Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Attack Upon BC-STV

A great many of the people most critical of BC-STV and most enamoured with SMP are former political operatives and premiers with a certain nostalgia for how well decisions have been made in the past--Bennett, Barrett, Clark, Spector, Plecas, Schreck, Tieleman. This is not surprising; BC-STV is not designed with the preferences of the political class in mind. My own view, reflecting on the growing diversity of the population, the growing volatility of the electorate, the declining voter turnout, and the excesses of Bennett in the early 80s, VanderZalm in the late 80s, Clark in the late 90s, Campbell in 2001-2003, and the cockamame election results of 1996 and 2001, is that it would be wise to raise the bar needed for a majority government, even if that led to more minority governments, because politicians would be forced to consider the views of more people (and consult more meaningfully with them). On average, it would lead to better policies and better governance, even if decisive executive action were sometimes slowed or impeded in the process.

Given our increasingly diverse, educated and fickle electorate, the "winner take all" plurality vote has become a hard sell. On the other hand, the tyranny of small parties is a typical feature of systems with a high degree of PR. But as long as the increase in proportionality is measured--a modest dose of PR--the benefits should outweigh costs and serve to invigorate our democracy. We can start by moving to a larger number of seats (at least 90), keeping 60-66 of them as single member districts. I discuss this possibility--and debate it at length with a couple of BC-STV supporters--at

Of course, my preferred choice is not on the ballot in 2009, and I am extremely conscious that particular conditions and personalities produced the BC-STV proposal--most notably, the constraint that the Assembly had to work with only 79 seats, the reaction against Green Party lobbying, and the more effective and persuasive lobbying of Nick Loenen et. al. But right now I am leaning toward BC-STV as something that is preferable to the status quo, and which can be relied upon to make the BC Legislature a much more representative body.

I would like to point out that the crux of this whole debate is not about the abstract merits of these different systems , all of which have been debated for over a century. The real issue is whether the social context of the debate has changed so much as to greatly shift the weights of those arguments. There are at least six great social trends which suggest that indeed it has:

First, declining voter turnout. (From 75% to 60% federally in less than 20 years)Bill, you may not have seen an increase in the last New Zealand election, but the overall evidence from comparative political science is conclusive. Turnout is generally significantly higher where there is a PR element in the electoral system.

Second, increased voter volatility. Again, it is apparent at provincial, national and international levels: 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 FPTP.

Fourth, as the post-materialist theorists like to put it, voters are more educated and "cognitively mobilized"--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.

Sixth, there is, associated with the decline of deference and the other trends noted above, an increased interest in political participation outside of political parties and their hierarchies. While I share the scepticism that BC-STV will elect a bunch of independent MLAs, it would arguably provide a better electoral outlet for that preference than 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.


Antony Hodgson said...

Mark, this is very well said. A very compelling set of motivations for seeking electoral reform. I hope all voters in BC get to reflect on how the reform proposed there addresses these deep-seated concerns.

Mark Crawford said...

Thank you Antony. I do feel that I put the finger on something here. We know that PR corresponds generally to higher turnout, greater voter choice, and more representative and gender -balanced legislatures. Defenders of SMP/FPTP simply must do a better job of addressing these concerns or they will lose the debate.

The Doctor said...

Have you two noticed that 'fairvote' organisations do not exist in places without FPTP!

Secondly, PR of any does not guarantee more independent politicians, but it does tend guarantee a higher turnover given that you are likely to each party offering enough candidates to fill each available position.

Mark Crawford said...


(1) Good Point-- and it can hardly be a coincidence that Fair Vote Organizations are largely confined to FPTP jurisdictions. On a couple of occasions countries have 'switched back' but that has usually been from pure PR to some form of MMP.

(2) I suspect that turnover is greater in ssytems with preferential balloting than systems with closed lists, but I would have to check the data. Some people near the top of (closed) party lists stay there for a long time.

Ted Hayes said...

Insofar as your comments are more rational than many I have seen on this topic, I liked what you had to say, Mark. I don't agree, though.

I think you haven't addressed at least a few critical issues.

1. Accountability. How can you hold a government accountable for policies that it has no power to control? If, as I hope we do, we elect governments on the basis of (a) the policies and (b) the values of the parties they represent, how can we can we reasonably judge their performance? Whether or not we agree with it, Stephen Harper’s party was elected on a policy to reduce taxes and to further the war in Afghanistan. It seems almost certain that he will be unable to realize these policies. Given his political minority in Parliament, how reasonable is it that we measure his success against that criteria? But, if not that criteria, then what? The minority parties to some large degree control what is and is not possible in a minority government. With any form of proportional representation, the likelihood of such minority governments increases and, with it, the problems of holding governments accountable.

2. Disproportionate Power. This issue is, in some ways, related to the first one. Small minority parties wield disproportionately greater power. The likelihood of such small parties holding a power balance is lesser with FPTP. If fascists or religious wackos could elect a few representatives, then they might well control the power balance - as they did in 1930s Germany and do now in Israel. A party like Stephen Harper’s could well be drawn even further to the right (Sorry, I happen also to think that the old “materialist”, industrial-age politics are as apt as they ever were.) and give legitimacy to what might well be a ‘fringe’ party or parties. Although you concede this point, you do not seem to acknowledge the seriousness of the potential consequences.

3. Disenfranchisement. Presumably, the various forms of proportional representation (and their look-alikes) are intended to ensure a range of representation that more widely reflects the views and aspirations of the electorate. And, for the smaller parties, that may well be true. However, it does little to ensure the greater enfranchisement of the larger parties which would normally be expected to reflect the views of more people. The views of the Social Democrats in 1950s and 1960s Germany, for example, had little or no affect on government, while the small minority of Free Democrats directed not only the Adenauer government, but also the Brandt government when, later, the Christian Democrats were consigned to opposition. The point here is that no form of elected government of which I am aware actually addresses the problem of disenfranchisement among the large body of citizens who support the largest opposition parties. STV and other alternatives tinker with the idea but actually reinforce this disenfranchisement by giving disproportionate power and legitimacy to parties that do not reflect the views and aspirations of more than a small minority of the electorate. The worst of it is that this tinkering creates the illusion of greater enfranchisement while actually delivering less of it.

4. Illusion and Voter Turnout. I think that there is a body of evidence to suggest that voter turnout is related to the power that the citizenry perceives in voting. If people feel that the parties are “all the same”, then they see little point in it. If there is a plethora of parties, then citizens may well perceive themselves as having greater influence because no party - even those in government - can be seen as responsible for the outcome or the lack of it. Parties will not be seen as “all the same” because inertia is to be expected. No party can be seen as being in a position to achieve its mandate. Every party offers hope to its supporters, but no party is expected to deliver. Many of the factors which result in FPTP parties looking the same as one another become transparent and explainable to their supporters within the alternative systems. Socialist FPTP governments are prevented from acting because of counterweights in the economy. Capitalist FPTP governments are prevented from acting because of counterweights in the electorate. In the alternative forms of government, these forces appear as effects of other political parties. Political supporters are able to keep their virginity because there is an illusion of party purity that is besmudged only by other parties. The alternative electoral forms simply make a virtue of their failure to deliver.

I expect that there is more I could say, but I have probably said enough.

Ted Hayes

Mark Crawford said...

Ted: This is very well put. I have also added a few links to some good editorials on both sides of the debate.

I made two main points. (1) the anti-BCSTV forces seem to be led by former political operatives with a degree of nostalgia and satisfaction with how well power was exercised by past BC governments that most British Columbians do not share. Of course, many people, like yourself or Alex Michalos, do not have that as their principal motivation for opposing BC-STV, so that fact in itself does not mean that BC-STV should be accepted. But it is nonetheless a very true and I believe very telling fact.

(2) I said that BC-STV and other PR proposals do appear to respond directly to six fundamental trends in our society. While I don't agree completely with post-materialist analysis (we live in an age of hyper-capitalism, not post-capitalism), it is based upon well-documented facts about value change in modern society. It is those facts that I speak to, more than the theory of post-materialism or the idea that environmentalism transcends both capitalism and socialism.

Higher voter turnout under PR is based upon the fact that smaller parties afford a chance at ideological purity, while still permitting a weaker affinity with a broader coalition, as you say. And also the simple fact that people see their votes reflected in the results! But to dismiss that as an "illusion" of efficacy--a kind of false consciousness--doesn't square easily with the data, which show these trends continuing across many countries over several decades of elections.

As British Columbians know all too well, it is not so much the level of support for a party that determines who wins, but how the vote "splits", and how well a few over-hyped wedge issues are targetted in a few marginal districts. I tend to agree with Andrew Coyne on this issue: "PR opens up the political market to new competitors, and encourages parties to compete in healthier ways: by the earned increments of persuasion, rather than winner-take-all bets on split votes and other vagaries of the current system." I'll take Mike Harcourt's "earned increments" over Glen Clark's "winner take all bets"--but we need a system that will reward the former and punish the latter, instead of our existing system, which does the opposite.

As for accountability, you raise a good point. There was no doubt who was to be held accountable in the Clark government, just as there is no doubt about who is responsible in the Campbell government. And I certainly don't want to see the Greens or the Family Values Party calling the shots. I merely wish to raise the bar for awarding the awesome power that our system gives a first minister. Your example of the Harper government is a good one. The economy was the best it had been in thirty years, public finances were the best they had been in 30 years, and the polls showed no increased appetite for Conservative policies. But Canada was sick and tired of the scandal plagued Liberals. What to do? A minority parliament led but not controlled by Conservatives may have had somewhat blurred accountability, but it was probably the best option open to us. Do you really regret the Pearson and Trudeau minorities, that delivered Tommy Douglas's policies to Canadians? Would you really prefer a Harper majority, even though 70% of Canadians don't want it, on the grounds that that would yield clarity, accountability? The BQ, the NDP , and the LIberals (who represent a clear majority of voters) are being held accountable for their support, or lack thereof, for the government's policies. And the Conservatives have given us a taste of their policies before we buy in completely.

I agree with your point about "disproportionate power" that occurs when "proportionate" small parties get into Parliament. That is why I favour only a modest improvement to proportionality. In my preferred system, there would be about 6 regional districts in BC --not a provincial list of compensatory seats. I wish STV were just 3- member ridings in the south and 2-member ridings in the North, but even under BC-STV there will be very few minor party candidates elected outside of Vancouver or Victoria. I am not convinced that BC-STV would create a Pizza Parliament in Victoria.

I understand your use of the word "disenfranchisement", but I don't see how our existing system is anything but worse. Coalition governments are forced to pay heed to a majority of voters, even if supporters of oppposition parties continue to be left out. Majority governments in our existing system need only pay heed to as few as 36% of the voters--and utterly disregard 64%. The votes of most electors elect no one--even as our major parties chase after the votes of a thin sliver of marginal voters. The fact that Clark and Campbell are both being held "accountable" hasn't yielded much good public policy, in my opinion. And their concentrated power should either be justified by greater voter support--or it should be shared.

The Doctor said...

your comments on minority parties does not make sense. They do not have disproportionate power, because they only seem to have power when they convince a majority in the assembly to vote the same way.
I suspect a large group of any population(~40%) see minority government as good idea as it checks the executive from doing things too outrageous. I suggest you have at the history of the current Australian Federal Government or the New Zealanders before they went to MMP.
As for the Accountability issue, there are several things happening :
1. Not everybody who votes for a particular party or individual will like all the policies presented, and so will place other politicians higher on their preference;
2. Minority parties, with a balance power, can and do help maintain accountablity, and;
3. If they really, really wish to get a particular policy through they can argue it out at the next election against the parties that opposed it, and with luck gain a mandate that way!