I benefitted from the first past the post system of electing representatives. For almost 30 years I was a political, and very partisan, insider. I ran in five provincial elections, and was elected in four, subsequently serving in three Cabinets, where I was backed by over-large majorities in the Legislature.. I didn’t get a majority of the votes in 1971 when I was first elected.
On the basis of extensive personal experience and another 25 years of close observation, I am strongly in favour of abandoning the “first past the post” system, and moving to some system of proportional representation.
1. The current system is being ‘gamed’ by politicians and political operatives, not for any corrupt purpose, but for their own comfort and convenience. The electorate knows this and, consequently, the trajectory of voter turn-out is ever downward. Voters feel as though they are irrelevant to the political process. The current system needs to be disrupted.
2. There are too many citizens who can’t consider change because they believe ‘what is’ is what must be. Our democracy is not perfect: it is also not immutable and we – citizens – are irresponsible if we accept the argument of immutability as reason to leave the form and process of democracy unexamined. Democracy can and should be changed when we see the opportunity to change for the better. The move to proportional representation represents one such opportunity. The “devil we know”, represented by the first past the post system (the inertia of rest and the dead hand of history) is not to be preferred over the devil we don’t know.
3. The current system is not nearly as effective as myths suggest. It leads to many poor outcomes. Andrew Coyne has exposed this well, and I commend his views on the subject to readers (Common Ground, p. 2).
4. Citizens should grasp every opportunity to nurture a dynamic system and to influence its evolution. Voting will assert our conviction that the system is not perfect, and can be improved. Voting will assert the legitimacy of citizen involvement in the improvement of our system.
5. Personally, I am convinced that the first past the post system is an inadequate system upon which to base the decisions we have to make in the years to come. Emerging conditions indicate the need to move away from adversarial politics toward collaborative politics, the need to move away from negotiating in secret toward negotiating in the light of day. Proportional representation by itself will not convert our politics to collaborative, or transparent, but it would shift our mindset positively.
6. There is nothing in any system of proportional representation that makes it inherently more susceptible to ‘weak’ or ‘bad’ government. The ‘big tent’ parties that dominate in ‘first past the post’ systems include diverse interests and diverging (sometimes conflicting) values, which lead to conflicting interests. At the present time the vital messiness of politics is dealt with entirely in secret – the confidentiality of caucus. Minority and coalition governments can work just as effectively as majority governments, and (at least some of) the negotiations that make for fruitful government take place somewhat in view of the public.
7. Parties themselves do not use the first past the post system in their own internal operations. There is not a single party, of any political stripe, anywhere in Canada, that uses the first past the post system to elect its leader. The reason is simple: parties know that the first past the post system encourages an adversarial culture and feelings of marginalization that would be unhelpful to the political decision-making process within the party. Consequently, every party in Canada elects its leader using some system that attempts to respect the majority rather than simply the plurality of voters. The parties want to heal wounds and promote collegiality within the party. Why not among the population generally?
8. When we use the term “one person, one vote”, our genuine concern is views, values, and interests, not bodies. The first past the post system can – and does – leave significant and legitimate views, values, and interests unrepresented or under-represented.
The current referendum has shortcomings. We don’t have as much detail as some of us want. We feel uncomfortable because we don’t understand, in detail, how any of the three options will work. The detail is going to be provided by incumbent politicians rather than by citizens. There may be another option for proportional representation that some of us might wish would be on the ballot.
I acknowledge all of these shortcomings. I expect them to be dealt with, in good faith and in the open, when the results of the referendum are known.
From my perspective, the current system is so broken, and has demonstrated its brokenness in so many elections, it is time to adopt a new path.
The sure sign of insanity is to repeat the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. We will not shift from adversarial politics to collaborative politics if we continue with the first past the post system. We will not shift from caucus secrecy to openness if we continue with the first past the post system. We will not shift from marginalizing significant legitimate interests to a more inclusive political process if we continue with the first past the post system.