The case against Proportional Representation

In what seems to be a recurring theme after every election in Canada the last few years, there is talk about how our electoral system is ‘unfair’ because 40% of voters voted for the party that received 54%  of the seats.  Detractors like to say that 60% of voters did not vote for the government, but tend to ignore the argument that an even larger portion of the voters did not vote for any of the other parties.  But let’s forget about that for a bit, and assume that these people truly want a more fair democracy, and aren’t just annoyed that their parties lost the election.

The main argument in favour of proportional representation assumes that everyone in the country votes only for the party, and makes absolutely no allowances for the candidates running in an individual riding.  While this may be the case for some, or even many voters (as evidenced by now-large Quebec contingent from the NDP) there are obviously many other ridings where individuals won or lost based on the campaign run in that riding.

In a full proportional system or mixed-member proportional, the party creates a list of candidates which are elected based on the party’s proportional share of the vote.  But what if voters don’t like someone on the list?  Or even what if the voters like the party ideology, but don’t like the leader?  Is there any recourse for voters to get rid of individual politicians?

Just think of the results if the recent election had been through proportional representation: The Liberals would have won 58 seats, and Michael Ignatieff would still be sitting in the House of Commons.  The Bloq would have won 19 seats, and Gilles Duceppe would also still be sitting in the House of Commons.

Clearly, the voters in both Etobicoke-Lakeshore and Laurier-Sainte Marie did not feel that the leaders of either the Liberals or the Bloq deserved to represent them any more.  But under a proportional system, the leaders would (obviously) be at the top of the party list, so the only way to truly get rid of the leader is to completely wipe out a party.  That means if a party can get a minimum amount of support, they can get a fairly significant number MPs elected that are accountable to no voters.  Even with 5% of the popular vote a party would get 15 seats.

Can you imagine a situation where less than 5% of the country voted for the Liberal party?  Even if their current troubles continue, I don’t think their popular support would ever drop that low.

So, how can a system where a list made by a party is considered more democratic than voters individually deciding which candidates should stay and which should go?  In the last election, the Conservatives lost 4 cabinet ministers: Lawrence Cannon, Gary Lunn, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, and Josee Verner.  In addition to their leader, the Liberals lost three members that ran for the leadership of the party in 2006: Gerard Kennedy, Martha Hall Findlay and Joe Volpe, who has held his seat since 1988.  Does anyone think that any of these individuals would not be right at the top of any party list in a proportional system?  And if they were near the top of the party list, why should they be, considering their local constituents did not consider them worthy of winning?

Now, I am not opposed to at least discussing some form of electoral reform, but we should at least look at the pros and cons of any system that we choose.  Just saying that 40% of the votes for a party should result in 40% of seats ignores some pretty large deficiencies in the means for allocating those seats.

What the Hell?

If someone had said to me at the beginning of this campaign that the Conservatives would have won 167 seats, the NDP 102 and the Liberals 34, I would have asked if they were drunk.

What started at the election about nothing turned into the most interesting election night that I have seen.

I’ll do a better analysis sometime tomorrow, but for now I have to say that the absolute high point of this election is the Bloc getting decimated.  Winning only 4 seats, and losing your leader is almost a death blow.  They also lose official party status in the House.  That counts as a huge win for Canada and a huge win for Quebec, in my book.

If nothing else, that made this election worthwhile.

Decision Day

Well, the day is finally upon us.  For those of us who did not participate in advance polls, today is the day to cast our ballots in favour of our preferred candidates.

At the very least, this campaign has been more interesting than I was expecting.  I certainly didn’t predict the NDP to start polling ahead of the Bloc in Quebec and ahead of the Liberals nationwide.  I am still in a sort of shock at seeing those polls, but they are what they are.  We’ll see later tonight if the NDP supporters come out en masse and make Jack Layton the leader of the opposition or Prime Minister (although you already know my thoughts on that one).

Despite all the rhetoric, I think we can safely say that Canada will be fine whatever the result is tomorrow.  Harper will not turn Canada into a dictatorship (even if he wins a majority), Layton will not turn the economy into a death spiral (even though I think his promises are pretty wacky) and Ignatieff will not perform a palace coup at 24 Sussex as a last-ditch effort to govern the country.

And on the plus side, it looks like the one party whose actual goal is to destroy the country, is polling lower than it has pretty much since its inception.  With any luck, they will lose most of their seats, and thus have less leverage to blackmail the rest of the country into giving it ever more money.  I’ll take socialists over separatists any day of the week, because at least socialists try to make everyone equal.

So if you are still undecided, make a last ditch effort to get informed, and go to your nearest polling station.

If you asked me, I would say that I am predicting another Conservative minority, with an NDP official opposition.  But by how much, I am not willing to guess.  I’ll just have to wait and see once the polls close tonight.

What happened to the Green Party?

With the Liberal party imploding, and a general disdain for the incumbents in the House of Commons, one would think that the Greens would have a shot at finally making some headway this election.  But the opposite actually seems to be true: the Green party is polling worse than it did during the last campaign.

For the most part, the Green have been invisible this campaign.  There was that brief blip right before the debate where everyone was discussing whether or not Elizabeth May should be a participant.  She complained that is was unfair and undemocratic to not include the leader of a national party which received almost 7% of the popular vote last election.  But once it was declared final that she would not be in the debate, she seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth.

Well, maybe not completely off the face of the Earth.  According to some internal polling, she might just win her riding out in Saanich-Gulf Islands.  But does that really mean much overall for the Green Party?  Or is it just an indication that a party that in nominally running a national campaign can focus all of their efforts into one riding?  Any of the major parties could win just about any individual riding if they concentrate all of their efforts on that riding.  But the other parties all care about increasing support overall, not just winning one riding.

Since the debate, Elizabeth May has almost never been mentioned in the newspapers.  She gets no TV time.  All of their ‘ads’ are on the internet.  In short, May has done nothing to engage the electorate across the country.  The Greens are polling consistently in the mid-single digits, and that hasn’t changed since the beginning of the campaign.  Maybe I am missing out on a really good ground game in a number of targeted riding across the country, but I sincerely doubt it.  To me, it looks like the Greens have gone from a one-issue party to a one-candidate party.

If ever there was an election for the Greens to make a major breakthrough, this was it.  There was serious criticisms of the Conservatives, and the Liberals had a very weak leader.  Instead of the Greens using their (sort-of) centre platform to peel off voters from both the Liberals and the Conservatives, they let the NDP take control of the narrative and take all of the support from the disenfranchised.  They missed a golden opportunity to make a major breakthrough, and the will probably pay for it for years to come.  Even at the beginning of this election, there was some indication that any of the incumbents could be vulnerable, and after the final ballots are counted, I suspect the electorate will realize that if the Greens couldn’t gain more support in this election, there is probably no point in voting for them in the future, since they will probably never be relevant.

And I think that sentiment will be there even if Elizabeth May wins her seat.  It might even make it worse if she doesn’t do much once she gets there, and how much of the Green Party platform can she really promote as a single MP?  My guess, not much.

Does our Democracy need fixing?

This week, the Globe is running a series this week looking for ‘One Big Idea to fix our democracy.’  Today’s installments are pros and cons of mandatory voting, as well as one suggesting we allow online voting.

The implicit assumption in this series is that our democracy is broken.  But is it really broken?  Sure, it could be improved, but I wouldn’t say that it’s broken.

The most-heard arguments that our political system is broken is that 4 in 10 voters can’t be bothered to vote, that less than 40% of voters cast their ballots for the winning party, and the number of seats won by each party in parliament is not representative of the percentage of people that voted for that party.

Personally, I don’t think that any of these means that our democratic system is broken.  I think they are legitimate areas that need improvement.  That may seem like splitting hairs on semantics, but calling something broken tends to imply that it’s beyond repair; that we should just scrap what we have and start over.  Even with the issues that our electoral system faces in Canada, nobody complains that our elections are not conducted in a fair an impartial manner.  There is no violence or intimidation during the campaign or voting periods.  We don’t have political leaders illegally clinging to power after they lose an election.  And we also have 4 viable choices of political parties (5 in Quebec), as well as the ability to cast out ballots for candidates who belong to no party.  If we don’t like our elected representatives, we can turf them after a maximum of 5 years.  To me, this doesn’t sound like democracy is broken in Canada.

Regardless, the items mentioned above are legitimate criticisms.  All three of the articles in the Globe today deal with the first problem.  The last election we had about 58.8% voter turnout, while most elections before 1990 had voter turnout somewhere between 65% and just under 80%.  But Canada has never had an election with a voter turnout of over 80%.  There has never been a point in Canadian history where everyone in the country has been fully involved in politics.  No matter what idea we may come up with, there will always be a certain portion of the population that just doesn’t care who runs the country.  Neither mandatory voting nor online voting will solve that problem.

Forcing people to go to the polls is not the same as engaging the electorate.  Just because someone is forced to walk to a polling station and check off a box, it doesn’t mean that they care about who they are voting for.  It’s just treating the symptom of the problem instead of the disease.  Showing a number after an election that 93.21% of eligible voters cast a ballot (as in Australia in 2010) only shows that 6.79% of voters don’t care about the threat of a fine.

Online voting has also been touted as a way to increase voter turnout by making it easier to cast a ballot.  But if you don’t care enough to spend 15 minutes out of your day to drop a piece of paper in a box, do you really care about the election?  Showing up to a polling station on election day is not really a high standard.  Plus, there is advanced polls, as well as special ballots, which mean you can vote pretty much whenever you like just by showing up at your local returning office.  Or, if you don’t like leaving your house, you can vote by mail.

Online voting also suffers from two major flaws: there is no way to verify the who the voter is, and there is no paper trail.  Since anyone can vote by mail, I guess we can gloss over the verification problem, but the lack of paper trail is a cause for serious concern.  What if someone asks for a recount?  There is no possible way to verify that all of the votes are legitimate, or that they haven’t been tampered with.  If a system is online, then it is possible to be hacked.  Unscrupulous individuals could use the online system to cause anyone they want to win, without any way to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate ballots.  At least with paper ballots, all votes are counted in front of independent scrutineers, and then the boxes are sealed in case a recount is ordered.  With online voting, there is no scrutineers, no sealing of ballot boxes, and no recounts.  Besides all that, it still doesn’t solve the problem of voters not caring.

It seems that the most common solution to disengaged voters is some form of proportional representation, which theoretically allocates votes more ‘fairly’ between the parties.  While I think we could do with a frank and open discussion of the relative merits of other voting systems, it’s not going to be a panacea for all of our problems.  Besides, in the four referendums that various provinces have held on electoral reforms (two in BC, one in Ontario, one in PEI), none have passed, which indicates that there is not widespread desire for reform, despite what certain parties may say.  But that’s another topic for another day.

Overall, these ideas all seem a little gimmicky and unlikely to solve the problem of 40% of voters not caring at all, and that’s not going to happen until someone inspirational comes along.  The four elections that came closest to an 80% turnout saw the victories of Laurier, Deifenbaker and Pearson.  The elections with the mid-70s turnout saw leaders such as Borden, Mackenzie-King, Trudeau and Mulroney.  Love them or hate them, those leaders know how to rally support.  They had vision.  All of our current leaders can do is tell you why their opponents are bad.  If the goal is voter participation, inspirational leadership is the answer: that’s what has worked in the past, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in the future.

The (not so) Great Debate

After watching the English leaders debate, I am left wondering what the point of the debate is.  From what I saw, I can’t imagine anyone basing their voting decision on what they saw there.

If I had to decide, I would say that Harper ‘won’ the debate solely based on the fact that the opposition members didn’t say anything that really stuck to him.  Layton, Ignatieff and Duceppe would all make accusations about Harper’s policies, and Harper would easily deflect them every time.  The opposition members never really made a serious attempt to attack Harper with any evidence or hard numbers, so Harper could easily say it wasn’t true, and then he would move on to mention all the great things that he has done in the last four years.  Ignatieff was especially bad for this because every time he had a chance to speak, he would mention at least four or five different issues with the Conservatives, but then Harper would respond to the one or two that he actually had a good defense for and then ignored the rest.  If Ignatieff was a little more focused, he probably could have done a better job of forcing Harper off of his talking points.  And as a bonus, Harper laid off the coalition boogeyman, which was becoming pretty tiring to listen to.

Speaking of which, Ignatieff was pretty terrible for most of the debate.  He wasn’t nearly focused enough to land any decent shots on Harper.  He also seemed to stutter a lot when he was trying to get through his talking points.  This was his chance to really shine as a viable alternative to Harper, but was lackluster by comparison.  He spent too much time with his “jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts” line, throwing it in wherever he could.  My biggest pet peeve was that he appears to forget that the corporate tax cuts have already pass in Parliament because the Liberals purposefully didn’t send enough MPs to the vote when they voted against it.  It rings a little hollow when you oppose something after having let it pass.

Layton did a bit better.  He had decent criticisms of both Harper and Ignatieff but still suffered from not being able to stick anything on Harper, although he did a reasonably good job of painting Ignatieff as a friend of the Conservatives for propping up the government repeatedly over the last few years.  And the high point for the night was when Layton mentioned ‘bling’, when talking about gangs.  That almost made the two-hour ordeal worth watching.

Duceppe was far less entertaining than he was in the previous debates.  It almost seemed like he wasn’t trying.  I do expect him to do better in the French debate, when people that actually care about him will watch him debate.

The worst part of all was that the questions that were asked were for the most ignored by the candidates.  They generally started with the general theme of the questions and then veered off towards whatever talking points that they waned to get to.  It’s hard to find out where the party leaders stand on specific issues when they ignore the question and then talk about something else entirely.

The format of the debate was pretty bad too, although it was better than the last election, with the roundtable of everyone against Harper.  The one-on-one format seemed like it could have been interesting, but seeing Duceppe and Layton go head to head on multiculturalism was about as useless of a discussion as I can imagine.

As I said, I can’t really imagine anyone changing their decision based on this debate.  No new policy planks were mentioned, and there was no ‘knockout’ that people seem to expect from these debates even though they never occur.  It was really just a continuation of the bickering that we have all come to expect from the people we keep sending to Ottawa.

Ontario Catholic Teachers tax their members to fight the evil Conservatives

According to the National Post:

An Ontario teachers union has approved charging its members an extra $3-million to fund a political action campaign aimed at keeping the Progressive Conservatives out of office in the fall provincial election.

The $60-per-member additional fee was passed by 67% of delegates at the Ontario Catholic Teachers Association’s annual general meeting last month in Toronto.

So, somehow, the union is able to unilaterally tax every member $60, because the union leadership has a grudge with the Progressive Conservative party, which hasn’t been in power since 2003.  The 67% of delegates figure is a little misleading, since the only people who voted were the delegates at the meeting, which may not represent the opinions of the membership at large.  Even if 67% of the 45,000 Catholic teachers in the province did agree with the levy, that still leaves almost 15,000 teachers that are being forced to spend money campaigning against a party that they may actually support.

How is it that a union even has the power to impose such a fee on its membership?  What would happen if a corporation told all of its employees that they would be charged $60 to fund a campaign to make sure that Dalton McGuinty loses the coming election?  There would be outrage from all quarters, and rightly so.  I have no problem with the union asking its membership to help fund a campaign, but forcing teacher to pay up with no ability to refuse is unacceptable.

It is situations like this which should cause us to examine the role of unions in society, especially in the public sector.  If a union has the power to tax all its members for a campaign that is only tangentially related to general union business, then it may be tine to start removing some of their power.  It’s time for some reforms to make union leadership accountable to its members, starting first with audited, publicly available financial statements allocating all costs to its various activities, and letting the members decide if they want to fund those activities on an individual basis.

At most, I hope that the disagreeing members take the union to court to prevent things like this from happening again.  At the very least, I hope the next provincial government, whoever they may be, stands up against this sort of extortion.