Put Provinces in Charge of Federal Elections

I’ve been thinking of late about what we might be experiencing if our current Parliament had been elected under one or another of the proportional representation schemes that have been bandied about. So far, I’ve only drawn three conclusions:

We’d probably still be trying to form a coalition that would have and hold the confidence of the House;

We probably wouldn’t be experiencing the “it’s a crisis” : “no, we can wait” series that’s made the news this week: it would be a crisis, and the issue would be how much to spend and on what, not whether to spend yet;

The resulting Government would probably not last as long as this one will, as the tussle over spoils would topple it.

Nevertheless, there are attractions to choosing the right system of proportional representation to update our system, for as long as first past the post remains our method of election — and appointment remains the way we get Senators (and they stay in office until 75 years of age) — our Parliaments are likely to remain dysfunctional. (FPTP elects an indigestible lump of BQ members, for instance, in Québec; Senators reflect far older Governments and lack the electoral legitimacy to thwart the current one for partisan reasons, yet do.)

However, what works for people in one region may not work for another. So why not allow some experimentation to take place?

To do this, simply put each province in control of federal elections in its territory.

Alberta, for instance, might want to define rules for Senatorial elections — including the expectation that an elected Senator will stand down after so many years and either run for re-election or be replaced by a newly elected Senator.

BC, for instance, which votes on the single transferrable vote system of proportional representation next May, might want to apply STV to federal elections as well — and ask that seat counts and riding boundaries be adjusted to facilitate this (perhaps the provincial legislature might have two MLAs for every MP).

Other parts of the country may wish to try mixed member proportional representation — as was voted down in Ontario a year ago — or still other ideas.

The Federal Government, in turn, could simply choose to double the number of MPs — so that each province keeps its current share of the House, but there are added members available to make various schemes work better. (This would also seriously weaken Prime Ministerial control over a caucus and lead to more free actions: a good reason to do it. MPs are cheap compared to effective democratic control by the citizens.)

This would allow, for instance, the endless debate about complexity (between different systems of PR voting and between different systems of voting in federal and provincial politics) to be tested. It’s not, after all, as though different provinces haven’t tried other voting systems provincially in the past — and federally we have previously had multi-member ridings. We would, in other words, be able to see what results, and either leave it the way it is, or standardize on a particular scheme based on results after three or more elections.

Then, too, provinces that wished to experiment with mandatory voting, Australian style, could do so. Those that wanted plebiscites to express popular will — or, in provincial mattes, referenda to bind legislative action — could do so.

We are so used, in Canada, to having decisions about our future made for us that this probably all sounds radical beyond belief. Yet the enabling legislation for it can have a built-in sunset provision that returns us — without debate — to first past the post unless formal changes are permanently made. We could even put a clause in that eschews renewal of the temporary measures or an equivalent bill being passed, thus safeguarding our current traditions.

But let’s try something new. Minority Governments are likely to be common in our future. We need to find ways to make the system work better with more than two major parties contending.

(While we’re at it, I’d put into effect the German rule that a confidence motion only fails if another motion establishing confidence in an alternative Government passes. This, more than anything else, would avoid the fragility of government found in an Italy or Israel.)

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11 responses to “Put Provinces in Charge of Federal Elections

  1. I had forgotten to mention it until after posting, but this would also allow individual provinces to decide just how much “protection” their electorates required from issue-based advertising, or withholding of news while the polls are open.

  2. I love the idea, of course, because I have never believed “Canada” to be real. There’s never been a nation as such, unlike the United States. “Canada” (whatever that is) is merely the sum total of its provinces (all with varying degrees of autonomy).

    But why bother with federal elections? The provinces should get together and appoint a PM and federal cabinet (as the European member states do it with their “government”, the EU Commission).

  3. As an Albertan, I think it’s already bad enough to have my provincial elections screwed up and corrupted. Last provincial election we had: completely untrained deputy returning officers and staff, PC- friendly returning officers running the show, and a ridiculously expensive voter turnout campaign that led to an insanely low voter turnout). The less these guys run the better. At least federal elections are relatively trustworthy.

    I think your pessimism about PR stems from an assumption that politicians will be rewarded in the same way they are rewarded now in the FPTP system. Politicians and partisans who play the stupid games they do under our system do not get the same incentives to do under PR systems, which reward a certain level of compromise and co-operation. This is why the scenarios you outline above haven’t happened in places that have PR. Most notably, they haven’t occurred in New Zealand, which is probably the example most similar to Canada.

  4. What the US has and Canada doesn’t, Werner, is a civic theology. The downside of having one is that you get behaviour such as we have seen recently — 700 trillion borrowed/printed dollars just thrown around, for instance — and the downside of not having one is that sense that the country is just a geographical abstraction.

    We need a Constitutional inversion, starting with our communities as the most basic element, and deriving larger entities from those.

  5. Hi, Kuri, and welcome:

    NZ’s experience with PR has been a good one, I agree. I happen to be a fan of STV in part because it makes room for more independents to seek and win office — it gives the least amount of power to parties — and disfavour MMPR for the sheer power it adds beyond FPTP to the parties.

    That said, you either learn to compromise or you fall into the Israeli/Italian experience. This is why I added the German addition concerning the fall of governments.

    Incidentally, I don’t necessarily believe a province can run an election better than the federal government (although Elections Canada’s track record of late isn’t stellar, either, and we had no shortage of poorly trained DROs in BC earlier this year) but I do think getting rid of the “one size fits all” mentality would be a good thing. Let provinces that hold with free public speech during an election, for instance, do so, while others where the idea of competitive voices (competitive to parties) makes them quake in their boots keep those voices silent, etc.

    Change requires experiment.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

  6. Canada has a civic theology, Bruce. The Liberals have succeeded in building that theology around Pierre Trudeau — to the extent that any mention of Trudeau’s many warts, including mention of his past ties to anti-Semitic movements provokes a response grounded in sputtering, panicked outrage from its adherents.

    If one wants to see elections in Canada become even more partisan, all we need to do is allow the provinces to run them, and do what States in the United States do — in particular, gerrymander federal districts to their partisan liking.

    Having a federal election authority is the way to go, but additional checks need to be put in place to prevent partisan tampering from within that authority.

  7. Hi, Patrick:

    Yes, the Liberals have a theology of Papa Pierre. The rest of the country doesn’t — remember, outside Québec, the Conservatives won an outright majority (and a more than adequate plurality of votes), this time around. Americans, on the other hand, have a civic theology built around Manifest Destiny and Leadership of the Free World, which is independent of the machinations of the Demopublican party’s two wings.

    Besides, under our current régime Federally, the rules are indifferently applied, and serve only to stifle independent comment and issue-based advertising.

    What I’d like to see is that we have some experiments take place. Would PR of some form serve us better? Let a PR-friendly province require that the next ballot be done under some such system. That doesn’t change riding boundaries — but it does allow us all to see what happens.

    Otherwise the debate around it, Senate reform, etc. will just go on and on until, as Werner Patels suggests, we all come to realise that we really don’t have a reason to keep Ottawa.

  8. Well, yes and no.

    American civil theology is derived essentially from a 1630 sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” in which he argued that the Puritans were building god’s model society on Earth so they could export it back to England.

    Manifest destiny grew out of disillusionment with the Puritan movement in England and a subsequent desire to export the blueprint for God’s model society westward instead.

    The Puritans, who settled in Massachusetts, were the best educated of all the American colonists. They had a competitive advantage in exporting their religious ideology abroad.

    When colonists started moving westward, however, they became much more interested in survival than in building god’s model society. As western colonies were established, however, they began to develop their own particular made-in-America religions: the Baptist and Methodist Churches. These churches were influenced by various evangelical revivals that Americans actually claim originated in Canada.

    The revolutionary war, however, largely severed these ties.

    According to Molly Worthen, the American civil religion finds its defining moment in the Civil War. Leaders in both the North and South claimed god’s favour. Religious leaders in the South declared the Confederate states to be god’s model society.

    At the conclusion of the war, three distinct narratives of American civil theology emerged: freed slaves treated the Civil war as a redemptive act, in which the sins of slavery were paid for and emancipation offered as an act of restitution. Northern reconciliations treated the war as national rebirth — a baptism in fire. The defeated south treated the war as a “noble defeat”, and became obsesses with racial purity. The KKK was subverted in order to redeem the blood spilled in war and protect the sanctity of white women.

    Inriguingly, Barack Obama’s election may result in a merging of the emancipatory and reconciliationist narratives.

    Abe Lincoln has become a central figure in the American civil theology. He is treated as a messiah figure, and his Gettysburg address and Inaugural address are enshrined alongside the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the civil religion’s scripture.

    As for experimenting on the country, this is a bad idea. Our Provinces are important instruments of governance, not lab rats.

    We should not make any changes that cannot be undone until we’re certain the harm incurred will be minimal. This must explicitly rule out experimentation.

  9. Patrick: Thanks for the history lesson; worth the read.

    Good argument against experimentation, too.

  10. I’ll tell you what my research on the Russian civil theology dug up sometime.

    But before I do that, I’d suggest that we collaborate on some research on Canadian theology.

    We’re a couple of bright individuals — I’m sure we can come up with something interesting.

  11. Good thought, Patrick. Let’s pick that up off the comment board here — I’ll contact you on FB later today.

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