Monday, June 29, 2015

(No.290) "Gormless punditry & electoral reform"

"Gormless punditry and the need for electoral
reform in Canada"

by Alastair Rickard

Federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau reently announced some planks in the party's platform for the Oct. 2015 parliamentary election.

In these columns I have deplored the negative impact of Canada's 'first-past-the-post' (FPTP) electoral system (see, for example, RickardsRead columns Nos. 151 & 156). When there are more than two political parties contesting the election the Westminster FPTP system regularly -- but not always -- produces results in which a party wins a majority of seats and forms a government but lacks a majority of voter support.

If the Liberals form the next federal government Trudeau promises to form a parliamentary committee to examine various possible changes to our system and the government will then implement electoral change within 18 months.

One is entitled to be sceptical about the likelihood of electoral reform coming to pass although both the NDP and the Green Party are also pledged to support it.

The Charest Liberal government in Quebec, after losing the 1998 election to the PQ (48 seats vs. 76) even though they received more votes (43.55% vs 42.87), came into office (so I was told by an insider in the premier's office) determined to reform the FPTP parliamentary system in Quebec. For reasons I will not get into here both Liberal government interest in and activity on this file gradually dissipated.

It is naive to expect Canadian media to step off their well marked and politically predictable paths in their reporting and commentary. I would have been surprised for example if, following the 2011 federal election, most of the major corporate media in Canada had treated the Conservatives winning a majority of seats (but less than 40% of the votes) as if the Tories had achieved something other than a "popular mandate".

This sort of codswallop can be insidious. Is it surprising that such common media usage can come to embrace a fundamental falsehood: i.e., a majority of seats based on a minority of votes becomes 'a popular mandate for a government elected by Canadians'?

While I remain more than a little sceptical about how likely it is that reform will end up being enacted post-2015 federal election my belief that it is needed remains undiminshed. This brings me to the matter of negative reaction to the recent Liberal pledge of electoral reform. Konrad Yakabuski, one of the Toronto Globe and Mail's regular columnists, provided a good example.

Yakabuski produced (June 18) a fine illustration of the sort of jejeune thinking that regularly forms part of a predictable negative reaction to calls for electoral reform in Canada, a system the shortcomings of which are directly connected to much voter dissatisfaction and apathy.  However it should be noted that two days later the Globe's consistently best columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, addressed the same issue with his customary sophistication and nuance.

Yakabuski posed the following questions (apparently he viewed them as rhetorical questions):

"can anyone," he wrote,"argue that the 'wrong' party formed the government in Ontario or Ottawa? That our main opposition parties are underrepresented [sic] in the Ontario Legislature or Ottawa?"

The answer, if one is interested in the facts delineating the electoral results of the system Yakabuski thinks should remain intact, is "yes" -- one can so argue very easily based on facts.

In the last federal election (2011) the Conservatives won a decisive majority of seats in the House of Commons  (166) based on 39.6% of the vote. The two leading opposition parties (NDP and Liberal) won a shade less than half the total votes cast (49.5%) but received 137 seats between them. Might that be viewed with some reason as "underrepresentation" of the 60.4% of the voters who refused to support the majority government?

Or what about the 2014 Ontario election, one we are apparently (according to Mr. Yakabuski) to accept did not produce a result in which the opposition was "underrepresented" by the result?

The re-elected majority Liberal government won 48 seats in the Ontario legislature based on only 38.7% of the vote while the two major opposition parties got the electoral support of 55.1% of the voting public in the province.

This result enabled too much of the usual sort of post-election 'media group think' in which too many pundits babbled away about the surprising "mandate" the returning Liberal government received from the Ontario electorate. Conveniently ignored of course was the fact that more than 60% of that electorate voted against the government. Again, some popular mandate that is.

But let's not ignore the results of the May 5, 2015 Alberta provincial election. Various 'analysts' were quick to voice astonishment about how the politically right-of-centre Alberta electorate had suddenly and surprisingly moved almost en masse to support for the left-of-centre NDP. Amazing!

Actually the Alberta result was not nearly as amazing as many pundits made it sound if one looks more carefully at the actual details of the election results.

In an election with 5 parties competing for votes, 2 major opposition parties -- the PCs and the Wildrose, both right of centre parties -- received a majority of the votes (52%) while the NDP won just a shade above 40%. Yet under our Westminster FPTP system the NDP took a majority of seats (54) while the two major opposition parties won only 31 based on their majority of the votes cast. Any "underrepresentation" there?

Finally, those who resist meaningful change to the FPTP system we received from the Mother of Parliaments in Westminster should pay more than passing attention to how well or poorly the system worked in the recent UK parliamentary election.

For example: the Conservatives won a majority in the Commons based on 37% of the vote. UKIP (the UK Independence Party) won 14.1% of the vote (mostly in England), came second in 120 constituencies and got just 1 seat in the Commons.

Or how about Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP) taking 56 of Scotland's seats in Westminster based on 50% of the votes cast by Scots with the other 5 parties winning only 3 Scottish seats in the Commons [sic] based on their half of the popular vote. "Underrepresentaion" is more than hinted at by half the vote producing 3 of 59 seats.

Those who apparently think that such electoral results produced by the FPTP system suggest a healthy democracy have a rather different idea than I do of what constitutes both good health and democracy. Setting up non sequitur straw men (as Yakabuski does) in order to knock them down in a lame attempt to rebut arguments in favour of FPTP is unconvincing.

Nor does reform of the FPTP system have to mean choosing only a system of proportional representation. There are various electoral system changes that would improve the democratic bone fides of the current system, employed either singly or in combination. For example:  a mixed system of FPTP and proportional representation; preferential ballots; even run-off elections.

Rick Salutin, a Toronto writer and political thinker, has a long public record of thinking about issues and doing so unimpeded by concerns about what may or may not find agreement in the mainstream media or elsewhere.  "We now live," he wrote back in 2011 following the federal election," in a permanent state you could call the tyranny of the minority. You could also call it the tragedy of the majority. ... Everyone played by the rules of the game, but it's a stretch to call that game democracy."

I agree.




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