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Hill Dispatches: Fraud and wrong incentives in Canada's electoral system

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Pro-democracy rally on Parliament Hill, 2010

The Toronto Star, the CBC, and newspapers in the Postmedia chain all report that the Conservatives were quite comfortable using United States based "voter contact" firms in the last election.

The Prime Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary, Dean Del Mastro, glibly accused the Liberals of using such a United States-based company, but it turns out that was a case of mistaken identity and sloppy Conservative Party research.

All along, the Conservatives knew they were the ones who had gone shopping for services south of the border.

No fewer than 14 Conservative candidates, including Dean Del Mastro himself, used the Republican-allied company, Front Porch Strategies, based in Columbus, Ohio.

That company, according to the Star, has worked for George W. Bush and has been especially active in the campaign to overturn to the U. S. Supreme Court's abortion rights decision "Roe vs. Wade."

Foreign influence is dangerous... ?

What started as a case of shenanigans in one riding is now beginning to look like it involves the dangerous intrusion of foreign interests in Canada's democratic process. And we know this Conservative government is very concerned about foreigners influencing Canadian decisions.

Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton very recently issued a vigorous warning about the troubling phenomenon of foreign interference in this country's affairs.

In a speech in the Senate last week, announcing an inquiry into one form of supposed foreign influence on Canadian policies, Senator Eaton said:

"... foreign interests have been somewhat successful in their objectives... [T]hey have launched very expensive, professionally designed so-called public education campaigns ... We can learn from the experience. And we can fight back. Let's let them know that they cannot walk into our country and try to turn our own citizens against us."

Now, the Senator was not talking about foreign political operatives, experts in voter suppression and other "black ops," possibly working to hamstring a Canadian democratic election.

No -- Senator Eaton was attacking foreigners (including some "billionaire socialists," it seems) who make contributions to Canadian charitable organizations that work on the environment. Many of those organizations devote 10 per cent of their activities to advocacy activities, which is allowed by Canadian Revenue Agency rules governing charities.

This sort of stuff, according to the Ontario Senator, is a case of "political manipulation" and "influence peddling." Even worse, it involves "master manipulators who are operating under the guise of charitable organizations in an effort to manipulate our policies for their own gain."

And if that were not shocking enough, this intrusion into Canadian affairs is a case of "has-been and wannabe movie stars trying to defibrillate their flat-lined careers."

Lock up the children!

Bar the windows!

Turn off the lights!

The movie stars are coming!

Even worse: the has-been and wannabe movie stars are coming!

What next?

Can we expect the ghost of Marlon Brando to descend on us and wreak havoc in the land, while he tries to pronounce "Barzini" with his mouth full of cotton batting?

Our foreigners, good -- their foreigners, bad!

These nasty foreigners are -- the way Senator Eaton describe it -- seeking to "de-market" Canadian energy exports, and in so doing "turn Canada into a giant national park," to use Prime Minister Harper's famous words.

As for the foreign companies and groups that get involved in Canadian elections, potentially sharing their expertise in some fairly dodgy tactics -- well, that's just normal, business-as-usual, according to Dean Del Mastro and his colleagues.

"No one is saying there is anything wrong with hiring American firms," Del Mastro said when it was revealed that the Liberals had not, in fact, hired one, while his party had.

And so, Republican-affiliated consulting firms are now a legitimate and normal part of the Canadian electoral process.

If there were a foreign firm hired by another party -- well there might be something wrong with that, if only the Conservative research office could find one.

In the same way, the foreign companies that spend millions to lobby, in Canada, in favour of the tar sands and the Pacific Gateway Pipeline, are entirely legitimate and benign. They are interested only in "contributing to the Canadian economy," to quote Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, not motivated by their own bottom line.

On the other hand, foreigners who give money to Canadian charities -- and cannot even claim a tax break in their own country for their donations -- are part of a sinister conspiracy.

Why we need electoral reform

Those who think that electoral reform is a trivial, "fringe" issue and that our first-past-the-post system is just fine, thank you very much -- and there are many in the inside-the-Queensway Ottawa elite in that group -- might want to reconsider their position in light of the current intimations of electoral fraud.

First-past-the post makes it possible for parties to win majorities without winning the majority of the votes. In fact, that is the normal and most common result in Canada.

The last time, in recent memory, that a party won both a majority of seats and a majority of votes was in 1984, when Mulroney's Conservatives won their lopsided 200-plus seats with more than 50 per cent of the votes.

The four elections between 1988 and 2000 all produced majorities, but the winning party never got even as much as 44 per cent of the vote. In one case, Chrétien's 1997 victory, the Liberals won a majority of seats with less than 39 per cent of the popular vote.

For three of those elections, the Bloc Québecois won the majority of the seats in Quebec and formed a significant force in Parliament.

From 1993 to 1997 the Bloc even formed the Official Opposition in Parliament, although it only ran candidates in the 75 Quebec ridings. Each day, Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard could get up in the House and pound the table in favour of Quebec separation, though his party had only placed fourth in the popular vote.

One of the parties that placed ahead of the Bloc in votes, the Progressive Conservatives, won a grand total of two seats!

That is only one of the many perverse results of the first-past-the-post system. It distorts parties' support regionally.

First-past-the-post rewards regionally concentrated votes

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the Liberals won extremely few seats in western Canada, while usually garnering about a quarter of the votes in that region. With a similar popular vote -- but one that was, as political scientists say, "more effective" -- the NDP would routinely win somewhere between 20 and 35 seats in the west.

In Quebec, back then, the NDP and the old Progressive Conservatives would each normally get around 12 per cent of the vote, while usually winning no seats, or, at most one or two.

In the last federal election, in Quebec, the NDP won more than three quarters of the seats, 59, with quite a bit less than half the vote (just under 45 per cent).

In that same election, the NDP's nearly 35 per cent of the vote in its traditional heartland, Saskatchewan, resulted in zero seats there for the third election in a row.

These numbers only scratch the surface of how imperfectly first-past-the-post translates popular will into political representation.

What is really wrong with Canada's current electoral system, however, is the kind of behaviour it motivates on the part of what Europeans call our "political class."

Does the "winner-take-all" psychology encourage cheating?

Most federal elections in Canada have produced majorities for a single party, without popular vote majorities. In the cases where that has not been the result, there has usually been a strong plurality for one, "winning" party.

In this way the electoral system has contributed to a kind of winner-take-all political psychology in Canada.

There is virtually no tradition of power-sharing or co-operative/collaborative government in Canada.

At the federal level, the only near-coalition in Canadian history was Borden's World War I Unionist government -- but that was more a case of pro-war anglophone Liberals deserting their own party to team up with the Conservatives.

Because it is possible to win a majority with less than 40 per cent of the votes -- if those votes are well-placed, regionally -- that's the brass ring parties aim for. That sort of "victory" defines success in our system.

There is little incentive, under the Canadian first-past-the-post system, for parties to seek, modestly, to play a meaningful a role in governing the country, as opposed to winning it all and dominating parliament.

Our system does not provide any incentive for parties to aspire to win a mere piece of power and not the whole pie, because we don't do consensus and power-sharing in this country. We're all about winners and losers, with nothing in between.

Parliament's sole purpose is not to select the Prime Minister

This winner-take-all political psychology has reached its apogee with our current Prime Minister, who repeatedly tells the opposition "we won and you lost."

The fact is that Harper's party won slightly more than half the seats in the House of Commons, with fewer than four out of 10 votes. There is nothing illegitimate, wrong or unusual about that. It is, in fact, a fairly typical majority result.

However, Canadians did not go to the polls on May 2, 2011 to select a nearly all-powerful Prime Minister. They voted to elect 308 members of parliament, all of whom are supposed to participate, equally, in the legislative or law-making process.

An executive emerges out of that elected legislature, based on the choice of a majority of members, but that is only one part of Parliament's purpose. The current Conservatives act, at times, as if anointing the Prime Minister is Parliament's only purpose.

In a way, one cannot blame the Conservatives for that attitude. They are only responding to the built-in incentives of the first-past-the-post system, as practiced in Canada.

If we had any other system in Canada -- mixed proportional, preferential or alternative vote, two round single-member (as in France, for instance) -- elections would rarely produce majorities, and parties would have to learn to co-operate, sometimes by forming coalitions.

Other systems can produce stable governments

A different system would not be a recipe for instability, as so many Canadians seem to believe.

The Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland, post-war Germany, France and many other prosperous and stable countries all have electoral systems that do not normally yield majorities for a single party. They have all developed strong traditions of political co-operation across party lines.

In Canada, sadly, we now have a situation where the lust for that all-important majority of seats has become so overwhelming there is evidence some parties are willing to cheat in order to get it.

Whatever the electoral system, there will always, of course, be folks who are ready to break the rules.

But the Canadian system puts such a great premium on total victory -- and produces "victories" that are so at variance with the popular vote -- that we have to wonder if the temptation to break the rules has become almost irresistible.

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