Ships in the night: The state of the debate on electoral reform

(Full disclosure: I tend to lean towards supporting PR, though am not particularly zealous about it. Even so, if my support for PR changes the way you expect to respond to what you’re about to read, you may find that this response reinforces my point below.)

The debate over electoral reform has barely begun in earnest, and it is in already in trouble. I see two significant problems related to different aspects of process, each of which in my view threatens the legitimacy of the debate and decision around this crucial issue.

The first problem concerns the substance and style of argumentation around the different electoral options available to Canadians. The second, which I’ll deal with in a subsequent post, concerns the problems with politicizing the process by which we try and change the “rules of the game.”

With regard to argumentation, we are beginning to see a lack of common non-partisan ground on which to even weigh different electoral options, let alone reach conclusions. Even at the levels of academia and informed political commentary, the discussion seems to have become, if not partisan, extremely polarized. We lack agreement over how to discuss the various systems, and how to characterize the various advantages and disadvantages that follow from the status quo or any particular change. On the one side, some PR advocates carry on with the zealous passion and certitude of the newly converted. On the other, some supporters of FPTP speak with a dismissiveness verging on arrogance. There are many in between these two extremes—political scientists, media commentators and others who lean one way or the other but remain open to and indeed seek out vigorous debate over the relative merits of the options—but they are too often drowned out by those convinced that they are right.

This is a troubling state of affairs, for if the best informed among us lack the ability or the will to find common language to evaluate the choices before us, how are either politicians or voters with much else to concern themselves with to make even an attempt at deciding what’s best for the country? It is hardly any wonder that many view the issue solely through the narrow lens of partisanship, for what other lenses have been made available to them?

The best way to solve this, I think, is to stress at every turn that what we are doing here is weighing trade-offs among competing systems. We can only take such an approach, however, if we have an open discussion about what the trade-offs really are.

The issue of “false majorities” is both emblematic of the problem, and helpful to illustrate a potential solution. Simply put, it’s an issue that many PR advocates see as deeply significant, and many FPTP supporters refuse to acknowledge exists at all. Such a deep divide should not be possible when advocates on both sides are committed to a generous reading of others’ work, and to responding to arguments in good faith. One may differ on how best to resolve the divide between two opposing viewpoints, but when opposing sides of an argument refuse to even agree on the fact that there is an argument, we have a problem.

A striking example of such a debate over the subject came recently in a blog response by Dale Smith to a report penned by (again, disclosure) a friend of mine, David Moscrop. The Broadbent Institute commissioned Moscrop to write an explainer that presented a “case” for PR. I have no affiliation with the NDP or the Broadbent Institute[1] but (last disclosure) at Moscrop’s request I provided comments on an earlier draft of the report, which he was free to use as he saw fit.

Given the background of the Broadbent Institute, I think it is important to read any publication released under its imprimatur with a careful, even a skeptical eye. Moscrop’s essay is a work of political advocacy, presenting reasoned arguments in favour of one side of an important debate, while attempting to rebut potential criticisms. Any failure on his part to do justice to other perspectives ought to be flagged by readers. Indeed, there would be real value in good faith efforts by other political scientists and their fellow-travellers in the media and blogosphere (remember that?) to engage Moscrop and those who share his perspective in debate around his report.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Smith does. The subtitle, “mindless PR propaganda” sets the tone. On the issue of false majorities, he denies there is an issue to be discussed, delegitimizing the idea that one might have a debate. The result in my opinion was a small opportunity lost for an interesting and illuminating exchange on a point of significant import in contemporary Canadian political discourse.

So, let me suggest an alternative way forward. I’d like to reframe the issue not as a problem that either does or does not exist and require a solution, but rather as the locus of an important trade-off in how we conceptualize representation. Basically, we can conceive of the difference as being over how “best” to represent Canadians and their views in Parliament. To simplify somewhat (but keeping in mind any attempt to explain necessarily includes simplification) FPTP ensures that after an election, you will be represented by a particular person in the House of Commons. You vote in a riding level election, and the winner of that election is your voice in Parliament, whether you voted for her or not. After an election, all voters can point to a single person responsible for representing their perspective in the House. What they may not be able to do, however, is point to someone who represents their point of view.

Conversely, in the various forms of PR, a common theme is that the one-to-one relationship between voter and representative is either muddied or jettisoned completely as voters either vote for a small group of representatives, or in its more extreme forms, for a party. In exchange, after an election under PR, though voters can no longer point to a single specific individual charged with being their representative, they can all point to a party that represents their point of view. That is something that does not occur under FPTP. The many varieties of PR propose different ways to achieve that effect, but that is a primary goal for all.

That’s the trade-off. (Well, one of them. It’s a complex set of interconnected issues.) If you value that one-to-one relationship, even when it comes at a cost of many voters feeling they have no one who shares their perspective in Ottawa, that’s fine—that’s what happens under FPTP. Conversely, if you value a system where voters can always identify their “voice” in Ottawa, even if it’s not attached to a particular person they voted for, then that’s fine too. There are advantages and disadvantages to both—and the different alternatives produce significant differences in the kinds of governments and legislatures we are likely to see.

For instance, FPTP can (though does not always) generate large stable majorities in which significant policy debates are hashed out within party conventions, caucuses and at the cabinet table, and thus in spaces partially or fully screened from public scrutiny—again, with advantages and disadvantages accruing. Conversely, PR systems tend to produce coalition governments, some stable and some not, where policy debates occurring more often between the different parties in government. The result can be more transparent debate as coalition leaders argue with one another and justify the compromises they make to their supporters, and that exposure carries its own costs and benefits.

In short, there are valid arguments on either side of this debate. They each follow from a different weighting of competing intrinsically valuable normative ends that cannot be fully reconciled. To pretend otherwise—that there is no debate to be had—is at best overzealous, and at worst either disingenuous or uninformed. On such an important issue, I think we must strive to read and listen generously. We needn’t agree on what’s best for Canadians, but we ought to make a good-faith effort to get to the heart of where the points of disagreements lie. Treating debate as blood sport can be fun (and is increasingly hard-wired into our discourse thanks to the burgeoning hot take industry on social media) but ultimately serves no one. We can do better.

Denouement: After the original dust-up, it seems that Dale and David are still on speaking (tweeting?) terms, and even have plans to debate the subject. It remains unclear at this time whether it will be broadcast on CBC radio or as a PPV event.

[1] I did help a friend of mine run for MLA in rural Alberta as an NDP candidate in the mid ‘90s. It went about as well as you might expect.

photo credit: La Grace via photopin (license)

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7 thoughts on “Ships in the night: The state of the debate on electoral reform

  1. I appreciate your caution here. Did you follow the PR consultative process and resulting referenda here in BC? It was fascinating and inspiring and gutting. During the electoral consultation, 100 citizens and facilitators asked BCers what they thought was important about the electoral process. During that process they identified, what they called, six core values that BCers had about elections. This formed the basis of their search for an alternative electoral system. They arrived at recommending an STV system, which relied on large mega-ridings with 4 to 6 candidates each (I think). This was partly the result of having to balance MMP against one of the underlying values they discovered which was Regionalism. Anyway, during the first referendum, there was overwhelming support for the alternative system. 58% of voters said yes to STV. Which is huge. Voters in all but one riding (I think) voted in favour of it. This was the largest voter endorsement of anything in the history of BC. Strangely, the government decided to hold another referendum four years later. And the vote dropped. I was disappointed. Both the BC Liberals and the BC NDP rallied the no vote, which I found very disappointing. It remains a fascinating datapoint in the history of electoral reform in Canada.

  2. Again, my apologies, I got a few facts wrong. It was THREE basic values and TWO recurring issues. I think this was an interesting approach to the knot of issues that you are referring to as trade-offs and a balance of interests.

    Also, just to be clear, in the first referendum, the vote passed in all but two ridings (77 out of 79 electoral districts).

    • Hi Sherwin, thanks for the comments! I am generally familiar with the fact of the first referendum, and had a close-up view of the second (was a research coordinator for a field experiment that ran during the campaign). It is one of the great what-ifs of Canadian politics—what if BC had just gone with a (eminently defensible) 50% threshold for the first referendum.
      I do need to go back and read the details of the CA’s work again. It’s been a while since I went through it all. Now’s a good time to do it too, now that the debate is finally upon us at the national level. Thanks for the nudge.

  3. Myself and Tony Hodgson – President of Fair Voting BC – have created a site for STV, and I have lots of links to the Citizens’ Assembly on the resource page, as well as other STV related links.
    http://www.stvforcanada.com
    Recently Fair Vote Canada had David Farrell – a political scientist from Ireland whose textbook was used by both the ON and BC Citizens Assembly – on a webinar to talk about STV in Ireland from a voter perspective.
    I find that outside BC its the least talked about option.
    I’m glad the government is taking a values-based approach. That is where every almost assembly/committee/commission starts. It brings people into a conversation more people can participate in, rather than losing people in mechanics, and helps find common ground.
    As one of those “zealous” supporters of a more proportional system (I’ll own the “passionate” part but with this cause perseverance is more accurate) I think that the core values that are most important to me are shared by the Canadian options in the PR family.
    However, I agree with you that some systems emphasize certain values more than others, or have a different perspective on values (“voter choice” and “effective local representation” mean slightly different things in different models). You could also view these differences as trade-offs.
    Thanks for bringing more people into the conversation.

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