November’s referendum on electoral reform is about greater democracy, widening the circle, including all in the ruling function. Not everyone can have their way, but in a true democracy everyone should have a say. The current voting system gives all the power to about forty percent of those who vote. In a typical election the majority of voters do not get the local candidate nor the party for which they cast their ballot. Those who defend it, defend privilege, position and power. To capture the full potential of our future we need to be more inclusive.
First-past-the post (FPTP) works when a society is relatively homogenous where most people think alike and have the same interests. That is no longer the world we live in. Today, all the world’s diversity, challenges and opportunities are increasingly present in our communities, right here at home. That requires modern tools. Under FPTP, the US has become ungovernable, except by Executive Orders, which do not last beyond the next election. Judging from the recent Ontario election, Canada is following suit. Britain is wobbling to contain its growing diversity. The old tools are inadequate for a diverse society. We need a voting system that is progressive, forward looking, that represents many needs, that is inclusive and that serves the long-term common good.
A voting system that awards all power to the largest minority has real consequences for public policies. For example, the BC Liberals could safely ignore raising welfare rates for ten years because welfare recipients and the disabled were not their voters. They ignored housing affordability because those most affected did not vote Liberal. Since the 2017 election, unfair distribution of power has shifted once again. Now, the BC Interior and North have few MLAs on the government side and little representation at the cabinet table. In addition, the new government quickly shifted priority away from the Massey Tunnel crossing to the Pattulo Bridge. In contrast, under PR, no significant part of the province or segment of the population would be ignored, because all votes count and government power must be shared.
That FPTP magnifies divisions and polarities in societies with deep diversity is well understood. In 1921 in a successful attempt to lessen hostilities, the British imposed PR on the Republic of Ireland. Following World War Two the Allies imposed PR on Germany. We must learn from history and recognize that FPTP cannot bridge deep diversity leaving such societies open to social unrest. Increasingly, Canada and British Columbia are subject to greater diversity. If multiculturalism is to have a chance we need a voting system that strives to be inclusive. Our world needs more cooperation and less polarization, more working together, less going it alone. FPTP has had its day and should be consigned to the ash heap of history.
In a true democracy all significant interests and diversities exert pressure on the tiller of the ship of state in proportion to their numerical strength. But under FPTP the captain, elected on a minority of the vote, takes over the helm and orders everyone else off the bridge. It does not serve well the common good, divisions and polarizations ensue, until the next election when a whole new lot takes over whose first order of business is to overturn and undo all that the previous administration accomplished. In contrast, under PR successive administrations are largely made up of people from the same political parties. Change is gradual and incremental offering greater stability to public policies that serve the long-term common good.
Everywhere democracy is in retreat. Fuelled by fears, people look for strong leadership. But what is strong leadership? In November I will vote for strong leadership based on inclusion, consensus, cooperation. I will vote for the future, rejecting a system that concentrates power in favour of a system that disperses power, because the best guarantee against abuse of government power is to share that power among the many, rather than the few. I will vote against position, privilege and power in favour of a better democracy.
Nick Loenen is a former Richmond Councillor and MLA, co-founder of Fair Voting BC and author of Citizenship and Democracy, a case for proportional representation.