Next Tuesday, May 12, the citizens of British Columbia, the westernmost provice of Canada, will vote on a referendum on whether or not to adopt STV for future elections to the provincial parliament. BC has had some odd election results over the last few years, starting in 1991 when the NDP took power, moving from 22 seats to 51, despite losing 2% of their vote compared with the previous election; only to lose office ten years later, when the Liberal Party won 77 out of 79 seats in the parliament with 57% of the vote.
In the wake of the 2001 election, a Citizens' Assembly was set up to consider improvements to the system - using a rather interesting method of random selection of one man and one woman from each of the 79 electoral districts, plus two First Nations reps. After a year of operation, the Citizens' Assembly recommended (as any sensible body would) the adoption of STV in multi-member constituencies. A 2005 referendum got 57.7% of voters in favour (and a majority of voters in all but two electoral districts), but the threshold had been set rather artifically at 60%, so it was not implemented. On Tuesday, the voters get another go, with a slightly refined proposal. I wish them well. (Not sure if any are reading this - almost all my Canadian readers are in Toronto.)
Oddly enough, in the last couple of weeks the use of STV in Ireland has come in for criticism in a couple of pieces in the Irish Times. First off, the paper's political correspondent Stephen Collins on April 25th:
The air of unreality that still pervades Leinster House in the face of the biggest crisis to face the country since the second World War is a commentary on our much vaunted multi-seat PR system. It is a system that has given us one-party domination for the past quarter of a century with the inevitable development of crony capitalism and its disastrous consequences in the housing bubble and banking crisis.I disagree. (Obviously.) One-party domination has been delivered by the voters generally voting for one party - and not just over the past quarter-century, but in 18 of the last 23 elections since 1932. Crony capitalism developed not because of the electoral system but because of the policy choices of the policy actors - not just the elected politicians, but the unions and the employers, in agreeing the Social Partnership deals which kept the economy going but also protected all of those actors from serious public scrutiny. The electoral system had nothing to do with it; it was a form of groupthink which, in fairness, originated in reaction to a previous economic crisis. (I confess I don't read the Irish media much these days, so my information may not be up to date; I found blog posts by my fellow emigrants Henry Farrell and P O'Neill rather interesting on the root causes of the crisis.)
Collins only mentions the electoral system in passing. On 4 May the Irish Times carried a passionate and bitter piece by Gemma Hussey, minister of education in the 1980s who has served for five years in each of the houses of the Oireachtas. In particular, she objects to the amount of time spent by members of parliament in servicing their constituencts:
The electoral system imposes a lifestyle on politicians which is directly inimical to good government and is a considerable deterrent to potential participants. The skills required to massage a constituency seven days and nights a week have nothing to do with running a small European country with an open economy. Ministers have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week attending local functions, holding clinics, going to funerals – they’ll lose their seats if they don’t.She proposes a reduction in the number of members of Parliament (currently 166 for a population of 4½ million - compare British Columbia's 79 for exactly the same population), which I agree with, and a switch to open list voting (as we have in Belgium) which I disagree with.
It is a poor argument that the electoral system makes life difficult for politicians because they have to spend too much time paying attention to voters. In a democracy, that is surely desirable rather than damaging. The fact is that the excessive - and it is excessive - clientelism of Irish politics long predates the adoption of proportional representation in the early 1920s. Probably it goes back to Daniel O'Connell's invention of the political party as a mass membership organisation in the 1830s, a system which was then exported (with some variations) to the United States. The memoirs and biographies of Irish politicians of the late nineteenth century, unburdened by the duties of actual government, reflect the desperate need to keep the constituents on-side. Even though most of Ireland was dominated by a single party, the leadership could never safely gift parliamentary seats to its favourites - Parnell's authority was deeply dented by his (ultimately successful) enforcement of his lover's husband's candidacy onto his local supporters in Clare and then Galway.
From the other side of the argument, I have to say that politics here in Belgium is equally criticised locally (with I think slightly less justification) as being too clientelistic, despite the fact that we already have Hussey's preferred open list system. Our mayor in the village where we live has been in office since the municipal boundaries were last redrawn in 1976. He is grooming his niece for the succession. There are of course plenty of instructive similarities between Belgian and Irish political history, and as he built his movement in the 1830s O'Connell found much inspiration in the recent revolution here.
The real key to solving Hussey's problem, I think, is in a different direction. The British political system has passed on to its spin-offs the peculiar notion that ministers in the government should also be members of parliament. The Americans quite sensibly created a system (based on the ideas of Montesquieu) where the legislature and executive are composed of different people. This was copied by the Belgians in 1830, and also has been implemented without apparent disaster by various other countries. Ministers are still accountable to Parliament and must come and answer questions there, but they do not have to carry out both the executive and the legislative roles at the same time. Obviously, this leads to a certain amount of turnover at the start of each parliament, as the newly appointed ministers resign their parliamentary seats if they have them, so you need a mechanism for replacement, but there are plenty of precedents for it. One other welcome consequence is that I think this encourages a greater turnover among the political class - many people give politics a try for a term or two and then get out, rather than being trapped inside the political hot-house.
I should perhaps say that whatever my agreements or disagreements with Hussey, I literally owe my existence to her. She introduced my parents to each other when they were all academics in University College Dublin in the mid-1960s.
(Hat-tip for the two IT articles to Brian Walker on Slugger O'Toole, who agrees with me that they are asking the wrong questions.)