North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

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I went to vote and all I got was this lousy compromise

Here in British Columbia, Canada, our next provincial election will include a referendum on the electoral process itself. A ‘Citizens Coalition’ selected by the Provincial Government has recently finished its deliberations and has begun to reveal its suggestions for reform. The most important suggestion is that we move to a ballot that allows voters to select more than one candidate, and to rank them in order of preference. They are also suggesting that areas with large populations might have more than one representative in the legislature.

Media experts (if that isn’t an oxymoron) seem to think this is a great idea. Not me. I addressed this topic during the last Federal election, when noises were being made to the effect that maybe Canada as a whole had something to learn from B.C.

Executive summary: Hell no.

What are commonly considered to be flaws in the existing system are in fact features. Virtuous features. Politics is not like going to the mall for a power tool, where you need just the thing for you and your situation. No. In politics, you need to make accommodations. No one gets what they want. If most of us weren’t using a consumer mindset to evaluate the process, we would not be having this conversation.

This post is being reprinted (with permission) from my old and defunct web site.

May 31, 2004

Since I put up my first ever political lawn sign today, this might be a day to write something about Canadian politics. (Like I’ve never done that on this site before.) To no one’s surprise, it was for the Conservative Party candidate in my riding, Randy White.

In B.C., my home province, the provincial government has undertaken something called (I forget the exact name of it) a “Citizens’ Panel on Politics.” It’s supposed to consult the people of B.C. about what kind a changes they think we need to our provincial system. Its results are supposed to go to a referendum. The panel process is getting glowing reviews from all the journalists and political mucky mucks with a pen or air time.

This process, and malaise that gave rise to it, and the reaction it is getting seem to me to say a lot sad things about Politics in B.C., and quite possibly the country as a whole.

I just saw the CBC’s resident windbag, Rex Murphy, do one of his pontifical pieces and it included a bit with some ordinary joe who is having a tough time, it seems, connecting with any of the political parties. Rex asks him if any of the parties speaks for him and we cut to a long pause, followed by a wistful sigh. “I’m undecided, Rex. It’s hard.” Rex nods gravely. “Yes, it is hard” he intones. This “brave, new” panel is then touted as a possible solution.

What is the probability of this panel fixing this guy’s problem? This Canadian says it’s not bloody likely.

It is hard to know where to start, I have such a withering response to this idea that what is needed is to fix the system. The system, make no mistake, has some problems, and some of them are very large. I’ll get to those in a minute.

You see, I kind of think that anyone who wants to take the right to vote seriously, can do just a small amount of homework, do it only once and then use it to make more or less short work out of most elections that cross their plate. The easiest, most obvious plane that divides political parties in the West is their stance on the role and size of government. You either think a large government is the best – or a least good – way of solving problems facing citizens. I’d tell you flat out that you’re wrong about that, but nevertheless you favour large government or you don’t. And you use that stance to sift through what the parties are telling you.

You find one or two parties that you are in agreement with. Now it gets trickier, it’s true. Maybe the party you favour has no hope of forming the government or even getting a single MP elected. Well, if you’re an idealist, you vote your heart and hold your head high. Most of us want our vote to “count” in some way or another. So maybe you look at a larger party with a track record that you don’t like 100%, or a leader you don’t trust as much as you’d like to. Now, here I think the mistake a lot of people make is to keep thinking that there is a perfect solution (there isn’t) and that if I think long enough, I’ll find it. When they can’t find it, they cry that the system’s broken and needs to be modernized. This tells us more about modern voters than it does our system.

Politics is about compromise and negotiation. So I’d suggest voting for the larger party, even if it isn’t ideal. I say this because I think it is part of an adult political sensibility. Large parties are large because they appeal to very large numbers of people. Your friends and your neighbors. By accommodating yourself to of the larger parties you are indicating that you are willing to work it out with your neighbors. Voting for a smaller party and accepting that your desired result will take more than one election indicates the same.

If large numbers of people do this, extreme views are largely shut out. Our political class thinks this is a bad thing. I’m a conservative person and I think that not only is exactly what was intended, it is the right solution. In Canada we use the British Westminster system, one that has served that country pretty well for many hundreds of years. There have been changes in how the English use their system in modern times – the influence of the Lords has lessened and the vote is much more broadly based than it was in the past. The system has a pretty good history and is used in many places around the world. These things tell me that it works pretty well, as long as we abide the idea of accommodating our neighbors.

The system values *local* representation and requires that governments are built on broad, widespread support. Too often, efforts to “fix the system” are merely efforts to undermine the local and the broad that our system demands, and replace it with the ideological and narrow. I fear that people like the man in dear Rex’s feature view politics as ideologues, or, at the very least, like consumers. They think that the system should give them what they want, when they want it. This is a rather childish view, to say the least. The problem of ideology is similar in many ways. The Green Party, to take one example, has been pushing for Proportional Representation. They know that they have very low numbers in almost all ridings and therefore a slim chance of electing anyone. Having been a fan of the Reform Party, I know a reasonable party can, through hard work, break into the mainstream consciousness. The Greens are not, in my view, reasonable, and that is why they poll so low. Now, rather than review policy and keep trying to establish an electoral base, they want to re-write the rules. They know that they have some hard core support, but it is spread out across the country.

I don’t think much of opening the door to ideology any more than necessary. I firmly think that human political philosophies are invariably crude and not up to the task of governing and that it is the process of compromise that shears off the ridiculous pointy headed edges of any such philosophy. Governments that govern from ideological purity are the stuff of nightmares.

The man in Rex’s TV piece needs to either educate himself or abstain from voting. I truly wish we would hear a whole lot less about how we need to have mass turnout on voting day. We understandably expect the parties to push to get their supporters to the polls. What’s less clear is why many of the so called thinking people think a low turnout is such a bad thing. There are many people who don’t have the inclination or education to make a vote – and they know it. When we push people like this to vote we drag the whole debate down. Policy gets pushed aside and the fear mongering and demagoguery gets ramped up. Not interested in politics? Fine, stay home and accept that you’ll need to make some kind of peace with the results. Find that unacceptable? Well, what kind of government do you want? Start with the question of size, it’s often the easiest for people to grab onto.

There is another important aspect to the vote, however, one that I am increasingly aware of. In a way, the debate on government size is almost a proxy for this second issue, which tends to get shunted aside in polite debate, because it tends to be explosive. The second question is the question of the value of human life. Governments, both large and small can be onerous and neglectful of human life but it’s my opinion that large governments are worse. They have powers that other people – big business, for the lack of a better name – very seldom do: powers to tax, police, jail, draft, legislate and so on. Parties favouring small government have a large head start on those who favour a top down approach but it’s not enough. They must still be willing to identify places where government can assert itself for the good of all, places where business can’t be counted on to take the long, broad view. Most people would place the care of the weakest members of society in such a category.

Like a dancer, the small government must know when and where to stick it’s nose in, and what moves will suit the music and not result in something ridiculous. Very often the best moves will be those that have worked in the past, the choreographed ones – but not always. Proportional Representation would lead to small ideological extremists punching above their weight, to no one’s gain. A minority government does much the same thing. Thankfully, the system recognizes this and minority governments tend to be short lived things.

What really worries me is that too many of our professional thinkers seem to crave reinventing the game out of some cynical jaded sense of diversity. Or maybe it’s just juvenile boredom. What we do need is the ability to appoint judges and senators to be taken away from the PM. Judges should be appointed by a free vote in parliament and senators by the people, through their provincial leaders. That would rightly de-centralize our powers, and greatly increase the role of all of the voters in the country, while keeping the Federal reps tied to a locality and it’s issues.


Written by Curt

October 26, 2004 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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