Columnists

Rick Salutin
Rethinking democracy, part two: Reforming Canada's electoral system

| July 17, 2012
Proportional representation in cake form (U.K.). Photo: Katy Stoddard/Flickr

The PR people come straight for you at public events. They aren't easily deterred. They have an evangelical quality. I don't mean Public Relations people; they're shy and retiring by comparison. I mean the Proportional Representation people. They know the answer to our democratic deficit. They're true believers.

I confess I was once among them. After all, it's been the only serious form of democratic reform on offer here. (OK, Senate reform, too; I'll get to that.) PR would make a real difference in how we vote and how governments are created. At the least, if Canadians got a chance to vote on PR, I felt, they'd embrace it. It was a no-brainer.

There have now been referendums on it in B.C., Ontario and P.E.I. All lost, twice in B.C. But hey, real change takes time. It suffers setbacks.

The briefest glance still proves how undemocratic our system is, in which you merely need more votes than other candidates, to arrive "first past the post," and win a seat.

In an election contested by 11 parties, with 100 seats at stake, you could theoretically win all 100, with only 9.9 per cent of the total vote, even though 90 per cent of voters did not vote for your party.

That's theoretical, but most of the real election results are pretty hilarious, too.

In last year's federal election, the Harper Conservatives received less than 40 per cent of the votes but 54 per cent of the seats. This, we know, is enough to let them pass anything they wish.

The Liberals, by contrast, got 19 per cent of the votes but just 11 per cent of seats. The previous election they got 26 per cent of votes and 25 per cent of seats, proving that our system, like a stopped clock, occasionally gets it right but never for all parties at the same time.

The Greens for instance received 3.7 per cent of the votes but just one seat, rather than 11 (3.7 per cent of 308 seats in the House of Commons). The previous election the Greens got double that number of votes, and no seats.

We hardly ever have a majority government with a majority of actual votes. The last one came in 1984. You can play with these numbers till the cows come home and it's kind of fun. We had an actual case, for instance -- New Brunswick in 1987 -- of a party winning every seat, not with 11 per cent but with 60 per cent of votes.

That's the kind of thing that convinces you PR is a no-brainer. You can keep producing new numbers showing how absurdly undemocratic our system is, making the case for PR appear irrefutable.

There are about 300 versions of it, which is another thing that may appeal to the devout. Anyone can mix and match to construct his or her own ideal version.

These include straight PR, in which all parties get seats strictly according to vote share. There's also MMPR, mixed-member PR, combining the election of local reps, as we have now, with a set of reps drawn from party lists based on percentages. Ontarians rejected that one.

Then there's Single Transferable Vote, which B.C. voters turned down twice. You indicate your second, third, etc., choices along with your top choice so if your No. 1 is at the bottom and gets dropped after the first tally, your vote is transferred down the line until a set of winners -- ridings are larger but total numbers of reps stays the same -- emerge. It's complex but it means most votes actually matter and something proportional emerges.

So why have Canadians been reluctant to ratify any of these schemes, defying my expectations and those of many others?

Partly, it's normal hesitation in the face of change. Someone in Finland once told me, regarding educational reform, "Most people want change but they're afraid of it." They need assurances that they won't be left with something even stupider than what exists now. That anxiety can be stoked by columnists or academics motivated by little more than a desire not to have to learn new rules or restock their bag of clichés.

So, in the wily manner of ordinary people everywhere, I think Canadian voters have found sly ways to incorporate some advantages of PR without actually taking an axe to the current process.

For instance, we've often had majority federal governments that only received a minority of votes, but most of those were Liberal. If you added in votes received by the NDP or its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which were usually the third-place party, you'd have a voting majority. If Liberals then adopted a batch of NDP policies, as they regularly did, you could say we got something like a reflection of majority views. Of course, it didn't seem that way to the NDP, which seethed with fury about having its policies ripped off.

I'd even claim the Progressive Conservative victory in Alberta last April was due to a sort of virtual Single Transferable Vote cast by many voters. What I mean is: faced with the possibility of a U.S.-Tea Party clone in the Wildrose party, many Liberal and NDP voters may have decided they'd rather have Alison Redford's PCs, with her new emphasis on the P, and moved, in effect, straight to their second choice by voting for the PC candidate. The combined vote of PC/Liberal/NDP came to 66 per cent and Redford's PC's got almost exactly two-thirds of the seats -- though only 44 per cent of the votes.

Voters can act uncannily as if they have one mind. It's sometimes labelled strategic voting. But it amounts to a cagey way of getting some implicit PR without making drastic changes.

Here's another reason voters may have been wiser than those of us who were enchanted by PR. Most places I visited for this series on democratic renewal already have it and are protesting anyway.

Spain's movement is called Real Democracy Now -- suggesting fake democracy is what they currently have -- and their system is basically PR. Greece, where 5 to 10 per cent of the population often gathers outside parliament screaming for real democracy, has a modified PR system. And Israel, where democracy activists camp in the streets and send teams of watchdogs to monitor parliament, has strict PR.

They all have it and many of their most conscientious citizens feel as if they exist in a democratic train wreck. If PR has fallen with a thud here, maybe it's because it's trying to fix the wrong problem. Maybe the problem isn't how parties are represented; maybe it's parties, which would wax even stronger under PR than they do now.

The problem with parties is they don't exist to represent the views of the public, or even sections of it, or even their own members. Maybe they once did, or maybe not. But now they exist to win elections. They're "election-day organizations," to quote political scientist Donald Savoie. They take public opinion into account mainly in their strategic calculations.

If you were a party personified, you might have convictions, but once an election loomed, you'd calculate what version of your convictions would win you seats and add that to other calculations, including which of your convictions to underplay or ditch.

You see that as much on the left in the NDP as on the right in the Harper Conservatives. It isn't evil or insincere; it's what parties do. The point is to slice and dice voting blocs in order to win a majority, or at least a large enough minority to wield power.

If the party system worked more democratically, the solution would be to change parties, to better reflect opinion. But that's where it gets tricky. All parties tend to follow similar paths, once in power. The Liberals opposed the free-trade deal signed by the Mulroney Tories, till they returned to power in 1993. Then they embraced free trade and expanded it.

The fashion for budget slashing began with Tories in the 1980s. But the Chrétien-Martin Liberals were far fiercer slashers during the 1990s, even if they looked gloomy about doing it; the Rae NDP government in Ontario followed the same path in those years. Harper has continued the carnage, though cheerily, as did Mike Harris in Ontario following Bob Rae.

They aren't all the same but they're on a continuum. These all-party policies don't democratically reflect opinion; they ignore or contradict it. No matter what you're elected on, you tend to fall into the mould.

Even in cases where public opinion is reflected by party policies, it doesn't have much to do with the parties. The CBC was created by a Conservative government in the 1930s and continued by Liberals. Medicare, Canada's most popular program ever, was proposed by Liberals in 1919. (Its original was created in 19th-century Germany by the reactionary militarist, Otto von Bismarck.) The CCF government of Saskatchewan proposed it in 1944, but didn't enact it until 1962. Then a federal Liberal government brought it in nationally, at a time when Conservative provincial governments in Ontario and Alberta already had created versions.

In these cases the popular will was expressed, but what need was there for parties, if they all did the same thing?

Could parties be reformed to make them more receptive to (or less contemptuous of) public opinion -- or at least the views of their own members?

It's been tried. In the Depression of the 1930s, the CCF in Saskatchewan promised to adopt resolutions arrived at democratically by its members at conventions. But when it won power in 1944, the promise unravelled under the pressures of real politics. In the 1960s, Pierre Trudeau's Liberals promised "participatory democracy" for all. But it got ratcheted down to Liberal party participation; and even that amounted to lip service.

An impressive effort was made by the early Reform party under Preston Manning. He grew up in the traditions of prairie populism that spawned the United Farmers of Alberta, the Progressive party, the CCF and Social Credit. In early Reform, he managed to combine right-wing politics with grassroots democracy: especially a commitment of MPs to represent the views of their constituents even, or especially, when those views conflicted with the party's or their own.

He never quite managed to square that circle and was in frequent combat with his own caucus, who rarely took the democratic element as seriously as he did. But he put up a battle.

When a bill allowing assisted suicide looked as if it would come before parliament in 1993, he consulted his Calgary constituents, who indicated they supported it. He opposed it but said he'd vote as they wished. He also acknowledged a problem, since he doubted he could express their position as eloquently as it deserved. The bill never came to a vote, but it was a good moment for democracy.

As his party morphed into the Canadian Alliance, then the current Harper Conservatives, that democratic commitment withered away. All that remains is the call for an elected Senate -- which would merely add another party-obedient body to the servile House of Commons we have.

Could parties be eliminated altogether?

They don't exist in most municipal politics. They don't exist in the governments of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. They were sketchy at the time of Confederation. Sir John A. Macdonald's party was called Liberal-Conservative, suggesting a vague grab bag.

World War I moved many of those who experienced it to search for better approaches. Canada's parliament actually debated PR in 1925. There were attempts to eliminate political parties. There were "non-partisan leagues" in Western Canada and the Progressives, who vowed to faithfully represent only those who elected them. They were a non-party party. They won 65 seats in 1925, enough to make them the Official Opposition but, true to their principles, they declined the role so 30 Conservatives accepted it.

Under the inexorable pressures of the party/parliamentary system the Progressives slowly faded and Liberal leader Mackenzie King absorbed them. But the process was gradual. Until 1974, party names didn't even appear on ballots, only those of candidates.

It's as if the system we have generates antibodies to invasive, democratizing forces and rejects them while bulking up the undemocratic elements. Even when eliminated, parties tend to regenerate. It's hard to see how fortifying their role, as PR would do, could be a real democratizing force. In fact, I find it a little embarrassing that our main contribution to the global movement toward democratic renewal is an earnest effort to do so little.

Is there anything to be gleaned or salvaged from it?

Well, the most inspiring thing about recent attempts to reform Canadian politics through PR was the Citizens Assembly created in B.C. in 2004. Its task was to choose the form of PR the province would vote on. Its members were drawn by lot from replies to thousands of letters sent to names on voters' lists: one man and woman per electoral district.

They came to Vancouver every weekend for a year to discuss alternatives. They met publicly in a circular hall in which the 160 members faced each other. They sifted types of PR and chose a version called Single Transferable Vote because, though complex, they felt it was the most democratic. On that they were nearly unanimous. The final vote was 147 to 8.

The subsequent referendum was defeated, but only narrowly and the bar was set very, in fact unreasonably, high. (It had to pass by 60 per cent, and in at least 60 per cent of B.C. electoral districts. It won in almost all districts -- 77 of 79 -- but the total votes came to 57.69 per cent.)

That process leading to the referendum was a stirring example of democratic citizen involvement. It was worthy of Athens. It had absolutely nothing to do with elections, parties or representation, proportional or not. It was simply democracy at work.

I should also confess that I've sat for many years on the advisory board of a group that advocates PR. I'd be glad to step down if they find my position too ambivalent to put up with. I'd still vote for PR, but in a sour frame of mind.

This is part two of a six-part series. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Comments

Problem is that Canada was born with a democratic deficit. It was, after all, a rejection of U.S.-style democracy. There was no Bill of Rights in the BNA Act. In fact, no soul-stirring sentiments at all, only peace order and good government. Hardly democratic. Our MPs answer to the whip, or else. Most answer. Compare that to the Tony Blair House of Commons, where the British PM had to cobble together an omnibus budget bill filled with goodies to get all dissident New Labour MPs onside over Blair's many wars. He succeeded. But first-past-the-post has its benefits. Where there's a majority and the will to act, we get a national medicare scheme. We get action. Or we get Harper and a majority determined to undo it all. We have to take the good with the bad. In the U.S., there's gridlock. In Europe, there's a variety of voting schemes. And look what they get. Israelis may be pumped about their politics. But their PM is Benjamin Netanyahu and before him, they elected 2 former unrepentant terrorists, Menachim Begin and Itzhak Shamir. There are things we can do once we rid ourselves of the Harper government. We can make government more transparent. Beef up our parliamentary committees. The Brits do. We can be willing to live with maverick MPs who vote their conscience. That's fine as long as they are rebels with the right causes - those who are anti-war, for example. But there will be those who are opposed to the gun registry and abortion rights. You take the good with the bad. THAT'S democracy. By the way, should the NDP form a government, want to bet the talk about changing the way we vote will be forgotten by the left - with the exception of Rick Salutin, of course. 

 

 

Quite interesting, I´m waiting for the next part. The problem is that the blog is too long and it is loosing grasp. On topic - well I agree with what you say about political parties. I would use the terminology from Richard S. Katz who named them Cartel parties. You should definitely look this up. In the global overview, we have a good political system with based on strong traditions. You can criticize the parties or the government, but in the relative comparison we do quite well. The Increasing Trend of U.S. Immigration to Canada is just what I am talking about. Do we have a democracy? Well it is democracy, but the term democracy no longer stays for the old idea of what it is. Let me explain. I would rather use the term liberal democracy, which is a set of more coherent characteristics and it explains the current situation better. It is far from perfect, and political parties have a big influence on it, but we still do quite good. the only problem is we get more comfortable and stop controlling our governments. Media turn to be more a PR than a useful critic of them. And so on. I´m quite happy you try to put some political science here so keep the good job.

Interesting ruminations but I felt cheated at the end and I did not think that Rick gave ancient Athens its due in part 1. Yes, women and slaves did not participate in political life in ancient Athens but the level of direct particpation in the democratic decision making process by the citizens of the different classes-other than slaves- was much higher than it is in our society today. Forget proportional representation --and also  liberal or representative democacy, which is an oxymoron. Let's have direct democracy at the level of government closest to the citizens and let us make all other representative bodies subordinate to the direct democratic bodies in each community and workplace.

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