Monday, 15 May 2017

Is It Time to Change the Way We Vote?

Is It Time to Change the Way We Vote?

By: Ryan Young

I had the pleasure of speaking at a public forum on electoral reform last week that was hosted by Democracy Alert, a local group committed to restoring participatory democracy through education, engagement, & electoral reform. I had been meeting with this small dedicated group of individuals for the past year, anxiously awaiting the federal plan, and thinking about how to bring reform to Newfoundland & Labrador. Last weeks’ forum was the first of many events that Democracy Alert is planning to engage people and educate them on the value of changing our electoral system.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke his promise on electoral reform in February, it was a blow to the many people across the country who had dedicated their time and effort into reforming our electoral system. Trudeau had campaigned heavily on making 2015 the last election that would be held under the current first past the post system. In fact, Trudeau was so committed to electoral reform that he repeated his promise to deliver it more than 1800 times. Unfortunately, when the Prime Minister realized that his party was the beneficiary of a false majority that gave them 100% of power in parliament with just 39.5% of the vote, he decided to change his mind. When you consider that Trudeau’s reasoning for changing first past the post in the first place was because Stephen Harper‘s majority with 39.6% of the vote was unfair to Canadians, it makes the Prime Minister’s inaction on reform an even harder pill to swallow.

Many provinces were waiting to see what Ottawa would do on electoral reform before committing to any changes to their own systems. In the absence of any leadership from the feds, much of that discussion has stalled. NL, however, is a different story. We have a government and a premier with very low approval ratings and people are ready for a real change. In lieu of any actual productive debate in our House of Assembly, the two major parties have decided to play a 4-year long game of pass the buck. The blame game has gone on so long that it has become rather absurd, and many people have been wondering aloud if the problem is not actually the current crop of politicians, but rather the system that allows for such behaviour to become the norm.

This has encouraged the beginning of a conversation about changing the way we vote in this province, but there are still many questions to be answered and many challenges to overcome. The most important thing is making sure that the discussion is on the table and that people have an opportunity to express their views. There are many options on the table, but Newfoundland and Labrador is a unique place and will likely require a unique solution.

What System Do We Change to?

There are many reasons to change from first past the post, but the hardest part of enabling that change has always been deciding which type of system to change to. There are many different systems out there and many of them may seem complex to someone looking at them for the first time. Currently, over 85% of OCED nations use some form of proportional representation to elect their governments. Under a proportional system, seats in the legislature are awarded based on the number of votes that a party gets. In this way, every vote counts and our elected bodies are more representative of the wishes of the electorate.

Countries that use proportional representation often have coalition governments that force political parties to work together in the best interests of the people they represent. This is most evident when you look at the social and environmental legislation in PR countries. Things like pharma care, child care and well maintained transportation networks are commonplace under PR systems. Governments also tend to be more stable and voter turnouts are generally much higher.

There are many types of PR systems. Mixed-Member, Single Transferable Vote, Dual Member, and Proportional FPTP (a made in NL system) are all systems that work on the principle of proportionality. Unfortunately, it is the discussion of which mechanics to use that often derails the real merits of switching to PR. That is why Democracy Alert has proposed a bold new solution to this problem. They want to hold a referendum with a simple question attached to the next general election ballot. Keep first past the post or switch to proportional representation? The rationale is that by keeping the question simple and to the point, we can accurately find out if the majority of the people really do want to change from the current FPTP system. If FTPT wins, we keep the status quo, and if PR wins then we give that mandate to the new governing party to come up with the system that best meets our province. The best way to decide would be to hold a citizen’s assembly to determine which system to use moving forward.

Do We Have Other Options?

Many people have been talking about the idea of running all independent candidates in the next election. This idea is borne from the idea that our party system is broken and that our 2 parties are just a revolving door of the same types of people serving the same interests. While electing a majority of independents would certainly throw a wrench into any governing party trying to pass legislation, they would not actually be able to form a government under the laws of our current system.

Another possible option that is gaining popularity in some circles is a consensus style government such as those used in the northern territories. Under a consensus system, there are no parties. All candidates run as independents and the elected members vote to choose their premier and their cabinet. The remaining members serve as the opposition. There are many merits to this type of a system but some are skeptical that the people would be willing to make such a dramatic change away from the party system.

Starting the Conversation

I firmly believe that the only reason we don’t have more of a movement for electoral reform in this province is a lack of education. For one, most people don’t watch what goes on in the House of Assembly aka “The Sandbox,” and they don’t realize how ineffective our democratic institutions have become. Secondly, most people don’t realize the benefits of moving towards a different system. With the current political climate in this province, electoral reform is not getting enough attention as a solution to many of our problems with how our legislative branch currently functions. And lastly, kids don’t learn nearly enough about politics or democracy in our education system. Many young people are disengaged from politics and they don’t understand how their lack of involvement allows the current system to grossly under represent their needs.

In order to move the conversation about electoral reform forward we need to make a big push towards making the benefits known and engaging people to be active participants in their own destiny. The public is slowly waking up to the fact that standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option and that they will need to be the change that they want to see if they ever want to see a real difference in the way things are done.

Electoral reform is more than just an idea, it is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we “do” democracy in this province. It’s up to the people to decide if they want to continue under a system that allows things to operate as they are currently going or if they are willing to put their voice forward for a new way working together for a real “stronger tomorrow.”  So, let’s start the conversation around the kitchen table and on the wharf. Start it at your church or youth group or during a board meeting. Talk to a friend and ask them what they think or bring it up during your lunch break at work. The most important thing is that we start the conversation so that more people can get interested enough to find out for themselves if there is a real value in changing the way we vote. Our very future might depend on it.

If you are interested in finding out more about electoral reform and what you can do to get involved visit or find them on Facebook or Twitter.

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