© 1990 Karen Selick
 Government by Fluke
An edited version of this article first appeared in the December, 1990 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 Government by Fluke

The question on everyone's lips the day after the New Democratic Party won a majority in the Ontario election was whether this represented a protest vote or a fluke. The ability to win 56 percent of the seats with only 38 percent of the popular vote is something that does not sit well with most voters - at least, not with the other 62 percent. 

Our system of riding representation and victory by plurality almost invites this result. Even with only two political parties, it is theoretically possible to win a majority of seats with just 25 percent of the vote. 

The more political parties there are, the further the percentage drops. In the '80s, 
Canada has seen a proliferation of new parties, making it increasingly likely that we will continue to be ruled by governments that represent the views of only a small minority. "Flukes" will become commonplace. 

Why are there so many new parties? Obviously, a lot of people are dissatisfied with the old ones. They should be. The major parties' philosophies - to the extent that they can be said to have any - have become almost indistinguishable from one another. They've melded into the Newgressive Libervacrat Party, offering three candidates in each riding. 

This is not surprising, considering that what's really at stake for individual candidates is gaining or keeping their jobs. Implementing ideology is a distant second in importance. Elections therefore become contests to offend the fewest people, which is done by keeping to the middle of the road and not sticking one's neck out. 

On the Canadian scene, those to the so-called right of the political spectrum seem the most disgruntled by this state of affairs. The Reform Party, Confederation of Regions, Family Coalition Party, Libertarians and Freedom Party are all newcomers who, by and large, draw away what used to be Progressive Conservative votes. 

Starting these new parties has so far been counterproductive. Instead of implementing their own policies, the splinter groups have just made it easier for the worst faction of the Newgressive Libervacrats to implement theirs.    

In the Ontario election, for example, 12 ridings won by the NDP would almost certainly have gone Conservative if the minor right-of-centre parties had not split the vote. That would have reduced a majority NDP government to a minority. 

Was there a protest vote in Ontario? Perhaps, there were two - one that went slightly to the left and one that went dramatically to the right. 

In all, more than 257,000 Ontario voters disapproved sufficiently of the Newgressive Libervacrat monolith to cast their votes for minor candidates, even though there was virtually no chance of their winning. Another 5000 spoiled their ballots. The usual two million voters didn't even bother to show up.         

If we really want to know whether there is a protest vote, why don't we simply stick another little circle on the bottom of the ballot and let people choose "None of the Above?" Are we afraid None of the Above might win? 

Some commentators have suggested changing to proportional, rather than regional, representation to eliminate the fluke majority problem. It would work like this: If XYZ Party got seven percent of the vote, it would fill seven percent of the seats in the legislature from its central list of candidates. 

There's a lot of merit in this suggestion. Every vote would count equally towards representation in the legislature. No votes would be "wasted" as 62 percent of Ontario votes were, for all practical purposes. Minor parties would actually win seats and, who knows, this might even bring philosophical distinctiveness back into vogue. 

Referendums have developed a large cheering section, too, among those who fancy direct democracy in the style of ancient Greece. In truth, representative democracy is really a holdover from an era when populations were too far-flung and communications too unreliable to permit anything else. 

Modern technology would now permit us to implement an efficient referendum system, for everyday use, that the ancient Greeks would have envied. You would watch the debates on TV, then phone in your vote to a computer. 

Unfortunately, the problems exemplified by the Ontario election are merely warts on the face of democracy and all of these proposed solutions - a protest slot on the ballot, proportional representation and referendums - are as inadequate as band-aids to deal with the real problem. 

The cancer that threatens our way of life is what Lord Acton called "the tyranny of the majority." We have to recognize that there are certain things a government must not do to its citizens, even if a majority of them tells it to. For example, if 90 percent of the population voted for the government to kill all left-handed red- heads, this would clearly be unacceptable regardless of the size of the majority that wanted it. 

The problem is defining what the limits should be and developing a system that enforces those limits against rampant majoritarianism. This is certainly not a subject that fits onto the back page of a magazine. Many excellent books have been written about it. One thing that seems clear in Canadian politics, however, is that the Newgressive Libervacrats aren't reading any of them.       


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