The Canadian elections betray the problems with AV, says Bernard Feng

Passing the post: Jack Layton

Stephen Harper has done some pretty shady things in his minority government. Unable to pass legislature, he closed Parliament for a month, and changed the official name of ‘the Government of Canada’ to ‘Harper Government’. He failed to gain a majority in 2008, and his government finally fell apart after a no-confidence vote in March, with the government in contempt of parliament. One would have thought that anti-incumbent sentiment would kick in and the Conservatives would fall, allowing Michael Ignatieff to become Prime Minister – right?


Not only did Harper fend off the Liberals, he finally got the majority he had craved from the beginning of his premiership in 2006. The Liberal Party was diminished to third party status, while the once-negligible New Democratic Party rose to prominence. Jack Layton achieved what Nick Clegg could not. While he failed to gain a position in government like his British counterpart, the poll ratings for his party were nothing delusional; his party gained sixty-six seats, driving the Liberals into the outskirts of the country. Not even Ignatieff was safe, having been defeated in his own constituency. Canada had become the first country in the Anglo-Saxon world to break free of the hung parliament trend, something that has found its way into the United Kingdom, run by a Coalition, Australia, run by a Minority government with the same number of seats as its opposition, and the United States, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

Notice how this was all done under First Past the Post, the incumbent electoral system used by the Anglosphere countries, and the system that the Liberal Democrats of the United Kingdom blame for their marginalisation, receiving a fair share of the popular vote but getting few seats out of it. They believe the AV, which gives voters ‘preferences’, might tip the balance in their favour.

The NDP had a similar plight to the Liberal Democrats if not a worse one, Jack Layton being told his party could never win in Quebec, and thought of by the media as a delusional dreamer, a socialist nutcase cut from the same cloth as the typical LeftSoc protestor, having donned black gags with his wife and fellow MP Olivia Chow to protest being silenced by other politicians over a controversial deal with Shell Oil. This guy’s leftist background makes Nick Clegg look like a mainstream pushover.

Yet, this politician, whose actions might characterise him as a fringe candidate whose radical policies and rants cater to only the most dedicated leftists, has become the new Leader of the Opposition. His party finally have a legitimate voice in the House of Commons, no longer consigned to the sidelines, and are given more time at Prime Minister’s Questions. And did I mention that this was done through the traditional First Past the Post system?

The election reform referendum in Britain is a joke. Some may argue that throwing in a half-hearted AV option will ensure the survival of First Past the Post: much the same thing as the deceptive questioning used in the Australian Republic referendum to ensure the continuation of its status as a Commonwealth Realm – a half-chewed bone for the hungry plebs. After all, the only real change AV offers is to allow the voter multiple votes. It does cause upsets, such as giving the Labour leadership to Ed Miliband, stealing it from his frontrunner brother in the dark of the night, but those upsets are not of a democratic nature. Rather, it is a different form of tactical voting. One can imagine candidates instructing voters to put a number two next to their name in fear that they would lose the second round of voting, or the trading of endorsements, with fringe parties lending their support to large parties by telling their voters to give their second preferences to someone from a larger party. For instance, United Kingdom Independence Party voters would never get to see their candidates elected because they would be encouraged to pool their second preferences for the Conservatives.

AV offers no real change, and it is not going to affect electoral upheavals as seen in Canada. The Liberal Democrats and the fringe parties should stop hoisting their hopes on so-called electoral reform and should start placing more faith in the people. Governments come and go because of the people who vote for and against them, not because of some meticulous method that allots different kinds of votes to different candidates. Instead of always being the kingmakers in subsequent elections and a small part of a coalition, perhaps the continuation of the First Past the Post system might allow for a Liberal Democrat majority government one day, given the possibility that people finally grow tired of the same old two parties.

At the risk of sounding cheeky, however, there is one element of the St. Andrews system I would love to see implemented into the national elections, and that is RON.


Bernard Feng