Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Perfecting Alberta, Part 7: Democratic Reform

Nation, we've gotten some good comments on these posts. Before I go back to tilting against the windmills of inadequacy that are so symbolic of some of our elected officials, though, I want to make sure that everyone has carefully gone over the previous 6 entries in this series.

Especially curious, to me, is the fact that in the midst of an economic slowdown and rock-bottom natural gas prices, resulting in big government cut-backs, not one single comment has been posted on the Economics/Industry post. Interesting.

The last item on my initial "to discuss" list was, arguably, one of the most important: Democratic reform. It's one of the only issues that can give birth to new political parties, all on its own, in this province (Reform federally, Wildrose Party provincially). We've got voter turn-outs at ridiculous lows - which has as much to do with what and for whom we're asking people to vote than it does with the system or with voter malaise. If they're not voting, then it's OUR job - as the politerati - to figure out why, and FIX it.

Even a total overhaul of our system won't necessarily result in better results, or higher voter turn-out... but at this point, it can't really HURT, can it?

Items that spring to mind right away when we talk democratic reform in this province include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Fixed election dates
  • Synchronized elections (Municipal and Provincial on the same date)
  • Recall of elected officials
  • Term limits
  • (Re-)institution of a Provincial Senate (to balance regional concerns)
  • Rules regarding donations
  • On-line voting
  • Multiple-day elections
  • Lobbyist rules
  • Size of the Legislative Assembly
  • First-Past-the-Post versus Proportional representation
  • Mandatory voting
  • Public funding of candidates and parties

It's up to you, Nation... fix the system. How do we rule our rulers? How do we even CHOOSE our rulers? In the Perfect Alberta, how do you propose we go about this fragile construct that we call "democracy"?

Discuss... now.

- E.S.


Brian Dell said...

re Economics/Industry, I think it's a technical area such that once policy for the macro environment of tax and regulation and infrastructure is set, to speak authoritatively it has to be about a particular business plan. A lot of people jump in and say, "we need to be a bio-tech hub" or something which is really just chatter absent viable business plans that get specific. There are considerations like the role of the Alberta Research Council and the U of A Industry Liasion Office, but, again, these are technology commercialization issues that can get technical.

Fixed elections are critical. Even more so than I thought before I got actively involved in politics, since I've come to appreciate the importance of organization and one can't organize on a moment's notice. And top candidates can't just drop their private careers on a moment's notice to run either.

I believe proportional representation would increase political engagement because people could get involved with parties that had coherent minority perspectives. FPTP means parties with often scattered, incoherent views that causes people to give up because of the compromises involved. Of course, there would have to be compromising at some point, but doing it OUTSIDE the party keeps in public and therefore keeps the public engaged. As it stands now, almost everything of importance happens inside the PC Party somewhere and the vast majority of Albertans are not privy to that discussion.

Term limits are badly needed at the civic level. Incumbents have name recognition and financial advantages such that 2 three year terms is plenty. If an incumbent runs he or she is almost always re-elected (and because everyone knows that, no viable challengers appear, perpetuating the cycle), and if a seat is open it turns into a feeding frenzy. I'd support some sort of term limit at the provincial level as well, although there is some value to longer political careers here in that whereas city councilor is both top and bottom of the hierarchy (mayor being an office that if contested would create an open constituency), bankbencher, cabinet minister, and premier are three different levels and even if a rookie MLA starts as a cabinet minister, how would he or she become premier if limited to, say, 2 four year terms? A city councilor could go get a real job for 3 years and come back to run again for council, but the loss of continuity on the prov level could end a career. Perhaps limit the premier's tenure to 2 terms (3 at the absolute most), and have a 4 term limit for MLAs.

Wayne Smith said...

Why would people bother to vote when they know who will win in their riding before the votes are even cast? That is the situation for most of us in this country, who live in safe ridings. Even when there is a close race in your riding, you may not care for either of the leading alternatives.

Winner-take-all voting is simply not competitive, and gives the voter few real choices, if any. That is why most developed countries have been using proportional voting systems for most of the last century.

Kirk Schmidt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Schmidt said...

... helps if I use proper grammar...

"Why would people bother to vote when they know who will win in their riding before the votes are even cast?"

You know, for as many times as I've heard that, "I don't vote because it's already determined anyway", there would be enough votes to dislodge a "safe" riding. I have to wonder how many cases there are in the country of enough defeatist attitudes that end up causing the self-proclaiming prophecy.

(P.S., I'm not accusing you of not voting, or that your argument is wrong; I'm just saying I hear this a lot from non-voters and it irks me)

Anonymous said...

In our present system, we can only vote FOR someone, locally. We can't vote against anyone, and we can only vote for the leader, if they happen to be running in our riding.

My biggest concern with proportional representation, is that I'm only voting for the party. The party decides who my representive shall be. I may prefer the conservatives, but I don't want all of the conservative candidates either (or liberal, or ndp).

By not voting, we say we don't care who wins, anyone who runs is ok. Therefore, the winner also has all the people who didn't choose anyone else. If we don't want any of the candidates, there is a way to say that . . . staying home doesn't.

Wayne Smith said...

The parties already decide who your representative will be. In fact, the parties decide everything. That is why we need to be able to vote for a party -- so voters can hold them accountable. That is the whole point of proportional voting.

Anonymous said...

with proportional voting there is no local voice. with the party system, each party holds a nomination race, to determine who they will put forward. Those people come around the riding to convince enough people to vote for them. with proportional voting, the party says your riding gets Joe, no matter if anyone in the riding wants him. At least with the party system, if you get the party parachooting in a "star", the voter can decide if they want the "star".

I think the problem with the current system is that the candidates are supposed to represent the riding . . . too many of the elected members are just warming the seats. Proportional voting does nothing to improve the situation.

Wayne Smith said...

First of all, under proportional voting, candidates are chosen by party members, just as in any other system. As for parachute candidates, it is often the party brass who are determining the local candidate under the current system (ask Michael Ignatieff where local candidates come from). Even when the candidate is locally chosen, it is by a very sleazy process involving a small number of local party geeks. The voter gets to choose from a party list of one.

Secondly, it is not true that there is no local input under proportional representation. The Single Transferable Vote is candidate-based in local ridings. Under Mixed Member Proportional, everyone is still in a single-member riding, in addition to voting on list candidates who represent your province or region. But even the list members have local constituents. Everybody comes from somewhere, and the list candidates are specifically those who represent their party in ridings the party didn't win. The list members are riding members in waiting, because it is the riding seats that are the safe seats. In New Zealand, they all have local constituency offices.

Anonymous said...

its true that everyone comes from somewhere, but that doesn't make them local to me.

I wonder how people from a Calgary riding would feel about an Edmonton resident representing them. Or how people from Quebec would feel about a member from English Canada being "their member"?

Just because you have a local office doesn't mean you understand local issues. "Star" candidates often run into trouble getting the local support for the election run.

Wayne Smith said...

Liberal voters in Calgary would probably rather be represented by a Liberal MP in Edmonton than by a Conservative in Calgary. However, there are enough Liberal voters in Calgary to elect an MP of their own under a decent proportional system.

National party lists would require a constitutional amendment, so there is no possibility of Quebec voters being represented by Ontario MPs. But the point is that under proportional representation, every party would elect MPs from every part of the country.

Under the current system, there are 400,000 Conservative voters in Toronto who elect nobody and a similar number of Liberal voters in Alberta who elect nobody, not to mention 900,000 Green voters across the country who elect nobody.

Under pr, everybody gets an MP they actually voted for, because every vote helps to elect somebody.

Wayne Smith said...

Here's an insider point of view on the sacred relationship between an MP and his local constituents:

Welcome to the real world.

Anonymous said...

But with PR, you have no idea who you would go to when you have an issue or want to express your opinion. Our system is the best as it is, except for the need for an elected senate.

Wayne Smith said...

Under any proportional voting system, you will have more than one MP, probably at least one from each of the major parties, and probably including your first choice. They will all have riding offices in your area, and will all consider themselves "your MP" just as much as the one measly member you have now, who is probably somebody you voted against. Your proportional MPs will be eager to make you happy, since your vote actually makes a difference, no matter where you live or how you vote.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Wayne, smoke another joint. Go to Italy - 11 parties, and an election every year. NOthing gets done. Sorry, not the government I want.

Wayne Smith said...

Critics of proportional representation love to talk about Italy and Israel, outliers with serious problems that do not necessarily have anything to do with their voting system.

They rarely mention Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, New Zealand, Finland, or any of the over 80 countries that successfully use proportional voting systems and would never consider switching to what we use.

Unknown said...

I'm not really sure that term-limits would make a significant difference. Their unfortunate side-effect is that they get rid of good politicians along with the bad, and voters will have to vote blindly every X number of years for candidates with no proven track record.
A system where voters could vote for their party of choice and AGAINST a bad candidate in that party (some PR systems allow this) would work better than term-limits to get rid of bad politicians, IMO.

Unknown said...

Incidentally, in many PR systems, where representatives can't be sure of holding their positions, they have to work harder once in office to maintain them.

A PC representative in Calgary really just has to keep breathing to keep his job - no matter how bad he is.

And in a system with consistent minorities, the government knows it will never get a majority, and thus is less likely to spark an election because they think the swing will go their way. Thus they're forced to work with the other parties, who might have the plurality next time.

Enlightened Savage said...

Here's an idea that was thrown at me the other day - and I think it has enough merit to discuss. It's specific to Alberta...

Cut the Legislative Assembly down to 45 members - 15 from Calgary, 15 from Edmonton, and 15 from everywhere else. Let people elect the members of the assembly in the usual way.


(Re-?)constitute the provincial senate. With 15 Senators. Constituents can then write to their MLA, their Senator, or both. The Senate would be populated by having Albertans vote for a PARTY SLATE, and the parties would designate people from their respective slates to fill the spots as awarded based on province-wide popular vote. The parties would then have to determine which of their Senators would be responsible for which areas of the province - much as they do now, with "Buddy MLA's" for ridings without an elected party MLA.

You might not get a senator who lives in your area - but your MLA would. If you're a Liberal voter and your riding MLA is a conservative, you still have a chance to have your concerns addressed.

The Senate would get a chance to give bills a sober second look before being passed, and would be representative of the views of the province as a whole with this proportional representation model. The Legislative Assembly, meanwhile, would suddenly find its members being judged by their own abilities rather than by their party - "I already decided to vote for a WAP senator, I want to know why you think I should put YOU in as my MLA..."

Not saying the idea doesn't have holes - but it's worth talking about. We end up paying fewer politicians, and representing the views of Albertans more fully - and those are good things, right?

Anonymous said...

We have one of the best systems (if not the best) in the world. Why do we need to tinker with it like this? My dad always told me "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Things are pretty good as they are.