Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 27, 2009
It is time for our government to reflect who we are
Journey to Justice
All Canadians should be watching when British Columbians go to the polls on May 12. The results could change our democracy — specifically, your own vote may never mean the same again.
Alongside electing provincial politicians, a referendum will be held on whether the Pacific province should move from the current “first past the post” system to a better, fairer electoral system.
Already in B.C.’s last provincial election in 2005, a majority of voters supported a change to proportional representation. But because the government’s threshold for a “Yes” vote (at 60 per cent) was not quite reached, B.C. voters will be asked again.
The current electoral system allows a minority of votes to win a majority of the seats and 100 per cent of the power. Smaller parties may win a sizeable percentage of the votes, but no seats. Recently, faith in the electoral system, and indeed the entire political process, seems to be threatened.
Prior to the last federal election, the Canadian bishops’ election guide told Canadians they have “an obligation” to be interested in politics, and called on people to be involved in the electoral process and to vote.
VOTERS STAYED HOME
But almost 41 per cent of eligible Canadian voters did not vote, a percentage several points higher than the support received by the party that formed the government. In Saskatchewan and Alberta, the governing party won all but three of 42 seats, leaving many Prairie people wondering if their vote mattered.
In the 1996 B.C. provincial election, the current premier, Gordon Campbell, received three per cent more of the popular vote than the victorious NDP.
When he took power in 2001, Campbell established a Citizens’ Assembly of 160 persons to study and consult on the voting system for a year. Their recommendation was to establish a form of proportional representation called the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The government now is seeking support for this idea in a referendum.
STV may take some getting used to for Canadians, but is already used in functioning democracies like Australia and Ireland, and in local elections in countries like Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Essentially the system works by asking voters to rank several choices on a ballot, instead of just one. If a candidate receives more votes than they need to be elected, the balance of their supporters’ ballots goes on to each voter’s next choice. Multiple candidates will be elected to represent each region, and parties will run more than one candidate. Smaller parties that can achieve 12.5 per cent of the popular vote can obtain seats.
Systems of proportional representation create a stronger congruity between the share of votes a party wins and its share of the seats. There are not necessarily more minority governments, but the style of governing often changes. Confrontational stances can give way to negotiations among representatives from the same region (even if their party affiliation differs).
A region would likely elect both government and opposition representatives, so more voters may feel they have an attentive voice for their concerns between elections.
There could even be more diversity in Parliaments, if the multiple candidates presented by parties include more women and visible minorities.
Proportional representation, while an improvement on current practice, does not address all the problems of our political system. Some political parties tend towards central control of debates and policy development, entrusting elites to play these roles.
The financing of political parties is certainly not a level playing field, as any Canadian voter can see by watching the political ads on their television.
(While no Canadian party has yet to match the grassroots organizing and fundraising acumen of campaigns such as Barack Obama’s in the U.S., it’s likely that all are studying that model.)
DIVERSITY AND COMPLEXITY
But if Canadians really treasure their institutions of governance as representative of their own diversity and complexity, why not express that more directly in our legislatures?
If we do not hold the same political opinions as all our family members and the neighbours who surround us, should our electoral system only allow “one winner” and hope they represent the entire neighbourhood?
The “obligation” of political engagement might have a better chance of being realized if our electoral system can be reformed to better reflect Canadian values.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)
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