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Open Letter to Karina Gould About Mydemocracy.ca Survey Results

Dear Minister Gould,

We would like to assist in interpreting the results of the mydemocracy.ca survey. The survey was a very useful tool for understanding what Canadian voters wish for in their electoral system and in their Parliament, despite its flaws.

Many commentators have said that the survey results contain contradictions. We disagree. They only seem like contradictions to those who make assumptions about the governance model that voters prefer, and the survey questions unfortunately were often framed with a mindset that voters apparently don’t share. Yet there is enough data to form a clear picture.

The priorities of voters are governments that consider all viewpoints, that can easily be held to account, and that collaborate with other parties. These priorities all have to do with standards of behaviour for the government side of the House, but only because the survey provided no option for priorities that apply to role of the opposition. Yet we can see from other questions what voters expect from opposition members.

The survey did not deal directly with personal accountability of MPs, only with collective responsibility of government parties versus collective responsibility of multiple parties. 62% believe that governments should negotiate with  other parties, which necessarily means opposition parties. Notably absent from the survey are questions about collaboration between MPs, not between parties. The terms “negotiate” and “parties” frame the legislative process in terms of backroom deals between adversarial entities that have disciplined MPs who will follow the agreement negotiated for them, yet we know from other questions that voters clearly prefer an MP-centered model of Parliament where parties do not impose their will on MPs.

Perhaps cooperators among voters would prefer a different model of collaboration, not just between parties but among MPs. It is notable that the words “compromise” and “collaborate” got a more positive reception than the more adversarial “negotiate”. Also absent from the survey was any question about collaboration between two different government parties, the model preferred by proponents of proportional representation, leaving them to extrapolate from answers to the questions about collaboration between government and opposition parties.

53% agree there should clear accountability of governments, including one-party governments, vs 31% who disagree. There is no contradiction between this and the wish for governments to negotiate, to cooperate and to share accountability. Voters expect governments to govern, while also negotiating and cooperating. Although the questions were unfortunately only about parties, voters hold all MPs accountable for playing a constructive role in our governance, be they government or opposition MPs. This sounds like diffuse collective responsibility, but since the survey’s “concentrated” end of the scale is still collective responsibility of a slightly smaller group, it could be that voters hold individual MPs individually accountable no matter what their role. The government is accountable for governing, but the opposition is apparently also accountable for their contribution to policy outcomes.

The shape of the ballot detail curve shows that respondents were split in how they interpreted the meaning of the questions; clear questions seldom have such dichotomies. Unfortunate. Even among our group of experts, most with PhDs in Political Science or other fields, there were widely divergent views as to what “easy to understand” ballots implied, or “options to express their preferences”, “express preferences in detail” or even the context of “as simple as possible”.

The sole clear question in this section was the tradeoff between expressing multiple preferences on the ballot, versus taking longer to count. The 62% vs 28% agreement with this is a clear indication that the current system of expressing a single preference for one candidate is not satisfactory, and presumably this applies to expressing a single preference for a party as well. Voters have more than one single preference, and as proponents of preferential voting systems we are happy to see this acknowledged.

The series of questions on diversity, coupled with the series about turnout and mandatory voting, illustrate why it was a mistake for the questionnaire not to distinguish between the values of voters for solving a problem, and the willingness to impose those values on others. Canadians are very keen to increase turnout. The survey proposed one proven instrument for achieving that objective, a coercive one, and voters are hesitant to sanction coercion with unspecified penalties.

In the section on diversity of representation, no instrument was proposed, only ominous sounding “special measures”. It is reasonable to assume that answers depended on whether they imagined this to also mean coercive measures, and on what measures they imagined governments might impose on parties to change their candidate nomination processes. We believe that this lack of willingness to impose their values on others also applies to electoral systems. 123 Canada values electoral systems where both the voters who wish to be represented by a collective entity like a party and voters who wish to be represented by an individual are free to vote using their values; we do not want to impose a party-centered model on those who don’t share those values.

It is interesting that Canadians overwhelmingly want a diversity of views in Parliament, but they do not want these views to be represented by diverse political parties, in fact they overwhelmingly believe that MPs should not simply reflect the sole view of their party. They are not keen on presumably small parties that are radical or extreme, and in fact they are not keen on small parties at all. They place a low priority on increasing the presence of smaller parties in Parliament.

It is very unfortunate that the survey only explored the representation of diverse views by specialized parties, since that is clearly not what Canadians want. There are other ways in which a diversity of views can be represented. One is to have them represented by a diversity of individual MPs, even if those views clash with those of their party. The other is for MPs themselves to be good representatives for views other than their own.

None of these results are good news for proponents of proportional representation. The purpose and effect of PR is to have relatively narrow homogeneous parties, to give more representation to smaller ones, to have MPs represent the views of those who voted for them, and then to have their leaders negotiate a program with leaders of government parties, and where MPs are elected by virtue of their party label and its attendant discipline with no direct personal mandate to give them legitimacy to differ from the party platform.

None of that fits with the values expressed in this survey. This is surprising since although the survey corrects for demographic factors, it cannot correct for the self-selection factor of those who are more motivated to participate in the survey because the current system does not yield the results they want.

The results fit particularly well with our group’s view of democracy, where MPs are accountable to their constituents and not to their party.

It is not a particular love for multiple preferences that motivates our members, nor a predilection for complicated ballots. A two-round system, for instance, has neither. It is a wish that all candidates should seek consensus within their community, should engage with supporters of their opponents and seek common ground, and should represent all constituents no matter how they voted. We want a Parliament filled with consensus seekers. We want voters, not parties, to determine what is an appropriate consensus, and we want our MPs, not just their parties, to wield the democratic proxy that we entrust them with.

We want candidates to have to listen carefully to those who support unpopular candidates, and we want these individual mainstream representatives of the community consensus, not the leaders of political parties of the unpopular candidates, to commit to representing those minority views unconditionally before the election, not wait for some post-election mathematical fluke to occasionally give some small party influence far beyond what the voters gave it.

Preferential and two-round voting, as we have seen time and again, allows respected small parties and independents to get elected, but stops radical and extreme parties from getting access to power, since they cannot get a 50% consensus in their communities.

The survey goes beyond electoral systems and shows how voters want MPs to behave once elected: to be more collaborative, less adversarial, with less party discipline. Your challenge is now to make this easier to achieve.

Electoral reform is one component in achieving it and we believe that the reforms that we proposed in our brief to the committee would be helpful, but it also requires democratic reforms other than electoral ones. Your predecessor did an excellent job of reducing adversarial party-based dialectic in the Senate, and replacing it with a more collaborative search for the common good. The expectation of Canadians seems to be to make changes in the same direction in the Commons.



2 comments for “Open Letter to Karina Gould About Mydemocracy.ca Survey Results

  1. Ian Petrie
    February 2, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    I responded to the survey put forward by government and I was disappointed in it for the reasons expressed above. Electoral reform in this country is essential if we are to survive as a democracy. Government’s failure to live up to its commitment re-enforces this view.

  2. Denise Massey
    February 7, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Promise broken for flimsy reason. What exactly has your government done for us other than proclaiming our inclusiveness….which we were long before you came in power. Health care transfer to our Provincial losers Liberals are inadequate. Hope we survive two Liberal governments. I know I will get an impersonal form response from you just as my provincial Liberal rep has sent one….getting used to being ignored.

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