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If every vote counted

An Opinion Piece:

On December 9, 1837, a large group of disgruntled men gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge St in Toronto with the intention to protest political corruption and demand electoral reform.  Their grievance was that politicians (those in the “Family Compact”) were using their positions to advance their businesses and also that those elected had no real power anyway.  That evening, they were attacked by a loyalist militia that far outnumbered them.  While many of the rebels fled, there were many that were imprisoned and lost their farms and property.  This battle was part of the general Upper Canada Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie.

Why am I mentioning this? First, to remind ourselves that once upon a time, people risked the little they had for justice.  They were not disinterested and passive about what was happening around them. Second, to point out that these same issues, of corruption and electoral reform, are still problems today.

Our current “first-past-the-post” system means that whoever gets the most votes in a riding wins it, while the rest of the votes for the “losing” candidates are forgotten about; they have no impact.  With proportional representation, every vote counts so that there is no such thing as a wasted vote.  Approximately 80% of countries signed-on to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) use some form of proportional representation in electing their government.

In its simplest form, proportional representation would translate directly to the number of seats in parliament.  For example, the Bloc Quebecois won 5% of the vote, so that would translate to 5% of the seats (16 seats instead of the 10 that they have now).  The NDP got 20% of the vote so that would translate to 64 seats under proportional representation, instead of the 44 seats that they have now.  The Liberals would lose 48 seats under this system, from 182 to 134, and the Conservatives would gain 11 seats, from 97 to 108.  However, to really drive the point home, consider the biggest loser of our first-past-the-post system: The Green Party.  Currently, the Green Party has 1 seat in parliament, but under proportional representation they would have 11!  This, despite the fact that voters who cast a ballot for the Greens knew there was almost no chance of the Greens winning a seat.  What would the results look like for the “fringe” parties if people thought that their votes would count regardless of how their immediate neighbours were persuaded?

The results just mentioned are one version of proportional representation.  Another method, called Single Transferable Method (STV), would use a ballot system where voters would rank candidates first, second and third.  The rank and the number of votes cast would be taken into consideration.  There are also other methods out there as well, all of which would result in a fairer representation of people’s diverse beliefs, more influence by more political parties, and greater cooperation in parliament.  In Germany, there are eight political parties in government and coalitions are common.  In Canada, the Liberals won 40% of the vote and have 100% of the power.

The federal Liberals campaigned on a platform that included electoral reform as a major issue.  In fact, Justin Trudeau promised to fix the electoral system over 1800 times during his campaign.  You can still find this promise on the Liberal website, stating that 2015 would be the last election using first-past-the-post.  After being elected in October 2015, the Liberals did a survey of Canadian opinions on the issue and in February 2016, they quickly decided there was no consensus.  Changing the electoral system is no longer the mandate of Kristina Gould, the Minister of Democratic Institutions.  In a speech, Justin Trudeau said “I know that people will be disappointed but it was my choice to make.”

True.  It was his choice to make.  What other choices are his to make as the Prime Minister?  As PM, he chooses the Governor General, the Senators, every member of the Supreme Court, all federal judges and deputy ministers, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of major Crown Corporations, ambassadors, the chief of the RCMP, the Auditor General, and more.

Why would the Liberals change an electoral system that benefits them? After making a promise, they quickly made a gesture towards fulfilling it by surveying Canadians, and by the time the next election comes around, the expectation is that the issue will be forgotten about.  The reality is that proportional representation is an issue well studied by many academics at Canadian universities, as well as policy research groups like the Broadbent Institute, and advocacy groups like Fair Vote Canada.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel.  The promise of electoral reform could have easily been fulfilled by the next election if a sincere effort was made.  That is, if it benefited the Liberals.

Last week, I went to the office of Francis Drouin, our Member of Parliament (MP) for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell along with 5 other citizens to discuss the issue of electoral reform.  Two of us were from Fair Vote Canada, two were from the Libertarian Party, one was with both, and one was with neither.  We reminded Mr. Drouin of the Liberal promise, told him that it was not forgotten and that we wanted to know what he could do to help us.  His response was that electoral reform was no longer an issue that was being talked about in parliament, that the Liberal Party had already put in sufficient effort to address the issue, and that any further action would likely result in a referendum.  I personally questioned Mr. Drouin on the referendum proposal, since we never got a referendum on other important issues like the building of oil pipelines and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  It seems to me like we already voted on the issue when we trusted his election platform and voted him in.  In any case, our recommendation, agreed upon by the six of us, was that the Liberals should mandate Elections Canada, a non-partisan body, to pursue electoral reform.  We also mentioned our disapproval of the publishing of polls during election time, which tend to make people vote strategically.  It would be more democratic if people voted for whom they truly supported rather than to vote based on fear.

Mr. Drouin said he would write a letter to the Prime Minister to let him know that the Prescott-Russell constituents were still interested in electoral reform.  He encouraged us to write letters and to tell our friends and neighbours to write letters.  If we had an army of letter writers, would it make a difference?  Just as those men in Montgomery’s Tavern, there is a feeling that those we elect (Mr. Drouin) are not the ones in power.  Without a mandate or cabinet position, is Mr. Drouin’s role to listen to complaints from constituents and then to write letters, which we could write ourselves?

I would recommend to those that care about electoral reform to visit the Fair Vote Canada website, sign their petition, let their MP know they care about this issue, and to spread the word about proportional representation.  I intend to protest this issue and I hope you will join me.  You have nothing to lose but your apathy.

By Sabile Trimm
Sabile Trimm lives on a certified organic farm and is a scientific consultant.  She volunteers with the Green Food Box and Fair Vote Canada.  You can follow her at sabiletrimm.wordpress.com.”

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