Posts Tagged 'andrew weaver'

Proportional Representation and the hard work of coalition-building.

bc pro rep referendum ballot

My ballot has arrived for the mail-in referendum to change British Columbia’s voting system. I have no plans to return it.

Most of what follows I wrote months ago. I hesitated to publish it, on the grounds that if I didn’t care about the outcome, why jump into the debate?

On the other hand, since I’m pretty sure adding one more bag of hot air won’t tip the scales – why not?

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As a grumbler who disdains BC’s three main poltical parties about equally, the tactical consequences of switching to Proportional Representation don’t matter much to me. As I argued before, any partisan advantage would be short-lived anyway. Over the course of a few elections, ideological alignments would shift in hard-to-foresee ways as parties adjusted to the new landscape. By the time things settled down, the debate would be about switching to whatever the next sexy new model of democracy might be: some kind of instant Twitter polling, maybe.

In his column a while back, the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd (whom I respect a lot) interviewed UBC poltical scientist Max Cameron, who denigrated governments elected with sub-50% popular-vote totals – which would be nearly every government in Canadian history – as “false majorities”.

Cameron argued that Pro Rep, by forcing politicians to build coalitions across party lines, would reduce “hyper-competitiveness” and lead to a more consensual style of government.

I haven’t read Cameron’s new book and have no plans to, as it sounds super boring. That said, I’m not sure his premises are true: that current levels of competitiveness are unusually “hyper”, or that competitiveness is detectably less in jurisdictions with Pro Rep.

If competitiveness has increased of late, the increase must be unrelated to the voting system, which in Canada and the USA hasn’t changed; so it’s not clear why changing it would reverse the trend.

My main objection to his argument is that it confuses process – working across party lines – with outcome – reflecting majority opinion.

Suppose Party A and Party B, each supported by 40% of voters, form a coalition, the resulting government being half-A, half-B. Pro Reppers would argue that this government represents 80% of the voters. But couldn’t you equally argue that the A-B hybrid, never having been on the ballot, represents no-one?

To do the math another way: it’s not obvious that an outcome where 80% of the voters get 50% of what they want is fairer than one where 40% of the voters get 100% of what they want.

But in fact no voter ever gets 100% of what he wants because parties are already coalitions.

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In BC it’s the 10-20% of Green supporters who are the noisiest fans of Pro Rep. They feel hard done by because their votes, being thinly distributed across a large number of districts, often fail to elect a single member.

I can relate to their sense of alienation: I feel, as they do, that my point of view is unrepresented in the legislature. In fact I’m even more alienated than Green supporters: I don’t even have a no-hope third party to voice my obsessions.

Therefore I find myself wondering of Greens: if they care so much about winning, why not just throw in with the NDP? To an outside observer, their platforms seem mostly identical anyway.

“To you those minor policy differences might seem irrelevant,” you retort. “But they mean a lot to Green voters.”

Well, sure. I get it. Given the choice of a party that more reliably presses their buttons, Green voters rally to that party. Fair enough.

But in a representative democracy, it’s rare for your opinions to line up perfectly with the party or candidate you support. Most voters have to balance their own policy priorities against the need to win over other voters whose priorities will differ.

Do Green voters imagine that right-wingers are gung-ho for every clause of the BC Liberal Party platform? No: as former Liberal premier Christy Clark put it in a recent interview, the provincial party is “a marriage of convenience between federal Conservatives and federal Liberals” – though that understates the divisions among free market fundamentalists, rural fogeys, and suburban working stiffs, unified by nothing except a dislike for high taxes.

Yet when election time rolls around, they all swallow their reservations and line up behind the local BC Liberal candidate.

The Liberals have done the hard work of putting together a coalition that is broadly attractive to a large number of voters all over the province. Their opponents have failed to put together such a coalition.

If left-leaning voters could get behind a single candidate in each district, which in our voting system is the way you actually win, they would have a lock on power forever.

Why don’t the NDP simply retool their platform to address the concerns of Green supporters?

Because they know that by coming out explicitly against the exploitation of the province’s natural resources, they would lose a significant number of blue collar voters to the Liberals.

Why, then, don’t the Greens retool their platform to attempt to steal votes from the NDP?

Well, that’s what they’ve been doing; and it’s been working, albeit gradually. The Greens are up to three MLAs now, and hold the balance of power in the legislature. With careful organizing and a few lucky breaks, in a couple election cycles they could supplant the NDP as the left-wing alternative in BC, just as the Liberals supplanted Social Credit a generation ago.

However, to vie for power the Greens would have to water down their environmentalist bona fides, opening up the danger of a purist party stealing votes on their left, handing victory back to the Liberals.

Since the Greens and NDP have figured out that under the current system there’s no room for two mainstream parties on the left, they’ve concluded that their best bet is to change the system.

Okay. That’s allowed. But forgive me if I’m unmoved by their moral posturing. Democracy is not “broken”. Nobody’s votes are “wasted”. All the parties get to play by the same rules, and some parties persistently lose.

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Re-reading my earlier post on this topic, I got as far as the paragraph beginning:

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the [BC Liberals’] right-wing coalition hang together.

…And it took me a moment to remember why I’d thrown that “paradoxically” in there. So let me spell it out, because I think it’s a mildly interesting observation.

When I talk about media bias I don’t necessarily mean deliberate coordination. Young journalists, freshly escaped from the progressivist petri dishes of the North American higher education system, might sincerely intend to give conservatives a fair shake; but they unconsciously communicate their disdain and disbelief through their word choices, their headlines, the photos they choose to illustrate their articles, and of course, through which stories they cover, and which they ignore.

In a multi-party system like Canada’s, this bias affects which parties get taken seriously. Populists and social conservatives, in order to avoid the taint of association with icky “far-right” ideas, self-protectively cluster with libertarians and Bay Street types under a single big conservative tent; while politicians from the lefty fringe, emboldened by their friendlier media coverage, feel free to flake off into purist micro-parties which splinter the left-wing vote – helping the unified conservatives take power.

That’s the paradox: that left-leaning media might, in clumsily putting their thumb on the scales, accidentally be tipping elections to the right.

Does the theory apply to the real world?

I mentioned already how, here in British Columbia, vote-splitting between the NDP and Greens helped the centre-right Liberals to stay in power for most of the 21st century. The last attempt at a BC Conservative party, which polled in the double digits for a few weeks back in 2011, was portrayed as a clown car of kooks and crypto-Nazis, and soon collapsed amid infighting by its not-ready-for-primetime leadership.

Contrast with last year’s election, in which the evidence was at hand to paint BC’s Green Party leader as touchy, paranoid, and litigious, but the media settled instead on Andrew Weaver, principled man of science; the left-wing vote was once again split; and the Liberals came within a hair of winning their fifth consecutive term. [1]

I also mentioned the UK where, if UKIP hadn’t been depicted as a gaggle of swivel-eyed loons they might have thwarted the Tories in a few vital seats, allowing Labour to win the very winnable 2015 election; in which case, the Brexit referendum would never have occurred. I don’t know enough about the British political scene to say whether the separatist, social-democratic Scottish National Party – who sealed Labour’s defeat by wiping them out in Scotland – were given an easier ride by the British media than UKIP; I’d wager they were.

It’s just a theory. It’s not really testable; there are too many other factors that decide elections, from scandals to stock market crashes to leaders’ winning smiles, for the effects of media bias to be isolated; and half my readers will argue that the bias I’m describing doesn’t even exist.

They might be right. Media bias is visible only when it’s going against you; when it supports you, it looks like clear-eyed acknowledgement of reality.

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Incidentally, I find it hilarious that when someone frets that Pro Rep might lead to the election of “extremist” parties – by which they usually mean right-wingers – the Pro Reppers reassure us that, don’t worry, there will be a 5% popular vote threshold to prevent those cranks from sneaking into the legislature.

Apparently if the Green Party’s 15% vote share translates into a mere three seats, it’s a crisis of democracy requiring that the voting system be completely overhauled. If the Trump-Brexit-Rob-Ford Party of Canada garners 4.9%, it’s perfectly fair for those dangerous votes to be tossed directly into a dumpster.

I’m not sure what happens if the extremists ever squeak up to 5%. Do we have to change the voting system again?

M.

1. Vaugh Palmer, post-election: “[Andrew] Weaver promised to usher in a new way of doing politics – more dignified, more respectful. Instead, with his recent bad-tempered and overbearing outbursts, he risks becoming the latest example of the bad old way of doing things.”

In 2016 I declined to join the mass freakout over Trump and Brexit. A couple weeks back I wondered why people with strong political opinions are so irritated by undecideds and abstainers. And as always when electoral reform comes up, I have to link to my discussion of Nevil Shute’s wacky multiple voting scheme.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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