Friday, October 12, 2007

Proportional Representation in Canada

So I was hoping to end my multi-month hiatus with the Ontario election campaign. I figured it would catch my interest, as all elections do, enough to at least write extensively about it, if not campaign in it. No such luck, as it turns out, as Ontarians were treated to one of the most boring elections in recent memory. There's nothing much to say that the rest of the blogosphere hasn't already said a few thousand times; Tory screwed up big time, McGuinty got lucky, the NDP once again found themselves the victims of a bad electoral system, and the Greens made a surprisingly large showing (almost 8%) even if they didn't win a seat due to that bad electoral system.

Speaking of which the issue that really interested me in this campaign was the referendum on mixed-member proportional representation. Well can you blame me? The only other issue, at least the only other one the premier I supported last time seemed to want to talk about was faith-based schools - and his brazen hypocrisy on the issue (opposing religious schooling but supporting and sending his kids to Catholic school) was a huge turn-off for me, so much so that I was ultimately forced to vote NDP in protest. Only the Green party actually echoed my position on the faith-based schooling issue (drop the Catholic system entirely), as did, to my surprise, Ernie Eves on CTV's election night panel. (Good idea Ernie, why not try to implement it when you ran the province?)

Thus, the referendum became my primary interest. I was disheartened to see so little being said about it by the parties, particularly the premier, who said nothing at all. As a result of this lack of this kind of discussion, and because of its impossibly high threshold of success, I figured that the referendum would fail in the end - but I figured it would fail because MMP got over 50% but under the absurdly high 60% double-super majority threshold it needed to pass; alternatively, I saw it getting just under 50%, still enough to try again next time.

What I found was that Ontarians completely rejected the system, if I'm not mistaken something in the order of 65-35. I cannot imagine why they did this - MMP is clearly the better system for a whole host of reasons I won't discuss here, as I've written an entire essay on the subject wherein the matter is approached in a bit more depth. But regardless of Ontarians' judgment, MMP was defeated, and soundly.

Why was it defeated? It would be easy to blame a lack of information, but there was in fact a great deal of information about the referendum if you just looked a bit for it. The internet and the blogosphere were brimming with discussion, as was radio, as were news programs. Really, if you didn't have at least a cursory knowledge of what the referendum was about, you were probably just not paying attention at all.

I think in the end what it came down to was that Ontarians are quite attached to the idea of the riding and representative; they don't like the idea of "list members," a fairly innocuous idea in my mind, but one that nonetheless did not play well with Ontarians.

What does this mean for proportional representation in Canada? Well, PR was rejected in Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and even British Columbia, although a caveat must be added there that PR did actually receive well over 50% of the vote in BC, it just failed to meet that ridiculous supermajority threshold. It seems to me to mean that it's not going to happen any time soon. Those who want to make the electoral system more fair should perhaps focus on an approach that would come more naturally to Canadians and not be as complete a break from tradition. There is another electoral system entirely which could be proposed - namely, the one used in France, and a similar one in Australia. (It is also used in the state of Louisiana.) In France and Louisiana this system, called "run-off," works in a fairly simple way: elections are held, and if any candidate wins over 50% of the vote, she is elected. However, in any race where one candidate did not win 50% of the vote, a second "run-off" election is held two weeks later between the top two candidates, guaranteeing that one of them will receive the support of a majority.

This system has several advantages, particularly for Canadians. First and foremost, it does not deviate at all from our tradition of ridings and local representatives. Second, it does tend to produce either majority governments, or strong minority governments - which is apparently what Canadians (or at least Ontarians) want. Third, it is far more fair - no one can be elected without a true popular majority of 50% or more of the vote, thus eliminating the primary problem (as many if not most PR-advocates see it) of a party or candidate with a minority of votes gaining all of the power. What's more, this system isn't really a big enough break as to require a costly referendum campaign - it's a fairly minor tweak to the existing system to make it more fair and modern, not a huge sweeping change requiring a direct say from the voters.

The run-off system is also used in Australia in a modified form, called "instant run-off." In Australia, instead of holding a second election between the top two candidates, voters rank the candidates on their ballot in order of preference (first, second, third, etc.) and if no candidate receives at least 50% of the first choice votes, the second choices are added to the first, and so on until someone is elected. Again, it's a fairly easy system to understand, it's been used in Canada before (the Conservatives used it to select Stephen Harper as their leader), and it is not a huge sweeping change requiring a costly referendum campaign, but a minor alteration to improve the existing system.

In my opinion MMP would be a preferable choice, but it is apparently too great a break with Canadian traditions to play well with the electorate. In the event that sweeping reform ever reaches the Senate, perhaps we could discuss a system of proportional representation for that body (10 senators per province, elected using the single-transferable vote system, just throwing it out there), but it seems to me fruitless to try to change the House of Commons and the Legislature in such a way when Canadians and Ontarians are clearly so attached to the current system of electing local representatives.

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At 10/12/2007 3:01 PM, Blogger Scott Tribe said...

The proponents of the status quo would like you to believe electoral reform is dead, but don't let them discourage you.

There will be another referendum in BC in 2 years, and that is our next best hope of electoral reform. The STV proposal got 58% last time out.. and I don't think it that big of a stretch to make it to the magical 560% barrier.

If we can get it in 1 province, and it can be shown to work, then I believe the domino effect will happen elsewhere in Canada.

At 10/12/2007 4:07 PM, Blogger cdlu said...

I agree that PR has been rejected several times in Canada, but not in BC. BC-STV is a cross of PR and IRV - and it very nearly passed. Take the PR side out of the equation and you have IRV, and I am positive it would pass soundly anywhere it was presented. PEI and Ontario's rejection by a margin of over 60% shows that this is not at all an unattainable goal.

Instant Run-Off is indeed the ideal solution for Canada. As you say, it sacrifices nothing and addresses one of the main problems presented by MMP's proponents, that of plurality without the majority.

It was not only Stephen Harper who was elected with run-off voting. The leaders of all the major parties and most of the party candidate nominations in most of the ridings in the country where there are not appointed candidates use it. You have no doubt heard of people winning on a second, third, or fourth ballot. That is a run-off system.

I should point out that Instant Run-Off and multiple-vote Run-Off voting can have dramatically different results. As the latter only allows two ballots, only the top two are considered. Instant Run-Off operates more like a leadership race where the redistribution of the support can be shifted multiple times. Take the Liberal leadership race as an example: under two-round RV, the last ballot would have been Ignatieff vs Rae, but with multiple rounds, as IRV simulates, Dion won in spite of not being in the top two earlier in the voting.

On your other topic, I personally would rather see the senate abolished than elected, but that is another whole debate. The best solution I see for the senate is having its life-time appointed members appointed by the provincial premiers to the federal senate, where no majority of them is ever appointed by the same person, but its purpose as an entirely unbeholden body is retained.

At 10/13/2007 2:20 AM, Blogger Natalie said...

I was disheartened to see so little being said about it by the parties

My mom and I did some volunteering with the local NDP campaign, and we were told that they weren't actually allowed to talk about MMP (even though the NDP has been a proponent of electoral reform for a while now.)

At 10/14/2007 4:43 AM, Blogger burlivespipe said...

Welcome back!
Here in BC we had what I thought a much more agreeable formula for electoral reform and it nearly passed even that 60% threshold.

I'm hoping Dion will trumpet something like the STV during the election, which should attract a great deal of progressives behind him.

If Harper can unilaterally bring us into the American-age of politics, ie set election dates, I think a majority gov't win for the Liberals would/should be enough leverage to bring in some real renovations!


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