Saturday, September 5, 2009

Canada's Political System Has Passed Its Expiry Date

It appears we are going to have a fourth federal election in five years. Looking at the latest polls, there does not seem to a majority government in the making and that is with the built in distortions that the electoral system carries. In other words, single party majority government is over.

Within the political class, there appears to a collective sense of denial with regard to our political system's institutional capacity to provide our constitutional right to good government. In particular, the two political parties that offer a government option still pretend that can win a majority of seats in Parliament.

Keep in mind that the first-past-the post (FPTP) voting system transfers a significant proportion of seats to the party that wins a plurality of the popular vote at the expense of the party in opposition and the smaller parties. This feature arises due to the failure of FPTP to have a mechanism that either aggregates votes or allows voters to mark their electoral choices preferentially. As a result the majority of votes cast are ineffective, meaning that they are not used in any way to bring about representation in Parliament.

Not surprisingly, the incentive to go out to the polls on election day diminishes with the realization that one's vote does not count. Looking at the plummeting participation rates in provincial and federal elections, voters have figured this out for themselves, and the parties in power refuse to fix the problem. Consequently, elections are now being won not on the ability to attract new voters but because a significant proportion of the other party’s supporters decide not to participate.

This is exactly what happened during the last federal election. For example, the Conservatives increased their plurality of seats in Parliament because their overall loss of votes from the 2006 to 2008 federal election was only 160k compared to the 800k votes lost by the Liberals.

Moreover, with a participation rate of 58.8%, the Conservatives garnered only 22% of the votes from the eligible voters while the Liberals received a paltry 15%. Together, the supposed government options could only attract the support of approximately 37% of the electorate. Taking the latest polling numbers which have the two parties in a statistical dead heat, each one has the support of 32.6% of the survey’s respondents, and a projected participation rate of 60%, neither party can muster the support of 20% of the electorate.

Democracy is the rule of the majority.

Since even the formation of a false majority brought on by the vagaries of the voting system is not on the horizon, it is time that we abandoned our antiquated electoral system. Given the urgent need for a stable government with a mandate to implement comprehensive policies to address our mounting social, economic, and environmental challenges, it must be recognized that only a majority coalition, formed by two or more political parties, can provide the nation with the governance it justly deserves. If a proportional voting system were to be adopted, we could elect a democratic government that would be both effective and legitimate.

However, what needs to happen is that our entire political class comes clean and admits that the present system does not have the wherewithal to provide good governance. This recognition has not been forthcoming since the two major parties cling steadfast to the outdated dream of forming a single party majority. We cannot continue to have a minority government that governs like a majority under the threat of continual collapse and a return to an electoral process that brings about the same result.

Let’s not live in perpetual "Ground Hog Day", as captured by the Bill Murray film. We need to wake up, smell the coffee, and get on with bringing our political institutions in line with the realities of the twenty-first century.

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