Friday, February 24, 2017

Why I joined the CPC to vote for Michael Chong

I have to admit that when I first heard that Michael Chong was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) I thought: Oh, cute - a progressive conservative is running -- they'll squash him like a bug.

I had an opportunity to hear Mr. Chong in person on Wednesday February 22 at an event hosted at the offices of OpenConcept (a business owned by long-time friend Michael Gifford).  There was about 30 guests there, and Mr. Chong's meet-and-greeting very quickly turned into a Q&A session.

Most of what I heard I really liked.  Enough to decide to become a member of the party in order to vote in the leadership election in May (March 28 is the final date to become a member if you want to have your say).  I also made a $350 campaign contribution to Mr. Chong.

I'll highlight three areas of policy he spoke about, the first being from that bulk of ideas I agreed with, then one area I am mostly with him but with some reservations, and one area I disagreed.  Two are key elements of his platform: Economic Opportunity, Environmental Opportunity, and Democratic Opportunity.

Green Tax Policy

Mr. Chong is a GreenPAC endorsed candidate, and I was grinning from ear-to-ear when he was talking about his proposal for a revenue neutral shift from income taxes to a carbon tax (one much higher than proposed by the Liberals).  He even used the phrase "taxing things which are bad rather than things which are good", a phrase that has been used by the Green Tax Shift movement for decades.  (The shortform "Tax bads, not goods" confuses people as they think of the wrong meaning of "goods").

I have been a large supporter of the Green Tax Shift since I heard about it in the early 1990's.  Then I was a member of the Green Party, and remember one election where we were setting up a campaign office for the region (we didn't have the funding to have per-district offices).  This was a rental of a building where the previous  tenant was "H&R Block Income Tax".  I wanted us to put up a sign that said "Abolish" over the "H&R Block" part of the sign, but was opposed by some in the party which had more traditional lefty views on these issues (one of the first signs I might have been in the wrong party).

The question came up about why the carbon tax shouldn't be put into general revenue and used to increase fiscal capacity, reduce deficits/debt, etc.   His answer was that he wanted those other issues to be separate, and that this should be a revenue neutral shift so that the average taxpayer wouldn't be opposed to the tax (the average person wouldn't feel a tax increase, while those who pollute more than average would be paying more than those of us who pollute lower than average would be paying less).

The benefits of this policy are greater than he had time to discuss.  When tax-shifting you are taking something that is out of your hands and putting it into your control.  If you want to do something to reduce your taxes you can make better choices for your energy usage and other activities which are carbon emitters.  It becomes both carrot and stick, which is far more efficient than a stick-only approach that will meet with large political opposition from a wide variety of citizens.

Mr. Chong discussed how income tax is an inefficient tax, and that its introduction was only a temporary measure to help pay for Canada's involvement in World War 1.  While the last surviving war veteran from WW1 died in 2010, income tax is unfortunately still here.  To be clear, I'm not personally against taxes or government, but I think taxing income is the wrong way to go.

Electoral Reform

The question came up about where he stood on electoral reform.  He said that most of the proposals to replace our current voting system had some seats granted to political parties, and that we needed to reform political parties first before considering these types of changes.

I understand where he is coming from, but am disappointed with fellow Canadians that this is the answer.  He is correct in that nearly all the proposals that have come from the most vocal activist groups are party functioning, granting "top up" seats based on implied or explicit support for political parties.

A different direction could be taken, which is to take the party-focused features (Like optimizing for Gallagher Index style proportionality) off the table.  Ranked ballots in single and/or multi-member districts without top-up seats or above-the-line voting doesn't privilege party affiliation.  Moving from single-member districts to multi-member districts enables competition between candidates from the same party within a multi-member district, further diminishing the influence of political parties.

Unfortunately I can't fault Mr Chong for his views. If we went forward with a referendum today (maybe a ranked ballot, like was used in PEI and is being used to decide the Conservative Party leader), it is quite likely that some party-privileging system would be brought in and the excessive control over MPs by the party and party leader would only become worse.

We not only need to do as Mr. Chong suggests and reform parties, as well as both the upper and lower houses, we need to help educate fellow Canadians about the features of different voting systems and the risks associated with some of these features.

Merging government departments and agencies

This is one of those areas of policy that a few attendees had a problem with.

Mr Chong acknowledged that government shouldn't be treated like the private sector, and that the PM should not be thought of like the CEO.

He then proceeded to use private sector examples to explain why merging government departments would be a good idea.

There are many differences between the public and private sector, and this is one of those areas where the differences need to be recognized.   In a company, the company will work best when everyone is moving in the same direction.  If some branch thought the company was moving the wrong direction they could split off and form their own company that could compete or cooperate with the original company.

Governments don't work that way.  There are different departments with bureaucracies that have competing mindsets, and that is a good thing.  There is a monopoly on governance, and some branch that thinks another branch is heading the wrong direction can't split off and form their own government.  They need to hash it out within the structure of government, with there being debate between government departments that is not unlike the debate that happens between MPs in parliament.

While I believe there are efficiencies to be had in government, I believe merging dissimilar departments or even branches is harmful.  I still believe it is wrong for consumer affairs to have been added to Industry Canada (Now Innovation, Science and Economic Development) as that creates a conflict of interest within the department that would have been easier to negotiate if it were different departments (and thus different management structure trying to bring forward policy initiatives).

My political context

When I became politically active in the early 1990's I was introduced to the Green Party by someone who was familiar with the center-right German Greens. The Greens resonated more with me when the NDP was doing well (and lefties headed to the NDP), but I felt out-of-place whenever the NDP was doing poorly (and more lefties came to the Green Party).

I joined the Progressive Conservative party in 1998 because I was excited about the leadership campaign.  What David Orchard was saying resonated with me, and the party as a whole was more appealing the more the aspects of the conservative movement that didn't resonate with me moved to the Reform party.  I was called a tourist by Joe Clark during the campaign, and after that race which Joe Clark won I didn't really feel welcome.  Even though Joan Russow was leader, and her ideas didn't resonate with me at all, I returned to the Green Party as I believed at the time I had to be involved in a party to be involved in politics.

Starting in 2002 I started to meet more sitting MPs, and the more MPs I met the less partisan I became.  There were days when I would walk out of the office of an NDP MP and into the office of a Conservative MP, and it did not seem politically jarring at all.

I currently don't consider myself partisan, and find that there are candidates and MPs from every party who I share many ideas with, and well as MPs from each party which I don't share many ideas with.   I have found that political affiliation is a poor indicator of an MPs views on the issues that concern me the most.

While I still believe I'm politically center-right, I don't think I will ever feel at home exclusively with any party.  I suspect instead I'll want to become more involved with the individuals within the parties that I support.

Even from listening to Mr Chong for a very short amount of time on Wednesday evening I believe he is one of those individuals I can support -- and will be supporting as he runs for leadership of one of the two parties whose leader is most likely to become the next Prime Minister.

Whether or not Mr Chong wins, a good sized showing will demonstrate that there is support for the type of conservatism that he represents!  Whoever becomes the next CPC leader will need to listen more closely to these views.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

More than 25 years of Free Software

One of the most critical discoveries that determined the form that my business and advocacy work would later take was the discovery of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project.

While I do not have an exact date of when I joined the gnu.misc.discuss newsgroup, a search on Google indicates that my first posting was on Feb 11, 1992. The topic was: Public Domain re-worked and re-released under GNU Public License?. It is interesting to go back and time and note that I have learned quite a bit about software licenses and copyright law since that time. I think my English and spelling have improved as well.

(Re-post from 2003 article on Digital Copyright Canada. Most of my recent contributions have been to this blog)

Why a long-time electoral reformer will be staying clear of the "Day of Action for Electoral Reform"

A few partisan and multi-partisan groups including the NDP, Green Party (provincial and federal), and Fair Vote Canada have sent out announcements to their members about a "National Day of Action for Electoral Reform".  While I've been an active electoral reformer for many decades, I will be avoiding this event.

Many of the reasons why were articulated in an earlier article on how Electoral Modernization is hard, but worth it.   It discussed how compromise and consideration of other viewpoints was critical to move forward.

When Justin Trudeau and his election platform team stated that, "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system" they likely envisioned a specific campaign.  On one side would be those who wanted to keep the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system either because it benefit them or they were simply resistant to any change.   On the other side would be a broad coalition of people who saw the many flaws in the current system and had a proposal to move forward with a solution to the major flaws.

While these multi-partisans like to use the phrase "voter equality", this was not the campaign they ran. They picked one specific flaw in the current system that has meaning to partisans (if the seats in parliament are allocated to parties in proportion to alleged votes for parties), and dismissed all other concerns as being irrelevant as well as dismissing the people who had those concerns.   This splintered those who wanted change into multiple camps, and made a broad coalition for change impossible.

With a broad coalition not possible, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Government correctly concluded there is no consensus on this issue and was forced to back away from their election promise.

In January 2013 I cancelled my Fair Vote Canada membership and donation. I felt a need to distance myself from FVC for the sake of the electoral modernization movement in Canada.

FPTP has many flaws, and many believe vote splitting among multiple candidates that voters would be happy with is the largest flaw.  The only solution to that particular problem is ranked ballots, so it should be recognized that proposals for any system that doesn't involve ranked ballots is not a proposal aimed at "voter equality" or "fair voting".

FVC's campaign against ranked ballots in municipal elections was expected to cause confusion. Most municipalities do not have political parties, so the question of whether the makeup of city council is allocated proportionally to parties based on alleged votes for parties is an irrelevant concept.  If ranked ballots were supposedly bad in municipalities, then reformers who were repeating talking points would also be claiming that ranked ballots would be inappropriate in all elections.  The distinction between single-member and multi-member districts would be lost on many of them.

There is a family of systems that solves both sets of problems, and that is ranked ballots in multi-member districts: also known as single transferable vote (STV).

The partisan groups (NDP, Green, FVC) would indicate that STV was OK with them, but with their campaign against ranked ballots as well as the way they worded their support it was always considered a "lesser" option.   It is unbelievable that a voting system that would solve a greater number of problems with the current system and be able to create a broad campaign was somehow the "lesser" system.

It was clear to those of us who do not consider party proportionality to be an issue (or for some just not the major issue) that their "we are happy with any system that is proportional" could never be used to create a broad consensus around a version of STV.

STV isn't a single system, but a family of systems that have specific features in common: ranked ballots to solve the vote-splitting and plurality issues, coupled with multi-member districts to solve not only party proportionality but proportionality based on other demographic traits as well.   Our conversation should have been focused around optimizing district magnitude (the rural-urban proposals, and how to group districts), how to allocate surplus votes (random vs deterministic, etc), whether we offer party-promoting features (above the line voting) and whether we solve the "donkey vote" problem (randomizing order of candidates on ballots).

Instead the conversation focused on party-PR, which was a distraction that remained unclear on whether the voting system would improve or get worse.

Back in 2013 there were FVC activists who asked that I apologize for what I wrote in this blog. It turns out that my concern was proven correct, and that their campaign was counterproductive.  I don't expect these advocates to rescind their request for an apology any more than I expect them to apologize for the harm their campaign did to the electoral reform movement in Canada.  Some of these people were people I considered friends, but their devotion to FVC's campaign made it impossible for them to remain friends with me.

So we are where we are.  There is a large rift separating Canadian electoral reformers which might take a long time to heal (if at all). Electoral reform is off the table federally yet again, and the groups who are largely responsible for that failure are meeting together later today to point outward to someone else to blame.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Van Helsing #DigiCanCon via Netflix Canada

I just finished season 1 of Van Helsing via Netflix Canada. Filmed in Vancouver with most cast members being Canadian, this is the type of Canadian content that makes me feel proud of Canadian talent.  There were so many familiar Canadian actors from other series out of Vancouver including Flash and Sanctuary, and it even had Amanda Tapping directing 4 episodes. Nomadic Pictures, the producer, operates out of Calgary.

I'm excited to hear that season 2 has already been ordered, and that production starts next month.  My hope is that for future seasons that legal Internet distribution will be simultaneous with any broadcast-era distribution.

The Wikipedia page for the series suggests that some fortunate events happened for this to be released on Netflix Canada on December 23'rd (after the September 23 broadcast launch) rather than being tied up in broadcast-only licensing for much longer : Super Channel's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. In earlier articles (Ad free CBC? Why not shift money to creators? and Space (Bell) has no Class when it comes to protecting copyright) I discussed how I consider broadcasters and BDUs to be in a conflict of interest when it comes to the modern lawful distribution of video content. I consider it a sign of ongoing progress when broadcast channels close and new OSI layer 6 (what ISPs provide) neutral video distribution systems open (like the launch of Amazon Prime Video in Canada).

I hope that in the new year we will continue to see more Canadian content with wide international distribution on modern layer-6 neutral video distribution services like Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video and CraveTV. I further hope that opponents to the ongoing cycle of technological change like Denis McGrath, councillor for the Writers Guild of Canada, will not be able to confuse politicians into continuing to favor broadcast-era distribution and distributors over the interests of Canadian creators and Canadian audiences.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Imagining an #EngagedInER conversation between Russell McOrmond (1997 #PR ) and Russell McOrmond (2017 #STV )

I can imagine a conversation between Russell McOrmond (1997) and Russell McOrmond (2017), and how that would go.

Both of these individuals feel they have a good grasp of the problems with First Past the Post, and both feel they have properly analyzed the obvious solution to the obvious failure.

These two individuals would likely hate each other :-)

RM1997 would think RM2017 was arrogant for constantly bringing up the fact that he was 20 years senior, and in that last 20 years had:

  • met many sitting MPs
  • had long conversations with some sitting MPs - in constituency and parliamentary offices, as well as in the Government Lobby (that part of center block behind the curtains on the government side), the parliamentary restaurant, as well as private pubs and private homes. I've even been invited by sitting MPs to help represent Canada in front of policy delegations from other countries.
  • attended many federal committee hearings (more than I care to count), and have been a witness in multiple committees
  • had joined a different federal party and voted in that parties leadership race.

RM2017 would be suggesting that systems based on ranked ballots in multi-member districts are the only systems which solve both the plurality problem (what non-partisans focused on the individual people rather than only the parties care about) and the proportionality problem (what partisans, especially those who support small parties, care about). He would be mentioning that the last 20 years of experience is why he believes the people matter more than the parties.

RM1997 would be telling RM2017 that none of that nonsense mattered, and that all that mattered is that the only party that could ever represent RM1997 in parliament needed a change to the system in order to represent him. Who cares who the MPs are, normal people don't talk to MPs :-)

You can see where this is going :-)

While I have 20 years more experience , I recognize that it would be rather presumptuous of me to think that I didn't have anything more to learn. I have the fact I learned so much in the last 20 years as proof that there is always more to come.

I can't learn from RM1997 as I already know everything he knows. There are so many people in this debate wanting to educate me on those same things, believing the only way I could possibly disagree with them is because I don't know these things. And I've been blocked on Twitter by a few of these people, upset that they can't change my mind by repeating words used by RM1997.

(re-posted from  Disqus)

Monday, December 19, 2016

First look at Amazon Prime Video Canada

I received an email this morning from titled "Your Prime membership now includes Prime Video", indicating that Amazon Prime Video has been launched in Canada.

Like Youtube(Google) and Netflix, Amazon is an internet native company, so I wasn't surprised to see that Prime Video worked on most of my devices.  It plays from my desktop, Chromebook, and has an Android App.  Missing, and something people often complain about, is Chromecast support. Amazon has a competing Amazon Fire series of devices, but they are not being sold in Canada.  This is quite unfortunate that their ongoing rivalry with Google diminishes the utility of their service. Vertical integration isn't helpful, and it is inappropriate to expect everyone to have so many different incompatible devices plugged into their televisions.

This service wasn't quite what I was expecting.  I thought Amazon Prime would be more like Google Play Movies and TV, offering per-movie, per-episode or per-season pricing for video.  Instead this is more like Netflix where my yearly fee for Amazon Prime gets me access to a catalog without an incremental fee to watch each movie or TV episode.  I immediately watched the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle which looks like an interesting Amazon original series.

I will continue to evaluate.  At the moment I would rank the service higher than CraveTV, even with Amazon Video's lack of Choromecast support, as the user interface is considerably better.  This is also early for the service as they have very little Canadian licensing for content, given even Internet video services have to deal with the archaic region restrictions and region licensing.

During the DigiCanCon consultations I was made aware of some Canadian content released on Amazon Prime that was available in the USA but not Canada.  That title is still not available in Canada, but I have asked the copyright holder (via twitter) if they know if there is something they can set from their end.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A few Straw Men of Canadian electoral reform

straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent. (Wikipedia)

It is hard to engage in electoral reform conversations in Canada without having one of the two top straw-men thrown at you.  Which one you are thrown depends on which of the most common perspectives you hold.

This is massive generalization, but Canadians could be divided into 3 groups.

  1. Everything is fine, leave it alone.
  2. Our voting system is broken, and the problem is a lack of proportionality (See Gallagher index)
  3. Our voting system is broken, and the problem is plurality

When it comes to choosing an electoral system, there are a number of interesting variations.

  • People who believe that plurality is a feature, not a problem, in that it forces a "consensus" to form between the top two opposing visions of how to run the country.  The "spoiler" effect is seen as a need to better "educate" voters to stop voting for third parties.
  • People who note there is no consensus on this issue, and who believe we should leave the system alone until there is consensus.
  • People who believe that any solution to the proportionality problem also solves plurality, so do not consider plurality to be a legitimate issue to be concerned with.
  • People who believe that any solution to the plurality problem also solves the proportionality problem, so do not consider proportionality to be a legitimate issue to be concerned with
  • People who believe the only "fair" system is one that recognizes that proportionality and plurality are two separate problems that need to both be solved.
  • People who vote along party lines, believe there is only one right choice, so don't see any value to ranking choices on ballots.  Voters who might have a second choice just need to be better educated about the "one true choice".
  • People who don't vote along party lines, and who if they vote for a party nominated candidate voted despite, not because of, the party affiliation.
    • They will most often see more than one candidate they think can represent them and want to rank them rather than be forced to pick only one.
    • They will sometimes oppose any attempt to take votes for party nominated candidates, presume they were support for the parties, and put them into formula in order to make claims not supported by the actual marked ballots.
  • People who don't trust political parties, and believe parties already have too much control over Canadian politics, so oppose proportionality.

The Straw Man for Proportionality supporters

The proponents of a system that solves the proportionality problem have to deal with this Straw Man all the time: that they are proponents of the most controversial form of proportional representation which is "pure PR" where an entire country or province becomes one single district and all the MPs are allocated based on party lists.

Not only has Fair Vote Canada never made that proposal themselves, I'm unaware of any other organization or serious electoral reformer who has advanced that proposal in Canada.

There is always the "thin edge of the wedge" claim, which is that any introduction of PR into Canadian politics will be abused as a way to eventually push Canada to abolish local districts.  Any introduction of at-large members or larger districts is seen as negative not because of the merits or flaws of specific proposal in front of them, but because of their fear of pure PR.

Engaging in this "thin edge" argument is as fruitless as arguing against the more direct Straw Man as it is based on a presumption of dishonesty on the part of PR proponents.  This presumption of dishonesty isn't helpful for having healthy debate.

The Straw Man for Proportionality opponents or skeptics

The opponents of proportionality, as well as those who don't think solving a lack of proportionality alone can solve the major problems with our voting system, are eventually claimed to support abolishing political parties.

Not only have I never made this proposal myself, or support abolishing political parties, I'm unaware of any organization or serious electoral reformer who has advanced that proposal in Canada.

There is always the "thin edge of the wedge" claim, which is that any regulation of political parties or reduction of the influence of political parties over Canadian politics will be abused as a way to eventually abolish political parties.   Often, any discussion that suggests that votes for party nominated candidates can't be presumed to be support for the party itself are taken as an attack on political parties, rather than a simple recognition that not ever voter votes along party lines.

Engaging in this "thin edge" argument is as fruitless as arguing against the more direct Straw Man as it is based on a presumption of dishonesty on the part of PR opponents or people who don't consider PR to be the greatest voting system problem.  This presumption of dishonesty isn't helpful for having healthy debate.