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Q & A with Fair Vote Canada and Fair Vote Nova Scotia

Fair Vote Canada and Fair Vote Nova Scotia on the need for electoral reform, proportional representation, the recent challenge to the Supreme Court over FPTP, the Occupy protests, and more


Q: The Association for the Advancement of Democratic Rights and Fair Vote Canada are currently involved in a challenge to the Supreme Court over the First-Past-the-Post system. What is the situation here and what is Fair Vote Canada’s stance / goal?   

Andy Blair (AB): It’s incredible, but right now about half of all provincial votes cast in Quebec are wasted: they go towards electing nobody. So all those voters don’t have a representative that reflects their views. Just as bad, the system sometimes hands a victory to the wrong winner: in 1998 the Parti Quebecois actually got fewer votes than their main rival but the voting system handed them a majority win in the election. The current system is obviously flawed and does not give everyone an equal or effective vote.      

Many Quebecers are fed up with it. A group of Quebec voters formed the ARDD (L'Association pour la Revendication des Droits Démocratiques), and launched a court challenge in 2007 to overturn the Quebec Elections Act on the basis that it does not respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, they contend that it violates Charter Section 3 about every citizen’s right to vote and be represented.

Every Canadian has a stake in this case because we all suffer under the same winner-take-all electoral system as is used in Quebec. It’s called “First Past the Post” (FPTP) because people voting for the party with the most votes win…and everyone else gets shut out. So if the Quebec system is overturned, it could help usher in change right across the country.

The Charter challenge does not ask the court to tell the government what to do. It asks the court to tell the government it can’t keep doing what it’s doing now. The case has made it to Canada’s top court, and now we are waiting to see whether the Supreme Court will hear the case. We expect it will.

Fair Vote Canada (FVC) has been an intervenor in previous cases leading up to this Supreme Court challenge – that’s like being a witness that provides supporting evidence & testimony about how the winner-take-all election system is unfair and has hampered democracy. And FVC, along with the Green Party of Canada, has applied to be an intervenor again if and when the Supreme Court hears this case. We will find out this month or early in 2012 on whether the Supreme Court will hear the case.      

Q: When was Fair Vote Nova Scotia formed?       
           
Derek Simon (DS):
Fair Vote Nova Scotia was formed in 2004, and we had an active period between 2004 and 2006. Then the core group of people who were involved moved away, became busy with other things, or otherwise split up, and we went into a dormant period. In the summer of 2007 another core group of people revived the Chapter and we entered a more active phase again. During our active periods we attended conventions of all of the NS political parties, attended legislative committees, wrote letters to the editor, and ran education events at Dalhousie, Mount Saint Vincent, and Acadia universities, among other activities.  The group eventually went dormant again, until renewed interest this year.     

Q: After the latest federal election in May, Fair Vote Nova Scotia held a meeting and there was a good turnout. A general meeting was held later to elect executive positions. How did this meeting go, and what is the status of Fair Vote NS now?     

Raymond Taavel (RT): Yes, in May just after the federal election, there were a number of people who became interested in Fair Vote NS and a meeting was organized at the Just Us! Café, with 35 people attending. From this meeting it was decided that we should set up an official AGM for July, during which we would elect executive positions to the NS Chapter. However a smaller than expected number of people showed up to this meeting, so it was decided that we would only form an organizing committee for now. Over the last 6 or 7 weeks I have been trying to contact other people individually who want to be part of a working group.         

Everybody gets fired up over the issues - there are different issues galvanizing people right now - but like any volunteer group it is harder to keep things going and keep the momentum up.     

Q: What does Fair Vote Canada see as the main problem(s) with the voting system in the country? Also, can you comment on the results of the latest Federal election?       
           

AB: Fair Vote Canada was formed by ordinary citizens ten years ago because they felt our voting system did not uphold two basic tenets of democracy: that everyone has an equal voice, and that the majority rules. Our current voting system violates both of those fundamental principles.

People don’t have an equal vote. Consistently, we see about half of all votes being wasted in elections under First-Past-the-Post…they go towards election no-one. We can see the inequality in other ways too, for example in the 2011 federal election: while it took on average 40,786 votes to elect each Conservative MP, it took 81,858 to elect a Liberal MP and over a half-million votes only elected a single Green MP. This isn’t proportional.

Worse, under our winner-take-all system the majority almost never rules. With just 39% of the vote, the Conservatives have been given a “majority” by our winner-take-all voting system…and 100% of the power. Last time I went to school, 39% wasn’t a majority.

I don’t mean to pick on any one party. FPTP has unfairly benefitted Liberals in the past, and unfairly punished all parties at different times provincially too. But one thing is consistent: it distorts our democracy and does the voters of Canada a disservice.

Q: During the latest Federal election there were a lot of coordinated attempts at encouraging people to make strategic votes in their districts. Thoughts?

DS: Attempts at strategic voting are common under FPTP voting systems. I recently read a follow-up analysis of the results of the strategic voting strategies encouraged during the latest Federal election, and the conclusion was that the groups encouraging strategic voting actually projected the results wrong more than half the time. So strategic voting is a band-aid solution, and it doesn’t work either.

Q:  What are your thoughts on the Occupy protests that we have seen across the US and in Canadian cities, including here in Halifax? Do you feel the sentiments of the movement relate in any way to Fair Vote Canada’s campaign for electoral reform?  

AB: People have reason to be upset with the way things are going in our society. Wealth and power are being concentrated in the hands of a few, while the majority of people feel powerless. Often, it seems that no matter how people vote, the politicians that get in end up working against them, not for them. There’s little accountability anymore. There’s a sense that we can’t continue on like this.

People recognize we need renewal and we need real change. They see that the status quo just isn’t sustainable. And one way to get that change is to have a truly people-driven democracy, a democracy that is responsive and faithful to the will of the people. That means changing the old systems that have gotten us into this mess to start with, starting with our dysfunctional voting system. It’s served to help accelerate the concentration of power, and make the powerful less accountable than ever.

It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why after every election, after the anti-prorogation protests, and after the Occupy protests, we see new waves of citizens joining FVC. People are beginning to realize that it’s the problems inherent in our political system itself that are making things worse, and they want them fixed.

Q:  Many countries now have mixed FPTP and proportional representation (PR) systems. Is this a workable or desirable model for Canada?          

AB: Not only is it workable and desirable, it’s exactly what we’re talking about. When people in the electoral reform movement in Canada talk about proportional representation, they are almost always talking about a mixed form of PR, with some significant element of local representation. They recognize that in a large country such as Canada with so many distinct regions, pure PR would likely never work. The direct link between an elector and his or her representative is sacred here. People want to know the person that represents them and their riding, and be able to call them up and give them a piece of their mind. That wouldn’t change under any proportional voting system being proposed for Canada.

There are a number of proportional voting systems that would maintain our all-important local representation, while making sure that every vote counts and that political parties get the number of seats they deserve – no more, and no less. Fair Vote Canada does not advocate any certain form of PR, we believe it should be up to Canadian citizens to decide.

DS: Canada is too geographically large for a pure PR system, so we need a mixed FPTP and PR system. 

RT: A mixed system would be a desirable outcome and the challenge is for us to come up with a made-in-Canada approach, our own form of it.           

Q:  Generally, how do Canadian federal and provincial voting systems compare to other industrialized countries in the world? Where do we sit in relation to other countries – does our system function differently?   

AB: We have fallen behind the times. Most modern democracies have some form of proportional representation (PR) - usually mixed, with local representatives instead of pure PR. Canada, along with the US and UK, are amongst the last Western democracies to be stuck with this winner-take-all voting system…the majority have made important strides towards more democracy or abandoned FPTP already. Even the UK itself, the nation on which our own system is based on, is changing: the parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are all using proportional representation, and there are now efforts to make Westminster itself proportional.

In terms of representation of women & minorities, our performance is abysmal. It’s not because Canadians are inherently racist or sexist: a large part of the blame again lies at the feet of our system. PR simply elects more women and minorities, because it offers more choice to voters. Countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Rwanda all have more women in their national legislatures than Canada… and those countries all use PR. There’s a reason that none of the new democracies that emerged from the Iron Curtain chose FPTP. We can and should be doing a lot better.       

DS: No country, after having adopted a PR system of voting, has chosen to reject it later or revert back to FPTP. In Ireland, as one example, every time there has been a public vote on changing from PR as a voting system, it has failed spectacularly. New Zealand also recently voted to maintain the PR system they have.       

Q:  Does Fair Vote Canada take any stance with regard to the Senate - does the organization advocate reform, abolition or no change?     

AB: The first and most urgent priority at the federal level is to give Canadians a truly representative House of Commons. Consideration of Senate reform or abolition should only be addressed after citizens have chosen a fair and modern system to elect their MPs. That’s paramount.

Although we recognize an appointed Senate as an aberration in any modern democracy, we have no particular preference as to whether it should be reformed or abolished other than to say that if it is decided that it is to be elected, Senators should be elected by a modern & fair system of proportional representation. Using an antiquated system like FPTP can’t be considered progress.        

Q: What is Fair Vote Canada’s position on run-off voting and alternative vote (AV) electoral systems?

AB: FVC feels that run-off voting and alternative voting are still forms of winner-take-all systems, so we do not advocate them. We should not trade one winner-take-all system for another.

Q:  Does proportional representation have any applicability at the municipal level? Should municipal electoral systems also be reformed?          

RT: Yes, proportional representation is 100% applicable at the municipal level. Like FVC, FVNS does not advocate any certain type of proportional representation, but as an example, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system could be adopted in HRM. It would make a lot of sense, especially considering our low voter turnout during municipal elections.   

AB: It depends, but it can work. In Europe, many individual cities already use some form of proportional representation.          

Q:  British Columbia currently has recall, binding referenda and initiative legislation (the only province in Canada that has it). Does Fair Vote Canada support this legislation and does Fair Vote NS support similar legislation for NS?    

AB: We don’t hold a position on recall legislation per se, but the public desire for accountability that is driving these initiatives is completely understandable. When you have phony “majority” governments – phony because they were elected by a minority of voters, not a majority as their name suggests – and those governments do things that people didn’t vote for or don’t support, there’s a problem. Fair Vote Canada believes that it must be legislators representing a majority of voters that determine our laws and guide their administration…and a fair system of proportional representation would help make sure that we only have true majorities governing, who have the support of a majority of the electorate.     

RT: Our position in the local Chapter is basically the same as Fair Vote Canada.   

DS: Fair Vote NS like Fair Vote Canada tries to focus on the one issue, i.e. of the need for electoral reform and proper representation, so we are focused on developing a broad coalition for this in NS.

With regard to proportional representation in BC, constituents actually voted in 2005 on whether or not to adopt it as a voting system. Fifty-eight percent of voters were supportive, and the yes vote had the majority in 97% of ridings. But since the threshold for accepting the change was set at 60%, it was not adopted!                     

Q:  What sorts of help or support does Fair Vote NS hope to gain, and how can like-minded citizens get involved?       
           
RT:
First and foremost, come to a meeting and become part of FVNS' working group. We need help forming a local strategy for our educational campaign about electoral reform. There are many opportunities to get informed and engaged. You can become a member of Fair Vote Canada and Fair Vote NS, join our Facebook group, and visit the Fair Vote Nova Scotia website, which will be coming soon.

Q: How did each of you get involved with Fair Vote Canada and Fair Vote NS?          

AB: A few years ago in university, I noticed a lot of my fellow students tuning out of politics. More and more of them stopped voting. They felt that voting didn’t really matter much anymore, because their votes often didn’t count.

Sad to say, but they’re largely right. The mistake many politicians make is thinking that voters are stupid, young people among them. But to the contrary, many know how our dysfunctional system works. They know half of all votes are wasted. If they live in any one of two-thirds of the ridings in the country, they already know who is going to win. If they vote for a smaller party like many students do, they know their vote probably won’t count. And they know that the voting system itself sets up a zero-sum game that profits those who attack, rather than those who seek to build bridges. So politicians will talk about the need to engage people more, to communicate better and to be more responsive to voters, but you’ll almost never hear them talking about fixing the dysfunctional system that got them there.

Since my time in university, the situation has gotten much worse. Our democratic deficit in Canada has grown to epic proportions now. It’s resulted in wild policy swings, in countless millions in wasted taxpayer dollars, in misrepresentation. The system does not reflect the will of Canadians, and power has been taken away from the people and concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few. Our system has exacerbated regional tensions in an already highly regionalized country… and that’s dangerous.

That’s why I joined Fair Vote Canada. As Canada’s multi-partisan, grassroots citizen organization devoted to improving Canada’s democracy, there was no better way to get involved to fix our dysfunctional system. We campaign for government accountability to voters, for a more proportional, fairer representation, and for positive voter choice instead of the need for negative strategic voting.

DS: I was first exposed to different voting systems when I was in university, and then I lived in Ireland for a few years and had the opportunity to vote under the country’s Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. When I got back to Canada I started asking why we are still using the existing First-Past-The-Post system here. I helped found the Fair Vote Victoria Chapter, and then got involved with the Fair Vote NS Chapter after that.         

RT: I have always been interested in politics, and appreciated that casting a ballot is fundamental to a functioning participatory democracy. What was alarming me was the declining voter turnout in Canada and Nova Scotia both provincially and municipally. Successful electoral reform can play a significant role toward increased citizen participation in the political process and restoring greater confidence in our system. I became a member of FVC in the spring of this year and attended the FVC June AGM in Ottawa, which was also the 10 year celebration of the group's founding, and am now an organizer with Fair Vote NS.           

Q:  Is there anything else you would like to add? 

AB: People are really waking up and realizing that they don’t like politics as usual in Canada, and that they can’t rely on politicians to change things on their own – it’s up to people to demand change. That’s why Fair Vote Canada as a grassroots nonprofit, is growing right across the country. The renewed interest in our movement from coast to coast means this is the perfect time for people that care about democracy in Canada to join and make a difference. There’s more information about us and how to do that on www.fairvote.ca.  

DS: We are happy to work with community groups and individuals who are interested in spreading the word about PR in the province. In the past we’ve worked with poly-sci students, high school groups. Fair Vote NS is willing to do public talks on the issues where there is interest.

RT: I would encourage people to read and sign Fair Vote Canada’s Declaration of Voters Rights. You can find it on the Fair Vote Canada website.          

 

Andy Blair is Vice President of Fair Vote Canada. Derek Simon and Raymond Taavel are organizers with Fair Vote Nova Scotia.

 

Contact:

Fair Vote Canada: office (at) fairvote.ca      
Fair Vote Nova Scotia: halifax (at) fairvote.ca


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Steve Caines (Steve Caines)
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Born in Halifax, grew up in Sackville NS, my background is plant science and environmental studies. I write a bit and am interested in current events, politics, music, philosophy.

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