Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Tyranny of a Dead Idea

Canada’s inability to conceive and put into place a system of governance that corresponds to its particularities is largely responsible for its slow slide away from “being the best country in the world to live in” towards a mediocre player on the world’s stage.

We are stuck in our colonial past, unable to shed ourselves from an electoral system dating from the Middle Ages in which two principal factions wage a campaign in approximately 300 winner-take-all districts. The faction that wins the most districts wins the right to rule the kingdom.

Undoubtedly, the complexity of the world in which we live is exponentially greater than the world that gave birth to the first-past-the-post voting system. Yet, for many of its supporters, it is the simplicity of the method which is its greatest strength. All it requires is electors who can place an “x” beside the name of a single candidate.

If the rate of societal change had remained unchanged since the middle Ages, perhaps such a system of governance would suffice. Unfortunately, the challenges of facing up to climate change, the decline of conventional oil supplies for an economy built on the availability of cheap oil, and a global financial system that lurches from boom to bust in ever shortening intervals necessitates the capacity to generate new ideas and ways of doing things that will enable us to adapt to the churn of incessant change. However, if all we ask of the electorate is to choose between the blue and the red team, we are not going to get anything more from the winning side than a futile attempt to bring the downward slide of our collective quality of life to a halt.

There are times when remaining with status quo is unacceptable. We live in such a time, and it is to our great disadvantage that our electoral system seeks to preserve it. When political power is an all or nothing affair, there arise emerging properties of the system that render it unsuitable for adaptation to a quick-changing environment.

First, since a large centrist electorate must be courted in order to find the widespread appeal that enables a political party to form a government, the two contending parties fight for the center. As a result, valuable new ideas rest at the periphery, failing to gain traction, for the introduction of new ideas carries the risk of alienating those at the center thereby perpetuating the status quo.

Second, each contending party must portray itself as offering unique solutions to the electorate when in reality there is quite a deal of commonality between their respective political platforms. Instead of trying to build upon what is held in common, both parties are locked in an adversarial relationship in which each lauds its supposed virtues and demonizes the other.

Within this dynamic, consensus building gives way to the alternation of domination and control. As a result, timelines shorten to accommodate the electoral cycle and long-term planning is next to impossible. We are stuck reacting to the latest crisis. Fundamental problems that require sustained action for more than ten years are seldom addressed, giving the impression that we prefer to re-arrange the deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

Finally, the electoral system is blatantly unjust. Whether or not your vote counts is totally dependent on where you live, and the majority of us live in electoral districts where the expression of an authentic choice renders the vote useless with regard to garnering representation. In short, more and more of us are effectively forced to watch from the sidelines as the size of the electorate at the center continues to shrink. We look on as the cost of inaction continues to rise and the number of those who benefit from the status quo continues to fall.

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