Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Columnists and PR #2

OK, I hope the pace at which columnists write absurd stories about PR is going to slow down because otherwise it's going to be hard for me to keep up.

Today in the star it's Richard Gwyn's turn with an article about how the push for PR is really a secret plan by urbanites to steal power from rural areas.

First off, he argues that election finance reform has already achieved some of the aims of PR saying that:
we've already achieved many of the benefits of PR through our new system of election financing. In our last election, the Greens didn't elect a single MP, as is commonly the fate of small, widely dispersed parties under the existing, winner-take-all system. But the Greens will get a lot of public funding for their 4 per cent share of the vote, so their voice will be heard across the nation anyway.

It could be just me but I haven't been hearing the voice of the Green Party across the nation too much lately. And I have this funny feeling that when it comes time to decide which party leaders get to participate in the debate prior to the next election, the media will argue that the Greens shouldn't be there because they don't have a seat in parliament. So they don't need a seat because they can make their voice heard anyway. But they can't make their voice heard because they don't have a seat. OK, then.

"But none of its advocates have yet explained the most radical consequence of a switch to proportional representation. This is that PR will significantly increase the number of urban MPs in our legislatures, and decrease correspondingly the number of rural MPs."

There are two forms of PR which are likely to be recommended in a switch to PR: either the Single transferable Vote system (STV) or the Mixed-Member Proportional System (MMP).

Under STV (which was recommended in B.C. by the Citizen's Assembly) there would be no such transfer from rural to urban (unless it was explicitly designed into the system).

Under MMP, some percentage (probably around 60%) of the seats would be elected the same as now and the rest would be elected based on party-lists (most likely, anyway). Whether those 40% would be more urban or rural would be up to the parties themselves and not a product of the system per se.

So, I can conclude that, far from being 'the most radical consequence of a switch to PR' a change in the rural-urban distribution of seats would only be accomplished via a specific attempt to do so, not by stealth.

"our most glaring political imbalance is the overrepresentation of rural Canada and the underrepresentation of urban Canada."

Even if you were to even out all the ridings so that they had the same population, I doubt that it would cost rural areas more than about a dozen seats across the country. Meanwhile, the Bloc received 54 seats in the last election, even though they were only entitled to 38 based on their share of the popular vote. And that's just one party.

If you ask me, the most glaring political imbalance in our system is the overrepresentation of regionally concentrated interests (like Separatist/protest movements) and the underrepresentation of more dispersed interests (like the Green or Libertarian parties).

Further down, Gwyn writes:

"Involved here, as PR advocates take care not to admit, is a transfer of power from voters to party professionals. In advance of the election, each party would compile a list of its second-choicers, in descending order. Those most liked by the party insiders would head the list and most likely would make it to Parliament."

Of course, this is the main reason why the Assembly in B.C. is recommending STV, a system which gives voters even more power (and parties even less) than they have in the current system. It's funny how, just a sentence after talking about how "there are innumerable forms of PR", Gwyn ignores the fact that for one of the most prominent ones, his next sentence just isn't true. Furthermore, an MMP system could be designed to reduce the influence of the parties on who gets elected, if that's what we want.

"These second-choice MPs won't be rooted in any riding. So star urban candidates would be natural choices, as well as representatives of ethnic and other minority groups, all of whom are concentrated in cities."

To his credit, Gwyn now gets around to defending his earlier assertion that MP's picked by parties under MMP are likely to be from urban areas. Still, it's not clear to me why there can't be star rural candidates and I would note that the biggest 'group' underrepresented in parliament is women - and last time I checked they weren't overly concentrated in cities.

"It's possible that the advocates of proportional representation don't realize this. It cannot be a coincidence, though, that almost all of them are urban types."

This is by far the most objectionable line in the article. First of all, it seems clear to me that, far from Richard Gwyn knowing so much more about PR then the people advocating it, the reverse is in fact true.

Secondly, the implication that the only reason people would support an electoral system is because it supports their urban/rural class is absurd. Is it so impossible to think that people are motivated to implement PR simply because it is a better system? Is it possible that the reason most of PR's advocates are urban dwellers is because (as Gwyn himself notes), most people in Canada live in cities? Does Gwyn really think that if I had never left the town I grew up in (an overrepresented rural area) I would be opposed to PR - and that the fact that I support it and believe that it is a better system is solely because I now live in a big city?

What is it about PR that leads columnists to write such absurd things? What are they afraid of?

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