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To STV or Not STV? Round Four

Will it create instability? Will it elect more women and minorities?

By Shoni Field and David Schreck 7 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Shoni Field is spokesperson for British Columbians for BC-STV. David Schreck is secretary-treasurer for No STV.

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[Editor's note:This is round four of The Tyee's Great How-We-Elect Debate between David Schreck of NoSTV and Shoni Field of BC-STV. You'll find previous rounds' questions posed and debated here. And an explanation of STV here.]

QUESTION SEVEN: Won't the proposed BC-STV system lead to a perpetual series of unstable minority governments?

Shoni Field, who is for STV, answers:

Let's take a look at the evidence. If we had an unstable government you would expect more elections. So how does the history of elections in B.C. compare to Ireland, which has used the Single Transferable Vote for almost 90 years.

Since 1949 B.C. has held seventeen elections (not including the one on May 12). In the same period Ireland has had exactly the same number of elections, seventeen.

Not much sign of unstable governments there. Nor in Malta with fifteen elections in the last 60 years. Nor in Australia where the states using STV have fixed term elections.

What about proportional systems over all? Don't they have unstable minority governments? Nope. A few election counts: Germany (16), Sweden (18), Norway (15).

The evidence just doesn’t support the premise.

What about Canada?

We have a winner. Since 1949 Canada has held 20 elections -- of which nine have resulted in minority governments!

Understandable that we should be so concerned about unstable minority governments, given that we've had such a wealth of experience of them.

But Canada feels rightly proud of the achievements of some of these minority governments. Perhaps the problem isn't so much the minority, but the instability.

This is where we must be careful not to project our experience with First-Past-the-Post systems onto an entirely different electoral system. The seventeen elections that took place in Ireland since 1949 resulted in eleven majority (one or two party) and six minority governments. However, unlike First-Past-the-Post, minority governments in an STV environment are quite stable -- without the incentives offered by a distorted system, political parties don't rush back to the polls at the first sign of opinion swinging in their favour.

However, the Citizens' Assembly felt that longevity alone wasn't an adequate definition of stability. Our own system usually produces artificial majorities (distorting 40% of the votes into 60% of the seats), which certainly create policy instability. Attracting 40% of the voters requires fewer efforts at consensus than those required to attract 50% -- the result is polarized policy-making, seesaw governments and partisan posturing. British Columbians told the Assembly that they were extremely troubled by the policy instability of our current system.

With BC-STV our governments will have similar longevity but will generally represent 50% plus of voters and are more likely to create consensus based, enduring legislation, create a better investment, business and labour climate, not to mention greater stability for social programs.

David Schreck, who is against STV, answers:

Look up "unstable coalition government" online and you will find Ireland under the Single Transferable Vote is one of the prime examples.

Using STV, Ireland has had only 2 majority governments since 1981. After just 2 years, Ireland's current coalition, formed after its May 2007 vote, is polling at record lows and is in danger of collapsing.

Canada with a minority federal government is "enjoying" much the same instability. The issue is whether one voting system or another is more likely to produce unstable minority or coalition governments.

According to fact sheet 13 published by the Citizens' Assembly, STV is more likely to produce coalition governments. The question and answer section on the Assembly's website said: "The Assembly believes that minority and coalition governments can in practice be a strength, because they encourage MLAs to work together."

We can all see how Canada's current Parliament fails to work together, and we can see how unhappy Canadians were when the possibility of a coalition government emerged. Whoever writes the material for STV proponents doesn't seem to want reality to get in the way of sweet dreams. To the extent that coalition governments are more likely with STV, they place a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of small parties that can extract a price for propping up a government.

One of the questions in Ireland these days is what price the Greens will extract to keep Fianna Fail in power. Voters are not pleased when they see political parties maneuvering behind the scenes to cut coalition deals and bargaining to keep politicians in power.

There are many reasons to oppose STV: local representation is reduced with large electoral areas, there is less MLA accountability and STV's complex counting system doesn't allow voters to control what fraction of their vote goes to each of their preferences.

The increased likelihood of minority or coalition governments is likely another reason to vote no for many voters.

Our federal minority governments are what most of us have to reference when thinking about what STV might be more likely to produce. It is hard to find many who would want future B.C. legislatures and governments to be like what we now see in Ottawa under Stephen Harper and the Conservative minority.

QUESTION EIGHT: Doesn’t the current First-Past-the-Post system work against minority and women candidates?

David Schreck, who is against STV, answers:

The Single Transferable Vote would hurt -- not help -- the chances of women being elected in British Columbia as Members of the Legislative Assembly if it were passed in the May 12 referendum.

Vancouver city councilor Andrea Reimer and former provincial NDP cabinet minister Anne Edwards say that decades of experience in the two countries which use STV as their national electoral system demonstrate the failings of STV for women.

"In Ireland's 2007 STV election just 13.3% of those elected to the Dail, their parliament, were women -- and that was an all-time high," said Reimer, a Vision Vancouver councilor and former Green Party Vancouver School Board trustee. "And in Malta under STV just 9.2% of elected were women in 2003 -- these are very poor results."

Edwards, an NDP cabinet minister from 1991 to 1996 and author of the book Seeking Balance: Conversations with B.C. Women in Politics, says it is frustrating hearing STV proponents wrongly claiming that STV will elect more women.

"We have to do a much better job of electing women but the facts are the facts -- under STV the number of women elected has been simply appalling," Edwards said. "Under our current First-Past-the-Post system in B.C. we have elected between 22% and 27% women MLAs since 1991 -- not good enough, but STV would be a giant step backwards."

A report on the Australian's Senate website states: "Australia was one of the first countries in the world to give full political rights to women, but was one of the last western countries to elect women to its national Parliament."

Reimer noted that: "Supporters of STV will point to the Australian senate as proof STV works for women but what they won't tell you is that those gains weren't made until one of their major parties made a commitment to run 50% women. Before that change, only 14% of elected senators were women, on par with other STV countries. Now 36% are women -- but it has nothing to do with STV and it's disingenuous to suggest it does."

Representation of minority candidates is an even worse case for STV proponents. B.C. can improve, but the face and language of the Legislature includes representation from many communities.

Ireland under STV will elect local and European Parliament representatives on June 5, where between all three major parties only 26 New Irish (immigrant) candidates are running -- more than normal.

The facts are not kind to the record of STV with respect to the election of women and minorities.

Shoni Field, who is for STV, answers:

Our current First-Past-the-Post system has the worst record of electing women in the world, and doesn't treat minorities fairly either. If you think that an electoral system shouldn't place barriers in the way of fair representation then you'll want to vote for BC-STV.

First of all, it is important to be clear that an electoral system is not the sole factor in electing women and minorities. Both political will and cultural will (i.e. will parties nominate, will voters vote for) play a large role. That is why every electoral system has a range of results.

Let's look for example at the election of women: both First-Past-the-Post and STV have lows of 6-9% where there is no political or cultural will to elect women. But what happens when voters want to elect women and parties want to nominate them, as is the case in Canada? Here's where it gets interesting.

Canada has pretty much reached the glass ceiling for women's representation under First-Past-the-Post at 22-24%. No matter the political parties' best intentions -- this is as good as it gets. We rank 52nd in the world.

With Single Transferable Vote we have seen highs of 38% (Irish elections to the European Parliament) to 42% (Australian states). These results are amongst the best in the world.

Do these countries have a greater political and cultural commitment to electing women than Canada does? A quick look at Australia, which uses FPTP in some states and STV in others suggests that isn't the answer. When Australians use First-Past-the-Post, about 20% of the successful candidates are women, just as in Canada. But when they use STV, that number rises to 35 or 40 percent.

If cultural and political will to elect women exist, then Single Transferable Vote will elect far more women that First-Past-the-Post will.

Multi-member constituencies give political parties an easy way to achieve candidate parity goals without resorting to male exclusion policies or parachuting in handpicked candidates -- both strategies have been tried in B.C. with much controversy and little success.

There are only two choices on the ballot, BC-STV and FPTP. It's disingenuous for people to suggest that they are concerned about women and minority representation and then counsel you to vote for the system with the worst record in the world. With our current system we will continue to bump against this glass ceiling, with BC-STV we can shatter it.

On Monday the two sides finish the debate by summing up.

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