Monday, May 20, 2019

A new referendum strategy to challenge First-Past-The-Post in Canada...

Current average poll standings: CBC Poll Tracker
This year, our outdated Single Member Plurality voting system, also known as First-Past-The-Post, once again threatens Canada's progressive future, as well as the world's.

How?  The progressive left in this country is currently divided at the federal level between three parties: the governing Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party.  Together, in the latest polls, they hold well over 50% of Canadian support.

However, as all parties currently trail the regressive Conservatives of Andrew Scheer, who hold an overall average of 36% support, the losses that will be faced by progressive parties will be exacerbated by First-Past-The-Post. 

With that level of support, Scheer could emerge with a very strong minority government.  If Conservative support hits 38% or 39%, that could mean a majority government under our broken system.  Crucial progress on issues like economic growth for all, not just rich oil executives, as well as climate change, would be undermined.  No doubt, any kind of victory for a regressive social conservative like Scheer would bolster the despicable right-wing forces wrecking havoc already in this world.   

That this could happen despite a clear majority of Canadians voting in favour of parties supporting real climate change action and other progressive policies makes my blood boil.  

I've fought against First-Past-The-Post ever since it became very clear our system always distorts voters' intentions.   It's even handed power to the second-place party on occasion (as it did in New Brunswick in 2018 and in 2006, as well as Quebec in 1998, and B.C. in 1996), not unlike the winner-take-all broken Electoral College in the United States.

But efforts to change voting systems in Canada have had a difficult time.  Provincial referendums on the subject have been mostly negative experiences, with forms of Proportional Representation (or PR) losing to the status quo.

British Columbia's mail-in vote last fall produced a disheartening result with 61% again voting in favour of First-Past-The-Post (a similar percentage voted that way in that province's 2009 referendum too.)

But last month's vote in Prince Edward Island renewed some hope.  Held in conjunction with the provincial election, the Yes side in favour of proportional representation almost won with 49% of the vote, and victory in 15 out of 27 districts.   That was the highest vote yet for PR in Canada.  It was possible that the unique regional demographics of that island province made the notion of a mix of local and regional MLAs more enticing than it's been seen in British Columbia or Ontario (which only supported Mixed Member Proportional with 37% in its 2007 referendum.)  

Proportional systems always sound much more complicated than the status quo.  Opponents have been able to utilize any means of fear-mongering to raise doubts about PR, including the notion that fringe or racist elements could win a foothold in legislatures or even the balance of power under them.  Of course, as I've noted before, it's First-Past-The-Post which handed victory to Donald Trump and Doug Ford, so it's the current system that has the potential for doing great damage and empowering extremists.

Proportional Representation isn't the only alternative to First-Past-The-Post.  Preferential balloting, in which voters rank their favourite local candidates, would be a major improvement, but it's not one favoured by the Proportional Representation purists who don't want to have to compromise on their first choices.

Justin Trudeau clearly favoured Preferential Balloting in 2015 when he promised to make that election the last one fought under the current voting system.  But he was met with a wall of opposition for his preferred choice from all other parties and grassroots activists, so he abandoned electoral reform altogether.  He should've followed this proposal below.   

As we've seen, Proportional Representation can't seem to beat out First-Past-The-Post when it comes to referendums in Canada.  The public simply can't seem to embrace it, despite it being used in most democracies the world over.  

I think reformers have been going at it wrong.  We've been too nice, hoping that our strong, reasoned arguments would win out over the manipulations, distortions, and fear-mongering from the other side.

Instead of turning every debate over change into an agonizing defense of the confusing and unknown elements of one particular form of proportional representation, proponents should simply insist on a simpler strategy.

I write this as a prescription to achieve change in Ontario, which is more conservative a province than PEI.   If Ontario is to revisit the issue of voting systems again, it seems to me we ought to focus squarely on the flaws of First-Past-The-Post.  We also have to leave open the option for Preferential Balloting as an alternative and let the voters decide.

I would propose that in Ontario we hold the following referendum questions:

QUESTION ONE: 

"Should Ontario continue to use the Single Member Plurality voting system, commonly known as First-Past-The-Post, for its provincial elections?" 

YES, Ontario should continue to use the Single Member Plurality voting system, commonly known as First-Past-The-Post, for its provincial elections.
or
NO, the Ontario government should set up a Citizens' Assembly made up of representatives from each of Ontario's ridings to design a new voting system, which the government will enact into law before the next provincial election."  

QUESTION TWO: 

"If a majority of voters vote NO to Question One and the government sets up a Citizens' Assembly to design a new voting system for Ontario, what kind of voting system should the Citizens' Assembly design to replace the current system?"  

MAJORITARIAN system, in which all candidates - one per riding - are elected by receiving a majority of the votes in that riding, through either preferential balloting or run-off elections.  
or
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION system, in which local and regional candidates are elected in proportion to the number of votes each political party receives across the province, as long as those political parties receive over 5% of the vote. 

A simple 50 per cent plus one vote across the entire province regardless of how many ridings vote one way or the other would be enough for victory.  It would be unconscionable for a majority to vote one way, but the result not to be honoured.  

This would take the complications of Proportional Representation out of the referendum question and focus the issue more squarely on whether or not voters even want change at all.

The choice for which kind of alternate system would be one of values - simple majority rule or proportional representation to replace our current plurality system. The choice in the second question would provide direct guidance from the people to the Citizens' Assembly as it embarks on designing the change. 

Ontario underwent a Citizens' Assembly process from 2006 to 2007 when the McGuinty government set it up to fulfill a 2003 election promise.   That Assembly, made up of ordinary Ontarians from all ridings, recommended a Mixed Member Proportional system for Ontario.

However, the subsequent referendum was rigged in favour of the status quo with zero public education about why the Assembly had recommended change away First-Past-The-Post.  The government set an impossibly high 60% support threshold for change. Opponents then tore the MMP proposal to pieces, nitpicking on the fine details and doing their best to confuse voters.  

Under my proposal, there would be no Citizens' Assembly until after voters vote against First-Past-The-Post.  Then with a mandate for change and clear direction on the type of system to replace the status quo, the Citizens' Assembly would get to work on a system that would meet the specifications of the choice in Question #2.

It would be best to provide some limitations on both types of systems, such as the five per cent threshold for representation under PR, as well as the specification that candidates would be "elected locally and regionally," to remove some unknowns from the question.  I believe these options would give maximum choice and minimal ambiguity for voters, while at the same time a great amount of guidance to any possible Citizens' Assembly.  

Of course, my proposal remains academic until a true leader steps forward in Ontario to champion it.  I outline them here as my contribution to this debate and a possible means for actually achieving change, something proponents have been unable to achieve up until now.  

Sadly, I doubt any of the Ontario Liberals who might run for leader want to revisit this issue.  I look forward to being pleasantly surprised on that front.   Even the NDP's Andrea Horwath barely mentioned electoral reform in the 2018 election (but she is more than welcome to steal my proposal if she wants.)  Only the Greens under Mike Schreiner clearly support change (he is more than welcome to steal this proposal too.)

Of course, if Andrew Scheer wins a "mandate" this year in Canada with just 35% of the vote and proceeds to force his regressive agenda down the throats of Canada's progressive majority, perhaps that will push this issue again to the forefront.

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