Wed, Nov
15
2006

The National To-Do List IV: Electoral Reform.

Wed, Nov 15, 2006

I guess one of the things I should have put on my to-do list was completing my series of National To-Do list articles. It has slipped off my radar somewhat, hasn’t it? Oh, well. But before we get back into the thick of things, here are a few comments and announcements.

I’m pleased to announce that my latest article with Business Edge came out this past Friday. I did a piece on wind energy as part of their special issue on energy, and it was something of an eye opener for me. Did you know that Alberta is the Canadian leader in wind energy production? They can probably credit their deregulated market for giving them over 350 MW of installed capacity.

Ontario is trying to play catch-up, and is in second place with just over 300 MW, but some providers are having a frustrating time going through the regulatory hoops. Despite near unanimous support from Kincardine town council, a project underway to install over 100 MW of capacity near the shores of Lake Huron is being held up by 43 appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board. Alberta has had wind going for twenty years, and it seems like some people in Ontario still have to get used to the idea.

Anyway, you can read more here. Wind energy is certainly something to watch. Installed capacity increased by almost 50% between January and October 2006, and that’s above its 30% annual growth rate it’s enjoyed since 2001.

The other announcement is that I’ve been a bit busy over here thanks to another change of webhost. I’ll give you the details in a couple of days, but this time I’ve done my research. I’ve found HostGator, which supports Movable Type, and has proven itself to be quite stable and attentive. A simple trick: if you Google your hosting provider and “problems”, consider carefully the articles that appear. If the first ten links are mostly people on other websites kvetching about how bad their webhost is, you may have a problem. But if the top site is the support forum on your hosting provider, solving a problem that one of their customers has, then that’s a good sign.

Anyway, Greg Staples should now have his stable base on which to operate his Hotstove in time for the Liberal leadership convention.

And, finally, it’s true: I broke the pizza man. Cameron at Canadian Lemming has an excellent account of the incident, which you need to read.

Now to our feature presentation…


Previous Items on the To-Do List

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I used to believe that Canada didn’t need a proportional representation system.

I didn’t see the current system as being particularly broken, and I feared that throwing out the bathwater could well throw out the babies within it. And I had questions: How would a proportional representation system handle the issue of local representation? Who, I wondered, would be responsible for responding to my needs should I have to get something done in Ottawa? What about the fact that the rich are more likely to vote than the poor, and are thus likely to disproportionately benefit from an at-large proportional system than a system of wards/ridings — a conflict that has coloured Vancouver’s municipal elections in the past. How are independents elected? Why should we shut them out? And given that it may be fair to say that 1% of the electorate may be certifiable, does it make sense to put 3 such individuals in parliament to speak their mind and clutter their discourse?

I knew that the Europeans had installed proportional systems and that they worked well — addressing many of the problems cited above. But though I knew this, I didn’t see the pressing need to change my system… until it failed.

In 1988, a solid majority of voters (57%) voted against the political party (the Progressive Conservatives) that had negotiated the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. But because the opposition was divided amongst two solid parties, the Progressive Conservatives managed to gain a solid majority of seats and Free Trade was passed.

In 1993, the Progressive Conservatives and the breakaway Reform Party each gained a similar amount of public support (roughly 17%). However, because the Reform Party’s support was concentrated in Western Canada, and the Conservatives’ support was spread evenly across Canada, the Reform Party ended up winning 52 seats to the Conservatives 2.

In 1997, the Liberals faced a wave of unpopularity due to harsh spending cuts and their failure to eliminate the GST. Parties to the Liberals’s right gained an equal amount of popular support, but because that support was divided between them, the Liberals were able to retain a majority of seats when they should have been knocked to at least a minority. Holding just 38% of the vote, they became the least popular party to be elected to a majority government in Canadian history.

To this day, our first-past-the-post system awards majorities on the basis of pluralities, and sometimes not even on the basis of plurality. To this day, the regional Bloc Quebecois exerts a power in parliament that far exceeds their popular support throughout the country. It even exceeds their popular support in Quebec (the BQ hold 51 seats, now. If Quebec’s seats were distributed proportionately to their popular support, they’d just have 32 to the Liberals’ 15 and the Conservatives’ 18. The New Democrats, who hold no seats in Quebec, now, would hold 5).

In a country that is marked by its regional differences, the first-past-the-post system has exaggerated those differences. Conservatives control all the seats in Alberta despite almost 40% of the vote going to other parties. The Liberals can pin their survival on the similar way that votes broke in Ontario; in 2000, winning 51% of the popular vote granted them 95% of the seats. This has allowed Ontarians to dismiss all Albertans as rednecks, and Albertans to dismiss all Ontarians as “sheep”.

Fundamentally, from 1988 to before 2004, our election results stopped making sense. Voters have become frustrated, convinced that their vote counts for nothing. People are sickened by the activities of the major parties, but feel that voting for a smaller party is throwing their vote away. Instead, over 35% of us choose not to vote. A growing disconnect has appeared between voter aspirations and the political conduct of this country.

Opponents of proportional representation have cited possible instability as a reason to hand near-dictatorial powers to a political party that does not have majority support in this country. They have cited the conduct of the current minority parliament and the one before that as a reason not to go the PR route. But that argument is based on a false premise: that our current and previous minority governments are a good example of how such governments would operate in a PR system. Currently, the Conservatives and the Liberals know that they are each one sucker punch away from clasping the brass ring and gaining four years of almost unchecked power. Their tone would change in an instant if they realized that no amount of schoolyard bullying or political gotchas is going to bury their enemies. Once they realize that they will have to work with their opponents tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, things would settle down and the minority government — which already has a reputation in this land as a situation wherein voters are actually listened to and courted — would work even better than it does.

I will leave bloggers like Idealistic Pragmatist and Crawl Across the Ocean to debunk some of what they see as the myths about proportional representation. I support the idea because, if implemented correctly, it promises electoral results which make sense. More importantly, it forces major groups to share power, rather than giving a particular group the entire pie and leaving the losers with nothing. The Americans can really use a system like this — rather than hand over almost all of the keys to power on the basis of barely 50% of the vote, no longer can a winning side essentially ignore the losing side.

It was conservative Andrew Coyne who convinced me about the need for PR. He pointed out that there is something fundamentally undemocratic about our democratic system, in that our elections provide us with limited choice. If our political system were more like a market system, individuals would be more able to exercise their choice, and gain their preference for lower taxes, or increased social services, or particular regulations removed or added. Their choice would not limit another voter’s choice, and vice versa.

Perhaps I’m too much influenced by economics, but it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the great things about markets is that the majority doesn’t rule (let alone the plurality). I don’t have to buy the shoes that most people like: I can buy the shoes that I like. If 5% of the population prefers that kind of shoes, 5% of the market is what they get. You can’t settle every issue that way: sometimes there’s only one option that can be chosen for all of society, in which case the majority has to rule. But you certainly wouldn’t want to do that any more than you have to. Wherever possible, you would wish the minority to have its way as much as the majority.
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Such a utopia is clearly impossible as there are debates out there where no compromise is possible, but we need to escape the sense that those who choose parties which do not form the government are losers who can be safely ignored. They’re not losers, they’re citizens like the rest of us, and our government is supposed to serve them.

Under proportional representation, the government is forced to work with other parties and other interests in order to govern on a day-to-day basis. They are forced to moderate and compromise. While compromise is not always possible, at least we can say that no one is silenced. Everybody gets a chance to speak, even if they ultimately can’t get their way. And that chance to speak, to influence, makes all the difference. And it is this element of proportional representation that I most want in this country.


Next On My List


China Refuses to Meet Harper Before APEC Summit

“Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not meet Chinese President Hu Jintao before a summit in Vietnam this week in what appears to be a snub by China over Canadian criticism of its human rights record” (link)

You know, as snubs go? That’s one I think I’d wear with pride.


On This Day

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