D’Amato: Despite Brexit, we need a referendum on electoral reform (Waterloo Region Record, 28 June 2016)

Mirrored from http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/6743051-d-amato-despite-brexit-we-need-a-referendum-on-electoral-reform/ on 28 June 2016.

D’Amato: Despite Brexit, we need a referendum on electoral reform

Waterloo Region Record
By Luisa D’Amato

Referenda are on everyone’s mind these days, as the Brexit hangover dominates news headlines. They’re certainly the most directly democratic way of making a decision. But are they the best way?

A quick history shows some interesting patterns of human behaviour. In Canada, a decision made by referendum has usually been used for the most important things in life, like whether it should be legal to sell beer (there were many votes about this in the early part of the 20th century, at the time of Prohibition) or whether to get in or out of Canada.

On this last matter, it’s shocking to read the results many years later, and see the slenderness of the margin that decided huge issues. Newfoundland voted to join Canada in 1948 with 52 per cent of the vote. In 1995, Quebec turned toward Canada and away from separation by a heart-stopping, whisker-thin difference: 49.4 per cent voted for sovereignty, 50.6 per cent rejected it.

Asking each person for a direct decision has been used to decide smaller issues, such as which community should be the capital of Nunavut (Iqaluit won over Rankin Inlet, with 60 per cent of the vote) or public health decisions, as when Waterloo residents turned thumbs down on fluoride in their water, in 2010.

There’s a danger in this, of course. Allowing every citizen a direct decision on important issues is reasonably seen by some to be deeply problematic. Just because the majority approves of something doesn’t make it just.

Moreover, if the majority can decide to have fluoride removed from the water in Waterloo, against the advice of dentists, then why can’t we all have a say about antibiotics, mandatory vaccination, and the legalization of cocaine?

If referenda are overdone, you get an unwinnable situation where the specific measure is decided without benefit of context. It may seem like a good idea to cut property taxes, as Californians have done by popular vote in the past, but making decisions about what services to cut as a response to that, is much harder. That’s why we have elected representatives, whom we trust to make these complex decisions for us.

If there is one thing in which people deserve a direct say, it is the business of how we choose those elected representatives. That’s why, as scary as Brexit’s unpredictable result was for the politicians that allowed it, the Liberal government in Ottawa has an obligation to consult the people as it reforms the voting system.

On its website, the organization Fair Vote Canada (which you can investigate for yourself at www.fairvote.ca) points out the unfairness of a Canadian political party getting 39 per cent of the votes, but 100 per cent of the power. That’s our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system, which unfairly silences smaller parties such as the Greens.

The ruling Liberals in Ottawa have vowed to change this situation, but it doesn’t look as if they will be consulting the rest of us to see what should be put in its place. Bob Jonkman, co-chair of the Waterloo Region chapter of Fair Vote Canada, says there is barely time to put a new system in place, let alone ask people what they think of it.

Canada’s Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monosef has suggested that a direct vote is not necessary. Yet there are many alternatives to first-past-the-post, and some will be more likely to favour centrist parties like the Liberals, than others. Let’s take our time and ask Canadians what they want.

Luisa D’Amato

Luisa D’Amato is a Waterloo Region Record columnist. She writes on issues affecting day-to-day life in the area. Email ldamato@therecord.com