Tuesday, January 03, 2006

PR Problems?

A recent column in the Orangeville Citizen by Claire Hoy recycles much of the same old misinformation about proportional representation, and for that matter, about our current system.


"Critics - who don’t appear to understand how representative democracy actually works," says Hoy, "claim that if the representative of Party A is elected with, let’s say, 40 percent of the votes, the other 60 percent who voted for Parties B, C and D, are unrepresented. Therefore, they claim, we need a system where everybody’s votes are counted and seats are distributed according to the percentage of votes garnered.

"Well, that sounds plausible, but it’s not.

"For one thing, the winning candidate in the riding represents everybody there, not just those who voted for him or her. To say those who voted for somebody else aren’t 'represented' is complete hooey. Only an idiot – or somebody not wanting to ever get re-elected – would refuse to take calls from somebody who didn’t vote for him."

Well, sure, my local member is happy to see me, and he's a nice fellow, and like most - but not all - MPs, he certainly tries his best to represent "everybody there", but this is a hopeless task, not just in this large diverse urban riding, but anywhere in Canada.

In every riding in Canada, there are voters who are for, and voters who are against, tax cuts, same-sex marriage, the Kyoto Accord, the gun registry, abortion, and the death penalty, not to mention the legality of swingers' clubs and all the other important issues of the day.

Your local member will undoubtedly be happy to help you with your passport application, but how can she or he be said to 'represent' you politically if you voted for someone else?

Hoy goes on to describe what he calls the "overwhelming disadvantages" of proportional representation.

"Under p.r., for example, voters don’t even necessarily vote directly for their eventual 'representative'. These systems normally involve party hacks cobbling together a list of who will represent their party once the votes are tallied. Under our current system at least you know who, among a list of public options, will represent you."


In fact, most of us know before the votes are cast who will be our 'representative' after the votes are counted. The notion that the current system gives us the power to directly hire and fire our local member is farcical.

I live in Toronto, so my member is a Liberal. If you live in Calgary, your member is a Conservative. If you live in Chicoutimi, the Bloc speaks for you. How you or I decide to vote has nothing to do with the outcome of the election in most cases.

It is a wonder any of us bother to vote.

The notion that proportional lists will allow parties to appoint their cronies to Parliament is common, but nonsensical.

First of all, both types of system being discussed for Canada allow voters to continue to vote for individual local candidates.

But in any case, how do the parties select candidates for your riding now? Do they ask your opinion? Me neither. Sometimes they don't even ask their local constituency association. Is Mr. Hoy suggesting a worse system is possible? This horse is long gone from the barn.

Whether each party puts up a single candidate in a riding or a list of candidates in a region, the principle is the same. The party puts forth candidates, and you, as voter, get to pass judgement, not only on the calibre of the people on the list, but on how the list was put together.

Nobody on a party list gets elected unless people vote for the party, and there is no good reason to put anyone on the party's list of candidates except to get people to vote for the party.

Hoy is on more solid ground - for a while - when he talks about voter turnout.

"There really aren’t many good reasons, short of death, not to vote, a privilege many people are still denied and one we enjoy thanks to the many sacrifices of previous generations who fought, and often died, for it.

"But critics claim low voter turnout is proof we need a change, ignoring the fact that for much of our history, using the same system, turnouts were markedly higher year in and year out. In short, it’s not the system, it’s the politicians, stupid."

So, if politicians will stop acting like politicians, everything will be fine. We've just got ourselves a bad batch here, and if we only get some new ones in, we can get back to the normal situation where we're proud and happy with our politicians and our politics.

While conceding that the current crop of politicos may leave room for improvement, I am skeptical about solutions that rely on human nature to change.

And here comes the big one:

"While it’s true that governments can win a “majority” with a “minority” of the vote, the biggest flaw with p.r. systems is that they virtually guarantee perpetual minority governments. So what’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, what it means everywhere it is practiced is a proliferation of splinter political parties, frequent elections, and results which, since governing parties need to form coalitions to survive, afford the smaller, often more radical, parties way more power than the electorate meant to give them."

This is the most common criticism of proportional representation, but it is unsupported by the facts.

Leaving aside the fact that Canada has done very well under minority governments, the experience in the real world is that proportional voting systems don't produce 'minority' governments as we know them. This kind of chaos is a product of our current system.

Instead, the 80 or so modern democracies that have been using proportional voting for most of the last century - including all of the best-run countries in the world - generally have stable coalition governments that truly reflect the will of the voters.

They don't have elections much more frequently than we do, and small parties don't have "way more power than the electorate meant to give them" - they have power in proportion to the number of votes they receive.

"All we need is politicians who will keep their word," says Hoy. When will we see them?

Not until we get the government we vote for.

Not until we have a fair voting system.


Blogger Patrick Brabazon said...

"For one thing, the winning candidate in the riding represents everybody there, not just those who voted for him or her. To say those who voted for somebody else aren’t 'represented' is complete hooey. Only an idiot – or somebody not wanting to ever get re-elected – would refuse to take calls from somebody who didn’t vote for him."

I think that this comment misses the whole point of electoral reform. The issue is not who will fix up some problem with some government department, the issue is making Parliament [not some individual MP] represent the people. The issue is forcing the government of the day to seriously consider the matters of concern to Canadians; not your Canadians, not my Canadians, but all Canadians. Only with true electoral reform will we achieve this.

4:10 p.m.  
Blogger Darryl B said...

Hi Wayne! After the public as a whole become conscious of the need for electoral reform, our next step will be to 'help' people overcome these false objections. Your piece here does a great job of doing that. Did you think of sending your response to this Hoy guy?

Darryl (FairVote - Ottawa member)

P.S. I've created a link to your site on my own blog: betterdemo.blogspot.com

1:34 p.m.  
Blogger Verbin said...

You raise some really great points about the need for major reform of our current electoral system...

btw: I'm sticking a link to your blog on mine

8:43 p.m.  
Blogger Annamarie said...

Hi Wayne,
Thanks for so validly expelling Hoy's fears about PR and elucidating it so well. I will be putting in a link to this post on my blog: verbena-19. I am an ardent supporter of Electoral Reform, and PR, and have placed sign-up sheets, FAQ's flyers, about it in my local library, bulletin boards, and in people's mailboxes. I also tell everyone I meet about this important issue. Also, I've been posting Fair Vote Canada's info on my site, hoping to spread the message.

I think you should definitely send this post to Hoy, as suggested by darrylb.

Keep up the good work!

Annamarie Deneen
(PS. I am on your mailing list to receive updates, flyers, etc. into my main home inbox.)

2:41 p.m.  

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