Monday 8 April 2013

It ain't broke

The 2000 presidential election in the United States, with its voting contortions and its controversial outcome, prompted many Canadians to express relief that, here, at least we know who the winner is after the voting ends.

Even critics of our system for electing members of Parliament - often called 'first-past-the-post' because the candidate with the most votes in a riding wins the election, with or without a majority - admit that the system's ability to deliver clear outcomes is one of its strengths.

However, critics tend to neglect or dismiss the other strengths of the first-past-the-post system. Further, they make the error of blaming this process for a host of political ills, from falling voter turnout to Canada's lagging record on the proportion of women and visible minorities in the House of Commons.

The recent report from the Law Commission of Canada, "Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada," follows in this vein, making its case for using a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation to select MPs.
While "Voting Counts" may be good stimulus for a debate on all of this, it overstates both the desire for reform and the consensus for change. Many Canadians are concerned about the state of our democracy, but electoral reform is not the priority that the report's authors (and advocates for proportional representation, generally) believe it to be.

Even if electoral reform were to be among the top five issues of concern to Canadians, more pressing priorities would be the candidate-nomination process, controlling the influence of money on the electoral process and deciding the proper role for third-party or non-partisan intervenors.

The first-past-the-post system provides effective governments. Canadians support a range of parties, but we vote with the expectation that governments will act in accordance with the national interest. Some view the frequency of majority governments that emerge through this process as its chief failing, but majority governments have been as socially progressive as minority governments, and tend to govern better and more effectively.

We may be frustrated with the dominance of a majority government, but we like even less the horse-trading and political manipulations of minority governments. The first-past-the-post system of selecting MPs also has the advantage of encouraging political parties to be broadly based and ideologically moderate, so that they can obtain enough support to form a national government.

Given the geographic, linguistic and cultural diversity of the country, the ability of a political party to accommodate this diversity becomes one of the tests it must meet in order to form a government. As much as the first-past-the-post system allows for majority governments to be the rule rather than the exception, it is important to recognize that this system also allows for regional or ideological voices to emerge and be represented in our national legislature.

The barrier for regional parties to enter Parliament may be low, but the barrier is appropriately high for those who wish to translate a regional or ideological base into a national government. The recent merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance into the Conservative Party is evidence of the political dead end that a regional or ideological party meets under the current system.

Another strength of the first-past-the-post system is that it provides clear local representation. On average, there is one MP for every 100,000 citizens (or 60,000 voters), and the constituency boundaries are drawn up so there are, with few exceptions, an equal number of voters in each riding in a province (federal boundaries are determined on a provincial basis).

The link between the MP and his or her riding is very clear and, combined with party identification, provides a higher level of accountability. Although there is a popular misconception that MPs are powerless within our political system, the strong local connection created by the first-past-the-post system supports the rights of individual MPs against majority views in both the House of Commons and within the party caucus.

The procedural rules of Parliament recognize this and, as recent events attest, party leaders interfere with the local nomination process at their peril. Even with a working majority, party leaders are usually careful not to alienate individual members of their caucus.

Ironically, one of the failings that is attributed to the first-past-the-post process, specifically the inability of our system to elect a reasonable proportion of women to office, is not the result of that process and will not be solved by the electoral reform recommended by the law commission.
Our political parties are more to blame for our lack of progress in this area. Factors other than the electoral process are also at the heart of reduced voter turnout.

The first-past-the-post system is not perfect, but it does very well at promoting the essential attributes of a democratic system. It provides stable and effective government, as well as local representation, consensus-building, broadly based parties and accountability.

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Chris Baker, president of the public-opinion firm Continuum Research, was a special assistant in Jean Chr├ętien's Prime Minister's Office from 1996-1997.

This article was originally published in the May 20, 2004 edition of The Globe and Mail

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