As I Please

Monday, August 07, 2006

One Electoral Reform PM Harper Won't Be Adopting

[One of the advantages of having a blog is that you can include articles you submitted that were rejected for publication. Was the Toronto Star right to reject this? Read on and judge for yourselves.]
Perhaps the most well-known statement by Gerard Kennedy as a federal Liberal leadership candidate has been, “Those of us who have the insight, who know better, cannot let Stephen Harper do to Canada, what Mike Harris did to Ontario.” This does not appear to be hyperbole in light of the Prime Minister’s past writings, speeches, behaviour as PM, and indications in the recent budget, which taken together establish the conclusion that with a majority government Harper would establish a regime similar to Ontario’s under Harris. But there would be another similarity as well. Harper would like Harris be able to forward a neoconservative agenda with less than a majority of voters supporting it.
Harper could win a majority government with as little as 38% of the vote (as the Liberals did in 1997) because of our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, in which candidates can win seats in their constituencies with less than half of the votes cast, a plurality rather than a majority of the vote. A party could therefore theoretically win every seat even if it was opposed by a majority of voters in every constituency. If such a system can result in a politically radical majority government being elected despite a majority of voters opposing it, the most logical way to prevent such an outcome is obvious, replace the system.
It may be assumed that the system to replace first-past-the-post would be one based on proportional representation (PR), but we need not go as far as this. The system we can adopt would still produce manufactured majorities like FPTP but unlike it candidates could only be elected with the support of a majority of voters. This system, long in use in Australian federal elections for its lower house, has been called among other things preferential voting, in Britain and Canada the alternative vote (AV), and in the United States, most descriptively, instant runoff voting (IRV). Canadians have been long familiar with leadership conventions in which in a series of voting rounds or runoffs candidates with the least support are eliminated with their supporters going to other candidates until one candidate wins with more than half the votes. In AV electors number candidates on the ballot in order of preference and if no candidate has 50% plus 1 of first preferences the candidate with the least support is eliminated and his or her supporters’ votes are transferred to their second preferences for a second count, and so on until a candidate wins a majority of votes. Voters would no longer as in many cases under FPTP have to choose between sincere and strategic voting, but under AV could in effect do both through first and succeeding preferences respectively, so that even smaller parties like the Greens could benefit.
In Canada the benefits of adopting AV to the Liberals and New Democrats are clear, as the two parties could stop battling over votes and confine themselves to bidding for the second preferences of the other party’s supporters while allying against the Conservatives. As a center party the Liberals would gain most, but without the risk of letting the Tories come up the middle more voters would likely support the NDP as their first preference. As for the Bloc Quebecois, it could in most cases lose to the Liberals only if Liberal voters cast second preferences for the Conservatives, but it could defeat the Tories in select ridings (it would probably have been four in the last election) with second preference support from NDP or Green voters alone, who would likely rather have a sovereigntist social democrat elected than a federalist conservative. As for the Conservatives, failing second preference support from Liberal voters the alternatives would be winning a majority of first preference votes or not winning at all.
With a Tory minority government the Liberals, NDP and Bloc could end first-past-the-post federal elections in Canada now, not changing constituencies (unlike with PR) but only the way votes are cast and counted. Such a move would be attacked as being done for electoral advantage, which it would be but no more so than when the Conservatives’ Australian counterparts, the Liberal and National parties, first introduced AV in 1918 to unite the conservative vote against the Labour Party, or when AV was used rurally in provincial elections in Alberta (1924-56) and Manitoba (1924-55) to weaken the socialist threat from the NDP’s predecessor the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (AV’s proportional counterpart, the single transferable vote, was used in urban areas) or when various conservative scholars and journalists advocated AV in the 1990s to end vote-splitting between the Reform Party and Progressive Conservatives. Replacing first-past-the-post with the alternative vote would not necessarily prevent the Harper government from being re-elected but it would ensure that government would lack a majority in the House if it also did in the country. If as many have claimed the majority of Canadian voters are left of centre shouldn’t we have an electoral system that better represents that majority than the one we have now?


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