The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Electoral Reform

There are many reasons to fear electoral cooperation.  Adam ably questions the assumptions being made about the electoral math.   I for one fear the campaign itself.  You do not need to have been following Canadian federal politics very closely to realise that such cooperation will be attacked vociferously by the CPC machine as anti-democratic.  The last attempt at coalition between the Liberals and NDP in December 2008 was attacked as just such a demon, even though it would have resulted in a group of like-minded MPs representing a larger fraction of the voters who elected them than the governing CPC (in Federal Election of Oct 2008, the CPC earned 38% of the vote versus a combined 45% by the LPC and NDP).

The CPC machine would welcome a new agreement, as it would give them unlimited opportunity to attack the other parties for denying voters choice, without having to discuss other annoying issues like, say, eviscerated environmental laws, muzzled scientists, weakened inspection and auditing, F-35, the Swiss cheese masquerading as our tax system, the concentration of power in the PMO, … and that’s before getting to inaction on climate change!

But let’s back up a step and look at why electoral cooperation is being proposed.  The faults of our First-Past-The Post system are well known:

  1. First and foremost, it frequently delivers a false majority; i.e. a majority of the seats despite a minority of the votes.  The current government won 54% of the seats with less than 40% of the votes (cast by fewer than 25% of eligible voters!).  In fact Canada has only had one true majority in the last 50 years (the Mulroney landslide of 1984).
  2. Second, for a small party like ours with thinly spread support, votes do not translate into seats.  Our 4% of the vote in 2011 should have garnered a dozen seats; imagine the House with a dozen Elizabeth May’s holding the government to account; with a Green MP watching every committee.

Many have talked about electoral reform in the past, but somehow what seems like a good idea in opposition pales once a party grasps the reins of power.  As long as the Liberals and Conservatives trade sides of the House every two or three elections, both are happy enough to shut everyone else out. But now, after seven years of Harper government with no signs of party consolidation on the ‘Left’, it looks like things might have permanently changed, especially as the CPC continues to tilt our democracy in its favour.  What then, can be done?

If you accept that the long-term solution is electoral reform, then we have to put it on the political agenda not just as one more election issue but as the election issue – a referendum on our current electoral system.  That is why Elizabeth May (among others, including Joyce Murray) is proposing one-time cooperation with a single goal.  Let’s set aside all the other issues on which we will never agree (if we could, the ‘Left’ would have merged and we wouldn’t be having this discussion) and – like smart prisoners – cooperate.

Then what?  The coalition parties are on the horns of a dilemma: if they can agree on a particular voting system (and there are many different systems already in use around the world), they then have to sell it to the voters.  Given the difficulties faced in the three provincial referenda to date (BC, ON & PEI), that seems unlikely.  A better approach might be for the coalition to agree on a mechanism to start down the path to change (say, everybody’s ‘favourite’, a Royal Commission or better yet a Citizens’ Assembly).

And then come out swinging, with a simple effective explanation to voters as to why this matters and how it would work.  Not only is it necessary to explain to voters why electoral reform is required, but also that this is a one-time alliance.  That is, that such a coalition is asking the voters to hold their noses and select the local candidate most likely to enact electoral reform on the understanding – nay, commitment – that they will stay just long enough to fix the electoral system, and then call an election under the new rules.  This also presumes that so-called progressive voters are on the ABC bandwagon – and would still turn out to vote given only one choice.  It is enforced strategic voting – but with an actual mandate.

It might even bring some non-voters out to the booths – those that are disheartened by the current disgrace on the Hill or who assume that their vote can’t change anything.  An election on electoral reform means this vote – and every future vote – will matter.  Proportional representation makes your vote worth more and do more.  It’s used all over the world: the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Australian states.  So it’s worth pursuing to make Canada better.

If we miss this opportunity to cooperate, who knows when it will arise again?  If the CPC machine wins again in 2015 – and at this juncture who would bet against it, Justin Trudeau not withstanding – then the next election will be in 2020.  Of course by then the Arctic might have completely melted and a “Green surge” may sweep us into power a là the “Orange crush” – but that is not a strategy.

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