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Electoral reform and the corporate media

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It didn't take long for Big Media to denounce plans for electoral reform, a promise that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to want to keep. Lining up with the Conservatives, their initial salvo was on a question of process: they are demanding a referendum on any proposed changes to the creaky first-past-the post (FPTP) system. Now comes the second phase -- outright dissembling, with the clear aim of misleading the public at the outset of what will likely be months of discussion.

Let's dispose of the referendum question first. The media have never much liked them before. The Quebec sovereignist referenda, for example, were fraught with Anglophone media fears about the nature of the questions on the ballot, and the difficulty of boiling down complicated issues into a simple "Yes" or "No." That's why we elect people to make complex decisions, rather than putting these matters out for a plebiscite.

The 2007 Ontario referendum on proportional representation suffered, analysts say, from a lack of public information and public education. It is hard to disagree with this conclusion:

The political advantage in referendum campaigns, particularly those dealing with unfamiliar issues, often seems to rest with the NO side. Those opposed to a proposal do not necessarily have to make a coherent case against it. Often, it is enough merely to raise doubts about it in the minds of voters, question the motives of its advocates, or play upon a natural fear of the unknown.

There is nothing theoretically wrong with a referendum on even a complex issue if it is properly canvassed and widely debated. New Zealand had three of them, electors voting first to change the system, and then to implement and finally to keep their Mixed-Member Proportional choice. But the current hand-wringing by the media should be greeted with scepticism, especially in conjunction with their quick-off-the-mark campaign to defend the status quo. Are we prepared to trust the media and political elites to do a proper job of informing the electorate if a national referendum were to be held? Given their dismal past performances when the subject has come up, and their antics now, one would have to be naive to do so.

"What's the problem, anyway?" The Globe and Mail asks. "Ah, first-past-the-post, how lovely you are," moans the Ottawa Citizen. Democratic crisis? What crisis? asks the Toronto Star, proceeding to disgorge some of the worst claptrap on the issue that I can recall.

The Globe almost immediately puts up a strawman -- and pay attention, folks, because it will not be the last time this mouldy old construction of dried grass is placed before you. PR, in its "purest form," says the Globe, will give too much power to fringe parties. Just look at Israel.

Indeed, do look at Israel. In effect the country is one big electoral district, with no direct representation, but with closed lists of candidates. Electors get to vote, not for people, but for parties, which decide who will sit in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. It doesn't work very well there, and it wouldn't work at all well here -- which is why no one is proposing it. Canada is a vast country in comparison to Israel, with widely differing regional interests, considerably more diversity, and a dynamic tension between the federal government and those of the provinces and territories. Direct representation in Parliament is, or should be, the sine qua non of any viable electoral system here, if those varying interests are to be mediated.

And this is precisely why the two alternate electoral systems being seriously discussed in reform circles retain that feature. Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) keeps ridings with candidates directly elected under FPTP. In addition, electors also get to vote for their party preference, so that the House of Commons would contain both directly elected representatives and enough party members (who can be selected in any number of ways, some democratic, some less so) to ensure proportionality.

Single Transferable Vote (STV), my personal fave, is even better in that respect: it calls for multi-member ridings where most electors get a voice in the House through direct election. I also like the higher threshhold -- the percentage of votes that will elect a candidate. In the case of a five-member riding, that would be 16 per cent, more than enough to keep out the fringe parties.

In each scenario, voters would have their local MP to talk to, and wasted votes (ones that don't go anywhere and are effectively discarded) are much fewer than under the current system.

A third proposal, the preferential ballot, sometimes called the "instant runoff," is favoured in some Liberal circles. It's not hard to see why. It's even more undemocratic than FPTP, and would likely produce Liberal majority governments until the end of days. If Liberal isn't your first choice, after all, it's likely to be your second, whether you are NDP or Conservative. With FPTP, most ridings elect MPs with pluralities, not majorities. When second choices are added to the mix, the Liberals are more likely to attain the 50%+1 required to put a candidate over the top.

But back to the media. The Globe merely lied by omission. But here is the Star, going that extra mile:

"Proportional representation, or PR, would allocate seats close to the share of the vote received by each party. There are lots of variations, but it would generally benefit ideologically driven parties that have a fervent base of support but can't win over most voters."

Would the Star be referring to the Liberals and the Conservatives, neither of whom can usually muster over 40 per cent of the vote? Why, no:

"The NDP and Greens, not surprisingly, support it."

And then the Big Lie:

"[PR] breaks the link between MPs and voters in a particular riding. Trudeau cites that as the main reason he doesn't support PR, and he has a good point."

See above. No broken links.

Turning now to the Citizen, this "argument" really says it all, doesn't it?

"Under first past the post, our governments are elected with wide -- if perhaps not always deep -- mandates to govern as they see fit. This allows us to get things done on a national scale, while providing clean lines of accountability.

Which means if we don’t like it…we can always toss them in four years."

Umm, what? What "we" are you referring to, Citizen editorial board? Sixty per cent of the population was unable to rid the country of the Dark Lord for 10.

A couple of facts to ponder for the moment. Only four countries in the developed world continue to use FPTP -- the U.S., the UK, India and Canada. Where are those hotbeds of instability caused by PR to be found? Austria? Germany? Norway? Sweden? Iceland? Holland? Switzerland? Come on, media, pull the other one. Israel, which you keep bringing up, is an outlier, completely atypical.

The second is that 18 months is a perfectly adequate timeframe to deal with the matter. That might not be the case if we were all starting from scratch, but we are not. As long ago as 2004, the Canadian Law Reform Commission published a lengthy report, after wide coast to coast consultation, concluding that a form of MMP should replace FPTP. It's well worth a read, by the way.

We have also had four provincial referenda, including two in B.C. The media have been happy to hold three of these up as proof that Canadians prefer FPTP. They forget to mention the first one in B.C., in 2005, where nearly 58 per cent of the voters supported STV, in 77 of the 79 provincial ridings. But the fix was in: a vote of 60 per cent had to be achieved. A second vote took place four years later, but the counted vote dropped to 39 per cent, despite an Angus-Reid poll that indicated a majority still in favour.

In P.E.I., the premier at the last moment decided that a 60 per cent vote would be required. The number of polling stations was cut by 75 per cent, leaving some small towns with no polling-place at all, and producing long line-ups elsewhere, sending numerous potential voters home after a too-long wait. Under these circumstances, only one in three Islanders voted, an unprecedented small turnout.

One can speculate about the whys and wherefores of these losses, but at the very least the campaigns themselves indicate that the debate has been well under way for considerable time. We need to continue that debate, but we need to do so in an informed, responsible manner, with considerable public discussion and input, perhaps even convening a nationwide Citizens Assembly. The social media will likely play a major role this time around as well. But the establishment media, once again, can be counted upon to act as a filter, not a lens. We should pay no attention to those men behind the curtain.

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