Friday, June 25, 2010

Of trial balloons and hot air

By Mike Burton and Joyce Green

The chattering classes are making much of what some claim to be a mooted prospective Liberal/NDP merger. The story is making it onto editorial and front pages and into the priority news lineup. Is there any virtue in exploring the idea? We suggest the merger story is a waste of time for two reasons.

First, it deals with a symptom -- the inability of political parties to obtain an absolute majority -- rather than the cause, Canada's current electoral system and our mediocre democratic involvement in it. Second, it distracts us from real political issues, framing politics as a sports-like process of strategic arrangements creating winners and losers.

A merger of political parties simply removes an element of political choice from voters. It moves us toward a two-party system, similar to the American system. It has no likelihood of increasing citizen participation or improving political representation.

While Two Big Parties might make it easy to vote -- choose tweedledum or tweededee -- it is not likely to create distinct political alternatives. Both of the proposed Two Big Parties are likely to fight over the bulk of votes in the middle of the political spectrum, and will avoid alienating the real powerbrokers, the corporate class.

A merger of the Liberals and NDP would produce another variant of the Progressive Conservative -- Alliance -- Reform merger: one party, with very unhappy members whose views are no longer taken into account or reflected in policy or practice.

If the objective of representative government and democratic elections is representation and democracy, the fastest way to get it is to adopt a better electoral system. Reforms that would create proportional results would make voting more attractive to citizens, as every vote would go toward electing representatives of parties on the ballot. No longer would people have to vote strategically, choosing the least of electoral evils rather than the party they liked best. Under proportional representation (PR), the votes a party gets translates into an equivalent share of seats in Parliament.

Most OECD democracies use a form of proportional representation. PR systems ensure representative elections that actually reflect voters' decisions. PR motivates political parties to collaborate on issues, rather than working for "winnable conditions" for the next election. Under PR, there is nothing to gain from the kinds of political brinksmanship evident in our current Parliament. And PR systems are overwhelmingly stable: the average length of their governments is 3.5 years, almost as long as the average majority government in Canada.

Where there are three or more parties competing, Canada's current plurality electoral system produces false majorities. That is, candidates with as little as 30 per cent of the vote can win; parties with weak national support but concentrated regional support can win "majorities" because of this.

The merger story is a trial balloon, designed to see what the public reaction is. The public should shoot that balloon down. We need to deal with root causes of democratic alienation in our system. We need to involve citizens, represent their views, and produce parliaments that will work constructively for the benefit of the public they are supposed to represent.

If we deal with the electoral dysfunction we will not waste time messing around with symptoms. Two Big Parties are not good for democracy.

Mike Burton is active with Fair Vote Canada; Joyce Green is a professor of political science at the University of Regina.

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