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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why electoral reform needs to be a central issue

There's good reason to be afraid – be very afraid – of a Harper majority. I'll defer to more eloquent and more experienced observers on that, because I'm not sure I can add anything to what they've already said.

But it does suggest a need for more focus on electoral reform. Indeed, electoral reform needs to be a priority for anyone who believes in genuine democratic governance, regardless of where you land on the political spectrum.

I've written previously about the dysfunctions inherent in our current First-Past-The-Post system, whereby all you need for a seat in Parliament is to capture a plurality of the ballots in any given riding. It's quite plausible, common even, for MPs to go to Ottawa even if a majority of their constituents don't support them. Viewed through a nation-wide lens – well, you see the problem. Once a party captures a majority of seats, it gets to run the show as it sees fit, regardless of whether or not it actually enjoys the support of a majority of the electorate.

Any government that obtains a parliamentary majority under the current antiquated, dysfunctional FPTP system can exercise the same kind of dictatorial power that we've seen under Harper – it's just that Harper's been particularly obnoxious about it. (The fact that he's gotten away with it in a minority situation says as much about the fecklessness of the opposition, to date, as it does about him.)

Therefore, another modest proposal: our strategic focus needs to be on electoral reform – some form of proportional representation, weighted voting, local runoffs, transferable votes, whatever – so that the tradeoffs, compromises and negotiations inherent in the formation of coalitions can become the rule rather than the exception. Once that's done, no government will be able to enact legislation or conclude bilateral or multilateral international agreements without a genuine measure of popular support.

Yes, it will require more from us as citizens, but in terms of transparency, responsiveness and accountability, I'd submit that it's worth it.


  1. I don't even know how much more it would require of us. Something like instant runoff means we'd have to be able to rank our preferences, and, yes, the DROs and poll clerks would have a longer election night, but there is nothing hard about that kind of system for most people!

  2. Electoral reform is the most important issue when it comes to Canada's democratic deficit, so I agree that it should be on the top of the agenda. Unfortunately, it seems when centrist or even centre-left parties get in power they grow attracted Winner Take All.

  3. I am frustrated that voting reform is not considered an important issue by any of the major parties. I know that Harper is an autocrat. However, why would I bother to vote for any of the other parties who choose not to actively support voting reform through proportional representation? I know the election campaign is only one week old. I do think that voting reform needs to be discussed and strongly considered by at least one of the major parties. Without any major party actively supporting proportional representation, I will likely not vote. I do not wish to participate in a vote that is not fair (and not democratic) if there is no chance to bring democracy to Canada.

  4. Dipper:

    It's pretty clear, I think, why electoral reform isn't being championed by the Liberals or Conservatives; between them, they've benefited more from the status quo than anyone else, so they've got no reason to want to change it.

    I would think, however, that the benefit of some form of PR to the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens would be fairly obvious. Of course, that's a got its drawbacks as well; if the NDP or the Greens were to take up the cause of electoral reform, they'd open themselves up to charges of self-interested hypocrisy. Something like "oh, no wonder the Dippers want PR ... obviously it's in their interest."

    I hear what you're saying about not voting. I'm not here to judge your actions or motives. You have to do what you think is right. I'd urge you to reconsider, however. Personally, I'd like to see the free-trade agreements torn up and corporate tax levels raised to a level that reflects the amount of profit those corporations realize as a result of their operations in Canada. Not going to happen, but I'm not going to use that as a reason to stay home on Election Day.

    Baby steps. More than anything else, we need to get Stephen Harper out of the prime minister's job. No, the Liberals won't suddenly stop doing the international investor class's dirty work if they take power, but at least we won't have social policy being shaped by Charles McVety.

  5. Really, many proportional systems would require little more from the electorate. Mixed Member Proportional (I like MMPs with a best-losers approach to awarding the regional seats) systems use basically the same voting as ever.
    The Bloc actually would suffer significantly from a proportional system. Because of the regional concentration of their votes, they actually get more seats than their percentages would give them under PR.