On September 20 Skeena NDP MP Nathan Cullen held a telephone town hall meeting for Skeena riding residents on the subject of electoral reform.
The following day he sent out a press release boasting that during the 63-minute session “Over 3,400 constituents logged almost 21,000 minutes of listening time,” and summed it up with “One thing that came through particularly loudly and clearly on the call is the mood for change in how Canadians vote for MPs.”
The statements may seem to be warranted given the responses to three questions which participants were asked.
1) Should parties win about the same percentage of seats (in the House of Commons) as the percentage of votes that parties get? 83 per cent answered yes, 17 per cent said no.
2) What is the most appropriate way for the government to reform our voting system? Multiple parties agreeing (20 per cent), referendum (39 per cent) or try new system then have referendum (41 per cent).
3) Should Canada change to a proportional voting system? 81 per cent said, 19 per cent said no.
The release also noted that those numbers were based on the votes from the 558 responses received.
Now there are few things I enjoy more than playing with numbers, so here goes:
21,000 minutes divided by 3,400 participants works out to be an average of 6.2 minutes per person. Factor in the number of people who stayed on the line for the full 63 minutes and the average number for the remainder is in fact even lower.
That hardly indicates, to use the phrase so favoured by politicians, a high level of engagement.
Let’s turn to the responses. Now the first problem we have revolves around that word. Usually polls talk about respondents, as in the actual number of people who, well, responded. Responses refers to the combined number of answers to all the questions.
So, if the release used the wrong word then 558 people answered each question. Which is only one-sixth of the people who phoned in. If they used the right word then 558 divided by three questions translates to only 186 people answering those questions, or just over an even more embarrassing five per cent.
Of course the release could have clarified all this if, instead of using only percentages, it had given the actual number of votes cast on each question.
Moving swiftly on, the release has Cullen saying that some of the participants doubted that the Liberals would keep their pledge for electoral reform, given that the existing system “bought them a huge majority with only 39 per cent of the popular vote.”
Now I don’t argue that this is inequitable, but would caution that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. My point is that the release makes the sweeping claim that “One thing that came through particularly loudly and clearly on the call is the mood for change” based on the participation of 3,400 people. So the people weighing in on the call represents a mere 7.8 per cent of those who voted in last year’s federal election in Skeena. That’s a heck of a lot less than 39 per cent.
One final point on the numbers. The release plays up electoral reform as a way to strengthen our democracy. Yet only 39 per cent of responses said any new system should go to referendum which I would have thought was the democratic thing to do.
Of course supporters of electoral change will claim that last year’s election WAS the referendum, the argument being that all parties except for the defeated Conservatives had electoral reform as part of their platform and therefore Canadians, by an overwhelming majority, voted for change.
I’m sorry, the suggestion that the Liberals won the election because of their reform pledge is nonsense. The number one reason that Justin Trudeau won was simple: his name was not Stephen Harper.
But let’s say that the proponents of reform are correct and Canadians overwhelmingly support change. Well then, they have nothing to fear from a referendum, do they?
FOOTNOTE: I am sure reformers will take a shot at me for not having nailed my colours to the masthead, as in what system I want to see. And they would be correct. But I have this quaint idea that I should reserve judgement until someone explains to me, in detail, how any of the alternatives will work. Then I will deliver my decision. In a referendum.
Retired Northern Sentinel editor Malcolm Baxter lives in Terrace, B.C.