Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2011/ Federal Pre-Election Blather

Federal Election Pre-Blather

Yes, I know. You're sick of the election and of boring, overly-earnest election entries. Unfortunately, there are still a irritating thoughts bouncing around in my head, and I feel compelled to shout them out to the blogosphere. Maybe then I will clear up some mental space so I can get back to bragging about going without a coat this winter. So here are some fairly-disorganized arbitrary thoughts. Maybe after the election I will feel compelled to write a morose entry of tears and heartbreak, but that should be it for this horrible election.

  1. Federal Election Pre-Blather
    1. Poison Politics, Part 1
    2. Politics vs Sports
    3. Expressing Our Frustation
    4. Poison Politics, Part 2
    5. Poisoning the LUG
    6. Cowardice
    7. Independents and Small Parties
    8. All-Candidates Meetings
    9. Conservative Genius and Horror
    10. Braid and Woodworth
    11. Representing the Constituents
  2. Sidebar!

Poison Politics, Part 1

And it was a horrible election, at least locally. I attended a few all-candidates debates, and the ones where Conservative candidates attended were shameful -- not because of the candidates, but because of the booing and hissing that went on. At the Record debate at RIM Park, there was a cow in the audience who mooed every time Peter Braid opened his mouth: "Mooooooo! Moooooooooooooo!" I found this behaviour offputting, to say the least, and I can only imagine how much it turned off potential voters.

At the Chamber of Commerce debate I had words with one of these hecklers -- a young Liberal supporter who boasted of shouting witticisms at Braid at several points during the debate. He felt that his actions were fair play, and that they were justified because candidates were not allowed rebuttals during the debate. In theory he was correct -- rebuttals were not part of the format -- but in practice several candidates took care to rebut false statements made in previous questions. This young man was treating the debate as if it was a Kitchener Rangers game.

At the same time, I found myself booing during the worst of the Conservative talking points too -- especially the "unnecessary and unwanted election" phrasing the candidates had to repeat at least once per all-candidate meeting. Apparently I don't treat politics with any more respect than a Rangers game either.

Politics vs Sports

In my opinion, that is one of the big problems of current politics -- we treat them as sporting events. I don't follow hockey much any more, but I'll admit it: I get suckered into Stanley Cup fever almost every year. I don't follow soccer at all (I even call it "soccer" and not "football") and yet I found myself as transfixed by the World Cup as everyone around me. In a similar way I get suckered into election fever, even though there is a part of me that despises politics. There is an element of fun to choosing a team and cheering it on -- and just like diehard Leafs fans, people are happy to cheer on perennial losers like the Green Party and NDP election after election. "This election for sure!" we shout. I suspect there is some deep tribalism behind both our partisanship in both sports and political parties.

But that's also a big problem. First of all, non-voters are onto us. In this world of fragmentation and niche hobbies, they see our fascination with elections as just another weird obsession -- one that does not particularly interest them, and one they feel as free to ignore as knitting or World of Warcraft. That is a huge problem, because politics is not a spectator sport. Elections matter because governments are huge institutions with huge control over our lives, and if we do not remain vigilant to their abuses of power then they will crush us like bugs. Governments have the right to tax us against our wills. They have the right to pass legislation that directly affects our directly. They have the right to go to war on our behalf, and the right to conscript us to fight for them. This centralized power might well be necessary in order for society to function, but we all know that politics has a long history of corrupting its participants. It is not that relevant whether a Canadian team ever wins the Stanley Cup ever again. It is highly relevant when the government passes legislation authorizing wiretaps without a warrant, authorizing the use of torture, or making downloads of mundane Linux multimedia packages illegal. It is highly relevant when governments listen to their political funders and their lobbyists instead of their constituents. But so many of us have stopped paying attention. We think politics are an irrelevant niche activity, or we think all politics is equally corrupt and disgusting, or we think that we are too helpless to enact any changes for the better.

And you know what? We might be right. But if we are, then we are in a great deal of trouble. I think it is false to believe that government is irrelevant. I think it is false to believe that nothing really bad can happen no matter who gets into power. History is littered with counterexamples, and I have not yet heard a convincing argument as to why horrible things can't happen to us. (Hint: saying that this kind of thing can't happen in Canada is not a convincing argument.)

Expressing Our Frustation

So what do we do? I don't think we have many good options. To a large extent we really are powerless. We can protest and sign petitions and meet MPs and enourage others to do these things -- it worked for UBB -- but I agree with the cynics that pretending that elections are somehow functional is a mistake.

Federally, I think everybody who is fed up with politics should show up on voting day and reject their ballots.

Provincially (at least in Ontario) I think that such people should decline their ballots.

These are small protests. They won't make much of a difference. But they will serve as numerical indicators of our frustration that can be spun into talking points. Maybe that can be relayed into something useful later on.

Furthermore, rejecting/declining a ballot defuses the argument that we are too lazy or too apathetic to participate in politics. If you think that politicians have realized that we are staying away because we are sick of politics then you don't understand politics -- politicians always choose to interpret data in ways that serve their own interests the best. Calling non-participating voters lazy serves the interests of politics and politicians much better than admitting that politics is broken.

I hate politics. I would never want to be elected to office. Elected officials have to make hard decisions, and I organize my life so that I make as few decisions as is feasible. But sometimes I still mull over the idea of organizing a protest movement around declining/rejecting ballots, and running as a protest candidate to let people know about this option. Overall, I think this would be a terrible idea. Amongst other things I hate canvassing -- I already feel that I am a waste of oxygen who is an unwelcome instrusion in the world, and knocking on the doors of strangers makes those feelings much more intense. But the temptation to organize around this issue remains. Maybe if I stumbled across a group of 20 other people who were dedicated to this cause I would be willing to put in the effort. But the disaster of the 2007 referendum left deep hesitations about engaging in politics again.

Nonetheless, I throw this idea out to the blogosphere in the hope that it will be spread far and wide by the ethernet winds: if you are fed up with politics, please register your frustrations by rejecting or declining your ballot.

Poison Politics, Part 2

Anybody who reads this blog knows how easily I become pessimistic and cynical. But I have surprised even myself by just how deeply my cynicism runs these days. I know that many politicians are decent people who got into politics partially as a public service. I know that elected officials have to make difficult decisions, and that every political decision is bad for some group. But I have also lost much of my trust in politics. I openly believe that large powerful interests influence the decisions that are made, and that average citizens have little if any impact on influencing decisions when there are financial considerations involved.

I have stopped believing in democracy. Voters are easily manipulated, and we want to hear easy answers that don't involve sacrifices on our part. So our politicians give us those easy -- and utterly incorrect -- answers, and we elect them. We voters are great at holding injustices done to us (particularly when it comes to injustices to our pocketbooks, which is why the HST is going to sink the Ontario Liberals), and terrible at remembering the legislation that makes our lives better. We are uneducated and ill-informed. We are unwilling to pay for long-term investments, so our leaders are unwilling to engage in those long-term investments. We even vote against our own best interests. More and more, I find myself thinking that citizens are not the best ones to decide their political futures, and that elections are stupid. I don't like the implications of such beliefs, but I can't deny the feelings.

I still have no rational explanation for why a small party with no chance of election runs candidates -- it does not make sense financially, even given election reimbursements. The explanation may well have an aspect of irrational tribalism to it. But that does not stop me from believing that anything a political party does is solely a self-interested grab for power. Then I deny that I am somehow not motivated by that lust for power, which is blatantly false -- I am angry because my ideologies and interests are not represented in politics.

I am furious at the media in general and the Kitchener Record in particular. I have not forgiven the Record for not organizing a debate around the electoral reform referendum question. I despise the way the media picks up on soundbite and scandal and then laments how shallowly we cover politics. Certainly the Internet has not done a better job of covering politics effectively -- mostly it parrots stories published by mainstream media -- but that has not made me feel less bitter towards the mainstream media.

Politicians make me angry with their ideologies and their simple solutions and their blatant lies and their tricks. They are people too, but when they serve as politicians I find it hard to acknowledge our shared humanity -- as politicians they are forced to act in ways that are untrustworthy.

Poisoning the LUG

All of these feelings are toxic. I find myself fuming after being engaged in politics for too long. Maybe that anger is to be expected, but I have allowed the toxin to leak into other areas of my life. I think the events in our Linux User Group hurt the most. Several members of the LUG have been pretty engaged in politics because of copyright issues and legislation. Since free and open source software is defined by copyright, such legislation has the potential to affect the software we use dramatically -- and indeed every iteration of the copyright bill has contained clauses which would affect our ability to use Linux.

Unfortunately we have transferred this interest into electoral politics, and for the first time in 10 years an election has been prominent in LUG discussions. Naturally I could not keep my big mouth shut; I expressed quite a lot of cynicism, which encouraged others to make negative comments too -- and as a result several of our LUG members have given up on our discussion list and maybe given up on our LUG as a whole.

One of the reasons I love Linux and free software is because people with radically differing ideologies, beliefs, and political views can unite and work together on a common cause. Because I could not keep my big mouth shut, electoral politics infected our community and drove it apart. Some people I admire and respect a great deal left our community, and even if they come back after the election I worry that we will never recover (after all, another election is on its way this October). Several elections have gone by since we started our LUG in 2001, and even though I have been active in several of them none of those elections has poisoned our community the way this one did. This hurts a lot -- maybe more than any other aspect of this horrible election. Will we be able to trust each other again?

Other people are able to get over the deep brokenness of politics. They participate in politics and see all of the ugliness, and somehow they keep voting and keep fighting the good fight. I don't know whether I will be able to overcome my cynicism. I am not sure I even want to. But I don't want to alienate and poison more people I respect, either.


I talk a lot about how much I dislike politics, and that I participate politically partially against my will. Although I admit the tribal sports-fandom is engaging, I continually claim that I participate because I feel that I have a responsibility to do so as a Canadian citizen -- that electoral participation and political participation is part of the social contract, that we have to be vigilant against the way big institutions trample over us, that my parents came to Canada to give me a better life, and that maintaining a healthy political system is part of the reason life is better here. But I always express my reluctance. I am always careful to state that I despise politics, and that if I had my druthers I would not be involved.

This election season I have been called on those assertions. I have been accused of hiding behind a smokescreen -- if I participate in politics and things happen that I don't like, then I can absolve myself of responsibility by protesting that I was a reluctant participant.

It's a fair criticism. A good fraction (or maybe a bad fraction) of my blog concerns itself with politics. I was raging against the Harris government in 1999, and I am raging against the Harper government now. In high school I found myself ardently supporting Ed Broadbent and the NDP despite knowing little about anything, and before that I opposed the Meech Lake accord because the Toronto Star told me to. If I am alive in 10 years I will probably be lamenting how naive I was in 2011, and I my claims that I participate in politics only reluctantly will be just as unbelievable as they are today.

This is probably another manifestation of my fear of commitment. I refuse to call myself a shill for the Green Party either, despite how obvious it must appear to any outsider. I blast the Kitchener-Waterloo NDP for not fighting for the referendum in 2007, stating that the NDP does not deserve votes because of it, and then I defend voting for the Greens. I show up at all-candidates debates in my dorky bike helmet, sopping wet from the rain, and claim I am not a Green Party supporter because I do not (and will not) have a Green Party membership. Who am I kidding? Only myself, I guess.

Independents and Small Parties

I feel guilty for ignoring the independents and small-party members who ran for election this round. So here are some words.

Overall most of the independents and small-party candidates in Kitchener Centre and Kitchener-Waterloo impressed me. When they were allowed to participate in all-candidates meetings (which was not that often) they spoke eloquently and with passion. They tended to be knowledgable about specific policy niches, and did a good job of keeping the candidates from the major parties honest.

I don't know a lot about the smaller-party candidates for Kitchener Centre; I caught the second half of the Record debate, and did not attend another all-candidates meeting where they were allowed to speak. Unfortunately I did not take notes at this debate, so I am working from memory. I know a bit more about the Kitchener-Waterloo candidates because they tended to show up for all-candidates meetings even when they were not invited.

Alan Rimmer was the only true independent with no presumed party affiliation in Kitchener Centre. He seemed to be largely concerned with matters of conscience, especially Canadian involvement in the Afghanistan war. He was one of the only candidates who did not pretend that he would be elected. I think he may have been running to keep the other candidates honest. I have also seen at least one of his lawn signs, which indicates that he is putting at least a little genuine time and effort into his campaign.

Marty Suter has run before, and once again ran for the Communist Party of Canada. He may have been the weakest candidate of the bunch, but he still made some good observations about our presence in Libya. As usual with Communists, he strongly opposes capitalist imperialism and military actions, even though real Communist governments had no compunctions about military incursions of their own.

For some reason, it's not good enough for us to have a Communist Party candidate locally. We also need Marxist-Leninist Party candidates, and in this election we had two: Mark Corbiere for Kitchener Centre and good old Julian Ichim for Kitchener-Waterloo. Julian has run in many elections and never garnered many votes in any of them, but he is an energetic speaker who practices what he preaches. What he preaches is youth participation in politics and political agitation overall. This election round he spent a lot of time focusing on the G8 and G20 protests, during which (surprise, surprise) he was targetted by the police. But he had a lot to say about youth poverty in the region too.

Corbiere suprised me during the Kitchener Centre debate. For a relatively new, relatively young candidate (I think this is the second election in which he is running) he spoke clearly and articulately about social (and socialist) issues. His shining moment was when he called out Stephen Woodworth over not answering a question. Unfortunately he maintained the fiction that he would win the riding. If he campaigned seriously I think he could make real inroads in the area, although I don't think he could take the riding.

In Kitchener-Waterloo, Steven Scott ran on behalf of the Pirate Party, which advocates technogeek issues -- copyright reform, patent rights, open data and so on. I added my name to the list of signatures he needed for his nomination, and even though I have no intention of voting for him (and wonder whether supporting the fiction of independent candidates is a good idea) I don't think I regret it. I don't think he ran seriously -- he had no campaign literature, I don't think he is canvassing door-to-door, and he openly admitted that he is a niche candidate. But he caught fire during the Kitchener-Waterloo all-candidates meeting, answering questions directly, forcefully and within his time limits. He brought up upcoming Canadian wiretapping bills, which sound important but which I don't know a lot about. I give him credit for being willing to disagree with his party's platform, as narrow as it was -- he said that although the Pirate Party advocates a flat five-year patent length, he was reconsidering whether that would be appropriate in all circumstances. That went a lot further than Bill Brown or Peter Braid were willing to go; they both stated that they supported every single aspect of their party platforms. I know it sounds as if I am shilling for him (which is doubly despicable since I know he has seen this blog) but I think we could have ended up with much weaker candidates to represent technogeek issues.

That leaves Richard Walsh-Bowers, who ran for the NDP in past elections and is running as an independent now. Despite having no political party, he has a very clear platform: proportional representation, environmental sustainability (including zero-growth if necessary), preventative health care, taking back corporate tax cuts, and zero tuition for college. He's got a campaign team, has been handing out literature, and has lawn signs around time. Personally, I found Walsh-Bowers moderately embarrassing, but that is because I could see where he was coming from. Like me, I think he comes from a left-wing past with a conversion to the Church of Environmentalism, and even though many of his policies don't make sense they represent the world he wants to live in. He's much more of a deep-green environmental zealot than Cathy MacLellan, and I think he is going to bleed off some of the Green Party vote from hard-core environmentalists, which in itself is a little weird. But he is an eloquent speaker and offered good commentary on a number of issues, such as the fact that both the Liberals and Conservatives have cut CBC funding. He also asked for clarifications and restatements of confusing questions, which I found impressive.

All-Candidates Meetings

Several all-candidates meetings prohibited the small-party candidates from participating fully. The immigration debate allowed Ichim and Scott to make opening statements but would not let them participate in the panel discussion. The Chamber of Commerce debate did not let the small-party candidates speak at all. Interestingly, however, as far as I know every all-candidates meeting was open to the Green Party.

I have mixed thoughts about this. On the one hand this I feel really angry, because the small-party candidates paid their $1000 entrance fee, went through the nomination process and are listed on the ballot. If small-party candidates are not good enough to participate in local debates, then why are they allowed to run?

On the other hand, pretending that small candidates matter is a sham (but so is including the Green Party, and arguably the NDP). In practical terms the more candidates you have on stage the fewer questions you have, and the more strict you have to be about time restrictions.

This is yet another question about delusion vs reality. Our rhetoric (including Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) states that citizens may run for office. Our voting system means that most ridings are effectively two party races, with other parties playing the part of spoiler and conscience to the other parties.

I think the role of conscience is important -- regular people do not get to offer much feedback during these debates (booing and heckling aside) so it is good to have smaller candidates calling out the main contenders on their hypocrisy. Does that justify their inclusion?

All-candidates meetings on the provincial and national level are largely broken. I consider them important -- I see them as job interviews, where we get to compare the candidates side by side to see who is best fitted for the job. But this is a futile exercise. Although we are taught that we elect local candidates to represent us nationally (which is one of the justifications for first-past-the-post), in practice we conduct elections the other way around: we look at party leaders and party policies, and then vote for those parties. Most of us don't know our local candidates and most of us don't care -- they are just warm bodies who exist to represent their parties locally, as opposed to individuals who represent their constituents nationally. That is why the Conservatives can ignore all-candidates meetings without consequence.

Another fiction we maintain about all-candidate meetings is that they are for regular constituents. In fact they tend to be packed full of partisan party plants from the two major parties, who take turns attacking the candidate from the other major party. They disguise themselves as regular citizens, but most of them are campaigning. (The other model is to rule out audience questions entirely, and focus on "expert" questions instead.)

The Record has been holding its Kitchener-Waterloo debates at RIM park for the past few years. This makes me angry, because RIM park is way off in the northeastern corner of Waterloo, and is inaccessible by foot or public transit. The message is clear: lower-income people are not welcome at these debates, and although it's fine to chastise lower-income people for not voting the media has no responsibility to conduct outreach for these groups. It's infuriating, but it also won't change -- this year's debate was standing-room only.

Conservative Genius and Horror

Scuttlebutt has it that the Conservatives have been muzzling their candidates from attending "unimportant" all-candidates meetings -- namely those that do not cater to Conservative interests and those which will not be covered by the mainstream media. They do this because it works; the Conservatives focus on getting elected, not practicing democracy.

Once you understand this a lot of Conservative practices become clear:

I have written about this centralism before. This is way more Communist than the Communist or Marxist-Leninist parties; it is centralized control to a degree I feel is unprecedented and deeply disturbing. But it works; I fully expect that our local ridings will once again be won by the Conservatives -- perhaps definitively. (The fact that the NDP is surging in popularity does not help; it means the Conservatives are more likely to win.)

Maybe I am just bitter because the Conservatives tend to ignore the issues that are important to me. It probably is nothing new, either -- the Harris Tories ignored "special interest groups" as well. But I feel it contributes to our disillusionment and cynicism in a big way.

Braid and Woodworth

I spend a lot of energy criticizing the Conservatives, but I can't help but feel some sympathy for Peter Braid and Stephen Woodworth. They are trapped in a system that muzzles them. On the other hand, they chose to participate in this system (particularly Woodworth, who used to be a Liberal but switched parties after Karen Redman got a lock on the riding).

Of the two, I have more sympathy for Woodworth. I think he did an admirable job during the Kitchener Centre debate I attended. He was civil and expressed his points clearly, showed at least some capacity for independent thought, and kept his use of Conservative talking points relatively low. From what I have seen, he is actually a decent, thoughtful guy, albeit one who holds some political views that are vastly disparate from my own. That does not stop him from following the party line and using many dubious Conservative strategies, such as plastering his riding with attack ads paid for by taxpayers.

Woodworth has gotten a lot of flack for an ill-considered joke he posted to his Twitter account. I think this is largely a non-issue; it reflects more on his lack of technological etiquette than anything else. All of us have said stupid things on the Internet (I do so every blog entry I write), and if that is the criterion for being barred from office then a lot of us are in trouble. I think Woodworth is like many older Canadians -- he knows that technology is important, he made an attempt to use it, and he (or a member of his campaign staff) made a newbie mistake.

At the same time, it is worth noting that the Conservative party as a whole is willing to jump all over online revelations. That is why they banned that girl from their political demonstration because she had a picture where she posed with Michael Ignatieff on her facebook profile. I see this as more of an issue than the Woodworth comment, actually: for one it reveals yet another facet of Conservative centralized control, and for another it was an effective ploy by the opposition to play to the fears of the Internet generation -- that we will be barred from opportunities because of what we put online. In any case, I don't think Conservative campaigners can simultaneously laugh off the Woodworth tweet and the facebook incident.

I have less sympathy for Peter Braid, although I should have more. Peter Braid is a former technology worker. He worked in Uptown Waterloo, and he says that he took public transit (and his bike) to work. He is reasonably knowledgable about technological issues. He's probably a nice guy in person. But he is clearly a Conservative lapdog. He speaks in talking points almost exclusively, and is happy to avoid his constituents -- when he does bother to attend all-candidates meetings, he leaves as early as he can, not sticking around to face his critics.

His attempts at coming up with his own criticisms fell flat during the Chamber of Commerce debate. After being criticised for not attending the debate on immigration, he stated that he was always happy to attend debates in his riding, but that the immigration debate was held outside his riding, at Kitchener City Hall, and that he spent more time canvassing than all of his opponents put together. Later he made a quip that Andrew Telegdi had forgotten the borders of his riding by attending the debate at Kitchener City Hall. Telegdi and the other candidates jumped all over him. Telegdi pointed out that the other Kitchener-Waterloo candidates managed to make the meeting, that the "Friends of CBC" debate that Braid skipped was held in his riding (apparently in the same building where the Chamber of Commerce debate was held), and that Braid would be particpating in a Rogers TV debate being filmed outside the riding.

I also don't think I am prepared to forgive Peter Braid for a "scandal" that has largely rolled off his shoulders: the horribly-named PIRGgate, where Braid was caught attending a meeting by campus Conservative groups on ways to shut down campus PIRG groups. I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of PIRG groups, but as a WPIRG volunteer I believe they should have a right to exist, and I can be persuaded that they have a right to funding. WPIRG and LSPIRG have done some good in this community, and I resent the underhanded attempts to destroy these organizations. That is me being partisan again, but so be it.

Andrew Telegdi claimed on several occasions that he has fielded requests from his former constituents who couldn't get an audience with Braid in their constituency office. I don't know whether to believe this (I have heard that Braid is willing to have meetings, and is friendly in person before he ignores you in Parliament), but it had better not be true. If it is then our democracy is even worse off than I thought.

Representing the Constituents

I suppose I should blog about all of the other candidates out of fairness, but I am a jerk. Instead I will talk about Kitchener-Waterloo Liberal candidate Andrew Telegdi. Many of us like Telegdi. But why? It's because Telegdi has (or is perceived to have) both guts and principles. He stood up for his beliefs in resigning from the ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, and his story is that he stood up for his constituents against party leaders.

He's also passionate (and knowledgable) about immigration issues. He never forgets to tell us that he was a refugee; no doubt part of this is showmanship, but part of it is genuine.

Telegdi starts slowly. He tends to ramble, and picks his attacks from newspaper headlines. He's an politician and fierce on the attack -- he took every opportunity to attack the Conservatives in general and Stephen Harper specifically. But he is not that strong on many issues I care about. He does not seem that knowledgable about technological issues. He does not support proportional representation (albeit for understandable -- if misinformed -- reasons).

I think we largely forgive these weaknesses, however, because Andrew Telegdi has our respect, and (whether rightly or wrongly) we feel that he is willing to stand up for his constituents. There's a lesson in there somewhere.