An Opportunity to Revive a Civil Conversation on PR

by Carolyn Inch

Things will be different when this is all over. 

For one thing, the crisis is strengthening the giants.

The concentration of power in the hands of Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft (to name a few) competes with democratic sovereignty and greater vigilance will be needed to contain and channel their power.

There is also opportunity – opportunity to appreciate the environment, which has had a wonderful holiday; possibly saving more lives than will be lost to COVID 19[1]. Opportunity for creativity – artistic and commercial – that blossoms when people are given time to think outside their box.

Most encouraging for me is that I see opportunity for our democracy to nurture respect for all voices, the way that we are during the crisis. We have had coverage of the lives of street people, those in care homes by virtue of illness or incapacity, those in remote communities, First Nations and otherwise. These voices have percolated up and are heard because the usual din of partisan politics is not happening. Canadians haven’t time right now for that. They want their leaders to act in the interests of society, which includes the economy but also health, the environment and equity.  I have been proud to watch opposition members put aside opportunities to point fingers at what could have or should have been done.

And so coming out the other end of this, I hope that Canadians remember how inspiring it was to hear all the voices in our society.  To hear the parties speak in tones of care and trust. To feel like we are in it together rather than in a race to beat out the hindmost.

How can we retain these sentiments as we release our social and economic fetters? I propose that we reconsider how our democracy is structured. We have an opportunity to say to our politicians that we liked it when they worked together, that we liked it when the least powerful among us had a voice and that we know that Canadians are by nature collaborative, not divisive.

We can continue to have civil conversations that reflect the diversity of opinions that this country holds by implementing a voting system of proportional representation (PR). There are many Canadians who do not consider that the government in power reflects their views (right or left) under normal circumstances.  For us, faith in the system has been slowly eroded as we watch the two major parties jockey for alternating chances to govern, each undoing what the last one did. Most frequently, they do so without a majority of the electorate behind them. This is the legacy of a first-past-the-post system.

A 2016 study scrutinized policy outcomes in relation to the proportionality of the electoral systems[2]. The positive outcomes are summarized in the chart below. The results show that most of the objectives held dear by populations are better achieved in PR governments.

From detractors of PR, I have heard concerns mainly about government instability, indecisiveness and the risk of fringe parties having disproportionate power. Let’s look at those.

Studies of OECD countries show little difference in frequency of elections  between those who have PR and those who have first-past-the-post systems.  It is unfortunate that Israel is hitting the news with its inability to form a working government but other forces are at work in their complicated landscape.

In relation to concerns about PR elected governments not being able to move quickly on decision making, people compare a minority government in our present system to a PR elected government. While it is true that minorities in Canada are often timid due to concerns about losing power, minorities have also had very productive terms, some of which have become central to Canadian identity.

During Pearson’s time as Prime Minister, his Liberal minority governments introduced universal health care,  student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, the Maple Leaf flag, and the community college system. None of these reforms were reversed by subsequent governments because they were negotiated among all parties. 

It is worthwhile noting that the dynamics of a minority in a first-past-the-post reality is not the same as that which exists in a PR government. In countries in which PR is the norm, policies are developed with trade offs and continuing negotiation until they are what the majority of the people really want. Governments are designed for negotiation and collaboration which would greatly assist emergency decision making.

Fringe voices that represent a sizeable voting block deserve to be represented in Parliament. The Greens, for example, cannot create an extreme or unpopular decision. They have to be part of the majority to do so.

I have always believed that Canada is uniquely positioned to be a collaborative democracy because we have pledged to our immigrant population to honour their diversity, rather than require total assimilation. This pledge requires conciliation, mediation and trust-building, especially in an increasingly diverse society.

Democracies will have new challenges as they restructure a fractured economy facing the megaliths that will exert even greater control than before. We need a stronger, more participative democracy than ever to succeed in rebuilding a culture.

How can Canadians who are now asking that the collaborative spirit of these times outlive the crisis become involved in restructuring our voting system?  A good start might be to check out the resources on the Fair Vote Canada website at  https://www.fairvote.ca.

Once we have the convincing information at our fingertips, we can ask our elected representatives at all levels why we can’t join the progressive countries of the world and reform our electoral system. Spread the word, get involved and the civil conversation in which all voices are represented may become a positive legacy of a difficult period.

[1]Global Feed, Environment and Economic Dynamics, G-Feeed, www.g-feed.com/2020/03/COVID-19/reduces-economic-activity.html

[2] Salomon Orlenna of the University of Michigan,  https://www.fairvote.ca/a-look-at-the-evidence/.

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