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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
You go your way / I'll go your way too
— Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen
May 14, 2010
Lorne Guntner on Voter Turnout

Lorne Guntner writes in the National Post about a plan to effectively bribe people to vote by issuing a tax credit. He cites Australia as an example and then hits the key question right on the head (the emphasis is mine):

As voter turnout in our elections has slipped from 70% to 60% to 50% (in Alberta in the 2008 provincial election it was almost down to 40%), more and more of the hand-wringing, eat-your-peas poke-noses who dominate our public debates have called for a mandatory voting law, along the lines of the one in Australia, where non-voters are fined and turnout is often over 90%.

But why do we automatically assume the problem is with those who choose not to vote, rather than with those who have failed to inspire them to vote?

Why indeed?

Canada’s electoral system has essentially evolved—or devolved, depending on your perspective—to reward the middle. It embodies, in its very essence, that most Canadian of qualities: compromise.

Given this tendency towards the middle of the road, is it any surprise that people don’t vote?

Politics in Canada is about continuity more than innovation, and our three major political parties are closer than the media would have us believe. How do we get out of this rut?

Party Discipline and the Whip

Party discipline has gotten so extreme that getting a Conservative backbencher to even open their mouth in public is a miracle. Stephen Harper keeps even his cabinet ministers on such a short leash it seems like every time they talk someone gets in trouble. Couple this with a culture of secrecy—most recently and vividly embodied by the Helena Guergis fiasco—and it’s pretty tough to blame people for not knowing that their government is doing.

The point of using a riding system to elect our Members of Parliament is that each member is suppose to represent their riding. When the party whip cracks down, this doesn’t happen: the member represents the party, not their constituents.

This creates another problem: because elected members aren’t allowed to speak out, the circulation of ideas has been stifled. Members do nothing except toe the party line, which effectively limits discussion to three differing points of view.

An Effective Senate

Electoral reform is huge, and hard to do. This is in part because the structure of parliament is enshrined in the constitution, and in part because very people who need to implement the reform are the ones whose jobs are at danger.

Still…the senate. Useless and ineffective, the Senate has rarely played an active role in Canadian politics, and is fairly legitimately viewed as nothing more than a home for patronage appointments.

Start electoral reform in Canada by creating an effective Senate. Elect them, limit their terms, and make them responsible to someone who has to vote for them. It’s this lack of responsibility that’s especially galling. A government that’s not responsive to its electorate is a dangerous thing.

Proportional Representation

In keeping with reforming the Senate, it should be elected by proportional representation. This would allow it to serve as an effective check against the traditionally elected Parliament.

Proportional Representation creates a body that is freer to speak, less influenced by party discipline and more responsive to voters. All of these things are good.

By keeping the Parliament in its current structure the transition to proportional representation is eased somewhat. There’s a perception that proportional representation can result in an ineffective government that does nothing but squabble internally. The flip side of this is the unstoppable force that a majority government becomes under our current system.

Both of these notions have a kernel of truth to them, and both of these notions have advantages and disadvantages. Implementing both would create something in Canada that’s never existed: an effective check against the tyranny of the majority. At the moment, a majority government is effectively unstoppable. That’s not governing, that’s ruling.

There Are No Guarantees

There’s no guarantees here. Reforming the senate and making government more responsive and effective isn’t a magic bullet to increased voter turnout, and there are certainly other options to consider. Perhaps Canadians are just so comfortable and so complacent that nothing can make them care about their government.

As Guntner has pointed out though, it’s time to stop blaming the electorate exclusively. It’s time to consider the flaws in the system and the role they might play.

Posted by skooter at 4:02 PM This entry is filed under Canada, Politics.
This entry is tagged: Articles, Elections, Electoral Reform, Parliament, Senators

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