Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

A future in monochrome

Canada’s House of Commons has risen for the Summer, leaving us with little else but the World Cup to keep us entertained (otherwise known as 22 men jogging for an hour and a half). I suppose it beats 308 men and women shooting political paintballs at each other.

But the Globe and Mail has noted the end of the session by harkening back to a more acrimonious time – one of dubious constitutional legality, and one which has left Stephen Harper with a legacy that will never be shed – the infamous economic update, the proposal to end public party subsidies, and the coalition and proroguation crisis which followed.

The Globe has taken sides late in the game on this one, effectively endorsing the Tories’ December 2008 position that the $1.95-per-vote party subsidy should be abolished. It was an astonishing position for the Globe to take in June 2010 (if ever), not only considering how spectacularly Harper’s initial attempt at this backfired, but also considering the reasons why the House rebelled against it – sure, smaller and cash-strapped parties’ livelihoods depend in part on the subsidy, but so does any semblance of an egalitarian democracy.

Our first-past-the-post (let’s call it FPTP, shall we?) voting system is not designed for competitive multiparty democracy – it’s designed for a bipartisan 18th Century British context in which voters needed local candidate MPs to act as the face of their respective parties – most voters would never get the chance to ever know what their Prime Minister looked like, let alone sounded like, and so local candidates were there to represent the party to the unwashed masses. We must remember that this electoral system was not designed for MPs to represent their constituents in Parliament – it was designed for MPs to represent their party to their constituency.

As obsolete as the FPTP system is for a regionally diverse, multipartisan, educated and media-savvy Canadian public in the 21st Century, the public party subsidy offers voters a faint and meagre incentive to go and vote for who they believe in. The majority of Canadian ridings would not be considered “marginal” – by and large, our country is built up of safe seats. With the subsidy in place, voters in safe constituencies have, at the very least, been incentivised to vote for the party of their own choosing content in the knowledge that, even if their party hasn’t a snowball’s chance of taking the riding, they will receive $1.95 of public funds for each vote they receive. It’s the only direct activation of voter’s will that we have, with the electoral system we’re saddled with.

The Globe suggests that by abolishing the subsidy, we can begin to reverse trends in voter apathy – the argument being that parties that rely more on their own fundraising will be driven to perform better. In essence, it’s a textbook conservative argument that welfare disincentivises beneficiaries from seeking work. But in the political context, this argument completely ignores the electoral system which itself refuses to compute the popular vote in favour of 308 winner-takes-all miniature races.

Currently, at the national level, the Green Party can rely on about 8-10% of the popular vote, yet have consistently received 0% of the seats in the House. The NDP get 17-19% nationally, on bad polling days, and end up with only 10% of seats. Harper and the Globe define “small parties” as ones without a threatening representation in the House of Commons: yet the NDP and Greens together amass the same (or a better) proportion of the popular vote as the ruling Tories – yet this huge wealth of public support is squandered in the electorally-meaningless runner-up camp.

This electoral injustice, rectified long ago in most Westminster parliaments inheriting FPTP systems, already contributes to voter apathy in Canada – and now the Globe advocates pulling the rug out from parties already crippled by an antiquated voting system designed for a bipartisan 18th Century Britain? If you are quizzing voter apathy, look no further than our unitary government, representing just a third of voters.

An electoral system in which 17% of the votes equalled 17% of the seats in the HoC – now that might get voters excited, it might get them to the polls in bigger numbers, and it might get donors on board to support “small” parties that command significant support from voters, but no representation in the Commons.

The Harper team, and the Globe 18 months behind it, push the view that these parties are small because their seat distribution is small – and thus, they are the political equivalent of underperforming welfare cases who shouldn’t be propped up by the all-important taxpayers’ dollars.

But any assessment of party performance, and any strategy to alleviate voter apathy, has to first take aim at our ancient and inappropriate electoral process which rewards monochrome bipartisan contests. Taking aim at the party subsidy is little more than an attack on our single pillar of public financing: the pillar that helps enable parties to remain accountable to the broad, national popular will rather than well-heeled donors with conditions dangling from every cheque they send.

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