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Now Is The Time For Democratic Reformers to Pause and Reflect

In celebration of Canada Day, my next few posts will be about Canadian politics and culture.

Last month, democratic reform in British Columbia was soundly defeated. The proposal to adopt a Single-Transferable Vote (STV) system that earned 58% support in 2005 – just shy of the required 60% to be adopted – barely scraped the 40% support mark a second time around. Following the convincing defeat of the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system in Ontario in 2007, observers can’t be blamed for assuming that, at least for a generation, the death knell for democratic reform in Canada has been sounded.

On this point, I agree. It’s unlikely that any government will have the appetite to entertain major reforms to our voting system for at least a decade. In addition to proposals in two of Canada’s three largest provinces being defeated, average voters are unlikely to have an interest in major reforms, or a tolerance for governments who spend time and money entertaining them, as long as our economy is struggling. Major issues with management of the environment and the sustainability of our public health care and social support programs are likely to become more and more pressing as well.

In the wake of STV’s defeat, some proponents took solace in the fact that youth supported the referendum in strong numbers. Eventually, they figure, the demographics of the voting population will be on their side. I’m wary of this, as I believe a large number of those who voted for STV did so since they support changes to the system that would advance their political beliefs. Which is why, as our generation becomes more engaged, and becomes a more influential block of voters, support for major systemic reforms is likely to shrink. The big parties will either adapt to the beliefs of voters or be replaced. STV or MMP may yet happen, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.

I consider myself a supporter of democratic reform, but I don’t support all of the proposals for reform we’ve seen. I oppose the election of Senators, which, unfortunately, is one of the most likely reforms to proceed in some form over the coming years. I would have opposed MMP if I lived in Ontario, largely because it exacerbates one of the major problems I see with our system (I’ll explain a little later). I’m honestly unsure of how I would have voted on the BC-STV proposal.

The coming years present a great opportunity for reformers to take a step back, and think about what outcome they are truly looking for. What are the things we are trying to change? Will STV or MMP address them? If not, what will?

Dealing strictly with structural issues, which democratic reform aims to address, the following issues are the most pressing for me:

• Strict party discipline, and the corresponding inability of representatives to vote freely without significant reprimand and repercussions from the party caucus.
• In a minority government setting, the ability of the government to designate any issue as a confidence motion, forcing the opposition to acquiesce and accept policy they do not support, or defeat the government and trigger an election.
• The ever expanding power of the first minister, which is largely unchecked except in a minority government setting. Though as per the previous point, that check is less effective than it should be.
• The First Minister’s unilateral power of appointment over non-partisan positions.
• The blurring of executive and legislative functions.
• The lack of meaningful roles and powers for elected representatives who aren’t in cabinet.
• The fluid and discretionary size of cabinet, which leads to cabinet shuffles and department reorganizations that are disruptive to the civil service.
• The absence of true fixed election dates.
• Vote-splitting, which allows a candidate to win with a plurality of support.

I fail to see how either BC-STV or Ontario-MMP would address any of my concerns, save for the last one. The use of party lists in MMP would in fact possibly exacerbate the first concern.

Further, while supporters often argue that some form of PR will boost voter turnout, I’ve seen no evidence that an increased number of options at the ballot box increases turnout in Canada. For most of the past twenty years, there have been four parties who run candidates nationwide – the Liberals, PCs, NDP, and Reform/Canadian Alliance from 1993-2004, and the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and Green Party from 2004 to the present. Yet, despite this, voter turnout has steadily decreased since the 1988 election, which ended a long period that featured three national parties – the Liberals, PCs, and CCF/NDP.

Our system can be improved, and reformers should look at ways we can meaningfully do so – our voting system may or may not be one of them. Over the coming years, there is an opportunity to engage citizens who are dissatisfied with government, and determine what the problems people care about are. Are they policy issues, a general distrust/dislike of politics and public officials, or are there structural characteristics of our legislative system that could be changed to address them?

All of the concerns I outlined could be addressed by changes within our traditional system; this is where I hope to see the debate move over the next 5-10 years.

Next post: a corresponding list of recommended changes that would address these concerns.

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