On Monday February 25 2013, WSIC ecstatically hosted three distinguished speakers on the topic of democratic reform. Peter Russell (a constitutional scholar), Wayne Smith (executive director of Fair Vote Canada), and Borys Wrzesnewkyi (former MP) touched on different aspects of the realities of our democratic system.
Peter Russell began by extolling the virtues of our parliamentary democracy. Older than our country, the government has been run in this style since 1848. It purports that the state be run by elected officials. He points out, however, that in modern times it is effectively impossible to get a majority of the population to vote for one party and hence he advocates for coalition governments. He also described how the Canadian government took major steps to defining its “brand” first under PM Trudeau, and that because this corporatization of government people today have to empower themselves by forming their own groups to discuss issues relevant to governance. The driver of a good democratic system is the idea that our parliamentary democracy should be fundamentally driven by discussion rather than fiat.
Wayne Smith has taken an activist approach, encouraging people to change the way we vote. The group the represents (Fair Vote Canada) advocates for a proportional voting system. They believe this would go a long way toward addressing issues people have with today’s political system, namely that seats tend to be decided by a minority of swing voters; the current system seems to discriminate against minorities by encouraging the status quo; most ridings rarely change parties; Canadians have tended to vote in geographic blocks; and there is a lack of accountability because parties can target key regions without trying to work for everyone’s vote. Wayne pointed out that such voting systems are perhaps new to Canada, but common elsewhere such as New Zealand and Germany. By giving people more of a sense that their vote counts he hopes not only to empower the disenfranchised, but also improve representation of the peoples’ wishes.
Borys Wrzesnewkyi showed us that Canadian democracy is no less susceptible to subterfuge than anywhere else in the world. He explained how ballot stuffing, and intimidation techniques were used during the last election. Seniors were verbally intimidated and voter registration certificates were used that were later on shown to come from address or people not from his riding. He also notably pointed out that statistics can be applied to voting patterns to determine instances of fraud. These mathematical tools are often used in the developing world, and it is good to see them being applied here too. For example, he found that in a few key apartment buildings, the fraction of voters increased by 50% and the fraction of conservatives by 60+%. These anomalies do not happen randomly and therefore indicate voter fraud. Perhaps we should learn from the Obama campaign and have volunteers simply stand at polling stations. This was a successful technique used to protect voters from those few who try to disenfranchise those who want to vote.
In Borys’ opinion, PM Harper is fundamentally changing the course of our democracy through a centralization of power. The House is becoming similar to the Senate where nothing is decided and everything flows from the PM’s office. Is this a structural flaw in the current system? One that can be manipulated for the gain of a few?
Civics education, compulsory voting, and the topic of coalition governments came up several times throughout the evening. There is definitely a sense that coalitions were demonized by those in power in order to maintain it. Someone pointed out that Harper himself had proposed a coalition government during Martin’s troubled years before he became Prime Minister and demonized Dion’s efforts as “undemocratic”. In reality, this is how many parliamentary democracies around the world operate. Parties are forced to work with each other and no one has an absolute majority. The message resonated because of a lack of understanding about how the parliamentary system works. Russell gave Michael Chong an acknowledgement for his private member’s bill on decorum and rules for the house of Commons. Reducing the power of the leader is an important first step towards creating a more transparent democratic system.
There were plenty of ideas about what to do ranging from teaching better courses on civics in schools, to petitioning the government on changing the way we vote, to coming together in groups like WSIC and voicing our opinion, hopes, and ideas about our country. People can join Fair Vote Canada’s efforts and help push Canadians towards accepting a better electoral system. The active participation of as many of us as possible in discussion and exchanges of ideas, statistics, and feelings is a powerful, and effective way to define what it means to be Canadian.
You can catch the opening speeches from our speakers below.