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Dear Ryan: How the preferential voting system would be good for Canada

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Ryan Leef
Member of Parliament for Yukon
Open Letter #10

Dear Ryan,

In 2006, there was a leadership race to select a replacement for Ralph Klein as premier of Alberta. I, along with thousands of progressive Albertans, bought a $5 membership to the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta in order to prevent a certain extreme right-wing conservative from becoming premier. Sad to say, PC party leadership races were the only viable way to express democratic choice in Alberta. Not since Peter Lougheed have more than forty per cent of Albertans supported the Progressive Conservative Party. This situation is in part caused by unfair riding divisions and lack of independent uncompromised newspapers. But it is mainly due to the use of a first-past-the-post electoral system.

This was the only time I ever joined a political party and I resigned shortly after.

Interestingly, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta uses a format called preferential vote, in their leadership elections. In this system, voters mark their ballot with first, second and third choice candidates. If no one wins fifty per cent of the popular vote, the candidate with the least votes is disqualified. The second choice votes on the ballots for the disqualified candidate are then counted. Whoever wins the leadership campaign has a strong mandate of support from more than fifty per cent of voters. My first choice didn't win. My second choice, Ed Stelmach, did.

This brings me to the subject of my 10th letter: how the use of preferential vote would be good for Canada.

With more than two political parties in Canada, dirty tactics are increasingly used to appeal to minority groups at the expense of the majority. These tactics work best under a first-past-the-post electoral system where they can give a political party a strategic edge. While the Canadian political landscape hasn't become as bizarre and undignified as the American political arena, we are certainly heading in that direction.

In his book, Harper's Team, Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan writes: "Politics is less about logic than it is about getting support. Policies must be formulated so that they can be communicated to the general public and win the support of voters who spend little time studying and thinking about policy." Clearly, Conservative messaging isn't meant to persuade voters who are well-read, thoughtful and do understand policy.

In the fall Ontario election, Progressive Conservative, Tim Hudak, believed he could win the bigot vote through a poisonous anti-gay attack. Dan Radwanski writing for the Globe and Mail commented that it was the perceived "insincerity"of the attacks that lost Mr. Hudak the election. (Apparently, Ontario bigots know when they are being patronized.)

Historically, the targeting of scapegoats has been a powerful tool to manipulate the public and maintain power. The Tsars of Russia orchestrated pogroms against Jews every time famine threatened. We are not illiterate serfs. But this tactic can still influence a substantial minority of Canadians who are identifiable and malleable.

In the last Manitoba election, Senator Don Plett advised Progressive Conservatives to use personal attacks against Premier Selinger. To their credit, they refused. Political pundits later scolded them, claiming that scruples cost the Progressive Conservatives the election. It is a sad state of affairs when principles are seen as both naïve and unprofessional.

Personal attacks aren't new in Canada. Politicians have maligned each other in the press and during debates for a long time. But this wasn't an organized activity until the federal Conservative Party hired marketing firms to design ads in print, television and Internet to smear their opponents. Many Canadians are disgusted by this activity. But it successfully works with a sizable percentage of the population and now we are seeing its use spread beyond federal politics.

We are told against all evidence that we need more prisons even as the crime rate goes down. During the last federal election, citizens in predominantly Jewish ridings were warned that the Liberal Party was anti-Semitic. We are advised to be afraid of the "Islamists" and "radicals" who hide under every bed, threatening our safety and our pocket books. Conservative Vic Toews recently equated environmentalism with white supremacy and other forms of terrorism. Only idiots are susceptible to this kind of fear mongering but apparently there are enough idiots in Canada to make it worthwhile.

It matters little if most Canadians are appalled and insulted by dirty tactics. Under our current first-past-the-post electoral system, a political party need only persuade 35 per cent of voters to achieve a majority government. The most fearful, uninformed and intolerant amongst us are the easiest to influence. The hopes and desires of the majority of Canadians can safely be ignored.

I know that you don't endorse dirty politics, Ryan. If we used preferential vote, it would affect not only election results but political culture, making it more civil. I believe that the majority of Canadians are thoughtful and well-informed. Electoral reform would make unscrupulous tactics counter-productive. It is worthwhile noting that in the last Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race, it wasn't the dirtiest candidate that won the election. It was the moderate, progressive candidate: Alison Redford.

Furthermore, the winning candidates in an election using the preferential vote system would enjoy the support from more than 50 per cent of voters. If we had used this format during the last federal election, you could possibly be in the enviable position of having a strong mandate.

Preferential vote is a system of the ballot box. It need not be a deterrent to examining different electoral reforms that involve proportional representation. It could be used in conjunction with those reforms.

Finally, the preferential vote format reflects the views of more citizens than the first-past-the-post system. It is simply more democratic.

I strongly encourage you to support electoral reform.

Good luck with the spring term in office, Ryan. May your time in Ottawa be constructive and may you always walk on the high road.

Respectfully yours,

Linda Leon

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