Giving politicians political cover

Giving politicians political cover

It’s easier to complain about politicians being bought off by lobbyists and campaign donors than it is to do anything about it. In fact, doing something about the pernicious influences in politics comes down to just a few cost-free actions.

In representative government, politicians represent the people that contact them with their views. If only lobbyists and campaign donors contact them, don’t be surprised if that is who will be represented. However, politicians do have dedicated resources in place to help them represent their voters.

Take the House of Representatives in the U.S. These people represent very large numbers of voters. They have large numbers of staff, in local offices and in the capitol, and they will take steps to ensure that every time a constituent contacts them, the representative knows about it. Constituent management software (e.g.) is used to track and categorise the contacts that are made with the office. At the end of each day, the representative can get a breakdown of phone calls and emails urging a yes vote on a bill or a no vote on a bill, and whether the calls are from their own constituents or out of state. It isn’t quite direct democracy, but the idea that representative democracy is not responsive democracy is just obviously wrong.

So what sort of numbers are we talking about? Apparently the climate bill, now moving through the U.S. Senate, is generating a lot of constituent contact. Joe Romm at ClimateProgress has heard that call loads of 100-200 a day are coming in that oppose a climate and clean energy bill.  Opponents to the bill in Congress matched the number of calls from supporters of the bill, although most of the opponent’s calls came from out of state.

Phone calls, emails, and letters help politicians gauge public support and provide political cover. Senator Cardin’s chief energy policy advisor had this to say:

“If you want a stronger climate bill, we need to hear from you. Send us your input.”

There’s no shortage of lobbyists waiting to speak to politicians. But politicians also want to hear from their constituents, and they will give a high priority to what their constituents have to say.

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Every five years, the city’s official plan comes up for review. Developers have been pushing for a huge increase in expansion of the urban boundary of some 2,000 hectares. This despite the city’s stated vision of intensification and densification and the existence of a greenbelt around Ottawa. The city has also been dealing with the consequences of amalgamation, which increased the city size and incorporated outlying communities. As a result of that process, council members represent some very different wards with very different interests, and it is unsurprising that council debates are often split on the big issues.

This debate was no different.

While developers had been pushing for 2,000 hectares, city staff had recommended just over 800 hectares, a recommendation that had been approved previously in committee.  However, full council, by a vote of 12 to 11, approved only 222 hectares connecting Kanata and Stittsville for new construction.

Councillor Peter Hume put forward this motion, after an attempt by Councillor Diane Holmes to halt all expansion failed by a vote of 10 to 13.

Here are some of the highlights:

Following the clear cutting of a wooded parcel of land on the urban boundary –  clear cut so that it would be more likely to win approval for development if the boundary were expanded – Councillor Jellet proposed that specific area be eliminated from the proposed urban expansion area. As Councillor Hume put it, to include the site of the ‘Orleans tree massacre’ would “just be rewarding that kind of behaviour”. Gratifying to see council pushing back.

Councillor Harder was put out that council did not want to respect the committee’s recommendation or the work of city staff. Legal counsel told her that ‘Council reigns supreme’ and any motions passed would overrule the committee recommendations.

Councillor Monette took umbrage at a previous suggestion that we could be more like Europe. The very idea. “We are not like Europe. In Canada we have ample land.” Well, that told this European. He argued that families dream of a home with a garden, and we should keep that dream alive. New Canadians [the sprawl-loving trouble makers], are in Orleans because they are able to purchase single  family homes there. If we don’t expand the boundary, we could run out of single homes, and we want our grandchildren to have the chance to buy a single home. Yes, the ‘think of the grandchildren!’ argument.

Councillor Jellet was succinct and emphatic. I paraphrase slightly: “We don’t need any more land. We meet all the regulations, we have plenty of land within (the boundary).” As laconic as Leonidas.

Back to the real engine of urban sprawl, the New Canadians. We were all apparently raised on the American Dream and reruns of Blame it on Beaver. Councillor Wilkinson, speaking on our behalf, told council that ‘New Canadians want to have their own place’. We need starter homes, apparently, and for New Canadians, the ability to own our own place is very important. Her ward has lots of New Canadians moving in, all in pursuit of the white picket fence. Oh yes, and “to say ‘never expand’ is to say that people can’t have their own place.” She paints an unusual vision for the city, one where the core is filled with indigenous Ottawans, practicing their native and entirely unappealing to outsiders culture, while New Canadians all head for the suburbs to, one supposes, take commuter jobs as advertising executives. Did she miss the part of the plan that talks about intensification and densification?

Enter Diane Holmes, with the one, truly passionate speech of the afternoon. She got straight to it, calling the official plan ‘timid’ and saying with just a small adjustment, by changing the proportions of different housing types, we would not have to expand at all. I have to paraphrase again: “We are subsidising people to buy single family homes in outside areas to enable people to live in the 1950s American Dream. But we can’t afford to live that 1950s dream. What is the most efficient use of the land? That is holding the line. That is going from single homes to doubles. We need to be living in smaller places. Using transit. What I am hearing is the same old 1950s thinking.” You know what Councillor? Me too! I felt that we just shared a moment. But she wasn’t done. There was a segue into climate change, and a dig at some council members for their denialism: “Some people think there is no green problem. But that is not facing reality.” So what is the future, what is the vision? “Smaller houses, smaller lots, fewer single family homes.” And she’s right. Densification and intensification necessarily means just that, and she’s also right that it is the most efficient use of the land. Sprawl doesn’t benefit the city. Studies have shown that urban expansion has cost 1,000 dollars per unit in the city core, amounting to a subsidy paid by the inner city denizens so the suburbs can live the American Dream.

Councillor Hunter doesn’t believe those studies. Council’s role, he told us, is “meeting the demand of what our citizens want and not social engineering into what we want it to be.”  No word on when the city’s planners will be having their job titles changed to ‘social engineers’, and no word on whether Councillor Hunter has ever played Sim City. I have and if I learned anything it is that social engineering is, like, hard, so I’m totally with him on that. But oh yes, back to the study, the one about the core subsidising the suburbs. I wonder if he read it?  Apparently,he told us, if Ottawa doesn’t grow, other communities will, and they will use our park and rides, our amenities and our hospitals, and we won’t get the tax revenue. The thing is, councillor, if Ottawa isn’t getting net tax revenue anyway from our suburban sprawl, surely not expanding is a net plus on the balance sheets?

Councillor El Chantiry invoked the Canadian Dream, which was uncannily similar to the aforementioned American variety, expressed some vague disatisfaction with the greenbelt and deployed a new acronym: BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone! Cute, but it doesn’t quite square with the intensification and densification plan, which would mean, by definition, ABSNS, Always Building Something Near Someone. He also pointed out that if council doesn’t support the committee recommendation and the recommendations of city staff, it was a waste of taxpayer money to have made the recommendations at all.

Councillor Feltmate, like Diane Holmes, also has the vision thing. Not the 1950’s dream, but the sustainable living vision, one based around the city’s light rail and transit plan. Densification and intensification used to make a lot of coherent sense when the transit plan was in place,  but it got ditched by the new mayor in between the old official plan and the new official plan. So keep the urban boundary as tight as possible, people, and remember, 1,000 dollars in the hole if you live downtown and we expand the boundary.

Finally, GM got a shout out from Councillor Deans. “I’m not sure that it is 1950s planning… but I will say that 20 years ago, I would not have imagined we would see big car companies collapsing, and they are collapsing because they didn’t get the importance of change. And city council has to get the importance of change.”

I’ll end on that note. And one final comment: council has been listening to its constituents, and the community has been making its opinions known. This from the Ottawa Citizen:

Councillors against expansion were bolstered by a growing community push to limit suburban sprawl, which studies show drain the municipal finances and can harm the environment.

So there you have it. Writing to your councillor really does make a difference. So keep it up, and hopefully Ottawa will become more like Futurama, the world of tomorrow, and less like a subsidized, sprawling and inefficient version of ‘I Love Lucy’.

Helping politicians get science

Helping politicians get science

The disconnection between what scientists know and what politicians do can be very frustrating. How do we bridge that gap?

In the US, Congress had the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, but chose to disband it in 2005. Its role was to provide “unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects” of technological applications. An authoritative body like OTA is one approach to bridging the science gap, and one that I hope the Congress will restart soon.

In Canada, the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) has been making a very useful contribution to bridging the gap. They provide regular lectures for parliamentarians on subjects of scientific interest, in an informal, unofficial but well attended series called “Bacon and Eggheads”.

This flagship series brings together Parliamentarians with experts across science and engineering, showcasing outstanding Canadian research accomplishments. Its purpose is to provide unbiased insight into topical scientific issues, within a non-partisan forum in which lobbying is not permitted. This prestigious forum represents a unique opportunity for scientists to communicate important findings to a distinguished and influential audience, which includes key decision-makers.

The series is organized by PAGSE, an umbrella group of 25 + science and engineering organizations operating under the auspices of the Royal Society, and is cosponsored by NSERC. Breakfasts are held once-monthly in Room 200 of the West Block while Parliament is in session.

Recent lecture topics include: Hot prospects in the cold: the new Geological Map of the Arctic; Life, Climate and Vanishing Ice at the Top of Canada; and Are Batteries and Fuel Cells ready for All-Electric Vehicles?

Read more: Ottawa Citizen

Write your MP about the BCA libel chill

Write your MP about the BCA libel chill

Are you concerned about the recent libel case in Britain, brought by the British Chiropractic Association against the author Simon Singh?

If you want to do something about it, I strongly recommend writing to your MP.  This is why you should.

Letters (actual, snail mail letters) get noticed. They also get answered, or they should be. Whereas an email may be deleted or overlooked, a letter is not so easily ignored. It has a physical presence in the bureaucracy.

Politicians consider a single letter to be representative of a larger body of opinion. And they are right. When an issue becomes of such concern that it prompts an individual to put pen to paper, it is worth their while to pay attention to the subject.

Letters get noticed in the system. Sustained letter writing campaigns can have a definite impact, in that enough letters can choke the civil service that has to deal with them. But even a smaller number of letters on an issue can demonstrate to an MP or minister that there is a real base of concern.

Communications in order of effectiveness from least to most effective, and with thanks to Elizabeth May for the advice:

  • Form emails (least effective)
  • Individually written emails
  • Form snail mail letters
  • Individually written snail mail letters, typed
  • Individually written snail mail letters, written by hand (most effective)

The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee has been considering press standards, privacy and libel. A letter to your own MP and to the committee members would be a great idea. Let them know your concerns. It doesn’t take much to demonstrate that the citizens are growing restless. It just takes a letter or two.

You can find a list of the committe members here.