On the Edge

Bronze Sculpture
Hannah Franklin

Hannah Franklin is a Montreal artist whose work is held in various public collections, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, le Musée d'Art Contemporain du Montréal, le Musée du Québec, and the Canada Council Art Bank.

A Clear Mandate for Harper?

Oct. 17, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

If you had a barrel of a hundred chimps, and only 22 of those simians worked up the steam to swing over to a polling station to vote Conservative, would you consider that a clear mandate? Of the 60 chimps that voted, only 38 voted Conservative, so 62 of the chimps, the majority, chose one of the other parties. In the aftermath of the federal election, I had to wonder why 40 of the chimps couldn't be bothered to vote. Were they were altogether nonplussed? Bored and bewildered into a state of paralysing apathy? I had to find out.

I trolled the streets of Montreal and found several chimps that abstained from voting, and though some tried to stifle my questions by frisking my pockets while clutching my hair, a few were courteous enough to respond. They felt that the issues didn't concern them, or their vote didn't matter because the result was already a done deal, or that politicians are a lying pack of thieves. One said: I don't know anything about their policies, all I hear on the news is sound bites and endless analyses of the polls. Another said, more simply: What's in it for me?

So, while chimps in some nations are risking life and limb to vote, or obtain the right to vote, throngs of Canadian chimps feel completely detached from the nation's political life. There is a misbegotten theory that it doesn't matter who is in power. It's hard to know how many chimps truly believe this or how many find it a handy excuse.

What we should garner from this lackluster participation is that our electoral system is partly to blame. In short, this system of anointing a leader based on which party wins the most ridings sucks the bag. If each vote counted then the Conservatives would have an even weaker minority. They won 46% of the ridings, 143 ridings out of 308, with only 37% of the popular vote.

The Liberals won 76 ridings, 24%, with 26% of the vote; the NDP won 37, that's 12% of the ridings with 18% of the vote, and the Bloc won 50 ridings, 16%, with only 10% of the vote. In this election, the NDP lost out the most, and the Conservatives benefitted the most. The Bloc only runs candidates in Quebec, so the gap between their popular vote and numbers of ridings is to be expected. But, Quebec is the second most populous province with 75 ridings, so the current system works to their advantage. Did I forget the Green Party? With 6.8% of the popular vote they don't have a single solitary MP.

The steadfast determination of the NDP and the Green Party is almost mind boggling considering they know they won't win the big gold prize. Whatever Layton may have said about running for Prime Minister, deep down in his mustached heart he must have known it was an impossible dream.

Now let's take a look at an unlikely but chilling scenario: a system that is based on winning blocks of territory allows the possibility of having one party win every single riding without winning the popular vote. It is unlikely because there are ridings that will never vote Liberal, others that will never vote Conservative, and in more recent decades some that will pick the Bloc over any of the main federal parties.

However, this scenario was a near reality in British Columbia in 2000, when the Liberal Party won 77 of 79 seats, that's 97% of the seats in the legislature with 57% of the popular vote, a majority of votes but nothing close to the share they grabbed in the legislature. The NDP, the former ruling party, won 21% of the popular vote, but only two seats, not enough to have official status of caucus. The Greens won 12% of the vote but no seats. This is why electoral reform became such a hot topic in B.C., and why a referendum for reform was held in conjunction with the provincial election in 2005, and will be held again in 2009. The referendum was lost in 2005 by only 2%; a majority of 60% was needed to enact change.

It's nothing short of ludicrous that we have the Conservative Party in power when they have so little actual support. Even though it is a minority government, they have and can rule without too much opposition simply because the other parties can't force elections every 5 minutes. It's more than a little gross that this election was called by Harper himself, in a desperate bid to win a majority at an opportune time.

But the Conservatives did gain more seats, and now they are pumped up about the "stronger mandate" to rule, even though 62% of voters didn't want them in power, and 40% couldn't be bothered to vote at all. So for the time being, we are stuck with a government that only has the support of 22% percent of eligible voters. We are a nation that is mostly left of centre (to varying degrees) that has a right-wing government because the other parties are splitting the vote. And yet we will be regaled by the phrase "clear mandate" over and over again.

Gary Lum, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, is one of those who blathers incessantly about this so-called clear mandate. When asked about the niggling fact that Conservatives didn't get a majority, he responded by stating that it's "almost impossible" to get a majority of ridings with 5 parties running in an election. The temerity of a Conservative complaining about vote splitting when it's ensuring that they cling on to power is beyond outrageous. But this is typical of Conservative spin.

Electoral systems are complicated and there are a variety of options in democracies; many of the newer democracies have instituted systems that are far more democratic. There is proportional representation, which ensures that a political party is represented in government according to their share of the vote. There are also systems that employ ranked ballots, and those that have a run-off ballot: narrowing down the field to two parties, so that the ruling party doesn't win by virtue of vote splitting between parties that share similar platforms.

It would be rather elucidating to see the results of a run-off ballot between Harper and Dion. A run-off ballot next week would put a great deal of pep in poor Dion's stride. It would be heartening for many to see the Greens with the twenty seats in parliament that they deserve and would get with proportional representation. We do not need to stick to a system based on the British Parliamentary system that they developed in the 14th century, it can be tweaked.

With an electoral system that better represents the choice of voters, all chimps, big and small, young and old, may feel more motivated to vote, may feel their vote actually counts.

For a good explanation of second ballot voting, or run-off ballots, visit this Wikipedia article: Two-round System
For news on the push to proportional representation in Canada, visit this site:
Fair Vote Canada