Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Alberta InDecision '08: Desperation Time for the Left?

Alberta Liberals and NDP have nothing to lose

In the wake of the opposition's further decimation at the hands of Ed Stelmach and his provincial Progressive Conservative party (not that they were a very strong opposition to begin with), various opposition supporters have been kicking around a few rhetorical footballs trying to figure out just how to get themselves out of this mess.

Many of the answers come down to two things: proportional representation and uniting the left.

If one treats the election results of a microcosm of all eligible voters (although with only 41% of eligible voters bothering to show up, who honestly could?) in the province, then one would also assume (again, not necessarily correctly) that the 53% of the popular vote that the Tories captured would have been good for 53% of the seats. It may be an uncomfortably slim majority, but a majority nonetheless.

Instead, the Tories, with that 53% (actually 52.7%, but we'll round it up for simplicity's sake) won them 87% of the seats. The Liberal party's 26% of the popular vote won them 11% of the seats, and the NDP's 8% of the popular vote won them 2% of the seats. The Wildrose alliance, with 7% of the popular vote, won 0% of the seats.

Proponents of proportional representation argue that something simply must be wrong with this.

But they're missing the point.

The popular vote is an indication of total support for a political party. As such, it's a measure of how much support that particular party has across (in this case) the province's 83 ridings. As such, it's little surprise that the Wildrose alliance's 7% of voters situated in 83 different ridings wouldn't warrant them any seats. It doesn't amount to enough support to win a riding.

In a parliamentary system, there's really only two ways to make proportional representation work: either abolish ridings outright or implement some kind of system in which representatives are simply assigned to a riding.

While the latter could almost be done amicably by assigning them to ridings where the popular vote reflected strong support for their party, it would be inevitable that some riding -- likely numerous ridings -- would be summarily assigned a representative that they did not support.

An alternative model, naturally, is to abolish ridings altogether. Of course, this would deprive citizens of representation -- or at least of the security of knowing they have a representative who is obligated to hear their concerns, regardless of whether or not they voted for them.

The favoured model, as promoted in a recent referendum in Ontario, is MMP -- mixed member proportional represention -- in which a portion of the legislature is elected riding by riding, and another block of MLAs is elected proportionally.

Of course, one can debate the value of electing a portion of representatives who are accountable to nobody other than their party whip. It really just doesn't add up.

The other option for Alberta's opposition parties is actually one that is much, much more viable -- especially here in Alberta where they literally have nothing to lose: that is, uniting the left.

Of course, there have been suggestions that uniting the left on a federal level would equal permanent super-happy-fun-time for the entire country. This, naturally, ignores the fact that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc (the last of which is actually an extreme right-wing party pretending to be a left-wing party) are all viable parties on their own. They can maintain official party status, and even form the government or official opposition.

In Alberta, neither of the main opposition parties can. One of them can form the official opposition on a largely ongoing basis, but it's such a meager and pathetic opposition that it barely warrants the label of "official".

Uniting the two parties would serve two crucial purposes: first off, to renew hope amongst those who would consider voting for a new government if only they had the opportunity, and secondly, creating a new party with a new lease on life.

Traditionally in Alberta, governments are only defeated by the emergence of new parties -- or at least new incarnations of old parties, such as with the Progressive Conservatives.

As an alternative, the Alberta Liberals and NDP could at least agree not to run candidates against each other, cutting down on the vote-splitting that has cost them numerous urban ridings in the past. But don't count on it. While NDP leader Brian Mason is permanently irrelevant and at least seems to understand this, Liberal leader Kevin Taft is still flirting with delusions of adequacy despite the fact that his leadership has been the exact polar opposite of that.

But uniting the Liberal and NDP parties in Alberta -- as the Canadian Alliance and federal Progressive Conservatives did to form the Conservative Party of Canada -- could give them the opportunity to show Albertans they can provide an alternative to the governing Progressive Conservatives, and force Albertans to give them a second look.

What's more, they may not have a choice. It's desperation time for the left, and desperate times call for desperate measures.


  1. You wrote:
    In a parliamentary system, there's really only two ways to make proportional representation work: either abolish ridings outright or implement some kind of system in which representatives are simply assigned to a riding.

    What rubbish!
    Ireland has had a parliamentary system for nearly 90 years and in all that time has elected the members of the lower house from multi-member ridings using the single transferable vote (STV-PR). It works perfectly well, so there is no need either for national party lists or for assignment to ridings.

  2. The single-transferable vote is not a tool of proportional representation. It's simply a matter of bringing first- and second-choice preferences into the matter rather than simply first-choice preferences.

    Some jurisdictions are quite satisfied with STV. But it isn't a proper PR initiative. It simply doesn't function by the same principles.

  3. STV is as proportional as the size of the multi-member ridings permits.

    At the extreme low end -- single-member ridings -- STV is merely an instant run-off system, not a PR system at all.

    With six-member districts (as in Northern Ireland) or seven-member districts (as Tasmania had for quite a while), or even five-member districts (used in several places), it can be quite a good PR system. Indeed Ireland calls it PR/STV.

    Whether you prefer MMP (no doubt with regional open lists, so the proportional MLAs are accountable) or STV, or the list-free "near-winner" mixed system used in the German province of Baden-Wurttemberg, depends on your geographic and other considerations.

    Any of them could be good solutions for Alberta. That's why a Citizens' Assembly is a good way to chose the best option for Alberta and design a model to fit Alberta's geography and political culture -- as long as you have a year or so for public consideration of the model before any referendum (which was lacking in both BC and Ontario).

  4. If you were to amend your statement to say that STV is as close to proportional representation that a riding-based political system permits, I'd agree with you 100%.

    But it doesn't even operate according to the same principle. Proportional representation is based on the principle that every vote cast anywhere should have a measurable impact on the partisan makeup of a legislative body.

    But under STV, suppose you have four candidates running. Candidates one and two claim the majority of the first- and second- choice ballots. Yet other people in the riding rank opponents three and four as their first- and second-choice.

    Instead of counting those votes toward a national total on which representatives are assigned according to overall popular vote, these votes are simply lumped in amongst the so-called losers of the political game.

    Proportional representation is supposed to ensure there are no so-called losers.

    I simply can't regard STV as a form of proportional representation -- at least in a single-member riding system, and I admit that it's therein that lies the rub.

    I simply don't consider six- or seven- member ridings as a viable option. The partisan considerations of each of the different members could serve to distort the interests of the riding in the public eye, as each member puts his or her personal -- and often conflicting -- spin on it.

    I know that bias is just as prevalent in a single-member system, but at least it's only one bias, and it speaks more clearly -- even if it doesn't clearly speak -- for the riding in question.

    It's simply an imperfection in the system that we as citizens need to embrace as a challenge -- one we should be eager to meet.


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