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An ecology of democracy

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The topic of Electoral Reform bubbles forth after every election, signalling widespread dissatisfaction with Canada's current electoral system. But if we want a better one, we need to ask a fundamental question: what is democracy?

Only by answering this can we eventually arrive at how best to do democracy. For instance, strict majority rule subverts the true cause of democracy, whose genesis lies in post French Revolution notions of "collective self-rule"—like an ecosystem whose integrity relies on the functional interaction of its constituent parts.

And here's where arguments for proportional representation (PR) come in, as by definition it can do a much better job of the latter than the first past the post (FPTP) system currently used in Canada—and British Columbia, where we'll soon have a chance to vote on the matter.

The main problem with FPTP is that it's designed for a two-party system of forced choices, as in the United States. Canada doesn't have a two-party system, so our voting model should better reflect our multi-party system. In the FPTP model, the number of MPs a party sends to Ottawa doesn't necessarily reflect the popular vote, and core support in one place (like Toronto) can carry far more weight than the same degree of support spread across the country.

As a result, FPTP has a direct role in our current toxic public discourse given its inherent polarizing effect and the fact that minority voters are unrepresented in the system because they a) either vote for parties that receive no seats, or b) vote strategically against a party they wish to block from FPTP majority rule.

PR, however, in which seats are awarded according to a party's share of the vote, is more accommodating of a broader range of voting views while encouraging collaboration between different camps.

While the principle of PR is majority rule with electoral minorities represented in proportion to voting, its two key ingredients/novelties are electing multiple people in each riding, and allocating winners in proportion to voting: a party that receives 40 per cent of the vote only gets 40 per cent of the seats (as opposed to all of them), while a party that gets 20 per cent of the vote will get 20 per cent of the seats (as opposed to zero of them).

In nature, as greater integration takes place between species, ecosystems evolve toward more complexity; similarly, the more integrated and inclusive representation of PR will further democracy's evolution toward wider participation in power.

It's no surprise that PR has been adopted by a majority of stable democracies—Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden to name a few. Being the exception has not only hurt our democracy, but affects how we address the manifest problems faced as a society.

Yale professor and former U.S. advisor on climate change, Gus Speth, wrote "I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation... and we scientists don't know how to do that."

Indeed. And no transformation will be forthcoming in a FPTP system. The knowledge and will to address these problems will come from people-to-people comparisons of experience in the crucible of collective decision-making characteristic of PR. It's the reason countries like Norway, Sweden and Germany are so far ahead of Canada on environmental performance.

In his book The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future, American author David Mathews points to the spectre of disappearing jobs, rising health-care costs, declining education quality, and a political system mired in hyperpolarization as having pushed citizens to the sidelines. He notes that "the work of democracy is work," and lays out ideas about how it can be done in ways that put more control in the hands of citizens.

Again, as in nature, the ecology of democracy is a landscape of collaboration. One way to ensure this in B.C. is to vote for PR in the upcoming provincial referendum.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.

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