Wednesday 28 Sep 2016

Democracy Covered
Sjef Frenken

"What do you have there," asked Jack as I put down an envelope on the seat beside me.

Jack knows I gave up reading newspapers on my 70th birthday, and watching television shortly after my 74th. Don't ask; I have my reasons.

When my family or friends alert me to a major event, I pop my head above water and look around; I'll even check up on the stories via the internet.

I said, "First of all, there's Harper's proroguing of Parliament."

"He's the boss; he can do what he wants," said Jack.

I said "What I can't understand is why the other parties don't just carry on. Even if Harper locks the doors to Parliament, the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP could rent a hall and carry on denouncing the government. I'm sure there'd be press coverage, and since there'd be no Conservatives present, think of what a propaganda opportunity this would be for the opposition parties. Harper appears to be taking democratic values with a good measure of salt."

"That reminds me of a joke," said Jack, "about a fellow who showed up at a costume party in the nude with nothing on except a Hitler-like mustache and a potato dangling from his penis. When they asked him what he represented, he replied 'a dick-tater'."

"Good one, Jack," I said. "Harper may be showing some dictatorial tendencies, but maybe his behaviour has less to do with a power-trip as it has to do with the flaws in the way Canadian democracy works. Take the idea of the coalition that was bandied about a while back."

"You don't mean to tell me you think a coalition would be a good thing?," interrupted Jack. "Much as I don't like him and his conservatives, he did win the election."

I said "No he didn't. He managed to get a minority government."

"So?" said Jack.

I said, as I picked up the envelope and took out a few scraps of paper, with some figures about the 2008 federal election that my friend George had obtained at my request, "let's look at some statistics. Take the overall vote. The Conservatives got 46%. True, the Liberals only got 25%, the Bloc Quebecois 15% and the New Democrats 12%."

Jack said: "See, the Conservative got more than anyone else."

I said "Jack, you miss the point: if the Conservatives got 46% of the seats, that means that the majority of Canadians did not want them in. It gets even worse when you consider the national popular vote."

"Well," countered Jack, "they were the first past the post."

"That's exactly what's wrong with our system," I said. "Take a look at these figures. These are for the individual seats. In British Columbia, 21 out of 28 members won without getting a majority of the vote. In other words, in most of the seats the people somehow wound up with the person they didn't want. A worse story for Manitoba: 12 members, out of 14, elected by a minority. Nova Scotia: 9 out of 11; Ontario 72 out of 95; Quebec 57 out of 75 seats. Only in Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon was the situation different. All in all, in 68% of the ridings, the winner didn't get a majority, which means that more people did not want that candidate than voted for him or her. In fact, there is one person sitting in Parliament who won with 29% of the vote -- overwhelmingly NOT the choice of the people. And you mean to tell me that that is how a democracy is supposed to function?"

Jack said "I suppose there are flaws in all democratic systems; how would you improve the Canadian one?"

I said "for one thing, we could have run-offs. If the candidate didn't get a majority, make the candidate with the fewest votes drop out, and have another go at it. Or maybe have a run-off between the two candidates who got the most votes. In fact in our day and age, with computers, why not let voters indicate their first, second and third choices. If no candidate got a majority, then the preferred alternative choices of the candidate with the fewest votes would be re-distributed among the rest, until finally there'd be someone the majority of the voters could live with, so to speak. It would tend to benefit centrist parties, but that's Canadian politics anyway."

"It would be cumbersome, for one thing," said Jack.

"Not if it were done with a computer-based system, which we seem to be heading toward in any event. But even if it had to be done by hand, it would be well worth the extra cost to have a government that was a closer representation of the will of the people, don't you think?"

"I don't know," said Jack, "Canadians seem to prefer the present system; look at how the Ontario proposal for a partial popular vote representation was shot down by the voters. Besides, we don't like spending money on such frivolous things as democracy; we prefer to spend our money on tattoos and iPods. As the old saying goes: Canadians are an apathetic lot, but whatcha gonna do?"

I said "I know you're being sarcastic, Jack, but the only alternative I can think of is a coalition. Which, even though it would be based on what I think were misappropriated seats in the first place, would more effectively represent the will of the people. After all, if the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP got together, they'd represent more than 50% of the seats, and to get a coalition, they have to agree on some platform that would protect the main interests of all their constituents. And that seems a lot more democratic than to be run by a minority government that got a little over one-third of the popular vote; a minority government of which two-thirds of whose members were elected by minorities. Mets ca dans ta pipe et fume le, I added for good measure."

My expose of the deficiencies of the Canadian federal voting system or maybe it was my unprovoked French, appeared to have cowed Jack's opposition into silence. Or maybe he'd lost interest.

He said "Are we going to sit here all day, or are we going to get some food?"

Which was, after all, the reason why we were in the third-floor food court of the Bayshore shopping centre in the first place.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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