Throwing the Bums Out

Electoral reform is the hot topic on the Inroads Magazine chatline. Inroaders have always been at home with the idea. Now it’s needed “big time,” say the contributors unhappy with the Conservative majority.

There’s one difficulty, as Gareth Morely notes. The Canadian electorate does not want reform. Professors do. Inroaders do. But not the ordinary voter. In the BC referendum, the Single Transferable Vote lost badly. In Ontario, MMP (mixed member proportional) lost – badly. The British have just rejected the Alternative Vote. Our familiar system, first-past-the-post, retains its appeal and Morely tells us why. It enables the electorate to hold the parties to account:

“FPTP has the merit of rewarding ideological groups that have obtained organizational unity. When the Canadian right was split, it lost elections. Once it was no longer split, it started winning them. If the logic of FPTP prevails and we end up with one party of the left and one party of the right, it will be easier for voters to hold those parties to account.

“If you don’t want Conservative governments forever,” Morely says, “it makes more sense to focus on party realignment – whether in the form of merger or transformation of the NDP into a more electable force – than to chase electoral reform.”

Every undergraduate instructor in Canadian politics spends an hour, sometimes several hours, on electoral reform. Students do not always enjoy the experience. I recommend John Pepall’s nifty volume, Against Reform (University of Toronto Press, 2010). It has five short chapters on the topic, all easy to read and informative about parliamentary politics and the functions of government as well as voting systems.

Pepall’s arguments resemble Gareth Morely’s: first-past-the-post lets voters ‘throw the bums out.’ “The ability to ‘throw the bums out,’ more even than the ability to choose a new government is the most striking practical virtue of our present way of voting.” It’s virtually impossible with alternative schemes.

1 Response to “Throwing the Bums Out”

  1. 1 ___ May 19, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Couple of points/questions

    1) Didn’t BC voters approve electoral reform by a 58-42% margin in 2005? Premier Campbell refused to recognize anything less than a 60% plurality, however. How legitimate is that when Quebec could have seceded (or at least forced major constitutional negotiations)with a 50% +1 vote in favour of sovereignty?

    2) There is no groundswell of support for electoral reform because Canadians do not care about/do not understand our parliamentary system. 51% of Canadians think we elect the PM directly. Is there any point talking abut electoral reform in this context?

    3) I agree that first past the post leads to a two party system. However, why is that a good thing? It either creates very polarized politics (i.e. BC) or two ideologically indistinguishable brokerage parties. In either case, there are more than two ways of looking at the world. The various strains of public opinion should be represented in the House of Commons and not in the backrooms of our major parties. (BTW, we would not necessarily have to abandon single member constituencies. A preferential ballot or a two round election would do the trick. Admittedly, though, such a system would have the disadvantage of eliminating “extreme” parties from Parliament, which might lead to further difficulties)

    4) Why is throwing the bums out such a good idea? What is inherently positive in McKenna-style sweeps? Seems that they prove the system is defective, more than anything else.

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