.Is a Referendum the Best Way to Determine an Electoral System?
Theoretically a referendum may seem like the most obvious and democratic way to determine whether electoral reform is desirable in Canada; but, as we have seen with referendums at the provincial level in BC, PEI, and Ontario, the results almost always render the status quo, not change, largely because of the nature of the choices: the known against the unknowns. That is, first-past-the-post, whether on the referendum ballot or not, is stacked in a binary structure almost always against both a ranked ballot system and proportional representation. There is of course a built in psychological bias for the known in such a situation, and inevitably the unknowns tend to split the alternative vote. Those who want a referendum and favour FPP would seem to be aware of this potential structural deficiency, recognizing that first-past-the-post would inevitably be triumphant either by choice or default. In this context, then, a referendum is an illusion of democracy.
And so it’s clearly in the interests of those who enjoy a substantial degree of power through first-past-the post to maintain it. In this case, that would be the good old Conservative Party of Canada, who - let’s be honest - don’t really want a referendum because in fact they really don’t want electoral reform.* Instead, they just don’t want Parliament to consider the issue,** for their real concern is maintaining the power they enjoy through the status quo. Their call for a referendum, in other words, is a mere political ploy, not a genuine gesture in the direction of real democracy; and, sad to say, they’ve sucked in quite a few on the left of the political spectrum. THE CPC know that were proportional representation, for example, to be established, in many of the ridings where they have won by FPP - particularly rural ridings - their power would be significantly eroded.***
A referendum offers a second advantage to those who don’t want electoral reform in that it provides a much more straightforward opportunity to lobby if not propagandize against whatever systems are presented as alternatives to FPP by way of various media, editorials,**** op eds, radio talk shows and advertising - a much more difficult task to execute if reform were to be considered through a consultative all-party parliamentary process that would have the sanctioned weight of the representatives Canadians have elected to govern them. It is certainly one of the reasons some want a referendum rather than parliamentary consideration: it allows for substantial direct “partisanship” spin.
*Cf. Robin Sears: “The Conservatives are already demanding a referendum on any change to the electoral system, secure in the knowledge that that would mean certain defeat for any reform. Some gullible journalists have defended a referendum as an essential democratic test. What that naively fails to recall, of course, is that there has never been a non-partisan “democratic” referendum. The final choice will inevitably be political and require partisan approval.”**Why would they? First-past-the-post is not on the agenda, as the Liberal election platform clearly says: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.”***Under FPP, less populated rural ridings carry as much representational weight in parliament as do densely populated urban ridings. Because of that discrepancy, they are really less democratically representational. Both a ranking ballot system and PR in particular would in fact be more representational of all voters in a given riding and thus more democratic.
****This has already begun in rural newspapers and even The Globe and Mail.