Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Holy manners, Batman!

Fairlawn Heights is a sedate part of Toronto, but it got pretty lively last Saturday night. They had to get out all of the stacking chairs for the folks gathered in the basement at Fairlawn United Church to hear their candidates.

The moderator asked for respect for everyone, and asked them all to display their "holy manners", a concept apparently familiar to most of the assembled congregation. Sure enough, all of the candidates got the same warm applause when introduced.

All that changed as the night wore on. By the time I got to the mike, a dozen questions had already been asked, and the audience was getting impatient with long-winded questions and low-content answers.

The Liberal incumbent is Joe Volpe, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and lead minister for Toronto. Here is the question I put to him and four other candidates:

"I am not a member of any political party. I am putting my time and energy in this campaign into promoting Fair Vote Canada, a multipartisan citizens' movement to change our voting system so we can get actually get the government we vote for, for a change."

(By this time, the audience was already yelling, "Question! question!")

"I see that the Conservatives are running at 38% in the latest polls. Some polls say 40%. Now, in 1997, Jean Chr├ętien got a majority government with 38% of the votes. In 1990, Bob Rae got a majority government in Ontario with 38% of the votes."

(By now they were howling, and I had to shout the rest.)

"My question for the candidates is this: Do you think that's fair? Is it fair that a party with 38% of the votes can get 100% of the power for four or five years, claim a mandate from the people, and set about making fundamental changes to our public policy? And if you don't think that's fair, what are you going to do to make sure that Canadians get the chance to choose a modern, fair, proportional voting system?"

Minister Volpe's answer was, "Yes." In fact, that was his entire answer. Didn't want to talk about it. Go figure.

The NDP and Green Party were, as usual, onside.

The well-spoken Conservative candidate, Peter Coy, was unexpectedly sympathetic. He mentioned the 1993 debacle where the Progressive Conservatives got two million votes and won only two seats, waking up many conservatives to the fact that there might be problems with our voting system. Mr. Coy said that he had reservations about PR, but was willing to discuss the matter.

After the meeting, I spoke to Mr. Coy and explained that we are not selling any particular voting system. We are asking for a process of public education and consultation leading to a referendum so that the people can choose a fair voting system for Canada.

I also spoke to the NDP and Green Party candidates and thanked them for their support.

Two things struck me about this evening.

First, the fact that these candidates had already been asked about voting reform at a previous meeting by other Fair Vote Canada volunteers meant that they had been forewarned that this would be an issue, and that they had better bone up on it. In the case of some candidates, this meant that they had changed or developed their position, and we have seen the same thing in other ridings.

The more people know about voting reform, the more they are likely to come around to our point of view. This is how we build momentum for change.

Second, I was struck by the fact that all the meetings I have been to have been crowded and boisterous. Canadians are getting engaged in this election! Maybe we will get a better turnout this time.

At 9:30, the moderator cut off the questions, but the next guy in line pleaded that he had come all the way from Calgary to put a question to the Minister of Citizenship. After consulting the audience, the moderator took pity on him and allowed him to ask his question. Bizarrely, the guy then grabbed the mike, walked up to the front of the room and started playing Phil Donahue.

"Mr. Volpe," he started, "do you consider yourself a good relationship builder?"

"Yes." said Volpe, apparently his stock answer.

"OK, that's your question." said the audience, miffed at being had, and got up and went home, without bothering to wait for closing statements.

Rob Newman is a regional coordinator on the Fair Vote Ontario Council. He turned to me and said, "The best political theatre is always in church basements."

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