Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

When electoral reform is a sham dunk

The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson regularly gets a lot of flak from left and centre-left bloggers, but one thing's for certain--he's long been a staunch, unflinching ally of the electoral reform movement. His latest column about the all the ways in which the Conservative government have turned the electoral reform file into a sham is behind the subscriber wall, but it's definitely worth reading. Luckily for you all, your friendly neighbourhood idealistic pragmatist is willing to share just enough of it that she can't get dinged for copyright violation!

The Conservative government is interested in electoral reform, and wants to know what you think.

Yeah, right.

Electoral reform in Canada is The Idea That Almost Is. Replacing the existing "first-past-the-post" system of electing legislators with some form of proportional representation, such as most European countries use, is [...] always on the cusp of realization, but can never cross the threshold.

Federally, both the Conservatives and the Liberals prefer the status quo; they would rather fight each other for control than clutter up the House of Commons with New Democrats, Greens and who knows what other riff-raff.

But to placate the NDP in this minority Parliament, the Conservatives promised in their Throne Speech to consider the question of electoral reform.

We now know how they plan to proceed. Those plans are hilarious.

Claiming they don't want the process to be captured by special interests, the Conservatives have decided to employ what could be the very first closed-door public consultation.

They have hired pollster Conrad Winn to conduct a poll, and a think tank to convene a series of focus groups across the country. Citizens will be probed for their thoughts on the role of political parties in policy development, the decorum (read lack of it) in the House of Commons, Senate reform, civic engagement and, oh yes, electoral reform.

The call for tenders (and thanks to the NDP for digging it up) says the focus groups are to be consulted on "the electoral system (e.g. particular characteristics that are important for citizens, such as the link between elective representatives and a particular geographic area)."

Note the parentheses. Proportional representation invariably reduces the importance of geography by having some or all legislators selected from a list. Ridings are either enlarged or eliminated. So the very wording of the mandate question biases the consultation process in favour of first past the post.

The contract to conduct the focus groups went to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Winnipeg.

Three times in recent years, the Frontier Centre has published articles from contributors that argued strongly against PR and in favour of retaining the status quo.

That doesn't matter, according to Peter Holle, the centre's president. "We're not allowed to bring our opinions into the presentation," he said yesterday in an interview. "We're there to lead the discussion, we're there to record what people think." Besides, he said, the talking points will be so general that participants won't be asked to consider specific alternative voting systems.

Jack Layton has a different view. "It's a sham, and a stacked deck," the NDP Leader said yesterday. "It really indicates that Stephen Harper is not serious about electoral reform."

In this instance, Mr. Layton hits the mark. Mr. Harper has not the slightest interest in considering the question of electoral reform. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that: He's the Prime Minister, he sets the agenda, voters judge that agenda.

But rather than simply declare that his government has more important things to attend to, Mr. Harper has authorized a Potemkin consultation.

This charade is an act of political subterfuge calculated to disguise inaction. It may furnish the government with some fabricated evidence that Canadians don't want electoral reform (but, no doubt, do want Senate reform and more decorum in the House). But the conclusions will be as worthless as the evidence on which they're based.

The government established an upper spending limit of $900,000 for this exercise. That's not much, in the great scheme of things, but every single penny of it is wasted.
I would be remiss if I didn't correct the errors in the column. First, it's not necessarily the case that "proportional representation invariably reduces the importance of geography by having some or all legislators selected from a list"--while that's true for the Mixed-Member Proportional system that the NDP and the Greens prefer, it's not true for the Single Transferable Vote system chosen by British Columbia's citizens' assembly. Second, it's also not necessarily the case that proportional representation would mean that "ridings are either enlarged or eliminated," because it's equally possible to increase the number of MPs. And third, while Ibbitson is correct that the PEI electoral reform initiative "failed," he's wrong about the British Columbia one--the 58% of the vote received by the new system was close enough to the 60% mark that the referendum will be repeated alongside the 2008 municipal election, with better financing for education and a completed set of proposed boundaries.

Despite the small mistakes, though, the overall point Ibbitson makes is 100% correct. The Conservatives don't want electoral reform, they want a single-party majority government of their very own. So they're pretending to be the champions of the issue while scuttling the whole process to make sure it can't happen. I'm hardly surprised by that sort of cynicism, but it's a damn shame. And kudos to Ibbitson for calling this government out.

[Update: John from Dymaxion World, a former student of the pollster who has been assigned to find out what Canadians think of electoral reform, provides an inside view of what the guy is like in person.]


Kuri said...

Reminds me of those old Reform Party "constituency surveys" with questions very transparently designed to elicit the preferred answer....

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine anything more pointless than gathering a few citizens at random and asking them about electoral reform. The most striking thing about proportional representation in the Canadian context is still that most Canadians have never heard of it. Canadians are enormously frustrated with our politics and they know that something is wrong, but they don't make the connection to the need for electoral reform, because most Canadians still don't know that there are other ways to vote.

Wayne Smith

Candace said...

Well, that's disappointing. I'm not a huge fan of FPTP, and liked the BC transferable idea.

The CPoC take on "electoral reform" has more to do with the Senate than voting, from what I can tell.