Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Proportional Representation - a bad idea

"The more innocuous the change, the more far reaching the consequences." (Anonymous)

Responding to yesterday’s National Post editorial "PR is a bad idea", Andrew Coyne asks:

What is it about proportional representation (PR) that turns otherwise
sensible individuals into raving loonies?
Good question Andrew! What is it about PR that makes Andrew Coyne such a raving fanatic in favour of changing an electoral system that’s served us so well for well over a century? He calls the Ontario proposal a "minor patch" to the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. He’s written several columns on the subject recently to convince Ontario voters to ‘go for it’.

We in BC narrowly escaped switching to STV (single transferable vote) in a recent referendum. But the PR pushers are still trying to get their way so we’re not out of the woods yet.

I'm not fond of the idea of switching to a system that institutionalizes back-room dealing to set up governance coalitions between parties. Who do the voters hold accountable for screw-ups and malfeasance? I'm not sold on the screwball notion, advanced by PR enthusiasts, of votes being "wasted" in the FPTP system (a vote for someone who fails to get elected is presumed to have been wasted?)

We were told that voting wasn’t complicated. The ballots were clear and simple - no problem - just show up and tick off the candidates. That's true, but then you try to follow how those ballots are counted to determine winners and losers. Not so simple. There’s a complicated formula cooked up in the back rooms by the experts and a computer spits out the answer. A website set up by the BC Citizen’s Assembly offers an animated simulation of exactly what happens in a typical scenario. That’s what finally convinced me there would be lots of unintended consequences.

And one more little thing. Coyne wrote in a column last week that the Citizen’s Assemblies set up to make recommendations on PR (or otherwise) were "randomly selected". So that’s good and fair and very democratic, right? Wrong. The BC Citizens’ Assembly (and I assume the Ontario CA) may have been randomly chosen - but from a list of self-selected, motivated and activist individuals heavily pre-disposed to changing the system. That a majority of the ‘expert’ witnesses they would hear would be enthusiastic champions of novel voting systems was highly likely. That the Citizens’ Assembly would recommend switching from FPTP to some other system was a foregone conclusion.

I hope the National Post continues to oppose PR. But it might be better if they printed rebuttals to the Andrew Coynes in the form of columns written by identifiable individuals rather than in anonymous editorials.


Kirby said...

Fortunatly for Ontario, a MMP electoral system, and not the same STV system that was voted on in BC has been recommended.

You do bring to light the issue of transparency in either system though.

After living through 33 months of minority governments like we have here in Canada, people are getting tired of constant campaigning and talk of early elections. Imagine if minorities become the status quo under a more proportional system. Eventually, people and their politicians would grow tired of the constant madness and would resort to forming coalition majority governments.

Is this really what we want for our democracy? How democratic is it... if it is the political strategists who decide who is in government, and not the people.

Don't get me wrong First Past the Post is not perfect. But as far as I am concerned this is one of those instances where I will choose the devil I know, not the devil I don't.

I blogged about this yesterday if you would like to check it out as well.


Joanne (True Blue) said...

Maybe you should send in a rebuttal to Coyne's column.

Swift said...

The PR supporters belive that votes for losing candidates don't count, and this is unfair, thus we should make the system better. So they come up with a system where every vote counts. Well not quite . Some people will be getting two votes that count and some will be getting none!

Let's say you vote for a "too many seats party." Unfortunatly the 2many seats party does not win in your riding. Thus the vote doesn't count. But you have got a second vote for the at large party candidates. Well no. The 2many seats party has too many seats, so none of the at large votes that the party gets are counted. you cast two votes but neither get's counted.

If you vote for a winning 2few seats party candidate your vote gets counted. Your vote gets counted for the at large candidate too. Two voes. Imagine that. Even if you accept that votes for losing candidates don't count this proposal makes things worse! And that does't count the problems with at large candidates and voting for the party but not the candidate.

JR said...

Comments noted and appreciated.

Joanne, I did send the NP editors a letter with a pointer to this post and mentioned the suggestion in the last para. I ain't holding my breath though.

derrida said...

"The BC Citizens’ Assembly (and I assume the Ontario CA) may have been randomly chosen - but from a list of self-selected, motivated and activist individuals heavily pre-disposed to changing the system."

Perhaps the decision reached by the Citizens' Assembly of Ontario was pre-ordained because the existing system, how would you Tories say?, sucks! Check out their website and you'll see what menacing, intransigent, and prejudicial cohort of activists hell-bent of radical social reform they really are.
Your fear mongering is built on self-evidence and faulty presumptions. For instance your framing quotation about innocuous change. Are we to accept that as a self-evidently valid claim? I don't. The system being proposed here is very different from what was proposed in BC. It is very easy to understand and indeed redresses some fundamental problems in the existing system. Democratically speaking proportional representation is an obvious. Why not admit that the reason the Tories are against PR is purely out of self interest. In the FPTP is parties with heavy concentrations of support win a disproportionate amount of seats. In 2004, in the prairie provinces the Conservatives had twice as many votes as the Liberals but won 7 times as many seats. Approx half-million votes were cast for the Greens and not a single seat. Whereas in the Atlantic provinces fewer than half-million votes resulted in 22 seats for the Liberals. For a different view of PR perhaps readers could go to here:

JR said...

derrida: “..fear mongering? ...self-evidence? ...faulty assumptions? Self-evidently valid claim?”

All very Derrida-esque. You disagree, therefore I must be “fear-mongering”. And “self-evidence” - it’s my opinion based on experience, observation, everything I’ve read on the subject and logic.

Being conservative I’m generally of the opinion that what isn’t broke shouldn’t be ‘fixed’. There’s insufficient evidence that there’s anything wrong with the existing system. It’s a system that helped to produce one of the wealthiest, most free and successful countries on the planet and it would be kind of nice to continue that way. Keeping power out of the hands of fringe minorities is a good thing.

It’s also my opinion that philosopher-fools like Derrida and Foucault have been a severe detriment to the mental health of millions.

derrida said...

Since you seem like one of the more sane, sober and thoughtful Conservative bloggers I've read, I thought I might respond. Check out Canadian Sentinel? Don't want to be around when he finally snaps.
Derridaesque? Quite the contrary. My comment was quite hastily cobbled together and hardly terribly profound other than pointing out what I saw as obvious limitations in your argument.
Having an opinion and having an informed opinion are two different things. You seem to think that just because something is your opinion that it's self-evidently true. Here's where if one wanted to be Derridean one could bring up iterability and intertextuality to show that the phrase "my opinion" is an oxymoron- but we needn't go there. But back to self-evident truth claims. You begin your critique of PR with the aphorism "The more innocuous the change, the more far reaching the consequences." (Anonymous). On what basis is this true or valid? Is this universal wisdom, is it true because you say so? Other than that I have no reason to believe it. Interesting that you mentioned Foucault who repeatedly warned against the dangers of glossing over naturalized or self-evident claims. In fact, these are the claims that need to be most vigorously challenged.
This leads me to my charge. You consistently use another faulty mode of reasoning, one favoured by Conservatives: fear mongering. You aphorism sets it up. The implication being: be careful folks, what they're trying to sell to you as a modest and benign proposal will undermine your extant security and stability and have disastrous unintended consequences. The fear mongering is reinforced with your characterization of the members of the Citizens' Assembly as a bunch of raving mad socialists/activists hell bent on destabilizing order, and who are anything but a representative sample of the general population. I agree there's some self-selection bias involved in all volunteering, but I think if you look at the profile of the members of the assembly (readily available on the website) your characterization is more of a caricature of your own worst enemies. Then, your description of what we could expect: institutionalized back-room dealing. Again playing on the fears of the unknown, the hidden that will threaten security and predictability. I agree that coalition governance will become the norm, but this needn't imply any more backroom dealing than goes on now, nor a revolving door of precarious governments and unnecessary elections. Quite stable and enduring coalitions often coalesce, and personally that's better than the bitter and petty partisanship of contemporary politics, not to mention the tremendous sense of entitlement shown by today's majority governments (case in point Ontario's Liberals). Lastly, you also prey on the fear of change arguing that the new system would be unwieldy, excessively complicated, and full of unintended consequences. Some unintended consequences? Yes, all decisions have them. But the system proposed in Ontario is really very straight forward and easy to understand.
Charging you with fear mongering is not simply a default reaction to disagreeing with you. I believe it's an unmistakable part of your argumentation. You Conservatives learn well from Republicans. Do you not see that Conservative love of militarism and fear mongering is deeply rooted in their fear of change and their yearning for a stability that never existed except as an infantile fantasy to return home. There's no there, there, Eden is a fantasy, the cost of being human is the interdiction to return there. Wandering, flux, and change are the human condition.

JR said...

Derrida, A few points:

By “Derrida-esque” I simply meant your apparently reflexive selection of the kind of jargon promoted by the radical relativists. Your current comment is riddled with similar jargon.

You glibly claim my opinion is “uninformed” - even though I clearly stated it was informed by “my experience, observations, everything I’ve read on the subject and logic”. Now I’ll add that it’s also informed by my general political inclinations (‘biases’ if you like) which are in turn informed by “my experience, observations, everything I’ve read on the subject and logic”. And, yes, of course I believe my opinions are correct (subject to adjustment with further experience and study). Why else would I espouse them? And there are many people better informed and qualified than I am who strongly oppose PR, so I feel I’m in good company.

Don’t pay too much attention to my opening aphorism. It doesn’t anchor everything I think about PR. It was merely a poke at Coyne’s glib assertion that the Ontario PR proposal is a “minor patch”.

You wrote: “The fear mongering is reinforced with your characterization of the members of the Citizens' Assembly as a bunch of raving mad socialists/activists hell bent on destabilizing order ....”. Now who’s fear mongering? I made no such over-the-top characterization. I merely stated that Coyne’s assertion that the CA’s were “randomly selected” was untrue - they were heavily biased in favour of change before they’d even begun their official task of evaluating options.

Granted, there is lots of backroom dealing going on in the present system - especially in the current minority situation. I regard this as a bad thing. Parties with relatively small electoral support have greatly exaggerated influence. Why would I favour implementing a system that more or less guarantees more of it?

In today’s National Post Gerald Owen discusses this in relation to the German experience
and offers a very good rebuttal to Coyne.