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Liberals' online survey is a tactic to derail electoral reform

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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The current Liberal government has put a big chunk of the electoral reform process in the hands of a data analytics firm called Vox Pop, and that is truly disturbing.

If you go to the Democratic Reform section of the Government of Canada website you will be directed to Vox Pop's survey. What you will find is simplistic and manipulative.

The questions and options offered point to a clear bias against electoral reform, especially any reform that would include a large element of proportionality.

This may or may not be intentional.

Based on Minister of Democratic Reform Maryam Monsef's casual slap down of the special House committee on electoral reform's detailed and well-reasoned report, one has to assume the survey's bias reflects that of the Liberal government. 

Yes, we know: Monsef fulsomely apologized for dissing the committee. One suspects, however, that her original reaction was a true reflection of the current government's feelings about the reform exercise.

The government and Prime Minister Trudeau know the current push to change the way we vote arose out of a hastily concocted promise, offered at a time, during the pre-election period, when the Liberals were in third place in the polls.

Now that they have a majority, with only 39.5 per cent of the popular vote, the Liberals desperately want to put the genie back in the bottle.

One way to do that is through this bizarre survey, which is essentially a massive distraction and delay tactic.

Consider the survey's questions and the assumptions they contain

The best way to evaluate the merits of the survey is to look at the questions it asks and the options it poses. Both are laden with assumptions that are not true.

For instance, the survey asks Canadians' views on this statement: "It is better for several parties to have to govern together than for one party to make all the decisions in government, even if it takes longer for government to get things done."

The survey assumes parties governing together will inevitably mean "it takes longer to get things done." But that is a baseless assumption. There is no evidence it is true, not even in Canada's own limited experience.

This writer is old enough to remember well the Pearson and Pierre Trudeau minority Liberal governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Those governments had to "work with other parties" (usually, but not exclusively, the NDP) to get any legislation passed, and yet they were among the most activist and productive governments in our history.

Among the accomplishments of those minority governments were: the Canada Pension Plan, our so-called single-payer health care system, the Foreign Investment Review Agency, a national flag, the first ministry of the environment, abolition of the death penalty, official bilingualism, the institution of the Order of Canada, the Canada-U.S. auto pact and the creation of Petro Canada.

The requirement for political parties to work together did not slow down the process of government, in any sense, during the minority years of 1963 to 1968 and 1972 to 1974. If anything, it accelerated that process, gave it greater urgency.

The survey's false assumption on this crucial issue is entirely pernicious, and one can only assume it is designed to sow mistrust of any electoral system not designed to, more often than not, deliver majority governments.

In a similar vein, the survey asks Canadians whether "governments should have to negotiate their policy decisions with other parties in Parliament, even if it is less clear who is accountable for the resulting policy." Again, the survey uses the affirmative phrase "even if" as though it is self-evidently the case that when governments negotiate their policy decisions with other parties accountability is diluted.

That assumption is not, however, self-evident. Nor is it even, based on actual experience, true.

Nowhere does the survey allow for the possibility of governments in which more than one party work together in partnership -- what we sometimes call coalitions. That type of government is the norm in many highly effective, prosperous countries, such as the Scandinavian countries and Germany. Voters do not complain, in those countries, that it is difficult in hold their politicians to account.

Even in the case of Canadian minority governments, when they take decisions they invariably accept responsibility for them, and do not resort to weasel excuses, such as "the opposition made us do it."

Again, the survey shows a clear bias against any system that might not, as a rule, produce majority governments of a single party.

Indeed, the fact that the survey never even mentions the possibility that two or more parties might cooperatively share power reveals much.

The framers of the survey seem to subscribe to the Stephen Harper theory of democracy.

It was Harper who posited the argument, in 2008 -- when the three opposition parties proposed a coalition government to replace his -- that the losers were trying to snatch victory from the winner. Those losers had close to 60 per cent of the popular vote compared to a bit more than 36 per cent for Harper's party. No matter, in Harper's view all that counted was that he came first -- ergo, he deserved 100 per cent the power.

The survey fails to ask some important values questions

The survey, Liberals say, is supposed to sound Canadians on their values, rather than on complex, tangible voting system options.

But it never asks, as a matter of values, how Canadians feel about the notion that a party could win a majority of seats, and thus 100 per cent of the power, with far fewer than half the votes. 

The government has distributed the survey under the rubric My Democracy. One has a right to ask if the way in which popular will is translated into power is, or is not, a central feature of anybody's democracy -- mine, yours, or Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter.

The survey simply assumes it is not.

Another disturbing aspect of this survey is that while for a number of questions it allows participants to grade their responses on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree, with neutral in the middle, for many others, it forces respondents to make either/or choices, with no opportunity for nuance, nothing in between.

How would you respond to these two options, for instance?

"Ballots should be as simple as possible so that everybody understands how to vote OR ballots should allow everybody to express their preferences in detail?"

The way those choices are framed assumes that it is impossible to have a system in which ballots are simple and clear and allow for a detailed expression of preferences.

That is an utterly false assumption.

One electoral option that is currently on the table in Canada would create large-ish multi-member ridings, and allow voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. Such a system would be neither complicated nor cumbersome, and would not require that voters have a degree in higher mathematics.

Variants of that system are used in a number of countries, such as Ireland, in many jurisdictions, including British and New Zealand local councils, and in a number of Australian states. It is also used in the cities of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis.

In other words, the survey creates a false choice and does not allow participants to answer either none of the above or skip the question altogether.

Here is another example -- and, again, participants in the survey must choose one option. The survey asks if you prefer: "Members of Parliament that always support policies that they think are best for their constituents, even if their constituents disagree OR Members of Parliament that always support policies their constituents want, even if the MPs themselves personally disagree?"

What if you, like this writer, think this is a matter of shades of grey, and not a black and white issue?

The survey assumes that you will want your MP to behave like an automaton, blindly and mechanistically sticking to a single rule in making all decisions. It leaves no room for the realistic, logical answer, which is that MPs should use their judgment and find a reasonable balance between what they believe to be best and what their constituents believe, when there might be a conflict between the two.

In over-simplifying such complex issues the survey does injustice to the notion of representative democracy and, at bottom, insults the intelligence of Canadians.

This writer is an Innovator. What are you? And who cares?

When those who take the survey complete it, they are then told they fall into one of five broad, psycho-political categories.

The survey told this writer he is in the Innovator group. The other groups are: Cooperators, Guardians, Pragmatists, and Challengers.

Where do these categories come from? Vox Pop does not deign to tell you. The company does, however, give you an utterly redundant demographic breakdown of people in your category, based on age, gender and other characteristics.

In the case of Innovators, the average age is, apparently, 37.

So what?

How does this help elucidate or clarify the issue of electoral reform?

It doesn't. And that, sadly, is the point.

Liberals who have cooled to the idea of changing the electoral system, or who are downright hostile to any change that includes a significant element of proportionality, are hoping this survey succeeds in covering the entire reform process in a blanket of dense fog.

The more confused and disaffected Canadians are with the entire process, they reason, the easier it will be to ditch it entirely.

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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