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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2010

Q&A with Judy Rebick: “We have one of the least democratic systems in the world”

Paul McLaughlinWebsite

Judy Rebick. Illustration by Antony Hare.

Illustration by Antony Hare

The recent U.K. election has raised the issue of electoral reform there, as the Liberal Democratic party made it a condition for propping up the Conservative government. This spoke to social activist Judy Rebick, who is a member of Fair Vote Canada, about her group’s campaign to bring some form of proportional representation to Canada.

This: What’s wrong with our current system?

Judy Rebick: Canada has one of the least democratic systems of election and governance in the democratic world. A party can win, and almost always does, a majority of seats with a minority of votes. Which means that a majority of our votes don’t count. Because it’s a winner-take-all system, if you vote for a person who comes in second, even if there are only 20 votes between them, your vote doesn’t matter. For example, we have a very radical right-wing government that only about 33 percent of the people voted for.

This: How would PR work?

Judy Rebick: There are several different forms of it, so it depends on which one you’re talking about.

This: Ontario had a referendum in 2007 that was defeated. It was on mixed member proportional reform (MMP). What’s that?

Judy Rebick: It can be confusing and there can be variations on how it works. To keep it simple let’s say you get two votes: one for your riding MP and one for the party you support. For argument’s sake let’s also say 50 percent would still be elected by first-past-the-post and 50 percent would be elected by PR.

This: How would the PR members be chosen?

Judy Rebick: You’d likely have to have fewer ridings, maybe double the size right now. And they’d be bigger. And the parties would choose who they appoint to the PR seats they have allotted to them.

This: So in the last federal election, for example, the Green party, which received 940,000 votes and didn’t get any seats, would have some members in Parliament.

Judy Rebick: That’s right.

This: And the Conservatives, who got a quarter million votes in Toronto but no seats would also get some there.

Judy Rebick: Likely. The Tories would have put their own list up and whether they had people in Toronto on the list would have been up to them.

This: Why was the referendum defeated?

Judy Rebick: The government in power is against change.

This: But the Liberals set up the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

Judy Rebick: And then they sabotaged it. There’s no other way to describe it. It was an excellent assembly. But when the assembly decided to go for MMP they completely cut off its resources. They refused any government financing for the campaign, either for or against. And many of the policy wonks, who supported other purer forms of PR, fought against it because their system wasn’t on the ballot. They said, I’m for PR but against MMP because it gives too much power to the parties, so we should go with STV (single transferable vote), which it was in B.C. But in B.C. they said STV takes away too much power from the party.

This: There are a lot of acronyms. How does STV work?

Judy Rebick: Basically, voters rank candidates in their order of preference by numbering the candidates on the ballot. The candidates with the highest preferences are elected. The idea is to eliminate any wasted votes. It’s used in Australia, for example.

This: But it was defeated in B.C.

Judy Rebick: Barely. It received 57 percent of the vote but the government said it had to get 60 percent. It was insane to ask for 60 percent. Who does that? That was stupid and undemocratic.

This: What do you support?

Judy Rebick: I like MMP. I think our culture and traditions are such that we need to have an MP that we have elected. But what I really think should happen is that we have a referendum on PR and then work out the details after.

This: How do you assess the media’s coverage of this issue?

Judy Rebick: The media is notoriously against having any discussion of democracy. It’s really quite extraordinary. That I don’t understand. It does very little explaining of the different systems and what’s involved in each.

This: Do you think there will be electoral reform in the U.K.?

Judy Rebick: I hope so, but I wouldn’t hold my breath because it’s so hard to make these changes.

This: Will what’s happening in the U.K. help the electoral reform movement in Canada?

Judy Rebick: It’s been discouraging. The proponents of PR in Canada, with the exception of in B.C., have not done a good job of explaining it to the public. I first started supporting PR in 1992 and was one of the first people on a public level to argue for it. Certainly there’s a lot more awareness and support of it now. But it’s just not turned into a grassroots movement. I hope it will soon but I’m just not sure.

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