Friday, September 17, 2010

My Log 225: Long past the time when we should have every political opinion represented in Parliament

A recent flurry of concern in the newspapers about the irrelevance for most Canadians of what happens in Parliament has brought the only possible response from Ed. Broadbent, former leader of the NDP.

He has pointed out that most of the time most of the voters in Canada have been disenfranchised by the workings of our antiquated and undemocratic electoral system. He says, for example, that in no other country could a party with 38 per cent of the votes trumpet itself as being representative of the majority, as Stephen Harper and his Conservatives do currently.

Ed. could have given more examples. Indeed, so many spring to mind that it is hardly necessary to research them. For instance, when Trudeau was in power his party had only one seat west of Manitoba. But still, they had something like 25 per cent of the votes, which meant, essentially, that one out of every four electors in that part of the country had no one to represent them or their political views.

Similarly, before the Parti Qu├ębecois was elected in Quebec it persistently won a good quarter of all votes cast, yet only five or six or seven seats, a mere fraction of what they were entitled to. And as Ed. points out, in the last election the Green party won a million votes without being rewarded by a single seat in Parliament.

This gives me a chance to trot out a story I have told many times, concerning Sweden. In 1964, Tage Erlander, Prime Minister of Sweden visited Britain to deliver a fraternal address to the annual conference of the newly-elected British Labour Party. Harold Wilson had won a majority of four in a House of Commons with more than 600 members. Erlander’s first words were, “I want to congratulate you on your immense majority.” For eighteen years he had been Prime Minister of Sweden, since 1946, and he had never once had a majority, he said.

That was one of the most interesting comments on Western democratic socialism, and on Western political systems that I ever heard. Because, although Erlander had governed with the sup;port of the Centre party during all those years, he had managed to use his time in power to create a left-leaning consensus that made Sweden one of the best-governed and most successful countries in the modern world.

The growing complexities during those years of the modern economy and society, for example, the urbanization and growth of cities, the entry of more women into the labour force, the changing economies in the home as it became necessary for most people to have two incomes, just to keep afloat, had thrown up many areas that needed state intervention, and in all of them Sweden pioneered, under Erlander’s leadership. The creation of this sophisticated welfare state relied on public support, which could only be garnered if the population was carried along by the political leaders (or to put it the other way, if the political leaders were carried along by the support of the people). In almost every field of social legislation --- for example, prison reform, family support, holidays, urban development, education --- as well as in the fields of culture, design, and the arts, Sweden was ahead of the world, and more than able to compete with anybody.

This depended on a strong sense among the people that their political views were represented in the nation’s political discourse. Only a system guaranteeing that every strand of political opinion has its place in the political discourse can create the kind of consensus needed for this kind of marvelous change. And only proportional representation can guarantee that result.

It is a mystery why Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States remain virtually the only countries on earth that have resisted proportional representation. We have surely had enough experience to know that our present system is unrepresentative and undemocratic at its base. And yet, the political leaders in office, when they have flirted with proportional systems, have put them to the people --- as they did recently in Ontario --- in a half-hearted and unconvincing fashion that has practically guaranteed their defeat.

There is now a large body of opinion in Canada favouring proportional representation in an organization called Fair Vote Canada, and I urge everyone who cares about the nature of our system to either join, or to follow this organization’s actions in future.

I have two other personal anecdotes to add to this: in the 1980s I went to Norway to shoot a film dealing with the aluminum industry. They have a smelter there that was once owned by Alcan, the Canadian multinational, but was bought back by the Norwegian state because they felt the private management was not achieving goals set by the government, such as full employment and so on. When we went to that cutoff, hidden little town at the base of one of the longest Norwegian fiords, the management of the company put us in the hands of the plant’s union, which became responsible for organizing our shooting schedule. I was astounded by this, since in Canada, filmmakers attempting to film in or around private companies usually find themselves confronted by private agents hired by the company with the intention of keeping the cameras as far away as possible, or at least keeping them always under surveillance.

This broadmindedness--- and its accompanying lack of fear --- came from the Norwegian consensus established by generations of democratic socialist government. At least that was the answer given me when, as I was flying out of Norway, I remarked to a young student of international law who was sitting next to me,
upon the phenomenon of the broad Norwegian political consensus, and how much it had impressed me. “I think it comes,” she said, “from a quarter century of socialist government.”

My second anecdote comes from New Zealand, where, at a very early stage after the end of the wars fought between the Maoris and the British troops, late in the nineteenth century, separate Maori constituencies were established giving the Maoris direct representation in Parliament. Nowadays it is common to hear that the condition of Maoris, and their acceptance within New Zealand society, is better than that of any other indigenous people in the world. If that is so it surely has much to do with the fact that the Maoris, politically speaking, were never allowed to become a forgotten remnant of New Zealand society as it developed, but were always right there in the centre of the political discourse, defending their rights and their points of view.

Just as, in our society, every point of view should be represented in Parliament according to its weight within society.

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