And they call it democracy

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
– Winston Churchill (House of Com­mons, 11 Novem­ber 1947)

“If Bolivia and Bulgaria can do it, surely we can, too”. Such was the wisdom offered by a commentator I heard this morning in reference to the election result this week in Prince Edward Island. The “it” that we should be able to do if we follow the lead of our South American and Eastern European confreres is proportional representation, a topic that comes up just about every time a majority government is formed with something less than 50% of the electorate choosing the victorious party. In the PEI case, the popular vote favoured the Liberals by around 4% apparently, even though they won more than double the number of seats of their closest competitor, the Progressive Conservatives.

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Yesterday’s election in Alberta provided an even more interesting result. Beyond the fact of an NDP majority – a result that will be analyzed and watched for all kinds of reasons – note that the PCs managed only 10 seats to the Wildrose Party’s 21, even though the PCs outdistanced Wildrose by 28% to 24% as far as the popular vote goes. Interesting in its own right, I would say. The cynic in me imagines that the same people who complain about the proportional MISrepresentation in other elections probably won’t be quite as vocal when it comes to this nugget. As for me, I’m satisfied that Canada’s particular approach to democracy has proven itself yet again: those who took the time to vote can be confident that their votes were counted properly, that no one tried to stuff a ballot box, and that the transition from almost 44 years of PC rule to the new NDP government will take place peacefully and with grace.

By now you may have figured out that I’m no fan of proportional representation. My lack of dismay at the Alberta case might cause some puzzlement but such seemingly skewed results in Alberta are a small price to pay for a system that has provided peace, quality of life and, according to a recent assessment of happiness worldwide, fifth place in the world when happiness is measured. As for the last, I can’t help but provide such a statistic with a little tongue-in-cheek. I’m hard pressed to think of how such a thing could ever be measured in a way that would stand up to hard, scientific analysis. Nevertheless, it’s fun to have such stats, I suppose, and I would guess it’s not all that far off. In light of so much that we see of the world on a daily basis, who could blame us for being a little more than simply satisfied with life in Canada.

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As for Bolivia and Bulgaria, I’m not sure where they polled on the happiness index but I know they didn’t surpass us. And while I know the speaker who referenced these two countries did so more for rhetorical effect than to suggest we should emulate either in its entirety, I disagree with the core argument anyway. For all its seeming defensibility, proportional representation, to my mind, is in no way inherently superior to our own first-past-the-post system. And that last word is the most important: system.

Having recently been retired from elected office, I have seen the system from the inside although, to date, I have chosen to write only a little about that experience. For my purposes here let me say, simply, it is as imperfect as anyone who has spent time criticizing politics might imagine. The people who populate government and opposition, whether elected or civil service, are prey to all the flaws and foibles that afflict any human enterprise. For all that certain constituencies want to demonize politicians in particular, the people I met were just that, people. Each had his/her strengths and weaknesses as anyone would. Being constantly scrutinized by many who would look for any opportunity to vilify you might understandably lead to a certain reticence and reserve, but I did not meet the moral bankruptcy that some would have us believe is the common denominator among politicians.

My point, simply, is that politicians are us and should not be considered the same as the system in which they work. The system, as it turns out, is bigger than any of us. We might ask, what is the system intended to do? Think of it in a simpler context: what is a “system” of traffic lights designed to do? Ensure the proper flow of traffic. What is an electoral system supposed to do? Hmmm.

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The answer to the latter, of course, is far more complicated than the traffic light example but I do believe all systems that provide governance have a united purpose: stable, effective government. Churchill famously complained about the horrors of democracy, noting that its saving grace was simply that it was better than any of the alternatives. And, as we have come to realize, democracy can come in a number of flavours. And it just so happens that I like ours.

Regardless of its purported inequities, our first-past-the-post, party system tends to provide governments that can conduct business without the gridlock that has become the norm even for our neighbor to the south, a country which practices a kind of hybrid of ours where party affiliation does not necessarily mean uniform policy. And as far as I know, not many Canadians spend their time wishing they could trade places with the USA.

In the end, I simply want to acknowledge two things: our democratic system is far from perfect and will, no doubt, change with time, maybe even finding its way to some brand of proportional representation some day; at the same time, the system as it exists has given Canadians much to be grateful for and we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of that. The cynicism I so often hear expressed fails to recognize that and it galls me.

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As well, as the Alberta result shows, surprises can still occur. For all that many feel, at times, that we are locked in a seesaw battle between dominant elites out of touch with the day-to-day reality of “ordinary Canadians”, the long view would suggest that even in Canada, the political landscape can change. Just ask Jim Prentice.


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