Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We Really Need Election Reform in Canada

Stockwell Day put his foot in his mouth again. As a minister in Canada's ruling Conservative Party, he want us to build more prisons. But the press was making fun of him for his reasoning that, although crime stats are down, "Unreported crime" is up.

Conservatives are very big on crime, and as I recall a few years back, at a press conference with our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, TV personality Geri Hall was subdued and led away in handcuffs. (Geri Hall is a comedian on the fake news show "This hour has 22 Minutes", which Conservatives apparently don't think is very funny.)

"Law and Order" is an issue that Conservatives take very seriously, and they use the issue to win votes. "More Jails" is a popular theme with conservative voters.

I don't want to get into a debate whether or not we need extra jails to lock up reporters for telling Harper they love him in press conferences, to me the real problem is that Canada is a "liberal" country being run by a Conservative government. In other words, Canada is mostly about freedom of religion, but we have a Christian fundamentalist government. Canadians mostly want peace, but we have a pro-war government. Canadians want the government to help run the economy, but we have a government that believes in "Laissez Faire" economics and the invisible hand of the free market. Canadians want a government that takes a lead internationally on human rights, but we get a government that abdicates support for international justice. Canadians want a government that protects the environment, but we get a government that obstructs international efforts to combat global warming.

How did we get into this ridiculous stranglehold that the Conservatives have over us? It is because our voting system is archaic. So, the unified Conservative party, with only 32% of the vote,  uses our archaic voting rules to defeat four disunified left wing parties. (and calls it treason when the opposition parties attempt to form a coalition).

Most democratic countries have ways of dealing with this, by using a runoff election between the top two parties after the first ballot. The UK and the USA (and Canada) do not have a runoff system, but the US is basically a two-party state, so rarely has the problem of runoffs (notable exception in 2000). And in the UK, there is a tradition of coalition governments that apparently we are losing, or have lost in Canada.

Recently, the province of Ontario had a referendum on election reform, which was soundly defeated. Why? I think it was because the new (and complicated) system required over 40 additional members of the provincial legislature, that was unpopular with all sides.

The easiest solution would be to have an automatic runoff system, based on a two choice ballot. When you vote, you can put your first choice, and your second choice right away, on the same trip to the polls. Then the vote tabulating computers can work out not only who the top two candidates are, but within seconds of the final count, could also tell us who wins the runoff. That way we eliminate the long and expensive second round vote, and have something resembling a second round runoff.

Best of all, it would give us the kind of government that represents most Canadians, instead of this travesty of Canada as a right wing militaristic police state (albeit a nice one) run by religious fundamentalists.

Photo June 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)


  1. Election reform is a complex problem - any fundamental change in the election process risks the effect of unintended consequences.

    Canada has, traditionally, been a two-party (some flavour of 'Conservative,' some flavour of 'Liberal') democracy. Although minor parties (Social Credit, CCF, NDP, &c.) have contested, the two primary parties have held the majority of seats in the House.

    That situation changed dramatically following the disastrous 1991 Meech Lake accord. An 'informal' coalition of Conservative and Liberal members from Quebec formed the Bloc Québécois, a 'regional' party.

    This compounded the problems initiated by the (1987) regional Reform Party in the West.

    The rump of the Progressive Conservative party merged with the Reform Party in 2003, 'uniting the right,' and enabling it to form successive minority governments since 2006.

    However, the left in Canada remains fractured between the Liberals, NDP and Greens and the Bloc regional presence distorts the situation even further.

    The Bloc has taken around 50 seats (almost 20% of the seats in the House) in each recent election while receiving little more than 10% of the popular vote. Or, from another perspective: with approximately 1,400,000 votes in 2008, the Bloc won 49 seats, whereas with 2,500,000 votes, the NDP won only 30 seats. A serious distortion.

    In the 2008 election, 64% of Canadian electors voted against the Conservatives. The 'leftish' parties (Liberals, NDP and Greens) actually obtained, in aggregate, more than 50% of the popular vote.

    The present situation, with two strong 'regional' parties (the Conservatives' take the majority of their seats in the 'West,', the Bloc all their seats in Quebec) has prompted some analysts to despair that (at least under the present system) majority governments may have become a thing of the past.

    Personally, I suspect that some form of inter-party co-operation among the parties on the left may offer a solution to the current 'vote splitting' problem.

    Given the policy differences between the Greens, NDP and Liberals (especially the more conservative Liberals) a movement to 'unite the left' is unlikely to bear fruit. And, as you point out in your Ontario example, people tend to be reluctant when it comes to making fundamental changes to the electoral system.

  2. seems to me the issue is in incentive

    while a party will talk reform while in opposition, once in power (and able to do something) there is this funny tendency for them to forget about reforming the system that now has got THEM into government!

    It will be to see if anything happens in Britain--the Lib-Dems want reform and the Cons seemed to have promised to do something about it...

    I am also wondering how long these new CONS in Canada can keep the right unified, the religious right in that party will either take control and the moderates may have to leave or they won't get what they want and they will have to set up Reform Party II...

  3. Stef, you write, '... the religious right in that party will either take control and the moderates may have to leave'

    There are moderates in that party?!

    Seriously, though, you raise a valid issue. Although 'visions' and 'strategic directions' may be discussed as platform issues (especially by the opposition parties) during elections, the 'reality' of governing seems to push everything back into the realm of the tactical.

    Which, of course, is generally mostly about retaining power once gained.

    One shudders to think about all those fundamental commitments made during elections that were reneged on almost as soon as power was acquired (FTA, GST, &c., the list is depressing, isn't it?).

  4. Yeah I do think there are (now moderate in terms of the party..) I would think Peter McKays and the like

    And if they ever do really break thru and gain their majority, it will likely be by picking up seats in urban Ontario---with likely moderate (again relative term, so moderate Conservaties) and then it would be interesting (and scary) to see what happens...does the "real" agenda of the ex-Reformers from out west really come to the fore or are the moderates from Ont and elsewhere able to keep them somewhat at bay?

    or as I say, do they simply find they can't get along under the "tent" and back we go again...

    course I personally hope we never find out!