Educate citizens before electoral reform

First published: November 20, 2004

A federal plan to undertake a sweeping review of national election system is welcomed news, but many factors need to be carefully considered before any celebration can begin.
Liberal deputy House leader Mauril Belanger is preparing a blueprint that would open public discussions about the current system, often called first-past-the-post structure. The system allows the government to call an election at any time, restricted only by a limit of five years from the day of the previous election. This gives the governing political party a distinct advantage because it can call an election when public opinion favours them or when the opposition is at its weakest.

Voter apathy and the lack of youth participation are blamed on the current system. As well, the review will look at fixed-date elections and political finance reform.

Electoral reform is sweeping the country. British Columbia is undertaking a revolutionary approach through a citizen assembly that proposes a single transferable ballot allowing multiple members to be elected from larger geographic area.

Ontario recently set a fixed election date and is expect to announce its own citizens’ assembly. Other provinces dealing with the same issues are New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.

All this will be great news for Northumberland County’s chapter of Fair Vote Canada, a national group seeking proportional representation. This structure allows the total number of votes to be tallied, and then seats are assigned in the House of Commons corresponding to the percentage of votes received. So, if the Liberals got 50 per cent of the votes, they would get half the seats. Ideally, this would mean a fairer representation of the electorates’ will.

The idea is to empower voters. A new proportional system might also facilitate the easier creation of new political parties. But, there must be a minimum percentage of the total vote before a party can sit in the legislature. Still, it would open opportunities for a political movement like the Green Party to succeed. The system would also address current inequities in the system, like NDP who often garner a significant portion of the popular vote, but never win very many seats in the House of Commons.

The system might also be more representative of the will of the people and force political parties to present platforms responding to citizen’s concerns and issues. It might also push parties to develop a Pan-Canadian vision for the country because they will need support from across the nation, rather than the current campaign, which focus on regions of support in order to win. Many elections in the past depended on winning a majority of seats in either Quebec or Ontario to form the government, leaving other provinces underrepresented.

While the optimists might believe this would all be wonderful, there is just as great a possibility that it would create an even worse situation. It would be far easier for smaller political parties to get seats in the legislature. Any group not satisfied with the current traditional parties could splinter off. More political parities might fracture the country, creating numerous organizations with limited or single-issue focus. This would push the government to build coalitions in order to form a majority. By merely looking at the Israeli parliament or some European legislatures, we see how quickly the coalition can be forced into chaos and unable to pass legislation due to the wheeling and dealing necessary.

Instead of putting forward a national strategy, citizens are left to choose platforms with a lengthy grocery list of localized policies meant to pacify everyone, but not serve a greater good. Tensions could develop between all the smaller parties, which could split between ethno-religious lines. These situations could lead to the civil unrest seen in some countries in the Middle East and Africa where bitter divisions between different religious and ethic groups have lead to protracted civil war.

The other possibility is major parties will allow the regions and special interests to feud, while the elite carry on holding power, pandering only to the survivors. This is not the divisive system anyone wants.

Northumberland residents need to hold Liberal MP Paul Macklin accountable to ensure his party engages in a set of reforms that reflect the best interests of democracy and not partisan interests. We want to see democratization of the system, which empowers voters and results in energizing and engaging the public, enhancing our civic life.

A cynical person might say this initiative is only being undertaken because the Liberals are in a minority government, since this would never happen under a majority regime.

The only way to begin reform is to fully educate people about the strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. Canadian will also need to become more knowledgeable about government and democracy. Civic literacy programs should be initiated before any meaningful discussion can be held. This process will need discourse to reach consensus, not debate between unyielding positions. Then parliamentarians can hand the review over to voters. Only then will citizens be ready to undertake this vital reform.

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