I just moved into St. Johns recently with my partner Brittany, and we are expecting our first child in January. I always imagined I wouldn’t have a child until things started to improve in the world or until I lived in a community I could feel comfortable raising a child in. St. Johns is such a community but I still am greatly concerned about the world I will be sharing with this new life. I have been observing politics on all levels for many years and believe I have some ideas to share here. How the votes land is secondary. This is not sport nor war, but life in all its sweetness and disappointments…and we are trying to live in a good way and believe all Manitobans want our systems to reflect this wish we all share.
There are many reasons people might choose to run for MLA. Personal ambition. A comfortable job with a pension. A vision for society they think is correct. Personal issues they need to project onto the society. To bring ‘hope and change.’ To use the election as a platform for their pet issues. Some of these are the basest and most negative reasons, some noble, but to the members of our society it increasingly doesn’t matter.
The election turnout in the last Manitoban general election was just shy of 57%, meaning 43% of citizens couldn’t bring themselves to do that most minimal act of democratic participation, marking an X on a ballot after going to a neighbourhood poll. Consider all the children and teenagers of our society along with landed immigrants, permanent residents, and refugees who can not vote, and it’s clear the majority of people are not electing the MLAs. Some people of these groups are quite informed and active in their communities, but have not yet been granted the right so many take for granted and do not use.
Consider our first past the post system, where only the largest block of votes elects the MLA, regardless of whether this number is 50% of the voters who did vote or not, and we see that actually a small minority of the population elects the MLA. The second or third place finisher’s votes count for nothing. A far cry from Elections Manitoba’s bus ad boast that ‘we all count.’ In effect we have a two-party political system in Manitoba like American politics at large. And as we’ve seen in the US, the issues quickly get lost, the partisan bickering and vitriol is brutal, and very little progress is made.
How can the MLA actually represent all the constituents when only a small block elect him or her? They cannot.
I am running to bring a few new ideas to the table on how we practice democracy in our society. Something really worth discussing considering much of the world is taking direct action to enact this virtuous word democracy.
i) The first past the post (FPP) system must go. People who might vote Green or Liberal or for a strong independent are voting NDP still to keep the Conservatives out or vice versa, even if they are already tired of the party they’re voting for’s policies. For a long time FPP created a ‘hold your nose and vote’ syndrome. Recent turnout suggests many have stopped holding their noses and just stay home. There are several better systems being used throughout the world that we could turn to, including in former Communist countries where the election results reflect better the society’s political diversity.
ii) The idea of giving up our political agency to a so-called “representative” is past its best before date, and few still believe they are being represented, except perhaps a small ideological block that helped elect the MLA and know him/her personally. We talk a lot about cultural diversity under the guise of multiculturalism, but that diversity does not translate into political diversity, again because FPP pushes votes into two main parties. Thus few new ideas get through to the Legislature, and by the time issues come to vote, MLAs already are told what their vote will be, along party lines. I see the role of an MLA as being to bring together the best ideas and tackle the biggest challenges of people in the community as a facilitator and not as a representative. I would hold 4 open town halls as MLA per year and I would establish citizens’ committees that would report directly to you and be given a small honorarium for their time as citizens. Instead of getting political propaganda full of nice photos from your MLA, you’d hear on the issues from your fellow citizens, funded through the MLA’s office. And the colour of the brochure would be neutral, not party colours.
iii) Straw polls, referendums, plebiscites, town halls, citizens committees – there are so many grassroots democratic tools missing from the tool box, stolen by top-down party leaders and premiers enacting bigger agendas far divorced from the actual experiences of people. Now I don’t agree with referendums that violate groups’ or individuals’ rights, as they can be quite harmful and divisive, but don’t the people deserve to have a say now and again on what actually is happening in their society? The other major parties have cynically given up on the people, keeping them in the dark like mushrooms in a St. Boniface factory, and feeding them….well, empty rhetoric. The real politics should not take place in the newspapers, but in our community centres and at local gatherings. Voicing our diverse voices with a good facilitation can release frustration and tension that otherwise builds up quietly and explodes at critical moments. A good leader is a sounding board for their community, and will listen not simply to individuals’ complaints in private, but will create space for citizens to hear each other in a safe and skillful way.
iv-a) Transparency! The over 20 years of Gary governments we had from 1988 until around now have been noted for a real lack of openness and transparency. How many people know the details of the Hydro negotiations that were made in First Nations up north with Cree nation leaders? Their own people do not even know what kind of deals were made. Who understands the water and waste management deal the City of Winnipeg is making with multinational giant Veolia, which the province is refusing to involve itself in? And many more examples we can think of around issues like Waverley West or the pork-barreling OlyWest deal that thankfully fell through.
iv-b) Openness! Maybe it’s the nature of our political culture for a select small number of ministers to think they have to solve crises in back rooms by themselves while putting on a brave and fake face for the public in the press. Why not acknowledge issues that are major collective challenges – like the Assiniboine flood suddenly becoming much larger than expected – so that those people with great ideas and solutions – and there are many talented and knowledgeable Manitobans out there – can be heard with alternatives? Do we think the Free Press editorial board is a sufficient filter for our many ideas and opinions? Sometimes NOT KNOWING what to do and being OK to share it publicly is the most honest and best approach, for it creates space for rethinking bad plans.
Let’s rethink the role of an MLA and let’s start to connect more deeply and intentionally with each other as a broad, diverse community so that we can build political structures from the ground up. In coming posts I will detail much of what I have written here along with my views and the Green perspective on several issues that have come up in Manitoba over the past 10-20 years. Soon you may start to reconsider the pendulum of static politics that is the NDP-CONSERVATIVE swing and consider a Green vote’s positive impact, despite this archaic First Past the Post system you are being asked to mark an X in. 5 weeks of campaigning, name calling, ideas barely debated – many important issues being ignored or left behind – and in 10 seconds your part in the whole process is over. Such a waste to go to all this effort to maintain some kind of broader status quo on Broadway. Let’s think off-Broadway folks. Let’s act locally.