A short (surprising) history of democratic reform

Posted on January 12, 2017 in Governance History

TheStar.com – News/Canada – The Tories are right to oppose PR to their last breath. It would mean the death of a thousand cuts to their core vote.
Jan. 11, 2017.   By MARTIN REGG COHN, Ontario Politics Columnist

A newly-minted minister of electoral reform starts work this week, but the job still seems a non-starter.

As Karina Gould ponders a new roadmap to break through our democratic deadlock, her best bet is to consider the roads travelled by the provinces. From her perch on Parliament Hill, she’d learn that the hinterland has a history of experimenting with electoral reform — only to revert to the traditional way of counting votes.

The provinces have been there, done that. And come full circle again.

Federally, our politicians are going in circles because they are driven by partisan self-interest. All parties prefer the system that benefits them most.

Take the Conservatives. Our official opposition, which alternates in power with the Liberals, understandably favours the existing “first past the post” (FPTP) system because their candidates can eke out a victory whenever their rivals split the rest of the vote. A Conservative can easily be elected MP with only 35 per cent of the vote in his or her riding, allowing the party to form a national government with a similar share of the popular vote.

No surprise, then, that the Conservatives staunchly oppose proportional representation. PR would allocate seats in proportion to actual vote totals, dramatically reducing their harvest of MPs.

Quite apart from being shut out of power forever, there’s another reason for the Tories to oppose PR to their last breath: It would mean the death of a thousand cuts to their core vote — political self-immolation.

Instead of profiting from vote splits, the Conservatives would suffer from fragmentation of their own base. Socially conservative party members — opponents of abortion, gay marriage, and sex education — would be the first to flee the Tories to form their own fringe “family values” parties (the pro-life party, the marriage party, and so on) confident of modest but guaranteed representation in the House of Commons, and the potential to wield the balance of power in a hung Parliament. And without a reason to “unite the right,” the Reform Party would make a comeback.

Today, federally and provincially, the Tories are still a big tent party, uniting socially conservative supporters with fiscal conservatives and libertarians (such as the Ontario Landowners) who may have little in common beyond a desire to rally against the left. Under PR, newly formed protest parties would cannibalize the Conservative base beyond recognition. That’s precisely why Ontario’s PCs try so hard to keep social conservatives in the fold provincially, lest pro-life diehards go their own way.

Expect the New Democratic Party and the Greens to keep pushing for PR, for their own partisan gain (they are usually under-represented under FPTP). But unless you want to destroy the Tories — and expect them to consent to their own funeral — PR is a dead end.

Now, with Ottawa deadlocked on next steps, what historical lessons can be gleaned from the provinces?

First, referenda are recipes for apathy, confusion and complications. Ontario’s 2007 referendum experience with “Mixed Member Proportional” (if you can’t remember how it works, too late!) was a flop, rejected by a majority of voters, and ignored by even more. Presumably that’s why the federal Conservatives insist that any move to PR face a referendum — and sudden death.

Second, western provinces have already experimented with different voting systems that avoided the pitfalls of proportional representation. At various times in the last century, B.C., Alberta and Manitoba adopted variations on the so-called ranked ballot or “alternative vote” (AV), which resembles the common sense run-offs used in the leadership conventions all Canadians are familiar with.

Under AV, voters mark down their second and third choices; as the last-placed candidates are knocked off, the next-ranked choices (marked on those ballots) are duly re-apportioned to the surviving candidates until someone wins the run-off with 50 per cent of the vote. While PR rewards extreme views and outliers, AV encourages candidates to broaden their appeal to all voters in hopes of being marked as a second or third choice (something even Conservatives are capable of doing when it’s in their electoral interest, as in Ontario today).

B.C. tried it in the 1950s. Back in the 1920s, Alberta and Manitoba experimented with a hybrid model: They adopted the ranked ballot in rural areas, but in densely-populated cities they went one step further with a system called STV (single transferable vote) — creating multi-member ridings that provided more opportunity for second-place and third-place parties to win a seat in proportion to the city-wide vote.

There is a certain conceptual elegance to the hybrid AV-STV system — my personal preference — but it’s devilishly complicated, which is why it didn’t last long in the provinces. With so many spoiled ballots in Alberta, the traditional FPTP voting system soon made a comeback.

The problem with electoral reform, then and now, is that it’s such a hard sell, and most people aren’t buying — federally, provincially, even internationally: In the UK, a 2011 referendum on an AV (ranked ballot) system failed miserably despite the support of many influential leaders.

Our own politicians remain bitterly divided because electoral reform means different things to different parties — and meets with indifference from most people. Which is why, no matter how much I might think AV and STV would suit Canada fair and square, we are destined to keep going in circles — provincially and federally.

< https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/01/11/a-short-surprising-history-of-democratic-reform-cohn.html >

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