There is simply no Canadian journalist whose opinions I agree with and look forward to more than those of Murray Dobbin. And yet—difficult and regrettable as it is for me—I find myself at odds with Murray’s January 8 Tyee post to the Tyee Does Justin Trudeau Want Fair Elections or Not? And my difference is more than just to some minor point in the post; it is pervasive, including the conclusion, most of the argument and especially the intention.
Mirroring the inane comments of the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, Murray kicks off his Trudeau bashing with a blatantly false implied aspersion: “…is Trudeau’s…sudden love affair with electoral reform just a plan to stay in power permanently?”—a mantra being broadcast over and over by both right and left wing pundits.
How can such otherwise intelligent people miss the truth in front of their eyes like a camel in a small tent: if Trudeau were only interested in electoral reform as a means to staying in power, why would he mess with an electoral system that has served his party very well? Why create controversy and give the opposition a vulnerable flank for attack when the current first past the post electoral system (FPP) has served his party very well? And does it not occur to any of these people that Trudeau did not start speaking of his preference for instant runoff elections (preferential ballot, PB) after he saw the results of the last election. He has been talking of his preference for PB since long before he won the Liberal Party leadership.
Can’t we give Trudeau—who ran a magnificent election campaign based on reading the desires and will of the Canadian people—credit for having some understanding of the kind of electoral reform that can be sold to Canadians as meaningful change that doesn’t put party interests before people? Does not Trudeau’s releasing Liberal Senators from caucus so they could express a sober/independent second thought, speak of a genuine desire to see meaningful change that deepens and strengthens our democracy?
I can see that there are some good reasons to elect members of parliament based on the system Murray advocates– proportional representation (PR) [PR seeks to balance the proportion of elected representatives per party with the proportion of vote for each party] , but I can also see some very good reasons why Trudeau might favour the easy to grasp, straightforward consensus seeking PB as an alternative to our disastrous first past the post(FPP) voting system where whoever has the most votes in a riding wins the seat—no matter how small a plurality that vote may be.
On the other flank, Trudeau is being attacked by Bill Tieleman, Margaret Wente, The Conservative Party and a frog’s pond chorus of right wing croakers for talking about any change to the traditional FFP. To be fair Tieleman is, ostensibly, calling for a referendum on any changes to the electoral system. However, even in his recent Tyee post, Bill’s gloating over his successful efforts to defeat BC’s electoral reform referendum is palpable. He knows how easy it was for the no side—which he chaired—to confuse the issue in minds of voters—a tactic obviously on the minds of the right wing in its call for a referendum. Not that a referendum is a bad idea of itself—it’s just important to keep the motivations behind the call for a referendum in mind when there was no such vociferous voice when the Conservatives were passing their voter and Elections Canada suppressing changes to our elections.
I think there will have to be a referendum on electoral change because to proceed without one would simply leave Trudeau—the Liberal Party—too vulnerable to having the whole merit of electoral reform turn on the easily attacked issue of whether to hold a referendum or not. And my guess is that Trudeau knows that. In fact, the idea of holding a referendum is probably the most definitive reason to choose PB over PR! You have to remember that over the past decade Canadians have gone to the polls four times to vote on whether to change our voting system to a form of PR. One time the no side was poorly organized and the PR (STV) would have won except for the incredibly high vote required to pass. All other times, with a ready and able no campaign, the vote on PR was over 60% no.
Why vote to keep an archaic voting system that shuts out the will of the majority? Well, it is just too easy to paint PR as some obscure hocus pocus scheme to empower behind the scenes/insider party interests—or, in the case of STV just too complex to be understood period. Interestingly many of those advocating PR were first in line to complain about “whipped votes” in parliament where party interests come before a members accountability to his/her constituents. I was scrutineering during the last BC vote on STV and saw how over and over people were handed the referendum ballot which they steadfastly refused to take because “I don’t know anything about it” and still they were forced to mark an uninformed choice. How that advances the functioning of democracy is beyond me.
Is it that difficult to understand that Trudeau—given the history of electoral reform referendum in Canada–would favour a form of electoral reform that is easily understood and does not meddle with the connection between the voter and the candidate? Was not the domination of Canadian politics for the past four years by never ending stories of corruption in a partisan appointed senate enough to turn a huge block of Canadian voters away from any electoral voting scheme based on appointments by partisan affiliation? Oh, yes, all the complexities of STV and PR and MMPR can all be explained but only to a few who were willing to take the time to understand the subtleties—a very small percentage of the electorate in previous electoral reform referenda and there seems little reason to think that has changed.
Preferential Ballot is, on the other hand, easy to understand. Every party in Canada uses PB to elect their leader. No party wants a leader to be elected based on winning 21% of the vote with a field of 5 candidates. So if the first leadership vote doesn’t see a candidate win by at least 50% of the vote, the candidate with the least votes is removed from the ballot followed by another round of voting and so on until a candidate takes a majority of votes. PB is the same process but instead of another vote each time, electors rank their preferences so that if their first choice comes in last, then their 2nd choice is added to the total vote and so on until a candidate is elected by the majority of voters. It makes for a party and a leader with a clear mandate to move ahead.
PB has its flaws. Forms of PR are much better at getting a parliament where the percentage of vote for a party is reflected in the number of seats they hold. But do we really want party interests to be the most important outcome of an election? While I see the value in parties and their platforms, I also see an inherent flaw in so much emphasis on party. I was once at a Council of Canadians meeting where a young person got up and said,” I won’t be voting in the upcoming election because I can’t trust any party or person to do exactly what I want.” He completely missed the core idea of a democracy—that working together we can have a better society, a better life than we can have as isolated individuals. The core concept in democracy is that no one person gets everything all their way. We agree to sometimes not get our first choice or our separate interest knowing that by seeing the needs and rights of others and giving up a little of our complete self interest we, collectively, build a society-ironically–that serves all of us better than any of us would be served by acting alone. This is the core concept taught by PB: I cast a ballot for my first choice, but if that candidate doesn’t win, then I still want to have a say in choosing the candidate that represents many of my values—though not as many as choice #1. It is really about the core democratic idea of people working together –even with differences.
I was saddened to see Murray attack Trudeau, first of all challenging his motives rather than his judgement. I am very much afraid that if Murray had his way, PR would go to referendum and the Tielemans and Wentes and the Conservative Party propaganda and the Right Wing press would have a field day sowing confusion and mistrust and—in the end—we would go into the next with this FPP voting system that leaves us with the painful/divisive/desperate need for strategic voting which so tainted the past election. In many ways PB can be seen as simply painless strategic voting; you get to mark your first choice AND if your first choice doesn’t win, you can still vote to ensure that we never get another 39% Harper-styled government.
Make no mistakes; all these attacks on electoral reform from the right come from a clear sighted understanding that a large majority of the Canadian people do not want another Harper 39% majority and its devastating attack on civil society, but the right does and they know that the only gate back to the glory days of Harper swings ONLY on the hinges of FPP. Cannot we, who want to keep our Canadian values, put away our swords long enough to agree on an electoral system that is much better –though far from perfect.