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Monday, June 20, 2005

how did it happen?

As a political science student, this is one of the questions that had dogged and bothered me for the past number of years. How did politics get this bad? At what point did the debates in the House of Commons and the Provincial Legislatures degenerate into beer-hall level cheap personal insults and nasty heckling? When did the average person decide to tune out of politics? When did the House of Commons become a place for “politicians” rather than our “representatives?” When did elections become irrelevant to the average Canadian?

How can politics again become relevant to the average Canadian? Was it ever? Will it ever?

I can name off a number of reasons for why I believe people tune out of politics, and I will…

Part 1.

It’s no secret that our Provincial and Federal Assemblies are largely unreflective of the ballots cast.

In 2004, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives received 46.8% of the popular vote. Through the wonders of the first-part-the-post system, 46.8% translated into 74.7% of the seats in the Legislature (62 out of 83). Whereas the opposition Liberals received 29.4% of the popular vote, but only 19.3% of the seats (16 out of 83).

With the voter turnout at its lowest in Alberta history, 44.7% of Albertans exercised their democratic right to vote. That’s 894,591 out of 2,001,287 registered voters. Voter turnout was as low as 26.4% in Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo and 29.6% in Calgary Montrose. The highest turnout was 62.9% in Edmonton Riverview.

When translated from voter turnout, the results translate into 20.9% support for the PC’s and 13.1% for the Liberals. So, only 20.9% of eligible voters cast a vote for Ralph Klein’s PC’s. This is hardly a mandate in my mind.

The same imbalance can be seen in the Alberta results in the 2004 Federal election, where the Conservatives garnered 61.64% of the popular vote and 93% of the seats (26 out of 28). The Federal Liberals received 21.98% of the vote, but only 7% of the seats (2 out of 28). The NDP garnered 9% of the Alberta vote, which did not translate into any seats.

So, how do we solve this imbalance? I say overhaul the system completely. Do I know what the solution is? No. But it's time we start looking at solutions.

(Dr. Harold Jansen from the University of Lethbridge has some interesting ideas).

It's time to think out of the box and look past the partisan picture.

Let’s re-evaluate our expectations of our elected officials. Hold them accountable, hold them to higher standards, and call them on their political biases and bluffs.


Jason Cherniak said...

I agree that something has to change, but I would look to a PR system where those who vote for the last place candidate have their second choice, then their third if the second drops off and so on and so forth. That way, you avoid the least preferable option instead of rewarding the first past the post. I think it would tend much more toward compromise positions.

However, if that still overemphasises regional differences because of ridings, then so be it. There is nothing wrong with forcing the Liberal party to recognize that they have a seious problem in Alberta that needs to be dealt with.

James Bowie said...

I want to make a post related to something you said on Jason's site.

You said "Just look at most of the Liberal bloggers out there - why am I the only one who is a strong Martin supporter? In many ways, it is probably because I got involved in the actual organization and know a lot of the people."

Paul Martin is the Man. I am a Paul Martn Liberal.

Jason Cherniak said...

Sorry, instead of "PR" I meant "Preferential Ballot".

daveberta said...

James: Jason wrote that. I was quoting him.

Jason: I tend to lean towards a PR system, but I'm not sure if it is the best. I guess I'm not totally sold on a certain type of system.

Also, this problem is bigger than the Federal Liberal Party. It's about re-engaging Canadians into politics.

The Feds know that this is a problem. It's not just in Alberta, it's across Canada. Unfortunately, I pretty much have no faith that any group in Parliament has the political will to deal with it. It would blow my socks off if I all of a sudden heard the Federal Liberals SERIOUSLY talking about Democratic/Electoral reform.

BTW: The Western issue was one of the Paul Martin planks back in the Leadership race.

calgarygrit said...

There are a bunch of problems with PR. For starters, you'd have continuous minority governments. And, one could argue, that a lot of people have been turned off of politics because of the childish antics in Ottawa which I think we can all agree are partially because of the minority situation we're in.

You also get a lack of MP accountability, two classes of MPs (assuming you still have some responsible for ridings), greater power in the leader's hands, more horse trading, and the pottential for single interest parties to be big players.

daveberta said...


Like I said, I'm not totally sold on any system. though I am convinced that FPTP really really blows.

I liked the idea of STV, though It was also pretty confusing to non-political people.


Sheamus Murphy said...


I don't at all think that tinkering with the system will change the problem.

The problem with our democracy goes much deeper. First, let's look at those who do vote. By and large, I'd say that most politicans are good people. But overall we get the representatives we deserve - because great people run who don't get elected, while often lousy people get in time after time. More than ever all that matters is the party, as we're too lazy to actually look at the individuals running for us and instead follow the sound bites piped into our living room. When the state of public affairs degenerates, its because the politicians are playing to their voting public. If we had higher standards, they'd act differently. How often do we hear the refrain, "they're all the same?" It ends up being a race to the bottom, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As for those who don't vote, I'd chalk it up to what I call the modern malaise. On the one hand, too many people don't take responsibility for themselves - they are much more likely to blame others for their problems rather than get involved in solving them. If we were to get more engaged in civil society, we'd all be a lot more likely to tune into issues larger than ourselves and realize that politics is a potential outlet for confronting the issues that concern us.

Meanwhile, we take what we have for granted. Think about those people who tune out of politics altogether. Do you really think that PR would make them flock back? I don't want to sound elitist and say that they are happier to lose themselves in reality TV, etc., but really we are so well off in relative terms that we not only have so many other professional and recreational diversions but we're so comfortable that nothing really shakes us into caring about the issues of the day.

One last point. There are those who are so marginalized in society that they are just angry and frustrated by a political system that seems uncaring and too distant from them. These folks are just struggling to get by, and feel so downtrodden by the system that they refuse to participate in it.

daveberta said...

Thanks for the post Sheamus. As usual, you are well spoken (or well written).

I don't think electoral reform is the be all and end all of fixing our democracy. You are very correct when you say it's a deeper problem than just how we elect our represenatives.

I see electoral reform as a step in the right direction. As I said before, I don't know what the solution is, but I do think that moving in a positive direction is better than moving in no direction.

It's about re-engaging Canadians. Last week, during the Iranian elections, hundreds of thousands of Iranians were protesting in the streets when reform-minded candidates were not allowed to seek election. Here in Canada, we get 63% voter turnout (47% Provincially in Alberta).

How do we re-engage people? I don't know. But the gap needs to be bridged.

Democracy stops working when people don't participate. I see this as one of the most important battles of our generation.