Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are Hung Parliaments a Good Thing? 99% of Men Say Yes; Women are Split.

The frenzy of the U.K. general election has flowed untapped even days after the May 6 election where David Cameron's Conservative Party won a plurality of seats with 306 Tory seats out of 605 in the British House of Commons. This of course means that the Conservatives were denied a majority government - assumed a sure thing merely months ago - despite a 187 seat swing between the Tory and Labour parties. This represents the first hung parliament in the U.K. since 1974 - when the Labour Party claimed four more seats than the Conservatives - and only the second time since World War Two. As expected, David Cameron has assumed the head of government in a coalition with the Liberal-Democrats despite Gordon Brown's resignation just hours before Cameron's announcement. Brown's uninspired tenure as Prime Minister and Wile E. Coyote impression in the 2010 general election may have triggered the end for New Labour leaving the party fertile for generational and ideological change. It was no coincidence that Britons preferred the younger leaders Nick Clegg and Cameron.

In Canada, we have had minority governments since 2004 and one of our greatest Prime Ministers Lester Bowles Pearson introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, Order of Canada, and the current Canadian flag in only two minority governments over five years. Given the nature of the Canadian political landscape, Canadians should expect to see many more minority governments in the future. Canada, as a left-leaning country - despite the best efforts of conservative think-tanks to persuade us otherwise - generally votes more for left-leaning parties than right-leaning parties. However, those leftist votes just happen to be divided between the Liberals, NDP and Green parties and arguably even the Bloc Quebecois. There are also the extremist votes to go to the odd Marxist-Leninist or Marijuana candidate in the suburbs. Canada seems to have a lot of these fringe parties although they are largely unknown to Canadians except on election day. Meanwhile, the roughly 1/3 of Canadians who regularly vote Conservative have overcome the divided majority of Canadians left of centre to prop up two Conservative minority governments since 2006. In fact, Harper has had his chances for the elusive majority however his cold gaze surprisingly frequent mishaps have left Canadians reluctant to ever give him the reins. The last Liberal majority came in 2000 during the last vestiges of a divided right while the last conservative majority needed an utter collapse by John Turner and the Liberal Party. A divided left and unlikeable right abates any significant and enduring majority governments which will not change until there is significant and enduring change in the Canadian political landscape. The primary catalyst for minority governments are third-parties which in Canada are particularly thorny and complicated. The Bloc Quebecois have been an influential force in Canadian politics over the past two decades and although many outside of Quebec feel that the separatist movement has died down from the heydays of the 1995 referendum, Bloc support has remained steadily near the 54 seats they won when they formed the Official Opposition in 1993. The NDP has a rich history dating back to the days of Tommy Douglas - the greatest Canadian and father of Canadian health care - and before that when they were named the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (Farmer-Labour-Socialist). Although the NDP have never exceed the Bloc Quebecois in terms of seats, they are essentially Canada's third national party leading to many instances of vote-splitting with Liberal candidates. As the Green party establishes itself in the minds of voters with each successive election, their votes will turn into seats that will inevitably come at the expense of the Liberals and/or NDP.

This is obviously a problem for democracy when a majority of voters can be against the current government. Of course this is unavoidable in minority governments however those are typically characterized by coalitions between groups representing voters. Since 2006, the Conservatives have stayed afloat by sheer intimidation and political hustle with a dash of Liberal ineptness and vacancy. While this can serve as a model for effective political leadership it is by no means a model for effective governance. One potential solution is electoral reform to a system that better represents Canadians.

In 2005, 57% of British Columbians voted in favour of switching to a single transferable vote where voters rank their preference of the candidates. If a candidate reaches a certain quota of 1st place votes then he or she is the winner and excess seats trickle down the the next preference. If no candidate reaches the quota then the last place candidate releases his votes and the next preference of those ballots are counted and so on until a winner is declared. Thus, in many ridings where votes are split between three parties the third party's voters would essentially decide the riding. This system maintains proportional representation while reducing wasted votes on sure winners or losers. Despite winning a majority of the vote, the reform in B.C. did not reach the 60% that it needed.

Ontario and Prince Edward Island have each had separated referendums while Quebec is debating to switch to a mixed member proportional representation system where two votes - one for a candidate and one for a party - are cast so that winning candidates may not necessarily be affiliated with the party that wins their riding. While this does not directly deal with the issue of reoccurring minority governments, it is an interesting separation of the member of parliament from political affairs and may lead to more personalized governance.

Regardless of whether electoral reform is likely or not, the barriers of entry for political parties need to be taken down. While there needs to be certain regulations in place to prevent the influx of Rhinoceros Party clones I would rather err on the side of silly satire than oppressed opposition. With more groups involved in the political process one of two things may happen. 1) Smaller parties may consolidate together as we have seen in the past and we will be back to square one or even worse and American-style two party system or 2) The broad spectrum of political groups makes decision-making less centralized requiring clear consensus and capable coalitions.

At least for now Canada has something in common with horses, Thomas Jane and Greg Oden: we are all publicly well-hung.

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