Thursday, July 11, 2013

Parliaments in Australia and Alberta -- cont'd

Doug Bailie comments on a recent post here:
In your post on Parliamentarianism in Australia and Alberta, you seem to make the assumption that proportional representation involves parties appointing MPs. It’s true that in some countries using proportional representation people vote for party slates and have no control over which candidates make the list or which candidates are listed at the top and which at the bottom. These are called closed lists.
However, most countries using proportional representation use open lists or, instead of a party-defined list, preferential voting, thereby providing voters with various ways of expressing their preferences for individual candidates. Voters in those countries therefore have more choice over who represents them than we in Canada do.
If we don’t like the candidate our preferred party has nominated in our riding, we can either vote for a candidate representing a party that is not our first choice (or an independent), or decide that voting for the party is more important and vote for the not-so-great candidate anyway.
That’s the same choice faced by voters in countries with closed lists.
A few years ago, the Law Commission of Canada recommended an open-list system of proportional representation for federal elections. Some Canadian supporters of proportional representation prefer the type of preferential voting that was used to elect MLAs from Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg from the 1920s to the 1950s. Either way, it would mean more choice for voters.
The letter-writer in the Calgary Herald may have been guilty of over-reach. There’s no guarantee that backbench MPs elected by proportional representation would exhibit greater independence. But the House of Commons would be more representative of voters and that would mean greater accountability.
Thanks, Doug.  In my post I didn't make the distinction between open-list and closed-list PR systems because, well, even despite your explanation, that does still strike me as a distinction without a difference .
Open or closed, MPs seated by proportional representation have to be delegates of their parties, surely.  In the PR legislature, it's not us citizens who are represented proportionally, it's the parties, in close proportion to the vote totals we voters have given each party. If PR MPs have any freedom to disagree with their parties, it seems to me, proportionality has to breaks down. Which is to say:  If MPs don't act as the party's delegates ("appointees" was the word I used), the whole point of PR elections is lost. Open-list, closed list, the integrity of the PR system depends upon MPs always being delegates of the parties in whose names they sit.
I can see the appeal of the aspiration to perfect symmetry between party vote and party seats, but it seems to me the more urgent democratic challenge we have in Canada is the accountability one, how to restore control over the executive to the people's elected representatives. Clearly we are not handling that one well.  But tinkering with the electoral system doesn't address that problem at all, except to reinforce it.
If our MPs decided to move to the Australian (really, the parliamentary) system of accountability to caucus, they could pretty much fix the accountability tomorrow. For the moment, MPs really do not have to act as puppets and bobbleheads and tallysticks -- they just do that because they believe we are telling them to.  It's a bug, not a feature, as they say.
But once installed, a PR system, open, closed, whatever, would tell MPs very firmly that they must not make and impose decisions upon the party they represent. We might have closer symmetry of party standings to election night tallies, but the MPs would be there as party delegates -- they would be tallysticks by design.  A feature, not a bug in the system.
I don't want to belabour this -- but New Zealand, Israel, Peru, the Netherlands: there are lots of examples of PR systems reinforcing and institutionalizing leader-driven parties to the detriment of the accountability of executive to legislature. For Canada, PR of whatever form seems to me one of those well-intended changes that make things worse. The serious problem is not in the voting system and won't be fixed there.

Follow @CmedMoore