Thursday, January 12, 2006

We didn't make this up

As we get down to the short strokes on this election campaign and the stench of fear and desperation begins to fill the air, the negative advertising is reaching a fever pitch.

Most of the attention is on the Liberal Ad That Never Ran, but of course the Conservatives have been running negative ads all along.

Negative advertising has become an issue of its own, with the most electrifying moment of the debates being the Duffy on Duffy post-debate confrontation, and the Liberal ads have spawned hilarious parodies in blogspace.

Negative advertising is terribly destructive, and a threat to democracy. The purpose of negative ads is not to attract votes, but to drive away the other guy's voters, and to discourage people from voting at all. It is a major contributor to the cynicism and apathy that permeate our politics, and the feeling that "They're all the same, they can't be trusted, they're all liars, they're all crooks."

What is not commonly understood is how all this is conditioned by our current, winner-take-all voting system. Our current system generates a few winners and a lot of losers. Indeed, it makes losers of most of us, because most of us vote for candidates who do not get elected, and so we end up with a government that most of us didn't vote for. (Excuse me, have I said this before?)

The object of the current game is to get 40% of the votes so you can get 60% of the seats and 100% of the power. There is no incentive to be reasonable, to negotiate, or to compromise. Every party takes the stance that "Everything we say is right, and everything they say is wrong." Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

This kind of attitude and environment keeps a lot of reasonable people out of the political arena, and particularly women.

Proportional representation, on the other hand, tends to generate coalition governments. The sharing of power tends to lower the level of frustration and testosterone. It also means that politicians have to tone down their rhetoric a bit. It's dangerous to call somebody the devil's spawn when you might have to make a deal with them next week. It's not just about getting along with each other, but also about appearing consistent in the eyes of the public and the media.

Arend Lijphart is a distinguished political scientist who has done a comparative study of democracy in 36 countries, with particular emphasis on the effect of different voting systems on political culture and social policy outcomes. A summary of his work is available on the Fair Vote Canada website.

Lijphart divides countries and societies into "majoritarian" and "consensual" democracies. The "majoritarian" democracies are those that use winner-take-all voting systems such as ours. The "consensual" democracies are those that use proportional voting systems.

Lijphart notes that the majoritarian model concentrates political power in the hands of a bare majority or a smaller plurality. The resulting political system will tend to be “exclusive, competitive, and adversarial”. The democratic institutions in the consensus model force broader participation in government and broader agreement on government policies. These political systems tend to be “characterized by inclusiveness, bargaining, and compromise…”.

He also notes that countries with proportional voting systems tend to have greater voter satisfaction with governments and politicians. They elect more women and minorities. They get (in general and on average) higher voter turnout. They have good economic performance and superior environmental policies.

Contrary to the fear-mongering claims of apologists for the status quo, the facts show that proportional representation tends to generate stable, effective government, and a more civilized political climate.

What are we waiting for?


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