The Great Swampian Canoe Race – Changing the Rules (Part 1)

Every four years or fewer, the inhabitants of the Swamp hold a great canoe race called “the reflection”, where they reflect on the performance of the Swampian parlé-ment, where much loud parlé takes place on a regular basis, and then – when everyone is dizzy from the reflectoric – each team piles into their canoes and races to see who will pass the post first…

Well, it seems it should be something out of Stanley Burke and Roy Peterson’s fertile political satire, but no.  Canadians are now faced with a massive exercise called electoral reform.  This is a good thing.

Last night, we attended a “town hall” hosted by Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon as an information sharing/information gathering event.  Let me first congratulate Ms. McCrimmon on facilitating an open dialogue on the topic, and for her candid comments and apparent full support for electoral reform, as promised in the Liberal Platform (as well as that of the NDP and Green Party).  Other than technical problems with the roving microphone, there was lots of input.

At the same time, it was apparent that such “consultations” can easily miss the mark.  There has been no effective discussion of electoral reform in mainstream media, and confusion and misinformation is rampant.  As a result, input is often, in my mind at least, not particularly helpful.  I sincerely doubt that those coming into the discussion last night without prior study of the various voting methods were really that much better informed when they left than when they entered the room.  Nor can the collective input they provided be considered “high caliber” informed advice.

This is not the first such meeting I have attended.  Back in early February, the Senate Liberals held an Open Senate Caucus on electoral reform, attended by members from all parties, with a discussion panel that included Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer from 1990 to 2007; Dennis Pilon, Department of Political Science at York University , Author of “Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the 20th Century”; and Kelly Carmichael, Executive Director at Fair Vote Canada.

These initiatives by the Liberals are good in and of themselves, but without detailed “backgrounders” and information follow-up, most participants, both public and politician, seem to be floundering.

At that earlier event, I talked privately to a number of politicians of different stripes.  Almost uniformly they had little understanding of some of the proposed voting systems. The discussion panel members – as would be expected – were very well informed, and shared useful information.  But in that type of a forum there was little room for elaboration, so many of the key points seemed to wash over the heads of many in attendance.

There are a number of issues, and problems.  In part we can analyze them using the example of last night.

In preparation for last night’s meeting, Ms. McCrimmon sent out in a “householder” and also posted to the web a series of questions in the form of an opinion poll.  It consisted of the following questions:

“From the list below, please indicate the principles that you believe should be of primary importance in the design process.

1. A system that has a higher chance of creating coalition governments
2. Increase election spending
3. A system that has a higher chance of creating majority governments
4. Easy to understand and quick results
5. Reduce the power of political parties
6. Increase the power of political parties
7. Decrease election spending
8. A system that encourages and rewards cooperation and collaboration
9. Regional representation: Multiple MPs to a region
10. Includes an element of direct democracy: recall/plebiscite/citizen generated motions
11. Direct representation: 1 MP to 1 riding
12. Provide independent candidates an opportunity to earn a seat
13. An element of Proportional Representation by political party common vote
14. An element of Proportional Representation by Gender
15. Other”
(Note: the original poll had check boxes and no numbers.  I added the numbers for easy reference.)

A poll is a noble idea, IF everyone really has the information they need – BUT they don’t.  In addition, some of the questions are biased.  I don’t think this is intentional on the part of the poll creators, but can creep in when one has an opinion, and clearly the person or persons constructing this poll had an opinion.

So I am going to use these questions to try to shed some light on the issues of electoral reform.  And I am going to let my biases hang out in the process.  Because, (as usual) I have an opinion too.

The questions seem to me to fall into three groups:

A. The structural issues of the actual representation and vote – questions 9, 11, 12, 13, 14
B.  Impacts of the change – question 1, 3, 5, 6, and 8
C.  Noise – questions 2, 4, 7 and 10

I am going to deal with these in reverse order.

Why do I call questions 2, 4, 7, and 10 “noise”.

Numbers 2 and 7 deal with money spent in elections.  There are two distinct ways that money is used in elections, and they are very different in purpose.  This was pointed out by another participant last night.  One is the money that parties and candidates spend to spread their message pre-election.  The second is money that the Government spends to actually hold the election – everything from announcements to voter registration to elector ID cards to ballots to scrutineers and polling station personnel.  Clearly money spent by parties and money spent by Government are very different fish!

Question 2 is ludicrous.  What taxpayer wants to spend more money on anything, let alone an election?

And question 7 doesn’t clearly identify the target.  Are we talking about reducing “dark money” that influences voters (and more so politicians) or are we talking about reducing Government electoral expense – even as we necessarily make the process more complicated?  If the latter, there are efficiencies that could be put in place, with or without electoral reform.  So both of these are just “noise” and should be disregarded.  Not that they are not important topics.  They just don’t belong in a discussion about electoral reform that seeks to replace “first past the post”.

BUT, by even raising these questions, we SCARE a lot of taxpayers who fear that changing the system will drastically effect the expense.  That’s noise that we don’t need in the debate.  And “dark money” is an issue, with or without electoral reform.

Ms. McCrimmon did comment on the late (but not lamented) Harper government’s (negative) changes to the election money rules in an (ill fated) attempt to cling to power, but raising these money issues does not contribute to improving the voting system.  This is just noise in the electoral reform to replace “first past the post”.

Question 4, “Easy to understand and quick results”.  More noise.  First off, “easy to understand” has no meaningful relationship with “quick results”.  Everybody thinks they (more or less) understand the current system.  So “easy to understand” biases the discussion toward the status quo.  It also biases against some of the best systems, like Single Transferable Vote (STV), because we get caught up in what happens after the ballot is marked.  That is “nice to know”, but not necessary to cast a vote (or votes).  It is part of the role of Elections Canada to make the voting process understandable – easy or not.  “Easy to understand” is noise.

And what is “quick results” about?  Last time I heard, we have these things called computers that can crunch numbers.  So we have the same number of physical ballots.  Why would a proportional system, even with STV, take longer to get results?

There is one system that can have the effect of delaying results – which is run-off balloting.  Some countries use that for Presidential elections.  The process is flawed, given to under the table deals, and costs time and big money.  No one I have heard speaking intelligently about election reform in Canada is talking about separate run-off elections.  So “quick results” is noise.

During discussion, someone raised Senate Reform.  Ms. McCrimmon cut that off at the knees, but without sufficient clarification.  She was right to cut that discussion off, but how many attendees know why?   The answer is pretty simple. The government in power has the right to modify the election process for the House of Commons – without referendum, by the way.  (At the earlier event I mentioned, that was made clear by constitutional experts who were present.) The Senate is a totally different can of worms.

The Senate was originally conceived as conferring power on the Provinces.  This is, as I understand it, enshrined in the Constitution.  So opening up Senate reform – at least in the context of how the Senate is elected or appointed, is opening up the Constitution.  Does anyone really want to go there in the short term?  That needs to stay off the table until electoral reform of the lower house is completed.  Then, maybe, we can look at the Senate at a later date.  For now, any discussion of the Senate is noise.

Question 10, “Includes an element of direct democracy: recall/plebiscite/citizen generated motions.” I think this is a great idea, but for the electoral reform discussion, it is noise.  This is not part of electoral reform.  It is part of parliamentary reform.  That is a whole other can of worms.  Yes we need to deal with it.  But one discussion at a time.  It is noise in the discussion of electoral reform/proportional representation.

And that is a great segue to the Group B questions – Impacts of the change.

Questions 1 and 3 are opinion pieces about the importance of majority vs minority governments.  We have strange notions about these.  Under the Westminster parliamentary system, with an ineffectual or party affiliated Senate, majority governments are a form of four-year-duration dictatorships.  We just had two of those in a row, and the results for Canadians – fiscally and emotionally – have been very bleak.

In the past, majority governments gave us an opportunity to totally destroy the independent Canadian Aerospace industry, and to implement a form of regressive taxation on the middle class called G.S.T.  Over the past eight years, we have sold off critical assets of resources and infrastructure to foreign entities like there was no tomorrow, decimated environmental protections, and run the country 35% further in debt.  That kind of majority government no country needs.  I am convinced that one more term would have killed Universal Healthcare, and given us a privatized prison system, with a profit motive to incarcerate more people and keep them there longer – as is happening south of the border right now.

By contrast, our most progressive moments in Canada – peacekeeping and national health care – came under minority governments.  Minority governments tend to cooperate, and bring forth the most acceptable long term solutions.

“But we need stability”.  “Look at all of those other countries that are a mess.”

Yes, those are the arguments, but I don’t buy them.

The “stability” problem with the current system is the notion that if a budget bill is defeated, the government of the day resigns and calls an election.  This is, to call a spade a spade, patently stupid.  So a parliamentary reform is needed to make this idiocy a thing of the past.  If the budget is broken, in the eyes of a majority of MPs – FIX IT!  And fix it again until it passes.  But make sure that the rules are that the money bill is a money bill, not an omnibus bill with a whole bunch of pork barrel add on’s or other sleight of hand such as destruction of 30 years of environmental protection gains.  Oh yes, and if a money bill can’t be passed in a reasonable length of time, all MPs shall have 50% of their salary set aside until after the bill passes.  That would eliminate political posturing.

So again, this is not really that relevant to the discussion of electoral reform, but rather another issue for Parliamentary reform.  That has to come after electoral reform is settled.  Four years between elections, with internal processes in Parliament to avoid impasse and honour the will of the majority, and we would actually save money on elections.  In addition, this would allow us to get rid of the “whipped” vote – another anachronistic anti-democratic holdover from a primitive past to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

This is also a parliamentary system that addresses question 8, “A system that encourages and rewards cooperation and collaboration”.  At the meeting, during the post-it straw poll, this particular one received a huge majority of green, yellow, and red “dots”.  It is a great slice of apple pie, to go with God and motherhood.  Now if all those people who voted for question 8 could just explain how that will come about ….

Questions 5 and 6 – cummon now!  Really?  Only inner circle party members and bag-men would think increasing the power of the party is a good idea.  In an ideal democracy, in theory, there would be no parties at all.  Like most ideals, that is not going to work.  But the current party system is the complete antithesis of “cooperation and collaboration”.  The question here is how this plays out in the actual electoral reform strategy.  The inclusion of these questions implies a form of mixed-member-proportional representation (MMP).  If we steer away from MMP, then these questions are moot.

However, Ms. McCrimmon is, and stated as much at the meeting, currently biased toward some form of this MMP model.  I am not a fan of MMP – for a host of reasons.  From most of the electoral experts sitting outside government, in Political Science Departments, for example, STV is generally given the nod over MMP.  Now if we just understood STV!

But now we are ready to talk about the actual approaches to electoral reform, absent discussions of parliamentary reform and absent “noise”.  The remaining questions are:

9. Regional representation: Multiple MPs to a region
11. Direct representation: 1 MP to 1 riding
12. Provide independent candidates an opportunity to earn a seat
13. An element of Proportional Representation by political party common vote
14. An element of Proportional Representation by Gender

But that discussion will have to wait for my next blog – Part 2!

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