Making it Count

In the liberal democratic political sense, pluralism suggests that all competing interests are represented, and are given due (if not necessarily equal) consideration, at the policy making table. Yet, as famously noted by political scientist E. E. Schattschneider, “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.” As a result, frequently, the maintenance of entrenched privilege trumps the patent need to broaden the circle of participation and inclusion. We see this particularly when it comes to fighting poverty and other forms of social, cultural and economic marginalization. Unfortunately, in postindustrial capitalist democracies, the voices of some resonate more than others. This is obviously a problem.

But how can we add more variety and depth to the choir? Part of the answer is undoubtedly linked to community development and building greater social cohesion. Engagement of those on the margins is a critical element of transformative social change. We also need greater attention to advocacy at the macro level, to ensure that the facts and faces of poverty are more appropriately and concretely reflected in public policy. However, I would argue that if we really want to fight poverty and inequality, we must pursue electoral reform, particularly the adoption of some measure of proportional representation (PR).

Currently, our elected officials are those who win the most number of votes in the constituency, often not the actual majority of votes. However PR attempts to ensure that those elected are (more) representative of the actual votes received by the party, by allocating seats on the basis of the percentage of votes. People can then vote for whom they want, and the ridiculous gamble of “strategic voting” will fade away.

There are a number of models of PR, each with their pros and cons. Some suggest that the elected chambers be an exact reflection of the percentage of votes, others have minimum percentages, and some have complicated formulae associated with the use of transferable votes. But the important thing is that PR ensures a wider range of socio-political views are represented in our elected assemblies, and this diversity subsequently supports greater vibrancy and understanding in political discourse. The consequences of which are laws and policies that are more responsive to the needs of all…not only certain, well heeled, singers!

The Australian Senate is elected by means of PR, and this has allowed a number of dissenting points of view to be aired in addition to those of the two main parties. The Australian Green Party, for example, has become an influential member of the political community in the country, in large part due to their voice being heard in parliament. Additionally, the Scottish Parliament is elected using a combination of single member seats (similar to our current model in Alberta) and regional seats elected on the basis of PR. To be sure, this has led to the ongoing and puddingly heavy presence of Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party, but has also resulted in Green, Liberal Democrat, Democratic Socialist and Senior Citizens’ Party representation in parliament.

Yes, I know that this iteration of parliamentary democracy is counter-cultural. After all, in our archaic and anti-democratic first past the post method, the winner takes it all. Perhaps this diversity also makes policy making less efficient, as old-fashioned notions of party whips and majority rule aren’t as easy to impose; but, more importantly, it makes it far more effective. And effective public policy is really what we desperately want and clearly need if we want a more just, humane and inclusive world.

As it stands, even though the details are vague, both the federal and provincial governments have indicated an interest in looking at some measure of reform. This was an election theme gently raised by the federal Liberals. And in Alberta, the Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee has just concluded an initial public consultation process pertaining to revisions to a number of pieces of legislation, including the Election Act. All told, this could be the start of a potentially game changing process. To support the provision of choices and advances in quality of life, we require significant and transformative change at the policy level. Therefore, we should take the opportunity to get involved, let our politicians know what we think and seize the opportunity for authentic democratic expansion, as this will enhance the quality of life and well-being of so many individuals, groups and communities.

As an aside, I think eco-socialism is the last best hope for social justice provincially, nationally and internationally and, equally importantly, as a foundation for intergenerational stewardship. Proportional representation would ensure that melodious green and socialist voices are also present in the choir. However, to return to the central point, regardless of political standpoint and visions of justice, if we are really interested in fighting poverty, inequality and marginalization we must pursue electoral reform. Its time!

-Timothy Wild

Timothy is a Calgary-based social worker fascinated by public policy.

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