What if they gave an election and nobody won?
We now know one thing: this electoral system is broken
ANDREW COYNE | October 16, 2008
And the biggest losers? Try the public. Five weeks of campaigning and $300 million in public funds later, the parties finished within a percentage point or two of where they were at the start. It's almost as if the election never happened — and might as well not have, for all the public cared. All those polls, all those ads, all that breathless coverage, and the turnout in this election, it appears, will be the lowest ever: just 59 per cent of registered voters. At some point it will occur to someone: we have a democratic crisis on our hands — a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of efficacy. We are stuck, spinning our wheels, unable to find a sense of direction. The prospect is for more hung Parliaments, more bootless elections, more stall and drift, and less and less public interest.
If this election proves anything, it is that the process by which we elect our governments is broken. We are trying to run five-party politics through a system that was designed for two parties. The Conservatives look at their steady, incremental progress, slowly spreading eastward, election after election, from their Alberta-British Columbia base, through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and now Ontario, and see a majority in the making. But the other way to look at it is that this is as close as they're likely to get.
It has become almost structurally impossible to form a majority government in this country. If you start each election, as it appears we are condemned to do, with 50 seats off the table — the Bloc's gift to Canadian democracy — then it is not 50 per cent of the seats you need to win a majority, it is 60 per cent: 155 of 258. Add to that the growing, institutionalized fragmentation on the left, and the mathematics become almost insurmountable. Eight years ago, the NDP and the Greens took less than 10 per cent of the vote between them. Today, it is 25 per cent. Throw in the Bloc, and the two parties with any chance of forming a government, the Liberals and Conservatives, are working with just two-thirds of the vote between them.In a two-party system, majorities can be won with very little margin between first and second: in the theoretical limit, just one vote. A generation ago, when the two main parties were more dominant than today, you could win a majority with a margin of as little as nine points, say 44 to 35. But the more parties there are, and the more the vote is dissipated among them, the more the leading party must rely on the accidents of split votes to engineer a majority — meaning the larger the gap it must open up between itself and the second-place party. This explains some of the Tories' heavy reliance on negative ads. It wasn't enough for them to raise their own vote. They had to suppress the Liberals' vote, to somewhere close to the NDP's, to have any chance of a majority. As it was, they wound up with an 11-point gap, and still fell short.
THERE IS nothing wrong with minority governments, per se. It depends what kind of minority. Do we want the kinds of minority Parliaments we have had in recent years, a clutch of hobbled regional or quasi-regional parties, fingers perpetually on the button, endlessly threatening to pitch us all into another pointless election in the vain hope that, if the swing voters can be distracted in their direction, if the splits go their way, if they can demean and belittle their opponents enough, if they can depress turnout even further than before, they might just fluke their way into a majority? Or will we accept that, whatever the ancient glories of the two-party system, it no longer exists?
If we must have five-party politics, let them at least be parties with real differences, and national appeal. Away with the system that guarantees the Bloc two-thirds of the seats in Quebec on the strength of little more than one-third of the vote. Away with the ghettos of Conservative Alberta, or Liberal Toronto, where it is scarcely worth campaigning, so predictable are the results. Away with "strategic voting," and other attempts to tell people they may not vote for the party they support, but must vote against the party they fear. Away with the disgraceful situation of a party winning almost a million votes, as the Greens did this time out, and getting zero seats.
Indeed, when you think about it, many of the problems identified in this piece have their origins in the perverse incentives of our highly leveraged, winner-take-all electoral system. Why have the Tories degenerated into mush? Because they face no competition on the right, Reform-style uprisings being more or less outlawed for fear of "splitting the vote." Why did the Liberals ignore their growing weakness all these years? Because they could still count on the bizarre distortions of first-past-the-post to reap a bushel of seats from one region or another. Why has the Bloc become an immovable blot on the national scene, long after its original purpose was exhausted? Ditto. Why have majority governments become next to impossible? Why has politics degenerated into such vicious, empty partisanship? Why do so many people no longer bother to vote? Because the system is broken, and if this election won't persuade us to change it, nothing will.