Editorial: How much time is enough, what's going on, and what's best for us all?

Sara Golling
By Sara Golling
April 25th, 2018

How much time do citizens need to be informed enough to vote on an issue? Discussions about electoral reform and different forms of proportional representation compared with our long-standing system called “first-past-the-post” have been going on in BC for years. During that time, we’ve heard many opinions, but few as well-informed and thoroughly researched as those of Professor Arend Lijphart. His work is cited below, but first — do we have enough time for this whole exercise? 

The Liberals are now castigating the NDP for not being sufficiently open about the preparations for the referendum or the date on which it is to be held, and for not being sufficiently far along in the process. But one MLA points out that election periods for choosing a government are only 28 days long, and people are expected to inform themselves in that period. We are now approximately five months or more away from the referendum.  

Originally, the referendum was proposed for the same date as municipal elections, so that people could go to the polling place once and vote on both their municipal council members and on the issue of provincial electoral reform, but that’s no longer the case. The Elections BC website has a page on referenda, and it states,

“Elections BC will be administering voting for the 2018 Referendum on Electoral Reform, under the provisions of the 2018 Referendum on Electoral Reform Act.

“The referendum will be conducted through mail-in ballot. Voting must close no later than November 30, 2018. More details about the referendum, including how to vote, financing and advertising rules, will be posted on our website as they become available.”

As for the process, the BC government conducted an on-line survey that resulted in over 88,000 responses to the questionnaire, and those responses are being analyzed. They will inform a report and recommendations by BC’s Attorney General.  The report will be posted on the public engagement website and presented to cabinet later this spring for decision.

The referendum results will be “binding at 50% plus one of the vote province-wide” according to the government website. The website also states that if the majority of voters choose a new electoral system, legislation will be introduced in time for any election held after July 21, 2021. The next election for a provincial government in BC will be held on or before the third Sunday in October, 2021.

What really is better for BC citizens? Our current first-past-the-post system, used federally as well as provincially, has resulted in a number of governments holding all the power with less than 40% of the vote, which many people think is unfair to the 60%+ of voters who end up being represented by a person they did not vote for and a party they do not support. But supporters of first-past-the-post claim to fear that proportional representation would open the door to “extremists” holding political office. Others point to the current US president as one example of an “extremist” elected under first-past-the-post.

What does a Professor Emeritus of Political Science say?

Arend Lijphart published his most recent book in 1999: “Patterns of Democracy” examines closely the governance and electoral systems of thirty-six countries, and draws conclusions about the effects of their electoral systems on their quality of governance. Is Lijphart biased?  The dedication of his book betrays his bias: he dedicates it to his wife and their grandchildren “in the hope that the next century – their century – will be more democratic, more peaceful, kinder, and gentler than ours has been.”

Lijphart is a political scientist, currently Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California in San Diego.  He earned his PhD at Yale in 1963; he specializes in comparative politics, democratic institutions, elections and voting systems.  He has written or edited over a dozen books in his field.

In this book, he classes democracies along a continuum from “majoritarian” to “consensus.” The book is not particularly easy reading – dense and scholarly, it requires time and attention to study and understand the depth of his analyses. But he does summarize his conclusions.

“Majoritarian” means government chosen by and answerable to the majority of voters. What, Lijphart asks, is the alternative to that? He suggests a government chosen by and answerable to “as many people as possible. This is the crux of the consensus model.  It does not differ from the majoritarian model in accepting that majority rule is better than minority rule, but it accepts majority rule only as a minimum requirement: instead of being satisfied with narrow decision-making majorities, it seeks to maximize the size of those majorities.”

Consensus governments are those formed by agreement among two or more parties which add up to at least a majority of the votes, so that “as many people as possible” are represented in government decision-making. That generally requires a form of proportional representation when a country has more than two political parties.

BC citizens who want a change from the current first-past-the-post system point out that first-past-the-post seems to result in minority rule rather than majority rule – we’ve been getting governments chosen by less than a majority of the voters.

One of Lijphart’s conclusions, backed up by his preceding 300 pages of analysis and a further 30 pages of appendices and references, is that consensus democracies have a slightly better record than majoritarian democracies in “macroeconomic management and the control of violence” and that consensus democracies “clearly outperform the majoritarian democracies” in the quality of democratic representation, and what he refers to as “the kindness and gentleness of their public policy orientations.” He also notes that consensus democracies tend to be stable, rather than voters passing control back and forth between one party and its opposition, with flip-flops in policy.

Lijphart concludes, “the overall performance of the consensus democracies is clearly superior to that of the majoritarian democracies,” and he notes that choosing the consensus option is especially important, even urgent, for “societies that have deep cultural and ethnic cleavages,” as well as for more homogeneous countries.

Arguably, Canada is among the countries whose cultural and ethnic cleavages have been multiplying and deepening in recent years, and that includes most of our provinces. According to Professor Lijphart and his years of study and research, proportional representation is the path to a more inclusive democracy, and “kinder, gentler” public policy, as well as better “macroeconomic management.”    

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