April 12, 2011

Why your vote counts

Two weeks ago, after the Conservatives’ budget triggered a non-confidence vote, a federal election was called for May 2, 2011. This is the third election since 2006, the beginning of Stephen Harper’s reign as Prime Minister with a minority government. Like many Canadians, I certainly don’t enjoy the added cost of these elections, but I’ll pay any price I can to have the chance to vote Harper out of power and prevent him from winning a Conservative majority.

I realize this is an unusual stance to take in Canada: voter apathy is said to run rampant here (voter turnout is usually between 70 and 80 percent of registered voters, which represents 40 to 50 percent of the country’s population). Moreover, it’s an unusual stance for someone who supports the NDP. Given the fact that cities never fare well in federal elections due to the distribution of seats across Canada, and the parliamentary first-past-the-post system, I will probably never see an NDP Prime Minister. Like many Canadians supporting the left, I’ve become resigned to the fact that I probably won’t even see an NDP MP elected in my riding. When I lived in Ottawa, it was in Ottawa-Vanier, which has been Liberal since its establishment as a federal riding in 1935. In Vancouver, the two ridings I’ve lived in have also swung Liberal; this year, I’m in Hedy Fry‘s riding (she’s been in power since 1993). So am I just “wasting” my vote?

I was raised by immigrants from a strongly democratic country: Indian citizens (both men and women) have had the vote since 1935. Influenced by British rule, India shares the Canadian experiences of the first-past-the-post system and minority governments. Yet despite acknowledged corruption, years of coalition governments, and parties that have changed their political leanings over the years, voter turnout in India has remained between 55 and 60 percent for half a century, without the declines that most Western countries have experienced. Probably because I have parents from the world’s most populous democracy, I voted in my first federal election when I was 19. I have felt the powerful force of democracy most strongly when voting in federal and provincial elections.

Government, particularly at the federal and provincial levels, plays a major role in making our lives better or worse. I’m going out on a limb here: urban planners have long espoused the values of the local community. Many planners believe that it is only through local initiatives, community-led efforts, and intuitive knowledge of neighbourhoods can our cities become healthier, more environmentally conscious, and more economically robust. But here’s the thing: federal and provincial jurisdictions cover a lot of what happens in cities. We have a direct say in who is elected to federal government, something (lest we forget) citizens of other countries would love to have. And because of our parliamentary system, a vote for our local Member of Parliament contributes to federal leadership.

How does your MP affect what happens in your community? And how does voting in federal elections impact local issues? Let’s look at three issues: affordable housing, public transit, and immigration. All three are issues that cities large and small have struggled with for many years–and there’s only so much they can do on their own.

Affordable housing

Most municipal governments have acknowleged that their cities have high rents and low vacancy rates. They have limited or banned the conversion of rental housing to condominiums. They have started affordable housing funds. They have begun building smaller household types: condos, townhouses, granny flats. They have legalized secondary suites to help create lower-rent apartments. In short, cities have done just about everything they can to encourage the construction of affordable housing and protect what they do have. If you think this is just a big city problem, think again: even the City of Kelowna (with a population just over 100,000) has an affordable housing fund. The problem is so serious that in 2009, the United Nations declared that Canada had a housing crisis. But the federal government developed the National Housing Act, and it was changes to the federal Income Tax Act in 1972 that eliminated tax incentives for developing rental housing. In 1993, the feds (Liberals) delegated their authority over housing to the provinces and municipalities, but did not dedicate any funding. So cities remain in limbo while Bill C-304, An Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians, makes achingly slow progress through the House and the Senate (it’s been on the books in one form or another since 2004, and been re-introduced after each election and proroguing of Parliament). Bill C-304 could be a major breakthrough, if it ever becomes law: it will enable provinces and municipalities to work with the federal government to develop affordable housing programs that meet local needs. (And the best part, local readers: the bill was introduced by long-time Vancouver East MP Libby Davies (NDP).

Public transit

Municipalities and regions have the responsibility to provide public transportation, which is funded in part by the provincial and federal governments. Cities large and small operate public transit services across Canada, and many of them have experienced increases in ridership throughout the past 15 years. But there is no national transit act. This means that public transit organizations do not have a steady source of support for capital projects or operations. Their operating costs are partly covered by fees, local taxes, and other mechanisms, depending on the municipality. Capital costs require outside help: each time a city wants to build a new LRT line, expand its fleet of buses, or build some new stations along an existing line, it must apply to the provincial and federal governments for funding. Success depends on the identity and priorities of the provincial and federal Ministers of Transportation. In Vancouver, while TransLink strongly supported construction of the Evergreen Line (Coquitlam) and the UBC Line (Vancouver), then-Minister Kevin Falcon preferred the Canada Line (Vancouver-Richmond). Toronto Mayor Rob Ford just convinced Premier Dalton McGuinty to approve one future subway line instead of four LRT lines, after the City had spent years begging for money to fund transit improvements across the inner suburbs. The Regional Municipality of Waterloo just got provincial funding for an LRT line linking Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Public transit in Canadian municipalities was identified as a major issue early on in the federal election, and yet not a single federal leader has discussed it at this point. (Note: the Pembina Institute has info on how the parties stand on a variety of environmental issues, including transit). Meanwhile at the provincial level, the BC NDP leadership race has featured several arguments for better public transit (notably from candidates Adrian Dix and Mike Farnworth).


Canadian cities grow substantially from immigration, and most municipalities welcome new immigrants, who contribute to their economic and social development. Immigrants rent housing in local neighbourhoods, find jobs locally, and enroll their children in local schools. In a country with low birth rates, immigration accounts for the majority of population growth. And while today’s immigrants are increasingly drawn to Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, smaller cities like Kelowna and Cambridge accommodate substantial numbers of immigrants each year. But immigration is a federal mandate: the feds decide what types of immigrants enter the country (Skilled Workers, Temporary Workers, Assisted Relatives) and how many. Since the Conservatives have  been in power, Temporary Worker permits (for jobs as varied as Starbucks barista and oil sands worker) have risen steadily to the point where there are about a quarter million permits issued each year; on the other hand, the other categories have remained stagnant. Provinces also have a strong say, particularly through the Provincial Nominees program. Several notable partnerships between all three levels of government, such as the Canada-Ontario-Toronto Memorandum of Understanding, have helped fund and operate immigrant settlement programs, which cover a range of settlement issues like finding jobs, getting foreign credentials recognized through bridging programs, and learning English. These programs are operated by local non-profits and community organizations, but could not exist without federal and provincial support. Certain cities, like Fort McMurray, Alberta, have been seriously affected by changes in immigration policy (in their case, a high number of Temporary Workers settling in a city with high rents and a low rental vacancy rate).

Vote locally-federally

So even if you’re an “act local” type who thinks that community and municipal agendas are all that matter, it pays to vote provincially and federally. Cities can’t do everything, and the beauty of our system (one of the few advantages, really) is that you can vote locally for a federal result. Your MP has a local office where you can find out what they’ve done in your community (click here to find out what riding you’re in). Have they voted for or against initiatives that may have benefitted your neighbourhood, like settlement programs for new immigrants? What is your MP’s stance on key issues that you value, like public transit? (Click here to see how the federal parties measure up on major issues) Do you feel they represent the needs of your community (if you live in Fort McMurray, does your MP support more rights for Temporary Workers?) Does your MP go to community events and interact with local people? Who is running against your MP in the federal election? Do the other candidates make good points? With today’s technology, you can follow the candidates on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The Globe and Mail, National Post, CTV, CBC, and your local newspapers all have lots of articles and information on your riding and your candidates (click here for the Georgia Straight‘s view on Vancouver candidates). Elections Canada has voting information in 27 languages and a web feature on youth voting. Don’t complain about lack of time: there’s no need to spend any more time or effort on this than you would spend checking out the latest videos on YouTube…unless you find the issues interesting.

Take a page from Rick Mercer’s book and spend 20 minutes “doing something young people all over the world are dying to do: vote”. All you need is two pieces of identification with your name and address on them: trust me, I’ve moved across the country and had to do this many, many times. Even a piece of mail (like a hydro bill) will do for the second piece of ID. Students, you can vote in the riding where you live by taking in ID to the polling station–it’s that easy. All your friends are doing it! (click here to see vote mobs from campuses across the country).

Don’t feel like your vote is “wasted”, because you never know what can happen. Hey, the first time I voted in a federal election, the Tories suffered a crushing defeat and we ended 9 long years of Mulroney–I mean Conservative rule. The first time I voted provincially, the unthinkable happened: the NDP was elected in Ontario. Even if you live in a federal riding where your party has no hope of winning (like me), your vote matters. In the 2004 federal election, in the Liberal bastion of Ottawa-Vanier, 5 percent of voters supported the Green Party. Although the Greens had no possible chance of winning, their low level of support across the country (4.3 percent) raised the party to federal status, giving it federal funding for future elections. There are always close calls in ridings: when the election was called this year, the Globe and Mail featured a list of 50 ridings to watch across Canada where it’s a tight race (Vancouver Quadra voters, cast your ballots; Liberal Joyce Murray only won by 150 votes back in 2006). Left-thinking young residents are changing traditionally conservative values in suburbs across the country. So regardless of where you live or your political stripe, your vote does matter. (That said, if all you want is to prevent a Harper majority, Project Democracy tells you which party is best positioned to defeat the Conservative in your riding.) If you care about what happens in your city, you need to vote in this year’s federal election.

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