Progressives Want To Change The Rules – But They Want To Call It Reform
In his recent column, the National Post’s, Andrew Coyne lays out the case that the only way for the opposition parties to defeat the Conservatives in an election is through electoral reform. Whether or not that is true, it seems to me that reforming a country’s electoral system should be based on something a little more profound than simply one group wanting to defeat another in an election.
In fact, while I have a fair degree of respect for Mr. Coyne and often agree with him, I found the basic premise of the article quite offensive. It is just one more example of how far from the original concept of democracy, some have drifted in their quest to wrest power from Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada.
It is my belief that our electoral system should be based on more than simply a pathological desire to defeat Stephen Harper.
Elections are not merely strategic opportunities for political parties, ultimately they belong to the people and it is the people who should decide whether or not there is a need for reform, not the political parties who have a vested self- interest in rejigging the rules in their favour.
Two things occurred to me as I read Mr. Coyne’s column.
The first was that the talk of electoral reform has only become popular since the progressive side of the political spectrum has been out of power which I would suggest has as much to do with the fragmentation of the progressive agenda into more parties as much as anything else.
When the Liberal Party of Canada formed the government, there was no serious talk of electoral reform by political parties or media pundits. Indeed, when the former Progressive Conservative Party of Canada was reduced to only two seats in Parliament, neither they nor Mr. Coyne raised the idea of reforming the electoral system.
The second thought that occurred to me was that changing the rules of the game has become quite popular with progressives lately to the point where the elected will of the people has become irrelevant in their quest to achieve their objectives.
Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, was almost evicted from office over a trivial issue that pales in comparison to some of the more egregious behaviour of some current progressive politicians, including London Mayor Joe Fontana who stands charged with fraud under the criminal code.
Progressives have been all but silent about Mr. Fontana while turning themselves inside out to support court action to remove Mayor Ford, who this past week had the original lower court decision to remove him from office overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeals.
Since the election of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, progressives are talking more and more about electoral reform as the better way for Canada to elect its government but the obvious question is; better for whom?
Clearly, the current system with all of its flaws has stood the test of time; predating Canada back hundreds of years in England. Clearly the current system favours a system with fewer parties but it is more than workable with more than two.
Mr. Coyne makes the argument that the current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system favours the bigger, more established parties and there is some truth to that but I would argue that they’ve earned it. I would also argue that recent history has proven that small parties can fare quite well under the current system.
With the right leader and a policy platform with broader electoral appeal, the New Democratic Party has grown from relatively minor third-party status to form the Official Opposition. The Bloc Quebecois went from nothing to a significant representation in The House in its first election and the Conservative Party, which had been reduced to just two seats after the Mulroney years, rebuilt itself and now forms the government in less than two decades.
Proportional Representation (PR), which is the method many progressives now tout, is used in more democracies than FPTP but it is not as simple as it is often described by its proponents nor is PR a single, universal system.
In Germany, PR is simply an apportioning of seats based on popular vote. The country is treated as one large constituency and each party puts forward a list of candidates. When the votes are totaled, each party is apportioned their share based on its percentage of the vote.
The problem? There is no constituent representation. Under this system, Canadians would not be represented by a specific Member in Parliament from their riding which means they would have no specific person to whom they could turn for individual issues of concern to them as many can and do now.
In other countries, like the Scandinavian countries for example, there has been an attempt to blend both constituent representation and PR into a form of hybrid with some success but these are small countries both in terms of geography and population. Apportionment is easier and less complex than it would be in Canada although many of these same countries seem to be constantly reworking their systems in an attempt to try and find the correct balance which in an of itself creates a sense of electoral instability.
Some countries, like France, have moved away from Proportional Representation while countries like Italy have experienced a fair degree of government instability and unnecessary electoral expense with more than 38 elections since the Second World War because of any one party inability to elect a majority government.
Minority governments can provide the opportunity for a broader consensus in terms of governing and policy implementation but they come with a fatal built-in flaw; they function under the threat being defeated by non-confidence vote.
Some argue that this means the governing party must, therefore, seek a broader consensus from the other parties to continue governing and there are times when this is true but as seen in Italy, those times can be few and far between – especially when the needs of the electoral become secondary to political expediency.
Minority governments, from the time they are elected, face the constant prospect of being defeated in the legislature which means that the country is governed by threat rather than by a focused platform. It also creates strange marriages between parties as has been seen in Israel where the majority of voters may be strongly in favour of a particular agenda only to see it watered down by a political party whose agenda they totally oppose.
People like Elizabeth May try to sell the idea that PR is actually more democratic because it gives even the smallest minority of voters a more powerful voice in Parliament but I would suggest that it can actually lead to a tyranny of the minority.
Consider this hypothetical scenario.
In Canada, the Liberal and Conservative Parties for all of their differences, are basically centrist parties and have more in common than the Liberals and the NDP. Added together, these two parties usually represent the wishes of the majority of Canadians but it is quite conceivable that under proportional representation either party could form a majority by aligning itself with a smaller party whose political leanings are diametrically opposed to that of the majority of Canadians. This creates the bizarre circumstance where the political leanings of the majority of citizens would not be represented while the influence of a small group would have a disproportionate influence on government policy.
Currently, with the NDP forming the Official Opposition, this may seem like a remote possibility but it wasn’t so long ago that the Conservative Party tried to form an alliance with the far left parties to defeat the Liberal minority government. That would have created the bizarre situation where a right of centre and a far left party formed the government at the expense of the majority of Canadians who tend to hug the centre line in their political choices.
And that is the biggest drawback of proportional representation; it doesn’t represent the political leanings of the electorate, merely the statistical apportionment of their votes.
In an election where the overwhelming majority of the electorate have voted for a centrist platform be it left or right-leaning, having that agenda distorted by an alliance with a far from centre party defeats the will of the people.
I would suggest, therefore, that the real problem is not a need for electoral reform but for reform of political parties and politics in general.
A good place to start would be increased accountability for election campaign promises.
Currently our elections have become nothing more than fictional popularity contests where political parties trot out their finest to make promises that they may intend to keep but seldom do. We saw that when the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau ran against the imposition of wage and price controls but implemented them within six months of winning an election based almost entirely on that issue. The people voted for the party that promised not to implement them only to have that party do exactly what they promised not to do.
The most egregious recent example is outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty who managed to break more than 75 of his promises within his first term in office.
One of his key promises was not to raise taxes. He even signed a pledge with the Taxpayers Federation as part of his campaign and the people of Ontario voted for him accordingly. In very short order after he was elected, Mr. McGuinty started raising taxes based on his claim that the ‘books’ were in worse shape than he thought.
It seems to me that if you are elected to office because you have promised to do or not to do something and find yourself in a position of having to do the opposite, you need to go back to the people for a mandate. You weren’t given a mandate for what you now propose to do and to proceed without one means you have taken away the people’s voice.
Government should have the right to make decisions but the people also have a right to expect that their elected representatives keep their word. The nation, the province or the municipality belongs to the people, after all, not the political party in power. If the people have voted for A, no political party should have the right to deliver B after having promised to deliver A without first going back and getting consent from the people.
It wouldn’t be necessary to hold a full-blown election; a referendum on the issue would be sufficient. It is, by the way, precisely what Mr. McGuinty promised to do during the election campaign should he find it necessary to raise taxes. He didn’t do that of course, that turned out to be just one more broken election promise.
An elected Senate, reconstituted based on provincial population would be another. The Senate would be more effective if its members were elected by the people rather than old party hacks appointed by Prime Ministers in reward for years of service. The country would also be better served if the Senate had a specific number of Senators for each province based on that province’s proportion of the overall national population. An alternative would be to assign the same number of senators to each province but again, allow the people to elect them.
A third option might be that rather than have a FPTP electoral system for the Senate, proportional representation could provide a better opportunity to provide broader representation for all parties where constituent representation isn’t an issue.
This would have the benefit of opening the Senate up to even the smaller fringe parties who currently are all but ignored when it comes to Senate appointments.
The real problem with government these days, however, is that it treats elections as necessary only to obtain power and the people as necessary only to win elections. Once power has been achieved, political parties become a law unto themselves regardless of their political stripe. The people and the original mandate they provided are very often ignored or something to which the governing party merely pays lip service.
Increased accountability and transparency would achieve far more democratic fairness in our political system than electoral reform could ever hope to achieve. Merely switching from First-Past-The-Post to Proportional Representation does not address the issue that it is the cynical politicians and their strategists that are really at the heart of the problem with politics these days.
As for the small, fringe parties like Elizabeth May’s Green Party – let them build themselves up like all the other parties have. It can be done; it just takes time, effort and the support of more people than currently enjoyed by the Greens with less than 2% support across the country. That support comes from developing programs and policies that appeal to a broader constituency than the Greens or any of the other dozen or so fringe parties currently enjoy.
If they can’t do that, then they should consider folding their tent and joining a party that closely resembles their own philosophy.
The conservative movement in Canada created a broad tent which brought together progressive and far right conservatives and there is an argument to be made that by bringing them together, the extremes moderate each other resulting in more balance policy. The difference between NDP and Green Party environmental and other policies is so minor that it is a waste of time, money and opportunity to have both parties fighting the same battles.
The final argument against proportional representation is the mistaken belief that there are only five political parties in Canada. In fact there are many smaller parties including Libertarian, Communist and others each of whom would expect a proportionate representation based on their share of the vote. It is quite conceivable that at some point the Canadian Parliament could become almost unworkable with as many as a dozen parties represented in the House of Commons.
I believe that taking back our electoral system from political parties with new rules for accountability and transparency would go a lot further in fixing our current system than electoral reform which would only guarantee a different way of apportioning the existing problems.
In fact, I don’t think electoral reform is reform at all. I believe it is merely some trying to get through the back door what couldn’t be achieved by coming in through the front and that is not a solution, it’s just another strategy to try and win seats without much regard for what the people might actually want from their government.
© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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