Archive for October, 2008

Saint City News column: Canada badly needs a cure for electoral dysfunction

This column appeared in the Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, edition of the Saint City News.

Is there a relationship between pipeline bombings in northern British Columbia and the recent federal election?

Possibly more than we’d like to think.

The point is that, as the results of this month’s federal election clearly illustrate, electoral outcomes in Canada don’t accurately reflect voter preferences. This is another way of saying our democracy isn’t very healthy, whether or not you’re pleased with the idea of another Conservative minority.

Indeed, Canada is suffering from a case of electoral dysfunction, and we’re not going to be helped by the little Tory-blue pill we just swallowed!

The problem is that our first-past-the-post system of geographically based representatives is strongly biased in favour of the biggest national political parties and parties with a strong regional base.

If our actual votes had been reflected in the makeup of Parliament, there would be 23 Green Party Members of Parliament today. Instead, 940,000 Green voters got a big fat zero for the number of MPs who will represent their views in Parliament.

By comparison, 813,000 Conservative voters in this province got 27 Alberta MPs to represent them in the House of Commons. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now, these figures come from a group called Fair Vote Canada, which is dedicated to the proposition that Canada should have a “proportional representation” system in which voter preferences would be reflected in the makeup of Parliament.

If a pure proportional representation system had been in operation on Oct. 14, the group concluded, 117 Conservatives would have been elected (instead of 143), plus 81 Liberals (not 76), 57 New Democrats (not 37), 28 Bloquistes (not 50), 23 Greens (not none at all) and two independents (ditto). In reality, the numbers of votes that went to small parties would probably have been bigger, because many voters who now support smaller parties’ programs don’t want to waste their votes on a lost cause.

The problem with proportional representation, of course, is that while it fixes some problems, it contributes to others. It divorces MPs from geographical interests, for example, and makes unstable minority governments more likely.

An ingenious solution to one of these problems has been devised in New Zealand, which in 1993 adopted a system called “Mixed Member Proportional” in which voters choose geographic representatives in a Parliament that also reflects over-all party preference.

By the way, this isn’t something that “reforming” the Senate will fix. Anyway, you can’t trust Prime Minister Stephen Harper to implement meaningful non-constitutional change to the Senate.

Let’s say he decides to appoint Senate candidates elected by provincial voters. If voters in, say, British Columbia elect a New Democrat, what are the chances he’ll follow through and appoint her to the Senate? At least as good as him obeying his own fixed-election-date law, I’d guess.

But the need to ensure proportionality in Canada’s electoral system is real, because the side effects of not doing so are potentially grave. When citizens lose faith in their ability to influence policy by voting and at the same time see their interests threatened, they will find less palatable ways to make their point.

Many won’t bother to vote at all, as happens now in Alberta. But it’s not that long a road from giving up on voting to slipping a bomb under a pipeline. It’s happened in other democracies and it can happen in ours.

If that’s why bombs are now going off in B.C., it’s a sign the need to fix this problem is real, and urgent.

NOTE: On last week’s predictions: I was right about another minority government, wrong about the Opposition leader. Call it a combination of solid analysis and wishful thinking. Batting average: .500.

Saint City News column: ‘Step on up and place your bets on Tuesday’s election’

This column ran in yesterday’s Saint City News:

There’s still enough doubt about the outcome of Tuesday’s federal election to interest a bettin’ man!

No, there’s no money to be made wagering Canada will be getting ready to swear in a New Democratic, Liberal or Green government by this time next week. But whether Stephen Harper’s Conservatives get their longed-for majority is another matter entirely.

What’s more, if the latest national polls are to be believed, who will be the next Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is a topic worthy of a gambler’s attention. As this is written, it seems it could as easily be New Democrat Jack Layton as Liberal Stephane Dion, and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois can’t completely be ruled out either.

Not just one horserace but two in a single national election! It’s enough to melt the gambling addiction hotline.

There can be little doubt Harper was shrewd to roll the electoral dice when he did, even if he had to take some flack for breaking his own fixed-election-date law. Few may have predicted that the U.S. economic blowout would be as sudden, as severe, or as soon, but the economic storm clouds on the horizon were increasingly obvious.

South of the border, an irresponsible brew of market fundamentalism, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy and a cripplingly expensive war on two fronts combined to create the proverbial perfect storm. With our economy deeply integrated into that of the United States, a cold wind was bound to blow this way and Stephen Harper knew it.

As the leader of the party most associated with the same reckless approach to government, Harper had no choice but to go fast or go home – not just to have a chance to form a government, but to salvage his minority. If he had waited until after the U.S. credit meltdown, his government would have paid the price. As things stand, he still has enough momentum to survive, if not to prosper.

With the unregulated market in which the Conservatives placed their faith reduced to smoking wreckage, Harper’s best hope now is that the two-thirds of Canadians who don’t support this brand of fundamentalism will split their votes among the various opposition parties.

Which brings us to the second horserace: Are there enough vestigial Liberal votes left to salvage the party despite Stephane Dion’s faltering and confused leadership? (Don’t rule this out. Remember, the Conservatives were once reduced to a rump of three!) Depending on how their votes break, they could salvage Harper’s hopes of a majority.

Or are enough Canadians so deeply disturbed by the carnage south of the border and its potential to spread that they will reject four more years of discredited economic orthodoxy and cast their votes for Layton’s New Democrats?

The polls tell us Canadians are still making up their minds. Believe me when I tell you the professional pundits don’t have any more idea about where the dice are going to fall on Tuesday than you do or I do.

There’s only one sure thing: Come Wednesday morning, they’ll have a convincing explanation for everything that happened the night before.

Call me crazy if you will, but I’m going to place my bets in public before Election Day – while they’re still bets. Here goes:

First, I say that a week from now we’ll be $130 million poorer for the experience but Stephen Harper will still be prime minister and he’ll still lead a minority government.

Second, I say that Jack Layton will be Leader of the Opposition.

And if I’m completely out to lunch … well, I’ll explain why next time!