Friday, August 08, 2008

NDP Affirmative Action A Poor Substitute for BC-STV --but it's Better than Nothing

The NDP's new policy of restricting the first nomination of a retiring incumbent's constituency to female candidates is unlikely to improve the party's prospects of recruiting 'star' candidates that will help it win the next general election in B.C. But it will at least improve the representativeness of the party, and potentially, of the Legislature. It addresses one of the serious problems of Canadian democracy, the 'glass ceiling' of approximately 1/4 female elected candidates.

Such affirmative action would be unnecessary in a system characterized by greater proportionality and multi-member electoral districts. Comparative studies demonstrate conclusively that PR-list systems have much greater gender balance as well as higher voter turnout, and while STV mutes gender equality a bit (since it lacks the de facto quota system associated with party lists), in our pluralistic society, BC political parties will almost certainly tend to field gender-balanced and ethnically-mixed slates in most ridings under BC-STV. They would fail to do so only at their own risk.

In addition to improving chances for female representation without quotas or restrictions on nominations, BC-STV would also address another problem that limits female representation and hinders the 'circulation of elites' generally: the problem of 'safe seats'. About 20-25 of Liberal MLAs occupy seats that have such a high core of Liberal support that the incumbent is unlikely to be unseated in anything but extraordinary circumstances. Roughly a dozen NDP seats have the same quality, irrespective of the records of the MLAs occupying them.

Take a couple of examples of safe seats, one from NDP ranks, one from the Liberals.
Adrian Dix was one of the two or three people most responsible for the worst excesses of the Clark Government. He embodied what was wrong with the Clark government even better than Clark himself did: "process is for cheese", shoot first, ask questions never, damn the torpedoes, "testosterone politics". A proven ruthless prevaricator and fraud artist (remember the backdated memo?) he left the premier's office in disgrace. Yet he had no trouble drawing on the organization he and Glen Clark had built up since the early 1980s in Vancouver Kingsway to waltz into the nomination in 2005 without so much as a serious challenger. Barring another self-inflicted holocaust, he now occupies a safe fortress from which to mount his coming leadership campaign. (Ever wonder why you can't see a NDP announcement on television about energy policy without somebody waving Adrian Dix signs in the background?)

Linda Reid was a newly minted school teacher in Richmond , who did dog shows in her spare time. She had little trouble getting the Liberal nomination in 1991 when the Liberals were a distant third in the polls. Then came the blowback on the VanderZalm Socreds and the 1991 TV leaders' debate, which Gordon Wilson won by default. Her Richmond riding is now a safe one for the Liberals, and it is safe for her as long as she keeps her head down and doesn't follow Gordon Wilson, David Mitchell and Alan Warnke into political oblivion by questioning Gordon Campbell's leadership.

Both Adrian Dix and Linda Reid have some good qualities and have some accomplishments to their credit. But it would be ridiculous to suggest that they deserve to be insulated from the precarious lives that most of their colleagues have to live in our democracy. Ironically, this is supposedly one of the knocks against PR-list systems: "it creates two classes of MPS". But we have two classes of MLA right now--those who occupy non-marginal constituencies and those who occupy marginal , contestable ones.

These examples highlight one of the singular virtues of STV: even though it is a form of proportional representation, it levels the playing field by largely eliminating safe seats. More precisely, even if a particular multi-member district is relatively 'safe' for a political party, it will not insulate individual candidates as much. Linda Reid will have to compete for votes in the larger Richmond riding. Adrian Dix will have to compete in a larger Vancouver riding. They both will have to compete for second and third preferences as well as first ones. They may even have to compete against members of their own parties.

Among the predictable results of BC-STV: a more representative legislature, a more level playing field for incumbent MLAs, and a modestly greater circulation of elites. Too bad it probably won't happen.

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