Our warped system doesn’t give voters what they want
by Gregory Beatty
In 2011, Saskatchewan voters went to the polls twice - a federal election in May, and a provincial election in November. In both instances, we seemingly delivered strong endorsements to the ruling federal Conservative Party under Stephen Harper and the Sask. Party under Brad Wall.
I say "seemingly", because if you break down the vote totals you find that the Conservative and Sask. Party support wasn't as massive as the distribution of seats indicates.
With a 64.21 to 31.99 per cent edge in popular vote, for instance, the Sask. Party scored a decisive victory over the NDP on Nov. 7. But not so decisive that they deserved the 49-9 edge in seats they now hold in the Legislature. Do the math and you'll see that if seats were apportioned according to popular vote, as they would be under proportional representation (PR), the seat differential would be 39-19. Still a healthy Sask. Party majority, but with a decent-size NDP opposition that would accurately reflect the support the party received at the polls.
Mind you, compared to their federal counterparts, the provincial NDP got off easy. In last May's federal election, the NDP received 147,084 votes in Saskatchewan. Because of our screwy blend of rural/urban ridings, though, it didn't win a single seat. The Liberals, in turn, got 38,981 votes, and one seat, thanks to the strength of Ralph Goodale in Regina Wascana.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, parlayed 256,040 votes into 13 seats. Madness.
Substitute PR for first-past-the-post and the seat distribution would be in the neighbourhood of Conservative 8, NDP 5 and Liberal 1. Again, still a healthy Conservative majority. But with the interests of other voters respected and represented.
World-wide, countries who have abandoned first-past-the-post for some form of PR far outnumber those who haven't. In Canada, the argument is traditionally made that PR would lead to a mish-mash of parties entering into shaky (and shady) minority coalitions that would lead inevitably to legislative gridlock.
University of Regina political science professor Tina Beaudry-Mellor doesn't buy it, though.
"What is the measure of a democracy? Is it just the ability to pass legislation, or is it something else?" she said in a mid-November interview.
First-past-the-post, she added, encourages strategic voting. Suppose you happen to be a Green Party supporter. You can vote for the Green candidate in your riding, but realistically, what are the odds of them winning? So to stop the party you disagree with most from winning, you vote for the party that has the best chance to defeat them. Or maybe you don't vote at all.
That's a sign of a crazy system.
In November's provincial election voter turnout was 66 per cent. That's pretty respectable compared to the 41 per cent turnout Alberta registered in 2008. But in the 2007 Saskatchewan election turnout was 76 per cent, so that's a drop of 10 points.
At present, Beaudry-Mellor argues, we have a system that's pretty much democratic in name only.
"If I wanted to be really cynical I'd suggest what we have now is really an oligarchy because only a few rule.
"Take the leaders debate [between Brad Wall and Dwain Lingenfelter]," she says. "A media consortium decided who would be included without any public input. That was an incredibly important narrative-shaping moment in our electoral cycle where a few narrow interests ensured that only a few narrow interests were represented because, heaven forbid, that the field expand rather than contract."
With PR, the potential for the field to expand would definitely be there. That's because when people went to the polls, they'd know their vote would truly count. And that would encourage them to vote their preference and conscience instead of voting strategically. That would broaden the scope of political debate, and help smaller parties gain a toehold in a political landscape dominated, at present, by centre-right parties with pro-corporate agendas and a massive fund-raising advantage over parties with more progressive agendas.
And then there's this: Women make up 55 per cent of the electorate in Saskatchewan, Beaudry-Mellor observes, yet only 11 of 58 MLAs are female.
"That's grossly under-representative," she says. "We can think of aboriginal people too. What we really have is a system run by white, upper middle class men - no offense if you happen to be one, but it's not [consistent] with a democracy based on pluralism, and the idea that we need to hear from a variety of people to form really good public policy.
"When public policy isn't properly vetted through a number of channels to make sure it's sound, we see the consequences," says Beaudry-Mellor. "A policy gets implemented, then retracted. Mistakes get made.
"There just seems to be a real short-sightedness. For a society as complex as ours, it doesn't serve anyone very well."
In a pre-election interview in mid-October, Simon Enoch, Saskatchewan head of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, speculated that should the Sask. Party win a strong majority, hardcore conservative elements in the party might demand "more red meat."
Beaudry-Mellor is curious to see what happens too.
"The Sask. Party's going to be an interesting animal to watch over the next four years. They have invested, albeit imperfectly and inadequately, in things like affordable housing, child care and reducing surgical wait times that aren't typical of right-wing governments. So they seem to understand that some investment in social infrastructure is required."
In Saskatoon and Regina, notes Beaudry-Mellor, the party has elected MLAs with relatively progressive credentials. "Jennifer Campeau was elected in Saskatoon. She's a young single mother, a PhD student, aboriginal. In Regina, Mark Docherty has a long history with Ranch Erlo, Dale's House, Street Culture Kidz. He's very plugged in to the challenges low income and other disadvantaged groups in our society face. They're part of the Sask. Party now. I'm curious to see how they'll fit in, and what impact they'll have on the party and its policies."
It will be an up-hill struggle for them, Beaudry-Mellor suspects.
"Parliamentary systems are inherently adversarial. You have an official opposition, and you have a government. We reward party discipline and loyalty, and punish critical thinking within the party structure. So, frankly, I think they're going to have a difficult time."