A Referendum that will Pass

government Policy

So I had a lot of interesting conversations about my last post, No Referendum, No Legitimacy, and what came up over and over again was how torn people were when they both supported a referendum and wanted reform to pass.  The call for a referendum is most often heard from those who don’t want to pass voting reform.  This makes total sense and isn’t sinister in the least: the point of a referendum is to hear both sides at the ballot box.  A differing opinion from the mainstream consensus that FPTP is terminally flawed doesn’t make them bad people.  There are good, non-electoral reasons for preferring FPTP/opposing what might in any event be arbitrary change.  On the other side are those who insist there must be no referendum and that their model be accepted without question as a moral imperative.  These are the people who voted down AV in the British electoral reform referendum because it wasn’t PR.

That the middle position is odd is disheartening.  For me, the position of preferring reform while also needing a referendum is about legitimacy and consistency.  It’s become all to clear that those who fight loudly against a referendum aren’t as much interested in democracy as they are in getting their way, legitimacy be damned.

The issue with a referendum is that failure is likely.  The STV referendum in British Columbia failed to reach the supermajority mark (a requirement which, I think, was flawed).  MMP failed in Ontario quite badly, as did AV in the United Kingdom.  FPTP makes intuitive sense to people and is extremely familiar.  It’s easy to paint alternatives like MMP and STV as complicated and obscure.  Furthermore, Canada’s regional divides give certain areas (looking at you, Atlantic Canada) a huge vested interest in maintaining FPTP.  Constitutional settlements will also bedevil any reform efforts.  PEI has .4% of Canada’s population, but 1.2% of the seats in the House and almost 4% of Senate seats.  Because of the rule that a province’s House seats can’t dip below their number of Senate seats, PEI will always have extremely disproportionate representation unless there’s constitutional change (ha).

A up-down referendum would thus have a very hard time passing, with Atlantic Canadian voters having very strong reasons to see it fail.  All the Atlantic provinces are substantially over-represented in Parliament and in various conversations it’s become clear that many folks from that region are protective of their advantage.  Rural areas are also routinely over-represented, and thus a substantial coalition against reform emerges.  With the juxtaposition of one system with another, it would be easy for the No campaign to point out how reform would hurt this, that, or the other community’s representation.

This doesn’t change with the second model, a ranked vote of different systems.  FPTP would almost certainly garner the most first-places, and many people prefer it to other reforms they don’t like.

My preferred model is a two-stage referendum.  The first is an up-down vote on FPTP with no alternative.  This allows reform backers of all stripes to unite behind depriving FPTP of presumptive legitimacy.  Pro-FPTP activists, meanwhile, have to defend their system with no chance to attack a single opponent.  Should FPTP lose, a second round is held in which people rank reform options that do not include the status quo.  Without the status quo in the game, it becomes a more constructive discussion about what path is best.  No one needs to defend and there is no default target to be attacked.  It removes the incentive for people who want reform but disagree with the specifics to vote in favour of FPTP so that their preferred system may win another day.  New Zealand used this model, and it has MMP today.

Notice that I don’t include a one-stage referendum which does not include FPTP.  In order to have a legitimate referendum, it must contain the possibility of a status quo should the population genuinely prefer it.  This kind of referendum, to put it bluntly, would be rigged.  It’s like an autocracy not allowing the opposition on their totally democratic ballots.

The Liberals have not changed their minds in two days because of my blog post, obviously, but I hope that by talking about different models of referenda we could remove the uneasiness that many supporters of reform feel when confronted by the false choice between a referendum and reform.

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