Letter to the Editor – Gary Dale – Problems with Canadian Democracy – February 1, 2010

The problem with Canada’s democracy is that MPs (and MMPs) like Guy Lauzon are neither responsible to the voters in their riding nor elected by them. That’s because of our outdated first past the post voting system which confuses the party with candidate.

Many voters vote for the party, or more precisely, the party’s leader through their vote for the local candidate. In many cases they know little about the local candidate other than their name and party affiliation. On the other hand, the media is full of information about the party leaders.

This is a far cry form the environment where first past the post grew up. Centuries ago the Capital was a far off place but everyone knew their local candidates. Today our ridings contain tens of thousands of voters most of whom only know the candidates through campaign literature, if they know them at all.

Today’s elections are more about issues and leaders than local candidates. People cast their votes despite the local candidate as often as they cast their vote because of the local candidate.

Moreover, with four or five serious candidates running in each riding, it’s becoming uncommon for the winner to actually get the majority of the votes. Often they simply have the largest plurality, which means that most voters preferred other candidates and/or parties.

First past the post is unable to handle the complexities of modern politics. That’s why most democracies have abandoned it and most of the ones that still use it are trying to replace it.

Unfortunately the opponents of change can exploit the weaknesses of first past the post to prevent it from being replaced. The examples of the recent Ontario and B.C. referendums demonstrate how this works.

Voters aren’t asked whether they want to keep the current system or adopt a better system. Instead they are asked to choose between the status quo and a particular alternative system. The alternative system is then simultaneously attacked and other options are promoted as better choices. This leads people to believe that if they reject the proposed option, there will be another referendum on one of the other options, so the proposal is defeated.

Of course, once the proposed alternative is defeated, no further referendums are planned.

Had the referendum been held under an alternative voting system, for example STV or Alternative Ballot, then all the options would be on the table at once. Proponents of the status quo would have to argue against all of them, levelling the playing field. Moreover, most proponents of change recognize just how bad the current system is so they would generally choose any of the alternatives over keeping the current system. The result would be a victory for change.

All the serious proposals for electoral reform focus on implementing some form of proportionality because it ensures that every vote counts equally. Candidates who can’t attract voter support are a liability in proportional systems. That means that MPs like Guy Lauzon would need to work to earn the support of local voters instead of relying on the party leader to do the campaigning for them.

Gary Dale
West Hill, ON

(Comments and opinions of Editorials, Letters to the Editor, and comments from readers are purely their own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the owners of the Cornwall Free News, their staff, or sponsors.)

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  1. Of course, proportional representation is how the religious right controls the Israeli legislature, regardless of the wishes of the majority of Israelis, because it is almost impossible for any mainstream party to gain an overall majority.
    Proportional representation is the main reason Italian governments tend to be so unstable.
    The current system is not perfect, of course, but no amount of rhetoric can ever persuade the thinking, intelligent voter that proportional representation is any better. If the German Weimar Republic did not have proportional representation, the Nazi Party would never have had any members during the 1920s, as they were always a small minority. However, they were guaranteed members because of proportional representation, and as a result they got publicity far beyond what they deserved from their relatively small numbers. This let to Adolf Hitler becoming a member of a coalition government in 1932, and gaining complete power in 1933.
    Proportional Representation? Thanks, but no thanks!

  2. Compared to that useless MP we had before, Guy Lauzon was a breath of fresh air for us voters. It took a MAJORITY of the approximately 81,000 elegible voters to elect him and they did!

  3. The Watcher uses the same tired tactics as other defenders of the status quo. He takes a flaw of current system and accuses the new system of having it. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds of thought to realize his arguments don’t hold up.

    Israel’s religious right has some power because it attracts a lot of votes. However, unlike the American religious right, Israel’s is fragmented into several parties. This leaves other right-wing parties able to play them off against each other, minimizing their influence. In the American case, on the other hand, the Republicans can’t risk alienating their supporters because most presidential elections are won or lost by small margins.

    The same holds true on the left. The Democrats can’t afford to risk alienating organized voting blocks.

    However, Israel and most of the other 100 or so countries using proportional representation are usually governed by small coalitions of major parties. The minor parties are left out in the cold the way Canada’s independent MPs are. Of course, there are some exceptions, such as Chuck Cadman’s key vote a few years back, but they are rare.

    Interstingly, both Israel and Italy have had fewer elections than Canada over the last 50 years. Canada is the reigning king of unstable governments precisely because of our first past the post system. It encourages parties to seek an election when the polls show a small shift in their popularity, which is all it takes to move a party from opposition to phoney majority.

    Proportional systems don’t suffer from this flaw. Even if a party’s support collapses, you generally just see a new coalition rather than a general election.

    As for the rise of the Nazis, they were a small party in the 1920s with no power. However, they were organized as a movement, not a political party, so that was of little consequence. The publicity they got wasn’t from having members elected but by their Beerhall Putsch and Hitler’s subsequent imprisonment. They were able to exploit the underlying discontent of Germans following Germany’s humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles.

    In the 1930 election they exploded with almost 20% of the vote, followed in July of 1932 with 37% of the vote, becoming the largest party. Under the proportional system, they needed to make deals with other right-wing parties. They weren’t able to do this however, and new elections were held in November.

    In the November elections, the Nazis lost support, dropping down to 33%. This time Hitler proved more adept at negotiating coalitions and became Chancellor.

    Note that if the Germans had been using first past the post in the July 1932 election, Hitler would have achieved a “majority” government. He wouldn’t have needed the Reichstag fire to gain absolute power.

    Proportional representation actually slowed Hitler’s ascent to power. However, it’s doubtful that any voting system would have prevented it. Hitler had no respect for democracy and used it only to further his own ends.Unfortunately, in this regard he is all to similar to many current political leaders.

  4. Author

    Hi Gary,

    Can you name currently any countries using the system of government you propose that you’d consider the model or a success?



  5. There are several variations on PR systems. It’s a principle not a system. However if you look at the United Nation’s list of the best places to live, it’s dominated by nations using PR. The top 10 for 2009 are Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Of those, only Canada and France don’t use PR in federal elections, while Australia only uses it in their Senate.

    Of course, opponents of proportionality like to claim that there are all sorts of problems with this country or that country, but no nation that has adopted a proportional system has ever willingly reverted to first past the post.

  6. The next 10 on the list are Luxembourg, Finland, United States, Austria, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Liechtenstein and New Zealand. Of those, only the United States doesn’t use PR in it’s federal elections.

    For those who are counting, that’s 16 of the top 20 use PR, plus one that uses PR in its senate elections. Only 2 of the top 20 use first past the post (Australia uses Alternative Vote for its parliamentary elections, while France uses a 2-round voting system – a variation of Alternative Vote).

    The link between how good a nation is to live in and their voting system is that proportional systems make governments more stable and more accountable to the voters. There is less of a tendency for the policy lurches caused by a single party moving from opposition to “majority” government and vice-versa.

    Parties also can’t play on voters fears of another party gaining power if they don’t vote for the lesser of two evils. In PR every vote counts equally toward electing members. If a party breaks faith with the electorate, the voters can easily and safely take their votes elsewhere.

  7. It looks like something we would need here in Canada in order to get Stephen, Iggy and Jack to play fair or see their sorry butts get kicked out!

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