the need for electoral reform

Question: What is Canada’s biggest problem?

Answer: Apathy.

And the solution is electoral reform.

The democratic deficit in Canada is hardly a secret. It is difficult to ignore when federal elections bring less than two-thirds of the electorate to the voting booths. Let me repeat that: in every federal election since 1997, at least 34 out of every 100 Canadians decided not to vote. People don’t care because they feel disempowered. The system is structured such that the individual citizen often does not have a say in electing her MP and therefore has little influence over the decisions of her MP, who more often than not acts according to the political interests of his party rather than the interests of his constituents.

This has been demonstrated on a number of occasions, the most recent and most obvious perhaps being the omnibus bill (C-54 if memory serves) amendments voting marathon in June 2012. You know, the one that lasted 23 hours. Every single amendment was rejected thanks to the Conservative majority voting as one, despite one or two brave members having publicly admitted that they had, at the very least, had misgivings about following the party line. In the end the hard party line prevailed and those reflective MPs decided to vote counter to the desires of their constituents.

Incidents like this are hardly rare; indeed, they are par for the course in Canadian politics. Coupled with a single-member plurality system in which millions of votes are “wasted” when cast either in non-swing ridings or in ridings that end up electing another candidate, it makes Canadians legitimately feel powerless and at the bottom rung of the long political ladder. The result is that when they do speak out it is only at half the volume, and when they do put up a fight it is a half-hearted one. Why pour in your heart and soul when the game is rigged against you from the start? And when everyone else decides not to act, the problem of collective action is all the more clear. Democratic malaise in Canada is a vicious cycle: the mechanics of the system weakens citizens’ voices, which in turn discourages citizens from speaking up and speaking out, which then leaves the system unchallenged, such that those who benefit from disproportionate representation in parliament and centralised decision making in all aspects of society and government grow stronger while those who are thereby hurt grow weaker. Vicious bitch of a cycle of non-democracy, my friends.

Most of the problems in the country – whether they be on the federal, provincial or municipal level – are allowed to continue or are worsened by the electoral system that creates skewed parliamentary compositions. There are general reasons that transcend partisanship and are due simply to the vicious cycle in the incentive mechanism, as outlined in the previous paragraph. Then there are reasons specific to the current parliamentary composition. I am, of course, referring to the majority government of the Conservative Party of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, that has been in place since May 2011.

This becomes clear if you pick a problem and use backwards induction to sniff out the source of rot. That is, begin with the result you want and work backwards to identify what conditions are necessary to achieve it. Take the oil sands as an example: I want to see the oil sands shut down and boarded up. The oil companies aren’t going to up and leave on their own accord, the investors won’t stop investing (sure, costs are going up but China is energy-hungry), and the workers aren’t going to go home – not when a truck driver can still make $39 per hour, which is the current rate. It would therefore be necessary for the government to place a permanent moratorium on extraction. The Conservatives won’t do it; oil sands development is a boon to national GDP and without it, in the short term ceteris paribus the unemployment rate would rise and exports would fall. The oil sands are the perfect Dutch disease, which, in economics jargon, means a natural resource windfall attracts heavy investment to the detriment of other sectors, and once that windfall dries up the economy collapses because there are no other industries mature enough to rely on. The shortsighted government fails to diversify because, in the short term, that resource gives a good bang for the buck.

In other words, by politically and economically investing in the oil sands the Conservative government is tightening its own noose, but/therefore shutting the operation down is kicking away the chair.

So the Conservative government would have to go. The only reason there is a Conservative majority right now is because of the single-member plurality system: 39.6% of the popular vote gave the Conservative Party 52% of the seats. One might argue that 39.6%, while no majority, is still a plurality and therefore even under proportional representation would result in a Conservative minority government. I disagree. Under another electoral system – proportional representation, mixed system, plurality run-off, or what have you – voters would vote differently. First, more of the electorate would vote. Second, everyone could vote sincerely (for their first preference) and not be punished for it due to the political make-up of the riding in which they are registered. People would vote differently. Why did the Green Party lose three percentage points of the popular vote between 2008 and 2011? Because the 7% of the electorate who voted Green in 2008 saw that their one million votes amounted to zero out of 302 seats in parliament. In the next election three years later, many vote tactically for another party that had a better chance of winning in their riding. If proportional representation was in place in 2008 the Greens would have had 21 seats instead of zero. It is a known fact of single-member pluralities that small parties get short-shrifted. This fact is summed up nicely by Duverger, whose “law” states that two-party systems tend to arise under single-member plurality (giving rise to the third-party problem).

I wish the fractured left was actually united (in ideology if not in political cooperation) against the united right. It would be, at the very least, a very intriguing story to tell and an easy picture to paint. The truth is unfortunately more complicated. There are those whose first preference is Liberal or even NDP whose second preference is Conservative. The possible reasons for that is a discussion for another day. My rather hopeful point is that there are those in the 39.6% who voted Conservative who voted tactically – that is, under proportional representation, they may not vote Conservative. The same argument cannot really be made in the other direction, because a Conservative supporter is more likely to vote sincerely. (Michael Stevenson wrote a nice paper on unstable partisans to support this argument. Granted, he wrote it in 1987 before the Reform-PC merger, but I think it’s still relevant.)

To sum up: what is necessary for the oil sands to be shut down? A permanent moratorium. What is necessary for that? A non-Conservative government. How does Canada have a better chance of preventing a Conservative government? By using another electoral system.

And that is how one of the big problems in this country can be solved by electoral reform.

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