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Editorial Mind Grapes

This is Some Bullshit: An Update on Canadian Electoral Reform

Last time we had a conversation about electoral reform on this site, it was in the fall of 2016. The post came in the aftermath of the publication of a report from an all-party Special Committee of the House of Commons that was specifically tasked with studying options for electoral reform in Canada.

This month, the Liberal Party published a new document in response to an official electoral reform petition submitted to the Government of Canada’s petition website. The response effectively summarizes and clarifies the justifications the Liberals are using in abandoning their campaign promise of electoral reform.

On the face of it, the current Liberal majority government might deserve a little credit for looking into electoral reform at all right after sweeping in to power in 2015. However, there are a few facts in that election that show exactly why the Canadian system needs to be reformed:

  • While the Liberals did win a majority of seats in Parliament in the last election, all three left-leaning political parties are fundamentally pretty close. In this system, where a minority government is worse than useless, voters on the left tend to align en masse, to the detriment of the other left-leaning parties. In 2015, it was the Liberals that benefited from this.
  • In the previous (2011) federal election, the NDP won a third (103/308) of the seats in Parliament, nearly tripling their seat count from 2008. In 2015, that seat total was back near where it started, at 44 seats. This comes from the aforementioned mass movement of voters (leaving Liberal and PQ in 2011, moving back to those parties in 2015) attempting to counter the unified Conservative voting block.
  • Even though the Liberals did win a majority of seats in Parliament in 2015, the party only managed to win 39 percent of the vote, a clear sign of a broken system.
  • Finally, the fact that this election was described as a ‘change’ election, and whether you believe that narrative or not, people did want changes to the political landscape, and that includes the way elected officials are chosen.

One of the main points of the Liberal response to electoral reform is the idea that in consultation with MPs, voting experts, and voters, no clear alternative to first-past-the-post presented itself. Therefore, the report concludes, the best option at present is to change nothing, as though a new clear alternative voting system will suddenly present itself at some point.

This is some bullshit.

Electoral systems are like climate science. They do not care if you believe in them. A good system doesn’t get your party into power unless you represent a majority of voters best. A bad electoral system may elect the best-suited party or candidate, or it may not. A key point here is that when the Liberals promised electoral reform, they didn’t promise to look in to other options for holding more representative elections. The party platform specifically promises that the 2015 election would be the last one held under first-past-the-post, and that a plan to do better would be presented to Parliament within 18 months of the election.


One of the biggest problems in politics today is that there is no motivation for a party not in power to present a clear policy alternative to the ruling party. The Liberals ran on ‘NOT first-past-the-post’, but never actually came up with anything to replace it. This is a clear sign the party didn’t want to reform the system, they just wanted to benefit from its flaws in the election.

Another example from the last year is the Republican-proposed American Health Care Act, which failed miserably even among hard-line conservative Republicans. This is because for at least 7 years, Republicans in the US House of Representatives ran and voted on ‘NOT Obamacare’, without spending much time (it seems) thinking about a health care system that actually stood a chance of passing through the Republican legislative branch.


One possible reason for this massive disconnect between parties in power and opposition parties is that an increasing amount of time in a politician’s day (especially one trying to get elected) is spent campaigning (fundraising). After becoming a member of the Liberal Party, I saw first hand just how many emails and phone calls active voters get encouraging them to donate as much money as possible to the Party.

These emails make it very clear that the goal is to ‘beat’ the Conservatives, but fails to make the link between money raised campaigning and actual changes in vote tallies. I have never contributed any money to a political campaign, because I have yet to be shown a good reason to do so, or even why campaigns raise money (other than to allow them to campaign even more).

Even campaign ads, on television or on lawn signs, don’t typically give reasons why voters should choose a given candidate, just that voters should vote for their preferred party, whoever the candidate is. Given massive fundraising totals, it does seem like this tactic works pretty well, though it isn’t very clear why.


It could be that parties have decided that the optimal strategy is to make any political opponents into nemeses, positioning them as enemies in the legislative battlefield. While this might work in a two-party system, positioning the NDP as a bad choice compared to the Liberals seems counterproductive at best. With multiple parties and several decent choices for small-L liberal voters in abundance in Canada (and elsewhere), it seems as though a combination of electoral change and some cooperation would lead to some real social progress in the near future.

The obvious shortcomings in the current Canadian political system are well-described and well-known. The Liberals are in power with 39 percent of the vote. The Green Party consistently gets 4-6 percent of the vote, but has never had even one percent of seats in Parliament, almost certainly because any splitting of the vote on the left would give the Conservative Party a plurality of seats.


Any of several changes to the electoral system would undoubtedly balance voting and hold big parties accountable to voters in a consistent way. If asked, I have no doubt MPs and voters would choose a different voting system, but that option was never presented by the Liberal Party.

A referendum would be no better than the nationwide mydemocracy.ca poll in terms of informing the government of what voters want. Because voters aren’t necessarily even aware of what the options are, an all-party committee that discusses what changes to make, as opposed to whether or not the system needs reform. With all parties at the table, at least some discussion can be had, in order to make the system more representative, no matter what changes are made in the end.

Politics has become is a horse race, with winning election being the main goal. This destroys most opportunities for meaningful debate around what’s best for Canadians and the world, and removes incentives to compromise, instead rewarding efforts to ‘win’ political points.

The Liberal Party should at least put in some effort in if they actually want to prove that a clear majority of the Canadian people actually don’t want reform. Saying that Canadians aren’t in agreement over what system to use is irrelevant when it’s so clear we are all ready for some Real Change.

Categories
Editorial Mind Grapes

Letter to the Liberal Party of Canada on Electoral Reform

This is the letter I just sent to the Liberal Party on the topic of electoral reform (yes, it’s still on their website). They aren’t convinced Canadians care about it. I care. Leave your thoughts: liberal.ca/contact or email [email protected] (or write a letter/call, if those are your jam).


I’m a young person, and I registered as a Liberal at the beginning of 2016 because I really liked what I saw the Liberal Party doing after winning the last federal election. I’m probably not going to write a letter to my MP (firstly, because I live in Ottawa-Vanier and we sadly lost our MP earlier this year). However, I do feel very strongly that electoral reform needs to be brought to the table again.

I’ve been hearing news recently saying that Liberals will only continue to push the issue of reform if the public still cares. Well, I still care. I voted Liberal because I have progressive views that align well with those of the party, and one of those views was the fact that first-past-the-post doesn’t lead to representative government. Many NDP voters sided with you not because they agree with your platform 100%, but because the left needed to align to get Stephen Harper’s conservatives out of office.

While the current system did work to get your MPs elected, it’s a broken system. Even giving a ranked ballot system (like single transferable vote) will let the people show a strong desire for change, but without forcing them to choose between two parties in a system to actually get a resulting majority.

This is really important to myself, my friends, and my family. We’re all very busy and have entrusted you with governance for the next few years, so you might not be hearing a lot about this issue from Canadians today. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but another broken electoral system just elected a demagogic sexist right next door earlier this month. We want reform, not because we want you out of power, but because the best electoral system is one that doesn’t necessarily restrict choices or lead to relatively unrepresentative leadership.

Other than this issue, I think you’re doing a lot of great work so far. Thank you very much.

Robert

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Mind Grapes

A critical look at Canada’s Food Guide (and ways to eat better)

Today, we’re going to learn a little bit about food, and its relationship to eating healthy (and reaching, then maintaining a normal weight).

To start, consider skimming through Brazil’s new Dietary Guidelines document from 2014. It’s a pretty incredible (if aspirational, for North American cultures) basis for a healthy diet, and a huge majority of the population would be much healthier if we all adhered to its recommendations. It might not be perfect, but the document uses sound principles and advocates adaptability and sustainability in food sources.

Among the most important recommendations these dietary guidelines make is to avoid highly processed foods, sticking to natural or minimally processed foods. The document highlights the importance of fats and oils in cooking, while suggesting avoidance of prepackaged foods that contain larger amounts of these unhealthy lipids.

Comparing these new Brazilian guidelines (available as a 150 page PDF) to Canada’s Food Guide (summarized in a 1-2 page pamphlet) isn’t really a fair comparison. That being said, with some nuance and self-awareness, it’s possible to keep Canada’s simpler, existing food principles in mind to stay healthy.

Canada’s Food Guide

Below is a critical evaluation of Canada’s Food Guide, and tips on how to reap the most benefits from it while avoiding potential pitfalls. If you haven’t done so already, go and take a look at Brazil’s dietary guidelines when you’re done. They’ll be waiting for you here, here, and here.

Growing up in Canada gives you a strange relationship with food. Once you are old enough to understand that candy and chocolate is bad for you, and vegetables are good for you, things start to get really confusing. Something I never considered when I was in adolescence is that nutrition guidelines are written by people. People can have biases, and make decisions based on pressure and money. The Dairy Farmers of Canada are the only reason dairy shows up in the Food Guide at all, for example.

Canada’s Food Guide seems relatively easy-going when it comes to food that isn’t mostly sugar, suggesting the consumption of some of each of four food groups:

  1. 5-10 servings of vegetables (for vitamins and minerals & natural sugars; includes fruit and fresh or frozen vegetables)
  2. 2-3 servings of meat/alternatives (this basically means protein; includes beans, eggs, and nut products)
  3. 6-8 servings of grain products (this is for fast energy and some nutrients; includes cereal, pasta, and rice)
  4. 2-4 servings of milk/dairy (effectively “fat” and maybe calcium; includes cheeses, yoghurt and soy)

As a child, we learned about these guidelines, which have been tweaked and changed over the years, but the main food groups have remained consistent overall. This food guide, from adolescence until early 20s for young Canadians, is often seen as the gold standard for nutrition. However, there are a few reasons to take a closer look at this Guide, and perhaps think critically about choices made based on its guidance.

5-10 Servings of Vegetables

This one is a no-brainer. The most egregious part of this section of the Guide comes when you consider that the serving range for vegetables is “capped” at 10 servings. In fact, fresh or packaged vegetables should generally be the largest portion of the food anybody eats in a day, and with so much of the food that makes up this group consisting in large part of water, it will usually be the healthiest part of a day’s food intake. Don’t limit yourself to ten servings of vegetables if you’re hungry, the only reason recommended servings aren’t higher is because for most people, ten servings a day is already unattainable.

Eat as many servings of fruit and veggies as you can, even at the expense of any other food.

2-3 Servings of Meat & Alternatives

Meat is an interesting food type. For many people, it’s the main way to get protein and other very important nutrients. However, in modern times, with no shortage of readily available meat, we’re almost certainly eating too much. A serving of meat, according to the Canada Food Guide, should be the size of a deck of cards. If you go eat a steak, you’re probably eating at least 2-3 servings of meat. Much more commonly than that, though, is the fact that with chicken breasts growing quickly in the last few decades, having just one is way too much for a meal.

Be aware of large servings sizes of meat in burgers, chicken breasts, and other meals. Get some meat in your diet, but it’s easy to overdo it.

6-8 Servings of Grains

This is a tough one. In the early-mid 2000s, this food group stood at 5-12 servings. Today, that recommendation is almost cut in half. This is because there are many tasty, but ultimately unhealthy, foods that fit into this category. Many grain-based foods are chock-full of sugar, and serving sizes are not very large. It’s incredibly easy to blow past the recommended amount of grains in a day, even with the intention of eating healthy meals. Combine that with the fact that white bread is basically candy (without even getting to many cereals), and with growing plate & serving sizes at home and in restaurants, and it’s easy to see how obesity is a growing public health concern.

If you can, avoid grains except in small amounts, or if you’re in dire need of some quick energy (which often isn’t the case in a modern world full of convenience stores and supermarkets).

2-4 Servings of Milk/Dairy

The last entry on the Canada Food Guide is also the least deserving to be there. Milk and dairy products are effectively candy for the purposes of an adult diet. While milk and related foods do contain calcium, which is important for bone health, once you’re through childhood, there are many better ways to ingest plenty of calcium (like dark, leafy veggies). Milk can actually function pretty well as a sports drink (if you keep it cold) since it contains lots of easy to digest sugar, fat, and some protein. But for everyday use, if you’re not having any dairy, don’t sweat it.

If you’re going to have some milk, cheese, or yogurt, don’t worry too much about it. But if you don’t have any, REALLY don’t worry about it. The Dairy Farmers of Canada played a big part in getting milk featured so prominently in the Food Guide, and they’re a little biased.

Conclusions

To summarize, don’t worry so much about what you’re eating on a given day (as long as you have some veggies). If you’re going to worry, consider how much you’re eating, and if you can reduce the amount (serving sizes) of meat, dairy, or grains that you’re having, that goes a long way towards keeping extra weight from sticking.

The Canada Food Guide is an outdated set of recommendations based on old nutrition science, and if it were re-written today following modern scientific principles, and without advocacy group pressure, it would likely look a lot different. Being aware of the limitations of the Food Guide, along with a little bit of food science, it’s not too complicated to determine what foods can be part of a healthy diet.