Monday, May 25, 2009

Standing aloof in giant ignorance

In the wake of the defeat of the Single Transferable Vote in BC, the latest would-be gravedigger for proportional representation, Quebec-based journalist Lysiane Gagnon, weighs in today with a handy compendium of anti-PR falsehoods and misrepresentations. I'm left wondering: is this all they've got?

Smug, blasé journalists like Gagnon played a decisive role in the defeat of proportional representation in both Ontario and BC. They have consistently misinformed the public on the issue. For those who looked to the media for information, traps were continually sprung, and now the journos are engaged in mopping-up operations.

I'll get into why this is in a moment. But first, Gagnon's column, which, all in one place, manages to bring together almost every anti-PR cliché and folktale for the delectation of the credulous and the naive.

First, this juxtaposition is interesting:

Perhaps the voters felt they just didn't need to change a system that, by and large, works rather well despite its flaws. Most likely, the sight of what's happening in Ottawa, where three successive minority governments have led the Commons into a mess of partisan bickering, gave them reason to pause.

So creaky old first-past-the-post "works rather well," but it's given us three successive minority governments, with its attendant "mess of partisan bickering." We are to assume that the latter was unknown previously. (For some reason this reminds me of Social Credit leader Robert Thompson, rising in the House back in the sixties to complain that Parliament was in danger of turning into a "political arena.") In fact minority Parliaments, with their additional checks and balances, are not quite the disaster that Gagnon suggests. Imagine Harper with a majority. QED.

"Indeed, any kind of PR system inevitably leads to minority governments," says Gagnon, but this is of course blitheringly false. What it does lead to is coalitions, "fragile" perhaps in the case of Israel, but stable and long-lasting in the case of Germany and many other nations. And with coalition-building comes a political culture more attuned to compromise than to, well, "partisan bickering," and a stability unknown under FPTP, where a minor shift in public opinion can result in a sweeping change of government.

Gagnon also ignores the fact that the existing "big-tent" parties are in themselves coalitions, as national parties in a country of regions have to be. Interests are balanced against interests, priorities against priorities, ideological preferences against other ideological preferences. In microcosm, the internal party dynamics now present provide examples of compromises and brokering that would merely be extended in the case of coalition governance.

All the proposals for PR in Canada, Gagnon says, including STV, are "various mixtures of PR and the existing first-past-the-post system." Plain wrong. STV retains not a trace of FPTP. Nearly every vote cast accrues to a winning political candidate, in multi-member constituencies.

Gagnon notes some instances of FPTP "disparities" in Quebec:

In 1973, for instance, the Parti Québécois received 30 per cent of the vote but ended up with only six MNAs. In 1998, the Action Démocratique du Québec had just one MNA with 12 per cent of the vote, and the PQ formed the government even though it had received 28,000 fewer votes than the Liberal Party.

Such "disparities" are common in national politics, too: seemingly endless false majorities, in which a minority of voters are rewarded with majority governments that the majority voted against, have been a feature of the Canadian political landscape for decades. But Gagnon thinks that FPTP "works rather well despite its flaws." For whom, exactly?

Says Gagnon, the cost of representation in the House of Commons that reflects actual voter preference on the ground is "too big."

The first byproduct of PR is a string of minority governments that engender instability and endless negotiations between parties. Secondly, PR creates second-class representatives, who are beholden to the party's bureaucracy rather than to the voters. Thirdly, it encourages the formation of small, single-interest parties, which would be content to elect three or four vocal representatives without feeling the need to influence the major parties, which are the only ones who can really act on a problem.

Stuff and nonsense. Coalition negotiations are hardly a bad thing in themselves, but in any case, most industrialized democracies have some form of PR in place, and few of them have notably unstable governments. This is classic scaremongering, based upon nothing concrete whatsoever.

The second objection, once again, doesn't remotely apply to STV. Mixed-member proportional systems are open to this criticism, especially with closed party lists, but even MMP can put everything in the hands of the electors with open lists (in which electors themselves choose their preferred list candidates) and regional primaries (in which electors can play a role in assembling the lists in the first place).

STV positively discourages single-issue parties. In the process of rank-ordering their preferences (first choice, second choice, etc.), electors would effectively eliminate such parties from consideration. The threshold, i.e., the number of votes required to be elected, is actually quite high: in a four-member constituency, for example, with (say) 1000 ballots cast in total, the smallest number of votes to guarantee a win is 201 (the so-called "Droop threshold.") That's just over 20% of the ballots cast in this case. And even with MMP, established thresholds of 4% or 5% work against the single-issue and nuisance parties (check this out for yourselves--no Marijuana, Natural Law, Rhino, Family Coalition or CPC-ML candidates have ever achieved even that level of votes).

A fuller exposition of myths about STV in particular may be found here.

Moving on: why do so many political journalists (with honourable exceptions like Andrew Coyne) rush to defend the status quo? In truth, I can only speculate, but I would say first off that Gagnon's sneering reference to the "cherished cause of many political science profs" is a dead giveaway--it's classic anti-intellectual inverse snobbery. Obviously she is making out that her journalistic knowledge of politics, acquired in the school of hard knocks, is superior to that of Dennis Pilon, for example, who has merely laboured for years in the field of electoral systems, obtaining a PhD and publishing a raft of articles on the subject along the way.

The PR debate, in fact, exposes the Achilles heel of many journalists--their intellectual insecurity. They cover a number of issues, and have to pick up the background knowledge required on the fly. Established in their profession, some of them begin to imagine that they really are masters of all trades, and yet the real experts are always there to confound them. It's too easy in response to dismiss them with a casual, anti-intellectual hand-waves, as Gagnon does.

Anti-intellectualism is a winning political card in the US (Rush Limbaugh, anyone?), although Stephen Harper, who has tried to import that approach most recently in the case of Michael Ignatieff, is finding it a tougher sell here, other than in the backwoods where his base howls and prowls. Nevertheless, unless an expert is trundled in by the media to bolster a particular point of view, as a fleshly argumentum ad verecundiam, people who actually know what they're talking about tend to be quickly categorized, in arch-knuckledragger George Wallace's words, as pointy-headed intellecshuls.

In addition, those accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the political elites--which oppose PR, as a rule--come to take on the same aura of smugness and unassailability. They come to think of themselves as courtiers in the palace of power. Those
with no political power have less credibility in their eyes than those who do. Gagnon typifies that type of journalist, but she is far from alone--Margaret Wente springs to mind--and in fairness she is far less offensive than, say, the insufferable Mike Duffy, who has now gone to his reward. Nevertheless, the stunning ignorance displayed in her column today gives anyone familiar with the issues considerable pause.

As an afterthought, I am beginning to wonder if matters like PR are best addressed through referenda. It's not that I am anti-democratic: I simply question whether the issues involved can be boiled down to a simple yes or no on a ballot. A more profoundly democratic process was proposed some time ago by Ed Broadbent: take public input from coast to coast, not on electoral systems, but on the values Canadians would like to see expressed in such a system. Look for a consensus or at least a majority view. Then draft appropriate legislation, with the help of an all-party committee, to create an electoral system that best embodies those values.

Electoral reform is essential if we are to call ourselves a democracy, even in the formal sense of the word. Parliaments should reflect, in their political composition, the composition of the electorate. I believe that few Canadians, other than old pols who have done nicely under the undemocratic FPTP, and their political and media hangers-on, truly prefer minority rule and wasted votes and hyper-partisanship and the exacerbation of regional differences, all of which are fostered by the current system. PR will be back: rumours of its death, spread for effect, are very much exaggerated.

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