30 December 2015

Why a referendum on electoral reform would be a very bad idea

The need for electoral reform in Canada has never been more stark. We have just endured nine years of government by a political party that over sixty per cent of us opposed. That is simply not democratic. We have an electoral system, but we don't have a democratic system. Only a proportional system, and there's a healthy variety to choose from, will allow the will of the people to prevail.

The Liberals "are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." They have promised to "convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting." Furthermore, "This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform." If the Liberals propose a PR system, Parliament will have a strong majority mandate as both the NDP and the Greens support proportional representation.

We should expect them to get on with the job as promised. Some voices have suggested that any change should be subject to a referendum. I strongly disagree.

Referendums are poor democratic instruments. They may have some validity on a simple yes-no issue but are seriously flawed for more complex issues, and voting systems are a complex issue. Some citizens will do their research, think the issue through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Many won’t. The ignorance factor in referendums can be very high.

Healthy democracy doesn’t just require participation, it requires informed participation. And how many informed voters can we expect in a referendum? A third of the Canadian electorate can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth once every four years. How many, therefore, can we reasonably expect to do their homework on voting systems?

One of the powerful advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. If we insist that legislatures read bills three times (in the case of Parliament, three times in both the House and the Senate), are we being sensible when we decide an issue in one go in a referendum? A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration might well be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they voted in a referendum.

Conservatives will holler for a referendum as if they had suddenly cast Harperism aside and become the voice of the people. Quite aside from their reluctance to change, first-past-the-post offers them their only chance to form a majority government. They will exploit the ignorance factor to the hilt.

Let's not be distracted. Let's keep our eyes on the prize. It's the vote that's important. The voting system is only important in how it serves the vote, specifically in how well it ensures that every citizen's vote goes toward electing a legislator that represents that voter's views. In the 2015 election, over half the votes cast failed to do that.

Anyone who believes as I do that the right to vote is precious ought to be demanding that every vote count and count equally, not quibbling about a referendum.

1 comment:

  1. Harper and his reformatories refused to recognise the referenda in Crimea and the Donbas.