Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A New Democratic Government

     Well, the unthinkable has happened, and my home province of Alberta has actually elected a majority NDP government. I'm really not sure what to think just yet; it's still kind of a shock. For all my talk about engaging in the democratic process, I hadn't realized just how much I had internalized the despair and resignation to the (apparent) inevitability of Progressive Conservative majorities forever and ever. I know that in the big picture this is not quite as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid, but it hits me almost as powerfully, because I live here.
     Our governing party for the last 44 years has not really been progressive or conservative for most of that time. When they came into power under Peter Lougheed (whose son I attended grade school with), they were very progressive in the way they went about conserving our abundant petroleum resources. They established the Heritage Trust Fund, in which to invest the money from oil and gas royalties, in preparation for when the oil ran out. (They replaced the Social Credit party, whose dynasty lasted a mere 36 years.) But over time, they became more and more dominated by business (primarily oil) interests, and they came to take their power for granted.
     By the time I was in high school (and that was thirty years ago!), they were well enough entrenched that a classmate of mine, after hearing from the candidates at a first-time-voters' forum, remarked to me: "Well, I thought the NDP candidate made a lot of sense, but my family always votes Conservative, so..."
     Twenty years later, and another election, I answered my door to the PC candidate for my riding, one of the very few that was at that time held by a Liberal MLA ("Member of Legislative Assembly", the provincial equivalent of a federal Member of Parliament). I mentioned to this candidate my dissatisfaction with the way her party was running things, and she argued that was because Edmonton was underrepresented in caucus. That is, since we had elected non-PC candidates, the government wouldn't listen to us. Consider the logic of that for a moment: If I don't like the way the PCs are running my province, I should vote for them. What, then, should I do if I did like the way they were running things?

     So perhaps you can understand why I had this deeply internalized sense of despair. I talk a lot here about the importance of democratic engagement and getting out there and voting even if you don't really believe your vote will make a difference. I suppose that came from my years of voting without making a difference.

     Now, one of the things that helped keep the PCs in power so long was our ridiculously crude first-past-the-post electoral system, which gives the seat to the candidate who gets the most votes. That doesn't sound like a bad idea by itself, because obviously, you wouldn't want to give it to the candidate who got the fewest votes, and if there are only two parties or candidates, then "the most votes" usually is equivalent to a majority. But in Alberta (as in most places with parliamentary systems) there have usually been more than two candidates on the ballot. Here, we have had the Alberta PCs, the Alberta Liberals, and the New Democratic Party as the three major parties for many years ("major" being a bit generous, given how few seats the Liberals and NDP usually held), joined occasionally by the Greens, making for three parties on the leftish side, against a more or less united PC on the rightish side. What this meant was that the PC could win the seat with 30% of the popular vote, if the other three parties got 23% each, even though 70% of the electorate voted against the PC candidate.
     In recent years, a new party to the right of the PCs appeared, the Wildrose Alliance, so the right's vote was split somewhat. However, in the last election that the PCs won, this actually worked to their advantage, because many centrists were so horrified at the prospect of a Wildrose government that they held their noses and voted PC. And to complicate matters further, another new party, the Alberta Party, has joined the fray, so that the left-of-PC vote was now divided four ways. It was only because Rachel Notley's NDP manage to capture enough momentum to consolidate the anti-PC resentment this time around that we managed to finally oust the PC government. In so doing, we elected an NDP majority, which irrationally scares the hell out of some people who think of the NDP as a bunch of dirty commies.

     So now, at last, we have PC supporters finally complaining about the terrible injustice of the first-past-the-post that allowed the NDP to take a majority of the seats with less than a full majority of the votes. Part of me is sorely tempted to laugh and point and gloat. But the more rational part rings alarm bells at that part of me, because if I, who am not at all a committed pro-NDP partisan, can so easily be tempted to revel in an inherently distorting electoral system, what does that mean for those who ran and were elected as NDP candidates?
     I do not doubt the good faith and idealism of the members of the new NDP government, most of whom have never held elected office before, and I'm delighted to see a change here, particularly one that moves in a direction I've thought we needed to move for a long time. But power is so very seductive, and it has so many sneaky little ways to corrupt even (especially) the most idealistic. I'm not even especially worried about the personal greed and entitlement that did in the last government; that will take some time to take root. I'm more worried about the Very Important Policies that we have so urgently wanted to implement for so many years. As urgently needed as they are, it'd be so very easy to say that electoral form can wait until these more pressing issues are addressed.

     It's always like that, though.  It's never in the interest of the incumbent party to reform the rules that favored them in the last election. There's always something more important, or at least, something easily framed as being more important, because so often there are more immediately urgent matters. But that's exactly why electoral reform needs to be the first priority of the incoming government. Other matters may be more immediately urgent, but if you don't fix the voting system now, you probably won't do it later. And eventually, in time, as the excuses pile up and your fresh new democratic legislature grows into an entitled dynasty complacent in its claim to power for power's sake (as did the PCs and the Socreds before them), it will be impossible to even contemplate changing it.

     Please, then, Ms. Notley: make fixing our electoral system your absolute first priority. Get rid of first-past-the-post. Personally, I'd favour a single transferrable vote, but there are other viable solutions out there. Put our best and brightest to work on the problem. Consult (and listen to) a variety of experts. But fix it. Make every Albertan's vote count.

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