Friday, February 13, 2009

Why is the Toronto Star so obsessed with saving 'Winner-Take-All'?

Yet again today, the Toronto Star editorial board saw fit to use this week's Israeli election as an excuse to rail against any form of proportional representation.

Readers will recall how, in the heat of the 2007 Ontario referendum campaign, the Toronto Star frequently printed misinformation about the proposed electoral reform called Mixed Member Proportional. The Star's Kerry Gillespie wrote in a news article printed on the front page that some Ontario MPPs under that system would be "appointed" to the legislature, when in fact they would be elected from province-wide party lists. No corrections were made, falsehoods were allowed to fester in the public's mind, all the while the mainstream, private media, like the Star, continued to rail against the threat of religious minorities "seizing" control of our legislature using the "3% threshold".

If the Star is so frightened by the prospect of 3% or 5% of voters getting the same percentage of seats in legislatures and wielding what little power they have, why is the Star not also equally frightened by a voting system that hands one single party with as little as 35% of the vote a majority of the seats?

The Star argues that we should tremble should a small party get one of its policy planks implemented in a coalition government agenda. But give one party full and unchecked power to implement its entire agenda on the public with only 35% of the vote, and that is perfectly alright, the Star argues. That's how 'Winner-Take-All' works and it's certainly not democratic.

We should think clearly and carefully about what is really motivating the Star to go out of its way so often to rail against any type of voting reform. Whose interests are they really trying to defend? Certainly not average Canadians, who frequently see their votes unreflected in the make-up of the House of Commons, or their provincial legislatures (only unless they voted for the one winner in their riding.)

The Star uses the Israeli example to argue that all forms of proportional representation should be shunned. In truth, the majority of democracies around the world use some form of PR. Israel is one of the few that uses the pure list system and with its very diverse society we see the kinds of results we saw this week. In truth, if 'First-Past-The-Post'/'Winner-Take-All' were in place in Israel instead, it's entirely possible that the second place Likud party would have won the election as First Past The Post has a tendency to skew voters' wishes badly and sometimes even hands power to the second-place party.

Why doesn't the Star mention that most European countries use PR and, for the most part, are models of stability? Meanwhile countries like Canada, the U.S. and Britain mostly use First-Past-The-Post and our countries seem no better off in this economic downturn.

Coalitions under PR are not the same as coalitions under our current system (Winner-Take-All). Coalitions or minority governments under our current system normally last two years or so as the temptation to pull the plug and force an election can be so great (see what Stephen Harper pulled last fall for a classic example). When a party sees its support go up in the polls from 35% to 38% under our system, backroom political hacks are inclined to go to the polls because suddenly it looks like they might be in what the mainstream media calls "majority territory."

Ask your average high school or even elementary school student if 38% or 40% is "majority territory" and you'll be laughed at and receive an 'F'.

Under PR, winning an extra 3% of the vote does not translate into an extra 10% to 15% more seats. As a result, politicians are forced to work rather than play partisan games and coalitions form stable majority governments which generally last their full term of office.

Under PR, all votes are counted and reflected in the make-up of the legislature. Under 'Winner-Take-All', less than half of votes cast have any impact on the make-up of the legislature. Under PR, no party with less than 50% of the votes can force its agenda onto the people. Under our current system, this is a regular occurrence.

Shouldn't the Toronto Star be equally frightened by this reality? And if not, why not?

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