The Conservative Party is doing its best to inflame the public into calling for a referendum on the issue of electoral reform. It may seem obvious that if the goal is to ensure better representation for Canada’s diverse public, why not just ask that public what it wants? Here are three reasons why this is problematic.
1. ‘The public’ doesn’t know what it wants.
What is ‘the public?’ The Canadian population consists of over 35 million people. This population is split between languages, cultures, genders, races, sexualities, religions, economics, and spread over a vast geography that makes diverse demands upon its peoples’ survival, and therefore development. ‘Public opinion’ implies that there is one thing we from coast to coast we will all be able to happily agree upon. That is a foolish, if not ridiculous and simplistic assumption.
More likely, a referendum will result in more division down ideological lines as we all fight over who is more right about which system will work best in Canada. Ask yourself, which party benefits most from, and has contributed the most to, dividing the Canadian people ideologically?
2. ‘The public’ can’t/won’t inform itself on the facts.
The majorty of the Canadian public are embroiled in a daily routine (or desperate fight) for survival in a neo-liberal economic climate that prioritizes the right to individual wealth over the right to clean drinking water. We are too busy to read the research published globally and nationally that would help us understand the importance of thoughtfully reviewing electoral processes in an evolving democracy. We just don’t have the time.
As a result many turn to media, either corporate or social for their information. Neither of these sources are very trustworthy for accuracy, and do much more to distract than to inform. Not only is it difficult to find the time to inform ourselves of the issues, many people simply don’t want to. They just want to watch the CBC, or share the funny kitten meme.
3. ‘The public’ is easily swayed.
Ontario had a referendum in 2007 on electoral reform. The fiasco was a disaster for the pro-reform camp. Most residents in Ontario did not even know it was happening, or what the question was asking them. People did not know what ‘proportional representation’ was let alone how it might affect them, and so many did not vote, or simply voted the safest route of no change. Those interested in maintaining the status quo had more economic resources at their disposal than Elections Ontario, and the result was a campaign of misinformation, and a landslide for the anti-reform lobby.
Here’s the thing: ‘the public’, as already shown, is distracted, overworked, or wilfully ignorant, and highly polarized in opinion, which makes them subjective to the sway of campaign politics. The decision gets made by superficial means, like who had more signs or commercials? Who had better hair?
Call me crazy, but I don’t think a matter so close and important to the future of our democracy should be left to such decision making processes and manipulations as we tend to witness in campaign politics.
The Better Alternative
We need to recognize that ‘public opinion’ as expressed through statistics oversimplifies the diversity of lives that are affected by this decision. This needs to be thoughtfully deliberated, based on facts and research presented and debated among informed people. As much as ‘the public’ might want a say, they are not capable of meeting this challenge. Public opinion can be determined through polling to see where we are at as a society, but it should not be used as simply a smokescreen for ‘democracy’ that actually results in less democracy by binding governments to ‘opinion’ that can be bought with TV commercials or bus advertisements.
Elections Canada should develop its policy absent politics. It should invite forums of Canadian universities, community organizations and advocacy groups to discuss the issue, and the final decision should be arrived at without a single lawn sign needing to be printed.
This is not a partisan issue, but if we leave it in the hands of partisan interests, we will get partisan results. The Conservative Party in particular is gung ho about a referendum because they want a repeat of the 2007 fiasco in Ontario that entrenched the status quo of first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections. This system has served them very well in silencing dissent from opposition parties and pushing for legislation which build systems that transfer ever more wealth and power to the top.
By Randy Edward Nicholas