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Electoral reform: Asking the right questions

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Canada’s current, low-key debate about whether to change the federal voting system (and if so, how) is way less dramatic than the political power plays in the UK, Australia’s coping with a near-tie in their new Parliament, and the insane US election. But it’s what we got.

The Liberals ran on a promise that 2016 would be last election under “first past the post” (FPTP), but without committing on how it would change. They have struck an all-party committee to try to figure that out. The main debate is between those who want PR (proportional representation) vs. those who want to keep FPTP. (A side debate is whether the question should be put to a referendum.)

Maryam Monsef

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday July 6, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Essentially, PR proponents think it’s important that each Canadian voter have a reasonable chance of electing an MP of the party they vote for. In practice, this would be achieved by having larger multi-member ridings that allow for a more proportional distribution of total votes, vs. the current system of one member per smaller riding. (Andrew Coyne, PR advocate, explains.)

FPTP proponents don’t agree that this matters. They seem to think that wanting to be able to elect an MP from the party of your choice is just a sign of not really understanding the Canadian system of responsible government. For example: Roundup: Values vs. mechanics.

Now, said lack of understanding is likely true—we don’t have great civics education in this country, and even politicians seem a bit fuzzy on how it’s all supposed to work. But, just dismissing PR proponents as ignorant is neither helpful, nor persuasive.

Admittedly, PR proponents have a tendency to be overly optimistic about the system’s potential benefits, claiming it will lead to increased voter turnout, better representation of women and minorities in Parliament, improved social equity, more political harmony—even a cleaner environment. Absolutely none of which is guaranteed. (Not the most egregious example of these, but see Activists gear up for ‘historic opportunity’ to usher in proportional representation.)

But, PR does give you that better shot at electing an MP from your preferred party. An MP who is then more likely to vote for legislation you agree with, and against legislation you don’t.

I wish FPTP proponents would address that fact. Why exactly do they think we better off having one MP from a party we didn’t vote for (which happens to the majority of voters under FPTP), than having four or five MPs, one of whom (odds are greater) we did vote for? What  current benefits will we lose if we move to a multi-member riding system?

While not exactly addressing this question, I did find this article, from a pro-FPTP perspective, rather interesting: Trump and electoral reform: Connecting the dots. Not sure about the main point that Canadian politics is in such a great state right, so why change it. If true, isn’t that more a factor of who won the last election than the system itself? Great Britain has the same system; does anyone think their politics are in a great state right now?

But, Mr. Heath did cause me to think about the fact that even if you do manage to elect an MP you want under PR, and they mostly vote how you prefer they do, that might not make any difference in the grand scheme of things. MPs that are not part of the coalition government still won’t win too many votes. It’s also absurd to think that under PR, there won’t ever be Conservative governments again (even if the current Conservatives, with their constant bleating about referendums, seem to believe that themselves). PR is no road to leftie utopia. All parties would adapt, include theirs.

It is a bit fear-mongering, though, to suggest that “the first thing you are going to get is a redneck anti-immigration party, which will get around 15% of the vote, and which will hold the balance of power in any parliament where the Conservative party has the most seats.” Not that such a party might rise; that’s likely true. But that such a party would definitely and always partner with a more moderate Conservative partner. I have a higher opinion of Red Tories than that; I expect they might prefer to ally themselves with another centrist party than a bunch of racists.

 

2 thoughts on “Electoral reform: Asking the right questions

  1. Can I recommend a two-party system? 😉

  2. “Why exactly do they think we better off having one MP from a party we didn’t vote for (which happens to the majority of voters under FPTP), than having four or five MPs, one of whom (odds are greater) we did vote for?”

    I have to say that increasingly, proponents of PR make it sound like elections should be some form of Special Olympics where participation is all that matters and everyone is a winner, simply because the party they like best never gets to be the government. That’s not the point of an election. The electoral process should be fair to candidates (and it currently isn’t for the way it treats independent candidates — really skewered towards party candidates) and voters, but why should the outcome be “fair”? Someone has to lose.

    I really need to write yet another blog post on this stuff… sigh…

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