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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Liberal and NDP Proportional Representation pushers' open secret: It's about defeating Harper

Two prominent Members of Parliament and Elizabeth May's predecessor as head of Canada's Green Party were the speakers Thursday night at what was billed as a Town Hall to discus the merits of changing Canada's electoral system to Proportional Representation (PR).

Liberal Carolyn Bennett and former NDP leadership candidate Peggy Nash along with the Green's Jim Harris were at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in downtown Toronto at what could  more appropriately be described as a pep rally for PR and strategy session on how to defeat Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Jim Harris, Carolyn Bennett &
Peggy Nash at the "Town Hall"
The speakers, moderator, organizers and hundred or so audience members in the room, with the exception of one, were uniformly there to express support for PR and to find ways advancing it as the way Canada is governed. The gathering it should be noted, was not a typical cross-section of Canadian voters. The 519 Centre is a hub in what is commonly known as Toronto's Gay Ghetto, a bustling, neon-lit strip of bars, restaurants and clubs. The Centre itself is a meeting place for a number of radical groups that are considered to be extremist, even within Toronto's "progressive" leaning Gay community.

Dr. Bennett, the St Paul's MP, was the first speaker and confirmed that the crowd there all supported changing the electoral system to PR, so she didn't try to sell the concept. She did discuss how to sell it to the rest of the electorate. Ontario held a referendum in 2007 on proportional representation and it was resoundingly rejected by 63.13% of the vote.

The consensus from the dais was that the reason the proposition failed was due to insufficient time and efforts devoted to education about Proportional Representation and its supposed advantages. This assumption reflected an unfortunate arrogance all-too-common to our political classes which presupposes that the public is stupid, and when we make decisions of which "progressive" leaders disapprove, it's because we are "uneducated."

There were quite a few suppositions by the speakers in at the Town Hall and the most glaring was that everyone agreed that Harper's Conservative government must be defeated at all costs. Indeed, assuming a uniform outlook, they didn't even bother to disguise their motive for wanting Proportional Representation - that it was the best way to prevent the Tories from getting a majority government.

Dr. Bennett, who was a member of Paul Martin's Liberal government, has only taken on her fervent advocacy of PR since her party lost power, and embraced it further since the Liberals lost Official Opposition status. It doesn't require an exceptional measure of cynicism to guess at the motive for her new-found enthusiasm for change.

The discussion by Bennett, Nash and Harris made that enthusiasm all the clearer when they made it clear that   the primary goal of electoral reform is that in through a system that necessitated cooperation between parties and made majorities more difficult, they would be able to keep Harper out of power. Oddly, no one mentioned the fact that when Harper had a minority government prior to the last election, the Liberals and NDP couldn't bring themselves to unite to form a minority government. There is probably a mathematical formula which calculates the level of desperation for power measured by the time since it was last held. I'm not sure of the actual figures for that equation, but the hunger from the Green, NDP and Liberal representatives to get more of it was palpable and made an appetite for any compromise to get it more palatable.

Their frustration was so apparent that one of the electoral devices discussed at the meeting was "vote swapping," which while not illegal, has a very unethical tinge about it. In essence, the practice would entail Liberal, NDP and Green voters communicating with each other and agreeing to trade votes in ridings where the other party's candidate had a better chance of defeating the Conservative.  The main concern expressed about that by Dr. Bennett was not the ethics but the fear that the Conservatives might infiltrate those lists and abuse them.

It fell to Peggy Nash to be the voice of reason on "vote swapping," reminding the room that many people died so we could have a democracy with a secret vote, and she didn't feel abandoning it, even to defeat Stephen Harper, was the right choice.

A member of Liberal Leadership candidate Joyce Murray's policy team then spoke to explain her proposal that riding associations could make a choice to cooperate and perhaps not run candidates in order to bolster the chances of the strongest opponent to the local Tory.

The Greens' Harris argued that reform was necessary because the Conservatives negative ads are so effective that they can destroy the standing of their opponents with the public. I've argued before that attack ads are a useful component of our political process.  After all, if a candidate who wants to lead a country is incapable of dealing with an attack ad from a fairly benign domestic political rival, how could they possibly function as a leader on the world stage, dealing with potentially hostile foreign interests?

After the presentations by the politicians, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. It was a moment of significant irony that I was the first person to ask a question and the response that followed.  I was the only person who spoke out against PR at the meeting and pointed out that the two MPs on the panel had passed that minimum threshold of getting a plurality in their riding. If that bar were lowered and representatives need not get that but only a small percentage of the national vote, you were guaranteed to have, among other things, Nazis in Parliament.

That prospect is neither far-fetched nor unrealistic, because that is what is happening right now in Europe with their legislatures elected through Proportional Representation. But that point infuriated the panel's moderator, John Deverell. Visibly agitated at my pooping on his party and perhaps trying to invoke some version of Godwin's Law, he interrupted me and tried to prevent me from finishing my question, saying I was lying and didn't know what I was talking about.

During her presentation, Peggy Nash complained that Harper`s majority government didn`t allow proper debate and questions in Parliament. The irony of Deverell attempting to do just that in a gathering proposing to change that system seemed utterly lost on him.

But I refused to be bullied into silence and pointed out that it would be a disgrace that in a public meeting that ostensibly is for the purpose of improving Canada`s democracy, he was trying to prevent the asking of a question he didn`t like and I continued.

Raising another aspect that I felt would get traction with that particular audience, I noted that there are many people opposed to legal abortions in Canada and political parties who want laws to that effect. If at some point, in order to cobble a governing coalition together, the balance were to be held by a `Pro-Life" party, we  are virtually guaranteed to have abortion laws in Canada again and I asked the panel to respond to that concern.

Jim Harris and Carolyn Bennett both spoke and in essence gave the same answer. They said that Canada would have to enact a higher threshold for party status than in countries like Italy and Israel, which are teeming with parties that only require 1% of the vote to get a place in their legislatures.

That response was not particularly encouraging. Even if it were as high as the 5 or 7 percent that Dr. Bennett suggested, fringe parties which would never be able to get a plurality in any riding in Canada would be able to have Parliamentary representation.

There are some basic facts about our system that those in our political classes who want proportional representation don't want to acknowledge and it's easy to understand why. They operate from the belief that many Canadians are disengaged from the political process because they feel "their vote doesn't count."  There is plenty of evidence to indicate that is not the case. When there is an issue or politician people care about, then the voter turnout is high. Toronto during the last municipal election is a good example, where more than 14% more people voted than in the previous two elections. Lots of people wanted the change that Ford represented and plenty felt threatened by it and both sides came to cast their ballots.

But rather than their votes not counting, many Canadians remain disengaged from politics because there simply aren't many politicians, from any party, that people feel are worth voting for. In short, the problem isn't the system, it's the crappy politicians who inhabit it.

Another facet of proportional representation that went unmentioned during the "Town Hall" was how that system is actually less democratic than our current one. When we cast a vote, we don't vote just do it to choose a political party but a person to represent us. That's particularly important given that parties frequently run on platforms and policies they have absolutely no intention of implementing if they get in power (remember Jean Chretien's GST promise, and all the lies Dalton McGuinty's Liberals ran on?).

With 'first-past-the-post' each MP has been elected by at least a plurality of voters who the politician will represent. With PR, even in the proposed mixed-member system, political parties, rather than voters will select who gets to sit in Parliament. We would have a number of MPs who couldn't even get the most votes in their own ridings. That seems a step back in democracy, not forward.

The Greens' Harris, during the pro-PR pep talk, trying to energize the audience, said that a small group of people can make a big change and they could be the people to bring such a change about.

The room was filled with older people, some men with pony-tails, lots of macrame vests and shirts replete with cause-promoting buttons. Making histrionic speeches and complaints, they looked and sounded like since the 1960's, their politics have matured as little as their fashion sense.

Harris was right was right about a few people being able to make a big difference. But it's doubtful he picked the right group to expect from whom to expect any major achievements and that seems for the best. With their primary focus of implementing PR mainly as a tactic to get rid of Stephen Harper, a sincere effort to advance democracy was secondary, if at all on their agenda.

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