This doesn’t feel like my democracy


A blog about my Romanian trip last month may seem like an odd place to discuss the online survey about Canadian electoral reform.

But the launch of the survey — and its subsequent ridicule — all happened during the two weeks I was out of circulation.  I even missed a prompt to participate myself, until I heard that today might be the last day the site is active.  For me, the survey is unfinished business from my trip.

So I went through it this weekend, with the benefit of some more perspective.  In addition to the fairly vicious media commentary about this initiative, I’ve seen proportional representation at work in another country.  Plus we’ve seen the Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal be shuffled out of her post.

Like others, I found the survey manipulative. I didn’t appreciate that we weren’t being asked about actual electoral reform models (except for ones that seem appalling ideas, like mandatory voting or reducing the voting age), and I found some of the tradeoffs between democratic principles quite forced.

I amused myself through the survey by trying to imagine what it was that the masters of this survey were trying to accomplish via each question.

And I suppose this is the real issue.  I don’t mind the federal government asking questions so much.  But I would be very wary about what it would tell Canadians about what they believe, based on this survey.

The answers to this survey seem to be highly dependent on the tradeoffs set up in the questions.

It would be one thing if the government releases the results of the questions, one by one, with the questions asked and the answers given.  That way, we all can see what people said, based on the rather odd questions that were asked.

But I think that Canadians would frankly dismiss any attempts to portray these results as support for one electoral system or another.  We don’t know how representative was the slice of Canadians who bothered to respond.  And we certainly don’t know the transmission mechanism between the principles in the survey to particular electoral reform proposals.

And one thing I learned in my trip to Romania, is that not every electoral system other than first-past-the-post generates a democratic panacea.  Recently in Bucharest we have seen sworn in a government with legislative representatives very accurately reflecting the proportion of votes cast, it is true, through the party-list Proportional Representation system.  But we also have low electoral participation, and a sense of profound malaise through the system.  The stability of the party list system helps perpetuate the corruption that is pervasive and a real barrier to Romania’s development.

Now, I’ve said before that a party-list proportional system doesn’t appear to be the first choice of Canada’s leadership either, and about that I am glad.  But I mention the Romanian point, as it’s important to get down to the brass tacks of actual electoral reform proposals.  For some reform proposals come with side-effects that might be worse than the pendulum of over and under-representation that we get from first-past-the-post.

So if we are to have electoral reform, let us talk about the actual proposals.  I’m enough of a junkie, that enjoyed filling out the survey just a little bit.  But if I start hearing stories built on this shaky foundation about what Canadians believe — as if the responses have the authenticity of a referendum result — it will not at all feel like my democracy.