Tag Archives: proportional representation

Disproportionately misrepresented?

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The problem with Canada’s electoral system can be summed up in four words: “first past the post”.

It means, simply, that those who win a plurality of votes (more than the other guys, but not enough to justify a true majority in any particular constituency) get to rule the rural and urban roosts of this country without further ado.

For our purposes now, in an election cycle, that could mean that 60 per cent of this country will collectively vote for the NDP and the Liberals.

Still, under our peculiar system of government – which we borrowed – that would not be enough weapons-grade determination to defeat the Conservatives, whose 40 per cent showing would almost certainly return their majority government for a fourth, historic time.

As Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson pointed out last May, “Canada’s system is looking increasingly isolated. It’s a system inherited from Britain, but even in that country, the system no longer easily fits with a fractured electorate. It also no longer fits easily in Canada, where three of the last four elections produced minority governments.”

Indeed, Mr. Simpson writes, “In contrast to many other systems, the Canadian provides very few checks and balances on a prime minister with a majority. The unelected Senate is a wet noodle; the government backbenchers are yes-men; the cabinet members are appointed by the top dog. With a couple of exceptions, none would dare stand up to such a domineering leader and his controlling staff.”

In fact, the evolution of western democracies seems to favour some form of proportional representation, and NDP Leader Thomoas Mulcair is not wrong when, in his election platform, he claims, “Democracies such as Germany and New Zealand have embraced proportional representation and realized improvements since moving away from first-past-the-post. In a study that looked at 36 countries with proportional representation, countries that reformed their systems saw increased voter turnout, more women and minorities elected and an overall higher satisfaction with democracy.”

Nova Scotia’s Atlantica Party also makes a good point when it declares in its mission statement, “A party that gets 35 per cent of the vote should not get 60 per cent of the seats in the Legislature. Electoral reform is needed to give fair results while retaining the voter-representative link. Voting systems such as Single Transferable Vote provide this; making it easier for independents to run in elections.”

The party also wants to institute e-voting and “the direct election of the Premier (and of) Nova Scotia’s Senators. Everyone should have a say in picking our leadership. The ruling party should not have the unfair advantage of game-playing the date of an election. Election dates should be fixed every four years and be called Joseph Howe Day.”

What if, in a new mood of enlightened self-interest, local leaders decided to experiment with proportional representation in New Brunswick – indeed, across the Maritimes?

Would that make our democracy stronger, more able to sustain a wider variety of voices and opinions, more wiling to entertain unorthodox, yet workable, solutions to our shared problems?

Or would proportional representation only guarantee – as its opponents repeatedly point out – policy gridlock at every turn of the screws of government? You think it’s tough getting anything done now, they argue? Just wait until you add dozens more dissenting voices to the mix. See what happens then to the quicksand of political decision-making?

Still, I’m inclined to ignore “facts” that are not based on evidence. How do we know until we’ve tried?

We certainly know what “first past the post” has done for, and to, our democracy.

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Couch potatoes for democracy

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The anybody-but-(fill in the blank) voting strategy is a time-honoured tradition in western democracies. In fact, the late, great American comic, Richard Pryor, squeezed a whole movie out of the construct in the 1980s.

In “None of the above”, the actor played a hapless candidate running on a simple platform: No one is good enough, wise enough or strong enough to represent the public, whose interests he or she purports to cherish. So, the message went, vote for “no one”, not even the guy urging the boycott.

As political commentary, the piece was mildly affecting. As movie-making, it was merely ho-hum. As a blueprint for democratic change, it was naïve, at best, and, at worst, oddly seditious to the underpinnings of a society that still embraces the conviction that individuals – no matter how poor – can still make a difference to their various lots in life as long as they exercise the power of their plebiscite honestly.

This species of strategic voting has raised its head in Moncton in recent weeks, as roadside signs urging people to “nullify” their ballots have cropped up overnight.

Elsewhere in New Brunswick, certain social activists have inveighed against what they characterize as a crooked and fossilized system that allows political candidates with a simple plurality to, in effect, hijack entire constituencies in which the majority vote goes against them. The activists ask people to protest with their hindquarters on October 19 and stay home – a sort of “couch potatoes for democracy” gambit.

It’s tempting to fall in line behind this thinking. After all, no form of proportional representation – which would immediately inject more, better and diverse voices into the system – has ever gained traction in a province where political elites of the two major parties (Liberals and Progressive Conservatives) jealously guard their territories. It hardly matters that the New Democrats are gaining ground (at least, until recently), for, as they do, the “machine” transforms them, leveling them, remaking them as “mainstream-light”.

Still, it’s important to understand what we lose by voting against a thing (either by staying home or deliberately scratching a ballot), as opposed to what we gain by voting for a thing (as odious as this may seem to be).

We lose when our disaffection trumps our determination to effect change. Fewer votes automatically concentrate power in the hands of (guess who?) the powerful. The greater concentration of power, the better likelihood there is of abuse of such power.

Imagine a New Brunswick where only wealthy business owners and propertied money-managers have seats at the table where decisions are made. You think you’ve got it bad now; boys and girls, I’m here to tell you ain’t seen nothing yet!

You can forget about “public consultation”. Banish all thoughts of making a positive difference in your lives. No one is listening, precisely because you chose not to be heard.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It will fill up the void with the good, the bad and the ugly; it all depends on who’s doing the pouring.

On the other hand, we win when we engage – not because we are voting for a particular candidate or party, but because the weight of our democratic participation cannot be easily dismissed by interests who would rather see us watch political pot-boilers on Netflix than witness our lineups at the ballot box.

Personally, I may not always agree with the “great unwashed” – a company in which I gladly include myself – but I am not prepared to have my mind sanitized by the alternative.

I will vote, looking for the best in a bad crop.

Will you?

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Is PR an idea whose time has come?

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Calls for a systemically more representative government always seem to follow a deeply unsatisfying election. Last Monday’s vote in New Brunswick produced no deviation from this familiar – and, for some, increasingly tiresome – norm.

After all, here was the spectacle of five jockeying, jostling, jiggling parties, only two of which had any chance of securing a meaningful number of the legislature’s 49 seats. (David Coon’s Fredericton South win for the Green Party was the exception that proved the rule).

Here was another pitched battle in the seemingly endless war between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives over whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing in a province that has, in fact, permitted the drilling practice for years, and with no evidence of environmental harm accruing.

And here was a fractured plebiscite, replete with technical glitches and calls for recounts, in which, despite all efforts to the contrary, much of the electorate politely declined their invitations to the cotillion.

Unofficially, 373,337 New Brunswickers did their democratic duty. Nearly 200,000, who were eligible to cast a ballot, sat this one out. . .again.

That was the lowest voter turnout on record (65 per cent) – lower than the 2006 and 2010 elections (68 and 70 per cent, respectively)

According to a CBC report last week, “Jamie Gillies, an assistant professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University, said low voter turnout is in part a generational problem, which won’t be easy to fix. ‘This is a feeling among a lot of people who believe that voting as a civic duty does not matter. It does not matter who we elect on election day.’”

Need we even wonder, then, why people like Kelly Carmichael are calling for an entirely different – and fairer – way to participate in our democracy. She’s a spokesperson for Fair Vote Canada, a national group that advocates for proportional representation.

The organization’s definition is succinct: “Proportional representation is any voting system designed to produce a representative body (like a parliament, legislature, or council) where voters elect representatives in proportion to (their) votes.”

As it was, in our existing first-past-the-post system, the Liberals earned 43 per cent of the popular vote, but more than half the seats in the Assembly. The Tories’ garnered slightly better than a third of the vote, but won more than 40 per cent of the house. The Green Party took one seat with seven per cent of the vote. The NDP (13 per cent) and the People’s Alliance (2.1 per cent) were out of luck, left only to shuffle along old Freddy Beach’s cobblestones.

If Ms. Carmichael and her like had their way, all parties would have emerged with some degree electoral representation: Liberals with 21 seats; Progressive Conservatives with 17; the NDP with six; the Greens with three; and the People’s Alliance with one.

Lamentably, in Canada, proportional representation has been a notoriously hard sell, not among voters, but among those who have the most to lose under such a system: the political establishment, members of which often spout the most egregious generalizations and spin the most outrageous myths about the process.

They say it’s uncommon and unstable. They say it would, in New Brunswick, generate confusion, instability and deadlock. It might even embolden the secret extremists among us who, given a chance, would seek and secure representation for themselves in the Assembly.

The reality is, however, that proportional representation is the most common electoral system in the world, favored most major democracies – though not Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

As for instability, Fair Vote points out on its website, “Since Italy reformed its voting system in the 1990s, Canada is actually now the most unstable of the major democracies, with twenty-one elections since World War II to Italy’s eighteen.”

Finally, the facts simply don’t support the claim that our present system – which can, and frequently does, reward lightly supported candidates for office with absolute power – is somehow inherently better equipped than proportional representation to prevent the barking lunatics in our midst from joining our various assemblies and parliaments.

Of course, no system of self-government is perfect. In fact, oftentimes, it’s a democracy’s flaws that suggest the very strategies for improvement.

This was, indeed, the case last Monday in New Brunswick, where one system of representation pointed, in its failure, to the promise of a better one.

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