Electoral Reform at YIMBY

I was at the YIMBY festival (http://www.yimbytoronto.org/) yesterday at the Fair Vote Toronto table promoting electoral reform. Unfortunately there was another group there as well opposing real electoral reform. That’s the way YIMBY operates – they don’t judge, they just present a forum for groups.

The group opposing real electoral reform represents everything I oppose in public forums. It’s not that they are against electoral reform, although such a position cannot be supported by facts, evidence or reason, but rather that they don’t campaign honestly.

Rather than presenting the facts about what they want, they instead spin stories about how elections could work, with the implication that their proposal would do that.

Let’s start with the basics: there are two categories of electoral systems, winner-take-all and proportional representation.

Winner-take-all systems work by giving one group representation in each district and denying representation to all others. They are governed by Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which dictates that there is no perfect way of electing MPs using winner-take-all elections. There are only different tradeoffs. Switching from one winner-take-all system to another is a distinction without a difference – a phony reform.

Proportional systems work by each voter choosing who they feel best represents them. Providing that enough other voters agree with them, that person is one of the MPs elected in the region. Multiple groups gain representation in each region, limited only by the number of MPs to be elected in that region.

While winner-take-all systems and proportional systems are each used by roughly half the world’s democracies, almost all industrial democracies use proportional representation while winner-take-all elections are mainly used by poorer nations and former British colonies.

The specific proposal the other group advocates is a system that is so unpopular that it is currently used only by one nation. The various other nations (including 3 Canadian provinces) that tried it have all dropped it.

So why is this other group advocating it? One needs only look at who they are to understand. They are a mixture of opponents of proportional representation and young people who, as young people are prone to do, have become convinced of the justness of their cause more by the flaws of the current system than by evidence that their position is any better.

Neither opponents of proportional representation nor young zealots can actually defend their positions based on facts, evidence and reason so instead they resort to the usual marketing / spin doctoring tactics that have served the tobacco and fossil fuel industries so well.

I keep hoping that YIMBY organizers will change their policies to actually look at what the various groups are advocating before we start seeing groups like the Clean Coal Coalition, Friends of Science and other ironically named groups showing up. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting.

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Lessons unlearned

Napoleon once said “The greatest general is he who makes the fewest mistakes.” More than perhaps anyone else, he knew how to conduct a campaign, sweeping aside European armies as he conquered.

He also said ‘The art of war consists in bringing to bear with an inferior army a superiority of force at the point at which one attacks or is attacked.’ The armies of Europe outnumbered his but he found ways to take his smaller numbers from victory to victory by keeping his enemies divided and his forces concentrated.

Finally he said ‘The art of war is an immense study, which encompasses all others.’ Lessons learned from wars can serve to inform other campaigns.

For example, we can look at the unsuccessful attempt by Bill Clinton to bring in universal health care during his presidency. At the time there was great interest in such a plan and the majority of both houses could almost certainly have been talked into supporting it.

However, despite the hope and momentum, nothing ever came of it. Napoleon could have predicted the outcome.

Rather than assembling the advocates of a universal system behind the notion of universality and dismissing the various competing systems as implementation details, Clinton’s campaign for universal health care resembled more Chairman Mao’s hundred flowers. Everyone and their brother pitched their own ideas about how to implement it, while arguing that there were fatal flaws in competing systems. This was heavily encouraged by opponents of universal health care who spent vast sums confusing the issues.

In the end, the whole enterprise disbanded in confusion, accomplishing nothing.

In Canada today, there is similar grand hopes that we might finally get a fair voting system. And like Clinton’s health care reform campaign, there is no real attempt to organize around the principle of proportionality. Instead we see a hundred different ideas of what a perfect system should be, with advocates promoting their favourite flavour and disparaging the systems they feel aren’t ideal.

Fair Vote Canada, which should be devoting all of its scant resources to promote proportionality is instead splitting its energies between explaining various systems and promoting a particular system that no one else has ever proposed for Canada.

The subtext of all this seems to be that proportional representation, like universal health care, is an immensely complicated undertaking that requires extensive study to ensure you don’t get it wrong.

This will of course astound anyone with experience in either proportional representation or universal health care. Both are widely used throughout the world with many different implementations. In actual use it seems that the exact model really is just an implementation detail that is secondary to the principles of universality/proportionality.

As Clinton found out in the 1990s, the opponents of reform have far more money to throw into the campaign than advocates of change. Advocates of change need to concentrate their resources on the key issues to win. Being right on the issue doesn’t ensure victory.

All that opponents of change have to do is prevent you from producing a clear and coherent message. They thrive on sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt. When advocates for change join them in confusing the issue, the campaign is lost.

Two centuries ago, Napoleon demonstrated how to win and how to lose campaigns. Two decades ago, Clinton demonstrated how to lose a campaign. It’s appalling that today’s advocates for electoral reform display such a shocking ignorance of history in conducting their campaigns.

Make no mistake, proportional representation is a safe choice. You really have to work at it to screw it up. Unfortunately you’d never know that from listening to many of its advocates.

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what changes under proportional representation?

The short answers are nothing and everything. Or to be more precise, very little and a lot. It all depends on your perspective and on the system being considered.


Let’s start with election campaigns themselves. They won’t change dramatically but there will be subtle but important differences.

Central Campaign:

The central party campaign will still be important, as will the role of the party leader. They will continue to be the focus of media attention.

However parties will no longer be able to tell voters they need to vote tactically to prevent a horrible result. In fact such a tactic would likely backfire since, for example, a centrist party could form a coalition with either a leftist or rightist party. Voters worried about a rightist government would do better to elect more leftists than centrists.

Of course most people will just vote for whoever they believe best represents them. True centrists would be ambivalent to whether a coalition was left of centre or right.

That’s a small change but it is very important. Voters would be under no pressure to vote tactically. They could always vote sincerely.

Parties central campaigns would continue to be tactical as they present their stand on the issues they think will get them the most votes. Leftist parties will continue to campaign just to the left of the centrist party and rightist parties will campaign just to the right.

However it’s also possible that the left and right could each split into moderate and extreme groups, so that voters on all sides have choices. NDP too centrist for you? Vote for the Socialist Party instead. Conservatives too extreme, vote for the Progressive Conservatives. This will allow voters to be much more expressive in their voting choices.

Local Campaigns:

Outside of central campaign, there will be some minor changes in the local campaigns. The nature of these are partially dictated by the voting system. For example, under a pure list system or STV, parties will run regional candidates only. However no candidate can reasonably cover an entire region.

Instead candidates with regional visibility, such as popular incumbents and former media personalities, might devote most of their time to high profile events while less public figures will engage in ground campaigns targeting voters in their homes.

Of course, there will be fewer candidates in a region. While the Liberals were able to take all 25 Toronto seats in the 2015 federal election, they won’t do that under any proportional system. No party will run candidates that they know cannot win. So instead of 25 Liberal candidates, you may see anywhere from 12 to 20.

STV would probably see parties nominating the most candidates since they would need to have one or two more than they expect to be able to elect in a region. With STV requiring smaller regions, there will be more “also ran” candidates.

The converse is also true. STV may have smaller parties nominating fewer candidates than other systems. For example, when electing a single candidate would be a breakthrough for a party, they would need to nominate one per region. However if the system is MMP, the party may need to nominate candidates for each local seat to gain the ability to elect regional MPs.

Either way, from the point of view of a voter, the election campaign will look quite familiar. They’ll possibly see a local candidate from each party and will be bombarded with media coverage about other candidates from the same party.

Candidates will see a change in how they campaign. Well known candidates will concentrate more on big events while locally known candidates will focus more on their ground campaign.


This is were the big difference will be seen. The big difference of course being the bigger ballot. While under our current system, voters are faced with only candidate from each party, under any proportional system they will have a choice of many.

This doesn’t mean that voters have to know each candidate in order to make a choice any more that it does in the current system. What it does mean is that voters don’t have to vote for the party hack their favourite party dropped into their riding. If they like the party, they just need to find one of its candidates they feel is worth voting for.

Of course the choices vary by voting system. In an Open List system, you could just mark an X beside the name of your favourite candidate from a list from each party. In MMP you could face the same choice as our current system for the local candidate but the same choice as for Open List for the regional candidate. In either case tactical voting never enters into the decision process.

Under STV voters face a more complicate task. Being able to rank multiple candidates from each party is not an easy task even for a tuned-in voter. To make the task more manageable, parties resort to drone cards which provides a suggested ranking. In Australia’s senate races, almost every voter simply checks off a party’s rankings rather than risk spoiling their ballot.

Or voters may simply choose to not fully rank the candidate, listing only a few that they may have opinions on. This risks their ballot being “exhausted” (no more ranked candidates) before all the candidates in the region have been elected.

Either way the myth of the exquisitely informed voter ranking all the candidates in a region to get the most say in the election doesn’t really hold up. Practicalities get in the way.


Forming the government:

Again nothing changes but everything changes. After an election, the Prime Minister will still have the choice of trying to continue to govern or step down. Since most governments will be coalitions now, the Prime Minister’s decision won’t be so cut and dried as it currently is.

For example, when Paul Martin led the Liberals to defeat in 2006, they were facing a minority Conservative government. The Liberals + NDP + Bloc still controlled the most seats. Even if Paul Martin resigned as party leader over his handling of the election, a centre-left coalition could still have retained power.
Or the Liberals and Conservatives could have formed a Grand Coalition in the style of Germany’s Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.

Of course the same could have happened in Canada in 2006 even under our current system. However our current system is not kind to minority governments. Any of the coalition partners could trigger an election the moment they believe they can win a phony majority. That’s what Martin did in 2005, a decision that ended his political career.

That doesn’t happen in proportional representation. The voters wouldn’t have needed an inept Liberal campaign to punish the Liberals for triggering an unnecessary election, and Martin wouldn’t have had the lure of a phony majority to entice him to call one.

However 2006 did have an election and Martin’s party came in second. If he couldn’t or wouldn’t continue as Prime Minister, Harper would have been offered the chance to form one. Again this is exactly what happened.

However a Harper minority would need the support of another party or parties. It’s an open question whether the 2008 election would have happened under a proportional system. While Harper may still have asked for one, the Governor General could also have offered the Liberals a chance to form a government.

When one tries to form a coalition under PR, there are a lot of items up for discussion. There are specific issues of platform and also cabinet posts. Even the coalition leader, the Prime Minister, could be negotiated. This gives the coalition partners not just a say but also a stake in making the coalition work.

It also prevents parties from forgetting their election promises. Every point on a government’s agenda will discussed with their coalition partners and will be passed by representatives of the majority of voters. Parties cannot abandon their platforms without the voters abandoning them.

Being the government:

The aftermath of the 2011 election would have been much different. Harper’s Conservatives would not have had control of parliament. None of their omnibus bills would have seen the light of day since no party would have supported them. Instead of land mines buried in mountains of paper, Parliament would have demanded clear bills and proper debate.

Parliamentary committees would be fairly composed of members from all parties. Their work would include measures presented by those parties and would be properly debated on its merits.

Any coalition would have more than one party in the cabinet so pool of potential cabinet ministers is larger and the chance of getting a good one improve. The power of the Prime Minister is also diminished since cabinet decisions are just that – cabinet decisions. With the Prime Minister losing absolute control over cabinet, it becomes more democratic.

With more parties being privileged to government discussions, corruption is harder to cover up.

Because previous legislation had been passed by representatives of the majority of voters, the new government is also less likely to have to waste effort repealing ideologically driven legislation or overturning appointments to key posts.

In short, government is more likely work for the people. But if it doesn’t, the voters can turf the bums out in the next election knowing that their votes actually count.

Wrapping up:

The changes proportional representation brings aren’t big and obvious. Instead they are mostly subtle yet profound. The gridlock we see in the U.S. doesn’t happen in nations that elect parliaments using proportional representation.

Also gone is the spectre of demagogues getting the nuclear codes. Even Hitler never won anywhere near a majority of the seats in the Reichstags. He needed the help of compliant industrialists to circumvent their constitution in order to take control.

Once implemented however, proportional representation has proved remarkably resilient against campaigns to remove it. The voters like being in control and are loath to give that up.

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Left versus right

Been noticing something that really seems to distinguish the left from the right in politics these days. The left is all about doing the right things while the right is all about winning.

Some 20 years ago a Director where I used to work categorized it as the difference between being process oriented versus results oriented but it’s not really that. Processes can be changed as can goals. What doesn’t seem to change is that some people don’t care about the damage they do so long as they win while others don’t see “winning” as being that important. It’s the left that values getting the right results while the right values processes that lead to victory.

If you watched HBO’s docu-dramas on the 2000 U.S. presidential race and more recently the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings where Anita Hill was dragged through the mud, you’ll understand what I mean. In both cases the Democrats wanted the truth to prevail no matter what it was while the Republicans wanted to make sure their guy won even he shouldn’t have.

In the former film, it was about finding out how the votes actually tallied, with the Republicans doing their best to stop a proper count. In the latter case it was wanting to get witnesses heard while the Republicans tried to discredit them and/or prevent them from testifying and/or using the news cycles to manipulate public perception.

Few children like to play with those who need to win at any cost. However when it comes to adult life where we don’t have to deal with them directly, our standards appear to be looser. Lots of people supported Rob Ford’s bullying and support Trump’s the same way.

Canada’s Liberals revealed the truth about their basic political orientation recently when they turned out in droves to support their Prime Minister’s bullying attempt to ram through the assisted dying bill.

My background is science and mathematics. They have changed the world more than all the conquerors and great leaders in history. They’ve been able to do this not by winning but by a dedication to getting the right results, no matter what they are.

Outside the ivory towers and research labs, it’s not always easy to figure out what the right results are. However we all should be aware that when something involves promoting hatred, bullying, lying, cheating or taking advantage of others then we shouldn’t be doing it.

Most of the big issues are not all that difficult to sort out if we all start with the simple premise that my group isn’t more important than your group. Unfortunately we get back to the original problem that some people just want to win. Their group will always be more important.

The way U.S. politics is going, we may soon have a megalomaniac with his finger on the nuclear trigger and the weight of the U.S. economy and military ready to ensure that “we’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning”. Half of America is cheering that premise.

That quite frankly scares the crap out of me.

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There has been a lot written about “elbowgate”. I think the preponderance of it is absolute nonsense.

Most of what I have been seeing is criticism of Brosseau for complaining that she was elbowed in the chest. This is simply rubbish. No one outside of martial arts competitions should be expected to take an elbow in chest without comment.

Elbowing is even a penalty in that most gentlemanly of sports, professional hockey.

People often attempt to minimize it by saying it was just an accident. In this however they are decidedly incorrect.

Forgotten in most of the comments is that the whole reason Trudeau was in the area was to manhandle Conservative Whip Brown back to his seat. Grabbing his arm and forcibly dragging by itself constitutes assault.

One person even excuses the Prime Minister by saying the incident was over in a couple of seconds and that Trudeau let go when told to by Brown. However that too misses the point. Just because the perpetrator stopped the assault when told to, doesn’t mean the assault didn’t happen.

And that brings us back to why the assault on Brosseau wasn’t an accident.

If I am driving an automobile and hit someone, it may well be an accident. However if I was speeding, driving dangerously or driving while impaired then it is not.  As a reasonable licensed driver I am expected to know that doing any of those things can lead to collisions with people or objects.

Similarly when Trudeau stormed into the group of MPs, he should reasonably have known that he would almost certainly make contact with some members of that group. The fact that his intent while doing it was to commit an assault on Brown cements the case that the secondary assault on Brosseau cannot be treated as an accident. It was a direct result of Trudeau’s decision to assault Brown.

Unfortunately Trudeau’s defenders don’t stop there. They attack the very notion that Brosseau felt any pain. This also seems more like partisanship than an impartial review of the facts.

I’ve seen people compared it to being jostled in a subway. However that is obviously wrong. In a subway, your arms are usually down or above your head. When Trudeau grabbed Brown, his elbows were up – at chest level for the shorter Brosseau.

Blows to the chest can be very painful. A blow to the solar plexus can temporarily incapacitate the victim. Particularly in women, breasts can be very sensitive. Even hockey player’s pads protect the chest.

Even if she wasn’t struck in a sensitive area however, the victim of an assault doesn’t have to justify how much pain they might have felt.

The more rational parts of the Liberal caucus have admitted that what Trudeau did was wrong and he has apologized for it. Liberal partisans (and Conservative ones who have joined them in criticizing Brosseau) aren’t doing their party any favours by their attacks.

Nor are the supposed feminists who point out that Brosseau’s case bears little resemblance to that of an abused wife. No assault is justifiable. And one that occurs in your place of employment is worse than a random assault on the street because you have to be there on a daily basis. The fact that the person who committed the assault is also still there adds an extra dimension to the emotional pain.

Could it have been worse? Yes, of course. As assaults go, this was relatively minor. However it was committed by the Prime Minister. Canadians all have a right to expect him to set a better example. Instead his supporters are now using this incident to diminish expectations of what constitutes civil behaviour.

And that is what is at the core of elbowgate. A hot-headed Prime Minister acted rashly and his supporters are defending him. For many Canadians, this underscores the Liberal sense of entitlement that kept them from power the last ten years. Apparently they didn’t learn humility in their years in opposition.

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Journalists united against electoral reform

That is the title of an article written by Rick Salutin in today’s Toronto Star that does a loose expose of the way the media is against electoral reform. While he scores a number of good points about the failures of our current system, he also makes a number of mistakes that detract from the overall article.

One mistake he makes is in saying that first past the post only survives in Canada and the U.K.. Apparently he forgot about our neighbour to the South and India, along with a plethora of tiny former British colonies where the practice continues.

First past the post is actually the most popular winner-take-all voting system by a large margin, whether measured by nations using it or population governed by it. That’s because it actually is the least awful winner-take-all system.

And that is Salutin’s second, and larger, mistake. He says “Me, I’m good with any change.”

Any expert on electoral systems will tell you that there are many worse systems than first-past-the-post. And as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, choosing one of them actually makes future reform more difficult because once the system shows itself to be not worthwhile, it tars all electoral reform as a bad idea.

So for me, I’m decidedly NOT good with any change.

Of course Salutin’s article almost certainly was not written this way by accident or out of ignorance. Like other Toronto Star writers, he views elections as a tool to produce Liberal governments. First past the post has generally done that quite well. But a decade of Conservative governments with the Liberals slipping to third place led the Liberals to commit to electoral reform.

When they won a phony majority, they got stuck with bringing it in. And unlike previous “Liberal promises” this one committed to “making every vote count”, precise wording that leaves little wiggle room. To make matters worse, it specifically ruled out a referendum in its timetable.

So Salutin’s article is there to bolster the argument that the Liberals don’t have to actually “make every vote count”, so long as they end first past the post. To that end, he criticizes the NDP’s insistence on real reform and insists that any change is good.

In fact, the NDP’s position that only real reform should be considered is justifiable. It is Salutin’s position, that any change is better than none, that presents the real danger to electoral reform.

If we don’t get proportional representation this time out, public outrage might lead to electing a government that is really committed to it. If we get the atrocious ranked ballots (Alternative Vote or Instant Runoff) that the Liberals prefer, real reform is dead.

That’s the irony of Salutin’s headline. He’s doing as much disservice to real reform as the journalists he criticizes.

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Ontario introduces new election finance legislation

While the legislation has many positive aspects to it, it seems more like a grab bag of items that have been done before rather than a coherent policy aimed at putting politics in the hands of citizens. What’s lacking are answers to three fundamental questions:

1) what constitutes a political campaign, and
2) who should be allowed to give money to political campaigns, and
3) how much should they be allowed to give?

I believe that all campaigns attempting to influence the way people vote should be counted as political campaigns. The people who can contribute are those who live in Ontario. The amount they can give should be affordable by someone on social assistance.

So-called third party campaigns are blatantly political and attempt to get voters to vote for or against parties or candidates. They should be included in the contribution limits for individuals or subject to the same bans on donations as money or services directed to political parties.

And while each third-party campaign is subject to spending limits, what prevents moneyed interests from backing multiple campaigns? Moreover, why should individuals be allowed to contribute to both political parties and third party campaigns? Doesn’t that make a mockery of contribution limits?

Why should a third-party campaign representing hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens be subject to the same limit as one representing a few rich shareholders?

I am in favour of open debate between and during elections but I believe the rules should be based on the principle that all citizens have an equal say in these debates. The contribution limits should be based on what someone in the lowest echelons of our society can reasonably afford to give.

Whether I give directly to a political party or candidate, or to a group that conducts third party campaigns on my behalf (or some combination the three), the total amount I am allowed to contribute is what should be controlled.

The amount I give to a group that runs third-party campaigns, whether I give directly or through a group I am a member of, should be deducted from the amount I can give to political parties and candidates. This would give every citizen an equal voice. It would also prevent moneyed interests from outspending public interests in third party campaigns.

The limits I proposed however are below what political parties need to operate. We need some public money in the mix.

Both the federal government and our provincial one don’t like the idea of per-vote subsidies. Instead they want parties to raise more money from their support base. However this advantages those with enough money to contribute the maximum amounts and who are partisan enough to do so each year.

Unfortunately, with our winner-take-all electoral system, the per-vote subsidy means people who vote tactically find themselves supporting a party they only view as the lesser evil.

Why not instead have a check-off on the provincial tax return to send $1 to the party of your choice or to hold it to be allocated to a particular candidate in the next election? You could change your preference each year if you liked more than one party or if your preference changed. You wouldn’t be locked in like the per-vote subsidy.

Finally, let’s remove the reimbursements for political campaigns. Since the campaigns will be funded mainly by public money, there is no need to give it twice.

Rather than tinkering with a hodge-podge of tricks that benefit some parties more than others, let’s base our electoral finance legislation on putting the public in control.

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