Recent op-eds

New consensus emerging behind electoral reform

More than six weeks on, Islanders are still talking elections. No, not the results of last month’s May 4 vote — but the next one.

Last Thursday, Premier MacLauchlan committed to studying electoral reform as part of the government’s wider commitment on strengthening our democracy. “It’s quite reasonable to expect that reform of the electoral system would be part of the examination,” he said in the legislature, referencing the White Paper announced in the Throne Speech.

Is Prince Edward Island finally ready for electoral reform? That’s the question we asked at The Guild last week, where more than 100 islanders gathered for a panel discussion on the topic.

The discussion was lively and engaging, and although there were a few sparks, consensus quickly emerged in a few areas. Perhaps this can give the drafters of the White Paper something to work with.

First, the coin toss. “I haven’t met anyone who thought that was the right way for the tie to be decided,” said Mary Ellen McInnis, former PC Candidate in Vernon River-Stratford. There was a general agreement both on stage and in the room that ties should be settled through by-elections, not currency.

Next, Bobby Morrissey, Federal Liberal Candidate for Egmont, argued against lopsided legislatures, noting that a government with 26 members and one lonely person in opposition isn’t good for democracy. Again, a general consensus that more diverse voices in the House is a good thing.

Finally, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker took aim at our current first-past-the-post voting system, likening it to haggis. He made the case for reform, arguing that if we had the option, wouldn’t we rather have ground beef or steak?

Luckily Islanders have a choice.

There are two main routes to improve our first-past-the-post voting system. The first, ranked-choice voting, has voters rank their choices in order of preference instead of marking an ‘x.’ The idea is that if our first choice does not win, your vote is then transferred to your second choice, and so on, until a winner is declared.

Ranked ballots would solve the problem of vote-splitting and strategic voting, giving us the chance to vote for our preferred candidate without having to worry about whoever “has the best chance.” It also forces candidates to work harder, reaching beyond their traditional base and fosters a more positive political culture. This would be a major improvement on the status quo.

But ranking candidates wouldn’t guarantee more seats for third and fourth parties. That’s where proportional representation comes in.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is a proportional system that would have constituency as well as party seats in order to balance out the legislature. It maintains regional representation, while ensuring the share of the vote a party receives roughly reflects the number of seats it holds in the legislature. MMP would also eliminate the lopsided legislatures we’ve seen in recent decades.

A common strike against MMP is that it is too complicated for the public to understand and would lead to a string of minority or coalition governments. While some members of the panel expressed concern about the complexity of the system, noting that Islanders “don’t like change,” the audience howled in disagreement. One individual argued that if other countries and provinces can figure out how to navigate modernized electoral systems, Islanders can surely manage to do the same.

Another main point of contention is the 2005 plebiscite: Islanders voted against MMP a decade ago, so how much weight should that decision hold today? If the most recent provincial election shows us anything, it is that the political landscape has changed. With a voter turnout of 86 per cent, the first Green Party MLA in history, and a record number of votes for third and fourth parties, this isn’t your father’s red-blue dichotomy.

The good news is we do have a choice. On the way out of the panel last week we invited attendees to cast a ballot for the electoral system of their choice. After a thorough discussion of the options, including the status quo, 93 per cent of the room opted for a form of ranked-choice voting or proportional representation (the majority preferring the latter).

That so many Islanders attended — including MLAs, three of four Party leaders, and many others watching the broadcast from home — shows that the issue struck a chord.

With commitments from three of four federal parties, electoral reform is coming to Canada. Why not begin here? Whether we choose ranked ballots or proportional representation, either option would be a major step forward. But one thing’s for sure: it’s time to get rid of haggis.

Originally published in the Guardian, with Jesse Hitchcock.

Is it time for electoral reform in P.E.I.? The case for ranked ballots

Is it fair to decide an election by coin toss? That’s the question many Canadians are asking following the outcome of last Tuesday’s recount in P.E.I.

We now know that the two leading candidates in Vernon River-Stratford each earned 1173 votes in the May 4 provincial election. Thanks to amendments to the election laws in 2008, this is how ties are decided.

This, of course, drew the consternation of voters and onlookers across the country. “What a time to be alive. Man wins seat…through a coin toss,” tweeted the CBC’s Matt Galloway.

“After all that democracy, seems trivial to decide on a coin toss. Rock, paper, scissors: maybe,” wrote reporter and uprooted islander Thomas Ledwell.

You can’t blame them. With a voter turnout north of 86 per cent, it hurts to see an election decided by something so arbitrary.

Alas, the gods were not smiling upon Progressive Conservative candidate Mary Ellen McInnis, who is now considering appealing the result. In the end, it was tails that won the day, allowing Liberal MLA Alan McIsaac to hold onto his seat in the legislature.

“You know what this tells me? Every vote counts,” said McIsaac.

The only problem? He’s wrong.

Not every vote counts. In fact, 18.6 per cent of votes cast in that riding did not influence the election one way or the other. Thanks to our current first-past-the-post electoral system, voters who supported the Greens or NDP did not have a say in the outcome.

Most provinces hold a by-election following a tie. That P.E.I. puts more faith in a silver dollar than going back to the voters is a problem.

P.E.I. is far from the only jurisdiction to use games of chance to settle electoral stalemates. As we learned last week, there are dozens of jurisdictions across the US and UK as well as Canada that draw straws, pick names out of a hat or flip coins to decide who wins.

But there is a better, more legitimate way to decide these affairs — and you don’t need a costly by-election to do it: preferential voting.

Imagine you and three friends sit down to eat at a restaurant. You order the soup; your friend orders the salad; and the others order the pasta. Now imagine, after taking the orders, your server returns to inform you they are out of soup, but that you can’t order something else “because you’ve already made your decision.” No soup for you.

That’s how elections work under our current system.

Rather than choosing one candidate, preferential voting has voters rank the candidates from first to last. To continue the analogy: “I’d prefer soup, but if you don’t have soup, pasta is just fine.” The benefit is that if your preferred candidate does not win, you still get a say in the matter. Your vote is then transferred to your second choice, and so on, until a candidate reaches a majority and a winner is declared.

As it stands, many voters feel pressured to cast their ballot for a candidate they don’t fully support to avoid “splitting the vote.” By ranking candidates, we virtually eliminate the need to vote strategically so there is no more need to hold our collective nose at the ballot box.

Preferential voting would also discourage politicians from going “negative” in an effort to appeal to voters who would rank them as their second or even third-choice. That’s a good thing.

Much has been written about the failures of our current first-past-the-post electoral system. Nearly everyone believes it should be changed, but agreeing on a new system has been the major stumbling block. Here, however, we have some guidance. In 2005, voters soundly rejected proportional representation in a referendum, so that option should be off the table — for now. This should help pave the way for preferential voting.

A coin toss is not just a deeply flawed method for choosing a politician, but a symptom of a larger problem. The government and opposition should unite behind electoral reform, adopt preferential voting as policy, and show the country it can be done. P.E.I. now has an opportunity to reform a tired and broken electoral system and ensure there are no more wasted votes — and certainly no more coin tosses.

Originally published in the National Post

Saving Canada’s international youth internship program

In 1997, a public servant named Elizabeth Racicot was tasked with developing a new federal program to help university graduates prepare for careers in international development.

The idea was simple. The Canadian government would partner with non-profit organizations and universities across the country to offer young Canadians (aged 19 to 30) work experience through hundreds of internships in developing countries. The hope was that with training and hands-on experience, underemployed graduates would have a chance to transition into meaningful careers—and perhaps even help advance Canada’s development goals in the process.

Deadlines and budgets were tight, but within a few months the program was up and running. Seventeen years later, the former Canadian International Development Agency has sent more than 7,000 young Canadians into work placement programs in more than 65 countries through the International Youth Internship Program.

For her efforts, Racicot was presented with one of the highest honours a civil servant can receive, the Head of the Public Service Award.

But things have changed. CIDA is no more, and now the program is in trouble too.

Last August, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation got word from a credible government source that the internship program is heading for the chopping block in March. Despite pressures from partner organizations, the government has refused to comment on its future. If the rumours are true, the program’s funding will be pulled by the end of the month. Not only does this put those hoping to start a career in development at a disadvantage, it is a major setback for Canada and its influence in the developing world.

Why end it? From the beginning, the program received positive reviews. It is popular among non-profit organizations and post-secondary grads, many of whom would go on to make valuable contributions in the communities they worked in.

From a cost perspective, the program is lean. Partner organizations like Oxfam-Quebec, Cuso International and Mines Action Canada are responsible for handling administrative burdens including interviews, training and logistics. A maximum of $15,000 is allocated for each six- to 12-month placement, meant to cover admin, training, travel, health insurance, living expenses and accommodations.

Most importantly, it did what it set out to do: the vast majority (71 per cent) are successful in finding full-time employment.

I was one of them. In 2008, I spent six months working with landmine survivors in Uganda. New to the country and culture, my boss Margaret (herself a survivor) showed me the ropes.

Together, we met with disability groups, lobbied government officials, opened the organization’s first office, and co-ordinated logistics and civil society participation at a major United Nations conference on humanitarian disarmament.

Just a few months earlier I had been writing my final exams at McGill University, and here I was gaining unparalleled life and work experience in the field.

You also see things and hear stories you never forget. From Nakivale, one of the oldest refugee camps in Africa that 64,000 call home to this day; to the lush, green hills of Rwanda where 20 years ago hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus lost their lives; to the internally displaced person camps of northern Uganda, where many still bear the scars of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Against all odds, you witness incredible resilience and strength in the places where humanity has failed. These images stay with you, and you become a lifelong ambassador, not only for the region, but for development and humanitarian aid in general.

My experience is far from unique. But there are fewer and fewer opportunities like these for young Canadians to travel, gain valuable work experience and engage with the developing world.

Underemployed graduates working in coffee shops know the paradox all too well. Cash-strapped non-governmental organizations are unwilling to hire graduates without experience, and graduates are unable to gain experience without those jobs. These internships go a long way to address this gap.

Some have argued that the program is unnecessary, and that graduates should simply dig into their savings and seek unpaid internships. But given the costs that come with transcontinental flights and living six to 12 months without an income (not to mention hefty student loans), this is an option few young Canadians can afford. As a result, unpaid internships are a luxury available only to the affluent.

Others criticize the entire concept. “If I had to choose between helping someone become a plumber or helping someone work abroad, I’d take the plumber,” one editor told me. An important trade, to be sure, but it’s important not to lose focus of the larger picture. Graduates of the program have gone on to represent Canada on the world stage: taking leading roles at the United Nations, the World Bank, the department of foreign affairs and a wide range of academic, governmental and non-profit organizations overseas and here at home. By cutting back on these investments and opportunities, we risk diminishing our voice—Canada’s voice—in these global institutions and around the world.

In his budget address last month, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stressed that “young graduates often lack opportunities to gain the workplace experience and skills necessary to find and retain jobs,” leaving far too many unemployed or underemployed. He’s right. This outcome serves no one.

Today, the program’s fate rests in the hands of International Development Minister Christian Paradis. Axing the program would be shortsighted, harming prospects for young Canadians and Canada’s influence in the world. Mr. Paradis should heed his colleague’s words, put the rumours to rest, and make a public commitment toward the program’s renewal.


Originally published in Embassy Magazine.

Canada, Syria, Iran, North Korea: Together against arms control

Last Wednesday, our closest ally and the world’s largest arms exporter became the latest country to sign the Arms Trade Treaty. “This is about keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue actors,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said as he explained the Obama administration’s decision. “This is about promoting international peace and global security.”

Over the past six months, 113 nations have signed onto the agreement, which will oversee the global arms trade and interrupt the steady flow of weapons into the hands of human rights abusers.

The idea is simple: we stop exporting guns, ammunition, tanks and aircraft to countries that intend to use them against children or civilians, creating new humanitarian thresholds, and in the process we make it more difficult for those regimes to commit mass atrocities like what we’re seeing in Syria today.

For decades, the illicit trade of small arms and other weapons has fuelled armed conflicts around the world. Countries like Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to bear the scars and instability caused by arms proliferation. Traffickers enable warlords like Joseph Kony in Central Africa, and Thomas Lubanga in the Congo to recruit child soldiers – itself a crime against humanity. Millions have been displaced, forced to flee their homes and take refuge in foreign lands thanks to the widespread availability of these weapons.

The statistics are alarming. In the past year alone, NGOs estimate that more than half a million people have lost their lives to armed violence. Governments – especially those governments that allow weapons manufacturers to export overseas – have a responsibility to do all they can to prevent this from happening.

One small problem: Canada hasn’t signed on. We’ve refused. What’s worse, our foreign minister has repeatedly rejected the idea in the House of Commons. In June, when asked whether Canada would join, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird shot back: “We don’t want to see the NDP and Liberals try to bring in through the back door a long gun registry that will only hurt law-abiding hunters and farmers. This is what the Liberals and the NDP want to do next election, and I can ensure you we won’t let them get away with it.”

The notion that an international treaty designed to halt mass atrocities could somehow affect domestic gun ownership laws is ludicrous – no matter what Canada’s recreational firearms lobby claims. He couldn’t be further from the truth. If we’re to take his comments seriously, Mr. Baird is either incompetent or he’s being facetious.

In fact, with Mr. Kerry’s signature, Canada is now the only NATO country that has not signed the Treaty. Germany, France, the United Kingdom and now the United States all support it. Given Canada’s record as a leader in humanitarian disarmament – the Responsibility to Protect, peacekeeping and the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty come to mind – our refusal to join is embarrassing.

Canada is increasingly isolated and alone; in the company of Iran, Syria and North Korea – not exactly champions of human rights.

Earlier this week, Mr. Baird had an opportunity to make amends during his UN General Assembly speech in New York. Quoting Roman philosopher Cicero, Somali poet Gaarriye and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Mr. Baird pleaded with those in attendance to take action. “We are not here to achieve results for governments or political leaders. We are here to protect and defend…”

Yet he pledged nothing on disarmament. While our friends and allies used this opportunity to promote the Treaty, Mr. Baird ignored it altogether.

Tomorrow will mark six months since the Arms Trade Treaty was first adopted by the United Nations. In those six months, a quarter of a million lives have been lost due to armed violence. It’s time to get on with it. The minister needs a ticket back to New York. It’s time to sign.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail.

Finally a life-saving Arms Trade Treaty – but where was Canada?

It finally happened. On Tuesday – after decades of talks and failed negotiations – 154 nations united to adopt a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations General Assembly. This treaty will introduce new global standards for regulating the international trade of conventional weapons, valued at $60-billion a year.

By developing a robust, common framework for the arms trade – including new humanitarian thresholds for exports, and transparent annual reporting measures – this landmark treaty will, we can hope, make it more difficult for weapons to reach human rights abusers, marking a major step forward for humanitarian law.

Its scope is wide. The treaty covers small arms and light weapons, missiles, tanks, combat vehicles, aircraft and warships. Most importantly, it prohibits the export of arms intended for use against children and civilians, in crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.

The treaty’s adoption was an unlikely victory, as Iran, Syria and North Korea – all human-rights pariahs – worked to block its passage in the final hours of negotiations, preventing the required consensus. In response, Kenya and eleven other nations called on conference president Peter Woolcott to bring the text to the General Assembly on Tuesday for a vote, where it passed by an overwhelming majority.

For years, the unregulated trade of small arms and light weapons has fuelled bloody conflicts all over the developing world (pressure groups often noted that the global trade in bananas is better regulated than the global trade of AK-47s). Weapons sold or diverted to unsavoury armed groups have, for example, allowed for the widespread use of child soldiers, many of whom are stolen from their families, maimed, raped, drugged, used as sex slaves or otherwise abused.

The sale and resale of arms also has massive indirect consequences, displacing entire populations and denying economic development to millions. Aid organizations estimate that armed conflict has cost the African continent alone more than $300-billion between 1990 and 2005 – an amount that rivals development aid for the region.

It was clear from the beginning that consensus would not be achieved. More than a decade has passed since the process delivered on any sort of meaningful prohibition on arms proliferation. The sole area for agreement since 1992 has been on the use of chemical weapons.

This improbable outcome could mark the beginning of the end for consensus-based decision making in disarmament, overcoming the paralyzed and broken system that often accompanies it. Now the lowest common denominator will no longer dictate the yardstick for human rights.

Throughout the process, however, Canada has avoided taking a leadership role in negotiations – the kind of role it had in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty discussions to ban land mines. This time, countries such as the U.K., Mexico, Japan and Kenya led the way.

In a joint statement last month signed by 108 nations in support of the treaty, Canada was nowhere to be found. Last week, 32 countries publicly backed Kenya’s proposal to bring the treaty to the General Assembly for a vote. Again, Canada was absent. Instead, our diplomats were instructed to oppose the inclusion of ammunition in the areas covered in the convention (luckily they failed).

In the final vote, our diplomats supported the treaty, but Canada’s increasing reluctance to take leadership roles in these negotiations is a cause for concern and risks sabotaging its reputation as a champion of human rights. We cannot lead from the bleachers.

While we know the adoption of the treaty is only the beginning, what is clear is that the greatest barrier has now been dismantled. Now that the text has been adopted, countries must rally to sign and ratify the treaty to the highest interpretation.

At once, the emergence of the Arms Trade Treaty is a huge blow to human rights abusers and illicit arms traffickers, and a critical preventative tool that could save millions of lives. It is a momentous victory for the UN, and an even greater victory for civilians. Let us not waste this opportunity.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail

Senate Committee Canada’s first and last hope to fix flawed cluster bomb legislation

Later today, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will appear before the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade to defend Bill S-10, Canada’s ratification legislation banning the use of cluster munitions. He will be flanked by civil servants Alan Kessel, John MacBride and Christopher Ram, who will field technical questions on the Bill, and most importantly, its exceptions.

Bill S-10 didn’t have to be controversial. The legislation is rooted in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international humanitarian treaty that comprehensively bans the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster bombs.

I was part of the process that created the treaty — working with African states and civil society to built regional support — leading up to the signing ceremony in Oslo. Canada was one of the first to place its signature on the document, joining what is now a total of 111 countries.

We know that cluster bombs “cause widespread damage and indiscriminate harm, particularly when used near populated areas.”

We know they “injure, mutilate and, too often, kill innocent people and that 98 per cent of reported casualties have been civilians.”

We know this because Conservative Senator Suzanne Fortin-Duplessis (who is quoted in the preceding sentences) told us so when she introduced the legislation last spring.

She’s right. Cluster bombs are grossly inaccurate, indiscriminate weapons that litter the landscape, covering areas the size of football fields. What’s worse, since many of them fail to explode on impact — as much as 30% — they remain in the soil for decades, forming de facto minefields, long after peace agreements are signed and implemented.

The problem with Bill S-10 is that as Senator and retired lieutenant general Roméo Dallaire said in June, the legislation’s “promise is undermined by its exceptions — exceptions that water down and weaken the treaty, perhaps even critically.”

Like the international treaty, it prohibits the use, transfer, stockpiling, and production of the weapon. But the latter half of the Bill lays out a wide array of exceptions, effectively paving the way for Canadians to facilitate the continued use of the weapon.

Clause 11 in particular exempts Canadian Forces from many of these prohibitions, so long as they are engaged in a combined operation with a state not party to the Convention (e.g., as part of NATO or UN forces). In other words, Bill S-10 could allow for Canadian Commanders to authorize, encourage, help, and even request the use of cluster bombs by allies.

Using indiscriminate weapons does not only go against our principles — it goes against our promise not to use them, a promise made in Oslo.

What it comes down to is this: When Canada signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, we did so because we knew the damage they cause far outweighs any military benefit they could possibly offer.

Proponents of the exceptions argue that an outright ban on the weapon could jeopardize Canadian leadership of NATO missions, but this argument has no force. We have led — and will continue to lead such missions, as General Charles Bouchard has in Libya last year, long after we signed the Convention. (It should be noted that the only use of cluster bombs in Libya was by the Gaddafi regime.)

Canada has been down this road before. In 1997, we led the world — again, alongside civil society — banning the use of landmines. It was one of our great foreign policy achievements of the 20th century, leading to a Nobel Peace Prize and a new model for disarmament. The landmine treaty has neither prevented nor hindered Canada’s participation in any joint military operation. We didn’t need broad exceptions then, and we don’t need them now.

Over the next few weeks, the 12 members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee will be tasked with studying the legislation in detail. This provides us with the opportunity to amend the Bill accordingly.

That Bill S-10 was first introduced in the Senate could be a considerable advantage. There, partisanship often takes a backseat; versus the House of Commons, where co-operation often is seen as a liability. Given this, the Senate may be our first and last hope to fix this legislation.

Fortunately, we have reason to be optimistic: There are many level heads on the committee, willing to put principle ahead of party.

Failure to do so may serve to undermine this important humanitarian treaty — or, worse, put the lives of innocents at risk.

Originally published in the National Post »