Feb. 12 2004

Editor, The Star:
RE: Voting initiatives alluring, but bad Feb. 8 2004 RM archive copy

Upon first reading of this article, I was somewhat disappointed and surprised to see the Star, which is supposed to be the flagship media event for "left-leaning" people in Canada, and thus supportive of things progressive, speaking out against one of the major progressive reforms we need in this country, the switch from our ancient, highly disfunctional First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system to the newer, much fairer Proportional Representation (PR) - true Luddites indeed, in all the worst senses of the often misused appellation, those who resist this long-overdue modern democratic innovation. However, upon rereading it a couple of times, my eyes magically became opened and I realised you have quite cleverly made the case for PR considerably stronger.

Let me show you quickly how I have parsed out your article, which, in a somewhat Swiftian way, while pretending to advocate a certain position but making an extremely poor case for it thus actually bolsters the case for the other side - or, as a more recent political pundit declared, in a modern sort of "we-don't-want-to-use-too-many-big-words-or-complicated-ideas-like-them-darned-old-English-writers-like-Swift" sound-bite said - "With friends like this, who needs enemies?" hahaha - Well done, Star!

Well - the article is one long example of this clever technique, but let me just point out a few of the more obvious areas:

1. "...The underlying premise of proportional representation is that the interests of, say, Alberta farmers, Ontario factory workers and Maritime fishermen overlap to the degree that none of them needs to choose their own federal representatives to champion their specific concerns. ..."

- this statement is, as they say, to put it politely, backasswards, or even "arrant nonsense" as me dear ol da used to say in those days gone by at some of my I thought quite clever excuses for not attending school some days when I felt other calls - indeed, so contrary to the actual situation that one can only assume the writer included it intentionally, even began their article thusly, to indicate their true intention to those clever enough to see it, and underline the absurdity of using this FPTP system (which was, of course, originally designed to determine a winner in a two-party contest) in a multi-cultural, multi-party, indeed, multi-almost-everything country. I have been involved with promoting PR for some time, and have NEVER heard anyone say that the interests of western farmers and Maritime fishermen are the same (although they do share common interests with all Canadians in things such as decent healthcare, education and infrastructure support, and so on), and that therefore they don't need any special person or persons to represent them in the national assembly, or parliament, in our case - what nonsense, truly! What PR actually does is quite the opposite - it acknowledges and attempts to deal with the fact that in the FPTP system, while a certain group of people may form a fairly large constituency (i.e western farmers or Maritime fishermen), the fact that they are spread out over many electoral ridings means that their votes get lost in the general flow, or in the accumulated votes of larger constituencies, and thus they actually have NO-ONE representing them, or are very under-represented in terms of their actual numbers - a perfect example being, for example, the former PC party in the 1997 federal election, who got almost an identical number of votes as the separatist Bloc party of Quebec (PC 18.9% BQ 19.4%) - yet the Bloc, a regional based party not even running candidates in most of the country, got 60 seats in the National Parliament, while the PCs, with support across the entire country rather than gathered in a small area, wound up with only 20 seats - thus leaving all of the PC supporters woefully under-represented in the House of Commons. In 2000 it was even worse - the BQ got 10.7% of the vote and 38 seats, the PCs 12.2% and 12 seats!!!! The PR system would go a long ways towards addressing this central problem with the FPTP system. With the use of some type of party list, in addition to people elected directly to represent certain areas, it is also possible to include people to represent non-area-based constituencies, such as someone to speak specifically for farmers, or fishermen, or native Canadians, women, or any other interest group you care to name, which the FPTP system cannot do. And it is, of course, hardly adequate - quite misleading, really - to say that the people elected by FPTP systems represent everyone fairly to the best of their ability - no-one can do a good job of serving two or more masters - we have been seeing all too well the last few years what happens when our MPs, heavily lobbied and funded by Bay St interests, are forced to choose which master they will serve - for instance deciding between tax cuts for the wealthy or healthcare funding for average Canadians. We average Canadians haven't been faring too well under FPTP "representatives" lately.

What your writer does not bother to get into, for some odd reason, is how he/she considers this sort of result, which really is the norm in every FPTP election, to be fair to those many voters who wind up so under-represented - preferable, indeed, one must assume your writer believes, to the much fairer fit of representatives with voters and votes cast which is a central feature of every PR system. Of course, if we consider your writer is actually making the case FOR PR while only pretending to speak against it, it is somewhat more understandable - any fair-minded person, which most Canadians are, would surely be happier with a system that apportioned their votes to their representatives in the same kind of proportion that the voters wished for, rather than the wildly skewed numbers which are regularly the outcome of FPTP contests - we all, I am sure, have heard of the last few elections in PEI, for instance, where the winning party, with somewhere around 55% of the vote, gets 95% of the seats, leaving almost half of the Islanders to be represented by 1 or 2 MLAs, while the slightly larger half has 29 or 30!!!! It's hard to think offhand of a stronger argument for junking this very outdated system which constantly leads to such ludicrous - and democratically speaking, most unfair - results.

2. "... a la carte menus (of PR governments composed of many parties working out deals) typically exceed what taxpayers can afford, and that the most important government initiatives might not see the light of day in the orgy of payoffs to special interests posing as new political parties. That's what happens in Italy, a fiscal basket case, where proportional representation has brought endless political instability...."

Well, I suppose your writer was forgetting about the orgy of payoffs to Big Business in Canada over the last few years (not to mention Harris's Ontario), who so generously funded the mainstream Tweedledee-dum political parties - FTA, NAFTA, WTO, FTAA, GATS, $100 billion tax breaks, etc and etc (and will continue to do so if the FPTP system is not changed, even after the very weak controls the Libs supposedly placed on them last year). But this is a common straw dog argument constantly brought up by those who do not want to see the privileges they gain through their relatively easy control of the FPTP system lost, with about the same strength as the little piggies' straw house when held up to reality - I guess it was about here that it came to me that your writer was actually cleverly championing PR, by presenting such sadly poor arguments against it. Your writer points to PR as, apparently they believe, the direct cause of fiscal mismanagement in one country - would it not be equally valid, then, to point to PR as the underlying cause of the strength of all of the other western European countries (exception FPTP GB) which also use PR? Or the financial powerhouse Japan, which also uses PR? Is the 5 trillion dollar debt the Bush government is in the process of imposing on that country during the short time they have been in office due to nothing more than the electoral system? What then about Canada's $500 billion national debt that everyone has been so concerned about the last 20 years or so, accumulated under governments elected through FPTP - would your writer be agreeable if some PR promoter were to say CANADA'S NATIONAL DEBT DUE TO OUTDATED FPTP ELECTORAL SYSTEM!!??? Probably not (although a rather strong case could be made for the latter statement, actually, but that would be a digression for another day...) - any rational analyst would know that there are many, many other factors involved with a nation's fiscal policies besides the electoral system - although, as the world's more stable financial powerhouses in Europe and Japan clearly indicate, the much larger and more representative mix of members and ideas resulting from a PR system will generally result in a very strong and stable system, with a government not trying to make payoffs to everyone (rather insulting statement, really, to the great majority of elected people in Europe and elsewhere under PR), but in reality having a broad diversity of ideas and opinions and expertise to draw on to make solid financial and social policies, and balance the interests of many competing groups - much more so than we have seen in the Big Business-dominated "majority" governments elected under FPTP in Canada, the last few years, for instance, which have been much more concerned with pleasing a certain smallish special interest group through such things as lower taxes and de-regulation while abandoning the majority of its citizens, and allowing ideological policies to take precedence over common sense policies - that is to say, tax breaks over social support systems, for instance, which benefit the few at the expense of the many. The considerably more balanced parliaments of the EU have prevented such imbalances from occurring, and it shows in their much, much stronger social support systems and economies.

3. "...Whatever its deficiencies, our current system forces voters to make choices...."

- well, a fine finale to really make the case for PR pretty airtight, given with the flourish of true Swiftian irony. Our system forces voters to make choices? I think your writer forgot (possibly intentionally - no point in being too obvious!) the last part of the sentence here - the FPTP system forces voters to make choices - and then ignores those choices!! - which one cannot say about PR, which also forces voters to make choices (I mean really - isn't that the very definition of "election" - making a "choice" between competing visions?) - and then gives them what they have chosen!!! And which do you suppose most people who "make a choice" would prefer - to receive what a majority of them have chosen, or to have the electoral system laugh mockingly in their faces and give them what they have NOT chosen (i.e. when 55% of voters voted against Mulroney's "free trade" in 1988 - and the FPTP system gave Mulroney a big majority and all Canadians - including that 55% who said NO!! - the FTA...)!!?? Why, most people would prefer what they have chosen of course!! Well done for pointing out the one feature that most summarises with undeniable clarity why the FPTP electoral system has been cast aside for the relic it is in almost all modern democracies. For of course, to put it bluntly, in an Orwellian reversal of the meaning of words, one must acknowledge that the FPTP system in reality DENIES voters the right to make choices, which the PR system would change so they actually HAD real choices!! For instance, in 2000 approximately 25% of eligible voters voted for the Liberals (60% turnout, 40% of the vote) - meaning, of course, 75% of eligible Canadian voters did not apparently want them running the country. And what was the result of that election, the FPTP "choice"? Well, as we all know, a solid Liberal majority government!! So - a strong majority of those voters given (or forced to make) a "choice" chose NOT LIBERAL - and got ... Liberal!!! Quod est demonstratum!! as my old Latin teacher once said about something he did or I didn't or something.

Well done Star! - no-one reading this article could possibly go away feeling that FPTP was a preferable system to PR. You have advanced our cause greatly, and I salute you comrades!

I remain -

J. Swift
(haha - just joking!!!! - (c'est moi c'est moi hahahahahahaaaa))

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