Online voting

I have never supported online voting.  The NDP Leadership Convention’s experience is one of several reasons.

For those who have not read the news, the online vote was subjected to a ddos attack. That’s when thousands of computers are used to deny an online service by keeping the server too busy. (There are other ways to do a ddos attack; this is the one that was used last Saturday.) The result: thousands of NDP voters were unable to vote because they couldn’t get onto the website in the amount of time they had to do so. There are reports of people spending two hours with each round of voting, just trying to cast a ballot. I ended up being very glad I’d voted in the advance poll.

The problem here is that it’s possible the outcome was changed. Since the overwhelming majority of votes cast on the last two ballots were cast in advance of the convention, there was no opportunity for momentum to grow behind a candidate during the convention itself. How might that have been different? Nathan Cullen was thousands of votes behind Brian Topp going into the third round of voting. What if he’d caught up? He would have knocked Topp off the ballot, and then the “anyone but Mulcair” folks in the Topp campaign would have thrown their support behind Cullen. It might have led to Cullen winning. It’s possible it wouldn’t have been enough to topple Mulcair anyway – but we’ll never know.

This was a leadership convention. It was quite clear going into Saturday’s vote that Mulcair had a significant lead. I suspect it would be much harder for party members to accept the results if that had not been the case. In any case, it’s not like this is a general election, right? The right to vote in it was granted by the party, not by Elections Canada, not by democratic tradition. Most parties even now do not have a one-member-one-vote system.

But the fact that the election could be hijacked in this way, causing delay, frustration, and a remote possibility that the outcome was changed, is a powerful argument against online voting in general elections. There is no way to maintain the privacy of the public and make an online election safe from these types (or other types) of attacks at the same time.

If we are to safeguard our electoral system, we must insist that we keep our paper ballots. It’s not perfect – witness the Robocall scandal as evidence – but it’s better than this.

We’ve come a long way, baby?

Over the last few days, some thoughts that surfaced at the convention have percolated.  The beans poured into the coffee grinder when Nathan Cullen brought his wife and two adorable toddler twin boys up to the stage at the end of his speech.  I forgave him quickly for the photo-op; how can one avoid the temptation to show off twin babies, especially when they’re being so well-behaved and cute?

The beans got ground down a bit when Brian Topp brought his family up too.  By the time Mulcair brought his up, I was pouring water into the coffee maker’s reservoir and turning it on.  When Singh rhapsodized in his cartoon intro about his wife, who had given up a career using her PhD in Punjabi literature to come to Canada with him, I nearly threw my mental coffee pot across the room.  His turbaned son playing a Nova Scotian jig on a fiddle was adorable (and musically very talented) and that boy was one of the few people of colour on the stage during the leader’s speeches, but in this respect he was still part of the same trend to photo-op a heteronormative family.

I find the absence of the women from the family photo-op trend to be as fascinating as it is revealing.  Ashton, I believe, could have gone Cullen’s route.  I think that baby I saw her with a few times is hers.  I have no idea whether Peggy Nash has children or is married, because she didn’t advertise either their presence or absence in her political life.  Is this because a man with a family behind him is supported and complete, while a woman with a family behind her is compromised in her time and possibly her values?  Certainly Nash was not above using introducers to address perceived weak spots in her candidacy; one need only look at the three university students who got elected last May in the Orange Crush and introduced Nash on Friday to see that.  (The absence of Ruth Ellen Brosseau from any of the introductions, or indeed any significant role in the convention as far as I could tell, was also telling.  Apparently the beating she took in the media last May actually worked – the party is keeping her profile low.)

There was one other troubling aspect of the family photo-op: it served to highlight the fact that, even in the NDP, the party of social justice and equality, there are no candidates for the leadership who belonged to the LGBTQ community, or at least, none who were willing to photo-op that for Canadians.  I was hearing rumblings of discontent from the people around me.  I was not the only one who did not see their family represented on that stage.  The single woman who moved to Winnipeg because her closest relative, her niece, lives there, pointed out that the emphasis on families was marginalizing to the single and the childless.  It was pointed out over and over again that New Democrats had the most female caucus in history – 40 female MPs out of 103.  It’s dramatically more than the Conservatives, but still well below true equality – and nobody is advertising the number of LGBTQ people in the caucus.

People of colour were conspicuous in their absence.  Martin Singh, who is a Nova Scotian for many generations on both sides of his family, is as WASP as I am, but having converted to Sikhism and married an Indian woman, he represented the immigrant community on that stage.  Niki Ashton highlighted the fact that she was the child of Greek immigrants and speaks fluent Greek, but the days are long gone when Greek Canadians are seen as interlopers.  Nobody looking at her would have pegged her as not Canadian enough.  Again, Nash’s cadre of barely-twenty-year-old MPs included the most visible people of colour with actual election wins under their belts.

I believe the emphasis on families was Jack’s doing, because he was very much a family man himself.  (For the record, I respect the deep love each of the candidates has for their families and I’m in no way knocking that.  It is what it is.)  I also suspect that it was done deliberately to prevent the Right in Canada, as represented by the Conservatives, from usurping the Family Values talking points.  Their Republican counterparts down south have definitely pulled off that coup and it’s been one of the bigger disasters for the Democratic party.  Nevertheless, Jack was fighting for my rights as an LGBTQ person for thirty years before I knew I needed them.  Where was that push at the convention?

If the leadership convention proved anything about the equality agenda, it proved that we aren’t there yet; not in the NDP, and not in Canada.

Some thoughts on the education aspects of Ontario’s budget

These are initial impressions only.  I haven’t gone in-depth.

First, on the issue of workers paying more into their pensions: teachers already pay 11.2% of their salaries (at the elementary level at least) into their pensions.  I’ve never seen a private-sector RRSP that suggested anything higher than 10%, and I’ve seen several that suggested only 5%.  I resent the potshots about employees paying more than that.  Our pensions are an earned benefit, bargained for over decades in exchange for lower salary increases.  To imply that teachers are greedily feeding at the public trough is unfair and prejudicial.

Second, on an issue that did not show up directly in the budget at all: can we finally start having a productive discussion in this province on the role, cost, and benefit of EQAO testing?  That testing costs a fortune, first for the people who spend the whole year writing and publishing it, then for the material cost of its administration, and finally for the teachers paid to mark it during the summer.  What do we get for that cost?  A lot of stressed-out kids and teachers, and information that mirrors what teachers already knew about their students from less-intrusive methods that actually helped them teach.  There are other ways to get accountability that really is accountable.  EQAO isn’t, because the students aren’t compared to their own earlier scores, so they’re not measuring students’ progress.  Instead, groups of students are measured against other groups of students, with no reference to their strengths, weaknesses, learning differences, or state of mind at the time of the test.  But this potential area of savings – something that would go a long way towards placating teachers – was ignored in this budget.

Third, on the issue of threats of layoffs: I have to hand it to Mr. McGuinty.  After getting everyone upset at the Drummond Report, which advocated things like cutting non-teaching staff by 70%, to then turn around and give that as the THREAT of what happens if the collective bargaining goes south, is a lovely bit of governmental bullying.  (On the issue of those layoffs: Mr. Drummond clearly hadn’t set foot in an actual school since he graduated from one himself.  Teacher-librarians were listed in the report as non-teaching staff, which doesn’t reflect the way schools are organized at all, since teacher-librarians are usually prep-coverage teachers teaching full schedules.  School psychologists – that is, the people who diagnose learning disabilities so that struggling students have a shot at school success – were also on that list.  We’re already down to the bare minimum number of educational assistants needed to keep our special needs kids safe, and well below what they need to actually learn.  It was a threat that would have taken Ontario schools back to the 70’s, but with added legislation in place to reflect the realities of an integrated, multilingual, differentiated school system.  Which is to say, it would have made us look like most American public schools.  A worse fate I cannot envision.)

I think the budget could have gone further in encouraging school boards to cut specific programs that amount to non-teaching staff, and absorbing the teachers currently engaged in those back into the regular teaching force.  That would see a reduction in openings for new teachers but no actual layoffs.  In my own board, this would include the Literacy Improvement Project Teachers, a cadre of specialist teachers who serve up to four schools each – most serve one or two schools – and have as their job description supporting teachers in their teaching of literacy, taking small groups of struggling students for intensive and targeted reading instruction, and working with the grade three and six teachers on issues relating to EQAO.  I am astonished that funding for these teachers is not being phased out at the provincial level.  Really, the job the LIPTs were formed to do has been done.  At least two-thirds of their daily schedule is gravy within the school, which means they could be absorbed into a beefed-up special education budget at significant savings.  This shift could be accomplished through attrition over two or three years with little effect to classroom results.

Instead, the budget picks a fight with unions while paying lip service to collective bargaining; it attacks teachers’ earned benefits, especially pensions but also sick benefits through contract offers; and it completely fails to address the ineffective, expensive, and invalid testing going on in Ontario’s schools.

The irony seems to be that it will be Horwath’s NDP which allows the budget to pass, rather than the right-wing Conservatives from whose playbook many of the measures come.

An Open Letter to Mr. Mulcair

A year ago, I was exactly the kind of voter that you will need to court to win the next election.  I was left-leaning but undecided.  I voted for a different party for each election, based on a complex interplay of reasons; strategic voting, policies, personalities of leaders, and personalities of candidates all played a role.  I was willing to consider any party that might be able to beat the Conservatives, whose agenda I find to be divisive and mean-spirited.

I came to the NDP after the last election for two reasons.  The first, like so many people, was Jack Layton.  In addition to charisma, there was the intense commitment to social justice, and to moving Canada forward while leaving nobody behind.  That, I felt, was the essence of the New Democratic agenda: that gains for our nation were not gains unless everyone benefitted from them.  It stood, and stands, in stark contrast to the radical individualist perspective offered by the Right.

The second reason was the realization that my methods were not accomplishing anything.  I wasn’t working to build anything myself.  I wasn’t throwing in my lot with any one group and working to build it into what I wanted it to be.  I was letting others do the work, and then grazing at their buffet.  I was following in the great Canadian political tradition of the undecided voter. With only a small percentage of Canadians belonging to a political party, and an even smaller percentage participating actively in one, I was in good company.

I decided that this approach didn’t meet either my expectations for myself, or my needs.  I decided not to be the person who let other people decide how she would be governed; I needed, to quote one of the world’s great activists, to be the change I wished to see in the world.  So I joined the NDP.  I got involved in the riding association. I attended the Leadership Convention. I stood in your bleachers on March 24th and cheered and chanted in two languages.  I sang a Habs olé, denying my family’s traditional Maple Leafs roots.  I answered the appeal and went to your call centre to pull out the vote.  I celebrated when you were elected.

And then I watched as the media pundits and bloggers across the country pontificated on the NDP’s shift to the centre and what it meant.  I’m sure, Mr. Mulcair, that you’ve read some of the same articles.  They’re saying you’re moving the party to the centre.  Some are saying Jack did the same thing.  Some are lamenting the demise of a strong left.  I read it all, and I decided that they’d missed something.

In fact, they’d missed something game-changing.

I voted for you because I believe you to represent the left both as it is and as it needs to be to grow.  I felt that you understood what the strong union candidates, excellent and caring people all, did not: that the rhetoric of our unionized past was alienating people who ought to be able to find a home in the NDP.  But a shift in rhetoric does not equal a shift in values.  We can appeal to the social justice voters who do not see themselves in the rhetoric of the unions, but nevertheless have a lot to gain from their tradition: the professional civil service voters, the non-unionized support service voters, the small business owners and family farmers and fishers, and all those Canadians from all walks of life who have lost trust that their government has their back.

I need something from you, Mr. Mulcair.  It’s something I believe you were going to give me anyway, and that’s why you got my vote.

I need you to be the point person for a strong and united left.

I need you to stand up for social justice, not just for the most downtrodden but for the people in the middle who are so often alienated and bitter about politicians, neither far enough down to need a boost nor far enough up to benefit from the cronyism and pandering to big business that have marked our government for my entire adult life.

I need you to be the face of the Left which once ensured that these people would not lose their homes trying to pay for a doctor, and I need you to be the arm of the Left which will ensure that these people will not lose their homes paying for chemotherapy.

I need you to fight for the rights of the employees in offices who are earning the same dollar amount that their parents earned twenty-five years ago, as surely as you filibuster back-to-work legislation for Canada Post.

I believe you will do this.  I have a great love for this country, and great hope for its future.  I am optimistic that together, tous ensemble, we can get the job done.  I voted for you because I believe that you want what I want for this home we both love.

I’m what you need those undecided voters to become.  I’m a supporter who will put my money, my time, and my heart into your cause if I believe in it strongly enough.  I’ve been told you’re a man of your word.  We’re listening.  Will you give us your word?