Category Archives: electoral reform

Precarious Stability

In California and Nevada there are hundreds of large stones which appear to be balanced precariously on one end, despite this region being a hot-spot for earthquakes. They have stood for thousands of years, either more stable than they appear or spared any sufficiently powerful earthquakes over the eons. Theoretically, an earthquake could fell any given stone tomorrow. But it’s not very likely.

The Canadian Senate is a bit like these precarious rocks. For the most part it has been free from outright, unabashed abuse, despite the apparent potential. Or perhaps it is less prone to abuse than it appears. In either case, nothing too horrible has happened since 1867 and in all likelihood nothing horrible will happen in the immediate future.

However, if we make piecemeal changes to the Senate, who can say what will happen?

To use a different analogy, the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s worsening tilt was only recently arrested, after a handful of attempts which actually worsened the situation. Only when a full effort was made a decade ago were engineers successful.

The Senate is working just fine as it is. When the federal and provincial governments and the people are prepared to invest their energy in making the Senate better, then we can improve it.

[photo credit]

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Imported Solutions

One of the fantastic things about stealing another country’s system of government wholesale is that we can also take their op-eds and apply them to our own situation.

In the Guardian,  Jonathan Freedland writes about that most perennial of issues in both Canada and the UK: reforming the Upper House of Parliament. It’s on the agenda in the UK for next week.

The House of Commons will be debating, as if it were a matter of controversy, a principle which most other democracies accepted a long time ago – a principle which we send our armies half way across the globe to impose on others by force. It is the principle that people should elect those who govern them.

Still, holding out for full election could mean no election. That’s what happened last time, when too many pro-reform MPs let the best become the enemy of the better: they voted down some election in favour of more election, until they had nothing. (A fully elected house and an 80% elected house both fell by an agonising three votes.) MPs can remedy that next week by voting yes more than once, to all of the three options that would create a mainly elected upper house.

There is a lesson here for us Canadians. Though our problems are more between provinces and parties, rather than MPs, the British experience can still be applied here. If everyone holds out for their ideal reforms, we will get no reform at all.

The NDP wants to abolish the Senate alltogether, the Conservatives want elections and probably a redistribution of seats, and as far as I can tell the Liberals are happy enough to continue exploiting the system as it stands today. Obviously, the can’t all have their way. Before anything else can happen, the parties in the Commons will have to find some points to agree on. Hopefully, they will eventually be able to agree that there needs to be an election in some form.

The other barrier to Senate reform is the provinces. Unlike in Britain, there are ten provinces in Canada who have a say in any changes to the constitution. And many of these provinces would like, if there have to be any changes at all, equal representation of provinces in the Senate, regardless of population.

At least the NDP plan to abolish the Senate eventually achieves the goal of an entirely democratic government, albeit by a difficult and unlikely path. Compare this with the provinces’ wishes for equal representation. If we are making these reforms for the sake of democracy, equal representation actually perpetuates the unrepresentative quality of the body. It may represent the regions, but this isn’t a democracy of regions, it is a democracy of people.

The first-past-the-post system in the Commons is bad enough, but turning the Senate into a chamber that even more poorly responds to the will of Canadians is a move in the wrong direction. Today, the Senate is subordinate to the Commons. This is at least more desirable than a Senate subordinate to the provinces. If we are actually in this to strengthen Canadian democracy, the provinces are going to have to give up their quest for more power. It’s a long shot, I know.

Once the provinces can agree that equal representation is not truly democratic and the parties can agree on the need for reform, we can move forward.

By the People

The Toronto Star isn’t wild about reforming Ontario’s electoral system.

The best argument in favour of the status quo is that it leads to strong governments. By contrast, proportional representation is a recipe for unstable coalitions, permanent minority government and legislative chaos. For proof, one need look no further than Israel and Italy.

First of all, the system apparently favoured by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform is mixed member proportional representation, used in countries like Germany, not Israel and Italy.

Secondly, strong governments aren’t necessarily a good thing. Mike Harris, of who I’m sure the Star is no fan, was able to implement the Common Sense Revolution with two-thirds of the seats but less than 50% of the vote.

Today, the Liberals are doing a half-decent job at running a ‘benevolent dictatorship’, which it has been said is the best form of government. But there is no metric for separating the benevolent from the malevolent; it’s all subjective. That’s why I would rather take the risk of a less effective government over an effective dictatorship.

The Citizens’ Assembly is on the right track, and I look forward to the day when seat distribution in the Legislative Assembly more closely mirrors popular support.