What Makes for Better Politics?

The Tory tradition is one where change is not made simply for the sake of making change.

Compare that to the Conservative one, where change has been as welcome a bed-fellow as over in the various “Progressive” camps!

Nevertheless, coetus semper reformanda (with apologies to the traditional “the Church is always in need of reform”); when our political institutions are in need of reform, Tories should not be afraid to champion suitable ones.

There are many kinds of conservatives in Canada, and since most of these are animated by principle, not merely simple power-seeking and spoils-grabbing, the big tent of a party of the right of centre does not always fit well for all of them. In particular, social conservatives of conviction find it difficult to deal with those who are fiscal conservatives but socially quite moderate.

The more libertarian members of the tent find the willingness of other members to use power to enforce their views difficult at least, abhorrent in some cases.

Keeping the party from tearing itself apart on issues is a constant challenge, for it is much more difficult to gain the consent of a person of principle than it is to simply trade favours, as is done in a party of power-seekers alone.

Nevertheless, the history of a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system such as our own is clear. “We must hang together, or surely we shall hang separately”: such a mantra pervades party politics, with its notions of “big tents” covering all the varieties of the principled at once.

When it was the “Big Red Tent” of the Liberals, and the right was divided into fragmentary parties, some in this country found that a good thing, and others moaned about the unfairness of it all. Turn the clock forward to the “Big Blue Tent” of the Conservatives, and the rump Liberals, rising New Democrats, etc. see themselves as fragments hard done by by the system, while the Conservatives like things just the way they are, thank you very much.

Then, too, one must reflect on the voters, who have turned down proportional representation via the single transferrable vote (STV) twice in British Columbia, and mixed member proportional representation (MMPR) in Ontario and Prince Edward Island. Despite polls on change continuing to support a change from FPTP, so far no consensus has formed around what to move to.

(We might also remember that Great Britain voted on a switch to Alternative Vote (AV) last year, another change referendum that failed. They — like us, and like the Americans — remain FPTP.)

There are two basic ways to create more proportional results during elections (you know, to recognise the 30% of Torontonians who vote Conservative and elect no MPs in the city, to recognise the 25% of Albertans who vote Liberal and elect no MPs in the province, etc.). The first is to switch the voting scheme to one or another of the world’s proportional representation systems — pure PR as in Israel, (M)MPR as in Germany, STV as in Ireland and Australian Senate elections, AV as in Australian House elections. (A form of AV was used by the New Democrats for their recent leadership campaign.)

The second is to look at keeping FPTP, but creating many more constituencies (ridings to a Canadian, electorates to an Australian, districts to an American).

Having many more members in the House offers a number of benefits (despite the obvious drawback of paying that many more MPs, staff members, and the gold-plated political pensions that follow):

First, ridings would be much smaller. Suppose every riding was the approximate size of one in Prince Edward Island (constitutionally guaranteed four seats in the House regardless of population shifts). Each would be about 32,000-33,000 people being represented. Let’s say we’ll strike for a number between 30,000 and 40,000: that would mean a Commons with 850-1,100 members.

“Whoa!”, you might say, “no one needs that many politicians!”

Let’s think about what it means, though. My old riding of Vancouver-Quadra has about 121,000 people living in it. Divide it in three (40,000 each, more or less).

Now look at the voting patterns in the riding. The south half tends to elect candidates on the right of centre (regardless of party label). The north half, centre to centre left. The University campus tends to a high left or green vote.

The riding has consistently returned a Liberal MP for the past twenty years. Sometimes by landslides, sometimes by less than 100 votes, but always the flats in the north outweigh the single family homes of the south by just enough.

With three ridings in place of one, you’d probably see one of each flavour returned to Ottawa. In other words, proportionality would be more-or-less achieved.

Second, that many members would make for much more independence on the part of MPs. Governments would have to pay attention to the members, instead of telling them (via the “whip”) how to vote.

The United Kingdom already experiences this: 650 MPs mean that a Prime Minister cannot simply “dictate terms” to his party members — indeed, he can seldom ask them to vote against their own consciences and constituents’ desires as often as a Canadian PM can! Independence comes from making your own way, not just the absence of a party label.

For any Tory, Burke’s observations on the responsibilities of a Member express a virtuous state of affairs: encouraging the ability to live up to it is worth a few shekels.

Third, taking this step would allow for the necessary rebalancing of Parliament. Today we geographically overweight rural areas — when you consider that there is only one MP for each Territory, and many northern ridings in the provinces that require tens of thousands of kilometres’ travel annually just to visit a community once during a term in office — and so the cities, where most Canadians live, are under-represented.

Most of the expanded membership would be drawn by splitting urban and suburban ridings. The existing northern rural ones would stay much the same.

We would be far closer to “representation by population” with this proposal than with any other.

We would also weight rising parts of the Dominion properly, without taking away from current Constitutional entitlements that overweight parts of the Atlantic provinces and, increasingly, Québec.

This could be done without having to deal with the structural impediments imposed by the Constitution (which is difficult to amend, no thanks to Trudeau’s “I’m right and you’re not” approach to it in the early 1980s).

Of course, I may not have convinced you that swarming the Hill with MPs of independent mind would be a good thing. So let’s look at the proportional representation alternative.

First, in a nod to the Reform forebears of the current Conservative Party, the strongest way to produce a grassroots politics is via a change to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. This rewards candidates who are best able to connect with their riding (as each riding returns multiple members).

I note, for instance, that the type of “Conservative” who appeals to the electors of, say, Abbotsford or Summerland in BC is not at all the sort who would succeed in Vancouver-Quadra or Vancouver-Kingsway — or even Port Moody-Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam.

STV would allow those who would prefer a social conservative and those who would prefer a social moderate but fiscal conservative to be presented with both options, not just the one who can master the nomination process — for all ridings contains supporters of each strain in the current “big tent” of the centre right.

Why STV rather than one of the other systems? STV is the system most likely to create MPs of independent character, attentive to their ridings.

We would have more women and men of integrity — people such as the late Chuck Cadman, MP showed himself to be — sitting in Parliament.

STV’s multi-member ridings also ensures that every member does represent a riding (a retention of a principle of our current tradition) — and the multi-member adjustments would allow further adjustments to the representational inequalities currently faced by rapidly growing provinces at the expense of those with Constitutional protections against losing seats.

Once again, more MPs is not a bad thing. The discussion in the past two decades has been on the “cost of it all”. But slavish tribal voting in the Commons — all votes the equivalent of a three-line whip — does not serve citizens well. MPs need to be free to represent their ridings and their moral conscience without governments falling: more MPs would aid this, just as it does in the British Parliament.

The other forms of PR system turn to the notion of augmenting riding-based MPs with additional members drawn from party lists.

This strengthens – not weakens – the hand of the party. Whereas STV would allow multiple types of conservative, or liberal, or social democrat, to flourish in Canada by weakening the need for the big tent to hold together at all costs, PR-type systems would favour the party insiders (it is far easier to hold a big tent together by trading favours and using the public purse and perogatives of power).

The biggest problem with party lists, of course, is that the favoured MP is removed from running in a constituency: the party’s proportional vote gives him his seat, and with no constituency duties to attend to, too. (Talk about a prize for some!) Worse, there is no way to remove the lousy ones — at least in FPTP there is the chance each election to remove a worthless MP who’d overstayed their welcome. Party lists provide a welcome home for such as these.

Proponents of (M)MPR point to the fact that the majority of MPs remain riding-based, and say that the few drawn from party lists don’t make a huge difference in terms of ability to refresh the stock of Parliamentarians. This is something I disagree with — and a look at most PR countries (PR, MPR or MMPR) shows the same faces in and out of power for decades.

What you tend to see in PR (of any type) countries is a wide range of parties — and endless coalition governments. In other words, the voters don’t really influence what comes out, and where all members are chosen from a party list, they don’t even have someone representing their constituency.

We haven’t discussed the AV case: here, as in STV, the notion is that every member is elected by reaching a threshold (50% +1 for AV, the “share” of the riding based on the number of MPs in the riding in STV [e.g. 5 MPs in one riding = a 20% threshold]). Voters do not choose a candidate, they stack-rank all candidates (first choice, second choice, etc.) and as people are dropped from consideration the subsequent choices are reallocated to bring winners “over the threshold”.

Most Canadian political parties use AV-derived systems for leadership races (and, in some cases, for selection of candidates in a riding). We have certainly seen in a number of recent races third-place finishers on the first ballot winning the field by the third or fourth ballot as votes are reallocated!

there is one other reform that needs to go with electoral reform, and that is to the confidence motion.

As Israeli and Italian politics has shown (and, in the 1920s, Weimar Germany), coalitions can be hard to put together, and even harder to hold together. With 850+ MPs, parties become coalitions (of the willing and the unwilling). With the various proportional systems, the likelihood of any party achieving a majority as we know it today is very low. (AV does the best at this.)

The problem is that one or two member “parties” can, by pulling out at just the wrong time, collapse the whole aedifice of functional government (or hold the government coalition to ransom). To that end, we should also adopt the current German rule that a confidence motion is a two-stage event: first, the Government fails to hold the confidence of the House (as today), then, the Opposition must demonstrate it can achieve the confidence of the House, otherwise the Government does not fall.

This provides the essential stability needed in a multi-party system which is (generally) perpetually “in minority”

This is one of those rare moments when tradition is best served by reform rather than holding the course. For myself, I would prefer keeping FPTP but radically increasing the number of MPs. What do you think we ought to do?


Add yours →

  1. Your idea of increasing the number of MPs in the parliament would certainly make FPTP more proportional, and FPTP does have advantages of simplicity and the single member district (riding/constituency). As you point out, it would mean having a very large parliament.

    The UK rejected AV, but also has plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. This will make the FPTP system even less proportional than it is at present, and makes it more likely that a future election will end in an even more grossly unfair result. The odds may be long but this just might trigger enough outrage to see FPTP swept away.

    Can I draw your attention to Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting)?

    This system takes a different approach, retains many of the features of FPTP, but does not require an increase in the number of MPs.

    Unlike MMPR it does not have party lists.
    Unlike STV it does not have multimember districts (or the complicated voting and counting).

    Unlike virtually all other systems, it works with the existing system of districts. As a replacement for FPTP, this makes it simpler and cheaper to introduce than any other system.

    • Stephen, welcome. I hadn’t heard of DPR, and am taking a good look at it, so thank you for that.

      When I lived in British Columbia, I supported the shift to STV (we had referenda in 2005 and 2009 on this) partly because the provincial tenor was definitely against creating more MLAs, and partly because the multimember constituency I would have been in “made sense” — the City of Vancouver already elects its councillors on an open system across the entire city (no wards) and the resulting provincial riding would have mapped the same. But in rural areas STV did not make much sense to me.

      One of those “best of a bad set of choices” decisions.

      When I next write about this, I’ll have digested DPR and be able to discuss it.

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