Friday, February 27, 2009

The Daunting Prospects of a Liberal Majority Under First Past the Post: Why Liberals Should Prefer a Preferential Balloting System

Last post in this little mini-series (which is also the most comprehensive): So let's say in the next election (or the one after that after some time in govt) the Liberals get the following results:
Ontario: We equal Dalton McGuinty's seat count of 71 out of 106 (+33)
Quebec: We pick up 20 seats in Quebec and win 34 of 75. For context, Jean Chretien's high water mark was 36 seats with 44.2% of the vote (21.5% more than our 2008 numbers) and with the Alliance, PCs and NDP scoring a combined 13% of the vote at the same time (Conservatives, Greens, and NDP had 37.3% combined in 2008)
Newfoundland: We keep our seat count of 6 of 7 seats (NC)
PEI: We win back the 4th seat for 4 of 4 (+1)
Nova Scotia: Win 7 of 11 seats (+2)
New Brunswick: Win 7 of 10 seats (+4)
Manitoba: Win 5 of 14 seats (+4)
Saskatchewan: Win 3 of 14 seats (+2)
Alberta: Win 2 of 28 seats (+2)
BC: Win 12 of 36 seats (+7)
NWT: Win back the seat (+1)
Nunavut: Win back the seat (+1)
Yukon: Hold the seat (NC)
TOTAL: 154 out of 308

That's STILL shy of a majority (the other parties would ensure we would get speaker so our real number would be 153).

I don't worry at all about our ability to win a minority government in the next election, but I don't think many would disagree that the above would be an absolute ideal scenario in each province for quite some time and if we are really honest I would say those Quebec numbers will be extremely tough to obtain now that the NDP, Greens and Conservatives (Alliance/PCs in those days) don't score a combined 13% in Quebec like in 2000. In Ontario the McGuinty results were with 42.2% Lib, 31.6% Con, 16.7% NDP, and 8% Greens which compares with 39.2% Con, 33.8% Lib, 18.2% NDP, and 8% Greens in Ontario in the last election so that would require a pretty big turnaround (which I don't at all rule out) just to match that seat count but I would say McGuinty's result is probably the best we can hope for in the province for the foreseeable future. As well, the number of seats out West where the Conservatives won with over 50% of the vote is also huge and the NDP poll better than us in may parts of the West so the possibility of doing better in the Western provinces than those totals is very unlikely for quite awhile (though I'd LOVE to be proven wrong). In fact the province by province results above are probably out of reach for many more elections and yet they are still not quite at majority levels.

We won majorities with the help a divided right in Ontario that allowed to take almost every seat there. That reality no longer exists. In fact if you look at the 1993, 1997, and 2000 election results and knocked our Ontario seats down to the McGuinty count of 71 in those elections and left everything else the same, we would have had a bare majority in 1993 (150/295 seats) and minorities in the other two elections (1997: 125/301 seats and 2000: 143/301 seats).

At a minimum just to get 154 seats now would almost certainly require higher national popular vote totals than we ever received under Chretien in 1993 (41.2%), 1997 (38.5%), and 2000 (40.9%) since those majorities were obtained with a divided right, the NDP never scoring above 12% and the Greens being a complete non-factor (and even under those conditions in 1997 we only won 51.5% of the seats).

So given this reality, if we as Liberals believe that a Liberal majority is the best form of government for this country isn't it time we admit that an electoral system that benefits the Bloc Quebecois more than any other party (note how even in 2000 we beat them by 4% in the popular vote and they still won more seats in Quebec than us) and gives the Conservatives drastically more representation out West than they deserve (based on the popular vote) is no longer in our partisan interests (not to mention the national interest)?

Isn't it time we had a SERIOUS discussion about supporting electoral reform?

I wrote my thoughts making the case for electoral reform back in October (though only posted yesterday), but that was more from why this was the right thing to do from a fairness/good governance perspective and the last post was about why it is right thing from a national unity perspective. Here is why it's the right thing for Liberals to support from a partisan perspective.

The Liberals Would Win More Seats Under Preferential Balloting than First Past the Post and Conservatives Would Become the Permanent Opposition

Just as an example under IRV (STV is obviously more complicated to do the math to lay out), ANY riding (in STV it would be a designated region) where the winning party won with say less than 45% of the vote and we finished second would become easily in play for us. Strict partisans could still just cast their first choice for their party of choice and not make any other rankings while others could at least give their 2nd or 3rd choice a better chance of winning - so if you are a progressive NDP supporter you would rank Liberals 2nd (or perhaps 3rd to the Greens) and help them beat the Conservative (if you wouldn't rank Liberals ahead of Cons what were you doing supporting the coalition then?).

This way of electing MPs would work towards ensuring that every Liberal government had greater representation from rural areas, Francophone Quebec and the West than we've ever had in a Liberal government in over 40 years.

The alternative is hard feelings in the West each time a Liberal government comes to power because the Western representation in government gets cut by more than 1/2 and Conservatives continuing to win ridings with less than 40% of the vote (e.g., as David Graham noted, in Guelph Conservative Gloria Kovach came within a few percent of winning and she would have been the last choice of Liberal, NDP and Greens voters so she'd have no chance under IRV).

To be honest a Liberal majority would still be difficult under a new system and sometimes we may fare worse than under FPTP (though I think it would be rare) but if you believe that the current system makes it easier for the Liberals to obtain a majority than one based on preferential balloting I would say that belief is very difficult to justify. FPTP may have served us well from a partisan perspective when the right was divided and our opponents on the left could never gather more than a combined 10% but those glory days are well behind us now.

At least under a new system such as IRV or STV, while neither is truly proportional representation, the popular vote would take on more significance and coalitions would be more acceptable in order to provide greater stability when any one party failed to achieve a majority and the coalition would always be led by Liberals.

Conservatives would spend decades out of office unless they completely dropped all their right wing ideas (there is after all a progressive majority in this country who would never rank the current Conservatives as their 2nd choice).

We Elect Our Party Leaders (and Potential PM's) This Way, Why Not Our MPs?

The NDP and Conservatives may oppose IRV or STV for partisan reasons (the Liberals are the second choice of more voters than their parties' are), but if I'm not mistaken both of those parties elected their leader by IRV so if they are ok with electing their party leader (and in the Conservative case, the potential PM) that way, why not our MPs?

The same question could be asked of Liberals who support one-member one vote for our leadership selection since surely an IRV vote by all the membership (hopefully at least weighted by riding though) will be what will be proposed for the constitutional amendment on the convention floor.

What About Failed Provincial Referendums?

As well, using failed provincial referendums as a reason for not having a national debate fails to take into account that the reasons for electoral reform nationally are FAR different than those provincially. In fact the case is much less convincing provincially. For instance, in Ontario we don't have problems of Ontario unity (at least nowhere near the national scale), we don't have perpetual unstable minority governments, and we don't have a system that overly benefits a separatist party.

The Status Quo Doesn't Leave Partisan Liberals Great Options

If we don't hold a national referendum on changing the current electoral system (and if the referendum fails so be it) then I would say the only options left are:
A) Seriously considering another Liberal-led formal coalition down the line (though not necessarily right after the next election) as the only way to actually have a stable governing majority under First Past the Post that lasts more than 2 years
B) Simply just getting used to unstable minorities as far as the eye can see: having national elections every 1.5-2 years and always being on election alert.

Those who opposed the coalition probably don't like A, but B isn't exactly too appetizing in my view. So let's look for another way.

I see this as one clear issue where the interests of the country and our party are best served with another system where individuals are allowed to rank their preferences (e.g., IRV or STV) so that their vote counts no matter where they live. I don't like it that my party is resented in several corners of the country and I think the best way to remedy that is, as Michael Ignatieff has said, to gain more representation from those communities in government.

Any preferential electoral system would accomplish that much better than First Past the Post.

Canada deserves a truly nationally representative government and electoral reform is the best way to make it happen.

Final Notes: Yes I'm sounding like a broken record, but this should be my last post on this for some time. Since only a small number of Liberal bloggers discuss this issue I just thought I would do a little blog bursting of my own. And if you wonder why I don't take a clear stand for IRV over STV it's because I think either are a major improvement over FPTP and I believe the ultimate system on the ballot should be decided by broad consultations so I'm not going to wed myself to one approach over another at this point in time.

People first have to be convinced of the need to replace our current system before we move towards a consideration of the alternatives. They may reject the alternatives but I believe our current system is the source of enough problems it warrants an extensive debate on whether we want to keep the one we have.

I would hope no one argue that the people of this country should have the final say on the matter.

Recommend this Post


Anonymous said...

I just find it offensive that its more about how we can make Liberals more comfortable and the Cons uncomfortable rather than improving democracy.

I say simple PR with party rolls,(hopefully parties will vote on the people on the rolls)
and a 5% cut off for representation. I don't care who it benifits if its fair.

catherine said...

IRV would be my first choice for a voting system, because it maintains our system of local representation, does not give parties any more power, allows for more voter input, and encourages candidates to reach out to be a second choice (in other words, discourages nasty attacks).

I don't know how all the parties would fare, because voters tend to accomodate the voting system. Canada is diverse enough that it won't tolerate one party ruling indefinitely. So, I would not assume this would hurt the Conservatives, except possibly in the short term. Harper has done nothing to reach out to non-Conservative voters and would be the second choice for few. However, even Harper would behave differently in an IRV system.

The problem I see is that to change the system, one needs to get a majority to agree to a specific change and many of the groups pushing for electoral reform dismiss IRV. They view proportional representation as the holy grail. However, having more small parties does not necessarily lead to better government or fairer representation as back room deals often determine who forms the government.

WesternGrit said...

Good post. Good detail. May be a good idea.

Danielle Takacs said...

Anon: I have done 3 posts on this issue in which I have made the case that either STV or IRV would be more fair from a democratic perspective and promote national unity.

The only reason these systems would benefit the Liberals more is because the Liberals are most likely to be the second choice of those Canadians that cast their first choice ballots elsewhere. That simply speaks to the appeal of Liberal policy and there's no reason for Liberals to apologize for that.

Your proposal would be a non-starter (just look at the problems it's caused where such a strict PR system exists) and I'm sure neither the NDP nor Greeens would support it. You should know it's going to take majority suppport in the House Commons just to get a referendum iniitiated so strict PR is just not going to be an option.

This also means though that at the least the Liberals and NDP would have to have a majority of seats combined in the House because Conservatives and Bloc will oppose any kind of electoral reform).

Catherine: Fair Vote Canada has said if STV doesn't pass in BC they will support IRV. Liberals for Electoral Reform I believe have said the same.

James Bowie said...

Great post Danielle. I was on the "No" side of the Onatario MMP referendum, but I support your suggestion for STV's.

The major drawback of an STV system is that it will make the counting of votes more complicated. This means election results will take longer to publish, and we'll be up later on election night. Small price to pay though.

I think we can handle it. Canadians are numerate people and marking their prefference with numbers insted of X's and checkmarks shouldn't be a problem. Just you wait though for the guy who marks his ballot with Roman numerals...

catherine said...

Catherine: Fair Vote Canada has said if STV doesn't pass in BC they will support IRV.

That's interesting. I wasn't aware of that, since their website, under the guise of informing people about different systems, still says that IRV (or AV) is "bad" and would be worse than FPTP.

Danielle Takacs said...

Catherine: I had thought I read something awhile ago from Fair Vote Canada saying that for now I'll retract what I said about them supporting IRV, because I can't find the link.

David Graham has said that Fair Vote's American equivalent supports IRV (see here), but I'm not quite sure where he got his info either.

Either way we will see what they say if the referendum in BC does not pass.

Christian Conservative said...

Better method of electoral reform... kill the corrupt beast known as the Liberal Party of Canada. Then we can have a more realisticly strong three party system, under which each party has a greater likelyhood of forming Government, even the NDP. (who says I'm not for equal opportunity?)

Benefit is that you don't have to reform the whole electoral system, you just have to reform your own party. It would allow for more realistic representation of the views of all Canadians, and would force each of the parties to actually listen to Canadians, along with each other, and force them to work together for the national interest.

But, of course, for partisan hacks like you, it's not really about electoral reform, is it? It's about perpetual power. And you wonder why our system is so messed up... try taking a hard look at your own party Danielle.

Danielle Takacs said...

CC: This post seems to have a touched a nerve.

I'm not really sure what you are proposing here.

"we can have a more realisticly strong three party system, under which each party has a greater likelyhood of forming Government"

You suggest the Liberal Party disappear so what's the 3rd party that has a realistic chance of forming government?

And besides we both know unless the NDP dramatically changes its policies (which is unlikely) it has no hope of forming government whether there is a Liberal Party or not. What YOU seem to want it is perpetual Conservative rule because the disappearance of the Liberal Party would guarantee that.

I think I've been pretty fair in how I've approached this issue - I've outlined how its defensible from a both a democratic fairness and national unity perspective (if you read my last two posts). The fact that it would work to Liberal advantage is just because our policies appeal to the broadest spectrum of Canadians.

A new system would not mean perpetual Liberal rule if the Conservatives overhauled their policies, but I guess it might be expecting too much that they might actually advocate approaches supported by a large majority of Canadians as opposed to their current approach of only caring about 40% of the population.

But I understand that electoral reform scares most Conservatives to death because you know your party would disintegrate back into Reform and PC wings (and many even a 3rd wing) if that happened.