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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.

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© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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  • http://southington.patch.com/users/eel58year Jack

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  • Rich

    for the left to consistently argue that 60% of Canadians did not vote Conservative therefore the government of Stephen Harper is not legitimate and therefore does not have the mandate of the people is ridiculous clap trap. If the left were to do any form of math, they would realize that only
    60% oc Canadians actually turned out to vote of which the Conservatives under PMSH received 39.6% of the actual votes cast which is better than 50% of the actual vote.

    So to use that argument to justify changing the electoral system to Proportional Representation is ridiculous: all we would end up with is a government like Italy, Isreal or some European countries where not much gets accomplished because they are in constant election mode. I for one believe that any reform should be to a truly EEE senate (elected, equal & effective) That means that each province or territory will have the equal number of senators; the House of Commons already has representation by population witness Ontario & Quebec are the largest provinces and therefore have the largest number of seats. Bills can be proposed in both houses and must past both houses with a majority vote.

  • Sebastian Anders

    Two days ago Andrew Coyne wrote a commentary more or less denouncing Sun News Media by claiming “they have the gall” to petition CRTC to be granted equal treatment by being included on basic cable. He appears to be one of those who consider Sun News a radical right wing Fox News north misinformation news network because they have the “gall” to counter the leftist perspective on the world and Canadian news.

    Canadians have, for generations, been lulled into a style of “news reporting” that is, in my opinion, far from actual news reporting but rather a means to editorialize everything according to a particular political agenda that is more in line with progressive views. Sun News has, not only a different style of presenting the news and opinions than what we poor sap Canadians have been trained to accept, but are also daring to do so in a somewhat confrontational way that challenges their media opponents to bring out the true facts of the stories by actually reporting the news rather than inventing it, and by presenting opinions that, in my opinion are more balanced than is the constant CBC progressive propaganda style of “reporting” and “informing” the sleeping Canadian audiences. This is what Coyne and his leftist media colleagues call having the gall, because Sun News Media challenges them to actually do their jobs rather than being puppets on the leftist political and special interest groups strings.

    In fact, Sun News was not even trying to get equal treatment inasmuch as they were asking for 18 cents per subscriber, compared to the CBC’s 60 cents per subscriber. Coyne calls it “taxing the Canadian viewers”. Funny, however, that other networks getting paid a per capita fee for being included on basic cable is not considered a tax but for Sun News it is. Then to redeem himself from “his” gall, Coyne goes on to state that although he gets paid handsomely for his contribution to CBC (and probably to CTV as well) he sometimes denounces CBC for its method of being funded, namely directly by taxpayers, as well as what it gets from the cable companies, which for CBC is not taxation but for Sun News it is.

    I am, as always, baffled by the constant contradictions the left has about the right. The leftists have a right to what they get, however they get it, but the right does not. Kinda sounds like the Palestinians shooting rockets at Israel, because they have the right to do so, but Israel does not have the right to shoot back. But when they do, they are accused of being the aggressors. I know it is a cultural thing, but it still stumps me. My guess is that the same kind of cultural regressive thinking permeates the progressive minds in this country.

    As for electoral reform, much has been written on the subject and it always comes down to the same thing. Whenever our leftist opponents loose the people’s support, it is not because they failed, but rather because the system failed them. So the system must be changed to favor them. According to them, the only fair system is one that allows them to win control of whatever it is they are trying to control, be it government, organizations, committees, etc. If they are not in charge, the world is not fair. It’s that entitlement thing, I guess.

    One thing that really bothered, no, irritated me before and following the elections that gave the Conservatives minority governments, the media and the political pundits from the left repeated time and time again that the Canadian electorate purposely elected a minority government because they wanted the Conservatives to work with the opposition, otherwise, the Harper Conservatives would run rampant over the opposition with their hidden agenda. With a minority government, the left could impede anything and everything they did not agree with, making it practically impossible for the government to fulfill their mandate, which would give the opposition cause to accuse the government of not fulfilling their promises. Sound familiar?

    Of course, the pundits, and the talking heads, and the polling companies knew exactly what the results of the elections would be weeks before the elections were held, right? They knew how every voter in every polling station across the country was going to vote. How else could they claim that the electorate wanted a minority government? If that was indeed the case, why bother having an election?

    To my knowledge and understanding of the electoral system, since I was involved in a few campaigns, one of which where I was the candidate, every single voter, whether voting honestly or strategically, votes to win. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to vote for a minority government because no one knows how the other voters are going to vote. That is why we have secret ballots. Everyone votes to win. And the only real win is a majority government. A minority government is the luck of the draw, which brings us to another matter not considered in proportional representation, which, in my opinion, renders FPTP the only true method of achieving democratically elected government, however imperfect it is. And until the per vote stipend was abolished by this government, PR opened the door to every political malcontent and ne’er-do-well to start a party and collect the per vote stipend and pollute the process, which would have also resulted in a multitude of useless political parties claiming their entitlements from the taxpayers. We already have too many of those.

    As in everything to do with people, just like the seasons, events unavoidably follow patterns and trends. Where people are concerned, we have what I call “the pendulum syndrome”. However frustrating it is, that is democracy at work, for good or bad. People will tolerate certain trends until they are fed up with it, then will start swinging in the opposite direction. But rather than arriving at a happy medium, the pattern dictates, more often than not, that the trend should swing to the other extreme. In the democratic model, it is better to be politically closer to the middle than it is to be at the extreme poles. But human nature is not always, if ever, very rational when it comes to politics and governance. It takes a very special kind of individuals to work together in that middle or near middle ground of rational and reason.

    But in the “rule by the minority” model, tyrants and the like, the disgruntled losers in this battle for control are the ones at the extreme poles of the pendulum swing. And when that pendulum does not swing far enough to include them in the game, they start screaming “unfair”, “undemocratic”, and want the rules of the game changed so that their interpretation of democracy favors them. Have you ever noticed in Question Period, in the scrums and in angry speeches by the opposition how often they throw out their favorite attack phrase: that is undemocratic, or that is an attack on democracy, whenever they don’t get their way?

    Sometime ago I wrote that the opposition parties should stop bandying the word democracy about like a wet rag, and learn, not only the meaning of the word, but also the true concept of democracy, which, in my opinion, based on their behavior and thirst for power, they haven’t a clue about what democracy truly is.

    This is comparable to recent events where the word racist that was thrown about by so many, concerning the front-page stories of over six weeks in reference to the First Nations people and the anger it solicited on both sides of the issue. Too many of the interlocutors accused others of being racists simply for disagreeing with them, mostly on matters totally unrelated to race. Sadly, I suppose one can attribute that to one of the ugly sides of human nature.

  • JoeFrmEdm

    Keep things the way the are OR we will in up like Italy…

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  • WTF

    You always here progressives bring out the tired 60% voted against the conservatives. With that logic 70 to 75% voted against the liberals and also the NDP and 95% voted against the greens. Doesn’t work that way. They want their cake and to eat it too. If as they say the liberals, NDP and greens are ‘like minded progressives’ then pick one and go for it. Problem is that there are a core group of liberals that would never vote NDP and visa-versa. PR does not work (see Italy) but maybe committees are where something like PR could work. If a majority government is elected with a plurality but not a majority of votes (almost always the case) then make up the committee membership based on popular vote of ELECTED members. This way committees may actually become something other than rubber stamps. A majority government would still be able to impliment it’s agenda but would have to vote down committees in the house or maybe, just maybe legislation would be improved. The senate……Pfft. Don’t care but if they are elected, no matter how, and not abolished then they should be mid-term elections.

  • Bubba Brown

    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
    Right on the money.
    First past the post allows us to change our government.
    Allows us to choose our representative.
    Promotes majority Government whether right or left.
    Has a built in radical policy negator.
    Proportional representation on the other hand;
    Promotes multiple parties with radical policies;
    Green
    enviro
    single issue parties
    dilutes the vote deliberately

    It is the way radical socialist parties get power
    promotes coalition parties
    Germany 1933
    National Socialist Workers Party
    Adolph Hitler came to power in a coalition Government
    In short where your and mine votes are |”redistributed” it allows politicians or political parties to choose who will govern.
    This is not Democracy.
    The Liberals and NDP-Q are frustrated any wind generated by their shrieking and freaking must be shared by two sails.
    This is exactly the situation that was faced by the now Conservatives.
    We bucked up consolidated and built a grassroots right up from bedrock.
    They can do the same or not it is called Democracy.
    Italy has an election every second year.
    As for keeping election promises the Conservative party has done a lot better than average IMO
    Just some thoughts I enjoy youg blog, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts.
    Cheers Bubba

    • http://abearsrant.com thebear

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for supporting the blog. I appreciate both.