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Electoral reform: Asking the right questions

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.


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LRT referendum: My two cents

I totally agree with the featured letter to the editor in the KW Record today:

Mayor should show some leadership


(And for what it’s worth, I’m in favor of moving ahead with LRT. We just can’t afford to keep building and maintaining more roads, and I think a train system will be a more effective alternative than buses.)

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Bringing Ontario’s “secret” referendum to light

The Globe and Mail‘s web column had an interesting article on Ontario’s referendum, bringing up a point I had really thought of before: This is not a choice between two equally valid options, our current electoral system vs. the proposed MMP. In fact, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform has already weighed multiple voting systems, including our current one, and found them all wanting. They recommend MMP as the best option for Ontario. We are voting to ratify that decision.

So Ontarians should be incensed at how the government has distorted this fact, by having all official material pretend this is a neutral campaign between equal options. Your Big Decision. A (current) or B (MMP). Why aren’t they also telling us why the Citizen’s Assembly has already concluded that B is better?

And that’s online. On TV, they won’t even tell us what the A or B choices are! You have call a number or go online to get details. For heaven’s sake; why can’t the commercial at least give a clue what the referendum is about? Takes less than 30 seconds to say “electoral reform”.

Furthermore, in order to be ratified, the decision to switch to MMP must be agreed to by 60% of the electorate and 60% the ridings. 37% is enough to get you a nice majority government for a good four years. But to get actual democracy? Oh no, even 50% won’t do for that.

Of course, the government’s attempts at covering the issue and handicapping the vote wouldn’t matter as much if the media were doing a good job of informing the public about this, but outside of newspapers (read by your more devoted political junkies, typically), they are not. There was barely a peep out of them before the election started, and now they’re all about the religious schools debate and “promise breaking”. If they mention the referendum at all, it’s to say that “people don’t seem to know about it”. Well, duh.

I guess it’s clear I am voting for MMP. And since the media and government don’t want you to know why, I will explain.

a) Under the current system, a minority of voters gets the majority of power.

It takes only about 40% of votes to get a strong majority government, and that basically allows the government to do what they want for 4 years. 60% of voters are currently disenfranchised, not once in a while, but every single time. It’s unfair and absurd.

Not convinced? In recent Quebec and BC elections, parties have won majority governments despite getting a lower percentage of votes than another party. (In Quebec, the PQ over the Liberals; in BC the NDP over the Liberals.) That’s how distorted our current system is; even the party that wins more votes than any other doesn’t necessarily get to govern.

b) Our current system does not produce stability.

That’s what all the naysayers go on about. Oh, it will be unstable! Give me a break. Ontario is a case study in how this isn’t true. Ontario went from a radical left NDP government (elected by 37%) to a radical right Conservative government (elected by 42%), both of which caused the majority who didn’t want them to suffer under their more extreme policies. This, ironically, after the popular and balanced coalition NDP/Liberal government—exactly the kind of government we’d get under MMP.

c) Do not fear the political “appointee”.

The other thing the naysayers seem obsessed with is the appointed list of politicians who would balance out the legislature according to the electorate’s party votes. Again, I find this argument bogus. Political parties already pick their candidates (the ones whose names appear on your ballot), some by party vote, many by appointment. So I really see no difference at all between political parties picking who is on my local ballot and political parties picking who will represent the popular vote. Either way, ultimately, it’s parties who decide who has the opportunity to sit in the House. If you don’t like it, join a political party.

Furthermore, it’s not as if people currently know who the heck their local candidates are anyway. In small towns, sure. In bigger cities? As if. People already just vote for parties anyway. Under the new system, they’ll just have to do the same thing twice.

d) We will not have a “pizza parliament”. But the Green Party will have some seats. And that’s a good thing.

The Citizens Assembly weren’t idiots; there is a 3% threshold before a party can win a seat. So truly bizarre parties with no appeal will not win any seats, even if a few jokers vote for them. But small parties with serious appeal, like the Greens (or the Family Coalition, I suppose), will.

Make your vote count on October 10, so that your vote will count in the future. Vote for MMP.