Saturday, January 09, 2016

We Should Think Very Carefully


A lot has been written recently about electoral reform -- which option is best, and whether a not the proposed reforms should be put to a national referendum. Duff Conacher writes that electoral reform is about a lot more than holding a referendum:

The first important question is the makeup of the committee of politicians that will lead the public consultation. Normally, the Liberal majority would mean a majority of Liberals on all committees. However, no more than half the committee should be Liberal MPs in order to ensure they can’t just push through whatever system they want. (The Liberals should have no concerns about giving up their majority on the committee, given that Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc has said voting-system reform should have “broad support in Parliament.”)

The committee should also undertake a “deliberative judgment” process as the “national engagement” process the Liberals have promised, as it is the best practice for meaningful public consultation. Such a process would involve either several meetings of one large citizen assembly (as B.C. and Ontario did in the past to review their voting systems) or of many small focus groups across the country – learning about the issue, deliberating and then deciding what changes (if any) to recommend.

Most importantly, there should be a number of options for consideration:

As the Liberals’ election campaign promised, the process should cover “a wide variety of reforms” – including the right to vote none-of-the-above (as voters in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan can do by declining their ballot), and the right to file complaints and have politicians penalized by an independent watchdog for unjustifiably breaking election promises.

As well, when the deliberative judgment process is ending and people are asked what changes they support (if any), best-practice methods should be used to record their choices. These methods don’t offer take-it-or-leave-it choices (which can be easily biased) but instead let people indicate the level of their support of various options.

And Conacher adds this caveat:

That public consultation process, done properly, can produce a road map for change (if change is supported by most people) that is just as democratically legitimate as a referendum result.

Referendums seems straightforward. But as someone lived through the first Quebec referendum, I can testify that they can become  hornet's nests. Conacher warns:

The difficulty with a national referendum in a federation is the rules. What proposal should be on the ballot, or should there be multiple, detailed proposals? Should a minimum national percentage of voters be required to vote – or a minimum in each province or each region? Should politicians be allowed to campaign using public funding or should their parties pay?

If a referendum is held, given that the Constitution guarantees each province a specific percentage of seats in the House of Commons, the same rules for amending the Constitution - a majority of voters in seven out of 10 provinces representing 50 per cent of the total population - should be required to approve any proposed change.

When you're changing the way a country votes, a simple majority of fifty percent plus one won't do.  We should think very carefully about how we will go about electoral reform.


Toby said...

A true "none-of-the-above" vote means that if none-of-the-above wins all others on the slate lose and a new election must be called without any of them.

I'd like to see a system in which no party can form a government without 50% + 1 of the popular vote. That would force coalitions and prevent outright dictatorships.

Owen Gray said...

An interesting proposal, Toby. Making it work, though, might be a little difficult.

Scotian said...

This is one topic where I tend to be not so popular as I can be with many others, but I am a very reluctant person when it comes to this topic. For one thing, I do not hear discussion of something I think is central to whether reform is need and if so how it should be done, specifically what do we have government for and for what purposes do we need it shaped for. One of the advantages of these "false majorities" is that we have traditionally gotten stable government of a nation of diverse regions and large size. We have reduced the power of smaller regional parties to become disproportionately powerful, the Reform/CA murder of the PCPC to be able to gain power illustrates the truth in that.

I raise these points not as my personal objections but as illustrative points of the type of considerations and conversations I don't hear from the electoral reformists whatever their preference of reform, and I think it is something that is important and essential for public support and buy-in of any real reform. I've said before I'm a process geek, I've also said I am very conservative when it comes to dealing with things as central/core to how we create, transfer, and legitimize power in our system, and this is what electoral reform goes to the heart of, and the impacts, the ripples that will comes are profound, and not all predictable from the outset. This is somewhere where the law of unintended consequences will find fertile ground, ESPECIALLY should we fail to be addressing the larger context issues of the purpose of government in its design vis-a-vis Canada's needs and nature.

I'm not inherently opposed, but I will not be willing to discuss the merits of reform ideas until and unless I start seeing this sort of consideration being a serious part of the conversation, because as far as I am concerned without it we have people pushing the "solutions" that they think will best advantage their political partisan preferences. I'm still not sold on the premise that the public truly wants such reform, at least not with any actual reflection on what it means beyond what has seemed to me to be a lot of sloganeering by ER proponents over the past few decades.

I think it is very important that we do this carefully, and we do this thoughtfully. One of the reasons I've always preferred the idea of the ranked ballot as the starting change is simply because it can be easily understood by the voters, easily adopted without making any significant changes to our legislation regarding elections, and as well if it turns out to cause more problems than it corrects, easy to undo. All the other options I've heard require more profound changes that undoing in the event of not satisfying the needs/desires of the citizens on this front would be far messier and disruptive.

As I said, I'm used to not being overly loved in this area of of political conservation because I am so inherently conservative about it, but when we are taking about something as profound and as far reaching as this, I do not see conservative being that bad a way of being. I chalk it up to being the son of an engineer in this case. Structure matters, form needs follow function, and without function being discussed how can one alter form effectively and safely?

Owen Gray said...

One of the knocks against proportional representation is that it leads to government instability, Scotian. However, there are models that seem to work. We should start with what we know. And, as some have suggested, we should try a new system out to see how it works before we enshrine it forever.

rww said...

"One of the knocks against proportional representation is that it leads to government instability,..."

You could say the same thing about democracy.

Owen Gray said...

Quite true, rww. Tyranny is a very stable form of government.

Steve said...

Ranked ballots seem to be the best or next best runoffs.

Owen Gray said...

The system would be the easiest to implement, Steve. Whether its the best system should be open to study.