Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Politics: Achieving Proportional Representation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On Election Day in my riding, one of our water heater (there wasn't a water cooler, but we were next to a radiator) conversations was about the prospect of electoral reform. Even before we knew how low turnout would prove to be, the group of NDP scrutineers that I was hanging out with saw the only way to make serious progress on a progressive agenda was to achieve some kind of electoral reform so that things like voting swapping and strategic voting could be a thing of the past, and voters could simply vote their actual preference and have it mean something. The added clarity in voter intention would change the political landscape significantly, never mind if the actual result is as much progressive change as those of us around that table would suspect.

One of the interesting thoughts that came up was that a province would have to do it first and prove an alternate system worked, never mind that there are models for alternate systems everywhere from the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts to the European Parliament to, arguably most relevant to a British Commonwealth member, Australia. One colleague thought British Columbia would be the best candidate, as it would have to be a progressive province with at least three parties, or there would be no incentive for the parties to go along with the change.

The only problem with that thought is that the idea has already been passed over in British Columbia. In 2005, the province held a referendum on whether to adopt a Single-Transferable-Vote system for the provincial assembly. Granted, the vote was close. Required to carry both 60% of the popular vote and 60% of the 79 electoral districts, it passed with flying colors in the latter (77 of 79 districts in favor), but came up about 2.5% short in former (39,262 votes, in the popular vote). Perhaps a future referendum might actually pass there.

It certainly seems to be a better candidate than Ontario. In 2007, Ontario voters were asked to choose between the existing First-Past-The-Post system and a Mixed-Member-Proportional system. To result in a change, 60% of voters needed to vote for the measure, and it needed a majority in 50% of 107 electoral districts. It wasn't close. The measure was defeated by an almost 2:1 margin, garnering only 36.9% of the vote (granted, that's 1,579,684 people), and winning in only five ridings. Furthermore, electoral reform had received almost no media attention, no significant support from any provincial party except largely symbolic support from the NDP, and polls indicate that few voters even understood what it was all about. The results had to be classified as depressing to supporters of electoral reform.

So, if the provinces don't seem to be leading the way, is there a way to do it at the Federal level? As expressed previously, I thought there was at least an opening with St├ęphane Dion as a Liberal leader talking about a Rank-Order-Voting system. Yesterday, however, Dion announced he would be resigning as party leader in the wake of the Liberals' terrible performance in the election. With the next Liberal leader likely to be more right-leaning than Dion, it would not seem likely that the Liberal Party will be supporting any sort of electoral reform. While it was conceivable that a Liberal-NDP move for electoral reform might pass a future parliament in which their combined vote totals could be a majority, there is essentially no way to achieve such a coalition without either the Liberals or the Conservatives, and the Conservatives certainly have no incentive to support it.

Electing pro-reform candidates to Parliament, then, doesn't seem a reasonable prospect. The only way seems to be pressuring the large parties into action, much the way that the public shamed the Conservatives and NDP into allowing Green Party leader Elizabeth May into the Leadership Debates. It's time to start making noise now with letters to our MP's and local media, and maybe some day there will be enough incentive for action to be taken.

In the meantime, it is not advisable to hold one's breath waiting for electoral reform. Vote swapping, anyone?

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