Monday, October 26, 2015

In Opening Up the Pandora's Box of Electoral Reform, Canada Should Look Down Under

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable -- the art of the next best.  (Otto von Bismarck)

I never thought that I would see this day come.  We have a newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who stated publically that this election would be last using the first-past-the-post voting system, which is quite something considering he now governs Canada with a majority government although the Liberal Party only garnered 39% of the vote.

Scrapping the present voting system and putting another one in place, especially since it hasn't been decided what that new system will be for the next election, is a monumental task.  It would involve public consultations, adopting legislation, and retooling Elections Canada within the constitutional requirements of section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms  which protects the voting rights of Canadians.

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We also need to keep in mind that in our system of governance Parliament is bicameral, comprised of the lower, elected House of Commons and the upper, unelected Senate.  For any law to be enacted, it needs the assent of both chambers.  As a result, it would be unwise to radically reform the lower chamber with a proportional voting system of which there is great debate with regard to which to choose from and to leave the upper chamber untouched.  Imagine having an unelected Senate ruling over the House of Commons that can no longer effectively control how Senators vote.  Not a good idea!

Fortunately, the Senate as it is now functions is in disrepute and the idea of having an elected Senate has been discussed extensively but never enacted.  So, it would not be a great leap for Canada to change the voting system in the lower house and to introduce one into the upper chamber.

What we must realize is the scale of the institutional change Canadians are now thinking of making.  We simply cannot abandon our present system of governance under the rule of law and start over from scratch.  We would be much better off to take an incremental approach and to look to another member of the Commonwealth, Australia, a nation that has already evolved a political system much more democratic than its predecessor, the Westminster system that we both inherited from Great Britain.

In short, both the upper and lower houses are elected in Australia.  The lower house is elected using a preferential voting system in which electors rank the candidates, and the first candidate that receives fifty percent of the vote after the lower finishing candidates have their ballots redistributed on the basis of their electors other preferences.  The upper house is elected using a single district proportional voting method in which the percentage of the vote obtained by each political party in each state and territory determines who gets elected.

Importantly, this system is transferrable to Canada. 

For the next election in 2019, it would be feasible to transfer in a preferential voting system.  We could use the existing electoral map.  Moreover, this system has the advantage of requiring that each elected representative have the support of at least the majority of the electors that vote in his or her riding.  What it doesn't do is to correct for the distortion of the representation on the basis of the first choice, which, after all, is the most important choice a voter can make on this type of ballot.

Herein lies the brilliance of the Australian voting method.  It is in casting the second vote for the Senate where each vote counts and has equal weight.  The method is proportional, which allows for smaller political parties like the Greens to gain representation, and reflects, in the distribution of seats, how the electors actually voted.  Essentially, the Aussies made their political system more democratic without throwing out the existing system altogether, something I think the vast majority of Canadians would agree to be an important principle to follow.

Presently, Canadians are thwarted in making qualitative change to their dysfunctional Senate because of the Constitutional requirement to have unanimous consent of the provinces.  However, simply changing how Senators are chosen, moving to election instead of appointment, without changing the number of seats each province receives is entirely within the prerogative of Parliament.  Most assuredly, this would be challenged in the courts, which is why the present government must seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter, preferably within the first year of its mandate.  Thereafter, Elections Canada, with the new minted proportional voting method in hand, could then go about educating Canadians on how to vote in the subsequent election in 2023.

There you have it, turning the world upside down by transferring the Australian electoral system into Canada.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Once Again Huge Distortions of the Popular Vote Mire Canadian Election Results

Four years ago I wrote a similar blog about how the voting system distorts the popular vote and produces a government that the people did not vote for.  As is quite often the case with the first-past-the-post method, 40% of the vote produces 60% of the seats in Parliament, thereby giving 100% of the political power to a political party that does not have the support of the majority of those who voted, and no where near the majority of registered electors of which 40% did not bother to vote. 

The only thing that really changed in the 2015 general election is that the distortion shifted from favoring the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party.

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In 2011, the Conservative formed a majority government largely due to the extra 27 seats they were awarded in Ontario because of the vagaries of the winner-take-all representation that plurality voting entails. 

In Canada, as in other countries that use the first-past-the-post method, how the vote is distributed is as equally important as how many votes are won since representation is awarded to the candidate who garners the most votes in a single relatively small electoral district.  This is not the case in a proportional voting systems that employ relatively large electoral districts and where the number of seats awarded to each political party is proportional to the percentage of the popular vote obtained.  In other words, 20% of the vote allocates 20% of the available seats, 30% of the votes allocates 30% of the seats, 40% of the votes allocates 40% of the seats, and so on.

What is truly remarkable about the 2015 electoral results is what happened in the Maritimes region in Eastern Canada.  This time around 60% of the popular vote that the Liberals obtained gave them 100% or 32 of the 32 available seats in the region.  In fact, although 40% of the electors voted for the other parties, they have no representation whatsoever in Parliament.  In doing the electoral math, the Liberals received an extra 13 seats over and above what they would have received if the seats were allocated on the basis of the popular vote in the region.

This trend continues in Quebec where the Liberals received an additional 13 seats over and above a popular vote allocation and even more so in Ontario where they received an additional 26 seats due to the voting system distortion.

Simple addition tells us that in Eastern Canada, the Liberals received 52 bonus seats, two more than the national distortion of having 50 extra seats than what would have been awarded according to the popular vote across Canada.  So, the headlines could as easily read: "voting system produces yet another false majority" instead of lauding the Liberals victory.

During the electoral campaign Canada's newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, declared that if elected this would be the last general election in Canada using the first-past-the-post method.  What remains to be seen is what will be the new voting system.  Will it be a preferential voting system that uses a different method to add up the votes but produces similar distortions or a truly proportional system that gives Canadians the government that they voted for?

The devil is in the details.  Only time will tell, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Reason I'm Not Voting In Today's Election Is That Canada Does A Poor Job Of Protecting Voting Rights

OK Canada, you win.  Keep your outdated voting system.  Continue to outsource the nation's governance function to one person and his inner circle.  Carry on with this democratic farce called the general election.  I'll have none of it.

I used to believe that it is worth the effort to engage in politics in Canada, but no longer.  I know that in the desire to transfer the sovereignty of the nation's citizens to the winner of an electoral contest, the political party that wins the most of 338 simultaneously held elections across the land, my Charter Right to vote gets flushed down the toilet.
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The reason?  My vote will not count.  It is completely ineffective because if I vote according to my heart, to my values, in other words, for the Green Party of Canada, I know in advance that voting for the Green Party candidate is a total waste of time in this joke of an electoral system that dates from the medieval ages.

According to the Supreme Court, Section 3 of the Charter guarantees the right to vote, meaning the right to participate meaningfully in the electoral process.  Well then, how meaningfully is it to participate in an electoral process in which your vote does not count?

There is no way around it.  The practice of ensuring that millions of votes cast across Canada are totally ineffective does not jive with the values that inform the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the values of a free and DEMOCRATIC society.  First-Past-The-Post is profoundly undemocratic.

And it would be so simple to rectify the problem.  Simply put into place a proportional voting system.  This was the recommendation of the Law Commission of Canada, the former federally funded organization that examined the societal ramifications of Canada's legal system until it had its funding cut by the present government.

At this point, you might think that this is a matter for the Courts to decide.  Been there, done that.  We took this question to the Supreme Court of Canada, which simply refused to hear the case, leaving me totally flabbergasted since the entire case was based on the jurisprudence coming from the Supreme Court.  I find it completely unsettling and shattered my confidence in the justice system when the highest court in the land that takes the time and effort to define what is meant by the right to vote in a previous case dealing with the right of candidates to have their political party affiliation on the ballot (an impairment that affected less than one tenth of one percent of all votes cast) and then not to apply the same said principles in the much more important institutional practice that translates votes into seats in Parliament (a process that affects all the votes cast).

WTF?  Where am I living?  The Dominion of Canada?

In my present situation, the electoral system adds insult to injury.  Not only will my vote be wasted, I have to cast it in an electoral riding that has had it boundaries redrawn to maintain the constitutional requirement determined by the Supreme Court that all of the ridings need to have a relatively equal number of electors.  In my case, I happen to live in a section of the former city of Hull in Quebec that has been transferred to the rural riding of the Pontiac during the 2012 electoral redistribution. 

Sorry, as a resident of an urban centre, my concerns are very much different from the concerns of the farming communities in Western Quebec.  So, why am I being lumped in with them?  Because it's a constitutional requirement?  You mean the same constitution that doesn't guarantee that my vote will be an effective one?  Get out of town.

In other words, to save some semblance of legitimacy for this out-dated electoral system, those who have been entrusted in drawing up the electoral boundaries have to engage in a process of gerrymandering the electoral map in order to comply with Section 3 of the Charter as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada, the same Court that could easily declared First-Past-The-Post null and void and avoided this entire mess but instead refused to even hear the case.

I find it extremely odd that I live in a country where, due to the intervention of the Supreme Court,  I could marry another man if I were so inclined, legally procure marijuana from a federal government approved provider if I have the necessary medical condition, and even end my days with the assistance of a doctor if I so chose, but I can't get my preferred voting intention to count.

Go figure.

In the end, I won't cast my vote today to protest the injustice of the electoral system, but I will watch the results as they come in.  Who knows, the New Democratic Party has promised to introduce a proportional voting system if they form the government.

No wonder they are trailing in the polls.  Canadians prefer to live in the Dominion of Canada than in a modern nation-state.   

Friday, October 16, 2015

You Were Right Kim, An Election Is No Time To Discuss Serious Issues

Back in the 1993 Canadian General Election the then Prime Minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, in a moment of candor declared that "an election in no time to discuss serious issues," and judging by the manner in which the 2015 Canadian General Election has unfolded, she was right, at least with regard to how the traditional media has covered what has been an excruciatingly long electoral campaign.

For those who are serious about their politics, it is possible to visit each of the political party's websites and download each platform to see where the parties stand on various issues.  Moreover, an elector can seek out the candidates in their riding to seek out further information, but that's not how the vast majority of Canadians exercise their obligations as citizens to be well-informed.  In fact, most Canadians rely on the sound bytes and video clips proffered by the traditional media to determine how they will vote.  Consequently, complex issues are dumbed-down and image replaces substance during the campaign.

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Don't get me wrong.  There are some very serious concerns that need to be discussed like how Canadians can position themselves in the fast-changing global economy, the sustainability of the health care system, and, of course, what to do about climate change, but that's not where the media focuses the electorate's attention.

For example, the Canadian Government has agreed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), a trade agreement between twelve Pacific Rim countries that are responsible for 40% of global trade concerning a variety of economic policies and trade practices.  Problem is that no text has been released, so, as a result, Canadians are being kept in the dark about the details other than knowing that the federal government is already prepared to come to the rescue of dairy producers at a cost of four billion dollars and another one billion dollars for the auto sector.  Seeing a tight-fisted government throwing money at what have already identified as adversely-affected sectors gives me reason to think that people should be able to know the details of the agreement before they vote in a general election.


Discussing the details of the TTP won't sell newspapers and won't get people to watch television commercials or click on Google ads. So, what do we get, a cheap mash up of various images strewn together in a maudlin five act play.  In Act I, we saw images of the participants of the Senator Mike Duffy criminal proceedings.  What did the Prime Minister know and when?  In Act II, the body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a beach started us to question if maybe the government had a part to play in the refugee crisis happening in Europe.  However, in Act III, we were shown the barbarians at the gate in the guise of a Muslim woman who had the audacity of wanting to wear the niqab during a citizenship ceremony to become a Canadian citizen.  Tensions were rising, racial slurs were being tossed, so fortunately during Act IV, attention was focused ever so briefly on the TTP, giving the entire electorate the opportunity to cool down and watch the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball in their quest to win the World Series.  This much needed break gave way to the final Act, which is essentially the call of the first-past-the-post electoral race: the Liberals have broken away from the pack, the NDP are fading, and Stephen Harper's Conservatives are whipping their old horse of tired, worn out ideas as hard as they can, but to no avail, they can't keep up with the guy with the nice hair.

That's it.  That's the 2015 Canadian General Election in a nutshell.  Like I said before, when it comes to politics nobody does boring better than Canada.

Now, how about them Blue Jays!!!