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Toronto Star: We need democratic reform, not just electoral reform

I left Canada as a teenager over 15 years ago, first to study abroad, then to live and work in Europe. You get used to a lot of things when you’re away: other people’s food and habits, their languages and manners, but also their politics. I’ve spent five years in Germany and 10 years in Ireland, up close and personal with some of the electoral systems that are being bandied about for adoption in Canada following the Liberals’ landslide victory in October.

I can understand the sense of trepidation many Canadians feel about these changes. First-past-the-post is simple and simple often feels right. But having made a career out of studying government systems, I can unequivocally state that it is also the most inaccurate electoral system ever devised. In fact, first-past-the-post is even worse than the Liberals make it out to be, producing results so skewed that it’s not uncommon for the party that loses the vote to win the election and become the government. Since the First World War, this has been the outcome of three Canadian federal elections: William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal win in 1926, Diefenbaker’s defeat of Louis St. Laurent in 1957 and Joe Clark’s short-lived Conservative triumph in 1979 (the elder Trudeau’s reign was — based on the vote — uninterrupted).

Proportional representation isn’t a perfect fix — you can’t take 35 million people and shrink them down to a few hundred representatives without getting a bit fuzzy around the edges — but it isn’t quite the same roller-coaster as first-past-the-post.

So switching to a proportional system would be a fantastic electoral reform. The question is whether that’s enough to really, tangibly improve Canadian democracy.

When I left Canada at 19, I was fairly certain that I’d find a wide world of more open-minded, interesting people out there. Much as it pains me to admit it, a decade and a half later, Canada is probably still the most progressive country I’ve ever set foot in. There are a lot of problems out there from religious intolerance to subprime mortgage crises that Canada has, for the most part, wisely side-stepped.

I’d suggest we continue our tradition of looking before we leap.

Switching to a proportional system may give us more accurate representation, but if that’s where it stops, we’ll only have traded one outdated set of politics for another.

For all its proportionality, Europe still has a frightening democratic deficit characterized by growing inequality, a revolving door between government and big corporations, and extremely low participation rates. Even tactical voting is alive and well in Europe. You can game any electoral system and European political parties cracked theirs long ago.

The real issue is not the precise electoral system we use, but the fact that representative government as we know it is outdated. We can Skype someone in Azerbaijan in an instant, book a flight to Zambia in minutes and swap stocks in milliseconds, yet we only vote every four to five years; just like we did before we got radio, television, and the ballpoint point.

If the Liberal Party doesn’t just want to reform elections but democracy — and they’ve named a Minister for Democratic Institutions, so let’s assume they do — they need to focus on making democracy relevant for today’s world.

That requires utilizing technology to let Canadians in on decisions on a more real-time basis, and this — not proportional voting — is the kind of thing Europeans are experimenting with these days. The Swiss plan to introduce internet voting for their frequent citizen-initiated referenda; in Estonia you can cast a ballot from a cellphone; and Paris is forging ahead on participatory budgeting, allowing Parisians to determine how the city’s cultural budget is spent.

While participation numbers started small, they’ve steadily grown, and areas that allow participation between elections tend to see less inequality and political strife. Technology can also be used to facilitate communication between representatives and their constituents outside of the campaign season. The software IServeU allows constituents to influence councillor Rommel Silverio’s voting behaviour on Yellowknife City Council, while tools like DemocracyOS and Loomio help users to form resolutions online. Practices like these can be scaled up or down to suit local, provincial or even national politics.

Electoral reform is a good thing, but politics shouldn’t just be about one day and one win. It’s time to stop forcing people to stew in silence between elections and start opening up politics to continuous participation.

This article originally appeared on the Toronto Star


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