on deciding voting reform in Canada by a referendum

It is time for me to write about the issue of a referendum on voting reform. It is going to be a very hot issue and for good reason. It exposes the hypocrisy and subliminal motivations of many exponents of voting reform. It is the general public serving notice to the political class as to what will be the standard practice in future of any alteration of the rules of the game.

I have been an advocate of voting reform for a long time. I tried to work with the Fair Vote Canada group for some time, was on the Toronto committee, and tried running for the national council once. But in recent years I have turned to other issues more interesting to me.

Also, I have long been aware that there is much more to democratic reform that just bringing the voting system in line with best practices elsewhere. Voting reform by itself will not solve the "democracy deficit" in Canada or anywhere else. There are countries with excellent proportional voting systems who nonetheless manage these days to get neoliberal austerity governments who are not in line with the majority's priorities.

alternative forms of democracy

Theoreticians of democracy talk of a discursive or deliberative democracy. That is, one that is both direct and participatory. The public discusses measures and then votes on them and the decisions are binding. Such creatures presently exist only in limited ways and mainly at local levels, but that is the ideal being striven for.

Anything like a real democracy on those lines will require a different economic system than we now have. That is why I focus my energies these days on the promotion of a Guaranteed Livable Income. There are many terms for similar ideas, such as a Basic Income or Guaranteed Annual Income, but they all involve giving everybody a minimum income without condition.

Different advocates of an income guarantee have different objectives, but for me and the people I work with is to eliminate poverty first of all, but also to make a deliberative democracy possible. It requires all the people to have the means and the free time to be able to participate in debate and discussion on government policies to be adopted.

There are many initiatives in direct and participatory democracy going on, despite the intense resistance from elites. Especially, from economic elites who think there is too much democracy already. But also from the "political classes" or "chattering classes", the small percentage of the population who are involved in political parties and advocacy organizations, who are generally considered to be the "public" in most of the representative democracies we have today.

There are efforts at true participatory budgeting and participatory planning. There are efforts to use citizen's assemblies to investigate issues and recommend solutions. There are efforts to make greater use of referenda in deciding policy, often accompanied by actually learning how to conduct proper referenda.

The model of discursive democracy used in most examples of real democracy, from ancient Athens to medieval city states to New England town councils, has been a three step process. An issue or problem is identified, a committee is tasked to look into it and decide what, if any, action is needed, and if so to formulate a clear question for a popular vote.

interrupted processes

In the attempts at reform in both Ontario and British Columbia, a good best practice procedure was started for dealing with the voting reform question. In both cases it was preempted by interests who did not want reform. In both cases, a citizen's assembly was carefully but randomly selected, and they heard from experts, deliberated, and produced a well thought out recommendation.

In both cases the referendum was held concurrently with a general election; a big error, dividing the public's attention. In both cases the "yes" side had no resources with which to reach the public, while the "no" owned most of the news media, the masters of misinformation. In B.C., the referendum won the first time despite this, so the bar was arbitrarily and after the fact set at 60%.

I noted during these processes that the advocates for voting reform often refused to support the assemblies. They were indignant at not being allowed to address these assemblies. Some of them were infuriated when the assemblies failed to come up with the systems they wanted; especially when the B.C. assembly setled on the Single Transferable Vote. Many of them quit Fair Vote Canada when FVC accepted STV as a valid form of PR.

Worse, many of these people refused to support a "yes" campaign. They are the same people who are now hostile to a referendum on whatever the Trudeau government comes up with. Their "reasoning" shows that they do not really believe in democracy.

So the contradiction is that much of the impetus to reform the voting system comes from people who distrust the public. They want to change the way legislatures are chosen in our parliamentary system, but they do not want the public to be in control of the process. They want a system that is less majoritarian but is still representational, still very elitist.

ideas versus personalities

Representational means that we elect somebody to represent us. These people seem unaware or uninterested in the concept of a delegative or liquid system. That is, where a local body sends delegates to a higher body, who then report back for instructions. When the lower body has decided, it can send the same or other delegates to the higher, who again report back, until decisions are reached. There are plenty of examples of this method in action although it has never been used to govern a nation state or a large subnational state.

Many voting reformers remain fixated on "our representative". They still want politics to be personalized. Because of such people, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP) have become the two options for reform. "Straight list" proportional representation is pushed out of contention.

In STV, candidates are ranked in order of preference and the highest ranking fill the seats available in the multimember district. In MMP, single member constituencies are retained, but other members of the legislature are added to make the resulting legislature "proportional", that is, with party seat totals proportional to the total vote for each party. These are both awkward and somewhat unfair systems, but retain the personalization of representation while producing party proportionality.

A straight list system simply allocates the seats in a multimember district according to party vote. There are various ways of deciding how the candidates from each party are chosen for the seats the party has won. There is the open list system where the voters also rank the party's candidates, and the closed list where the party decides their order. Either way, the first on the list are the first to be elected.

Some voting reform enthusiasts, just as much as critics of voting reform, are concerned that proportional systems make it hard for independent candidates to be elected. They are also concerned that "party hacks" rather than the voters, can decide who gets elected. These do not seem to be real problems because independent candidates usually have no trouble creating their own party and can sometimes get elected that way. And these "party hacks' already decide in our present system who gets the party nomination; PR makes it a lot harder for them.

Yet the general public does not seem concerned about having their own representative. Most people do not know who their councillor, MPP, or MP is. Yet much more often they know which party they voted for. Most people have never spoken with their representatives and would have a very hard time getting a meeting with any of them.

In any delegative system, the personalities of delegates, chairpersons, and other functionaries quickly becomes unimportant. People are much more interested in ideas and choose people to serve those ideas rather than the other way around. This suggests strongly that the more real democracy you have, the more politics is about ideas rather than personalities.

The role of political parties in representational system is as aggregators of ideas. In delegative, liquid systems, or in truly local government, parties become unimportant. Larger political units, polities, under representational democracy just do not seem to work without strong parties. They tend to degenerate into "presidentialized" systems and then into one man tyrannies. American politics abundantly demonstrates this.

Yet many of the advocates of proportionality among parties, and the increased number of parties that this usually causes, also dislike political parties. It is not clear why, though parties are vehicles of ideas more than personalities. A referendum is also a test of an idea rather than a contest between personalities.

fear of 'the masses'

So there is a disconnect between the advocates of voting reform and the great mass of voters. The voters are fairly disempowered in this system; required to mark their X every few years according to the choices served up to them, but otherwise treated with some distain. In our present economic and political system, they simply do not have time and resources to involve themselves in politics more than that.

Yet the people who make up Fair Vote Canada, LeadNow, and some similar organizations, do have the time and the basic security to involve themselves in politics. They thus make up part of the political class of the country, who are confused with "the public" and with "public opinion". They are often people who are frustrated with voters, finding them obtuse and irrational.

It is a particular section of the political class that has pushed for voting reform. From my observations of the FVC crowd, it is people who are frustrated at having been on the losing side too much. They have found that an incumbent political representative really does not have to listen to their concerns. So, they want a more open system; one that is more open for themselves.

A proportional system does open up access to power for less powerful interest groups. If you have got on the wrong side of your "representative" and are being blank faced, there are more options for getting what you want. However, a proportional system is still far short of real democracy, where the Demos really has Kratos.

To most of the political class, democracy is less about the public play of ideas than in getting things decided behind closed doors. Their conceit usually is that they should be able to prevail by the power of reason and their superior ideas, in interaction with other "reasonable", "educated", "well informed" people. This means people in government, business, the "media" and the third or "nonprofit" sector; people who have proper regard for "the rules" as they imagine them to be.

spurious arguments

So we can see how the idea of something like voting system reform being decided by a discursive process including a referendum, just does not fit with these people's conception of themselves and their world. They cannot admit, even to themselves, the real reasons for their hostility to the idea, so we hear a lot of arguments against it that do not really make any sense.

The best example is that a referendum on voting reform is really undemocratic because it is "majority rule". Everything in a democracy ultimately comes down to majority rule. Just because you have multiple parties in a legislature, and governments are coalition governments, does not mean that legislation does not ultimately have to pass with a majority.

We are supposed to not have the right to confer rights on, or withdraw rights from, a minority. Having PR is supposed to be a right. If a majority votes to not have PR, it is taking away the right to PR from the minority.

If a group of people can order either ice cream or yogurt, but not a mix of each, and my friends want ice cream but the majority want yogurt, are my rights being taken away? A minority might think everybody must become vegetarians to save the environment, but the majority are not impeding their rights by refusing. Three people trapped on a boat in the ocean may decide to respect the rights of the weakest one and not eat her, or they may not.

People are funny this way. The majority may decide they do not want to respect the rights of the minority, even to life, and there is not much the minority can do. But it is within the majorities power. There is usually no outside power which can force a majority to respect the right of a minority. They have to want to.

So this talk of how majorities cannot take away the rights of minorities goes nowhere. This is not even about real rights effecting the well being of the minority. It is a stretch to claim there is a right to live under a certain kind of government, much less a particular voting system.

Opponents of a referendum use the example of the establishment of women's right to vote. This was decided by legislative fiat after the concept had become widely accepted. Referendum opponents say that men had no right to decide on the rights of women, but men did decide. There is no other way it could ever have come about because men had the monopoly of power at the time.

In the example used, of the "white" majority granting rights to aboriginal people, there is no way for aboriginals to obtain rights except by the assent of the majority in Canada. No outside power can force acceptance of aboriginal rights. If some authority attempts to mandate rights that are not accepted as just by a majority, it will produce resentment and hostility, and will fail.

This is the reality of Demos Kratos, of public power; it can lead to outcomes that are harmful to a minority. Such outcomes may be objectively just or unjust and are usually seen as unjust by the effected minority. But the history of democracies shows that the Demos, once free of fear and oppression, and with a sense of control over its conditions of life, tends to become much more tolerant and respectful of minority rights. In less democratic and secure states, the public is generally much less tolerant.

wrong advocates

A minority which has been relatively privileged will fear losing this status in a strengthening democracy. It is these people who fight against it and usually have plenty of means of doing so. They usually have the resources and skill to confuse the public and turn it against each other.

Even members of political classes who see themselves as enlightened and tolerant will be fearful of "the masses". They will not see the general public as being capable of rational decisions, but rather needing to be guided by a wiser elite. Among voting reform advocates, you have a lot of people who still see politics as a political class debating among themselves and coming to consensus about what is good for everybody.

These people have only become involved in voting reform because the present system has been leaving them out. So they would not be comfortable with mass mobilization of the public to achieve a political reform. They only want to deal with people who can talk in their own 'language' and at their own 'level'.

The presence of these people has been the big problem with the movement for voting reform in Canada, and especially within FVC. They have started these various firestorms within FVC which have lead to declines in revenues and membership, and paralyzed activities for a time. They have refused to support the citizen's assemblies and tried to undermine the 'yes' campaigns. They will likely do so again with any federal referendum.

These people are even indirectly responsible for the flame out within FVC over the attempt to have it adopt Alternative Vote AV, which has nothing to do with proportional systems. The executive of FVC were so tired and frightened of infighting that they were ready to concede all principles of FVC simply in order to avoid any more of it. Then these rather unworldly people were surprised when this also lead to a firestorm among the membership.

FVC is now showing signs of another internal firestorm about the idea of referenda. Their web site has become uninformative. They had issued some statements about a referendum which have now vanished.

I have felt for some time that, now that the public has a general awareness of the issue of voting reform, it is time for FVC to vanish. It is starting to harm, rather than help, the cause of democratic reform. By that I mean not just changing the voting system, but achieving a deeper, more discursive democracy.

doing it right

A referendum on voting reform, done right, would be a good initiation into the idea of recursive democracy. Members of parliament are in a conflict of interest in deciding changes to the voting system. It is a situation which demands a citizen's assembly or other kind of independent deliberative body to work out a proposal.

Holding the referendum will be very hard. Support for reform among the public is wide but soft. The case has to be made that the reform will improve things. The case must be made over the noise of the intense disinformation campaign which will be thrown up by elitists.

It either succeeds or fails, but failing is not the end of it. Those who want a better system will rethink what they are trying to do and consider new ways of achieving it. They might turn their attention to defining the rules for holding referendums in Canada, to insure less interest group interference.

Working to empower local government, to establish more discursive governing processes there, to give the public more leisure and resources to involve themselves in governance, would be a good way to create impetus for voting reform at provincial and federal levels, or even a delegative approach to forming these legislative bodies. Since the system we have now basically does not work, there will be constant motive to reform it.

If the Liberals are not pushed into a referendum, and go ahead with their plan for an all party committee to hold consultations and then introduce legislation, we will get reform. But it will be a shaky reform. It will have set a bad precedent. The first time a new government comes into office, it will have incentive to rejig the voting scheme to its own advantage.

This happens over and over in countries where changes to the basic rules are not tied to a well worked out referendum process. Canada has passed things like the charter of rights and freedoms and the 1982 constitution, universal suffrage, and other government changes, without referenda. But that was then and this is now, and government by a small political class is becoming less acceptable.

the deadlock

Referenda in Canada have not worked out very well because they have not been done very well. They have generally been ways for elites to kill something they did not really want, or to try to do an end run around an opposing elite group which was blocking them, as in the Mulroney referendum. What is needed are rules based on best practices elsewhere, for running referenda right.

Political reforms are almost impossible in Canada anyway, simply because there is never any real public involvement. Different factions within the political class can block any reform which might threaten their status. There is no amending formula because Mother Britain thought she would keep control of that, but them she walked away from Canada.

The deadlock in Canadian politics will never be broken except by initiative from below. That is the core fact behind voting and other reform in Canada. We have extremely out dated institutions in almost every area. They have not become a crisis yet as in both Britain and the United States. The public is prepared to tolerate this if no appealing alternative seems possible.

before a crisis develops

But it would be better to deal with it before a crisis develops. This would require much more political skill and a broader vision than the present advocates of voting reform possess. The need is for a movement such as is growing in many parts of the world, for a deeper reform than just fixing our representational semi-democracy.

A discussion and debate about how to hold a proper referendum on voting reform, or even on why voting reform failed, would be a good position from which to launch such a new initiative. For this to succeed, people for whom reform is about changing the rules to suit themselves better, rather than reestablishing governance on principles suited to this century, must be moved aside. Real reforms will be a lot harder to win than just winning a referendum and will not happen just by wheedling dispensations from the present holders of power.

It will take convincing the people that it is both possible and in their own real interests, and not just that of the elitists who are telling them what is good for them. It will take time.