Monthly Archives: November 2014

A Modest Proposal for Electoral Reform

HOT NEWS: First-Past-the-Post is now unequivocally a lousy way to choose a legislature! Well, maybe the news is not all that hot. I observe I have been scooped many times by many illustrious and well-meaning people stretching back to John Stuart Mill.

Proportional Representation (called “PR” among aficionados) is often said to be more fair, more “representative”, particularly if a majority First-Past party does not receive at least 50% of the vote, as is usual in Canada. In the most recent, 2011 federal election, it did not: The Conservative majority of 54% of the seats was achieved with less than 40% of the vote. Majority government in this country very seldom means majority support, which must be judged a grievous flaw in the system, no matter which party you prefer.

Proportional Representation, however, breaks the traditional bond between the Representative to whom the People’s Authority is delegated and the People-in-the-Place that he or she is solemnly charged to represent. It places the Party between the People and the Representative in the chain of accountability, and that, I would argue, is another grievous flaw. It also, in pure form, unless arbitrary cut-offs such as 5% are employed, leads to a proliferation of small parties with relatively narrow points of view, another kind of imbalance that may not constitute the best interests of the electors as a whole any more than does First-Past.

In pursuit of the elusive Balance proponents of “PR” sometimes advocate mixed systems such as Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMPR), or Preferential Ballot (PB), system, which rapidly become quite complicated and further muddy the accountability waters, these being muddy enough already under contemporary political conditions.

British Columbia held two referenda on the issue, in 2005, which came close to approving a form of STV, and in 2009, which rejected it. Ontario held one in 2007 on a form of MMPR that was also soundly rejected. Regardless of these outcomes, however, First-Past is so widely recognized as fundamentally flawed that the issue must remain alive even in those jurisdictions.

I believe that a well informed and rational voter can quite legitimately reject proposals for change which are unduly complicated and violate traditional principles of a fundamental kind on what “representation” means and how it ought to work. I think we should look for a simpler way to change.

Here’s one, which I will call “First-Two-Past-the-Post”, or “First-Two” for short. Instead of sending just one representative per riding, send two, those who come first and second.

When I tested the idea, riding by riding, on the results of the 2011 Election, I spotted only one major defect. In those provinces, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, where voters expressed a very strong preference for one party, Two-Past skewed the results too far the other way. I therefore added a simple adjustment to my formula, applicable to any riding where the top candidate received more than 60% of the vote. I am suggesting that in those cases the winning party should be allowed to appoint a second representative, ideally in my view the person who came second in that party’s election to choose a candidate.

Here’s the final result, for the 2011 election, compared with First-Past and Proportional:

Party

First-One-Past Proportional First-Two-Past
Conservative

166

124 133
NDP

103

94

97

Liberal

34

59

53

Bloc Québécois

4

18

23

Green

1

12

1

Independents

0 2

2

TOTAL

308 309

309

The second column is the sum of proportional representations for all provinces and territories, calculated separately. For the third I tallied the formula’s results by province and territory, yielding 616 seats, and divided by 2. The totals in the last two columns are 309 instead of 308 due to rounding-off. I chose not to admit fractional members of Parliament, even though everybody knows they are entirely feasible, perhaps common.

In 2011, under First-Past, the probability that your vote would work positively to send a particular person to Parliament would be 50.4%. Under First-Two-Past, that probability, which is a measure of the power of your preference, rises to 76.6%, an outcome which, to my mind, is a huge advantage.

I caution that these results, while strongly suggestive, are only preliminary, because they come from only one election with its own particular circumstances. I will go back further in the weeks ahead, and publish the results as they emerge.

Under a Two-Past system, retaining the same number of ridings would require doubling their size, which is some disadvantage. I would recommend that we mitigate it by merging the House of Commons and the Senate into one Parliament with what would have been, in the 2011 Election, 413 ridings, distributed according to our customary practice. Under the most recent re-distribution the result would be 443 ridings (338 from the Commons, 105 from the Senate).

I suggest that this reform would make a suitable sesquicentennial project for 2017, with a redistribution based on the 2016 Census.

If Proportional Representation sets the highest standard of fairness to parties, the Two-Past system using my formula cannot truly be said to be grotesquely unfair to any party except the Greens, who after all received nearly 600,000 votes, and in 2008 close to a million. I suggest, however, that by opening up the opportunity to enter Parliament by coming second, a measure of greater fairness to developing parties would follow.

But fairness to parties is not the standard, nor some notion of “perfection” that is certainly unattainable. We should seek a balanced system in which the majority of the voting people are fairly represented. First-Past no longer meets this standard, and cannot, because we now have three strong parties nationally, with a fourth perhaps emerging, and another strong one regionally in Québec. Regardless of what becomes of the Green Party and the Bloc, First-Past will remain a bad system unless either the NDP or the Liberals disappear, which seems unlikely. Labels may shift, but I think right, left and centre are political orientations firmly established among voters and most likely to persist. Only by blatant manipulation of a bad system would we be able to suppress one of them in Parliament.

First-Two-Past-the-Post: a simple, more balanced system consistent with our traditions. I will return to this topic when I have analyzed another election, and continue the process until the case is persuasive, one way or the other. In the meantime, I invite comments.

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Party of One

“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.” E.B. White wrote that, in 1947, as McCarthyism gathered its strength. What new “ism” slouches toward Ottawa to be born or adopted? What old “ism” deserves to die, or be revived?

I have come to believe that I should join a political party, something I have never done. I vote in every election; I vote variously, usually positively although occasionally strategically, often for the candidate, occasionally for the party. I am, in that limited sense, an engaged citizen-participant in politics.

I believe this not very taxing approach is no longer good enough. Parties are preparing for the 2015 election and their ideas and plans are evolving day by day. These ideas and plans are going to matter when the writ falls. At least I hope they are going to matter, that the whole issue will not be decided on personalities, fear, a few selected symbols with emotional weight, and the fall-out from attack ads. I would like to help make the ideas and plans matter.

I have decided to make the decision based on a political platform summarizing my own beliefs, which I can then compare to others. I think of this as a “shadow” platform, the platform of my own party of one, that I fully recognize may not be adopted in full by the party I will join (although why should it not?), but from which I can perhaps negotiate in the process of merger between my party and that one. I hasten to add, however, that my sense of arithmetic is quite clear, and I know perfectly well the role of one among the many in a democratic system, although I would not diminish the weight of that one by even the slightest jot, and might even conspire to augment it.

So here, most briefly stated, is my Platform, for which I make no claim of originality:

  1. Explicit respect for the complexity of all public affairs and refusal to reduce them to simplicities.
  2. Policy to be made based on data, discussion, and negotiation.
  3. Strength to the Social Fabric: languages, cultures, communities, enterprises, arts, employments.
  4. Strength to Parliamentary democracy, including electoral reform.
  5. Strength to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and related elements of our inherited constitution.
  6. Strength to the Social Safety Net, including related universal public services.
  7. Prosperity, vigorous, justly shared; respect for the complexity and difficulty of this goal.
  8. Stewardship, resolute, protective and far-seeing, of our air, land and waters.
  9. Internationalism in foreign affairs, pursuing peace, prosperity, justice and the rule of law.
  10. Vigilance in the protection of our own territory, extreme reluctance in foreign adventures.
  11. Reconciliation as the fundamental principle applied to disputes, contentions, and criminal justice.
  12. Sound public administration and responsible fiscal management.

You will, I am sure, readily detect some contrast between this list and current policy, and perhaps predict that I am likely to find little encouragement in the Conservative Party of Canada. That may be, although not, I believe, inevitably. True, contrary spirits are dominant there now, but we enjoy in this country a tradition of progressive conservatism that is a long way from dead. Many if not most of my neighbours vote Conservative, and they are good people. I believe they would generally share at least some of my principles. I fear they are being deliberately misinformed on behalf of a narrow vision and set of interests.

I also believe that any party which presented such principles to Canadians with courage, conviction and eloquence would be easily elected. That is the party I want to join.

Truth and Lies in Mariposa

You have to admire Stephen Leacock, crotchety old coot though he may have been sometimes. He fooled us completely, or allowed us to fool ourselves. He allowed us to think that the place he called Mariposa was Orillia, a town in Ontario, whereas he could just as well have been writing about Mariposa, a township in Ontario, of equally respectable literary worth. In fact he called it Mariposa, which is pretty strong prima facie evidence that it was, unless of course he was lying through his teeth, or simply making the whole thing up. Which is the other hypothesis.

But I am not making up the story that I am going to tell, although I am going to fudge the details a little, for reasons of confidentiality. I don’t want anybody chasing me with lawsuits. The place needs a name, so I am going to call it Mariposa, in honour of the precedent, and for another reason which I will explain. When I need geography, I am going to use Mariposa Township. Since I need a town, and Mariposa Township doesn’t really have one, just a flock of villages, I am going to make one by lumping Little Britain and Oakwood and Manilla and some others together and I am going to put them smack in the middle of the Township or as close as I can get and still find a railroad and a crossroads. And where does that put me? Well blow me down if it isn’t right there at Mariposa Station. That’s the other reason. There’s a school there too, which is handy. But I’m not going to take all the villages, because I may need some people out there in the surrounding countryside.

For the aforesaid reasons of confidentiality I am not only going to take people from Mariposa, because there aren’t quite enough of them, or from any other single place. I’m going to mix and match. I’ve been around a little in my time, lived in a number of places — eight to be exact, in three countries. In Canada I have lived in two provinces and one northern territory, in three cities, one small town (where I was raised), and two rural areas. I have worked in dozens more. I have met a lot of people, so if I pick up some from wherever it may be and plunk them down in Mariposa, I defy you to figure out who they are or where I found them.

If I need a lake, as Leacock did, I’ll use Scugog Lake, on the southern edge of Mariposa Township. I don’t think the fact that it’s 20 kilometres away from Mariposa the town will cause much inconvenience, because we’re not in horse-and-buggy days, not in this story, and if my people want to fish or go for a boat ride they can drive to Scugog Lake pretty easily. If I need a river Mariposa Brook is not far away, and could easily be enlarged. If I need a canal I’ll dig one.

But all this geography is quite peripheral to the story, which is really about a continuing war between the two great dynasties dominating political life in Mariposa for over a century: the Drone-Pupkins, on the one hand, who adopted the noble American precedent of being unable to tell a lie and evolved it into an entire political culture, and the Smith-Bagshaws on the other, who made the same thing, more successfully, out of being unable to tell the truth.

Because I am going to tell this story bloggedly, over a considerable time, I will make of myself no slave to linearity. You won’t find it reading from top to bottom, and you won’t find it reading from bottom to top. You can start in the middle, if you like, or anywhere else, and jump around. You will find any essential background information summarized on the Mariposa page.

One Voice: Onward if not Upward

If you are paying any attention to the trappings of this site—I hope you are paying more to the content—you will perhaps notice that I have changed the sub-title, because I have been thinking about voices, about those I hear, and my own voice.

My concern for my own voice is primarily professional: I use it for artistic purposes and to make my summer living. (If you want to know more, I refer you to www.voyageurstorytelling.ca.) I therefore care about its well-being. My concern goes further, however. I also write, and like everyone who raises his or her voice in this medium, I would like to be heard, that is, read. I would like to be understood. I do not aim to persuade, although agreement is a warm gift. My voice, when I am writing, comes from some interplay between my thinking and imagining. I hope it will stimulate the thoughts and imaginations of my hearers. That is all. (I will explain some other time why I describe my voice as “adjective”.)

My concern today is more with the voices I hear around me. I am not referring to those in the woods and neighbourhood outside, myriad and stirring though they be. I am not referring to the voices in my house: the dog announcing a passing car, my lady  appraising the passing day. I am referring to the voices of “the media” that I allow within my field of notice, or intrude whether I allow them or not. I am not particularly worried that these voices will persuade me to something unwise, because I am a stubborn old coot and I make up my mind carefully when the stakes are important. I am worried at the consistency with which these voices are lying. I don’t like it when people lie to me.

Lies, half-truths, distortions, egregious errors, misnomers, unsubstantiated opinions: these and other abuses are what constitute the daily deluge of propaganda and crude efforts to manipulate we inevitably confront in our media-saturated age, and which we must separate, using our own knowledge, instincts and common sense, from the intermingled truths, facts, clarities, and valid understandings.

Politicians would like us to believe them; sometimes what they say is believable, sometimes not. Their own interests often become so entangled in the analysis that our task of separation becomes difficult indeed. When two of our most senior politicians label an act as “terrorism”, and another calls it “criminal”, which are we to believe, and on what grounds? The matter will never come to court, where the act can be judged by due process in the light of the definition in the Criminal Code, because the perpetrator is dead. Common sense therefore tells us that these judgements are opinions, not facts or legal judgements, of no real weight unless we choose to give it to them.

Scientists would like us to believe them, because they are professionally bound to be careful in what they say and to base their conclusions on data, which are measurements. And yet they routinely make predictions, for which they can by definition have no data, because the future is unmeasurable. Extrapolations, however sophisticated and well grounded in the facts of the past, are always opinions, and should be received as such. And like opinions of all kinds, they can be biassed, or even self-interested. We should always ask who is making the prediction, and what is at stake for them.

Since when did predictions uncritically reported become “news”? I remember some years ago, after a period of wild speculation in gold, the CBC reporting with great solemnity the prediction of some “expert” that the price would reach $2,000 per ounce, it being on the way down at that point. “How much gold does that guy own,” I demanded of my car radio, “and at what price and on how much margin did he buy it?” Answer came there none.

Don’t get me wrong. I love opinions: expressing them, hearing them, and arguing about them. But I don’t confuse them with facts. Nor should anyone.

I Do Like Elections! How Did We Do?

We had ourselves a municipal election this week, up here in the mostly woods of Northern Bruce Peninsula, just like everybody else in Ontario. In the reflective mood nurtured by the demands of writing this blog, therefore, I have been wondering how well we, the voters, have done our job, which is to elect a mayor, deputy mayor and three councillors to govern our little patch of jurisdiction for four years. We have passed judgement, according to our duty, on our governors. Perhaps we should do the same on ourselves. Here is what I would contribute to that conversation.

I would note, first of all, that 3,700 people voted. Our permanent population is about 3,900, although almost two-thirds of our private dwellings are occupied by seasonal residents who are entitled to vote but may not know any of the candidates and probably therefore should not vote. It is therefore difficult to be statistically precise about voter turn-out. I think that 3,700 represents a good result, an opinion that is reinforced by the numbers who turned out at our three all-candidates’ forums. We enjoy an engaged electorate, at least at election time. Good for us.

This year, for the first time, we used on-line voting, making it much easier for non-residents to vote. Voting was easy, if you followed the instructions exactly. The local press reports, however, that people who tried to get to the site through Google could not. I myself would be unsympathetic to complainers. The Clerk gave us a map to the voting booth; all we had to do was follow it. Even for those who tried to improvise their own routes, the map was right in front of them.

We gave a solid vote of confidence (60%), richly deserved in my view, to our present mayor, Mr. Milt McIver. Lively dissenting voices were not lacking during the campaign, however, and the previous deputy mayor was certainly a credible candidate for promotion.

In choosing a new deputy mayor, however, we got confused. If margin-of-error analysis were applied to that poll, we would have three of them. But the rules say only one, and the voters gave the nod to a former councillor who had been out for a term, Ms. Patricia Greig, over Mr. Ray Burns, a member of the out-going council, by 33 votes, or 1% of those cast. I don’t know personally the third candidate, Mr. Wes Rydall, who was another 1% behind. I would have said beforehand that choosing between Ms. Greig and Mr. Burns was a coin toss, and so the voters saw it. Three good candidates is a luxury, if a confusing one.

With three councillors to choose from a list of nine, the voters made a nicely nuanced choice between old and new blood. Mr. Tom Boyle, an experienced councillor, widely respected, received 300 more votes than the second, a newcomer, Mr. Rob Rouse: a strong vote for continuity, almost as strong for a new voice. The most interesting result is between third and fourth, between Mr. Griffin Salen, 23 years old and completely inexperienced, elected, and Ms. Betsy Stewart, no longer that age by some margin, incumbent, ejected (by 190 votes). I don’t think either of our newcomers is a voice for radical change however, although Mr. Salen will certainly bring a youthful perspective.

I myself was particularly pleased that the only “libertarian” tax-cutter on the list came dead last by a wide margin. I have no patience with over-simplified politics, or with candidates for office who denigrate the importance of the work, which is to provide public services and regulate important matters in a complex and highly constrained environment.

All in all, therefore, a group nicely balanced in interesting ways: spread across the geography and diverse in their age and experience, with plenty of the latter in the top two jobs. I think that we the voters of Northern Bruce Peninsula can give ourselves a pat on the back, and congratulate ourselves on our good fortune: a nice clean process, with good candidates and no need for negative or strategic voting. We did well. Now, if we can only keep up the enthusiasm.