Monday, April 09, 2007

Electoral reform and hash browns

I had a McDonald's breakfast this morning with two friends from work who are both new Canadians, and will be voting in their first elections whenever Harper brings us back to the polls, and in between breakfast burritos the talk turned to politics.

They're not too familiar with our political and governance system so I delivered a brief primer on the role of the Governor General, the Prime Minister, confidence motions and triggering elections. To avoid confusion I left out a sidebar on the King/Byng affair.

Most of the time they've been here we've had minority governments, and they both expressed that our system of governance seemed unnecessarily unstable. Since we may well soon be heading into our third election in three years, it's hard to disagree with them there. And looking back over the past three years, I think it's fair to say it hasn't been a particularly productive system of governance either.

I said that minority governments have been the exception in our history, majorities have been the norm over the years and they (if they want to be) tend to be more productive, and are certainly more stable.

As we look at recent polls however, it seems clear that we are in an era, likely to continue for some time, which will see minorities, rather than majorities, be the norm. That sets us up for more years of constant electioneering and partisanship, and little long-term thinking or actual governance. Not a good situation for the country.

Is it perhaps time in this current environment to revisit the issue of electoral reform at the federal level? The provinces are already ahead of the curve here, B.C. (last I heard) will have another referendum on electoral reform in the next provincial election and Ontario is also going through a citizen's commission consultative process.

I know the Conservatives have been making a little noise on the file, although the way they're handling it raises doubts about their sincerity, perhaps just going through some motions to try to win some support from the NDP, who have long pushed for action here.

With a majority in sight for no one, the public tiring of constant elections and no actual governing getting done, perhaps the time is right for a serious national discussion of electoral reform.

Last May, during the leadership campaign I participated in a blogger conference call with Stephane Dion. I asked him if he'd be supportive of electoral reform at the federal level, and here was his response:

"There is one strength of our electoral system, and that’s giving clear accountability lines. You know who is in power and who’s the opposition. There’s no in between. If the Liberals are in government you know who to fight or who to blame, and the same for the Conservatives when they are the government. In the PR system everybody is in the government and in the opposition at the same time and you don’t know who is responsible for what. There are moving coalitions all the time. Each electoral system has its shortcomings and its strengths, and we need to keep that in mind.

What I dislike in (the current system) though is the over-exaggeration of regional concentrations of the vote. With 50 per cent of the vote in Ontario we have been able in the past to have almost 100 per cent of the seats, and with 1/3 of the votes in the West we were unable to have a significant number of seats. It gives the sense we’re a party for Ontario and a party unable to have support in the West, when it’s not really the case.

One day, assume that you have a government elected where it is Quebec that is out of the government because of this electoral system, with 25 per cent of the vote, and the government has no or few seats on Quebec, and you have a separatist leader trying to have a referendum at the same time. This would be very dangerous for the country.

Because of that, I’m open to consider (electoral reform), and to be frank with all of you I wrote a piece…that will be published soon advocating for consideration for a system that would be very close to the German one, that means you would have a threshold of five per cent to receive compensatory seats, and the compensatory seats would be given on a PR system. I don’t have time to explain it (all) today on the phone, but I’m open…to consider a change in the electoral system.

I don’t think a (leadership race) is a good opportunity to (have that debate), but the one who will be in power will be in a position to study the results of the current consultations about that, and to have an open debate about ways to keep the strength of the current system while
having some corrections for the exaggeration of the regional vote that we have now.”
I tried later to track down a copy of that paper, without success. But now that we're out of the leadership race let's have that debate. Dion says he's open to electoral reform, we know Jack Layton is, and Harper has at least been making positive noise. If he's bluffing, let's call him on it. If not, let the discussion begin.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


kenchapman said...

I hope you find the Dion Paper he mentioned on Electoral Reform and you post on it.

PR is not the answer and FPTP is limiting as to voices being able to be heard too.

More engaged, informed citizens in deliberative democratic mechanism that enhances the roles and responsibilities of citizenship will help too.

In a democracy we always get the government we deserve - whether we vote or not.

For more thought provocations on these issues, I recommond you go to the Canada 2020 site and download the book "Progressive Governance For Canadians: What You Need to Know."

Mark Greenan said...

Good to see a Liberal blogger get behind electoral reform. Great post - hopefully there will be more!

Jason Cherniak said...

Real men eat egg McMuffins.

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Good boogin', Jeff. I don't reckon I'll see electoral reform in my lifetime. I'm a big supporter of MMPR and some sort of PR, generally, but PR won't solve the constant minority situation. It could at least mitigate the problem of huge disparity wrt to the Bloc.

The strength of the BQ is the largest factor that will give us minorities for the foreseeable future. Unless either the Libs or the Cons can effectively topple the Bloc, minorities are us.

Harper doesn't seem to be much of a challenge and his deal-making on the budget has only made the BQ stronger.

I agree that we sacrifice effectiveness for campaigning, elections, post-election honeymoons, pointless partisan bickering and frequent shuffling of duties and re-jigging of programs and departments.

What to do?

Accept the fact that there will be a minority government and work together for the good of the country. The minority government needs to recognize and respect the majority on things like Kyoto, the CAA and Kelowna. And Afghanistan.

If the majority of Canadians feel they are being heard through the voice of their MPs and legislation/actions are taken that reflect the majority opinion, I don't think we care who's getting the most photo ops and living at 24 Sussex. Partisan who are more interested in campaigns and elections than in governance should give way to pragmatists who don't want us to be spinning our wheels in a constant election campaign.

Fixed election dates could help make MP's realize they're there to work on governing and not on electioneering.


Jeff said...

Accept the fact that there will be a minority government and work together for the good of the country.

JimBobby (or maybe JamesRobert?) I agree that's the ideal, but I think as long as someone sees a majority in sight they're going to just go gangbusters after that goal.

And Jason, I don't think I've ever seen the phrases "real men" and "egg McMuffins" in the same sentence before...

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post.

I, too asked Dion about this issue when I interviewed him. I appreciate his viewpoint not just because it's in the same ballpark as mine, but also because as a former political scientist and a great intellectual, he clearly has the background knowledge to know exactly what is wrong with the current system, and exactly what the various possible new systems would change.

My only concern is that he doesn't seem to have thought much beyond the theory to the changes reform would necessarily make in our political culture. I asked him about coalition governments in my interview with him, and he wouldn't touch that one with a ten-foot pole. I hope that was just the understandable cautiousness that goes along with a leadership campaign and not a genuine reluctance to consider the impact of reform on political culture.