Saturday, August 4, 2007
People Have the Power!
This Is Democracy Now?
By Brent Erickson
Lorne Brown, in a recent article for Briarpatch, titled, “Dear bedfellow: An open letter to New Democrats, Greens, and progressive Liberals” wrote; “Progressives across the country must mount a pressure campaign to convince Liberals, Greens and New Democrats to co-operate in ridings where such co-operation can defeat a Conservative.”
Though thoughtful strategic voting like Mr. Brown suggests may be effective in slowing down the Conservatives for the short term, he also reminds us that strategic voting, “would be unnecessary if Canada had a system of proportional representation like most countries claiming to be democracies.”
The Need for Change
According to Fair Vote Canada, in the 2006 federal election more than 650,000 Canadians voted for the Green Party yet the Greens do not have one Member of Parliament, while fewer than a half-million Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada elected 20 MPs. In the Prairie Provinces, Conservatives received three times as many votes as the Liberals, but were given nearly ten times as many seats. The New Democrats won a million more votes than the Bloc Quebecois, but the current voting system gave the Bloc 51 seats and the NDP only 29. Our current system in effect punishes parties that appeal to a wide range of Canadians across the country and rewards political parties who serve only regional interests.
The “first past the post” voting system we now have in Canada is to the benefit of the increasingly anti-labour status quo. Voices that are known to be at least somewhat sympathetic to labour, the environmental movement and social justice struggles (like the Green Party the NDP and the CAP) are marginalized, while "corporate friendly" parties are over-represented.
As Larry Gordon notes in his article “Its Time for Fair Voting in Canada” democracy has been a rare thing in in our country, “Because the voting system disregards so many votes, the overall results are distorted. In most federal and provincial elections, the system produces phony majority governments, where a party wins a majority of seats without winning a majority of the votes cast. Canadians have only enjoyed true majority governments, elected by a majority of voters, four times since World War I.”
Proportional representation or PR is a system of voting that would address some of our countries democracy deficit. In Western Europe, 21 of 28 countries use some method of PR, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
But just what is proportional representation, how does it work, and why is it used as an alternative to the “first past the post” or “Plurality” voting system our country now uses?
The system now used in Canada and approximately two dozen other countries around the world, (including the U.S, England, and India) is a one of “winner-takes-all”, in which a single winner is chosen in a particular district by having the most votes, regardless of whether or not the candidate has the majority of votes. In a PR system legislators are elected in multi-member instead of single-member constituencies, and the number of seats that a party wins is proportional to the amount of its support among voters. For example, if we had a 10-member district and the Conservatives won 40% of the vote, they would win four of the ten seats. If the Liberals won 40% of the vote, they would get four seats; and if The NDP attracted 20% of the vote, they receive the last two seats. The current Harper government won about 36% of the popular vote.
Forms of Proportional Representation
There are a variety of methods included in the family of PR systems, which are currently used throughout the world today. Two of the most popular forms of proportional representation are “Party-List” and the “Single Transferable Vote” systems.
In the Party List system, political parties each list their candidates according to that party's determination of priorities, and seats get allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes it receives.
There are two variations of Party List systems, usually referred to as “closed list” and “open list” elections. In a closed list system, people vote for a list, not an individual candidate. Each party is allocated seats in proportion to the number of votes, using the ranking order on its list. With an open list, people may vote, depending on the specific model, for one candidate, or for two, or indicate their order of preference within the list. The order in which candidates get elected may be pre-determined by some method internal to the party (closed list) or they may be determined by the voters themselves (open list).Though this system may sound foreign to us here in North America, it is the method of voting used in many countries around the world including, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Argentina, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Czech Republic, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Scotland, Spain and Japan.
Another popular form of PR is the Single Transferable Vote (or the PR-STV) method. PR-STV uses multi-seat districts and allows for transferring of votes that would otherwise be wasted. In this system, a candidate requires a certain minimum number of votes, to pass a threshold, in order to win an election. PR-STV initially allocates a person’s vote to their most preferred candidate, and subsequently transfers unused or unneeded votes, according to the voter's stated preferences (once a persons first choice is either elected or eliminated). In a Single Transferable Vote election, voters rank candidates in order of preference, placing a '1' beside their most preferred candidate, '2' beside their second most preferred, and so forth.
The Single Transferable Vote is the method proposed on a provincial level by British Columbia’s “Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform” in 2005, who called their style of voting system “BC-STV”. The Citizens' Assembly BC-STV method was narrowly defeated (The referendum required approval by 60% of voters and only 57.7% of voters were in favor) but will likely be re-proposed in 2008. This system has been used in many countries throughout history and is still employed today in several countries including, Australia, Ireland and Malta. Besides British Columbia, four other provinces; Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are all currently debating whether to retire the first past the post system in favor of some form of PR.
More Than Just Ideals to be Valued
Strategic voting may be a pragmatic option in the next Canadian Election, but for a significant departure from the Neo-Con nightmare our country is becoming, a systemic change is required. As Lorne Brown suggests, “The most we can hope for from the next election is a Liberal minority, preferably dependent upon NDP support to govern. In such a case, the Greens (should they elect anyone) and the NDP should demand proportional representation as a price for their support…”
Strengthening of democratic institutions in Canada is a noble pursuit in it’s own right. But given the looming environmental crisis, the post 9/11 acceleration of imperialist foreign policy and slide towards a police state, the stakes could not be higher. Like Noam Chomsky says; "In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued - they may be essential to survival."
For more information about proportional representation please visit: Fair Vote Canada