Electoral reform – keep it simple

To the Editor

In last year’s election campaign the Liberal party’s promise was that the next election would not use the first past the post system. This system is known to distort the representation of voters’ wishes in such a way that majority governments in Parliaments using this system frequently represent only a minority of voters. We call our method of government representative democracy and it has taken many centuries for countries claiming to have democratic governments to actually complete the transitions from monarchies and other generally despotic regimes. This election promise is yet another step in these transitions in that if Parliament is to be truly representative the percentages of Members of Parliament representing the groups of voters with differing opinions should closely match the the percentages of voters in those groups. These groups of voters are of course what we know as political parties and perhaps too often we refer to them as the “good guys” and “bad guys.” I am keen to point out the significance of this step and its relationship to some history that I and my family have been involved in during the most recent two centuries of development of representative democracies.

An earlier step along this road was taken about 150 years ago when in 1872 the British government legislated secret ballots during elections. Canada followed in 1874 and we have likely forgotten that in our present polling stations no representations of political parties are allowed. The only representation of political party allegiance is on the ballot forms. This step was brought home to me when visiting the town of my birth in Northern Ireland Dungannon I read an old newspaper cutting in our host’s basement about an election in 1874. Our host was a family member of my father’s employer and an ancestor Thomas Dickson merchant of the Liberal party was elected in 1874 over the Tory candidate nominated by the Earl of Ranfurly. The cutting described that in earlier elections at open gatherings the Earl had hired help (aka thugs) present to ensure the desired result. To note the connection between Northern Ireland and Haliburton the Orange Order which I remember from my youth in Dungannon has quite a local history currently displayed in the museum. Also the township of Dungannon just south of Bancroft was named only a few years earlier. Secret ballots have been introduced into almost all countries now but it has taken most of a century to happen.

An even earlier family involvement in government actions was studied by my late sister. This was our great-great grandfather (maybe even three greats) who was Lord Mayor of the City of Lincoln in the mid 1800s. This was the time when both national and municipal governments were ensuring the mundane job of building sewers got done and our great-great grandfather was recognized by Lincoln’s citizens as having achieved much of this job during his time as mayor. The technological development of superior optical microscopes had shown to the biological and medical scientists that the days of calling “Gardez l’eau” were over when the emptying of buckets of excrement onto the open drains in streets was usual. This was the beginning of the triumphs of governmental developments in public health. As an example relevant to today we have only to consider the situation in Rio de Janeiro where untreated sewage may affect Olympic water sports events. Better representations in governments are clearly important for these sorts of triumphs to occur. The narrow views of political parties shown in “We have won we’re better than the other guys!” get in the way of real progress in the quality of life.

Continuing my theme that most actions by governments towards improving the qualityof life can be directly attributed to truly broad support by voters a comprehensive study of the effects of using the several different voting systems by Dennis Pilon (The Politics of Voting Emont Montgomery Publications Ltd. 2007) concludes that the differences in effectiveness between the systems leading to a closer match of percentages of MPs to voters’ party preferences are much smaller than the differences between any of them and first past the post. He has researched governments in many countries which have changed since about 1900 to one or other system which results in closer matching of percentages. The Liberal party’s platform that last year’s election will be the last using that system I deem as very wise and I am encouraged that the parliamentary committee set up to recommend what action to take is constituted of MPs in rough proportion to voter preferences during the election and not as is usual in proportion to the counts of MPs of each party.

On top of the detailed discussions about voting which I am sure we will be having in this year of 2016 there have been probably too many examples of the effects of leaders and potential leaders on political party fortunes. These examples are better left to the humour columns of the gutter press and I hope we can concentrate on achieving a closer match between voter preferences in elections and representation based on the counts of MPs in Parliament.

Peter Brogden