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More assorted thoughts on the future of our democracy

I plan to make my case for moving to an Australian-influenced model of elections at some point in the not too distant future. With Instant Run-Off voting in the lower house and STV in the upper house, the country down under is definitely onto an electoral system I can support. I wasn't sure about it, but after spending time talking to an Australian immigrant about the system, it seems like a no-brainer as far as a model for the electoral reform we should be seeking.

I am told that in Australia, except for one, all state legislatures are bicameral, using a system along the lines of the federal IRV/STV system. From the sounds of it, this combination of preferential balloting at the riding level for the lower house, and a preferential ballot to choose among parties in the upper house, is, unlike MMP in New Zealand, fairly non-controversial in Australia. Australia offers a split ballot for the upper house, where you can elect to rank either the parties or the candidates, but not both. The only disadvantage to the Australian model's implementation is that the voter is required to rank all candidates, not as few or as many as they would like. This requirement is not an inherent requirement of Instant Run-Off voting and better quality results can be achieved without this.

As I just noted, Australia's senate is elected by STV. But the senate is constitutionally mandated to be no more than half the size of the commons, and there is an esoteric rule in Australia allowing a joint sitting of the commons and senate with each member being allowed one vote to break a deadlock in certain circumstances. This ensures that the commons remains more powerful than the senate.

Senate reform, as proposed in Canada, poses a number of concerns for me. A senator who is appointed until he or she is 75 years old has several related advantages. In being there for life, the senator has no need to consider what they will do after their time in the senate is done, and is thus not influenced by this consideration. The senator is also not elected, and thus does not owe an electorate anything and is not under any obligation to make short term politically advantageous promises. They are also very difficult to remove, and are not seriously indebted to the prime minister who appointed them, particularly after that prime minister is no longer. This set of circumstances allows a senator to be completely objective when considering laws before them, and that is their entire value. It is what it means to be the house of "sober second thought". An 8-year term limit means a senator must consider his own future and eats away at that objectivity. As concerning to me, an elected senate that has no checks like Australia's joint sitting rule is at high risk of becoming an activist senate more powerful than the house of commons. By requiring re-election, a senator must make himself relevant and ensure he has a profile on which to campaign. All these things eat away at a senator's objectivity.

I believe all electoral and senate reforms are meaningless, though, unless we address what I see as the core problems of our democracy: cynicism, self-interest, enforced group think, and dishonesty, namely in the form of election promises. Those must be addressed if we are ever to move forward with improvements to our function of government.

Voter turnout is mandatory in a number of countries, including Australia. I am of mixed feelings about this. High voter turnout is nice, but if a voter is forced to vote, the risk of uninformed ballots increases dramatically. I really have no idea what the best approach is to the whole problem of declining voter turnout.

I have also been pondering voter turnout as a function of threats to a democracy. Turnout is apparently highest in mainland Europe, a region devestated a little over half a century ago by a massive war and occupation, and a suspension of democracy. Countries like Canada and the US which have not had their democratic rights threatened on the home front in a tangible way -- namely foreign occupation -- in a very long time tend to have depressingly low turnout. There are exceptions, of course. New Zealand has exceptionally high voter turnout without voting being required, but has not been invaded recently. There is perhaps a doctoral thesis in here somewhere for someone who wants to take on the challenge.

Posted at 14:02 on October 20, 2007

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

A short rant on electoral reform | elections reform | The new Rat Pack?

Scott Tribe (scottdiatribe.gluemeat.com) writes at Sat Oct 20 17:26:27 EDT 2007...

As I've stated, I'm not a fan of Preferential ballot, and I'm not sure you're ever going to get the necessary approval from any of the provinces to open up the Senate.

IF electoral reform was actually possible, and these were the 2 models chosen to do this with, I'd prefer the STV side of things be in the House, and put the IRV in the Senate.

cdlu (cdlu.net) writes at Sat Oct 20 17:55:33 EDT 2007...


I'm aware that you're against the preferential ballot, although I'm not sure why, especially seeing as you've argued that "anything" is better than what we have, and IRV *is* both better and not what we have. I also agree that it would be difficult to get the approval of the provinces to open up the senate debate.

I think the best, simplest, and most effective compromise we could ever make on senate reform - and no province would say no to this one - is to allow provincial premiers to appoint the senators to represent their provinces in the federal senate.

Chris writes at Sun Oct 21 00:48:08 EDT 2007...


I think the best, simplest, and most effective compromise we could ever make on senate reform - and no province would say no to this one - is to allow provincial premiers to appoint the senators to represent their provinces in the federal senate.


Wasn't that part of Charlottetown though, which was rejected (albeit, Charlottetown was a whole bunch of issues wrapped in one, but a very prominent one was Senate reform)? That's what the American constitution was like, until, I think, the 17th amendment of direct election of Senators. John A Macdonald wanted the 'sober second thought' and no notion of 'states rights' like what he believed led to the ongoing Civil War in the US at the time of Confederation. So they made a federal-appointed Senate, to keep the federation strong, just like the provincial Lieutenant governors are appointed by the Governor General, not the Premier.

I honestly can't tell if it's a good thing or not to reform the Senate because there are so many pros and cons on both sides :) I have to say, I'm pretty damn scared of getting an American-style Senate. That's pretty dysfunctional and has led to the Am. Senate surrendering most control to the SUpreme Court, to strike down uncosntitutional laws-- I'm thinking of the FISA things, Protect America Act of 2007, telecom immunity, etc going down there right now. I like your idea of 10 year terms, although I also like 75-year terms being great for stopping the conflict of interests that you mention....most Senators have an average of 15 years in the Senate, which also leads to a good deal of institutional memory.

One statistic does concern me though, that the Senate isn't active enough, because it apparently only amends 10% of laws.

Greg (mrsinistergreg.blogspot.com) writes at Sun Oct 21 07:56:54 EDT 2007...

Preferential voting will only ever get the support of the Liberal Party, since as the second choice of conservatives and NDP, it stands to be the big winner in such a system. I don't like it because I don't want to be represented by my second choice (why accept second best?). STV in multiple member ridings I can get behind on the other hand.

cdlu (cdlu.net) writes at Sun Oct 21 09:53:01 EDT 2007...

Chris, I never suggested 10 year terms.

I believe the Senate works best in its current form. It is neither activist nor dysfunctional and does not have those conflicts of interest. If reform is necessary because of the consolidation of any one party in the Senate, I offer premier-appointed senators as a remedy. Perhaps even a split - half of Senators by the premiers, half by the Prime Minister. But I don't believe in an elected senate.


If the option is between second best and party lists, I'll take second best any day of the week. STV is an improvement over MMP but is still something I will fight as hard as MMP for the lower house. In the upper house I would be more tolerant of it as (single) riding representation is not in jeopardy there.

As for the myth that IRV will only get the support of the Liberal Party, this is a bit cynical. The parties that stand to gain from IRV are all parties who have any kind of mass appeal. Under IRV we get the most acceptable candidate to represent our riding, not the strategically least unacceptable, without compromising our democracy with the scourge of proportional "representation".

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