Tuesday, January 10, 2006

'Nightmare' scenario dooms us to minority rule

This article by Doug Fischer in the Ottawa Citizen is quite simply the best article I have read in a newspaper about fair voting reform.

Doug Fischer, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Monday, January 09, 2006

If the federal election had been held last week, Canada's next Parliament would look like this: Conservatives, 113 seats; Liberals, 109; Bloc Quebecois, 60; and the New Democrats, 26.

The scenario is based on a detailed analysis of the voting intentions of more than 4,000 Canadians taken from four polls conducted late last year and in early 2006.

It requires only a quick look at the seat distribution to see the obvious: no easy coalitions that add up to a majority, a powerful group of MPs intent on ensuring Canada doesn't work, and an even more dysfunctional Parliament than the one that dissolved last fall after 18 months of mostly unproductive political wrangling.

"A nightmare is what it would be," says Barry Kay, the Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist who came up with the seat projections by blending polls done by Ipsos Reid, Decima, the Strategic Council and SES. "You could expect gridlock and the likelihood of another election within a year."

The picture could be very different.

Canada remains one of only three major western democracies (along with Britain and the U.S.) still using a winner-take-all voting system that frequently overrepresents the winning political party and underrepresents, or even eliminates, the others.

The vast majority of democracies elect their governments using some form of proportional representation, systems designed to ensure that a political party gets roughly the same percentage of seats as votes

It would prevent situations such as, for example, the majority Jean Chretien's Liberals won with only 38 per cent of the popular vote in 1997.

The idea of PR, as it's often known, is to make every vote count. Under the current system, commonly called first-past-the-post for its resemblance to a horse race, a candidate running against three or four rivals, for instance, could win with a third of the vote. The ballots of the other two-thirds count for nothing, and those voters might just as well have stayed home.

Spread across the country, that means a party can win a majority government with less than half -- even with less than 40 per cent -- of the votes. In fact, since 1980, Canada has experienced only one "true" majority government, the Brian Mulroney landslide of 1984.

Under most systems of PR, however, the candidate with the most votes is still elected, but the rest of the votes are distributed proportionally to other at-large or regional candidates placed by the parties on lists so the final seat count resembles the popular vote.

To see the difference, if a simple form of PR is applied to the popular vote in the same polls cited above (Liberals, 33 per cent; Conservatives, 32; NDP, 16; Bloc, 13; Greens, 6), Parliament would be made up of 101 Liberals, 100 Conservatives, 49 New Democrats, 40 Bloc MPs and 18 Greens.

At the top end, the scenario doesn't appear much different. The Liberal and Conservative seat counts remain close, although they each have roughly 10 fewer MPs than they would under the current system. However, a different picture emerges for the smaller parties, as it frequently does under PR. The NDP's representation is up by 23 seats, the Greens move from no seats to 18 and Bloc loses nine MPs.

In reality, say electoral experts, support for the NDP and Greens would likely be even higher if PR was used in an actual election. Research shows that voters who believe it's futile to support a small party under the current system would likely reconsider that view once they realize the seat allotment reflects the popular vote.

Conversely, the experts say, the Bloc Quebecois could expect even lower support in an actual election. Surveys suggest 15 to 20 per cent of the Bloc's support comes from disaffected federalists who can't bring themselves to support the Liberals, but don't see much point in supporting parties -- the Tories and NDP -- with little chance of winning in Quebec. Those "protest" voters would likely shift their support under PR.

The biggest difference between the two scenarios is the workability of Parliament under PR, says political scientist Brian Tanguay, the author of the Law Commission of Canada's exhaustive 2004 report recommending a federal PR system.

As long as Bloc MPs wield so much power, and no combination of seats making a Liberal or Conservative majority can be worked out without them, Parliament is doomed to paralysis, he says. The PR scenario, on the other hand, offers several options for coalitions, casual or formal, that would help Parliament survive for a longer period, and probably even result in good legislation.

A common criticism of PR is the belief it leads to a proliferation of small parties capable of hijacking legislation. That's true to some extent, Mr. Tanguay concedes, but the distortions created by the first-past-the-post system are much more frequent. And they offer the potential for bigger trouble.

"Look at the Bloc," Mr. Tanguay says. "The status quo really gives them a free ride. It's not only a perversion of democracy, it puts a serious damper on any move to fix the perversion."

The facts bear him out. In the 2004 election, the Bloc sent one MP to the House of Commons for every 31,000 votes cast for the party. The NDP, on the other hand, required 111,000 votes to elect each of its MPs and the Green party sent no one to Parliament despite receiving nearly 600,000 votes.

The Bloc's exaggerated clout makes Parliament very difficult to operate in a minority situation; none of the other parties can be seen working too closely with separatists. And any effort to lessen it through a system of PR would likely be portrayed in Quebec as an attempt to weaken the province.

"Who wants to take that one on?" Mr. Tanguay says. "I don't see the Liberals or Conservatives touching it."

Of course, more than concern about antagonizing Quebec is keeping the Liberals and Conservatives from pushing electoral reform.

Although it's not likely to happen this time, both parties know that only the current system gives them any chance of forming a majority government.

And so on. The article started on the front page of the Citizen, and continued on into the paper.


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