Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Electoral reform: what's likely and what's possible

I'm still catching up (it's amazing how out of the loop you feel after almost a month of complete radio silence!), but there has been some interesting speculation about the NDP demanding legislation on proportional representation in exchange for propping up the Conservatives' budget:

Scott Tribe says that the NDP is "in as good a position as at anytime during Martin’s minority tenure to demand it."

Green blogger Kevin asks "is the time now right for pro-rep, Mr. Layton?" and reminds us that Layton promised to make the issue "a big part of any discussion."

The Jurist points out that the Conservatives have "put forward a shorter process to evaluate PR and other democratic reforms - but also shown signs of rigging it against PR as an outcome."

Sinister Greg reminds us that while "the Tories are going to spend $900,000 to study electoral reform," there was actually already a study done by the federal government's Law Commission several years ago. (Aside: Fair Vote Canada took on a lot of copies of that study when Harper scrapped the Law Commission entirely a few months back, so if you're curious to look at it, you might want to contact them.)

My own thoughts about this run along three tracks:

First, I'm still not convinced that there's any one thing Harper can offer the NDP that will get them to support a budget that contains so many things they oppose. If, rather than offering a single full concession on one issue, the Conservatives were willing to compromise just enough on all of their positions enough for it to result in the kind of piecemeal centrism that tends to come from Liberal governments, I could see them having more success (albeit grudgingly from all sides).

Second, if we suppose that there is one single thing the NDP is going to be willing to bend on and damn the rest, that single thing is going to be serious climate change legislation, not electoral reform. This is both for policy reasons and for political ones. After all, as important as we poligeeks know electoral reform to be, it's still not as important as helping to save the planet, and even if it were, the public certainly wouldn't see it that way.

Third, if we enter the realm of full-fledged fantasy and suppose that the NDP would be willing to sacrifice everything else for electoral reform, any Conservative-NDP cooperation on making proportional representation happen would still get hung up on the form that reform should take. See, proportional representation is an issue on which it's easy to know the basics while still having a lot of misconceptions about the minutiae. And as long as the Conservatives persist in believing that a Mixed-Member Proportional system would necessarily allow party hacks to gain unprecedented amounts of power (not true), and as long as the NDP persist in believing that a Single Transferable Vote system would require large ridings (not true) or isn't really proportional representation (not only not true, but ludicrous), they're kind of at an impasse. Both the Conservatives and the NDP have a couple of MPs who know enough about the geeky details on the subject, but they're not the heavyweights, and the heavyweights don't seem to be listening to them. It's depressing to have the entire issue turn on misinformation, but it's the main reason why I don't see any real NDP-Conservative cooperation on electoral reform at any point in the future.

And a Happy New Year to you, too. Bah, humbug.


Matt said...

A Happy New Year to you too, IP! I think you're right that the only real area where we might see some NDP-Conservative collaboration will be on climate change legislation - and that might also get one of the other parties on board as well. I laughed out loud at the "Power-wielding NDP" headlines on the CBC website. In the old Red Tory days, perhaps. But right now, there really doesn't seem to be much that the two agree on.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I admit that I did have my own hopes about NDP-Conservative cooperation at the beginning--after all, there's no reason why the compromise centrism most Canadians seem to cling to couldn't result from left-plus-right rather than the centrist party always winning the day all on their own. But I realized pretty early on that it just wasn't going to happen with Harper being as authoritarian and controlling as he's ended up being.

They did work together to get the ethics legislation passed, though, which is about as much as we could ever have realistically expected.

NO ONE said...

To be honest with you, I think climate change is the only issue worth talking with the Conservatives about.

The only way I could see the federal parties getting something done on electoral reform is if they agreed to a citizen's forum like we're doing here in Ontario and left the specifics up to an independent panel.

But, as you said, Harper is too controlling to allow the people of Canada to actually decide if we want to change our electoral system, so I'm cynically confident that all the talk of electoral reform will be just that; talk.

Anonymous said...

Should I take your overview (nicely done, by the way) as implying that Conservatives are willing to consider STV? If so, why?

"Party hacks" aside, I always assume that no established party would ever want STV on the grounds that party leaders don't want to lose control over their own rank and file (who can make local transfer deals that the leaders have little say in--and that voters might even disregard anyway).

Of course, that objection to STV is pretty much the flipside of the "party hacks" concern. But, coming from leaders of an estbablished party, that always sounds to me like posturing, not sincere grounds for opposing a set of rules that would let those same leaders choose their own hacks.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Agreed, on all counts.


Pardon me while I preen a bit to find you reading my blog. And wish a bit that I'd written a better post.

All right, done with that.

I don't think Harper is particularly interested in any form of PR, no. But I do think they're more likely to be interested in an STV-based system than they are in anything else, and they might be willing to compromise enough to introduce PR if it were that particular flavour. It's pure speculation, of course, because the only evidence I have is based on Harper's proposal to use STV in electing the Senate, as well as on the fact that a couple of Conservative MPs were hinting on CPAC that they thought it was a decent system in general as well. And of course it's completely irrelevant if the NDP won't consider STV, which they won't.

All of which points to the fact that the electoral reform process really needs an independent citizens' assembly, not meddling politicians of whichever parties.

wilson said...

Please explain.
Dippers push for PR is high on their agenda.
But....when Jack is working at 'getting things done for Canadians' (IMO, a huge problem in PR)
his party faithfull are jumping all over him, for ''propping up the most rightwinged government in Canadian history'', as if they are about to dump Jack as leader.

If you believe in PR, then you can NOT take the position that 'negotiation and compromise' are evil with the Conservatives and essential with the Liberals.

If Dippers or any party, appear to not work with the Cons, just because they are Conservative, PR will NEVER have the perception of being a viable alternative to FPTP.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I don't disagree with you about the need for more cooperation, but there are two factors I think you're not considering, one of which is the Conservatives' fault, and one of which isn't.

The former--i.e., the one the Conservatives can do something about--is Harper's authoritarianism. I have no knee-jerk reaction to compromising with the Conservatives in principle, but after seeing the way Harper treats his caucus members who are not 100% ideologically like-minded, I'd have an awfully hard time compromising with any Conservative party led by Stephen Harper.

The latter has to do with the way our electoral system pretty much forces all of the parties into constantly going for a single-party majority. And with that as a defining aspect of our political culture, parties are necessarily going to be working harder at pushing their own ideas through than at finding workable compromises.

Jason Townsend said...

Sorry I missed this.

As always, I highly, highly doubt the CPC will ever move on electoral reform. They benefit from the FPTP system to pick up NDP-Lib split ridings; they benefit from the vote-seat ratio it creates, and their most plausible parliamentary partner - the Bloc - requires FPTP to continue being grossly over-represented.

In both Liberal and Conservative mental universes, I think electoral reform means perpetuating LPC/NDP powersharing unless the entire party system is recast by some seismic splits in the larger parties. That's a non-starter for the CPC.

I do think that the NDP should push for electoral reform - if necessary, dropping most of their other efforts to do so - by taking the initiative to build an electoral reform coalition on a party level with the Greens and Liberals. The same responsibility is incumbent on the other political parties, but the Liberals will of course be intent on turning the clock back to the '90s while the Greens aren't likely to drop that whole environment focus thing they like.