By Douglas Todd, The Vancouver Sun, July 20, 2018
It’s not hard to find Canadians who believe many things are going horribly wrong with democratic institutions.
Democracies are weakening through polarization, overblown rhetoric, extremism, corruption by big money, excessive partisanship, hyper-competition, an inability to compromise and a lack of shared vision of the public good.
The head of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions has written a new book bent on reforming the systems and beliefs that create such havoc and hand too much power to oligarchies, small groups that control nations and regions.
Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press), by Max Cameron, offers astute observations and philosophical insights about how to rebuild democratic institutions based on the Aristotelian idea of practical wisdom.
I talked to Cameron about the way his book’s themes dovetail with what is arguably this year’s most important democratic issue for British Columbians: The November mail-in referendum on proportional representation.
I have written about how proportional representation systems used in dozens of advanced nations generally (with oft-cited exceptions) lead to greater political consensus, compromise and coalition-building.
One big advantage of proportional representation, in which parties gain seats in rough proportion to total votes cast for them, is that it combats what Cameron calls “false majorities.”
It’s becoming common for political leaders in Canada and the U.S to exploit the 100-per cent power they obtain after winning just 40 per cent or less of the vote.
Many first-past the post winners have been characterized as extremists, such as Donald Trump, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and even, according to some, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C’s Christy Clark.
I’ll dig further into arguments about extremism, since both sides are using them in the debate over proportional representation in B.C., which is characterized by some of the negative forces Cameron cites. But before doing so I’ll highlight some of the democratic advantages Cameron rightly maintains could come with electoral reform.
The UBC political scientist believes the first-past-the-post-system that predominates in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Venezuela, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere incites politicians and their rich backers to fixate on a winner-take-all mentality, leading to abuse of power.
“I think electoral reform could reduce hyper-competitiveness. First past the post tends to polarize the electorate into two parties and increases the chance of false majorities. By contrast, proportional representation encourages coalition-building. I expect parties would be less adversarial in the struggle for power when they know they will be compelled to cooperate in order to govern,” Cameron said.
Applying Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom to the electoral reform debate, Cameron said with many current systems, particularly first past the post, “people neither acquire nor cultivate the skills and knowledge demanded by politics — like listening carefully, speaking respectfully, deliberating openly, judging wisely and acting collectively. And when our politicians model the worst kind of politics, citizens either take their cues from politicians and replicate what they see, or they tune out.”
Proportional representation fosters long-term stability, which benefits citizens. They endure fewer “policy lurches,” which occur when new parties with near-dictatorial term power summarily dismantle the otherwise popular programs their opponents brought into being.
Proportional representation would also reduce oligarchies, where power is vested in the hands of a few and the gap expands between the rich and the ignored lower classes. “(Since) a key democratic deficit that contributes to oligarchy is lack of representation,” Cameron said, “electoral reform that would improve representation could help us resist oligarchic tendencies.”
What will proportional representation do about extremism?
B.C. opponents of proportional representation are stressing it will fuel so-called “far-right” extremism, like the nativist parties that have arisen in parts of Europe. But is that realistic?
“Proportional representation means more parties, which mathematically means smaller parties. In B.C. that would create opportunities for the Greens and Conservatives. I think that is perfectly democratic. If these parties can win five per cent of the vote, why should they not be represented?” said Cameron.
The anti-proportional representation camp appears to be worrying that smaller right-wing parties would have too much of what Cameron called “blackmail power” over a minority government. But politics in Europe is much more complicated than most North Americans understand.
For starters, the populist parties that have recently won office in Poland and Hungary would still have been successful under first past the post, Cameron said. And the “extreme neo-Nazi” parties that opponents of proportional representation often like to cite “are shunned just about everywhere, outside Austria.”
Some nativist parties in Europe do have influence on the political centre, however, Cameron said. And that’s contributing to open debates in some countries about continuing with high levels of refugees and immigrants.
Could the same thing happen here? Cameron said European nativist parties are “reacting to a massive wave of immigration which is very different from what we’ve experienced in B.C.”
Like him, I’ve provided evidence Canada is one of the most successful multicultural jurisdictions in the world. “It is always possible that we could be swept up on anti-immigrant sentiment,” he said, “but if that is the case I don’t think the best way to fight it is by denying representation.”
Indeed, Cameron justifiably says that what he calls the “Brexit disaster” occurred in Britain because politicians didn’t listen to grassroots concerns about the unfettered movement of migrant workers within the European Union. The dangers of extremism dominating in B.C., he thinks, are exaggerated.
This week members of the left-wing Centre for Policy Alternatives came out with a parallel position. Seth Klein and Vyas Saran argue that those claiming electoral reform will feed extremism in B.C. are raising a red herring. “No electoral system has a monopoly on either preventing or fostering far right parties,” write Klein and Saran, “and those advancing claims to the contrary are merely cherry-picking examples to make mischief in this referendum.”
Of course making a shift to proportional representation is not the only reform that Cameron and others desire to improve democracies. It’s absolutely crucial, in addition, to keep removing big money from campaign financing.
“We also need more democratic political parties, less discipline in the legislature and more initiative for ordinary MLAs. And we need a more active and robust civil society to hold politicians accountable,” Cameron said.
Which are all good. That’s why my hope is British Columbians will smoothly advance through the next step of the electoral reform process in this November’s referendum.