Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why Does Electoral Reform Fail?

Since I have been a teenager the issue of electoral reform has been widely talked about. The fact that throughout Canada we have had governments, at both the national and provincial level, win massive majorities in situations where their share of the popular vote has been far less than their seat total would suggest is, to say the least, troubling. There seems to be a general feeling that there has to be some move toward some form of proportional representation in our electoral system and yet, when offered the choice, the electorate has rejected the process (or at least failed to rally together to a point where the reform could be approved). Why is this?

The failure is principally a failure of political leadership and, I suspect, an intended failure of policitical leadership.

First, it is important to recognize who the principal beneficiaries of proportional representation would be -- the smaller, issue oriented parties such as the Green's and the NDP. The losers would be the major centrist parties (the Liberals and the Conservative family of parties) and likely the BQ. Thus, the parties that have traditionally benefited the most from the first past the post system are the ones that are in the positions of leadership when these issues are put up to a vote. They recognize -- even if they dare not say it in public -- that once proportional representation comes into effect the world as they have known it comes to an end. It is perhaps for this reason that we see none of these governments merely moving to implement proprotional representation (which they all could do) or setting realistic approval threshholds.

Second, these two experiences in attempted electoral reform also put a lie to the idea of randomly chosen 'citizen democratic assemblies' as an alternative to the elected legislatures. In British Columbia the government established the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reformwhile in Ontario what was chosen was the Ontario Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform. In both cases these bodies consisted of randomly chosen citizens who met a few times every few weeks, went through education processes with academics, held public information sessions and debated different electoral reform options. In each case they came up with partial proportional representation systems which resulted in overall proportional representation while retaining the local representation element of the existing system. In each case the proposal was then put to a referendum and in each case the referendum failed to meet the required threshhold for approval.

Now, unless you are an immediate family member of one of these assemblies, I defy you to name a single member of either of them. I doubt any of you could now or could have at the time. I also doubt (except for any of you journalists reading) that any of you even watched a single session of either of these assemblies. For the most part they took place out of sight and out of mind -- even for the political junkies. Why was this? My own view is that this invisibility flowed from the very way in which they were put together -- throuh random selection of citizens without regard to whether those selected were or were willing to become community leaders in the way that ordinary politicians must.

Part of my reason for believing this is based upon Newfoundland's own experience with a Citizen Assembly in the 1940's. In the mid-1940's, just after the Second World War, Newfoundland was faced with having to make a decision about what form of government it wanted to have. It could have chosen to remain a separate Dominion, remained a non-demoncratic Crown colony, joined Canada or joined the United States. To help make the decision (and as a precursor to to referendums) an elected National Convention was convened to debate the options. This National Assembly galvanized the colony. People listened on the radio, read about the debates in the paper and attended the debates in person. My father, who would have been about 16 or 17 at the time has told me about attending at watching the debates.

Unlike the assemblies of nobodies that Ontario and British Columbia assembled, the National Convention contained a range of real leaders from throughout the colony. Some were major provincial figures, while others were minor local leaders but they all were characterized by the fact that they had to be willing to come forward and stand for election. Moreover, when they spoke they spoke not because their name had been randomly drawn off a voters list but because their local communities had chosen them to speak for them. Thus their voices mattered in a way that I would suggest the voices of the members of the modern assemblies did not.

Another reason the electoral reform proposals failed was the refusal of any political leader to really make them an issue that mattered once they escaped from the clutches of the citizen assemblies. In each case the elected political leaders of Ontario and British Columbia essentially just took the proposals and dumped them on the public's doorstep and said 'here it is, vote for it if you like it.' None of the leaders made electoral reform the centrepiece of their campaigns or strongly advocated for adoption of the proposed reforms. In neither province did the referendums become central issues and, not surprisingly, they both failed to spark public interest or increased voter turnout. Equally unsurprisingly they both then failed.

Again Newfoundland provides a counter-example as to how a referendum can play out where the political leadership is engaged. In the 1990's Newfoundland went through two referendums to decide on the fate of the publicly funded parochial school system. The first of these was advanced by Clyde Wells, the second by Brian Tobin. The issues were engaged politically and legally and there was a widespread debate within the Province. The second referendum resulted in a 73% vote in favour of abolishing Newfoundland's traditional parochial education system. A similar lesson can be derived from the active and lively debate around the Charlottetown Accord where the outcome was a result of an active debate in which politicians and public leaders were engaged on both sides.

Electoral reform has its pros and cons and there are benefits to the first-past-the-post system that not acknowledged. The reform of that system requires serious engagement from our political leaders and more than the desultory treatment that it has been given in two provinces so far.

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