Sunday, November 01, 2015

Electoral Reform: Will it be set up to fail?

So say many commentators, included failed MP candidate Craig Scott. There are three lines of attack on the Liberal Party promise of “electoral reform” during the election.

Critics are rushing to frame the electoral reform debate by setting parameters which will restrict the right of elected MPs to decide on an alternative to our current archaic system.

The Three Lines of Attack:

The first line of attack is that the promise was of electoral reform, but did not guarantee that our first past the post system of electing our MPs would be replaced by either a proportional representation or a ranked ballot system. The implication is that the reform part of the promise will be diluted in the interests of the Liberal Party, and not of the millions of voters who voted for significant electoral reform when they bypassed the Conservative, Green and NDP parties to vote for Liberal candidates.

The second line of attack is that the Liberals will use their majority of MPs in the House to ram through by a majority vote of whipped Liberal MPs an electoral system that favours the Liberal Party, such as the single transferable vote system favoured by Justin Trudeau.

The third line of attack is that the MPs in the House do NOT have the legitimate political or moral right to change our electoral system from the current FPTP system to another, without a referendum agreed to by a majority of voters. Implicit in this line of attack is an attempt to rewrite the October 19 election results by giving the supporters of the Conservative Party (just over 30% in that election) a backdoor veto on any change to the FPTP system. The means to give this veto, is to have as a requirement that a certain high percentage vote of ELIGIBLE voters must approve the replacement system, and not just a simple majority of 50% plus 1 of voters actually VOTING in the referendum.  Setting such a high bar, coupled with the lack of active support by provincial governments, has ensured the failure of electoral reform on a provincial level.

My recommendations on what to do:

My recommendations are:

1.      For the terms of reference of the all-party parliamentary committee to require it to study the matter, and then to present AT LEAST two alternatives to the House (other than the FPTP system), for the House to decide upon. The committee could present a third system, should it so decide.
2.     That the House be asked to choose TWO ALTERNATIVES to the current FPTP system, to be presented to the House (or a referendum – see below) to choose the winning one.
3.     That if the House is to choose, the choice be a free vote choice by all MPs, by secret written ballot, with a simple majority of those MPs (50% plus 1) voting, choosing our new system.
4.     That if the two choices chosen by free vote of all MPs are to be presented to voters in a referendum, that the referendum require a winner to be selected from these two choices by a simple majority of those casting votes in the referendum (50% plus 1 vote). In this case, there will NOT be a minimum percentage vote requirement of all ELIGIBLE voters: that issue was settled by the recent election.

Is there enough time to do this?

Some are arguing that the Liberal Government will have to extend the 18 months to a longer period, because of the amount of work to be done, as Mark Gollom of CBC News reports:
While it may not seem like one of his more pressing issues, Trudeau has said he would introduce legislation on voting reform within 18 months of forming a government, based on the recommendations of an all-party parliamentary committee to study alternative voting systems, including proportional representation and ranked ballots.

That timeframe may be overly ambitious, suggests David McLaughlin, who was deputy minister to the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy…

McLaughlin figures it would take at least a year to conduct that kind of a review, with a countrywide referendum possibly following in the second year. And that doesn't include the time it would take to actually pass the legislation.

But a change to Canada's voting system does not necessarily require any constitutional considerations — only an amendment to the Canada Elections Act through Parliament.

Gollom also quotes Pilon on how to test if the Trudeau government is setting the electoral reform exercise up to fail:

"I think that would tell us how committed [Trudeau] is to it. Because if he goes the referendum route, it pretty much says he wants it to fail," said York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, an expert in electoral reform.

The Favoured Trudeau Method would result in a Liberal advantage:

As Gollom reports:
Trudeau has indicated his support for a ranked ballot system, where voters pick the candidates on a ballot in order of preference. 

In this system, all the No. 1 choices are added up. If a candidate has a majority after the tally, they are declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the lowest vote total is knocked off, and their votes for other candidates transferred based on the ranking preferences.  A winner is declared when a candidate finally reaches a majority.

There are other systems open to us:
Many political scientists seem keenest on the mixed member proportional (MMP) system, like they have in Germany and New Zealand, which combines proportional representation with single member ridings. Voters would be asked to vote twice: for the candidate and for the party. So if a party won 20 per cent of the vote, but its candidates only won 15 per cent, the party would top up its representation in the House with extra MPs. 

There are different ways that could be done, but if the extra MPs are drawn from party lists, some argue it could create a two-class system of representatives — those who were actually voted in by the public and those chosen by the party.

Enter Nanos the Numbers Man:

Stuart Parker in spells out the impact of ranked ballots (instant runoff voting is another name for this system of electing MPs):
If the Liberals' official policy for voting reform, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) were in effect, we would see a very different result -- -- one that magnified the inequalities of our archaic first-past-the-post (FPTP) system -- according to Nanos Research's polling of voters' second choices in its final pre-election poll.

The Liberal Party would have gained an additional 22 seats, rising to 206 seats; the Conservatives would lose 23 seats, falling to 76; the NDP would do unusually well for a third party, rising to 50, while the Bloc would lose half its caucus, falling to five MPs and the Greens would keep their one seat.

Just as IRV magnifies the disproportionality of our current winner-take-all system, converting the Liberals' 39.5 per cent of the vote into 61 per cent of the seats, instead of the 54 per cent our current system does, it also magnifies regional inequalities.

Not only would IRV insure that the NDP and Conservatives had no Atlantic MPs, it would also reduce these parties' representation throughout English Canada.
Just what is the all-party parliamentary committee to do?

The parliamentary committee will consult experts and others:

At a minimum, a thorough Parliamentary committee study of the assigned electoral topics would necessarily involve testimony of experts (who can be counted on to offer conflicting advice) and comparative examinations of electoral system proposals or actual changes in other Westminster-model parliamentary countries (the United Kingdom and New Zealand come readily to mind.

What kind of a referendum (if any) will be required?

This is the way John Courtney describes this issue in the LSE:

Some will argue that only a countrywide referendum will confer “legitimacy” on the move. Others will dispute that claim by asserting that the referendums held by three provinces have set no precedent for Ottawa to follow and that, in the final analysis, Parliament is master of its own electoral rules.

Do we need a referendum to make our electoral change “legitimate”?

I do not believe a referendum is needed, given that the three opposition parties clearly indicated that this was the last FPTP electoral system we would have.

The Liberal Party also clearly indicated that an all-party parliamentary committee of MPs would research the subject and make recommendations to the House, with legislation being passed within 18 months (that is, by April 2017).

This means the Liberals have the moral, political and legal right to have this all-party committee of MPS make recommendations to the House, with MPs deciding by a simple majority vote in the House, what course to adopt.

And this means that the Liberal Party, if it whips the vote, can choose whatever system of electing our MPs it wishes to, including a choice of any alternatives proposed by the all-party parliamentary committee of MPs, or a variation of any such alternatives, or, indeed, any other system the party chooses.

Justin Trudeau has publicly committed that the Liberal government will allow more free votes in the House, with the requirement that the Liberal MPs will be whipped to ensure that the programs set out in the party’s election program are passed by Liberal MPs (as well as “traditional confidence matters” and matters pertaining to “our shared values and the protections guaranteed by the Charter”).

However, this allows Trudeau to decide to give Liberal MPs a free vote on any alternative electoral systems tabled before the House for the consideration by MPs after the all-party parliamentary committee has presented its recommendations.

The Liberal Party election platform does NOT favour any type of electoral system – it does want an examination of, amongst others, proportional representation and single transferable votes. So Liberal MPs are not bound to choose one of the other.

And that brings us back to my recommendations, set out above.

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