Saturday, April 2, 2011

We All Lose When Only the Winners Gain Representation

While campaigning against the alternative vote option on the ballot in the UK referendum on the voting system, British Prime Minister, David Cameron makes the following analogy that underscores the dominant belief for those who support the first-past-the-post voting system:

"Just think forward to the Olympics. Usain Bolt powers home in the hundred metres but when it comes to handing out the gold medals they give it to the person who comes third. You wouldn't do it in the Olympics, we shouldn't do it in politics, we've got to vote no to this crazy system."

Clearly, this analogy asserts that it is the winner of the contest that deserves the prize, a seat in Parliament. Push the analogy a little further to include its intended audience and the assertion reads: you are the winners of the socio-economic game and, as a result, you are the ones who deserve to rule.

This is also the rhetoric heard during the 2011 federal election in Canada. Time and time again we hear Prime Minister Harper say it is only the "winners" that have the right to form the government and not the "coalition of losers".

In other words, only the strong should be allowed to rule, and the weak, even if they are in the majority, should submit to the rule of those who have been deemed fit to rule because of their performance in the contest to see who gets the most votes.

The obvious question is why should the formation of a government be reduced to a sporting contest? Why should representation be seen as the prize to be awarded based on the results of a winner-take-all contest?

There are other ways to form a government.

We could make it a game of chance. That's what the ancient Athenians did when they formed their government that gave birth to the term democracy, the rule of the demos, the people. Most office holders were chosen on the basis of drawing lots. That way domination by any one group could be avoided because the odds on being selected were equal for each citizen.

We could also make it a game of sharing the pie. Everyone gets their fair share. The size of the slice, the number of seats in the legislature, is proportional to the number of voters who support each party.

With regard to the results of this type of exercise, a fundamental question must be asked when choosing the rules of the game: is it our intent to give preferential treatment to some players or shall we be equitable in the treatment of all the players.

Let's not forget where we are coming from. Our political institutions have evolved over time from our inheritance of a political system from a class-structured British society. As little as 150 years ago, only white, male, Protestant, land owners had the right to vote. The entire system was set up to privilege this part of the population.

Over time, our political institutions have evolved: universal suffrage became the norm and the power of money to influence electoral outcomes has been significantly reduced. However, one powerful institution has not changed.

We still have in place a political system that privileges the so-called "winners" in Canadian society. Indeed, a winner-take-all electoral system leads to a winner-takes-most economy. The inequality of economic results reflects the inequality built into the political system. Yet, this inequality comes with a price.

Research shows that societies that have greater economic inequality experience higher incidents of social problems and the members of these societies have shorter lives, yes even the rich, than their counterparts in societies where the wealth is more equitably distributed.

So, let's do everybody in Canada a favor: drop the idea that forming a government is like winning a sporting contest and let's give everyone their fair share of the electoral pie.

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