condominium, a short walk from my own home, stuffing envelopes.
Then I got elected onto the board of the FVC Toronto Chapter. I was not impressed. They really did not have much to do or much to decide. We would go to various community events where the right kind of people were present and hand out some leaflets. They wanted me to stay in the background. I might scare people.
I recall that the biggest controversy was finding a place to meet. Some of the people lived downtown and did not want to go all the way out to the swanky suburbs where the rest of these people lived. I could book a cozy space through some connections I had at University of Toronto, but they just did to want to go downtown. “Where do we find parking?” they said, like they had never heard of Toronto Transit.
I did get tired of these people, and being made to feel like I did not really belong there. I think a couple of the other people felt the same way. What decided me against running again was the insistence of one of these jokers to put Dave Meslin on the board.
Had they listened to me about Meslin it would have saved FVC years of grief. They seemed to have the idea he was a brilliant organizer they needed to revitalize FVC. Through other groups I worked with at the time I knew he was bad news; an obsessive attention seeker.
I did not want to be on another board with Meslin. So, I made sure I would lose at being reelected by not voting for myself in the STV system they used. I still ended up closely involved with FVC for a few years after.
Foxes and Rabbits
I still followed FVC, especially through their new internet discussion boards. I found that my relationship with FVC complicated some other of my interests. One time I tried organizing a meeting in which people interested in political reforms other than voting systems could hear the ideas of a member of parliament about giving MPs more independence from party leaders.
I specifically did not invite any of the FVC crowd, or Meslin and his new “Rabbit” group. But it was mostly they who showed up, complete with banners. The event was a fiasco.
Some of the Fair Vote Toronto group decided they were the “Foxes” and would hunt out Meslin’s rabbits. It was a ridiculous situation; Meslin’s idea of ranked ballot by single member constituencies had nothing to do with PR and is worse than what we have now.
It is known that establishing this system is a long term goal of the federal liberals, because they think it will keep them in power forever. Meslin denied working for the liberal party, which is implausible. If FVC had any cogency at all, it would have ejected Meslin and vigorously attacked the Ranked Ballot idea.
Then things got really incredible. When the Toronto chapter ejected him, the federal FVC tried to order them to bring him back in. What FVC Toronto finally did was to separate itself from the national group, declaring itself an affiliated group rather than a chapter.
The Foxes had a very hard time keeping Meslin and his friends out of their events. They had to engage security guards at times. Meslin defamed them on social media. He even accused them of racism because one of his stooges was black.
The very worst thing about all this is that one long time FVC Toronto member, who had done a lot of work for the group, started working for Meslin and company while still working with FVC. He tried to sabotage the national FVC in various ways, such as directing mail to a false address.
Feed the troll
The national group would sporadically try to redistribute Meslin’s crap and post links to his web site. This led to the dramatic fall in FVC membership from which I do not think it has ever recovered.
Meslin haunted the discussion board of FVC. I got onto that forum for awhile, to try to figure out why they were allowing him to do this and how to get them to get rid of him. Meslin just used classic troll tactics, and the idiots kept on going for it.
They seemed to have the idea that they were somehow going to convince him, and that they were master debaters. Every time they would pin Meslin down on something, he would shift the topic. When they pinned him down on that he would shift the goal posts again and so on until he was back at the first topic to start that over again.
There were other strange people on this discussion board who should have been promptly removed. Some had the kind of genius ideas about a perfect PR system that you can dream up when you are disconnected from reality. One wanted to have people going to Ottawa to cast one fraction of a vote for parties which could not get a whole seat.
This was all so bizarre to read. Access to this forum was restricted, otherwise it would have hugely discredited FVC. As it was, I think a lot of people cancelled their membership after exposure to it.
Several people posted to the discussion asking why Meslin was allowed to dominate discussions; what was supposed to come out of it? These people mostly got removed themselves, with no explanation, including me, eventually. I came away from this experience convinced that much of the core group of FVC, the ones in control of discussion, were autistic.
The reform slate
These problems within FVC finally led to some demands for change from the membership. A very effective individual called Stuart Parker had worked briefly with FVC before moving to BC. He was infuriated by what was going on with the group and began a run for the national board.
His theme was that most of the board did not seem to understand the concept of conflict of interest. A member of a board of a non profit organization is supposed to know what the organization is for. They are responsible to the membership.
He also thought people on the board had a ‘via media’ mentality. That is, if there are two opposing ideas, the middle point between them must be right. Such people when faced with opposition will obsessively try to bargain some sort of middle position.
I also decided to run for a seat on the board. I had a lot of trouble getting registered because someone thought I was not a suitable candidate. I did not have the means to travel to wherever in Canada the board was holding its meetings every year.
This was an undemocratic attitude. FVC has never heard of teleconferencing and subsidizing travel for lower income members. It would have been an interesting situation if I had actually been elected.
Parker got elected, immediately became chairman of the board, and created some kind of changes. But he decided he could only stay six months because of the demands of his day job. These reforms he created were only partly effective. I again lost interest for awhile in FVC.
The Trudeau event
When Prince Justin announced his public consultations on voting reform, I dropped back into the voting reform world again. When the road show came to Toronto, I was ready with my presentation. I urged the government to forget about referenda and citizen assemblies; and just let Elections Canada design a system in consultation with the best experts available, pass it into law and get on with it.
I did not get to speak, just hand my paper in. This was partly because of the huge number of people and organizations responding. I think FVC was taken aback by this.
The idea of voting reform had outgrown FVC. All sorts of community groups now had their own ideas about it and were often well ahead of FVC. Generally, they were not interested in what exact form of FVC was adopted; they would all have the same effect.
This was in variance to the FVC approach. Once again its resident autistics wanted to give everybody the three hour lecture on every possible voting system. They were taken aback again by Jean Pierre Kingsley, the former chief electoral officer of Canada, who cut across all this nonsense and gave the government the optimal system.
This confirmed the belief I had developed that provincial and federal election managers should design and implement voting systems and politicians should pass the legislation and butt out. The system Kingsley presented is now in the back pages of the FVC web site as “rural-urban proportional”. Go have a look; https://www.fairvote.ca/rural-urban-proportional/
Kingsley did the basic brainwork that FVC should have done long before. I had some ideas along the same lines but did not work them out that far. This is the optimal PR system for the peculiar conditions of Canada, given what is known about PR systems around the world. There are still a few details to work out but we are not going to get it any better than this.
FVC is still reluctant to advocate this system as the system for Canada. They have this idea that they will not advocate any one voting system. That idea just does not work. You cannot throw five different systems at the public. The public will throw it all back at you.
When it became obvious he did not have the support he seemed to expect for Ranked Ballots, Trudeau pulled the plug on the process. The Liberal party bosses probably thought neutralizing FVC from within had neutralized advocacy for PR. They did not expect such broad support for it.
At the time of the Trudeau consultations I talked with some FVC people about this reluctance to define and refine a real proposal. They believe that consensus is impossible because of the way FVC has been set up at the national level. Because they are advocating for a democracy as the upper middle class of Canada defines it, they have to use direct elections.
Of course direct elections are a large part of what is wrong with government in Canada, and with the government of many non profit organizations. For one thing, it leaves FVC open to ‘hostile take overs’ as Stuart Parker put it. That is what happened during the Meslin Rabbits fiasco. It does not seem like FVC ever really defeated this hostile takeover.
I wrote a short paper at one point suggesting that FVC be reorganized as a network of local chapters, with each one sending two delegates to a central council. I never received the courtesy of a confirmation of receiving it. This is the most sensible way of setting up a group like FVC. Something like this would be a better way of setting up Canada as well, by the way.
The effect would be to get people seated in the national council who actually agree with the aims of the organization and who can enhance its effectiveness rather than cripple it. It would promote people who have demonstrated advocacy skills and ability to work with other people, and have refined them at the local level. It would screen out the people with attitude problems and conflicts of interest.
This includes people with a ‘citizen experts’ mentality. This is the problem with a lot of FVC people and with many non profit political groups as well. They have decided that they are the experts on a topic and expect governments to follow their advice. This is their warped idea of how democracy works.
I have encountered these types of jackasses in a few political activist issue campaigns I have been involved with. Of course governments have no interest in them. When they want expert advice they will hire their own experts. What they will listen to are groups which can articulate a clear and simple idea and can mobilize public support around it.
There is also a tendency in FVC to see the group simply as a debating society for people who are obsessed with voting systems. They are uninterested in the public and in politics and get annoyed with distractions like actual elections and referenda. Such are the people who make FVC a largely useless organization.
Some people, active in the Toronto chapter at the time, suggested I try to get onto the local board again. I told them I was becoming uninterested in the kind of voting systems which are used in representative democracy. I wanted to start looking again into the idea of deliberative or ‘deep’ democracy.
They suggested that I might want to come back at some time and be FVCs expert on deep democracy. When recently I tried doing that it did not work out well, as I will discuss below. These people I spoke with seem to have all moved on from FVC.
More failed referendums.
There was another a referendum in B.C. in 2018. I have relatives who now live in B.C. who were able to inform me about the randum. They expressed confusion and frustration about it.
It failed in the classic FVC way; instead of of presenting one system intended to get general support, the public was asked to choose between several plans. The public predictably rejected that. Of course, there was an intense disinformation campaign against it organized by business interests.
We have also had a referendum in the province of Prince Edward’s Island. It was another case where the ‘yes’ won, the government ignored the result, and the ‘yes’ did not challenge this.
Recently I heard again from the Canadian New Zealander referendum organizer. He continues to express his bewilderment at the inability of FVC to learn that “you have to win the street” before you do the randum. You also have to have a single proposal.
Due to the consistent failure of referendums, many voting reform twitterers have become enamoured with the idea of citizen’s assemblies. These have consistently failed as well. Professor Denis Pilon warns that even if more citizen’s assemblies were authorized, there is a danger they would be rigged to an out come favoured by politicians.
Pilon is a frequent commentator on voting systems, and author of some books, though FVC never seems to listen to him. They especially don’t like what he says about how PR system have generally come about.
This is usually when enough political parties become effective, meaning able to effect the outcome of elections, that a single member system becomes too chaotic. The political elite have no choice but to change. PR rarely happens by public initiative.
Here I am again
I never seem to learn, but I have in the last year once again tried beating my head against the FVC wall. I am curious as to when they will ever get tired of beating their head against the immobilist political culture in Canada. It should be clear by now that any kind of political reform in Canada, even a timid one like PR, will be resisted to the death by the establishment.
Changing the voting system in Canada will require outright replacement of the political system in Canada with one that includes a mechanism for citizen based constitutional amendments. This will require nothing less than a revolution. If the energy and determination can be mustered for that, it would make no sense to stop with voting reform.
PR is an idea which time has passed by. While we in backward Canada are talking about that, countries which have had PR systems for awhile are realizing that it is not really a democracy. Part of the reaction against globalism and neoliberalism is the demand for a deep democracy, a deliberative democracy. In other words, a real democracy.
I feel a need to try to fulfil my promise to come back to FVC and be a ‘resident expert on deep democracy’. That is, when FVC is finally ready to consider it. What I have found is that, a least for the Toronto Chapter, they are not.
The present members of FVC Toronto are quite snarky and paranoid. That is understandable given the history of attack and harassment from political agents, but it does not help the cause. They have created a ‘new members’ committee which newies, which they considered me to be, are required to attend for awhile. This was all on zoom, since it was now 2020.
I quickly got tired of these people’s attitude. I was not interested in bing screened to see if I was good enough to join them. I wanted to meet all the members of this group and decide if they were good enough for me to be involved with.
It seemed that FVC had not changed much, except for the worse. They still had a contradictory relationship with the Meslin Rabbit, ranked ballot crowd. They publish a rebuttal of the Ranked Ballot idea on their web site. Find it here. https://www.fairvote.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/AV-backgrounder-august2009_1.pdf
Yet they keep promoting the RABIT materials on social media; giving them likes and retweets on twitter, things like that. The simple explanation for this is that they have never overcome the “hostile takeover.” They are unable to get rid of the liberal party infiltrators and still think they will somehow find a ‘middle way’ with them.
Eventually I got this slimy personal attack via the FVC Toronto Slack pages. Somebody said some offensive things to me and I told him where to get off about that. I assumed the exchange was confidential. Instead these other groogs listened in on it and used this as an excuse to sever communication with me.
I communicated with some people at the national level about this and they were somewhat sympathetic but they have limited control over the Toronto group. I got invited to try running for the national council. So here I am.
My weird campaign pitch.
This piece is part of my pitch to be on the Board of FVC. If I have time I will also prepare something explaining what I see the idea of real democracy or deep democracy as being about. Also, why FVC needs to start looking into it, perhaps setting up a committee to study it.
FVC has gone absolutely nowhere for twenty years. It is at a point where it needs to either rethink its basic assumptions and its mission, or to dissolve itself.
I have always felt that a big part of FVC’s problem is that its core members do not seem to really believe in democracy. I have wondered why that is. I have found an answer.
Representative systems with elections and political parties are not really democracy. This is a design for oligarchy. As in the Roman republic, the plebians can choose which patrician can ‘represent’ them, but they cannot act for themselves.
FVC is something created by people who consider themselves part of the philosophically liberal elite. They feel they do not have the influence they are entitled to. They believe a PR system will spread power out more evenly among the elite and thus give them more of a voice.
They do not want plebians, specially a really weird one like me, intruding in their game. It will be interesting to see how this works out.