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Changing election laws a perilous challenge

There may or may not be movement soon toward changing election laws in Alberta and across the country. The arguments over any change will continue to be guided by a search for party advantage instead of by a commitment to reasonable principles.

There may or may not be movement soon toward changing election laws in Alberta and across the country.

The arguments over any change will continue to be guided by a search for party advantage instead of by a commitment to reasonable principles. No matter what happens, the effects will be less serious than often suggested.

Some of the noise around these matters reflects the habits of a generally noisy time. Everyone wants a say in things in the Twitter era. And political parties get ever more intensely focused on tactics.

It used to be different.

The United Farmers of Alberta government created a few multi-member seats with a form of proportional representation in the 1920s. Records indicate there wasn't much debate. A Social Credit government abolished that structure in the 1950s after it appeared to cost the party two or three seats. Once again, there was apparently little public debate.

Now? There has to be extensive committee study. And a feeling is growing that any change to election law must be put to a referendum, which usually is a way of preventing change because voters are wary of the unfamiliar.

The most practical way of changing the rules is for a government to go ahead on the basis that it has won an election mandate.

The Alberta New Democrats did that last year with the first bill the new government passed. They abolished union and corporate donations to political parties. But that decision was supported by a fair amount of existing public sentiment.

Then they sent more ideas for change to an all-party legislature ethics committee. The committee bogged down amid serious wrangling in September.

The main problem was a fight over the NDP's proposal to have public rebates cover half the cost of candidates' campaigns.

That was an easy target. Critics said the government is running a $10-billion deficit and no one wants to spend tax money on political parties.

Of course, taxpayer money is already spent on political parties. It is simply spent through tax credits rather than through public rebates.

But there were other wrinkles. One was a notion that parties would need to get at least 10 per cent of the overall vote to qualify for rebates. That was reasonably seen as a major blow against the Liberals and the Alberta Party.

The overall issue here is that no change to the rules is entirely neutral. The Progressive Conservatives lost some advantage when corporate donations were banned. The Wildrose could lose some advantage if public rebates supplement contributions from individuals.

Arguments over the makeup of the ethics committee raised emotions even more. The New Democrats had a majority of members and a New Democrat served as chair. Opposition parties called that unfair.

Really? Was it going to be more fair if parties that lost the election had the bigger say?

That's what the federal government tried in Ottawa at the same time as the debate in Alberta was raging. A parliamentary committee was discussing whether to change the first-past-the-post voting system.

As in Alberta, each party predictably wanted the system it thought would best help it win. And the Conservatives wanted a referendum, knowing that a referendum would be the surest way of preventing change. As in Alberta, the result was more or less a stalemate.

Last year's Alberta and national elections showed that parties can adapt and that the rules only influence campaigns. Unless the rules are massively unfair, they do not absolutely determine outcomes.

But you would think from listening to the talk that the fate of democracy depends on what rules are in place.

What should we make of all this?

First, the general effort should be to avoid the kind of extremes that have seen U.S. politics degenerate into a permanent scramble for campaign contributions, and the kind of unseemly tactics that see contributors pay big money to mix socially with cabinet ministers.

Second, election laws should take into account the surrounding environment.

In Alberta, a move toward some level of proportional representation could prevent a repeat of 44 years of single-party dominance, although demographic changes seem to have made such outcomes less likely.

In Canada as a whole, proportional representation would probably create a dangerous incentive for the growth of regional parties — perhaps ending with five or six versions of the Bloc Quebecois across the country.

Then there's the principle of one person, one vote. This year's uproar was mild compared with what will happen if the Alberta legislature gets around to debating the electoral boundaries that have for decades given rural voters relatively more say than urban voters.

Mark Lisac

About the Author: Mark Lisac

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