PR voting systems and progressive policies

Hello, Fair Vote people. Last weekend I tortured my posterior at a conference on Basic Incomes in Toronto. Basic Income means the idea of solving poverty by giving everybody enough money so they are not poor. If you want to examine this idea closer there is plenty on the web about it, most of it thankfully by supporters of it instead of people seeking to discredit it or attach ideas to it that have nothing to do with it. Just google Basic Income.

There are two interactions I had with people at this conference which might be of interest to people pushing for voting reform. One is with Sean Healy, a prominent activist for BI from Ireland. The other was during a lecture about strategies for achieving Basic Income and an elimination of poverty. For some reason I took copious notes of her and failed to get her name.

Healy was talking about the financial crisis in Ireland. They are one of the "PIGS" countries which the IMF wants to put under a third world structural adjustment program. People who pay attention to the news at all should be aware of what this is about.

The banks in several countries got themselves into trouble by making irresponsible loans, encouraged by cheap credit from the European central bank intended to promote the Euro. Then when they went broke the governments were forced to cover 100% of their loss, and then cut back public services severely to pay the debt off. In legal terms, this is called "fraudulent conveyance" but in the media it is "austerity".

Iceland refused to pay it and held two referendums that forced the government to negotiate much lower terms of repayment. Greece has been prevented form doing the same. But Ireland will soon hold its own referendum. Meanwhile, they are all refusing to pay this special property tax enacted to help pay off this debt.

Healy very much disapproves of governments bailing banks out. He does not like the present Irish government which keeps claiming the situation is under control because they are on target to meet the debt repayments. They ignore the fact that they are losing ground by every other possible economic indicator.

Healy says that he and his merry gang are telling the government that they do not realize how much trouble they are in. They think that just because people are not throwing bombs at them, they are alright. They were put into office to solve the problem and they are not doing it.

But what I was interested in was Ireland's voting system. As most people who follow Fair Vote are aware, Ireland is the only sizeable country which uses the STV system for national elections. The Irish are said to have no complaints with this system, which they have had for almost a century.

Healy is very fond of STV and calls it the "bulwark" of the Irish population against the abuse of their government and the debt mongers. He especially says that it gives the members of the Irish parliament some independence from their party leaders. He says that this is why the Irish have been able to vote on the bail out program at all.

Compare this to Greece, where despite having a proportional representation system, they had no control over their government at all. They just had an election and opposition parties have won, but it looks like it will be impossible to form any government and they will have to have new elections in a few months.

Greece is not a good example of a PR government; with the extra seats given to the largest party, and the high threshold small parties must clear to get any seats at all.

Yet the lecturer about says said that the biggest obstacle to a Basic Income is the kind of voting system we have in Canada. She was full of facts and figures about how much more unequal Canada is compared to other advanced countries, and how the indicators are getting worse fast. She found a strong correlation between progressive social programs and proportional voting systems.

She is not the only researcher around who has noticed this, coming form many different lines of inquiry; social equality, political stability, etc. Many Fair Vote tyoes have read Arendt Leijphart's book showing this same correlation. She believes that if we had PR, we could turn the poverty problem around on a dime.

But I am not so optimistic. She seems to be thinking about European countries of twenty years ago. There has been a great campaign to roll back social supports in most of these countries.

This seems to have something to do with the advent of the euro and the rise of "neo-liberal" economics. The predominance of Proportional Representation systems in these countries may have slowed down social roll backs in these countries, but it has not prevented them. I do not believe that PR by itself will lead to more progressive government policies in Canada.

In Ireland, STV has not lead to socially progressive policies. It is a fairly unequal country although not as bad a Canada. Instead, Irish politics have been unique in that there is no "left-right" thing. Both the major parties are considered very conservative.

Only lately has the major left party, an offshoot of the IRA, started gaining support. And of course, this swing to the left has only started because of the debt crisis.

What I would conclude from this is that a PR constitution is not by itself a guarantee of progressive social policies. There is a mistake common to statisticians, simply expressed as "happens with, therefore happens because of". Maybe the progressive social programs and the progressive voting systems are because of a more progressive society.

The forces of financial fascism seem able to efficiently roll back human progress in PR countries too. As to whether STV would be better at this, we have only the Irish example to go on, which is inconclusive. STV does give more power to individual members of a legislature, which can translate into more control by the electorate.

The long and the short is that PR is shown to be not an adequate means by which the public will is expressed by the legislature. Under PR, people still do not get what they want, and are trumped by financial and bureaucratic interests. It does not provide a way to control political parties while in office, and to remove ones which do not carry out the voters intentions.

This is something which needs some discussion among voting reform enthusiasts. There have been some systems developed for insuring this, but I need to do some more research into them. There are no totally original ideas; someone has always thought of it before.

Comment about the AV guy. I have not read anything from him for a few days and the noise level on this list has gone down remarkably. I think the moderator of this list was negligent in letting him go on so long. To quote Winston Churchill; "a fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

If this nonsense starts up again I am going to suggest that some people on this list might like to set up a new list.