Canada is considering replacing it’s current First Past The Post electoral system with some form of proportional representation. The topic is, to say the least, controversial. I have some thoughts.
A consultation process has been put together to provide a recommendation to the current Liberal government who will then either choose to implement that recommendation, or not. The Conservative party is agitating for a referendum before a proportional representation system is put into place. The Liberals are unwilling to commit to a referendum.
If proportional representation is passed the Conservative party – but not necessarily conservatives – lose out. A referendum on the topic is the last ditch hope of the Conservatives to preserve the First Past The Post system, and they will do anything to avoid any form of proportional representation.
Traditionally I have been a very strong believer in referendums. I certainly wanted them for a lot of the legislation the Harper government forced upon us, however, the Conservatives were vociferously and vehemently against referendums whilst in power. Now a referendum is their best change to obtain and retain power in the future.
This, right here, is the crux of the whole debate. The electoral system we choose determines who gets into power.
If the politics of 21st century Western nations can be said to be have a single shining thread it is one of stark – and increasingly violent – partisan polarization. Once a party gets power compromise is verboten, and those who voted for other parties simply do not get representation.
It is easy to look to the United States’ gridlocked congress and see any number of politicians acting like spoilt children. Tantrums occur regularly and threats of “shutting down the government” through inaction are the new normal.
The political equivalent of holding one’s breath until they pass out, however, is not a uniquely American approach to governance. The iron fist and the terrible twos are political duopoly of the now in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, the Netherlands, etc. Pull on that thread and you can unravel the tapestry of any Western nation.
Moving away from First Past The Post potentially changes which groups of individuals receive how much representation dramatically. Canada’s current system massively over-represents people in rural areas.
Around 20% of Canadians live in rural areas. Around 45% of Canadians live in urban agglomerations of more than 1 million people. That leaves 35%-ish of people in urban areas of less than 1 million people.
Between 25% and 30% of the Canadian population is estimated to so hard core a Conservative voter that, if you painted a pig blue and ran it in the election they’d vote it in to office. This statistic is actually really consistent across most western nations, with the exception of the US and Australia.
By and large rural voters vote Conservative. More to the point, most of them form the hard core of the conservative base: staunch and intractable social conservatives. Let’s call a spade a spade and say that the % of non-conservative rural voters is functionally a rounding error and that 20% of that 25%-30% of hard core conservative voters is rural.
The percentage of intractable core Conservative voters among individuals in urban agglomerations has been estimated at less than 5% of the urban agglomeration population, and that’s pretty much all in Calgary. We’ll call that 2.5% of the total Canadian population.
That leaves between 2.5% and 7.5% of the Canadian population who live in urban areas of less than 1 million people as the unmovable block of Conservative voters. In other words, the more rural you get, the more Conservative you get. Common knowledge, perhaps, but the statistics matter in this debate.
In today’s First Past The Post system 39% of the votes, if they’re the right votes, will get you 55% of the seats and 100% of the power.
If proportional representation of a % of the vote = % of the seats = % of the power system is adopted, then the Conservative party can no longer be assured of 100% of the power by moving towards the center only enough to convince 9% of Canadians that they’re the party likely to do the least amount of damage.
Under proportional representation if the conservatives what iron glove-levels of absolute power they will have to adopt more moderate views, and that risks severely alienating their socially conservative base. The conservative party is not monolithic. It has split before (remember the Reform party) and it threatens to do so again on a regular basis. (See: Conservatives and Wild Rose in Alberta.)
Why proportional representation?
Dispensing with political correctness (personal blogs are great that way), the reason that proportional representation is required is that the 20% of the population not living in cities don’t get to wield so much power that get to dictate what the 80% of women who live in cities can do with their bodies. I’m sorry if that’s a little forward, but after so much theoretical talk, a practical example is required.
By the same token, I’m pretty sure city folk have no business telling rural folk they can’t own guns. Tyranny of the majority is no more acceptable than tyranny of the minority. The balancing act is what we call politics.
Done right, proportional representation has a very beneficial side effect: it forces compromise. Ruling unopposed with an iron fist requires actually convincing the majority of a nation to elect you. In a Westminster-based multi-party parliamentary democracy that’s not exactly easy, and good luck to you with that in Canada.
Change happens slower, but to be perfectly blunt about it, that’s fine. The irresponsible overgrown children we keep electing to misgovern us end up having a significant portion of their lawmaking undone by the courts anyways, making the heedless rush to foist unconstitutional social change pointless expensive anyways.
Taking the extra time to make sure that laws will pass legal muster and don’t alienate over half the nation is a good thing, and something we are only likely to get from an electoral system that makes minority governments the likely outcome.
Why not proportional representation?
The biggest reason not to desire proportional representation is that huge chunks of Canada have almost nobody in them. What about those ridings up north with less than 100,000 people that get their own Minister of Parliament? Do their voices disappear?
Rural voters also deserve to be heard. You or I may disagree greatly with their views, but they are human beings and they deserve a voice in their government. Their beliefs deserve to be considered, and their struggles, failures, problems and triumphs all deserve just as much airtime in parliament as that of any other Canadian.
The problem nobody wants to talk about is that minority groups aren’t represented by today’s system. When was the last time parliament really gave a bent damn about what happens in the Territories?
How many Canadians know about the horrors our government visited upon indigenous peoples through the Residential Schools system? Did you know that the last Residential School didn’t close until 1996>? Or that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement wasn’t agreed to until 2005 and that our government didn’t apologize until 2008?
Okay, so it’s easy to point at indigenous peoples and say they’re marginalized. A whole lot of Canadians really don’t care about that, hence why they’re marginalized. But the system not serving minorities hasn’t exactly been doing wonders for the white rural voters either!
The whole reason that the Reform party came into existence – and why it keeps threatening to re-emerge – is that rural voters regularly feel they aren’t adequately represented by the Conservative party. And the truth of it is, they’re right!
25%-30% of the population being hard-core social conservative is between 14% and 9% shy of actually being able to form a majority government under First Past the Post and pass whatever laws you want. They don’t get to run things unless they convince others to vote with them.
Those 25%-30% of hard-line conservatives, however, by dint of refusing to ever vote for anyone except the most conservative party don’t actually matter. The only people that matter to whichever Conservative party happens to be dominant is the 9%-14% of voters necessary to gain power. The 25%-30% can be functionally ignored because they aren’t going anywhere.
These are some uncomfortable truths, by the are the real power dynamics that underpin our current electoral system. Having a few MPs for the territories doesn’t get those people representation. They’ve been ignored for ages and will continue to be unless something changes. Similarly, rural voters will continue to be taken for granted unless something changes.
That something is proportional representation.
In a proportional representation system minorities become kingmakers. Many on both sides view this as a bad thing; who wants those holding a political view in extreme opposition to theirs to be a “kingmaker”? In truth, however, this isn’t a bad thing.
There are a couple of ways minorities hold power in proportional representation. The first is minority governments. Minority governments don’t have enough votes to make law. Thus they have to find allies in independent members of parliament or with other parties. These alliances can change on an issue-to-issue or topic-to-topic basis.
Coalitions are another way this can work. In a coalition two or more parties agree at the formation of the legislature that they will hammer out a mutual agenda and govern as one. This usually leads to “horse trading”, where party platform items are negotiated amongst the parties in the coalition until an agreed upon set of laws for the term is reached.
Like any good compromise, both minority governments and coalitions result in combinations of laws that nobody really likes, but everyone can live with.
Ultimately, that’s politics. Canada is never going to be a socially conservative unrestricted free market paradise. It isn’t going to be a libertarian utopia or a socialist heaven either. Canada will always be a set of compromises made by the people who live – and lived – within her borders in the hopes that we can all live decent lives and not kill each other over ideological divisions.
Mixed Member Proportional
Some argue that Canada should adopt a Mixed Member Proportional solution which would, in essence, layer a number of new parliamentarians over the existing system. This would allow for individual ridings to elect a member based on a First Past The Post system and one or more representatives from a larger constituency.
In theory this allows small ridings to be represented by someone who, in theory, represents their local needs, cares about the same things they care about and will vote on their behalf. By adding a number of new representatives in much larger proportional constituencies votes from any one region could theoretically look more like the actual vote distribution.
This won’t work.
First off, Mixed Member Proportional will merely increase the number of representatives without really addressing anyone’s concerns. Amidst the much larger parliament those small local voices will be signal lost in the noise.
More the point, Mixed Member Proportional ignores the fact that, without parliamentary reforms that remove the right of party leaders to force MPs to vote along party lines, local MPs are useless. On the rare occasion they dissent against their party they get kicked out and their riding gerrymandered so that they won’t get re-elected.
Speaking of gerrymandering…it’s a huge problem, and it underlies why most of Canada is clamoring for proportional representation anyways. Gerrymandering is about changing the size and shape of ridings in order to change which party the members of that constituency will vote. Once difficult, in today’s era of Big Data analytics gerrymandering to get exactly the result you want is absurdly easy.
Today it is used to make sure that you can get elected with only that 39% of the right voices by the Conservatives, and to try to stretch that number out a bit by everyone else. It is frequently scrutinized and you can only tweak the numbers so much before people scream.
Under Mixed Member Proportional, however, all the focus will be on the proportional representatives, leaving the local ridings to get twisted into bizarre and non-representative configurations largely without notice. A minor concern compared to the rest, but a real one nonetheless.
Single Transferrable Vote
This brings us to Single Transferrable Vote. For reasons that would make this already lengthy blog far too long to read many of the existing Single Transferrable Vote systems are dumb and Canada should not adopt them.
Keeping things short, Canada should probably be looking at adopting a Single Transferrable Vote system with constituency sizes that are between 7 and 9 members. This lowers the threshold of votes for a party to elect a member in that constituency and gives small parties – or independents – a better chance of being elected.
Along with this, Canada should probably adopt an open list Single Transferrable Vote system. The reason is simple: open list gives voters more say in the individual MPs that get elected. Closed list leaves that up the party entirely, and local is complicated enough to make my head hurt something fierce.
Canada has a unique opportunity here to learn from the lessons of other nations. We have the option to choose the shape of our future in a very real, very tangible way.
An open list Single Transferrable Vote proportional representation system has the best chance of ensuring that every Canadian – especially the currently underrepresented, underserved and simply taken-for-granted minorities – have a say.
Yes, it will require that Canadians work together to build the future of our nation such that it benefits all of us instead of taking turns trying to thwart the “other side” like petty children. But isn’t that what being Canadian is about?
So let’s do this Canada. For you. For me. For all of us, wherever we live. It’s time to leave the electoral system of the 18th century in the past where it belongs and forge a new system to meet the needs of the 21st. A Canadian system.