“While realization is, of course, not unimportant, I believe that the very possibility of such a [reasonably just] social order can itself reconcile us to the social world. The possibility is not a mere logical possibility, but one that connects with the deep tendencies and inclinations of the social world. For so long as we believe for good reasons that a self-sustaining and reasonably just political and social order both at home and abroad is possible, we can reasonably hope that we or others will someday, somewhere, achieve it; and we can then do something toward this achievement. This alone, quite apart from our success or failure, suffices to banish the dangers of resignation and cynicism.” – John Rawls, The Law of Peoples
The outcome of last year’s referendum on proportional representation was a bitter disappointment to many, including myself. Although it is unclear whether the result really represents a ringing endorsement of the status quo, and not simply unease or confusion about the alternatives on offer, it is likely to be a long time before proportional representation is again a live issue in BC politics.
For those of us who argued — and still argue — that our current electoral system is fundamentally unjust, this fact is very depressing. Signing up for a progressive political cause normally means signing up for a very long string of losses, but these setbacks can be endured because the hope of eventual victory remains. In this case, however, that hope may seem to have been taken away: supporters of change have been told that the issue is now closed forever. But this claim deserves scrutiny. Is there really good reason for advocates of proportional representation to lose hope and give up? Not really.
Opponents of electoral reform have argued that the issue has been put to rest because the people have rendered a decisive judgment in a series of referendums. On the surface, this claim appears to rest on an appeal to democratic principles, because only democratic principles could possibly explain why a referendum result should be regarded as absolutely authoritative. The idea that defeat at the ballot box is sufficient to permanently remove an option from public consideration, however, is essentially undemocratic (a point I’ve argued before on this blog).
The design of democratic institutions normally presupposes that the people’s judgment is highly changeable. One reason for this presupposition is that the identities of the particular individuals who collectively constitute the people change over time. Another reason is that people are capable of (and responsible for) revising their political judgments in light of new evidence and normative considerations; if people did not have this ability, it is not clear that we would be fit for democratic self-government. It is because of this changeability in the people’s collective judgment that elections are held at relatively frequent intervals, candidates are entitled to stand for election even after multiple losses, and parties can include substantially similar policies in their platforms after multiple defeats.
Democracy does give the people the authority to render judgment on candidates, parties and policies, but it also limits the reach of this authority; if some particular voters at a particular point in time had unlimited authority to render final judgment on all these matters, this would encroach on the prerogatives of other particular voters, or voters at some other particular time. If democratic principles entail that electoral defeat is not sufficient to permanently remove a candidate, party, or policy from the public’s consideration, it is not clear why a referendum result should be sufficient to achieve the same result. As I noted above, only democratic principles could possibly explain how referendum results can have this kind of authority. But in fact, democratic principles entail that referendum results do not have this kind of authority. So the claim that this referendum result was sufficient to take proportional representation off the table permanently is false.
This is not to say that advocates of reform should dismiss the result. Voters don’t have the authority to render final judgments, but they do have the authority to render provisional judgments. The provisional judgment of the voters in this case was not to proceed with electoral reform. Because this judgment is genuinely authoritative, it would be wrong for the government to proceed as though voters had delivered a different judgment, and wrong for advocates to ask the government to do so. We can and should keep making the case for proportional representation, but I don’t think we can legitimately expect the government to move forward with it.
We should also pay close attention to people’s reasons for voting against reform. One reason seems to have been lack of trust in the process leading up to the referendum, and the process envisioned for filling out the details of the chosen system in the event of a victory for Yes. This concern is not unreasonable and ought to be taken into account in any future proposal for electoral reform.
Finally, it is clear from the result that a large number of British Columbians are interested in some kind of democratic reform. Proportional representation is one kind of democratic reform, but it’s not the only kind. And other reforms that are worthwhile for their own sake may eventually help build support for PR.
Substantially increasing the size of the legislature, for example, would make it easier for MLAs and constituents to enter into meaningful contact. This would also have the effect of increasing the number of backbenchers relative to the number of front bench positions, which should help restore some moderation to party discipline. With a much larger legislature, concerns about the size of electoral districts should be less prominent in the debate over proportional representation. And even without electoral reform, a larger number of districts is likely to make election results somewhat more proportional.*
Another option would be to explore the introduction of electoral fusion, which I previously discussed in this post. Fusion might not be a great fit with BC’s political culture as it is presently constituted, but the changes it would probably require strike me as generally positive overall. Most importantly, it would provide for one of the greatest benefits of proportional representation — making room in electoral politics for the contributions of smaller, more policy-oriented parties — without requiring any change to the size of the legislature, district boundaries, or electoral formula.
So there you have it: things aren’t so depressing after all! If proportional representation was a good idea the day the referendum launched, it’s still a good idea now. Good ideas don’t get shut out forever. It’ll probably be a while before we get another chance to get this one put into action here in BC, but we need to take the time and figure out how to make the most of that chance when it comes around anyway. And there are other worthwhile democratic reforms we can pursue in the meantime.
*In Patterns of Democracy, Arend Lijphart notes (citing research by Rein Taagepara and Matthew Shugart) that disproportionality under FPTP is significantly greater where the size of the legislature is less than the cube root of population size. BC’s legislature is currently a little more than half the cube root of the population.