Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Paint it True

"Paint it True, paint it true - to miss or mister
if you don't we wont get the picture
lies and deception is a terrible mixture
when you speak from the heart it'll uplift ya"1

So I've been trying to avoid writing too many dissections of media articles since that seems to lack a certain style or originality but, to tell the truth, part of my motivation for blogging in the first place was to no longer bottle up the irritation I feel when I encounter the worst of the media so let's have at it...

Tommy Steele, (from Canadian Steele) has a good post up on what it means to be non-partisan. All I'll add right now is that to me non-partisan means a) what Tommy said and b) the opposite of an article in the Tyee today by Mitchell Anderson, entitled 'Let's Keep Vote Reform Alive'.

The article is a pro-MMP piece which attempts to show that the 'message' sent by the referendum was that the people of B.C. want to see an MMP system brought in. Which is fair enough for an objective, it's just the implementation that went awry. Let's do a line by line critique...

"The referendum question on BC-STV needed 60 percent support to succeed. It got 57 percent.

There are two lessons that we should take from this result. The first is that BC-STV is a dud. A poll by Ipsos-Reid in late April showed that 64 percent of British Columbians knew "nothing" or "very little" about BC-STV. A second poll by Nordic Research Group poll on the eve of the referendum showed that only 37 percent of respondents could even name STV."

So here's my question, how can the reason that (43% of) people voted against STV be because it is a dud if they couldn't even name the system being voted on? How could people be expected to prefer MMP, if they're not going to bother to even learn the name of what they are voting on? Will people be more likely to learn the acronym MMP than the acronym STV because the system which the MMP acronym corresponds to is a little bit simpler than the one which STV corresponds to?

If people don't even know the name of the proposed system, that doesn't indicate that it's a dud, it indicates the people are a dud because they have no interest in how they are governed and/or that the process for educating people was a dud. It says nothing about MMP being better than STV (or vice-versa).

"British Columbians were voting for change. They were not voting for BC-STV."

It's nice that the author believes he knows the motivations of all the people of B.C. who voted, but I for one voted for STV and I think a lot of other people did as well. It seems like pretty hard spin to suggest that people who answered 'yes' to a question, 'do you want to adopt STV as the new electoral system' weren't voting for STV. Maybe not all of them, but enough to make the 57-43 split in favour? definitely.

"While BC-STV has now failed, electoral reform continues to move forward. Just one day after the election, both Gordon Campbell and Carole James have stated that improving the voting system is a priority that should be revisited before the next election.

This is stunning rebuke to the cynical argument made prior to May 17th that while voters might not like or even understand BC-STV, they had better vote for it or electoral reform in BC will be set back for years."

And I guess if Campbell comes out tomorrow and says the Liberals want to help out the poor, that will be a stunning rebuke to those who said that voting NDP would be better for the poor than voting Liberal. When it comes to politics, action speaks a lot louder than words. If we end up getting a new electoral system some time in the next, say 6 years, *that* will be a rebuke to those who thought a 'No' vote would set back electoral reform. And besides, the only reason electoral reform still has the momentum it does is because so many people voted 'Yes'.

Furthermore, I would challenge the author to point out where 'Yes' supporters are on the record as saying that people who don't understand STV should vote 'Yes'. It was the 'Yes' side which did by far the lion's share of the work to get people to know about and understand STV. The 'No' side seemed reasonably content to rely on simplistic (and often misleading) fear-mongering rather than try and educate people.

"Carole James has also revealed that she does not favour STV -- a sentiment shared in the vast majority of the public submissions of the now defunct Citizens Assembly.

In fact, fully 80 percent of the public submissions to the Citizens Assembly process were in favour of some form of "mixed-member proportional" (MMP) system, used in some variety by most established democracies around the world. Unlike STV, MMP has a solid record of delivering proportional results and achieving gender equity of elected officials."

This is the real heart of where the article goes awry. First off, as is well known by now, the Green Party stacked the submissions to the Assembly, by lining up speaker after speaker to support MMP without any other system having such organized support behind it. So the quoting of statistics which the author must surely (by now) know to be misleading is quite disingenuous.

Speaking of which, the statement that MMP is used in some variety by most established democracies around the world is simply a falsehood. As far as I know, out of the 30 or so countries which make up the OECD (a group of the world's wealthiest / most advanced nations) only Germany, New Zealand, Mexico, the U.K. (for some regional elections) and Italy (lower house) use MMP. That's hardly *most*. In fact, it's only 2 more than use STV (Ireland, Australia (upper house), and U.K. (again regional elections). And maybe this would be a good time to mention that New Zealand is only using MMP because it won a referendum - with a 54% yes vote, 3% less than voted for STV in B.C.

But even worse is the statement that 'unlike STV, MMP has a solid record of delivering proportional results' - another outright falsehood, since by pretty much any measure STV has a solid record of delivering proportional results as well.

As for achieving gender equity, I've been over this ground many times. I don't think allowing party leaders to basically appoint women to MLA positions is the solution to the gender gap nor do I think that differences between countries in the number of women elected can be attributed with any degree of reliability to the electoral system.

"The main advantage of MMP is that it preserves local representation while also ensuring that elected seats accurately reflect the popular vote. Under MMP, minority and coalition governments rather than simple majorities are far more likely.

Because different parties know that they may one day have to work together, the public debate tends to be more respectful than the embarrassing spectacles seen regularly in Victoria or Ottawa. Coalitions also mean that governments are much more accountable to the people between elections - not just on voting day."

Sorry, how is this any different from STV? (and this is the 'main' advantage of MMP -over what? - oh I see, we're doing the old shifting comparison game, comparing MMP vs. FPTP when it suits us and vs. STV when that suits us).

"Countries that use MMP also have better representation from women - up to 42 percent in Sweden. This system has also been shown to significantly increase voter participation - over 80 percent in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Belgium."

Which would be more convincing if a) Those countries actually used MMP and b) Those countries didn't have a long stories historical track record of equitable treatment of women extending across almost all facets of their society. But I'm sure more female MP's is down solely to the electoral system. Imagine how many women would be elected in the Middle East if only they used MMP! note: sarcasm

"There is little doubt that if BC voters had been given the chance to choose the much more popular system of MMP, the results of the referendum would have been very different."

Obviously there's no doubt since MMP is much more popular - the author says so! Less sarcastically, I say 'huh'? Maybe the results would have been different but I'd say there's lots of doubt. Keep in mind that STV's 57% support in B.C. was 3% higher than what MMP got when it was put to the test in New Zealand. And of the pro-STV blogs I listed on my STV-blog, I got the feeling that there were a fair number which supported STV but wouldn't have supported MMP.

"For reasons that remain unclear, the Citizens Assembly instead chose to disregard the vast majority of public input and recommend BC-STV"
The reasons are not unclear, they were spelled out (clearly) on the Assembly website and if the author had contacted any of the assembly members for an explanation I'm sure they would have answered at length as they did when the question came up at the public forum I went to.

Of course the reasons were the disadvantages that come with MMP (different classes of MLA's, the need to add more MLA's to the legislature, too much power in the hands of party leaders being the main ones) but maybe the author would rather cast vague aspersions against the integrity of the Assembly members than deal with the cognitive dissonance of how dedicated intelligent people studying the problem for a year might not think his favoured system is the best.

"As for the die-hard boosters of BC-STV, the rules of the referendum are clear and though they came close, they lost. They should now graciously admit defeat, and either pitch in on the new struggle for a more palatable system of electoral reform, or clear out of the way.

Some BC-STV zealots have now suggested that the referendum threshold of the 60 percent should now be lowered retroactively to allow their preference to succeed. Can you image the outrage if the threshold was retroactively raised had BC-STV had achieved 63 percent support?"

The rules were clear, but perhaps not clear enough for the author to understand them properly. The mandate for the referendum only stated that the government would be required to bring in STV if it got 60% support, NOT that it would be forbidden to do so without that support. So the author's comparison is a false and misleading one. In fact, the vast majority of all changes in electoral systems have been made with less public support than the 57% who voted in favour of STV. Even having a referendum at all set a higher bar than is often used (PEI is planning a referendum with a 50% threshold, and last I heard Quebec was planning electoral reform without a referendum).

On a more personal level, I find it irritating to have someone suggest I clear out of the way in one paragraph and accuse STV-supporters of being zealots in the very next paragraph.

Stepping back a bit, I should note that I have nothing against MMP. I think it's a perfectly good system (far better than our current one) and I think B.C. voters should have the chance to vote on it. What I don't like are articles which contain multiple falsehoods, articles which try to exploit statistics the author knows (or should know) are misleading, articles which prefer to cast aspersions on upstanding citizens rather than acknowledge the weakness in their case and articles which resort to name calling instead of making logical arguments (STV is referred to in the article in various places as 'obscure', 'arcane', 'baffling', a 'pig in a poke', a 'dud', and an 'unfortunate artifact', and its supporters are called 'die-hards' and 'zealots').

If your argument makes sense then you should have the courage to make it honestly and not resort to a host of cheap debating tricks to try and fool the reader into supporting your point rather than making an informed decision for themselves.

1 From 'Sketch' off the album 'Connected' by the Stereo MC's.

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  • I like MMP for its simplicity. That said, I would rather have STV than FPTP if that was on offer. Anything is better than FPTP. The important thing is not to fight amongst yourselves. Your real fight is with the FPTP people, for now. They will use any split as an excuse to do nothing.

    By Blogger Greg, at 5:06 AM  

  • I am interested (but not convinced) by some of the purported advantages of MMP (or pure PR) voting systems.

    First, I don't see that increased (or decreased) number of female legislators is a justifiable policy goal. If women (in aggregate) feel under-represented, then they have been conspicuous in doing nothing about it for the last seventy years or so that they have had the right to vote, by considering gender above all else when marking their ballot. I would submit that women (God! I hate writing about groups as if they were homogeneous) have not done so because they feel that policy positions, integrity, and even party membership are all more important than genitalia when determining who should pass the laws that govern our society.

    Maybe I'm wrong. If so, then there is a huge opportunity for Carole James - she can simply insist that the NDP run an all-female slate in the next election. With women comprising slightly more than 50% of the population, she will no-doubt get every seat, except in the few ridings where the fascists run women as well. None-the-less, this will be a comfortable majority for her. We can then enjoy our perfect world of female over-representation in the Lege. I imagine that after this drubbing Gordo (or the next leader - maybe Carole Taylor) will come back with an all-female slate in the following election, and then we are really off to the races!

    The "need" for female (or red-headed, or left-handed) representation in the Legislature presupposes that women (or redheads or left-handers) will do things differently than men (of whatever hair colour and handedness). I take that as more-or-less axiomatic, but I find it a suspicious claim coming from the left wing - isn't their other refrain that men and women are exactly alike, so any difference in treatment is unacceptable in our society? Even with the difference in how women will do things compared to men, I am not sure that it translates into results. Women have not been notoriously better (or worse) than men as MLAs or as Ministers, in my observation.

    The second purported benefit of PR systems (in whatever form) is to increase voter participation rates. So what? Voting now takes the effort to ensure that you are on the voters list (pretty damned easy if you file a tax return and tick the box), and the willingness to walk to or drive by a polling station on your way home, or while running errands. In total, it may requier a committment of 15 to 20 minutes of your time. I appreciate that some people spend more time (a LOT more time) reading, understanding the issues, etc - but I am dealing with the minimum requirement. Why should we be excited about a system that will encourage participation by people who now cannot spend 15 minutes every four years now? Do we really want to increase the degree of influence of the "Fifteen minutes is way too much effort" crowd? Why would we accept that this claim represents an improvement, even if true? I have very little sympathy that non-voters are slaves to a system run by those who take the extreme measures of getting off their ass and casting a ballot.



    By Blogger deaner, at 11:45 AM  

  • Dean, it's not the "15 minutes every four years crowd" we are trying to reach, it's the "my vote doesn't count" crowd.

    By Blogger Greg, at 6:33 AM  

  • Greg - fair enough; but I just don't know how you can confidently distinguish them in the first place. I know, intellectually, that "my vote doesn't count" - I have never voted in an election where the result came down to plus/minus one vote, or even plus/minus 100 votes (okay - ignoring minor hockey association, high school council, etc). But I still vote, because I recognize that as my civic duty, and you never know - this could be the election where "my side" loses by one vote... Why would I want to encourage people who do not (or cannot) recognize that duty to vote in the future? Why would I want to dilute the voting power of people who currently take a civic interest with that of people who do not, or who are only interested "if their vote counts?"

    It might be "nice" if more people voted, but it might be completely irrelevant. At best it is a means to an end, where the desired end is a good government that enjoys public support. The number of people who vote is an indicator of whether the politicians are doing a good job of reaching out to the public and offering policies that their citizens can support; it is not a determinant of a healthy body politic, but a result thereof.

    If all we wanted was a high turnout, we would give each voter five bucks for turning up at the polls - but would that actually produce more informed voters, or (necessarily) lead to better government? I don't think it would - but I admit that is only a hunch; I am not aware of any research on this. Australia has (or had) a mandatory voting system - if you didn't vote you were subject to a fine; I suppose that is the converse of the system I have described, although it is more expensive to implement. Again, I don't know that it produces any better result than what we do now. I just find the "more people will vote" argument to be a particularly weak justification for any proposed voting system, since it confuses an exogenous and an endogenous variable.



    By Blogger deaner, at 1:59 PM  

  • Ah, but you see Deaner, if we used MMP every vote would count because you would vote once for you local candidate and once for the party. So, even if your candidate lost, your party vote would still not be lost. I truly believe if people knew that regardless of where they lived their vote would count, they would come out. Now, we will never know until we try, but we have to do something. The system we have now is deeply flawed and needs changing.

    By Blogger Greg, at 5:46 AM  

  • greg - It's hard to fight with the FPTP people - since so few will stand up to defend a system they know is poor. The most they are usually up to is throwing out some Churchill quote ('democracy is the worst form of government except all the others', paraphrasing) to the effect that First Past the Post is bad but the alternatives are worse as if that was an argument.

    Deaner - Groups are not homogenous but it certainly seems possible that they have different (average) characteristics so for that reason I feel it is a reasonable objective to have representation of groups which are large and distinct enough to justify having people in government which reflect their view of the world.

    If we don't accept that there is some difference between women and men, then the only remaining logical explanation for the preponderance of men in politics would be discrimination so I'm not sure that's a road you want to go down either.

    Personally, I just feel that the best way to solve the 'problem' is from the bottom up with parties encouraging more women to seek nomination, and women themselves pushing themselves forward (and supporting each other) more, rather than top down with party leaders 'appointing' women from some list as if seats in parliament were cabinet positions.

    As for turnout, I certainly sympathize with the view that those who don't vote don't deserve representation but I also sympathize with people who know damn well their vote won't make any difference to the outcome no matter how many elections in a row they go out and cast it.

    Anyway, I don't really see either of the reasons you mentioned as key planks in support of proportional representation. To me it all comes down to one thing, the distribution of seats (representatives) in the legislature should be as accurate a representation of voters desires as possible. To me, that's just a fundamental part of true democracy.

    The argument that we should skew or distort or ignore the choices made by voters because that leads to some minor, unproven policy making advantage (e.g. strong majority government) is not one I support.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:56 PM  

  • I'm revisiting this long after you guys probably thought the thread died - sorry about that...

    First - I am not disparaging PR systems (either full PR or MMP) because I don't like either increased legislative participation by women, increased voter turn out, etc. I object to those arguments being used to support PR systems, first because all those effects are only means to an end - they are not the end in themselves, and second becasue the assertions (in my mind) are just hand-waving); the difference in gender composition between Sweden, Ireland, Malta, and BC surely has at least as much to do with economic and cultural factors particular to each of those societies as with their voting and electroal systems. The glib assertion that "policy XXX would have result YYY" is not very convincing. I certainly accept that there are differences in performace and capabilities between men and women - some of which are relevant and some of which are not, depending on the task at hand - I am just amused at the left that can simultaneously argue that no such distinctions are ever relevent for any purpose (since that devalues the intrinsic worth of the individual involved), and that we need gender quotas to ensure equal participation of males / females (and presumably other identifiable groups). It is notable that while there is identifiable ethnic block voting I have rarely, if ever, seen gender block voting - if women feel historically underrepresented, they have chosen a very subtle way to show it.

    Greg - I am not sure that under a MMP system "my vote would still count" - I would elect (or not) my choice as a direct representative, and then with my PR vote I would have the chance to give my proxy to the hacks and backroom boys in the cabal that least offends me. I dunno, but to me, that vote doesn't count for much to me although the bagmen no doubt appreciate it.

    The trouble with the "my vote should count" argument is that some people's votes won't count. Get over it. That's inherent in having fewer representatives than we have citizens - we can't all be perfectly represented. If we insist on a full PR system (ignoring the problem with lack of local responsibility) then we just more the problem down to the party-list level: if I want to be represented, I need to join one party or another, and get out and organize to skew the party list so it reflects my views - the highly-placed candidates are the people I want to sit in the Lege, not the ones that the party hacks want to have there. If that's done through a party voting scheme, then we have -in effect- two (or three, including the greens) parallel FPTP systems that will share out the MLAs in line with the overall level of support for the party. Maybe parties would use PR internally - but then you are just voting for factions within each party - and again we have the factions running FPTP sub-races to identify the favoured candidates for that faction to give them the higher spot on the party list.... and greater fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum

    By Blogger deaner, at 5:21 PM  

  • Deaner - two things:

    One is that you may be surprised at the amount of gender block voting which has occurred (see the last Federal election for an explanation of how the Liberals won). It's just a lot less obvious because women are geographically intermingled with men.

    Which is one of the problems with the current system - groups which are geographically concentrated (ethnic groups in large cities, the poor in some cases, the wealthy in some cases, farmers in many cases) get representation. Groups which are geographically dispersed (women, environmentalists, etc.) don't.

    THe second is that the solution to your concerns about party leaders picking candidates via MMP (which I share) are best addressed by an open-list system. With an open list voters would choose who their 'party' vote goes to from the full ist of available candidates (listed in random order). The party could still tell people who to vote for first second etc., but it would be up to the voters whether they wanted to go along or not.

    Under a system which is fully proportional, just about *everyones* vote will count, since every vote goes towards determining the percentages for each party. There will still be a few people who didn't want to vote for a party or who voted for a party which didn't make the threshold to get seats whose votes won't count but this will be a much smaller number than under FPTP (STV falls in between the two systems).

    Just because no system will count everyone's vote doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to design a system which counts as many people's votes as possible.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:22 AM  

  • Declan - yes, there are unquestionably gender preferences in voting; what I was referring to in the absence of gender-block voting was that women don't get elected simply because of their gender, nor do men lose elections for that reason; it all comes down to the policies they espouse. I imagine many women would be horrified to be represented by Christie Clark, for example, wand many men would be just as averse to being represented by Corky Evans. The "gender equity" argument is based on the premise that women legislators as a group will favour legislation that appeals to women.

    Women voters seem to disagree, since they are not electing women to represent them in overwhelming numbers. I attribute this to the fact that women voters are willing to look at more than the gender of the candidate, which puts the lie to the "need" for more female MLAs in order that women are adequately represented. I am not sure that the geographic dispersion argument holds for women, given that they have an absolute numerical advantage over male voters, which would be a telling edge, if they voted on the basis of gender - ie; if women voters thought the issue was as important as women politicians do. Interesting comment on the geographic dispersion regarding other interests - but that is unavoidable with any kind of representation based on geography (I know your response that then geographic representation is the problem - in this case, it might be...)

    I had not seen the "open list" idea before. I agree that it would solve (or at least, go a long way towards solving) many of my concerns about the effect of party lists.



    By Blogger deaner, at 1:00 PM  

  • "what I was referring to in the absence of gender-block voting was that women don't get elected simply because of their gender, nor do men lose elections for that reason"

    ah, I misunderstood, yes I see what you're saying now - although I think if there were ridings with big concentrations of male (or female) voters you might this factor play more of a role (or not). Their numerical advantage is insignificant (outside of retirement communities anyway) and may be offset by lower voter turnout (I have no idea, maybe more women vote which would support your point).

    I do support geographic representation, I just feel it needs to be balanced with other concerns. Hence my support for hybrid systems like STV and MMP.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:57 PM  

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