Thursday, December 31, 2015

Arguing for a referendum is arguing for PR

I wonder what will change in 2016: will the year bring any great leaps, other than February 29? Or, as usual, will it be much like the old year, just more of the same?
For once, I expect a lot more difference than usual, and the reasons are purely political. This past fall, our flawed electoral system did what it does best; based on a relatively small swing in votes, it took false majority power away from one party with minority political support and gave it to another, leading to a massive and ongoing reversal of the past decade of Conservative federal policy, at great expense to Canadians. While I do support many of the new directions this government is taking, such as a more human face to our foreign policy and a strong leadership role in international climate action, this radical shift demonstrates the flaws in how we elect governments. It still doesn’t make sense for 39% of voting Canadians to choose a government that has 100% of the power.
Them's electing words!
Yet that, too, may change in the coming year or two. One of Prime Minister Trudeau’s signature election promises was that we have had the last election under first-past-the-post, our thousand-year-old, obsolete electoral system. While many expect the Liberals to simply tinker with the system by adding an element of instant runoff, also known as alternate vote or ranked balloting, the promise to “make every vote count” implies some measure of actual proportionality. Under our current system, or ranked voting, every vote is counted on election day but only the “winners” of a “majority” count toward making policy, while votes for other candidates or parties are effectively discarded. Given constant progress in all technologies, there is no reason not to adopt a 21st-century voting system.
But what’s funny about this likely change are the demands, mainly from supporters of the status quo, that any electoral system reform come only after a successful referendum vote where more than 50% vote for the change. This flies completely in the face of the underlying value of our current electoral system, the one they would have us retain, where decisions aren’t made by a 50%+ majority, but by the “majority” of MPs elected with a mere 39% of votes. Our system didn’t require a referendum to erase the Navigable Waters Act, an important law dating back to 1882. It didn’t take a referendum to cancel the federal long gun registry. Despite a clear majority ofvoters supporting climate action and an investigation into missing and murdered aboriginal women, those actions were snubbed by our former government. Certainly they didn’t put it to a referendum when they tinkered with many key aspects of our voting system in the so-called Fair Elections Act. On many of those files, they invoked closure in the House so there wasn’t even a full debate among MPs before the “majority” government had their way.
The basic principle behind first-past-the-post is that whichever party forms a “majority” based on enough local riding pluralities gets to make (and change) the laws. Anyone who argues that such changes should instead require support of 50%+ of voters in a referendum is, in effect, arguing for proportional representation, because under PR, only laws that have more than 50% voter support will pass. So which do you want, the “powerful, stable” false majority governments that FPP elects, or a proportional system that actually reflects voter desires? Because you can’t use the latter principle to argue for the former.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Tinkering with the voting system"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is the vice president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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