Testimony to Ontario's Select Committee on Electoral Reform

October 6, 2005 by · Leave a Comment 

The committee met at 1032 in room 151.


The Chair (Ms. Caroline Di Cocco): I’d like to call the meeting to order, if everyone would like to take their seats. Welcome back to the select committee on electoral reform.
I welcome Paul McKeever, the leader of the Freedom Party of Ontario. Mr. McKeever, you have the floor.

Mr. Paul McKeever: I’ll just begin by thanking you for honouring my request to have all registered political parties invited to give their two bits on this adventure you’re on.
The rhetoric surrounding the issue of electoral reform is often couched in terms like “democratic deficits” or “making things more democratic.” I would urge the committee to consider that electoral reform has little to do with democracy per se, and much more to do with how government makes decisions.

Let me begin by addressing the first part of that assertion. Elections and voting are not, per se, democracy. “Democracy” is a term derived from the Greek word “d?mos,” meaning “people,” and “kratos,” meaning “power,” not “rule.” History is filled with examples of democracies that differed wildly in terms of who was permitted to vote or how they voted, but all of those systems have something in common. Properly understood, democracy, or “people power,” is the belief that government gets its authority from the governed. The meaning of the term “democracy” is probably best understood by juxtaposing it with the term that describes democracy’s most common competitors on this globe: “theocracy,” meaning “god power,” and “autocracy,” meaning “self-power.” In a theocracy, the prevailing belief is that government gets its power from God, whereas in an autocracy, the prevailing belief is that government is the source of its own power.

Democracy tends to be most compatible with, and defensive of, individual freedom. The reason is simple: An individual in a democracy cannot give his ruler or government more authority than the individual himself has to give. Thus while, and only while, the people in a democratic society respect individual freedom, the ruler or government in that democratic society will lack the authority to violate life, liberty or property rights of the governed. In a democracy, so long as it is wrong for an individual to murder an individual, or to offensively restrain another’s liberty, or to take another person’s property against their will, it is also wrong for the government to do so.

Because one frequently finds lawmakers to be chosen by way of elections in alleged democracies, and because candidates win elections only by winning more votes than their competitors, elections and voting widely have been confused as being synonymous with democracy. However, in truth, elections themselves are not democracy; rather, they are a very effective tool for the defence of democracy. Specifically, by removing law-making authority from the lawmakers at regular intervals, and by requiring would-be lawmakers to obtain law-making authority from the people, elections continually and effectively remind everyone that the authority to make laws comes from the people. Put another way, elections remind the people that government answers neither to God nor to itself, but to the people it governs. Elections remind us that we believe in democracy.

To illustrate my point about the difference between democracy and elections, consider that a country need not be democratic in order to have elections. Democracy exists, first and foremost, in the minds of the people and not at polling stations. Before elections can defend democracy, the people have to hold the belief that they, not God, for example, are the source of their government’s power. If one were to use tanks and guns to bring elections to a country whose people believe that God is the source of a government’s authority, the result would not be democracy. Put another way, you can export elections to Iraq but you cannot export democracy to Iraq, at least not at the present time.

The relevance of this to electoral reform should be noted. Different electoral systems may differ in how effectively they “kick the bums out,” but it would be utterly false to suggest that one electoral system is itself more or less democratic than any other electoral system. Just as elections are not democracy, electoral systems do not differ in how democratic they are. As this committee drafts its final report, I would urge it to keep one thing in mind: Do not let your endorsement of one electoral system over another be based on the false notion that the electoral reform will lead to “greater democracy” or the elimination of a “democratic deficit.” Though it may lead to a better or worse defence of democracy, it will not lead to more or less democracy.
Having made that point, let me move on to my second one, that electoral reform has more to do with how a government arrives at its decisions. Specifically, I am referring to majority versus minority governments and to single-party government versus government by a coalition of parties. On this issue, the implications of electoral reform are truly immense.

As you know, the term proportional representation, or PR, is a reference to a situation in which the percentage of seats in the Legislature have been distributed among political parties roughly in proportion to the popular vote received by each party’s candidates. PR is a reference to an electoral outcome, not to any given electoral system. It is generally acknowledged that whereas the single transferable vote, the multi-member plurality, and list PR all lead to PR outcomes, our current single-member plurality system does not lead to PR outcomes.

Among the most common arguments made by proponents of PR — any of those versions: STV, AV, list PR — is that PR reduces the influence of political parties by making minority or coalition governments the norm, and majority governments the exception. Instead of a party doing what it believes is right for the province, the party is required to negotiate with other parties, so as to build sufficient numerical support for a given legislative change. This, the advocates of PR tell us, will make government more democratic and will cure a supposed democratic deficit. Their theory is that with PR, the decisions made by government are more reflective of the wants of the governed. However, the point has been put more forcefully and honestly by others who have said that PR is more likely to facilitate majority rule or majoritarianism, and they actively campaign on that basis sometimes.

This panel may well remember Canadian comedian Rick Mercer’s humorous Internet poll, in which he asked Canadian viewers to vote on whether to change Stockwell Day’s first name to Doris. Mr. Mercer’s point, made in the form of comedy, should not be overlooked. Specifically, he was making the point that a true majority rule is a system in which anything goes, and in which freedom can be trampled beneath the feet of the whims of the majority. I think, in fact, the vote was in favour of changing his name to Doris, by the way. The reason is simple enough. For the whims of the majority always to be obeyed by government, it is necessary that government’s authority be completely and utterly unbridled. It is for this reason that many advocates of PR are among the harshest critics, by the way, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which they find to be a horrible obstacle to their wishes. In a true system of majority rule, there could be no right that would protect the individual from the whims of the majority. If you could force a man to change his name to Doris, you could, by the same logical and horrifying extension, force a woman to have an abortion or not to have an abortion.

In completing its report, I would recommend that the committee not fall into the trap of equating majority rule with democracy. Indeed, majority rule can be very anti-democratic. To revisit the light-hearted example, in our society no individual has the right to force Stockwell Day to change his name to Doris. Hence, if our society is truly democratic, we cannot give government the power to change Stockwell Day’s name to Doris. We don’t have that power to give to the government. If we move to an electoral system which, by design, subjects individual freedom to the pressure of unbridled majority rule — and make no mistake, that’s what a lot of people want you to recommend — we have done something that is not only anti-freedom, but potentially anti-democratic as well.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to address one other point relating to electoral reform and how government makes decisions under each system. I’d urge this committee to view the results of elections that use electoral systems other than the system we currently have, the single-member plurality system. Australia, for example, uses alternative vote, and the results there have consistently been, with the odd exception, that coalition governments are formed, not majority governments. The same can be found with the single transferable vote in Ireland. Of course, in those countries that use list PR, again, majority governments are the exception, not the rule. If Ontario moves from the current system to almost any other system, majority governments will become much more rare.

Therefore, in endorsing one electoral system over another, I would encourage the committee to give deep consideration to the implications of majority versus minority government. That, ultimately, is the most powerful effect that any electoral reform will have. In a majority government, the party in power has the opportunity to govern by doing what it believes is right, even when it’s unpopular for it to do so. In a minority or coalition government, the process is almost entirely different. The issue is not one of right and wrong, but of compromise and negotiation. On its face, that sounds very friendly and up-with-people. But in reality, the difference between majority government and minority or coalition government is dramatic. Specifically, when we replace majority governments with minority or coalition governments, we move from a system that accommodates ethical decision-making to a system based on the rejection of ethics and the substitution of whims and numbers — ballot-counting, or hand-counting, if you’re talking about the Legislature. We move from a government guided by reason to one guided by emotion; to one guided not by what’s right, but simply by what you want.

I’d urge the committee to consider the words of author-philosopher Ayn Rand, who wrote, in 1965,

“If some demagogue were to offer us, as a guiding creed, the following tenets: that statistics should be substituted for truth, vote-counting for principles, numbers for rights, and public polls for morality — that pragmatic, range-of-the-moment political expediency should be the criterion of a country’s interests, and that the number of its adherents should be the criterion of an idea’s truth or falsehood — that any desire of any nature whatsoever should be accepted as a valid claim, provided it is held by a sufficient number of people — that a majority may do anything it pleases to a minority — in short, gang rule and mob rule — if a demagogue were to offer it, he would not get very far. Yet all of it is contained in — and camouflaged by — the notion of `government by consensus.’”

Ms. Rand’s point applies with equal force to electoral reform. Only majority government is capable of facilitating government decision-making on the basis of ethical considerations, as opposed to numerical ones; a minority or coalition government simply cannot do so. All negotiations on matters of right and wrong are, by their very nature, clashes of implicit or explicit ethical codes. Therefore, to the extent that opposing negotiators have both compromised their stance on an important matter of government policy, they have both acted contrary to their own ethical codes. Therefore, to the extent that opposing negotiators have both compromised their stance on an important matter of government policy, they have both acted contrary to their own ethical codes.

In closing, I would urge the committee, in making its report, to be cognizant of the fact that it is not truly dealing with the issue of democracy. It is dealing with the issue of right versus might, with the issue of ethical rule versus majority rule, with the issue of individual freedom versus tyranny of majorities. If we are to protect democracy, we can do nothing more important than ensure that ethical limits be placed on government authority. Those limits, I submit, are facilitated only by an electoral system that makes majority governments the rule rather than the exception. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. McKeever. You certainly provided to us 15 minutes of interesting discussion. Thank you very much for your input. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for questions and answers at this point in time, because the time has expired, but I thank you very much for your very valuable input, which we’ll certainly consider in our deliberations.

Mr. McKeever: Thank you very much.