Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A look at the Conservatives' electoral reform consultation

Remember the John Ibbitson column about the Conservative sham of a "citizen consultation process" about democratic and electoral reform? You know, the stuff about how the contract was given to a conservative pollster who is an outspoken opponent of reform? Well, blogger Marginalized Action Dinosaur attended one of the weekend "Canada's Democratic Institutions" seminars that form this process, and the post he writes about the experience is a window into the process's biases. MAD is clearly a conservative himself--he writes about how he'd rather deal with an MP with similar views to his own like Garry Breitkreuz (a conservative MP from Saskatchewan) than get stuck with dealing with his own MP, Liberal Anita Neville--but that only makes his observations more damning.

After a long session on "the role of the citizen," the group eventually did get around to talking about electoral reform. However, the questions asked of citizens were either subtly or openly leading, and it's not at all difficult to see how they will elicit exactly the kinds of responses the government is hoping to hear. One example from MAD's post:

What criteria should be used to examine the Canadian electoral system (e.g. stability, accountability, fairness, simplicity, a geographic link between constituents and their representatives. Whether it produces single-party Government whether it favours smaller parties.)?
The suggested points following MAD's 'e.g.' aren't pulled out of thin air--they represent the arguments for and against proportional representation. On the surface, not a bad thing. However, these arguments are not all created equal. For example, it is empirically demonstrable that our current system results in less "fairness," i.e., the majority of votes not counting. Sneaking "stability" in there alongside "fairness," however, plants the seed that certain kinds of electoral systems are less stable than what we have now--a common myth that's not supported by the facts. Other problems: the notion of "a geographic link between constituents and their representatives" is a red herring, since neither of the alternative systems proposed for Canada would affect that. And "favours smaller parties" isn't true of any electoral system. Our current system magnifies the impact of larger parties, while proportional systems give each party precisely the amount of power already given to them by the voters.

Here's another example:

Alternative electoral systems tend to move away from single party Government. what are the plusses and minuses of moving away from the current system.
This one at least has the benefit of being true--proportional electoral systems do tend to produce multiparty coalition governments. But talking about the benefits and drawbacks of "single-party government" when even the most educated Canadians have no conception of how anything other than that would function makes no sense at all. This becomes painfully clear when looking at MAD's account of how this discussion went. As a political blogger himself, he is clearly someone who's quite passionate about politics, and the observations he makes throughout his post make it clear that he knew a lot more about these issues than most of the other people in the room. The moderator even singles him out as being "the most articulate person in the room." And yet even he manages to mix up coalition and minority governments in his contributions to the discussion--a distinction that's absolutely crucial to make if people want to be able to evaluate whether they want a proportional electoral system in Canada.

It's also worth noting that the moderator didn't correct this mistaken conflation of coalition and minority governments, and even went on to actually enhance it. For example, in a discussion that's supposedly about the pros and cons of "single-party governments," MAD notes that the moderator "pointed out that minorities are often more costly because parties are living for today." This may be true, but it has nothing at all to do with whether a government is single-party or multiple-party. We currently have a single-party government, for example. It also happens to be a minority. These are two separate concepts that it is incredibly important not to conflate in order to have an even halfway accurate understanding of the issues surrounding electoral systems. If the moderator isn't going to even correct a basic mistake like that, then what good is he?

The biases of the moderator are annoying, but far more disturbing than that is the overall way the process is designed. Most of the citizens who are invited to these events are not political bloggers like MAD, they're ordinary people who have better things to think about most of the time than the details of political institutions. There's nothing at all wrong with that--I mean, thank goodness most Canadians aren't as crazy as we are! But this basic lack of information does mean that it's essential to bring everybody up to speed before starting in on the questions. Failing to do this will, at best, make the act of questioning pointless, since pretty much no one comes into such an event already knowing enough to respond knowledgeably. And at worst, it allows just enough misinformation to linger to serve as hooks upon which to later hang anti-reform talking points.

Canadian taxpayers are paying $900,000 dollars for this process. We deserve better than this sham.


JimBobby said...

Yer right as rain, IP. The whole reform process has been set up with failure as its ultimate goal. Too bad we hafta spend almost a billion bucks on a flim-flam dog an' pony show.

DisPR benefits the big guys. The big guys are always in power thanks to disPR. They are the ones who must change the system. They are the chief beneficiaries of the current system. They will not change it willingly. The public must demand reform. Most of the public doesn't understand the unfairness or the importance of the issue and sees it as "too complicated".


Anonymous said...

"But I think it did well if I had said I'm torn between the western separatists and the CHP failing them the CPC a lot might have rolled their eyes every time I talk."

This is a 'Conservative'?

Seems like he's for PR to me.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


You seem to be making an assumption that you can't be for PR if you're a conservative. That doesn't necessarily follow. Lots of conservatives are for PR, especially former Reformers.

Take a look at the guy's blog. He's very definitely a conservative.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for covering this, it's good someone is explaining the sham to the folks in the blogosphere at least.

Candace said...

IP, I think I mentioned on a different post of yours that "electoral reform" to the CPoC doesn't begin and end at voting, but is more around the Senate. Reading what MAD wrote, I'd argue that they tried to cover a lot of bases. It may not be perfect, it may not be what YOU were looking for, but you have to admit, it's a hell of a lot more than any federal government has done in the past.

BC was all about the voting system.

There HAS to be more to it than that. Representation, from a numbers perspective (i.e. seats per province) is way off. The Senate COULD counteract the lopsidedness of population by being equal per province, but the big provinces (Ont & Quebec) hate the idea of giving up their power.

If I have to give you STV to get a triple-E senate, I will. But to think that "electoral reform" is ONLY about how we vote is way to narrow a definition.

Have you been able to find a non-conservative blogger that attended one of these sessions? From the sounds of things, the turnout was high, so one would hope...

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


"Electoral reform" IS about the voting system. The broader term "democratic reform" encompasses the Senate, increasing women's representation, increasing citizens' engagement, and all that other good stuff. Which, agreed, we should also be talking about.

My issue isn't about addressing the whole of democratic reform on one weekend, though, it's about the biases inherent in the process.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

P.S. I haven't heard of any other bloggers attending the sessions, non-conservative or otherwise. Have you?

genslub3 said...

Why do you think increasing womens representation is somehow tied to democracy?

If women wanted the job surely the liberals and NDP counl each find 150+ in all of canada to run but I guess they don't want the job.

Or does that mean Liberals and NDP are biased VS women?

Sounds terrible to me.

The broader term "democratic reform" encompasses the Senate, increasing women's representation, increasing citizens' engagement,

If you tell me as a man I can't vote for a woman you call that democratic? To me corruption like that sounds like one of the reasons people don't vote.

it's about the biases inherent in the process.

Better a biased process than an unbiased non process. Course you disagree....

It just should be your way for true democracy, Right Aniken?