Saturday, December 3, 2016

Electoral reform seems dead despite Trudeau's latest words

I've been a longtime advocate for dumping Canada's first-past-the-post / winner-take-all voting system.  It continues to shock me that otherwise intelligent people continue to support it. 

I remember being a rabidly anti-free trade teenager in 1988 during the early part of the federal election that year when I looked at polls showing Brian Mulroney's PCs with 45% support.

"There you have it, they can't pass free trade because the Liberals and NDP have a combined 55%," I said to my parents.

They shook their heads and explained that Canada's voting system doesn't align to the popular vote; parties need only to carry the majority of seats by winning the most votes, usually with much less than half of the popular vote.

In truth, most parts of the democratic world embrace proportional voting (PR) systems where the seats won in Parliament align with the will of the people.  When new democracies have been established around the world, PR systems have been put in place to avoid the dangers of extremists winning total power with as little as 30-40% of the vote.  This has been civilized.

But not in Canada.  Recent Canadian elections have seen one party win a majority of seats with less than 40%.  This used to be rare, even under winner-take-all, but now it is commonplace.  

Just last month, the world was thrown into craziness with the "election" of Donald Trump, thanks to the U.S.'s own archaic winner-take-all Electoral College voting system.  The people voted for Hillary Clinton by 2.5 million votes (and still counting), but they've been overruled by a rigged system that has handed victory to a racist, whiny buffoon.   Despite attacking the electoral college when he wasn't a candidate, Trump now supports it because it handed him victory.  

Such is the case with any political party in Canada that actually stands a chance of winning elections.  The NDP, when it's been in power in the provinces, has never moved to implement PR voting systems.  Indeed, the British Columbia NDP has been most vociferous in its opposition to previous PR options in that province.  This is ironic considering the status quo has ensured B.C. New Democrats have been completely shut out of government and decision-making power for 31 out of the last 41 years.

Chantal Hébert is absolutely correct here that the federal parties continue to put their own partisan interests ahead of the public interest in this current debate.   

Despite Justin Trudeau's election promise and his current unwillingness to abandon it publicly, it now seems clear electoral reform isn't going anywhere federally anytime soon.  

The Liberals on the parliamentary committee that reported this week refused to cooperate with opposition colleagues on proposing a way forward for the debate, even calling Trudeau's promise to reform in time for the 2019 election as "hasty".  

Those same Liberals could've made a deal with the New Democrats to implement the only system that would actually be an improvement over the status quo - proportional representation - but they clearly refused.  

Thus forcing the NDP and Greens to side with the Conservatives on proposing a referendum on proportional representation versus first-past-the-post.  

Yes, the Conservatives have agreed to a referendum that could see the implementation of a voting system they would hate.  But they have done so simply because they are confident, based on recent Canadian history, that PR would be voted down by the public in favour of the status quo.  That's been the case in every recent referendum on the issue with the exception of a Prince Edward Island plebiscite this year where PR won with 52% (but now the PEI government plans to hold another binding vote on the same subject.)  

With the Trudeau Liberals in charge, it seems they've lost their appetite for change.  As Hébert points out, they've done nothing to promote the one voting system Liberals seem to favour the most - instant runoff or ranked ballots - at public meetings held by MPs or the parliamentary committee.

Trudeau's Liberals are clearly laying the groundwork to abandon this pledge.  They'll do so with the support of a majority of Liberals, unfortunately.  

When I campaigned in favour of Mixed Member Proportional during the Ontario 2007 election, the reactions I got from most Liberals were largely hostile.     

That crushing 2007 defeat, along with various other voting reform defeats, convinced me Canadians, like Americans and Brits, simply don't embrace the values of fairness and equality as much as I hoped.  To the majority, stability and the ability of governments to act with autocratic control and decisive action seemed more important than ensuring parties with 10% of the vote get 10% of the seats. 

I've argued ad nauseam that the current voting system essentially ensures that 3 + 3 = 9, while 2 + 2 = 3.   Sometimes it even ensures that 4 + 4 = 7, while 3 + 4 = 10, when it hands victory to the popular vote loser.  It's broken!

People just shrug their shoulders and their eyes glaze over.  Canada seems pretty strong and stable with the current system, so let's just keep it, they say. 

You can't win such arguments with those who value power and stability more than justice. 


Ben Burd said...

Not a hope in hell of convincing Butts to budge. He sabotaged the Ontario effort with a bad ballot question and if pushed to a referendum look for an equally confusing ballot question.

rumleyfips said...

Hard to believe that the NDP and Green members of the committee abandoned their party stances and went for killing the process with a referendum. I am in favour of a ranked ballot but I am pretty lonely now. The Canadian electorate doesn't seem to want a change, the cons want no change, the NDP has decided to accept third party status forever the Green's have abandoned their platform policy and the Grits have decided there is no solution acceptable to the voting public.

Whose fault is this ? Ours: we are to lazy and too obstinate to care.

Matt Guerin said...

All good points, thanks. But I wouldn't be too hard on ordinary folks as being lazy. People do care, but this issue requires real leadership and we've never had any from people who had the power to make change. Including today.

Ron Waller said...

"Those same Liberals could've made a deal with the New Democrats to implement the only system that would actually be an improvement over the status quo - proportional representation - but they clearly refused"

Actually the NDP and E May are the ones who refused to work with the Liberals to find some kind of compromise. Demanding that the other side adopts your entire position is obviously not a compromise.

Since these all-or-nothing ideologues couldn't get their way, they sided with the enemies of ER.

As someone who has followed the ER issue for a decade or so, I know how fiercely opposed the establishment is to any kind of electoral reform. Full PR was never going to happen. The Liberal party is an establishment party. They are not going to rock the boat to that degree.

The NDP could've worked with the Liberals to come up with a semi-PR system. But they would have nothing to do with it. Now the Dippers have put their own necks back under the boot of FPTP when they could've gotten out from under. Looks good on them!