Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Five Fun Tricks With Democracy

It's back to school time, and somewhat later than that, it will be back to Parliament time for all those fresh-faced little MPs in Ottawa. They're so cute, with their slanders and partisan ranting! But in between their red-faced yelling matches and self-righteous scrums, they'll be thinking up new ways to improve our democracy and give Canadians more power over their lives.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

In case they actually want to improve things, here are a few suggestions I've been thinking over recently. In descending order:

Number 5: End land speculation with a Lockean property law.

Currently, we're in the middle of a construction and housing bubble. Don't deny it, you all know it's true. And one of the causes (and the effects) of the bubble is land speculation. There are a lot of properties sitting empty all over the Lower Mainland, where I live, because the owners are waiting for a rezoning that may or may not come, or because they're simply holding on to the land until the price hits their sweet spot.

This means that rents and land prices are driven artificially high because of the scarcity. So why not follow old English common law, which allowed squatters to take possession of any land they lived on for a year and a day unchallenged? We could switch that around, and say that if a property owner does not live on or improve his property for a year and a day, he forfeits title. The next person who improves the property (plants a garden, fixes up the house) would be the legal owner. Condos could revert to the ownership of the strata council. Let common law and the courts decide what constitutes "improvement." This would force landowners to either start developing or sell their properties before the year was up, cutting down on speculation somewhat.

Number 4: Take control of the GG's office away from the PM

Currently, there's some ridiculous controversy about whether the new proposed Governor General is a seperatist. Let's all take a deep breath and remember that, unless wearing a big Admiral Nelson hat and a jacket with lots of braid can sway thousands of voters, this does not matter very much. The GG has a few theoretically important duties to play in our goverment, but the last time one took part in a major way was in the 1930s. If we really need the post, let's open it up to the public.

There are a couple of ways we could do this. First, we could make it completely random. If you're on the federal voters list, your name goes into the (Admiral Nelson) hat, and if you are picked, you get a luxurious one-year stay in an Ottawa mansion.

Alternatively, we could hold a lottery, $10 a ticket, winner drawn in a national TV special, and the money pays for the official duties and mansion upkeep. (This option is my favourite.)

Or we could elect them directly. Boring.

Number 3: Give municipal goverments control of environmental policy

All politics are local, and all environmental issues, doubly so. I spent a long time, when I was with the now-defunct Sterling News Service, covering the biggest enviro issue of the last decade in Abbotsford. This was the infamous Sumas Energy 2 power plant proposal.

Background: Sumas Energy 2 (SE2) was an American firm. It wanted to build a gas-fired power plant just a stone's throw south of the Canada-US border. Because there are no high-tension power lines on the US side nearby, it asked for permission to run a line across the border and connect to the BC Hydro substation in Abbotsford.

The locals went absolutely batshit. The Fraser Valley is a big bowl, surrounded by mountains, which traps bad air. The SE1 plant had been bad enough, this was the limit. They organized mass rallies, protests and bus trips to speak to US regulators. When the matter came before the National Energy Board in Canada (who could control approval of the power line), they sent more intervenors than had ever registered, for the longest public hearing the board had ever held. The process was dragged out for years, and finally, the locals won.

By the skin of their teeth, by a decision by an appointed, quasi-judicial body that wasn't accountable to anyone. Why can't local goverments make decisions based on environmental issues? It's not that I trust local goverments to be greener than provincial or national goverments, but they are a lot easier to sway. Because they are a lot easier to toss out of office if they disobey the will of the people. And you can find them and yell at them in person.

And it was just ordinary people who fought SE2, not radical greens. I saw an incredibly embarassing sight during a big anti-SE2 rally once. A lawyer for the Sierra Club gave a very well-received speech, then tried to get the crowd to join him in a "There ain't no power like the power of the people" chant. They didn't get into it. It just sort of petered out. The crowd was just middle-class, mostly Conservative voting middle aged people. They didn't want to be identified as some sort of environmental crusaders. But they didn't want their kids breathing more smoke. Local issues can get people fired up in a way that ideology can barely touch. If local goverments could veto developments on environmental grounds, it would give enormously more power to citizens.

Number 2: Democratized Courts

We need to make it cheaper for people to reach legal agreements. With divorce, child custody and small claims matters, we could simplify people's lives a lot if we just let them reach their own settlements any way they wanted.

A lot of family-court matters aren't acrimonious, or need at the most a bit of mediation, but lawyers and expensive court time are still necessary. Why not simply have a system where a judge, justice of the peace or other court official could simply ratify any agreement brought to them by two or more parties?

If you've solved the problem on your own, you write down the agreement, swear before the official that all parties agree to the terms, then sign it. Done. Adversarial problems without an easy resolution could still use the court system. Outside the system, you could use your cousin Bernie as a mediator, or a private mediator.

For small claims, some lawsuits and even minor crimes such as vandalism, this system could work well.

Number 1: More Direct Democracy

There are so many ways we could do this, at the municipal, provincial or federal level. Probably the easiest would be to give the public a veto on any new law passed by the goverment. If enough signatures appear on a petition, a referendum is held on whether the law should be repealed. Or new laws could be passed by the same method - and not overturned by Parliament, but only if courts found they violated human rights.

To make things cheaper, we could hold the votes annually, say every October, rather than randomly whenever a petition passed the threshold. I suspect if people were voting for specific health care initiatives, to legalize pot, or to streamline gun control, turnout would be better.

And hey, it'd be a pretty good replacement for the senate. The "chamber of sober second thought" should be extended to the whole country.

Obviously, other people could come up with their own list of five changes to the way we govern, and every one of them would be different from mine. And I don't actually expect any of my recommendations to be accepted, at least not in my lifetime. But the important thing is that thinking about changing goverment something every citizen should do on a regular basis.

Our government is not set in stone. It is just a tool we use to guard our rights and keep ourselves healthy and prosperous. We should change it for the better.

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