Monday, October 20, 2008

Is proportional representation for losers?

{Last spring and early summer, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared to be tearing themselves apart over the Democratic nomination, a conservative commentator mused on the superiority of the Republicans' "winner take all" approach to state caucuses and primaries. The implication clearly was that Republicans were motivated by a different spirit, one that was more likely to produce bold, indomitable leaders, and also more likely to win the White House. You can judge for yourselves how that has panned out. In this case, the winner has turned out to be the one with the greatest ability to be inclusive--and that is how it should be.

One occasionally hears similar arguments in Canada on behalf of the "winner take all" approach, and, as in the U.S., they tend to come disproportionately from the right side of the political spectrum. One such commentator is the Edmonton Journal's columnist Lorne Gunter, who after last week's federal election result pooh-poohed the predictable complaints from the left about our electoral system, stressing the importance of the link between local constituents and their representatives in our current system and asking, reasonably enough, why Greens never could muster enough support in any one location to actually win a seat. After all, if the right could get its act together and form one party strong enough to win under our system, why shouldn't the left be expected to meet the same challenge? Here is my response, which appeared in the Edmonton Journal on October 21, 2008:}

Lorne Gunter’s dismissal of proportional representation (“Proportional representation not ‘fairer’”—Journal Oct.17, p. A16) is overdrawn in both its premise (that people complain about our system more because Conservatives are winning) and its conclusion (“the concept of local representation would disappear, or at least be greatly diminished”).

Even though our electoral system has been shown to exacerbate regional cleavages and harm national unity by exaggerating the strength of separatist and regional protest parties (the Bloc Quebecois and Reform) at the expense of parties of national integration (the Progessive Conservatives and the NDP), I actually agree with Mr. Gunter’s argument that there are sound philosophical reasons for attaching greater weight to political preferences that are more geographically concentrated. The real issue is whether the social context of elections has changed enough to significantly affect the weight of that argument. There are at least five great social trends which suggest that indeed it has:

First, declining voter turnout. (From 75% to 59% federally in 20 years) Turnout is generally significantly higher where there is a PR element in the electoral system.

Second, increased voter volatility. Voters are increasingly restless and searching for alternatives.

Third, increased diversity and concomitant demands for representation: PR systems tend to be much more gender balanced and ethnically and ideologically diverse than First Past-the-Post (FPTP).

Fourth, voters are more educated, more mobile, and more desirous of greater choice, and of choices beyond old left-right industrial age ideologies.

Fifth, there is an expanded rights consciousness, which in Canada is associated with the Charter of Rights--and which has led to an interesting Charter challenge on the grounds that our votes don't count sufficiently equally and our section 3 and section 15 rights have been unreasonably infringed by FPTP.

This is why the electoral reform debate won't go away: it speaks directly to many of the most profound social changes taking place right under our feet.

It is is also why we should pay close attention to the next two experiments in electoral reform—the May 2009 referendum in British Columbia and the prime minister’s own quest for an elected Senate—and seize the opportunities they afford to add elements of proportionality without greatly weakening local representation. The Single-Transferable Vote system being considered for B.C. (BC-STV) maintains local multi-member constituencies along with a preferential ballot. And if we opt for an elected Senate, we could have regional open PR lists for Senate elections while still reserving the House Commons for the winners of those 308 local elections as the seat of government and the repository of ¾ of federal MPs. Without PR, there is no reason to believe that an elected Senate would be any more gender-balanced or ethnically representative than the House of Commons currently is. (Ironically, in view of its stodgy reputation, our current Senate is more gender balanced and ethnically representative than the current House of Commons! ) Either of these two innovations would empower more voters and help to create the more representative legislatures that we need in the 21st century.

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