Occupy Oceania

The ‘Occupy’ protests of late 2011 gave the world many gifts, from delightful up-twinkles and rockin’ drum circles to the creepy cult-like chanting of human microphones. Though the tents have long since been discarded and the cardboard and sharpie placards recycled, the memories linger. Out of months of news stories and heated debate, perhaps the most persistent trope to emerge and haunt us to this day is that of the divide between the 1% and the 99%.

The concept of the 1% grew out of a Vanity Fair article published in the spring of 2011. ‘1% of the people’, wrote Joseph E Stiglitz, ‘take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.’ From this rather banal drawing of an arbitrary line through an ascending list grew a drumbeat amongst protestors that ‘the 1%’ were a unified entity to be feared and resented. Far from being an arbitrarily chosen group of people sharing only a single attribute, the 1% were a malicious lot, responsible for all manner of evils that plague the world still. Once a certain threshold of wealth was achieved, it seemed, a person would ascend out of the quagmire of noble poverty in which ‘the 99%’ were forced to wallow, and join the hallowed and secretive ranks of the wealthy. (Every time 100 babies are born, is a new member allowed in? If some lucky person wins the lottery, do those on the list below get shuffled down? Is the member on the lowest rung, who suddenly finds himself only in the top 1.000001% kicked back out into the barren wasteland of ‘the 99%’?)

I didn’t use this image without permission. I ‘occupied’ it. That said, can we agree that cannibalism is wrong?

The 1% were a vague, nebulous enemy, and therefore perfect scapegoats. All manner of evil characteristics were attributed to them. As wealth implies greed, greed implies callousness and a lack of caring for one’s fellow man. Success, it is reasoned, can only come at the expense of all those who rank below them on the ordered list that exists only in the imagination of the mob. The wealthy must be evil, having committed the sin of possessing wealth.

It is obviously ludicrous to cast ‘the 1%’ as a unified, organized group. In any data set there will always be 1% of the total that lies above the rest on some scale. 1% of the population makes some proportion of income compared to the remainder 99%. So does 2%. Or 7%. 17% Or 0.0065%. Why choose 1% as the crucial divide? Why even limit the pool to North Americans (Although including the rest of the world would place a sizeable chunk of the entire continent of North American solidly in the 1%)? There’s nothing magic or significant about the notion that income exists on a scale, and the only reason that 1% was chosen for the Occupy Wall St rallying cry was that it’s an enticingly simple statistic, something crucial when firing up a mob.

The chant of ‘We are the 99%’ is seductive not just for its catchy rhythm and militant tempo, but because it assures the chant-er that they are on the side of good, and part of a larger group. A group made up of 99% of the population is so inclusive as to be virtually meaningless, but this too is part of the siren call. Because the definition of ‘1%’ and ’99%’ are so precise in number but vague in meaning, anyone can convince themselves that someone, somewhere, must be in the group above them, which safely pushes them into the virtuous 99% below. Therefore everyone can claim membership in the side of good. There’s no nagging doubt that they might be on the wrong side, because there will always be someone better off somewhere, to play the role of villain.

Think there are 100 people in this picture? Could get awkward for one of them…

The irony is that ‘the 99%’ portray themselves as the underdogs, a disadvantaged minority, while having enough clout in a democracy to push through any manner of public policy they want, regardless of its morality or virtue. This is a windfall for politicians, as ‘income inequality’ is a completely invented problem that will never be ‘solved’, but is easy to sell to voters. People will always make different amounts of money, and resent those who make more. Income inequality is a persistent malady that can only be addressed through government intervention, usually in the form of a new tax. It would seem that politicians have yet to discover a problem for which the solution isn’t a new tax or regulation.

Five years later, this catchphrase is still regularly trotted out, and because it’s become so common, we’ve forgotten to question it. Be wary of any political platform which references ‘the 1%’. Dividing the world into ‘Us vs Them’ is old political hat, propaganda that has been used for centuries. The 99% vs 1% angle is a hip new spin for the 21st century, but as despicable as the practice has always been.

Canada’s Electoral Reform Charade

In 2015 Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on a platform promising to change Canada’s electoral system from a plurality or ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system to … something else. They weren’t terribly specific with what the alternative would be, but they were darned sure it wouldn’t be plurality. Elected with 39.5% of the popular vote, they’re now obligated to provide Canadians with specific details of their plan, and are scrambling to frame their pitch.

To this end, the Government of Canada has begun the charade of staging ‘Electoral Reform Consultations’ in towns and cities across the country. Citizens who attend are, under supervision, divided into small groups, and prompted to discuss amongst themselves topics such as mandatory voting, online voting, lowering the voting age, and finally why first past the post is terrible and all other systems of voting are virtuous and noble and just plain better. Questions are framed to guide discussion to the desired response, time is limited to ensure that no substantive debate actually occurs, and the (Liberal) coordinator presents a small sermon after each discussion to highlight the approved conclusions, and ensure the crowd that ‘consensus’ has been reached. A show is made of collecting notes from each group, and assurances are given that these will be delivered to a committee who will heed their words and present their findings in December. Attendees leave believing a) the government’s preferred choice is the best, b) they came to the same conclusion on their own, and c) they played an integral role in Canadian democracy. It is Orwellian peer-pressure fuelled propaganda at its finest.

Democracy isn’t about being cajoled like school children

One wonders why the Liberals would go to the effort of public consultations in this format when there already exists a precise and well-understood mechanism for polling the will of the population, which has worked for humans for millennia and Canadians specifically since 1867: a vote. A referendum on the issue would obtain the opinion of a far greater number of Canadians than their series of small consultations, and voters would be free to express their opinion from within the sanctity of a polling booth, not surrounded by a group of their peers. The Liberal Party is dead set against the idea though, one suspects because this may not produce the answer they want. Referendums are loud, visible and most of all binding. By hosting ‘Consultations’ they are free to entirely ignore any feedback they don’t like, while maintaining the appearance of listening to their constituents.

As Liberals are so fond of inverting election results, let’s consider the result from 2015: 60.5% of Canadians didn’t vote for the party with electoral reform as their platform, and of those who did, it’s entirely unclear what percentage consider electoral reform necessary, and what their preferred alternative would be in such a case. For the Liberals to claim that they have a clear mandate from Canadians is preposterous and entirely self-serving. There are benefits and detriments to any electoral system, and every eligible Canadian deserves a say in the matter, in a manner which respects the importance of the issue. That is a referendum, not orchestrated and choreographed round tables.

I’m pretty sure that votes are already counted in FPTP. You just don’t like the totals.


Or, if the Liberal party (or even the NDP) is truly so upset at the notion that plurality voting can lead to parties winning without 50% of the vote plus one, perhaps they could make the noble sacrifice of disbanding entirely. Presented with a choice between the two remaining major national parties, Canadians would surely elect one with the majority of votes that they insist is so vital to representative democracy. Although they will make impassioned speeches in town halls about the need for a fair voting system that solves the problem of minority governments and represents the diverse opinions of its people, I doubt they would be happy if their consultations produced this bit of feedback.

Government-Mandated Paperwork Is Never Cool

Stephen-Harper-January-26-2012During the 9 years in which Stephen Harper server as Prime Minister of Canada, the official opposition loudly opposed his every act, as is their wont and their duty. Elected in 2015 in his stead though, they found themselves with a long history of loud complaints, and a dim recollection of why they had complained in the first place.

Wasting no time, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began implementing his principled plan of do-the-opposite-of-whatever-Harper-did-regardless-of-logic-or-reason. Tax free-savings plans were an early target of attack, because despite people’s fondness for keeping their own money, this was a policy that Harper had championed, and any record of his deeds must be stricken from the history books. Where Stephen Harper had a plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, the new Liberal government would bring in 25,000, because despite obvious logistical problems, 25 was a bigger number than 10.

Their next target became Stephen Harper’s bold, authoritarian decision that his government wouldn’t send people to jail for not filling out paperwork. In Trudeau’s Canada, this maniacal stance of not incarcerating people could not continue. In December, Trudeau’s Liberals proudly proclaimed the return of jail time and fines for anyone who dared to not fill out a census. They used the phrase ‘robust communication plan’ instead of ‘propaganda’ though, so some weirdos got excited by the promise.

Smile wider.

To add a level of Orwellian creep to the matter, the publicly-funded CBC corporation published news stories claiming that everyone was super excited to be filling out their mandated paperwork. Census employees phoned and visited citizens to hound the delinquent. School teachers were provided lesson plans to lecture their students about how exciting the census is, and the importance of prompt acquiescence to authority.

It would be easy to argue that the government gets all the accurate head count data it needs annually via Revenue Canada, and that any information regarding language, ethnicity or education could be easily extrapolated from voluntarily collected data using the ancient and arcane practice of statisticsIt would also be easy to make the argument that the government has no practical way of enforcing an obviously empty threat, and that one could easily lie, dodge, or bluff their way out of answering the census questions.

No one who takes selfies could be bad, right?

The purest argument against this silly charade though is that in Canada the government should not be jailing people for the crime of not answering a questionnaire. Incarceration is a serious and severe form of punishment. Accurate census data is undoubtedly valuable, but surely not worth a person’s freedom to secure. Even if this is merely an empty threat designed to improve turnout, the Canadian government should not be in the business of threatening its citizens.

Most of all, Canadians should be wary of a government that dispatches its own media and education system to push a message, and should question the reasoning behind any such campaign. Sometimes it’s just a petty feud to support the ego of a party more defined by their opposition than any sensible policy of their own.