Saturday, December 26, 2015

Surely it’s a coincidence the electoral reforms the Liberals favour would keep them in power forever

Tasha Kheiriddin: Surely it’s a coincidence the electoral reforms the Liberals favour would keep them in power forever

| | Last Updated: Dec 11 8:56 PM ET   
More from Tasha Kheiriddin
Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef.
Wayne Cuddington/ Ottawa CitizenMinister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef.
Referendum. In Canada, the word is enough to send chills down the backs of politicians and who was of voting age these last 35 years. It conjures up memories of the two failed Quebec referenda on independence, in 1980 and 1995, the second of which saw the country hang together by a hair.

 It induces flashbacks to the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, a constitutional amendment package whose defeat sent any future attempt at constitutional reform into the deep freeze. More recently, it reminds voters of referenda on electoral reform, in British Columbia, P.E.I. and Ontario, held in 2005, 2007, and 2009, which rejected attempts at junking the first-past-the-post voting system in favour of single transferable vote and mixed member proportional alternatives.

Little wonder, then, that when the Conservative Opposition grilled democratic reform Minister Maryam Monsef over two days this week on the possibility of a federal referendum on electoral reform, she first skated very hard, before attempting a double axel and falling smack on her backside.

 “Mr. Speaker,” she said in Question Period Tuesday, “… I remind the 337 other members of Parliament in this House that what we committed to was an open and robust process of consultation … I will not prejudice the outcome of that consultation process by committing to a referendum.”

Cue the outrage. Both in the House of Commons and in a news release the following day, the Conservatives blasted the new Minister’s remarks. “The Liberal government obviously thinks Canadians can’t be trusted with such a fundamental change to our democracy … The Liberal government does not have a mandate to implement whatever new system they decide suits the Liberal party best … all they have proposed is that the system should change.”
The opposition is right, even if their interpretation of Monsef’s words may be wrong. She did not preclude the holding of a referendum — the consultation process could, in theory, recommend that one be held. But her tone certainly supported the suspicion that the Liberals do not intend to hold a popular vote on the consultation process’ recommendations — buttressed by the fact that a) the Liberals have a vested interest in changing the electoral system and b) previous provincial referenda have consistently rejected attempts at reform.

Why would a change benefit the Liberals, even if they have held power for most of the past century? Because that power has alternated between minority and majority situations, and because the Conservatives have also formed government, relegating the Liberals to Opposition or even third-party status, as was the case for the last four years. In other words, voters have the possibility of “throwing the bums out” when they’ve had enough. But with a particular type of reform, Liberals could more easily elect back-to-back majority governments — possibly forever.

That change would be a move to a preferential or “ranked” ballot. Instead of a first-past-the-post electoral system, which gives the party with the most elected members the right to form government, a preferential ballot would ask voters to rank the choices on offer: first, second, third, and so on. That doesn’t mean they would have to rank every candidate, however; if they had no second choice, they could simply not mark one down. The votes to the candidate with the fewest “first choice” nods would then be reassigned to the other candidates based on their supporters’ second choice, then third choice, and so on until one candidate obtains at least 50 per cent of the votes.

Preferential or ranked ballots thus don’t create a more proportional system; if anything, they tend to increase the proportion of seats taken by the dominant party
In the recent federal election, this would have benefited the Liberals significantly, because Liberal and NDP voters were more likely to name each other as their preferred second choice. In contrast, most Conservative supporters had no second choice, which means their votes would have been counted once, and if they didn’t achieve the magic 50%-plus-one mark, dropped out of the equation altogether. 

The Council of Canadians published a simulation run by, based on the 2015 results and found that under a ranked ballot, the Liberals would have elected 224 members instead of 184; the Conservatives, 61 vs. 99; the NDP, 50 vs. 44; the Bloc 2 vs. 10. Only the Greens would have obtained the same result: 1.
Preferential or ranked ballots thus don’t create a more proportional system; if anything, they tend to increase the proportion of seats taken by the dominant party. 

And in a country like Canada, where there are three parties, one on the left, one in the centre and one on the right, it is most likely that in any election, the second choice of either “extreme” would be the middle, not each other — thus entrenching successive Liberal governments.
The COC also published a simulation on proportional representation; under that model, the Liberals would have obtained 134 seats, the Conservatives 109, the NDP 67, the Bloc 16, and the Greens 12. This would still have put the Liberals in government, but with a minority or coalition that would give the NDP the balance of power. 

That scenario would be likely to repeat ad nauseum, and result in consistent left-of-centre government, since the Conservatives would have no potential coalition partner and couldn’t stay in power in a minority unless they caved to NDP demands. Not surprisingly, the “progressive” COC is now calling on the Liberals to adopt proportional representation.

The opposition is thus right to demand that any fundamental change to Canada’s voting system should be the subject of a referendum. While Canadians voted for the idea of reform, they did not pronounce themselves on a clear alternative — and they should not be subjected to one by Liberal fiat, particularly when the result will likely preclude any possibility of alternating government between one party and another. That, ironically, would be the very opposite of the democratic reform they sought to achieve.

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