Tuesday, June 14, 2011

(No.156) The tyranny of the minority: another media miss

Mandate is a word much used and abused in Canada since the May 2 federal election, a misuse that the media have done little to offset.

In the political context a mandate involves political instructions based on the votes of the electorate. The media consensus since the election, reinforced almost daily by columnists and cable news 'talking heads', has been this: what will the Conservatives do with their mandate from Canadian voters? This rests on a strange and mistaken idea of what constitutes a mandate from the people.

As I was at some pains to underline in a recent column ("Canada's electoral failure", RickardsRead.com, column No.151, posted May 7, 2011) this country has long been in need of electoral reform so that governments have actually received the support of at least 50% of those who voted. The federal Tories (or indeed any political party) receiving 39.6% of votes does not legitimize any sensible use of the words "voter mandate" unless one is making the argument that 60%+ of voters choosing NOT to support a political party somehow endows that party with a mandate.

Since election night the mainstream media have managed to ignore the elephant in the room: the reality of the voting results being the consequence, not of a big upswing in popular affection for the Tories, but of an unreformed electoral system that saw the NDP draw off enough votes from the Liberals in enough constituencies to allow the Tories to gain sufficient additional seats for a majority.

What was and is the real story of the electoral results, the one largely ignored by the media?

It was articulated cogently by Rick Salutin in his weekly column (May 6) in the Toronto Star. "We now live," wrote Salutin, "in a permanent state you could call the tyranny of the minority. You could also call it the tragedy of the majority. We'll have had 10 years of government desired by 40% of the voters, while 60%, who largely agree on what they'd like,will get zero representation. Everyone played by the rules of the game, but it's a stretch to call that game democracy."

Indeed it is and the rules of the game badly need to be changed. A core issue arising, yet again, from a federal election is electoral reform that would bring Canadian government closer to real democracy.

In today's era of cable news and 'talking heads' and their cousins in the chattering classes, it's too easy to have a furrow of opinion ploughed and then tramped down by others. Thus, when a Globe and Mail front page story (June 2) refers to the federal Tories' "electoral reform package", it can repeat the Tory line on electoral 'reform' (seat redistribution, election of senators to fixed terms, abolition of public subsidies for political parties) without a passing reference to or even feigned surprise at the absence of any mention of real election reform involving proportional representation or even a preferential ballot or indeed any step toward meaningful electoral reform.

It is naive to expect media to step off well marked and predictable paths in their reporting and commentary. It might lead voters to wonder, for example, about how and why the major media almost as one can treat the recent Conservative majority in the House of Commons as if, as the Tory leadership themselves and their cheer leaders (like the National Citizens Coalition in their ads) pretend, the Tories achieved a genuine popular mandate based on the support of a majority of voters rather than a majority of Commons seats.

This sort of codswallop can be insidious, soon making its way into careless or receptive major media. An example from the Globe and Mail (June 6): a chart headed "Percentage of Canadians represented by each party in the House of Commons" indicates 56.1% of "All Canadians" represented by "Conservatives" [sic].

Is it any wonder that common usage soon comes to embrace a falsehood: i.e., a Conservative majority of seats becomes a government elected by a majority of Canadian voters?

Plato said that writing was forgetting, taking something out of your head and putting it on the page, leaving a gap behind. I suppose that's one explanation for media misses like these.

by Alastair Rickard


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com