Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Politics as Usual: Why The Liberals and the NDP, Together or Separately, Will Continue to Fail Canadians

Yesterday, I started writing a blog about all of the interesting things which political commentators have had to write about this past summer. I also began looking at why a merged NDP-Liberal Party would not appeal to the growing restlessness, found particularly amongst today’s youth, for real change. Today I’d like to expand further on that topic, as I feel there is a lot more at play here than a desire to unite Canada’s political “left”. The restlessness we’re feeling is something which I believe can’t be addressed in the context of left-wing / right-wing politics, at least when neither the left nor the right has any desire to address the big issues of our time. Those issues, of course, all have to do with the end of inexpensive energy and a warming planet.

I realize that you might not be interested in my “environmental mumbo jumbo”, in which I place a significant emphasis on the threats which the perils of climate change and peak oil pose to our society. Keep in mind, though, that these really are both economic issues, whether you want to believe so or not. Not only are they economic "issues", peak oil and the climate crisis are very significant threats to the health and well-being of our economy. And that means your job, and your family’s employment and prospects for employment.

As neither the Liberals or the NDP seem the least bit interested in engaging voters on either of these issues (or on the growing gap between the rich and the poor – and here I am clearly suggesting that the NDP, with its move to a more centrist political view, has clearly moved away from seriously wanting to tackle poverty – an opinion which I know is sure to rile NDP supporters. But take a very critical look at today’s NDP, which has in my opinion failed the very people whom it purports to defend. Look at what Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horvath is offering voters in the upcoming provincial election: cuts to taxes which may provide short-term relief, but will lead to long-term pain for people, especially our poorest). As such, it’s inconceivable to me that a merged party would be a better vehicle to offer a shared vision, when currently neither the NDP or the Liberal Party has been able to articulate anything close to a comprehensive vision for our nation.


In my humble opinion, there are only two national political parties who are offering compelling visions of Canada. The Conservative Party, the one which gets the most press, does have a vision for Canada, and they are doing what they can to slowly implement that vision. That’s why the Canada of today has started to look quite different than the Canada that existed 20 years ago. That the Liberal under Jean Chretien began the process of taking Canada to the right (beyond where Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney had led) does not change the fact that this vision is now completely owned by the Conservative Party.

"In Opposition To" as the Only Alternative

In contrast, the New Democrats and Liberals have only offered their tentative opposition to the rightward direction itself (or, in the case of the Liberals, really just the pace of moving towards that direction). There has been no compelling narrative offered by these parties which stands in contrast to the vision of the Conservative Party. They have instead simply pointed to themselves, appealing for our votes on the basis of being the “other”, served up for our consumption with the whip-cream and cherry of boutique niche policies proposals.

NDP-Liberal Party Merger

I agree in part with the Globe & Mail’s Robert Silver, who acknowledges that politics as usual isn’t working but suggests that there are significant issues with a Liberal-NDP merger which likely won’t be overcome (see: “A counterintuitive alternative to a Liberal-NDP merger”) . Silver, in particular, is concerned about the baggage carried by both of these parties, and a lack of desire for involved members to take ownership of the other party’s baggage. Liberals will not be comfortable with the socialist heritage of the NDP, while the NDP won’t accept the corporatist agenda of the Liberal Party.

For a merger between the Liberals and the NDP to ever work, there will need to be significant accommodation made by both parties, including the further watering down of big-issue items. While the Star's Chantal Hebert expounds about there being only two tribes (see "Shifting political landscape holds major consequences for all parties"), it’s not at all clear which tribe Liberal Party supporters truly identify themselves with. There will be extremely disenchanted Liberals and NDP supporters alike, should there be any merge. Grits on the right, and Dippers on the left will be disenfranchised. They may decide to stick it out for a while (especially left wing New Democrats, who unlike disenfranchised Liberals, will have no other place to go should they think about leaving), but ultimately whether the new merged party proves to be successful or not, hearts and hopes will be broken.

Silver believes that the solution to this situation is the creation of another political party altogether. That’s where I disagree with him, although I understand where he’s coming from. A new party wouldn’t carry the same baggage as the old parties, and would allow its grassroots members to drive the policy bandwagon. However, again, the likely outcome of such a new party will be to offer Canadians a mushy centre-left suite of boutique policies. And it’s not at all clear that Liberals or Dippers would abandon ship in numbers enough to make yet another political party work.

The Green Party of Canada

In contrast to the Liberals and New Democrats, the Green Party of Canada is the only party other than the Conservative Party which is offering Canadians a compelling vision for the future. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Green’s vision of Canada is quite different again from the Canada that we know today. Where the Green Party has failed (and failed considerably, in my opinion) has been in its ability to “get the message out” about this alternative vision. While the Green Party must take some responsibility for its lack of communication, the fact is that entrenched powers have worked to undermine the Green Party’s ability to broadcast its message.

Getting the Message Out

In the previous election, the Media Consortium chose not to invite Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to either of the two national televised debates, despite the Green Party’s commitment to running candidates in just about every riding in the country. The importance of the televised debates in an election campaign can not be understated. May’s participation in the 2008 debate saw Green support jump to almost 7% nationally. Layton’s blows against Ignatieff in the 2011 debates have been credited with his rise in personal popularity in Quebec, and his party’s successes there over the Bloc this past May.

Unlike in 2008, none of the national party Leaders seemed to be all that concerned about May’s lack of invitation to the debates. In 2008 you may recall that both Harper and Jack Layton were initially supportive of the Consortium’s decision to sideline May. Only Stephane Dion, and an outpouring of emotion from Canadians, led to the Media Consortium’s ultimate invitation. Layton eventually publicly changed his mind.

In 2011, Layton and Ignatieff both mumbled that it would have been their preference for May to be there, but they stood by and did nothing to try to change the Media Consortium’s mind. With May out of the debates, Green support evaporated to about 3% nationally.

With media and political interests stacked against the Greens, it’s really no wonder that the Green Party has had such a difficult time in getting the word out about its vision.

I often wonder whether the Orange Crush would have happened at all if May had been in the debates. That she would have been able to communicate the Green Party’s vision of Canada to voters would not have been assured. While she made Stephen Harper look bad in the 2008 televised debate, she did little to talk about what a Green Canada would ultimately look like. She may have fumbled her opportunity in 2011 as well. But even a fumble would have been a success in part, for I have no doubt whatsoever that May would have outshone any and all of the Leaders in the televised debate. It is quite possible that enough progressive voters might have instead opted to throw their votes to the Greens rather than to the NDP, and the Orange Crush might not have ever happened. And the Liberals may not have suffered their worst defeat ever. And the election might not have brought about a false majority government for the Conservatives.

But playing the what-if game, while fun, really gets us nowhere. That the Green Party offers a compelling and complete vision of a Canada which rivals and stands in contrast to a Conservative Canada isn’t particularly helpful when no one (well, very few) knows that it exists.

The Zeitgeist of our Times is Restlessness with an Increasingly Disfunctional Status Quo

As Canadians grow increasingly restless in a world fraught with increasing economic, environmental and social instability, looking at an NDP-Liberal merger as a way of appealing to the zeitgeist is really a lot like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. A merged NDP-Liberal Party will only offer itself up in opposition to a Conservative vision of Canada, rather than articulating its own vision. This is because a merged party will be hamstrung by forced compromise, and born in compromise, there will be no ability for it to articulate a bold vision for Canada’s future. That it may gain power in the next federal election will not be enough to move Canada in a direction in which an increasing number of Canadians desire Canada to go. That it may slow Canada’s drift to the right may be commendable, but on its own, that can never be more than a compromise goal. If the big issues of our time remain off limits (and they almost certainly will in a party born of compromise, pursuing niche boutique policies), the restlessness will remain.

Politics as Usual Isn't the Answer

The Liberals and the NDP, separately or together, have so far not provided a viable vision for a future Canada. As long as both parties remain mired in boutique politics which fail to address the very real and compelling issues of the day, Canadians looking for real hope would be better served by turning away from the old line parties, whose primary goal appears to be the ascension to power at the expense of good, comprehensive public policy.

Politics as usual can't be the answer. It's clear to me that Jack Layton understood this, as he wrote so very passionately about this issue in his last letter to Canadians. That Layton led a political party which has become, in my opinion, increasingly devoid of passion and good public policy, seems somewhat ironic. However, in the pursuit of power, Layton and the NDP felt compelled to abandon the pursuit of good public policy, and instead concentrated on the politics of spin and boutique issues as a means of achieving power. Had Layton ultimately found himself one day in a majority government situation, it could be that he would have offered up a vision which Canadians could embrace. That he failed to offer such a vision while pursuing power has been the primary reason that I am not a member of the New Democratic Party.

Politics as usual isn't the answer to the growing restlessness of our times. And that's why real vision and real change won't be found amongst today's NDP or Liberals. Mired in the politics of spin, pursuing power at all costs, those two parties will not decide to stop playing political games. And as long as they are playing games, they will fail to make an effort to get down to the business of engaging Canadians on the significant issues of our time.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Restlessness with the Status Quo and Appealing to the Zeitgeist of Our Times

As summer draws to a close, it can’t now be said that this past August was a slow news month for Canadian political commentators. With the unexpected passing of Jack Layton, former Leader of the NDP, Canada’s political commentators have been in overdrive. Last week saw, for the most part, praise for Layton’s years of public service, which put aside partisan politics. However, there were a few political commentators (such as the National Post’s Christie Blatchford) who refused to jump on the non-partisan bandwagon. Since Layton’s funeral on Sunday, more commentators have joined the anti-Jack chorus. Most, such as Sun Media’s Ezra Levant, are, not surprisingly, on the right-wing side of Canada’s political spectrum.

Interestingly, these right-wing commentators, like Levant, have put Stephen Harper in their sights, because he authorized a state funeral for Jack Layton, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The hyper-partisan far-right-wing (and here I must draw a distinction between neo-cons like Levant and many others who are comfortable referring to themselves as small-c “conservatives”) must believe that they can somehow benefit from these kinds of attacks on Harper. Maybe they think that he can be kept in line, or risk some version of a Canadianized Tea Party arising either in the midst of his own political party, or outside of it.

A Strong and United Conservative Party

The chances of that happening, however, are, in my opinion, not very good. Harper continues to dominate the right-wing of Canadian politics in a way which George W. Bush never did south of the border. Party discipline in Canada has always been more severe than in the United States, where Republicans and Democrats often work together on issues, or oppose the positions of their own parties. In the U.S. Congress in particular, there has always been a bigger sense of independence for legislators to go their own way (or, some would say, to look after their own interests first).

It’s not that way in Canada. Or at least, when party discipline does start to fall apart, that becomes a notable exception. And as far as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are concerned, the party should be considered the strongest that it’s ever been. Even with pundits like Levant chirping at Harper from the far right.

No, there is no threat of a Wildrose or Tea Party-type usurpation of power on the right wing of the Conservative Party, despite the notion that Harper has taken his party further towards the centre. With an election four-years away, unless a significant number of Conservator legislators broke with the existing Party, there really isn’t any opportunity for a Canadian Tea Party to muddy the Conservative waters. Hence, it should be clear sailing for the right in Canada for some time now.


Elsewhere, however, party politics has started to breakdown, and it’s given Canada’s political commentariat a number of stories to write about this past August. Most notably this has happened in Quebec, where Pauline Marois, Leader of the Parti Quebecois, is fast becoming the captain of a sinking ship. Several PQ MLA’s have already abandoned her, choosing to sit as Independents in the legislature. A few others are openly positioning themselves to challenge her leadership. Apparently, it’s not so much that Quebeccers have lost their interest in separatism (although recent polls show that support for separation is the lowest it’s been in quite a while); it may have more to do with the overall zeitgeist of our times.


Around the world, and within Canada, people are looking at governmental and political institutions and are coming to the conclusion that those institutions aren’t working well. In short, more and more people are determining that the status quo is failing them. This increasing uneasiness with the status quo is manifesting itself in different ways, depending on where one lives.

In the United States, Americans have turned to the Tea Party, a movement which is difficult to describe, because it apparently means different things to different individuals, even as it attempts to be all things to everybody. In general, the Tea Party movement advocates for reducing government spending, leading to smaller government. It may also stand for less direct intervention of government in the lives of average Americans, although it remains unclear if that’s a shared goal of the movement, given the concerns raised by some Tea Partiers over pensions. At its worst, the Tea Party movement may be something more sinister, arguing for more middle class austerity measures and declaring war on the poor. This despite the fact that most Tea Party supporters are themselves middle class Americans.

The Canadian Experience

In Canada, our own dissatisfaction with the status quo has played out differently. I believe that Canadians have generally been a little less dissatisfied with our political and governmental institutions than citizens of other nations, yet it can’t be denied that over the past decade, Canada has moved considerably to the right. That this movement occurred in increments does not alter the fact. And, with a Conservative government currently enjoying a majority in the House of Commons, we can expect our nation to be carried even further to the right during Harper’s mandate.

The May 2011 Federal Election

The May 2011 federal election might not have been the significant expression of dissatisfaction with the Canadian political landscape which many pundits have made it out to be. Certainly, in the Province of Quebec, it can clearly be said that voters expressed their frustration with the status quo, choosing to boot the Bloc, while turning to the untested NDP under an enigmatic Jack Layton. As much as the NDP want us to believe that Quebeccers have embraced them, the truth is that the NDP gained seats primarily as a result of a rejection of the BQ. However, that Quebec did not turn to the Liberals or the Conservatives is notable. The NDP, and Layton in particular, offered Quebeccers a compelling narrative, while the Liberals and Conservatives didn’t.

In fact, the Liberal narrative on offer in Quebec was resoundingly rejected by Canadians outside of that province. But clearly the Liberals were delivered a body blow by a national rise in NDP support in the final days of the election. Canadian voters increasingly opted to try out Layton and the NDP, and as a result, Liberal MP’s fell in overwhelming numbers to Conservatives. This happened because the Canadian right stood firm against a divided left. The fact that it looked like the Orange surge could have swept Layton or Ignatieff into a minority government situation in the final days of the campaign might have actually increased Conservative fortunes in key ridings.

Voters didn’t abandon the Liberal Party wholesale. Instead, more voters opted to give Layton and the NDP a chance. Some right-of-centre Liberals clearly switched allegiance to the Conservatives, rather than risk an NDP minority government. This happened in the Greater Toronto Area in particular, which you will recall was an area the Conservatives had invested a significant amount of campaign time and money. It paid off.

Electoral Results: Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo?

But we should not interpret Harper’s majority government as dissatisfaction with the Canadian status quo. It can not be ignored that the percentage of the popular vote which cast their ballots for Conservative candidates was relatively unchanged between 2008 and 2011 – approximately 40%. That means that the other 60% of voters cast their ballot for other parties. That can only be interpreted as a rejection of the Conservatives. It is only because of Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post electoral system that the political will of Canadians expressed on May 3, 2011, to reject the Conservative Party somehow perversely led to a Conservative majority government.

And we can not forget the almost 40% of Canadians who, for whatever reason, chose not to cast a ballot at all in the election. If these non-votes had been counted in a FPTP situation, Nobody would be the Prime Minister of Canada, with Harper serving as Leader of the Opposition. That 40% of our electorate has chosen to disengage itself from our political processes is the clearest indicator yet that the status quo is failing Canadians.

I am not here, however, suggesting that the Conservative Party does not have a true mandate to govern. On the contrary, I understand the rules very well, and although I believe that those rules, which have led to the absurd outcome of a false majority government, need to be changed, I am not at all suggesting that the Liberals or the NDP should now be governing in Harper’s stead, either separately or together, due to their combined vote totals. What I am suggesting is that the 2011 election, which saw a significantly different outcome than the 2008 election, wasn’t really all that different in any significant way – other than in Quebec.


Yet, as we emerge from the summer of 2011, there is a growing restlessness in Canada. This restlessness did not culminate in the praise offered to Jack Layton and his family at Saturday’s funeral. Instead, Layton’s death and the outpouring of grief may prove to be the spark which lights the fire that sweeps through Canada in a way that the May 2011 election did not. Already, prominent Liberals are openly discussing the option of considering a merger with the NDP, despite attempts by Liberal interim Leader Bob Rae to play down the talk.

Yesterday, Justin Trudeau, the bright light of Liberal youth, said that a merger should be on the table for discussion.

That the NDP itself appears to remain uninterested in a merger does not take into consideration the aspirations of many of its supporters, who are growing increasingly hostile to Canada’s right-wing government. I would not be surprised if one or more of the yet-to-be-announced NDP leadership hopefuls opens the door to discussing a Liberal-NDP merger.

A Liberal-NDP Merger

A merger between the NDP and the Liberals may at first blush appear to appeal to the zeitgeist of the times, uniting the left and threatening to topple the Conservatives in the next election. Chantal Hebert, in today’s Toronto Star, writes that there really are only “two tribes” in Canada, despite the presence of 4 national political parties (“Shifting political landscape holds consequences for all parties"). A merged Liberal-NDP party, however, will not ultimately prove to be the animal many think it would be. And that’s because whatever kind of hybrid animal it turns out to be will be an animal of further compromise.

Political Compromise in Place of Vision

Already both the Liberals and NDP have abandoned the kind of bold thinking that these two parties used to be champions of in the past. Whether it was the NDP thumping away about medicare, or the Liberals offering a vision of Canada with its own constitution and Charter of Rights, those days are gone now for both parties. What we’ve seen increasingly emerge from both the Liberals and NDP are populist boutique issues, designed to target specific voting blocks, rather than comprehensive public policies to address the big issues of the day. While some of these boutique policies may be decent, there has not been any over-arching vision for a future Canada on offer. Instead of a 7-course meal, the Liberals and the NDP offer only one choice from Column A and one from Column B.

This has happened not because Liberals and New Democrats can no longer count amongst themselves the sort of bold thinkers who dominated their parties in the past. There are Stephen Lewises, Tommy Douglases, Pierre Trudeaus and Lester Pearsons in those parties today. Jack Layton may have even been one of them. Certainly Stephane Dion and Justin Trudeau are; perhaps even Bob Rae fits the bill. But as long as Canadian politicians find themselves straight-jacketed by spin and appeals to niche voter targeting in their quest for power, we’re unlikely to see the boldness of spirit which will appeal to our growing restlessness. The zeitgeist of our time demands better than a Liberal-NDP merger.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jack Layton: Tireless Canadian Hero

I’m sure that Jack Layton had a special place in his heart for Sudbury. Although not from these parts, Layton connected with spirit of the community, and identified with our struggles and challenges. Over the past several years, he was a frequent visitor to our community, taking part in rallies hosted by the United Steelworkers Local 6500 during their year-long strike at Vale (formerly INCO). He also came on other occasions to talk with, and most importantly, to listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens.

My first memories of Jack Layton came from watching CFTO’s 6 o’clock news when I was a teenager in Brampton in the mid 1980s. Back then, Layton was a municipal Councillor known for doing something a little outrageous every now and then. With wild hair and a big moustache. Layton would show up to Council meetings in jeans. Layton, a former Ryerson professor, was always a part of the urban background noise of my teenage years.

When I first started commuting to Ryerson for school, I had time to follow Toronto’s municipal politics in greater detail, as there always seemed to be a newspaper to pick up and read on the GO Train or GO Bus. Given that my profs were very Toronto-centred, I figured it was best to start paying more attention to what has happening in the big city. Layton wasn’t always front page news by any stretch, but he was always there, moving his causes forward, sometimes in the public eye, sometimes not. His causes weren’t always my causes, but they were ones he took on passionately, and in the belief that he was doing what’s best for Toronto.

When he became the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he brought renewal and activism to that organization. I was just beginning my career at that time, and I remember thinking that a committed urbanist like Layton would do a lot of good leading a cross-country association of municipalities. When it comes to assessing what the needs of cities are, Layton understood. His activism was apparent in his leadership, and when he left the FCM to run as leader for the New Democratic Party, he left behind a legacy of success which is still apparent today.

Whether you liked Jack Layton’s politics or not, it’s difficult to deny his ability to make personal connections. When I think about what successful politicians have to do in order to appear sincere with voters (which doesn’t always come naturally), I know that Layton never had to be taught any tricks. For Layton, they weren’t “tricks” at all; they were just the right thing to do. To listen to people when the talk, to make eye contact and show emotion. To empathise with people sharing their personal stories. To show respect to others with whom he quite clearly disagreed, by not interrupting, or using uncomfortable body language.

Jack Layton always cared about what people had to say to him.

I only ever spoke to Layton once, and then just for the briefest of moments. It was outside the Sudbury Arena on the day of one of the earliest rallies put together by USW Local 6500. I was there with a number of Green Party supporters, to show solidarity with Union. Layton was being ushered into the arena by his handlers, but he was sure to offer a handshake a few words to everyone on the way in. In our green t-shirts with partisan logos, it was clear that we weren’t on the same team – but on this day, it didn’t matter. We’d come together to support the same good cause. Layton could have walked on by, but instead he shook my hand. I told him that it was great he had come to our community. He told me thanks, and that this fight was everybody’s fight.

My politics and Layton’s haven’t been the greatest fit, as anyone who might regularly read my blog must know. Layton’s heart, though, was always in the right place, and he spent his life trying to do what he thought was best for Canadians. He understood that the current political structure needed to be challenged, which led him to the NDP. He courageously battled in what he perceived to be the interests of the common person, and against the forces which sought to sideline the efforts and aspirations of common people.

It was with tremendous sadness that I heard about Jack passing away earlier today. He cared about Canada’s future, and he cared about Canadians. He cared about my community, and all of the communities across the nation which were looking for ways to do better. He was a tireless Canadian hero, who has left us much too soon.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Exurban Development in Greater Sudbury: Fiscally Irresponsible, Environmentally Unsustainable

The following is a copy of a letter which I have submitted to members of Greater Sudbury's municipal council:


It was with interest that I read a recent article appearing in the Sudbury Star, “Council looks at priorities” (August 17, 2011). The article explained that our municipal Councillors would be prioritizing ideas generated at recent visioning sessions. One idea in particular, highlighted in the Star article, caught my attention and has led me to writing this letter to each member of Greater Sudbury’s Council.

The development of cottage lots on remote lakes in our City will be a detriment to the City’s long term economic prosperity. Investing in sprawl of any sort – but particularly exurban sprawl – has been shown time and again to be a drain on municipal finances. Exurban sprawl is a particularly egregious form of development, which is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

Although the Sudbury Star article couches the proposed initiative as “camp” or “cottage” development, the fact is that with last year’s approval of the City’s new comprehensive zoning by-law, we no longer have zoning which distinguishes between permanent and seasonal development. Instead, the more workable “limited services” concept was preferred by the City.

What this means is that any residential development in the City can not be limited to non-permanent uses. That means that for lands which might be developed as camps, there can be no guarantees that they won’t become permanent residences.

The conversion of non-permanent residential uses to permanent dwellings is an issue which many Northern communities are facing, including our own. Where formerly seasonal residents retire to the “cottage”, or where seasonal properties are sold as income properties to buyers looking for a more remote lifestyle, conversions often bring demands for new infrastructure. Where private roads exist, our Council is lobbied to assume the roads – and associated maintenance costs. Where public roads exist, calls for street-lighting, school bus stops, and waste disposal pick-ups are common. Further, expectations are raised that permanent residents will enjoy the same service standards from emergency responders no matter where they live in the community.

All of these calls for new services will bring additional costs to our community.

With regards to the idea of setting aside new lands for remote waterfront development, those costs would be even more considerable for Greater Sudbury taxpayers. Although subdivided lakefront lands may be taxed at a higher rate, generating revenues for the municipality, time and again it has been shown that any minor increase in tax revenue is more than offset by additional service requirements. That’s particularly so when new roads are being constructed to reach lakefront development. The long term maintenance of these roads also must be considered.

Even in circumstances where roads may already be in existence, there will be additional infrastructure-related costs. While these costs might not be felt by taxpayers today, certainly our children and grandchildren will be on the hook for paying for this unsustainable form of development. Most of the benefits associated with exurban development accrue to individuals, while many of the costs are borne by communities.

Given that the City of Greater Sudbury is only expected to grow modestly over the next 20 years, as indicated in the City’s own Official Plan, it does not make sense that a greater proportion of new residents be directed to remote areas of the City, particularly when there are significant opportunities to accommodate expected growth through infill and redevelopment within our existing urban areas. Building upwards, not outwards, makes much better use of existing resources, and leads to the creation of more robust communities, which can support public transit, cycling and walking as less expensive, less environmentally impacting forms of transportation.

The City’s Official Plan embraces the principle of directing the majority of new development to existing urban areas, while severely limiting development in rural areas. It does so based on the understanding that exurban development is economically unsustainable. There is no good reason for Council to consider undermining the principles which guide development as found in the City’s Official Plan.

I strongly urge our Council to think ahead about the type of City that residents will need to meet our medium and long-term needs. Please, look out for the economic health of existing residents and our children, rather than prioritising exurban development interests. When you facilitate development in rural areas, there is always an opportunity cost which must be paid. Please don’t pursue a cottage lot development scheme which will economically disadvantage the taxpayers of our City.

Steve May

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Strange Days Indeed: Nycole Turmel and the NDP Oppose Necessary Democratic Reforms

There used to be a time that the NDP could be counted on to put the democratic interests of our nation ahead of partisan politics. Apparently, that’s no longer the case. Rather than endorsing the federal Conservative’s attempt to bring a little more balance to the electoral playing field, for reasons known only to the NDP, interim Leader Nycole Turmel has instead voiced opposition. What’s going on?

Here’s the issue. In Canada, we like to think that we have relatively equal representation based on population. Fact is, we never had, due to concerns about balancing regional interests. However, things have got so far out of whack over the past couple of decades, that it’s high time that Canada set aside some more seats in parliament for members to represent a growing population.

Right now, the average size of a federal electoral district (riding) is about 97,000 people. However, there are significant variations in some ridings. In PEI, where there are 3 federal ridings, the smallest has about 34,000 people. However, in the interests of regional fairness, Canada has long-tolerated its smallest province sending a disproportionate number of representatives to Ottawa.

In contrast, Canada’s most populous riding, Brampton West, has over 170,000 people. And while that’s the largest, other ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, in Vancouver metropolitan area, and in Calgary and Edmonton, also have populations significantly above the 97,000 average. Of course, this has happened for two reasons: the first is that these areas are the fastest-growing parts of our country; the second is because we’ve now re-drawn riding boundaries or added new ridings in quite some time now.

If this were only a PEI versus the rest of Canada issue, likely we’d be able to live with Canada’s smallest province continuing to send it’s 3 MP’s to Ottawa. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about whether we value everyone’s vote in relatively the same way. Right now, because of the demographic imbalance in suburban ridings in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., it’s clear that we don’t. If you lived in one of those over-populated ridings, how would it make you feel to know that your vote matters less than in most other Canadian ridings? And your vote would matter less, because it would take a significantly higher number of like-minded voters to elect your preferred candidate.

This issue has been on the backburner since the Supreme Court of Canada condemned the government for inaction back in 1991. Things have only got a lot worse since then.

During the last parliament, the Conservative minority government had brought forward legislation which would have added additional seats to parliament – 18 in Ontario, 5 in Alberta, and 7 in B.C. The Liberals and the NDP were very cool to the proposal at that time, and even the Conservatives themselves didn’t pursue the plan with any sense of urgency. The Bloc Quebecois were clear with their opposition, as it offered nothing to benefit Quebec.

Yet, the plan would have addressed part of the democratic deficit which exists in suburban ridings in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. Why the lukewarm perception, when the plan would have empowered voters?

Well, the Liberals didn’t like it because it would have added seats in Alberta which they felt they couldn’t win. At the time, they were also concerned about the Conservatives making inroads in the Greater Toronto area, where most of Ontario’s new seats would be created. And suburban Vancouver wasn’t exactly a hot-spot of Liberal support either. Of course, we found out during the last election that the Liberal’s fears were well-founded.

The NDP has had a lot of problems in the Greater Toronto Area, and have had little success at all in Alberta. That was two strikes against the plan. While they might have been competitive in new seats in suburban Vancouver, potential gains there would have been off-set by MP’s elected for other parties in the new ridings in Ontario and Alberta.

The Conservatives, who brought the plan forward, clearly had the most to gain from its implementation. However, as the recent election results have borne out, they didn’t need the plan to end up with a majority government.

Now, however, they’re bringing the plan forward again. And with their majority, we’re likely to see new seats added, which will in part address the current circumstances in over-populated ridings. Although these ridings may be in parts of our country which have a tendency to vote for the Conservative Party a little more so than for other parties, it shouldn’t matter. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s high time that it were done.

Of course, a much better proposal would be to introduce a form of proportional representation. If the Conservatives really cared about the democratic deficit, they would be doing a lot more than shifting voters around into new ridings. They would be trying to find real ways to empower voters, making sure that every vote really does count.

But within the narrow and archaic confines of our first-past-the-post electoral system, ensuring that we generally have “representation by population” makes sense. Which is why the Conservative Party’s plan would lead to a healthier democratic outcome.

So why is the NDP opposing it?

Well, Turmel says that there should be more study. And that issues relating to representation of rural and northern regions should be better assessed, along with First Nations.

For goodness sakes, though, what does that really mean? If Turmel is concerned about finding a “balance” for population-challenged rural areas, and slow-growth northern ridings, what does that really mean? It means that she and NDP can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that there’s been a demographic shift in Canada, away from the rural heartland and into urban centres. Does she not want to acknowledge this shift? Does she endorse the notion that somehow votes in rural ridings should be worth more than those of urban voters?

In short, her response is what they refer to in politics as “smoke and mirrors”. She raises issues which aren’t issues at all, because she doesn’t want to say why the NDP really opposes the Conservative redistribution plan.

Let’s be clear about this: urban areas in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. are under-represented in parliament at the expense of rural and northern areas. Given this circumstance, how can further study better assess the representational needs of rural and northern areas? Further study would lead only to the same conclusions: residents in rural and northern areas are over-represented in parliament, and that’s not democratic.

Again, the NDP’s real reasons for opposing more democracy have to do with the fact the ridings being added are generally ones where the NDP will not be competitive in the next election. They will be in areas where the Conservatives have proven to be the strongest of Canada’s 4 national parties in terms of vote tallies. With more ridings in Ontario and Alberta, it’s much less likely that the NDP will form government.

I say: so be it. Our political parties need to start acting in the real interests of Canadians, and not in their own interests. And while the NDP under Turmel is setting the most egregious example of any of the parties, the fact that it has taken this long for a plan to move forward (and it’s still not approved) shows that the Liberals and the Conservatives must shoulder some of the blame. And the Bloc’s outrageous opposition to more seats where population growth warrants them - simply because Quebec’s population has remained largely stagnant – is indefensible.

Of course, the NDP just experienced a massive electoral breakthrough in Quebec, and the Bloc has been reduced to a tiny rump. I guess there may be another political reason for former-Bloc member turned party Leader Turmel to champion the existing democratic deficit. If the NDP has any hope of retaining wide support in Quebec, it’s going to have to be a champion of Quebec’s interests, despite what might be in the democratic interests of all Canadians.

Turmel’s opposition to democracy is sparking outrage across the nation. The Toronto Star, which endorsed Jack Layton and the NDP in the last election, has a scathing editorial about Turmel, and especially her use of the term “divisive” to describe a plan which would actually lead to a more equitable outcome. Jeffrey Simpson has gone one step further, identifying that the regions where ridings are proposed to be added are areas where Canada’s newest citizens are much more likely to be found. Simpson finds it inexplicable that the NDP is refusing to stand up for the rights of hard-working immigrants who face significant barriers to public participation.

If Turmel and the NDP really wanted to go after the Harper Conservatives on the democratic health of our nation, she should have said something about getting rid of our current electoral system. Instead, she chose to advance an argument which doesn’t make any sense, in defence of the indefensible. She chose instead to safeguard the interests of NDP voters, at the expense of looking out for the health of all voters.

And that’s just wrong.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Downtown Opportunities: Sudbury's Market Square and the New School of Architecture

Greater Sudbury’s Market Square has been in the local news a lot lately, as speculation has been rife that the new School of Architecture has been eyeing the downtown location currently occupied by the Market. At today’s Policy Committee meeting, after last night’s meeting with Vendors, the City and Laurentian University, it seems that the rumours regarding the future of Market Square appear to be true.

“Appear” to be, because the City still has to agree to the deal to provide Laurentian with the Market Square property for the new School of Architecture. However, Laurentian has been very clear the Market Square site is by far the preferred location amongst the downtown locations having been considered.

Some more details have emerged today. It looks like the School of Architecture is planning on using the existing Market Square complex for classes, starting in 2012-13, while the new building is under construction. I would think that retaining the existing structure is going to constrain the new building’s design, given that the railroad tracks are in close proximity to the existing building in this location. But, retaining the market building seems to be the plan right now. Whether it’s going to be a permanent fixture on the School’s site remains to be seen.

However, it seems that the market vendors will have to find a new home after the fall 2012 operating season. Determining where that new home might be will be the next challenge. At today’s Policy Committee meeting, Laurentian University School of Architecture committee chair Blaine Nicholls indicated that LU hasn’t completely ruled out co-existence with the market. There has been some suggestion that the new School itself could eventually house the market. Nothing has been decided yet.

And that’s a bit of a concern for some on Council. At today’s Policy Committee meeting, Ward 11 Councillor Terry Kett indicated that the future of the market should be decided before a decision is made by the City to hand over the property to LU. That may be difficult for Laurentian, which is looking to secure the sight in the fall of this year. Given that market vendors have felt that they’ve been left out of the loop regarding how this process has unfolded, it would seem to me that a site selection process to determine the future location of the market isn’t going to arrive at any conclusion by the end of the fall.

However, whatever process unfolds now to determine the future home of the market can’t simply be left to City Council, staff and the market vendors. We, the users of the market, Market Square, and the downtown, also need to be involved in that process. We as a community have an opportunity here to improve our downtown. We also have the opportunity to make matters worse if a poor decision is implemented.

I am a big supporter of the Market. I’m even the Market’s friend on Facebook, and I love tagging the Market in pictures posted by my other Facebook friends. I try to shop at the market as often as I can. I think that we need more things like the market in Greater Sudbury. In the last municipal election, Christine Guillot-Proulx, who was a candidate for Ward 6, tried to initiate a conversation with Valley residents about a farmer’s market in that part of the City. I thought that was a fantastic idea. Let’s make it as easy as we can for all Greater Sudburians to support local farmers, while enjoying wonderful, seasonal foods. There’s no reason that we can’t have several markets in Greater Sudbury.

That being said, one of the things that I love about the farmer’s market in my community is the downtown location. When I go with my family to the market on weekends, it’s very rare that we don’t also spend some time and money at other downtown businesses, or take part in whatever else might be happening in the downtown core. I don’t think that my experience is unique, either. The Market’s presence in the downtown is good for local businesses.

That’s why, for me, whatever new location is ultimately chosen to host the market, it must be a downtown location. So far, I’ve seen it reported in the Sudbury Star that the City may be looking at a location further west along Elm Street. That likely means that they’re looking at the parking area on the other side of the tracks, located behind several existing buildings. This parking area is one of the hidden secrets of the downtown, as it’s currently unoccupied by anything at all, including parked cars. It’s used largely by seagulls and for the occasional pick-up road hockey game; there used to be a carnival which operated there, but I understand that there was some difficulty this year in securing permits, so the carnival didn’t come to town.

One of the entries in the design competition for the School of Architecture actually proposed building the new school on this site, complete with a pedestrian crossing of the railway tracks, to connect with the Larch Street / Elgin Street intersection. The designer of those plans struck on the one big drawback of this site: the lack of connectivity with the rest of the downtown.

Although this site may be a gem, it’s a hard to get to one, buried as it is behind buildings fronting on Elm Street, and behind the Beer Store on Lorne Street. Access is from little-used Energy Court. And it’s surrounded by two other parking lots, which in theory, could also be used for whatever might occupy this location in the future. To access the site by foot from the downtown, pedestrians must traverse through one of these parking lots, which isn’t the most pleasant experience for a pedestrian.

I’m not sold on this location as a new home for the market, given its lack of connection to the rest of the downtown. The site is really cut-off from the downtown by the presence of the railway tracks. Although this site might offer ample parking for the new market (and potentially for the new School of Architecture as well, given its proximity to the Market Square site), it’s not in a location which is going to get people to stay and explore the rest of the downtown. And it doesn’t lend itself to public gatherings in the same way that the square between the Market building and Elm Street currently does. For me, that public square is one of the charms of the Market. It’s one of the few urban gathering points we have in the downtown, and it’s certainly the most accessible. I hope that whatever the new School of Architecture does with that site, the square in some form is retained.

A better idea, I believe, would be to close off Durham Street to vehicular traffic on the weekend, and turn the section of Durham between Elgin and Cedar or Elm into a pedestrian promenade, and have market vendors on the street. Putting up portable tents to keep the rain (and the sun) off of vendors and market users could address some of the weather-related issues. The fact is, though, that currently shoppers on Durham and other downtown streets aren’t protected from the elements at all when it rains on the weekend, so I’m not certain that weather would really have a significant impact on market use, but I know that others have these concerns.

The City closes Durham and other streets periodically during the summer right now. The Blues for Food festival closes down a part of Durham. Ribfest will close down part of Elgin. Durham Street, though, is one of the showcases of a revitalized downtown. If you make an effort to fill Durham Street with market vendors, especially farmers selling fresh seasonal produce, you’re going to have a lot of people at the front doors of some of our existing local businesses. That can only be good for the downtown, especially if people have to travel from different points to get to the market. All downtown businesses in this area are sure to benefit. For the record, I don’t own shares in any of those businesses!

Closing off a section of the downtown to vehicular traffic for a farmer’s market is routine in other cities, including my hometown of Brampton. I believe that we need to start looking at our downtown in a different way; not as a place for cars to drive through on their way to somewhere else, but as a pedestrian-friendly destination of its own. Not that Durham Street is being used right now by many as a street to get to somewhere else in the same way that Elm Street is. Durham is already a bit of local destination, even within the downtown.

What we know now is that there’s going to be a period of uncertainty for the next little while regarding where the market is going to be housed. Whether the market can be incorporated into the new School of Architecture, or whether a new permanent home is needed (either in a purpose-built venue, or an on-street venue), what must happen is that all Sudburians who have an interest in the market’s success must be involved in the process which determines the market’s future. The threat of the new School of Architecture displacing our market should be looked at as an opportunity to continue building a vibrant, business-friendly downtown.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Prioritising Public Transit in Greater Sudbury, Part II

(….continued from Part I)

High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes

We also need to start giving priority to transit vehicles at peak travel hours through the creation of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. We should have been taking a close look at the benefit of HOV lanes for some time now, as many other municipalities have done. For example, think how better it would be for transit users in the Hanmer and the Valley if Municipal Road 80’s outside lanes were dedicated to high occupancy users only. Combine outside HOV lanes with a reversible centre lane (instead of a lane reserved for left-turning vehicles), and you can still maintain two lanes of traffic flowing into the city in the morning, along with a HOV lanes for buses.

You may be familiar with the concept of a reversible lane if you had driven on Jarvis Street in Toronto up until last year. The middle lane of the 5-lane street actually changed its direction at certain times of the day, in order to better meet rush hour demands. The lane was removed on Jarvis after it was identified that it was never really necessary to meet demand. Wider sidewalks and bike lanes were intended to take its place, but Toronto drivers liked the reversible lane so much, the new infrastructure is being ripped up on Jarvis and the reversible lanes will be back at a cost of about $400,000 to Toronto taxpayes.

But with or without a reversible centre lane, HOV lanes increasingly make sense in our City, from a sustainability stand point. Not only would HOV lanes give buses priority along congested streets, they would encourage car-pooling (how many cars do you see each morning carrying only one occupant?).

Transit Infrastructure

The A-G’s report also recommends upgrades to bus shelters and other bus stop infrastructure, such as the provision of route maps at all stops. Snowplowing should be prioritized where bus stops are located, and the installation of sidewalks leading to bus stops should become the norm (have you ever found it unusual that the sidewalk is located on one side of the street, but the bus stop is on the other side? These bizarre situations exist all too often in Greater Sudbury). Having sidewalks available for pedestrians is essential in order to provide the sorts of linkages we need, for when you step off of the bus, you’re a pedestrian, and you begin to make your own route to your destination.

Transit Routes

Linkages of a different sort are also important when it comes to transit in Greater Sudbury. Unlike some other Ontario cities which are laid out in a grid pattern, Greater Sudbury, due in large part to topography, has a more limited number of major streets. This means that there are fewer options for vehicular traffic to use in order to get around the City. Some say that this circumstance has led to increased congestion on our streets, although I think that it should be acknowledged that the City, over the past several decades, has done a decent job of forcing through new vehicular links where none had existed in the past (think here about Brady/Lloyd streets).

Yet cities based on grid patterns seem to have just as much congestion (or more) than does Greater Sudbury. Street pattern doesn’t have as much to do with congestion as we might think. The volume of vehicles on our roads certainly does.

And that’s why I find it remarkable that so many car drivers are hostile to the idea of investing in transit and cycling infrastructure. You want less congestion? Get more people out of their cars!

Yet, Greater Sudbury Transit isn’t having that effect. Part of the reason may be that the often circuitous routes which our buses travel. Unless you want to end up in the downtown core, taking the bus might not get you to where you want to go.

In other cities, buses run along the major streets, with more frequent service, in order to facilitate a higher volumes of riders. Less frequent service is extended into residential and industrial areas, which then feed into different parts of the mainstreet routes. If this kind of routing were applied in Sudbury, it may be that people in residential areas might have to walk a little further to catch a bus, but the buses would arrive along the major streets with greater frequency. Smaller transfer nodes where multiple routes converge could also be established in locations where they made sense (such as the New Sudbury Centre, the Lasalle/Notre Dame intersection, and Paris-Long Lake Road/Regent Street in the South End). Local bus service in the outlying communities might be internal, with transfers occurring at sensible locations for more frequent inbound traffic.

Creating a Culture of Transit Use – Target Youth

Whatever we can do to make riding the bus easier for residents will assist in raising ridership levels. Bear in mind that the buses are going to run on schedule with or without riders, up until routes are cancelled because of a lack of demand. Why not make it more economical for families to ride the bus? Fares may be prohibitive for a single user. Add a couple of children to the mix, and a round-trip on the bus becomes quite expensive, as children over 5 years pay $2 a ride. Why not let accompanied children ride the bus for free? Enjoy the adult fare collected, but let the kids on at no charge? Put limits on it if you want – absolute numbers, relationship status, whatever. The point is that we should be encouraging more families to take the bus, and a great way to do it is by lowering total costs.

And don’t force people with strollers to take their kids out of the stroller, fold it up and stow the stroller. Other transit systems allow children to remain in strollers. So should ours.

Another (to me) absurd issue with our transit system’s price structure: currently, those over the age of 55 pay $45 for a monthly pass, while students must pay $68 to ride the bus! Again, if the goal is encouraging the creation of a culture of conservation, we must get serious by reinforcing positive habits amongst young people. Riding the bus to school is a far more sustainable option than driving. Also, when it comes to college and university-aged students, with the high costs of tuition and the price of living, they also deserve a better break. Bring the student fare down so that it’s on par with the older adult fare, or even lower.

Increasing ridership by lowering fares in this way, while building new infrastructure to make transit ridership more accessible may seem like an expensive undertaking. Certainly, there is going to be a cost involved. How can we pay for a better, more accessible transit service?

Decision Making Choices: Focus on Priorities

Again, it comes back to choices, and what we, as a community, want to prioritize. It makes sense to me that we incent improvements to our community by making it easier for these improvements to occur. On the other side of the spectrum, we offer disincentives for behaviour and activity which is economically and environmentally problematic. Oddly, that’s not the way in which decisions are usually made.

Alternative Transportation Solutions – The Barrydowne Highway

Let me focus briefly on one area where long-term cost savings can be found, and a better, more sustainable solution can be implemented to address the same issue. For some time now, as growth in the Valley has increased, people travelling from the Valley into Sudbury have been concerned about traffic. Especially at the Notre Dame/Lasalle intersection. It can take quite some time to get through this intersection on a busy weekday morning.

The solution which has been proposed for some time now has been to build a new road between New Sudbury and Hanmer. Construction of the Barrydowne extension would see a new four-lane divided highway heading north from the intersection of Barrydowne and Maley Drive, connecting ultimately to Notre Dame south of Hanmer. It’s thought that by spending tens of millions of dollars on this new road, that traffic congestion would be eased, and there are studies which support that conclusion. It would also reduce travel time.

However, if the “Barrydowne Highway” is ever built, the traffic it will generate in New Sudbury is going to be extremely problematic for residents living along Barrydowne. Remember, in this part of New Sudbury, Barrydowne isn’t a major arterial; there are homes with driveways along the street, between Lasalle and Maley. Building this high-volume highway, terminating at Maley, will dump a significant number of cars into an established residential community, even if the Maley Drive extension is constructed first.

Again, it may seem counterintuitive, but providing cars with alternative routes isn’t a long-term solution for congestion. Getting people out of cars in the first place is a solution. The Barrydowne Highway won’t accomplish that outcome. Instead, it will simply encourage additional car use by users who might otherwise have opted to take the bus. Not simply because it will be easier and faster to hop in the car than wait for the bus, but because we as a community will have made a choice to invest in building highways rather than improving transit connections to the Valley.

Making Choices – Spending Wisely

Those are the sorts of transportation choices that we’re going to have to make. Could we do both? Provide the Valley with better transit AND build the Barrydowne Highway? We could…but fiscal prudence suggests that we likely wouldn’t do both. What we should be doing is planning for the community we need tomorrow, not the one we thought we needed 20 years ago.

And that means favouring investing in transit and alternative transportation infrastructure over building new roads. If we want to provide people from the Valley with more streamlined access into Sudbury, let’s look at HOV lanes on MR 80, and increased transit service. That would be a fraction of the cost of building the Barrydowne Highway, and it would be a more sustainable long-term solution, especially if we remove price barriers to transit use. The fact is that in the future, everything is likely going to get more expensive, and those impacts will be felt amongst residents of the Valley as well. Why build a whole new highway when there will be proportionally fewer cars on the road? It doesn’t make sense.

(Of course, another partial solution would be to encourage significantly greater density in the Valley, along with mixed-use development and industry which creates jobs, allowing more people who live in the Valley to work closer to home – but I’ll save that for another blog).

In these difficult economic times, it’s clear that we’re going to have to make some difficult choices about how we spend our resources. We can’t continue to mortgage our children’s future for much longer. As the cost of living continues to rise, and the gap between the rich and the middle class continues to widen, there is going to be a lot less personal wealth around. That means more of us are going to have fewer choices, especially when it comes to transportation. Our governments, which exist to best address the needs of the people, have to start planning proactively for the future. Investing in sustainable transportation, especially public transit, must become a priority. It’s time to shelve expensive highway building, and focus on using our existing infrastructure more efficiently.

The Auditor-General is concerned about finding efficiencies and saving money. When it comes to transit, his report delivered earlier this week is simply the tip of the iceberg. If we create a sustainable, high-capacity transit system in our City, the benefits to Greater Sudburians will be significant indeed, along with long-term cost savings. Let’s make the choices to spend our tax dollars wisely on the sorts of investments which our community needs for the future we’ll get (as opposed to the one we might wish to have).

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Prioritising Public Transit in Greater Sudbury, Part I

With the release of the program audit of Greater Sudbury transit earlier this week by Greater Sudbury Auditor-General Brian Bigger, transit in this City seems to be at the top of everybody’s mind. While the media has tended to focus on reports on infighting between the Auditor-General and the transit management (see: “Transit trouble”, the Sudbury Star, August 7/11), it’s important that the A-G’s insights into the program’s operations, and recommendations for saving money while increasing ridership, aren’t lost.

Transit Today

For me, one of the more disturbing findings of the A-G’s report was the loss of ridership which Greater Sudbury Transit has experienced since 2006, when ridership was reported at 4.5 million. Since then, ridership has fallen to 4.2 million annually, and apparently without explanation.

Greater Sudbury Transit has invested heavily over the past several years in new technology. If you ride the bus, you’re almost certain to have noticed that automated system which now calls out all bus stops along your route (unless the volume of this system is turned down so low that it’s inaudible to hear over the background noise, which is something that I’ve experienced on more than one occasion). This system was installed for accessibility reasons, but it’s fair to say that it’s certainly improved the quality of a bus riding experience. Especially if you happen to find yourself on a bus whose windows have been dimmed due to “wrapped” advertising, and you can’t see out well enough to find your stop.

In total, over $3 million has been invested in state-of-the-art Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which allows our transit system to collect information about ridership at every stop, in order to help make the system more efficient. Unfortunately, it seems that no one is looking at this collection of data at the present time. It’s also unclear how successful the customer-service-friendly internet and smart phone “MyBus” apps have been, and whether customers are using the codes now posted on each bus stop sign to assist them with planning for when the next bus is to arrive.

The A-G also reports that operating costs have increased in the system by about 28% since 2006. With a smaller number of riders using the system, these increases are being absorbed in part by rising fares (which are now at $2.60 per ride), and by municipal funding. While the provincial government’s 1% gas tax transfer has no doubt helped with funding the system, it’s far from clear that this program will emerge from the October 2011 provincial election intact.

With declining revenues (down 7% since 2006, for a total of almost one half million dollars), and declining ridership, along with all of the other issues identified in the A-G’s report, Greater Sudburians have significant reasons to worry about the health of our transit system. Questions about whether we are getting the service we’re paying for are also fair game at this time.

I’m personally troubled by the circumstance which Greater Sudbury Transit finds itself in. I’ve been a transit user since I moved to Sudbury back in 2001. I purchased my home in part because there was a bus stop almost in front of the house. When I moved here, I considered the transit fare to be a little steep, if still affordable to me. But I have been and remain troubled by the notion that I as a transit user would actually pay more money monthly to take the bus to my place of employment downtown than I would if I drove my car.

High-Priced Fares

If you look around, you can find a monthly parking space downtown for around $60 a month. Currently, a monthly transit pass costs $74 for an adult. It’s difficult to make transit competitive when residents can drive their cars to work and save both time and money (by car, I live 5 minutes from my office; by transit, it’s 20 minutes to get to work, although only 10 to get home. Even with the price of gas factored into the equation, it would still be cheaper, and quicker, for me to take the car to work. Of course, I can cycle to and from work in about 10 minutes, and I can walk the distance in about 25 minutes, and getting to work that way is even less expensive!).

With the steady rise in fares, no doubt I’ve made my own personal contribution to the decrease in ridership since 2006. Simply put, I’ve discovered that walking and cycling are a lot cheaper, and from a time-savings point of view, cycling can actually be quicker for me. Walking to and from work also makes me feel like I’m getting some of the exercise which I probably should have been getting all of those times that I chose to ride the bus to work.

But that’s just me. I live fairly close to where I work, and I don’t have to transfer on transit to get to my place of employment. We all have our own experiences with transit, but it seems to me that there are some significant issues which this community is going to have to address if we’re to have the kind of healthy and sustainable transit system that we’ll need as we begin the process of decarbonising our economy. Since we can expect to have fewer personal vehicles on our roads, it’s time that this City gave investing in our transit system a much higher priority. I hope that the A-G’s report forms the starting point for a closer analysis.

However, there’s a lot more that we can be doing with regards to Greater Sudbury transit which lies outside of the A-G’s discretion. For example, what about the issue related to cost I’ve previously identified? Has the increased cost at the fare-box led to a decrease in the number of riders? For many Sudburians who don’t own a car, the cost of transit can still be prohibitive at $2.60 a ride, especially if a family is involved. I’ve often heard that the fare is too high. I have to agree.

Fare Reductions to Increase Ridership

If you want to increase ridership on our transit system, perhaps it’s time we begin looking at reducing the fare. Interestingly, back in 2006 the price of gasoline in Greater Sudbury was only about $0.90 a litre. Today, it’s been up over $1.30 a litre for some time now. Our community’s economic health was also more considerable back in 2006, with the price of nickel as high as it’s ever been. The local economy was booming! Today, we’re still trying to emerge from the so-called economic recovery. The local economic indicators suggest that there should actually be more people taking transit today than in 2006, so what’s the variable? It’s not as if the transit system has contracted (it hasn’t). The only variable must be price.

Let’s bring fares down. Sure, this may shift operating costs to a situation where even more of those costs are coming out of the municipal budget, rather than the fare box. But if ridership goes up, it may not be as significant a budgetary item as we might think. However, let me ask this question: so what if it is?

For too long, our City has been subsidizing personal car use in preference to other modes of transportation. I believe that if we’re going to be build the kind of people-centred community that we need in order to meet the challenges of a low energy future, it’s time we started turning away from car-centred decision-making and embrace a culture of conservation. That may very well mean making different choices with our municipal budgets.

Generating New Revenues – Public Parking

Perhaps some of the revenues to off-set lower transit fares might be found through implementing higher public parking fares at municipal parking lots and through on-street metres. Currently, those looking to park in the City’s downtown are getting a pretty good deal: $1 an hour. All-day parking can be as high as $10, but few lots charge more than that. Contrast this to parking in other major centres, and you’ll see that although many Sudburians complain about the high price of parking, we actually have it pretty good.

Why not double the price of parking in the downtown? This move would have the effect of raising more revenues for the City, while encouraging motorists to leave their cars at home and maybe…take transit! Or perhaps engage in walking or cycling, which is even healthier and better for the environment. For too long now priority has been given to cars in our downtown core.

Although the Downtown Master Plan hasn’t yet been released, I attended a public consultation session a while back in which the issue of parking came up. The planners involved with the DMP were pretty clear: there’s actually an abundance of parking in the downtown. The actual situation may contrast sharply with the public perception, and many Sudburians are sure to remain convinced that there’s just not enough parking downtown.

We shouldn’t be making decisions based on perceptions when those perceptions are contrary to the facts. Well, at least we shouldn’t be engaging in that sort of decision-making. In this case, the cold hard data indicates that the downtown parking situation is very favourable to motorists. It’s time to that we took a close look at this circumstance. Do we really need all of these municipal parking lots taking up valuable space in the centre of our City? Perhaps some of these lands could be sold, generating more revenues. A favourable development climate could be created through the use of Community Improvement Plans. Lands currently occupied by parking lots could, in the future, be occupied by new offices or high density residential units, which generate a lot more income in property taxes than parking lots.

Even privatized parking lots should be considered. No doubt current private parking lot owners must be a little ticked with the low prices charged by their municipal competition. Perhaps it’s time that the City looked at getting out of the business of municipal lot ownership, as long as fair value could be had for selling municipal lots.

Other Ways to Generate Revenues

The A-G has suggested that a significant savings could be found by encouraging existing Handi Transit users to opt to take the bus instead. These sorts of opportunities to save money while encouraging more efficient use make sense and should be explored, even if there is reluctance on the part of our transit operator to do so.

Up until recently, the City of Toronto charged car owners a registration fee, to assist with off-setting the high costs of maintenance of public infrastructure devoted to car use. While this municipal tool isn’t currently available for Greater Sudbury’s use, it probably will be added to the toolbox at some point. For too long now, car owners like myself haven’t been paying our fair share for the privilege of using public infrastructure. I say this knowing that owning a car isn’t cheap to begin with. Nonetheless, all levels of government continue to subsidize car use, and I believe it’s time for a rethink. A municipal vehicle registration fee would add revenue to municipal coffers on an unhealthy and costly convenience activity which is ultimately problematic for the environment.

(continued in Part II…)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Nuclear Waste to be Transported through Greater Sudbury?

An interesting article appeared in last Friday’s edition of the Sault Star. It seems that two northeastern Ontario communities are in the running to host Canada’s first underground permanent burial site for radioactive nuclear waste. Now, most people might think hosting this kind of site would have to done against any community’s will, but the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), in charge of site-selection, has actually been working with a number of Ontario communities (and a few in Saskatchewan) which have expressed a willingness to accept spent fuel rods from Canada’s nuclear plants.

A few years ago, the NWMO people were in my community hosting an open house. I didn’t attend, but I understand that many in my community were initially against the idea. I found this clip from The Northern Life about the 2009 open house: “Sudbury unlikely to host nuclear waste facility”, along with this article from the Sudbury Star, “No plan to bury nuclear waste in Sudbury, agency says”.

The long and short of it for Sudbury has been that although a storage site on the Canadian Shield would be ideal from a long-term storage perspective (due to the Sheild’s geologic composition, and it being relatively free of tectonic pressures), burying nuclear waste in proximity to mineral deposits such as those found in the Sudbury basin could create issues for mineral extraction. Better to create an underground storage facility in locations where mineral extraction isn’t expected to occur. So that eliminates Sudbury and places like Timmins and Kirkland Lake from the running.

According to the Sault Star, Hornepayne, along with the municipality of Wawa, are two communities in the northern part of Algoma District which have expressed an interest to the NWMO about playing host to Canada’s nuclear waste materials (see: “Hornepayne, Wawa enter nuke burial discussions”). At stake is somewhere between $16 and $24 billion of infrastructure improvements to whichever community is eventually chosen by the NWMO, as well as medium-term construction jobs (as such a facility will likely take several years to construct) and a number of well-paying operating jobs. There aren’t many specifics at this time, as the NWMO believes that operation of the facility is still at least 20 years away, and that a community likely won’t be chosen for 7-10 years.

The northwestern Ontario communities of Ear Falls, Schreiber and Ignace, along with two communities in northern Saskatchewan, are also in contention.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has a great brochure on the transportation of radioactive materials (see: “Radioactive Materials Transportation”). Although spent fuel bundles are much more of a radioactive risk than the kinds of low-level waste currently being transported around Ontario by OPG, it would seem to make sense that similar safety precautions are exercised by Canada’s nuclear industry when it comes to transporting the fuel rods. Used fuel rods are currently housed on site, outside of the reactors in which they are produced. Even when a long-term storage facility is constructed, used rods won’t go straight from the reactor to the facility; they’ll continue to be housed on site for a period of years, in order to cool.

What I found interesting is that the OPG has been safely transporting radioactive materials around the province for the past 40 years, to the tune of about 800 shipments a year. No incidents have been reported. It seems that most shipments of low and intermediate radioactive materials are headed for the OPG’s Western Waste Management facility in Kincardine, Ontario, near the Bruce Nuclear Power station.

As one would expect, safety is foremost in the minds of those handling the transport of radioactive materials, according to the OPG. Emergency Plans are in place along all routes, just in case.

Interestingly, although Canada’s nuclear industry is 40 years old, we have not yet come to terms with how best to dispose of the most egregious and radioactive by-products of the industry. From my readings, it appears that this situation isn’t unique to Canada: no long-term storage facility for spent fuel bundles appears to have been constructed anywhere in the world, although a community in Sweden has recently begun to. So, although we’ve been managing the low and intermediate waste generated from nuclear power plants, there remains no plan on what to do with the really bad stuff.

Hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, given that spent fuel bundles have been in the news a lot this year. In Japan’s Fukushima Daichi plant, the meltdown was said to have occurred as a result of the overheating of spent fuel rods being stored at the reactor. They couldn’t be cooled down, due to power loss and structural issues with containment pools, which led to a partial meltdown. It seems that the Japanese nuclear industry was reluctant to be completely honest with the its government (and the rest of the world) about the specific sequence of events which led to the meltdown, and for a number of days, even denied that there was a meltdown.

And there may be more to this story yet which the mainstream media hasn’t been following up on, as reported on August 4, 2011, in the “Japan’s Fukushima catastrophe brings big radiation spikes to B.C.” Reports about other nuclear leaks and minor incidents have been all over the alternative media since the Japanese tsunami. That the nuclear industry seems to first resort to information management and spin at the time of a nuclear incident has led to increasing public distrust with the industry.

Earlier this summer, Germany announced that it would shut down its nuclear reactors ahead of schedule. Italy decided that it would no longer pursue nuclear options. Here in Ontario, however, the government and the opposition have both reaffirmed our province’s commitment to nuclear energy. It seems that we can expect to continue to make a contribution to the production of highly radioactive materials well into the century, even without a plan for their storage. Any plan which will be developed, however, is likely to have an impact on my own community.

Currently, the OPG transports nuclear materials by road, rail and ship. If nuclear materials are going to be transported from southern Ontario’s nuclear facilities, there’s a good chance that they may be transported through Greater Sudbury, as the quickest and most direct routes from the south to Wawa, Hornepayne and other northwestern Ontario communities in the running lead directly through Greater Sudbury. Whether it’s the Highway 69 north / Highway 17 west route, or the CN or CP rail, Greater Sudbury could potentially be one of those cities along the route for which the OPG would need to engage in emergency planning.

While it may be that shipping materials out of Kincardine directly to an existing deepwater port in Wawa would prove to be an easier route (despite having to travel to through the Sault Locks), it’s worth pointing out that Hornepayne is located on the CNR mainline, and is directly accessible from Sudbury and southern Ontario. Wawa can be accessed via the Algoma Central Railway and a spur line into that community.

What’s clear right now is that these issues of transportation aren’t being discussed by the NWMO in the same manner that host communities are being assessed. Certainly, the transport of waste to a host community will help inform the site selection process. But what of communities along the preferred routes? Will they have any say in which community is eventually chosen?

Until these questions are answered, it seems to me that maybe Greater Sudbury still has a little something to remain concerned about when it comes to the disposal of Canada’s most radioactive nuclear wastes. Perhaps it’s time to begin asking some of these questions, before the site selection process is completed.

Although the nuclear industry likes to trumpet its safety track record, the world’s experiences with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have left many concerned about the industry’s long-term viability.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tough Questions for Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault over Support of Former Bloc Member Nycole Turmel’s Ascension to NDP Leader

An article of minor interest appeared in my local newspaper last week, as part of the media’s follow-up related to the national news story that New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton was stepping down as leader, in order to fight cancer. Layton, announcing his latest struggle with cancer, momentarily brought Canadians of all political stripes together, with wishes and prayers for a full and speedy recovery.

The follow-up story in the Sudbury Star noted that our NDP Member of Parliament, Glenn Thibeault, had to put the pedal to the medal in order to make it from Chicago to Ottawa to be on time for the NDP’s vote to accept Layton’s hand-picked interim successor, Nycole Turmel (see: “Thibeault burns rubber to make key NDP meeting”, the Sudbury Star, July 28/11). Thibeault joined the rest of his caucus to make sure that all of the rules for appointing an interim leader were followed, a process which New Democratic Party President Brian Topp went to great pains to stress to the media, in order to draw a comparison between the NDP and the Liberals (who have sometimes skipped a step or two when identifying new party leaders).

Today, the NDP’s interim Leader, Nycole Turmel, is in the national media spotlight, for all of the wrong reasons. Reports in today’s Globe & Mail, and followed up by other national media outlets, confirm that up until January of 2011, Turmel had been a card-carrying member of the Bloc Quebecois, a political party whose very reason for existence has been the break-up of Canada. Apparently, Turmel joined the Bloc in 2006, in order to support a friend in that party. She had made several hundred dollars worth of contributions to the Bloc over this time period (which, trust me, as a member of a different national political party, really doesn’t amount to much; but still, many members, especially those in a party to support a friend, ever donate anything at all).

The nature of her resignation from the Bloc, though, was itself interesting and newsworthy. Turmel resigned in January, and within a month, she was announced as the NDP’s candidate for the Hull-Aylmer riding. Apparently, Jack Layton convinced Turmel, the former head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, to carry the NDP’s banner (it should also be noted that PSAC itself, when Turmel headed the union, endorsed a number of Bloc candidates in past elections).

Turmel, apparently, has always identified herself as a federalist, despite her minor economic support of, and membership in, the Bloc. However, when resigning her membership in the Bloc this past January, she indicated to the Bloc’s membership apparatus that she was doing so for personal reasons, and not for reasons related to policy. Now, this rationale for resignation is quite curious for a number of reasons, and not least because it seems to suggest that Turmel hadn’t opposed the Bloc’s policies, which opens the door to the question regarding just why she was supporting a separatist party. Given that the Bloc’s primary reason for being is to implement a separatist agenda, it seems unusual that a committed federalist would have remained a member for 5 years running.

Is it possible? I guess it is. As a member of the Green Party of Canada, I am not in 100% agreement with the policies of my Party, but on the bigger issues, I do tend to see eye-to-eye with the Party. It’s because of those bigger issues that I joined the Party in the first place. As a former member of another national political party, I can tell you that I left that Party because of concerns over its policy direction. For me, anyway, getting the big picture issues right has always been important. Perhaps that wasn’t so for Turmel, though, and she was able to support her friend and the Bloc by putting blinders on about the Bloc’s separatist agenda.

However, I have to say, that seems a bit of a reach. Especially for someone who is now leading a national political party (and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition at that – and yes, I recall that Gilles Duceppe had at one time been in the same position as Turmel now finds herself occupying, in relation Her Majesty. And I was quite uncomfortable with having an avowed separatist occupy that chair, too). For me, though, that’s not the real story here.

What seems apparent to me is that interim Leader Turmel seems to be somebody who plays a little fast and loose with Canada’s political institutions, opting to move from one party to another whenever it seems to be in her own particular interest to do so. Originally, Turmel had been a member of the NDP (and there today seems to be some suggestion that she never stopped being a member of the federal NDP, even when she was a card-carrying member of the Bloc; if this proves to be the case, it’s yet more ammunition that Turmel isn’t fit to lead any national political party, as it would have defied the NDP’s own internal rules – those same rules that President Topp wanted to make sure were followed to the letter).

Turmel joined the Bloc to support a friend. She stayed on for 5 years, apparently playing little role in that Party’s activities. She resigned when Layton came a-calling, and opportunistically threw her hat in the ring in Hull-Aylmer. That kind of political opportunism doesn’t look good on Turmel.

But it looks worse on an NDP caucus who hastily convened a meeting to confirm her (interim) coronation, on the advice of Jack Layton. What were all of these NDP MP’s and Layton thinking when they gave Turmel the nod to lead their Party?

I suspect that they weren’t thinking very much at all about her membership in the Bloc Quebecois. Did my MP, Sudbury’s Glenn Thibeault, even know that he was supporting a former member of a Party which wants to break apart Canada when he cast his vote to confirm Turmel? Did he think that Sudburians would be ok with his support? These are questions which Thibeault and other MP’s are going to have answer at some point, because it was their vote which elevated the former Bloc member to the position of interim Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. With voting comes responsibility.

And if Glenn Thibeault and the NDP didn’t know that Turmel had supported a separatist party as recently as this past January, why wasn’t he and the rest of the NDP caucus told? Surely Jack Layton must have known about Turmel’s involvement with the Bloc. And that calls into question Layton’s endorsement of Turmel to lead the Party in the first place. It’s not as if the NDP doesn’t have a couple of qualified deputy leaders to choose from, in the form of Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davis. What was Layton thinking?

If it turns out that the NDP and Layton entered into this whole process with their eyes wide open with regards to Turmel’s involvement with the Bloc, I’m sure that I won’t be the only Canadian shaking his head. Right now, these difficult questions will need to be answered by Layton and Thibeault and the entire NDP caucus.

Look, it’s not unusual for a federal political party to have within its ranks members who were once members of other parties, including former Bloc members. People do often leave one political party in favour of another. Turmel herself, in response to these recent revelations regarding her former membership in the Bloc, was quick to point out that Bob Rae, the current (interim) Leader of the Liberal Party, was once a member of the NDP. That’s very true.

But what’s different between Rae and the Turmel is that Rae’s shift from the NDP to the Liberals, which is well-documented, happened over time. Rae agonized over leaving his former Party and joining the Liberals, and the whole process took several years. Turmel, unlike Rae, might have considered her options for a few weeks, at best. And that smells of political opportunism.

And unlike former Bloc members of other parties, how many current elected members of parliament in those other parties were once card-carrying Bloc members? To my knowledge, the answer is none. The NDP, however, have a handful of former Bloc members sitting as MP’s at this time. Did some former Bloc members stand for election for the Liberals, Conservatives or Greens this past May? I don’t know, but likely they did. What were their circumstances for leaving the Bloc, and joining a different Party?

I don’t have such a big problem with those scenarios, because those individuals would have stood for a local election only; they did not seek to lead a national political party. Although I confess that if they subscribed to a separatist viewpoint, I would not be comfortable with their presence. I would want to know more about the specific circumstances before I said one way or another.

Again, though, the difference with Turmel is that she’s now the Leader of the Official Opposition. She can, as Leader of the NDP, claim all that she wants to that she’s been a federalist all of her life, but the fact that she was a member of a separatist Party for 5 years is going to be a problem for her, and a problem for all NDP MP’s who supported her in caucus. Did they know of Turmel’s specific circumstances? If so, why did they support her? And if the didn’t, why not?

Some might suggest that there are bigger issues happening in Canada at this time. They’re right, there are. But that doesn’t mean that Canadians also shouldn’t be concerned about Turmel’s opportunism and involvement with the Bloc, and with their own NDP MP’s rationale for supporting her (and with Jack Layton’s endorsement of her in the first place). Canadians care passionately about our nation, and many of us have had a pretty big axe to grind with the separatist agenda of the Bloc. I don’t think that we’re going to stop caring now.

Perhaps my MP, Glenn Thibeault, voted the way that he did at the caucus meeting because he was in a rush and wasn’t given the full picture of Turmel’s history. I’d very much like to know what Thibeault knew about Turmel when he cast his vote. For now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And I’ll hope that he is amongst the first to call for Turmel’s resignation as interim Leader of the New Democratic Party, and as Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. For Turmel isn’t fit to lead a national party.

Better yet, Turmel needs to resign before it gets to that point. Canadians deserve better from the federal NDP than having a separatist in sheep’s clothing lead the Party. Until Turmel is gone, she herself will become the side-show issue which prevents the NDP opposition from doing anything over the next few months, until Layton returns. And when Layton does return, no doubt he’s going to face some very tough questions about his own judgement.

(opinions expressed on this blogsite are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)