by Richard Shillington, economist
Majority rules, I recall as a school yard dictum.
Amartya Sen tells a great story to illustrate the dark side of democracy. In his parable five individuals wish to divide a pie and can't agree on how it should be done. After agreeing that it should be democratic, three of them form a political party that decides they will get one-third each. It's democratic and after all, as they say in school yards — majority rules.
Sen's analogy is not a bad description of the political economy of Canada.
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Balkanizing the country is good for parties but bad for the nation.
It's now accepted wisdom that our dysfunctional electoral system contributes to a House of Commons, which is a distorted reflection of the range of political opinions.
Mathematical Political Trivia
Under our system how many votes do you need to form a majority government? With two political parties you could theoretically form a majority government with 26 percent of the vote — you need only 51 percent of the vote in 51 percent of the ridings. With three parties you could theoretically form a majority with 17 percent of the vote (34 percent in 51 percent of ridings). Four parties 13 percent.
Look at the 2004 election results. The Bloc's 1.7 million votes and $4.5 million in spending yield 54 seats. The NDP's 2.1 million votes and $12 million in spending yield 19 seats.
The message here is, for electoral success, to concentrate your effort in ridings you could win and forget the rest. Be more regional. Balkanize the country. Be like the Bloc.
As well, our electoral system distorts our regionalism. Ontario was never as Liberal as their House membership would suggest, nor the West so Conservative, nor Canada so overwhelmingly of the stripe of the government of the day.
I was taught in Grade 10 civics that:
1. I vote for my local candidate based on a party platform (what they say they will do). Yet;
For every Canadian who votes for a winner — roughly two vote for someone who loses.
Does party platform foretell legislation? Please.
2. The elected members collectively choose the winning party which forms a government. Yet;
A majority government can dictate with 60 percent of the seats based on 40 percent of the vote.
Diversity of opinion in the house? In this election one should expect more than 1 million votes for the Green, and others, who will get no voice in parliament.
After the election, party discipline determines how members vote.
3. The government passes legislation. Yet;
Once a party forms a government, their supporters and constituents must make room for other stakeholders, business, think-tanks, advocates and lobbyists. The political agenda is also limited by international interests and competitive economic forces.
No government gets to do exactly what it wants.
That my one vote in my riding will change federal legislation is mostly soothing scripture.
For more on electoral reform see www.fairvotecanada.org (link below).
For me, the most important election issue is reform of the electoral system and political practice.
Richard Shillington, PhD, is a statistician who specializes in the quantitative analysis of health, social and economic policy. He appears regularly before committees of the House of Commons and the Senate and frequently provides commentaries for television, radio and newspapers on issues of taxation, human rights and social policy.
URL 1: www.fairvotecanada.org
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