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RM Issue #030616

Don't blame the system for voter apathy

Claire Hoy

National Post Friday, June 13, 2003

For years, as a journalist covering numerous elections, your correspondent wore a button reading: "Don't Vote. It Only Encourages Them."

It was only partially in jest, but judging by recent voter turnouts, many Canadians buy the sentiment.

In the last federal election, just 61.18% of eligible voters turned out, the lowest level in Canadian history. In many provincial elections, turnouts are as bad or worse. And don't even mention the pathetic turnouts for municipal and school board elections.

Voter apathy -- or is antipathy the better word? -- has energized the voter reform cottage industry, particularly the champions of proportional representation (PR), who are demanding changes to our first-past-the-post system on the spurious grounds that people aren't voting because, suddenly, after 136 years in existence, it's the system, stupid.

Just about everybody is getting into the act. In British Columbia, Premier Gordon Campbell is moving ahead with his plan for a May 17, 2005, referendum on the question. In New Brunswick, Premier Bernard Lord promises to strike a commission to examine it. In Prince Edward Island, Premier Pat Binns appointed retired judge Norman Carruthers to study the idea.

And, of course, 28 of the usual suspects, all self-declared "prominent Canadians" -- primarily small "l" liberals, or worse -- have joined the National Advisory Board of Fair Vote Canada to push for a national debate and referendum on PR, blaming the current system for low voter turnout.

At first blush, they seem to have a point.

In 2000, for example, the PEI Tories got 58% of the popular vote but won all but one of the 27 seats. In B.C., the Liberals won 77 of the 79 seats in May 2001 with just under 60% of the vote. In Ottawa, Jean Chrétien won his third consecutive "majority," winning 57% of the Commons' seats with just 38% of the total vote. And so it goes.

Most PR zealots belong to various fringe groups incapable of appealing to enough voters to win elections and looking for alternative ways to supplement the power they have gained through government-funded court access, something which has stripped politicians of much of their power, making them less relevant and contributing to low turnouts. Like, why bother?

In a February speech at the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs leadership forum, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said the system, while not perfect, isn't the issue because "lower voter turnout or lack of confidence in elected officials, can also be seen in other democracies," including many with PR.

Could there be other reasons? Absolutely. In 1988, for example, the turnout was 75%. That's because, unlike last time, when many voters didn't really like any of the options, there was a real issue at stake -- free trade. It was 75% in 1984 too, as Canadians could hardly wait to express their anger at the recently departed Pierre Trudeau.

Anyway, low turnouts are not new. Canadians have consistently fallen below international averages. Between 1945 and 1997, Canada ranked 20th among the world's 29 most industrialized countries, yet many of the countries ahead of us have a system similar to ours.

It's no mystery why PR is attractive to political losers. It invariably means more minority governments, which gives fringe groups far more clout in national affairs than the electorate meant them to have. Our current system may err the other way, but that's better than a Parliament with a multitude of parties and a weak government being forced to cater to their every whim, no matter how bizarre their electoral base. No thanks.

Another point. We currently vote directly for our representatives. Not under PR. It usually means two-tier voting, or indirect voting, where many (or all) seats are filled from a slate hammered out in advance by party operatives behind closed doors. Is that more democratic than being able to chose -- or deciding not to chose -- directly? I think not.

I have not missed a vote in more than 40 years, but have rarely picked a winner. Electoral reformers therefore claim my vote has been denied me because I'm not represented in Parliament or the legislature. Nonsense.

Elected politicians represent everybody in their riding, not just those who voted that way. That's why it's called representative democracy. It's disingenuous to claim that you lack representation just because you bet on the losing horse.

Yes, our system has flaws, but it's a lot better than guaranteed gridlock and endless electioneering, just so a group of malcontents can impose their views on the rest of us.

© Copyright 2003 National Post


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