Electoral Reform – Why?

(Quick primer appears at the bottom for my American friends who want to follow along. Might title that one: The Vote is Stacked Against Electoral Reform)

So. It happened. Again. “Split the left.” “Need to unite the left.” “First past the post gives us a majority with a minority of voters.”

This is not new. It isn’t even news, I would argue. It is a completely logical conclusion of a flawed voting system, combined with a rather nasty tendency towards rhetorical excess. This is exactly the conversation we had when Mulroney won in 1988. It is the same conversation that they were having on “the right” after the 1993 – 2003 period of Liberal dominance on the national stage. “They” solved that problem by uniting the right, and there is, naturally, a desire to unite the left to counter that. If it came to that, I would gnash my teeth and support it, just like I’ve held my nose to vote repeatedly, but it doesn’t really address the problems in Canadian politics, or in politics in general… or in public discourse, in general, for that matter.

Liberal supporters have been courting “us” on the “left” for generations, as though all the various colours of the spectrum can be melded into one Canadian bland medium-beige blob of niceness. It’s sort of wheedly, actually: “Aw… c’mon… we want the same things that you do… Why do you need that nasty little NDP? Greens? We’re all the same. You can just vote for us. We’ve got your back, really.” And yet, for generations, some fraction of Canadians have insisted on differing. “No. We’re not the same, actually, and the main difference is that we think that there’s a difference.”

Just to be clear, I’m not a party hardliner. I’ve voted differently in each of the last three elections, and each time I’ve had to think long and hard about where to cast my piddling little excuse for a ballot. I’ve got my issues, and I’ve got my priorities, and I’ve even got values (although the political right has managed to co-opt the very word “values”, as though there are “values” (mine) and “not-values” (yours). ) I’ve even got Family Values. But I’m going to tell you, for the most part, my values are not going to be represented by a “united” party of the political left that is really just a rebranded Liberal party.

I want more.

We don’t need a new party. We need a way to get the parties we already have into office. It was no more fair that the Reform party was shut out by the process during the ’90s than it is that the Green party gets nearly 4% of the popular vote and only (finally) one seat. We can’t have fairness only when it benefits our “side”, and we can’t assume that if we get the process right, it will all fall into place… however, that is no excuse for failing to bother to get the process right. There is a full spectrum of thought already represented by the parties of record. There are not two positions and two positions only on any issue; there are dozens of perspectives. There is nuance, there is subtlety, and this “pick a side and stick to it doggedly in the face of all evidence to the contrary” is a fast way to catastrophe. (That, by the way, is the nature of ideology. It is not just, “the stuff I disagree with”; technically, it is a self-contained set of ideas whose assumptions preclude its own examination.) I’d rather have an honest conversation with Preston Manning than try to wrestle information out of a Prime Minister who won’t even be honest on how much his purchases are going to cost. Values? We can’t even talk about costs, and those should just be numbers.

Which brings me to another point. This political system needs a cool drink of water. We need to tone down the rhetoric so that we can have meaningful conversations about issues, priorities, values, and evidence. We need meaningful respect for discourse. We need compassion in our politics. We need to stop assuming that people who disagree with us are too stupid to understand the issues, and we need to learn to talk around and through our differences to find places of common action. We need to replace debate and points scoring with discussion and consensus building. How do we know what is true? At the moment, it is just whatever is loudest… no supporting documentation required, apparently.

Personally, *I* would like to see us take a place on the international stage that reflects a broad conception of social justice, founded in the scientific consensus on environmental action, and that honours our commitments to international law. And if that is not what Canada stands for, I would like to know. If Canadians have genuinely turned their backs on those things, I want it to be very clear. And if we haven’t, I would like the political process to reflect that. We need to accept that sometimes majority rules means that our own most treasured values will be sidelined… but I, for one, need to be satisfied with the process to be satisfied with the outcome.

I just don’t want to see it happen by accident because we can’t get our democratic process right.

Primer on Canadian politics: super-short. Feel free to annotate if I’ve made errors/gross generalizations.
The entire country is split into geographic ridings. Voters get to vote once, for a representative, only within a single riding. There are several parties (goes up and down) that run candidates in each riding, and whichever candidate gets a plurality of the votes goes to Parliament as the representative of that riding. In general, whichever party has the most seats in the house forms the government, although there have been governments in the past that were formed from coalitions of similarly aligned parties. The parties tend to vote as blocs, so any party that returns more than half the candidates in the house effectively has absolute control over the direction of the country for the next 4 years… There is really no way for anyone to impact this between elections. The issue is that because of the way that the candidates are selected, the majority in parliament frequently goes to a party that got less than half of the popular vote. Then whoever was on the other side of the discussion talks electoral reform until it goes back the other way, at which point they are now the beneficiaries of the flawed system and don’t fix it. Again.

4 responses to “Electoral Reform – Why?”

  1. Excellent points, one and all. How does that reconcile with the name calling and vilifying any who supported (reluctantly or passionately) the conservatives on twitter and Facebook for the last month?

    • It’s part of the problem. Everybody is angry, everybody feels that they aren’t being heard, everybody feels that the things that they are most passionate about are under direct threat and that nobody on the “other side” cares. It may be that polite discourse is impossible, but in that case, meaningful parliamentary democracy is, also. The entire rhetoric everywhere is overblown. It applies on all sides. In general I have disengaged from the entire democratic process for the last 15 years after being a political junkie through my teens and twenties because the entire process makes me ill. But its what we’ve got, and from time to time, I must feebly protest the situation. Because I’m not satisfied with the process, never have been, and reiterate my original (first) statement on the entire thing, which is that turning up to vote once every few years is basically a complete waste of time given the current system.

      And I *hope* that if you go back through my posts, you will see that although I have listed an awful lot of things that Stephen Harper verifiably DID, I did not call anybody any names… although I did call the entire country of Canada “mean”. Please forgive me; I’m feeling a little broken hearted. Also, you will note that I don’t run for parliament.

  2. Articulate and insightful as always. I wish I could copy this entire post and insert it whole cloth into a dozen different conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks.