On Canadian Electoral Reform

My Father-in-Law, a native Calgarian marooned in Mississauga, spent several minutes at the dinner table last Sunday complaining about the lack of Western Canada representation in the new federal cabinet. His disappointment was palpable. When my wife suggested that it might be time for a change to the voting system he was quick to agree. However, as we debated the various versions of proportional representation it became increasingly difficult to reconcile the benefits of one over the other. Dad became quarrelsome and then confused. He decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, lost interest in the topic, and began instead to speak of different ideas on how the PMO could connect with the West. So much for the electoral change discussion in our home. I think we are representative of most Canadian households.

The debate around electoral reform lies in the hands of two main camps. First Past The Post (FPTP) is the current process used in Canadian federal elections. Proportional Representation (PR) is usually proposed as an alternative and is in place in several countries.

PR is an attempt to achieve a more accurate correlation between the voters and their government.  Proponents of reform argue that FPTP does not offer an accurate reflection of the wishes of the individual voters because, depending on where they live, their votes may not impact the outcome. Advocates for PR point out that the current system allows a Quebec focused party to win a disproportionate number of seats in parliament, unduly influencing the rest of the country.  FPTP also allows one party to hold every seat in a region and eclipse the voice of the minority. Examples are the Liberals in the Maritimes after 2015 and the Conservatives in the Western Provinces after 2019. Finally, they argue that PR should result in greater parliamentary diversity and it would provide more opportunities for alternative points of view to gain a voice. 

Supporters for the existing FPTP system argue that because it more often results in a majority government, it offers the best chance for political stability with consistent, long term domestic and foreign policies. With FPTP, it is less likely that a minority party wielding the balance of power can have lasting control which is fitting since, by definition, a minority party does not represent the wishes of the majority of the population. FPTP allows local independent candidates to have a voice because a strong contender can win a seat without being unduly impacted by a vote sharing or re-assignment scheme.  Local constituencies know their representatives better and have a direct impact on the choice of candidates who will stand for election. Lastly, defenders argue that FPTP is simple and easy to understand.

When I started this assignment, I expected to argue on behalf of PR as it seemed to be more equitable. However, I had done sparse reading about it and my information had been gleaned almost entirely through social media and short TV news clips.  Now, in light of more information, I have realized that neither solution is ideal. I find myself defending the retention of the FPTP electoral system because I believe that the two most important aspects of Canadian politics are legislative stability and the engagement of as large as possible a portion of the voting public in the political process.

I contend that Canadians generally prefer stability and the status quo. 45 years in business has taught me that change and uncertainty are regarded with suspicion and unease. It’s clear that this inclination translates from business to all aspects of everyday life, including politics.  This aversion to uncertainty is manifested by the fact that over the past 120 years, Canadians, after expressing dissatisfaction with a party or leader, have settled for a less than perfect choice rather than continue with the upheaval of a dysfunctional minority government and non-stop electioneering. 

Because PR promotes the inclusion of smaller parties and greater variety, it would almost always result in minority governments and more frequent elections.  Voters could anticipate several regional opposition parties less able to form an effective opposition. This could encourage political backroom dealing as parties trade favours and compromise their election platforms to win support in the Commons.

Under FPTP, policies based on the election platform of a winning majority party could be more readily implemented. The government could pursue its announced objectives without being held ransom by a party holding the balance of power. In addition, FPTP results in a strong official opposition party, likely to have the ability to hold the governing party’s feet to the fire. 

As to the issue of voter engagement, electoral reform is an attractive idea until you realize how confusing some of the PR choices can be. People like simplicity and they don’t like change. Apathy is common in our political environment. In Canadian federal elections, fewer than 70% of voters make the effort to participate. In 2019, that number was 66%. The current election process is to select one of 5 or 6 names on a ballot and the election results are easy to follow and understand. In a PR system, voters would be asked to make multiple selections, a sort of first choice, second choice and so on. Then, it would be left to a complicated calculation and/or backroom decisions to identify the winner. This process could result in no direct relationship between an elected representative and their constituency. A more complicated PR voting system would likely result in fewer voters. 

Some of the issues raised by pro-reform supporters could be resolved under FPTP.  Diversity could be addressed by political parties selecting candidates to stand for election under their banner that more accurately reflect the communities and the party planks they seek to represent.  Regional differences such as those in the Maritimes, Quebec and the Prairies will always exist in a country the size of Canada. While PR may provide more parliamentary seats for the minorities in those regions, they would only have the power to affect change if and when they could act in concert in a minority government situation. Few such parties have platforms that would suggest they could do so. Instead, Canada could better move forward if the major parties address the gaps and deficiencies within their own platforms so as to reach out to these disaffected voters.

Finally, we must remember that the question has been asked and answered by the voters themselves. Canadians have rejected change four times over the past 13 years. British Columbia voters went to the polls in 2018, for the third time since 2005 and when presented with three different PR options, most BC provincial ridings voted to retain the existing FPTP system. The overall result was a resounding 61% plurality. Similarly, in 2007, an Ontario referendum resulted in nearly identical results. 63% of voters chose to retain the existing FPTP system. Only 5 ridings voted in favour of PR. While those referendums were about provincial elections I’m confident that the results would be the same in a federal plebiscite. 

So, it seems clear that neither the FPTP or PR systems solve the country’s problems. We can’t afford to initiate such a change if there is no strong constituency mandate to do so. Electoral changes might inspire the enthusiastic few but may alienate the indifferent many.  Minority governments who spend their time running for office every year or two would have little time for governing and lawmaking. Election related costs would skyrocket. It’s time to put the question to bed and take up a different discussion.

With thanks to: http://www.cbc.ca, samaracanada.com, theglobeandmail.com

 

The Art Gallery

I bought three art prints today after spending the afternoon at the gallery. I had been meaning to go since I returned from Vancouver 16 months ago but I never got around to it. While out west, I visited every gallery and museum in B.C. There’s a lot of Salish and Inuit art in Vancouver and Victoria, which I can take or leave. I’m a big fan of early twentieth century Canadian painting, especially work done by Emily Carr and Tom Thompson and work by or in the style of The Group of Seven.

The prints are not large, approximately 30 x 22 cm. Now I’ll have to find frames, which will likely cost me more than the prints. I’ll spend some time on-line tomorrow to try to learn what sort of frame is best and then more web time to find a shop, hopefully in my neighbourhood. I already have a particular wall selected for them.

All three of these are representations of oils by Carr. She spent most of her career on the BC coast and she’s better known for her watercolours but I’ve never appreciated that medium. It’s usually too pale and washed out for my taste. I prefer oils. They’re usually more vibrant and full of colour. I learned today that she often mixed her oil paint with gasoline in order to allow the paint to flow more freely on the canvas.

I don’t know much about art. I go to a gallery and look around until something catches my eye and then I read the wall plaque or the guide to learn more about it. I can’t tell what is artistically “good” and what isn’t. I just know when I like something. I deal with it in much the same way as I do wine.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the gallery. There were rooms I zipped right through and others that deserved some dawdling. There was a visiting exhibit of Jean-Michel Basquiat that I took the time to go through and there was a second special exhibit of photography that I didn’t get to before closing. The gallery can be a confusing place with dozens of interconnecting salons and it’s easy to get turned around or find yourself back where you started.

I don’t buy art very often. My apartment walls are still bare although I have a few things that I could have hung if I’d gotten around to it. Now I’ll have to, so watch for snaps on my Shots page. Maybe I’ll hang the rest of my pictures at the same time. I should probably pick up some boxes too. If this is like every other place I’ve lived in, when I finally complete my decorating, I’ll end up moving. ©

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Lemming

I’m afraid of heights which is really a cliché. If you look up an on-line list of the most common fears, heights would be right at the top along with bugs and water and snakes.

I’m not talking about aircraft or roller coasters or the CN Tower. I mean places like apartment balconies or the atrium railing on the 5th floor at the library. It’s not the idea of falling that scares me. I live in the city and the chances of accidently falling any great distance is miniscule unless one qualifies as one of Darwin’s rejects.

No, it’s that little lizard voice whispering in the deep recesses of my brain. A momentary flash of vertigo and a fleeting impulse to jump. I’m guessing that it’s some sort of primal instinct gone wrong. We all come from the same basic cellular unit and share features with many different animals. Maybe this is our link to the lemming.

Do any of you you get this feeling too or am I actually going off the fjord’s cliff on my own? ©

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VSO

While living on the west coast, I struck something from my bucket list. I had always wanted to attend the symphony and the VSO is an orchestra of Canadian renown. I bought a package of tickets to three performances and looked forward to what I had been told by one friend would be an exhilarating evening for any music lover, even one unfamiliar with classical music. Another friend raised an eyebrow and wondered if I’d asked for the senior’s discount. I ignored her.

The Orpheum Theatre in downtown Vancouver is an ageing beauty dressed in cream and gold and deep red velvet, still lovely in the soft light of her chandeliers and wall sconces. Oil paintings and memorial plaques adorn the walls and there are comfortable chairs and sofas scattered about the halls and foyers. It’s easy to imagine the early Vancouver upper crust in gowns and tuxedos gathering in the orchestra lobby or climbing the stately staircases to the Dress Circle. Inside the auditorium, the decorative painted ceiling and the sculpted backdrop complete the effect.

The first half of that night’s performance was by a visiting pianist. The music was marvellous and when the audience stood to give him a standing ovation and a curtain call, I joined them. At intermission I bought a glass of wine and took a stroll around the theatre. I was quite pleased with my choice in entertainment. The music, the building and the ambiance provided an entirely pleasing experience. I looked forward to the next performance in my package.

Back at my seat, I took off my jacket. The balcony was warm in the late summer evening and the AC seemed to be struggling. The next musical pieces were described in the program as stirring and I settled back to enjoy them. The first was pleasant but I thought “stirring” was a bit generous. And it was long. The final work started with even less melodic flair and seemed to be entirely about the violins.

I awoke with the first burst of applause. Embarrassed, I jumped to my feet and joined the audience in a stirring round of appreciation. I didn’t tell either friend about my nap. ©

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In Transit

Mornings and evenings in a subway station are not the same. People are in a hurry at either time but in the evening they’re heading home looking forward to relaxing after a long day or thinking about getting ready to go out for the evening. This morning, as on any weekday morning, the station bustles. There’s an urgency in the air as workers hustle to get to work on time. Its a busy, noisy place at 7:30 am.

I join the commuters streaming down the escalator and watch them jostle to claim their places in the turnstile queues. Voices echo as neighbours share their plans for the day. The clatter of feet and the mechanical rattle of the turnstiles resound off the tile. A steady breeze flows down the stairs from outside and then down the far stairs to track level. It’s as cool as a cave below ground and there’s a slight smell of floor cleaner mixed with a dozen passing fragrances.

Like me a few people are standing against the wall waiting for colleagues or travel partners. There’s a busy kiosk in the far corner selling newspapers and candy and a small crowd is huddled around the cash register, impatient for their turn. Next to the kiosk sits a collection of silver coloured waste and recycling containers. From one of them an escaping page of newsprint trembles with every gust.

The concourse is clad in tile. A black border runs along the floor about a foot from the walls, corralling the grey-white granite squares. Years of traffic has eroded the original finish and the surface is marked by shoe scuffs and tracked-in street dirt. The ceramic tile walls are a clean and shining pearl, save three bands of pine-green at floor, shoulder and ceiling. The ceiling tiles are white and a half dozen neon light fixtures and a few fire sprinklers break its plane.

Every few minutes the air rumbles and then up the stairs from track level comes a roar and the squeal of brakes. Doors hiss open. Seconds later the cars rush back into the tunnel. The wind from each train sends a collection of litter near the stairs shifting like debris caught in a river current.

The crowd thins as I wait, the stream only a trickle and the queues have disappeared. The latecomers are scurrying past me in their ones and twos. All of the others who were waiting along the walls have gone. The concourse is almost empty except for a whiskered, denim clad busker strumming his guitar at the bottom of the steps and a trio of teen boys huddling with a slim girl by the ticket machine, hooting and laughing as she flushes in response.

I see my friend coming down the steps from the street. I wave and meet her near the turnstile. We step onto the escalator and the concourse slides out of sight. ©

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