Voting System

FrobisherFlahDavid Akin, of Sun News, has written a great column in today’s papers. It is headlined: “Our voting system works fine: Let’s keep it.” In his column he explains that two things are essential for a good voting system:

  1. It should be very good at “binding an elected representative to her constituents. And this,” he adds, “should be the chief goal — making sure a city councillor or an MP truly represents the group of people who sent her into office;” and
  2. Democracy often finds its best solutions when there is a sharp clash of clearly defined ideas. We need politicians advancing and arguing bold, sometimes radical, ideas. We want left vs. right, federalist vs. nationalist, centralizer vs. decentralizer — all competing loudly and creatively for votes.

He goes on to explain, not surprisingly given the headline, that he favours the existing first past the post system because it does both things at least as well (and likely better) than any of the proposed alternatives. I agree.

That status quo works

As I have explained before the idea of local representation has been a hallmark of our parliamentary system since, at the very least, Simon de Montfort’s second parliament in 1254. I’m afraid that saying “It’s 2016,” or something like that is not a good enough reason to toss aside 750+ years of tradition.

Party politics began, in earnest, in about 1680 in England, while the causes and effects of the civil war were still open wounds and before the Glorious Revolution (1688) put things on the right track. The two main factions were the Country Party, soon to be called the Whigs, who supported a law barring Roman Catholics from the British throne and the Tories who opposed the ban. The notion of parties, often with strong and strongly different platforms, as in the late 17th century, is a healthy way to do politics.

Why change

The major argument for change is:

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At first glance it is a very compelling argument: I (pretty consistently since the late 1960s) vote Conservative but here, in my riding of Ottawa Centre, I have been represented, since 1979, by a string of Liberal and NDP MPs who did not and still do not “represent” me …

… except of course that they did and do. Even when I disagree, quite fundamentally, with the platforms of the national Liberal and New Democratic Parties I vote for the person who I believe will best serve Ottawa Centre. I disagreed with most of the polices Paul Dewar supported but I liked him as a constituency MP because, very often, despite our national differences, we shared similar views on what was happening in Ottawa Centre and I always knew that i could approach him with a local problem. And my vote did count because Paul Dewar was always well aware of the fact, as I hope Ms McKenna is, too, that even when (as in 2011) he won the riding with 52% of the popular vote the other 48% of us had different ideas. Good MPs, and most of them, from all parties, are good people, understand that they are elected by (usually) less than half the people to serve all the people. My vote did count.

The second argument is that our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy means that, effectively, when we elect a majority government it has, for a fixed term, great (near absolute) power, and many people want continuous compromise. Israel has a very vibrant, open, liberal democracy based on a PR system, so does Italy, does anyone really think that Israel and Italy are “better” governed that Australia, Britain or Canada? Does the “compromising” that goes into making governments in Israel and Italy and then making policies that will pass parliament’s muster really make them “more democratic?”

A few years ago I did a quick and dirty statistical analysis of votes in Canada. I used the (then) most recent federal and provincial election results and I concluded that our current  First Past The Post (FPTP) system does, indeed, “reward” the strongest party by, often, giving it 50%+ of the seats in parliament or a legislature with only 40%- of the the popular vote. (Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have 54%+ of the seats based on 39.47% of the vote, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had, in 2011, almost identical results: 54%- of the seats with 39.62% of the vote). It also punishes the parties that get the fewest votes ~ marginalizing the third, fourth and fifth parties (often depriving them of party status) and, effectively, eliminating the others from parliament. But, I asked, is that really a bad thing? Do we really want MPs from the Pirate, Marijuana and Animal Alliance Parties in the House of Commons. If, say, a 3% share of the national vote ought to be enough to get, say, at least one seat in a 338 legislature, then our FPTP system worked very well in 2015: the Conservatives are properly represented (at 29% of the seats for almost 32% of the popular vote) and the Greens (0.3% of the seats for 3.4% of the vote) and NDP (13% of the seats for 19.7% of the vote share) were “punished” (marginalized) by the system for being weak parties. The BQ was “rewarded” for being a regional party and the Liberals, who got less than 40% of the popular vote, were “rewarded,” too, with 54% of the seats and four years within which to keep their platform promises, etc. Would Canada really be better governed if we had, say, 11 Green MPs? Their seats would have come, mostly, at the expense of the Liberals; would we really want ~ did we really vote for? ~ a Liberal minority government that would have to pander to the NDP and Greens for support? I don’t think so …

Even though groups like Fair Vote Canada mount well funded (by special interest groups) and effective campaigns they are, really, not offering a necessary change. The system is not broken …

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… as David Akins says, “let’s put aside this idea that electoral reform will solve any perceived shortcomings in our democracy — for there are some — and focus on democratic reform … strengthening legislatures, cleaning up political finance, being more creative with new Internet-based technologies — all of that will strengthen our democracy … ditching the first-past-the-post election system could only weaken it.

Start with real Senate reform, Prime Minister, and tell your friend and mentor Premier Wynne that you are going to enact political financing laws that might send her and Dalton McGuinty to prison . Leave the voting system alone, it’s fine, or, at least, it’s good enough: fix the things that are broken.

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