In defence of the Liberals’ electoral-reform survey

MyDemocracy.ca earned scorn among critics and experts. But professor Philippe Lagassé is standing up for its usefulness as a tool.

Shaun Best /Reuters

Shaun Best /Reuters

On Monday, the government launched MyDemocracy.ca, a website that walks people through an examination of their “democratic values.” Given the very roundabout way the survey gets at electoral reform and voting systems—which is to say, neither is specifically mentioned at all—the reaction was largely and loudly negative. Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, was a rare informed voice who spoke out on Twitter in defence of the site. Maclean’s spoke to him about why he thinks the survey was smartly designed and what it accomplishes.

Q: What was your reaction to the pretty widespread blowback to MyDemocracy.ca yesterday?

A: I think there was a certain expectation of what people wanted the survey to be. Most people were expecting the survey to identify particular (voting) systems and to ask people to vote in favour of those systems. So my sense is a large part of the blowback was (due to) the fact that it didn’t ask that type of question.

Similarly, there was some hostility—putting it mildly—to the idea that there are some trade-offs involved, and the way the trade-offs were framed was not well-received. The idea that proportional systems would lead to greater cooperation at the cost of accountability was rejected or not seen as a way to frame the issue. A number of people, particularly in my Twitter interactions, tended to suggest there’s some system that can be devised which eliminates all these problems and you arrive at an ideal system that has absolutely no trade-offs.

The problem I have with that—and it makes me really wonder if people read the committee report—is that entire sections of the report explicitly admit any system has trade-offs, there is no perfect system. And that’s really what this survey was meant to try to explain to people from another angle. And yet, the reaction was that there are no trade-offs or trade-offs shouldn’t be presented in stark ways.

Q: Yesterday, you said had they gone about this by asking very direct questions about electoral reform and different voting systems, that wouldn’t have been very effective. Why is that?

A: It’s the same problem you get if you do town hall-style consultations or anything to that effect: you will get a flood of people who have a very predetermined view of what kind of electoral system they want, and they will be the first ones who leap in to provide their view. In effect, what you get are people who already understand the debate, who already understand the various systems, arguing amongst themselves and attempting to mobilize more supporters to vote on this website. What you would probably get is what a lot of public opinion surveys tell us: that among those who know about these issues, you have a distribution across the board of favouring different systems.

Now, those people that wouldn’t really get involved in it, frankly, are those who don’t know what the various systems imply, or who would simply stick to one principle. The first question you have to ask somebody who’s not familiar with the various systems and sub-systems is, ‘What do you want out of this? What’s your ultimate aim?’ Do you prefer to throw the bums out, or are you more comfortable with parties continually maintaining a certain percentage of the seats and always being forced to work together? This is really what the survey is asking. It’s starting from the other side; it’s starting from the result and saying, ‘Are you comfortable with these types of results and what it produces in a parliamentary system such as ours?’

Q: What you’re describing sounds more like a teaching exercise than an opinion-gathering exercise.

A: Right. This is part of the problem if you are going to critique how the survey was put together. It doesn’t make clear that it’s actually more an effort to get people to understand themselves and their own values. And that’s really explicitly what it is, and I think that’s where people are somewhat up in arms about the BuzzFeed-style approach to it. It probably would have been better at the end if they were to ascribe a particular system to you, as opposed to the vague terms they used.

On the other hand, the purpose of it is more to say you don’t necessarily have a particular preference for a particular system, (so) tell me what you actually want out of a voting system in terms of what it does in Parliament, and then I will tell you which attitude, in this case, is more reflective of who you are based on your answers. That’s really the exercise. When you gather all this together, the idea is to try to provide people who have no deep understanding of the debates with some sense of where they fall. That’s the key: it’s not simply proportionality as the be-all and end-all. It’s really, ‘What do you want out of a system of government?’

MORE: How MyDemocracy.ca was made, from the CEO of the company that designed it

Q: To be a bit cynical or maybe even patronizing, do you think we might run into the same problem here, that people who are already invested and informed will be more drawn to this, or does this kind of thing appeal for exactly the kind of ordinary voters it seems designed to provide helpful information for?

A: To my mind, you’re probably not going to get everybody engaged on this. It’s the limits of any kind of consultation. I’m not going to say that it’s the best way to get general public opinion about this. But nor are public consultations, as we’ve seen, nor are the citizens’ assemblies which really focus on people who self-select for these types of things. It’s simply a way of changing how people understand the debate. It really is trying to push people to examine more the consequences than to examine the systems.

Q: What do you think of the methodological problems, and how people can respond more than once?

A: If the purpose is at the end of this to produce a report and say, ‘This is what people thought,’ then I agree, you can’t do that. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to use this to try and convince people to look at electoral reform in a different way or to understand what their values are, and it’s primarily an educational tool or to simply try to change the terms of the debate away from the systems and toward the consequences, and the purpose is not to compile this data and present it as some kind of decision point, then I’m fine with that. I think everybody would readily attack them if they claimed this was a survey of some kind of significance if you’re able to re-take it over and over again.

Q: Is there anything you think was handled poorly here?

A: Well, the Innovators, Guardians (archetypes) is maybe not the best approach. I think it’s fair to say it maybe would have been better to use the questions about the parliamentary and government outcomes and then point people toward a particular system. In retrospect, seeing how people reacted to the archetypes, suffice to say I think it was a bit of a communications failure.

Q: You had an exchange on Twitter with Chris Selley about this: he was arguing that even if the survey is trying to get at outcomes instead of systems, it neglected to ask about what is arguably the most relevant and obvious outcome, which is popular vote vs. seats. What’s your take on that?

A: If you were to ask that question, you would have had to ask three questions. You would first have to ask about proportionality of seats; you would secondly have to ask a question about electing MPs with a simple plurality, and third ask a question about an alternative type of ballot. As soon as you get into that, you’re no longer looking at outcomes, you’re looking at processes to reach an outcome. And that’s specifically what the survey is meant to avoid.

Now, what this survey is attempting to do is say, ‘Okay, that part of the equation has dominated the debate from the beginning. Let’s look at it from the other side. Instead of portions of seats, look at what effect it has on Parliament.’ That’s my only rebuttal: it specifically is meant to avoid looking at those questions. It’s simply a different way of debating the question. It’s saying, ‘Okay, regardless of how you arrive at these outcomes, are you comfortable with these outcomes?’

So somebody might be very supportive of a proportional voting system in principle and then when you ask them, ‘Are you comfortable with the fact that this might lead to a situation where one party is not wholly accountable for governing decisions?’ they say, ‘Huh, that’s a different way of looking at it. I didn’t think of it that way. Maybe I’m less comfortable with it.’ So it actually forces people to think through the different principles that are at play.

Part of the reaction I found most bewildering is this view that nothing will change with the system, that it’s unfair to ask about black and whites because it’s all shades of grey. You’re stuck in a bizarre paradox where shifting from a single-member plurality system where you can have a majority of seats with 39 percent is somehow producing the same result in Parliament as a proportional system. And somehow you can simply reflect the popular vote and have no meaningful effect on how things would occur in the House—in spite of the fact that research suggests otherwise, in spite of the fact that the ERRE report suggested otherwise, in spite of the fact that the very reason small parties like the NDP and the Greens are in favour of a proportional system is because they know it won’t simply be status quo in the House. How can you on the one hand say that proportionality is important, but then on the other hand say, ‘Oh no, let’s not worry about what that actually means for government, because it won’t change anything?’ You’re in favour of the system in part because it will change how we’re governed, so it’s worth asking Canadians, ‘Leaving aside for a minute the idea of how votes should be counted, are you comfortable with this outcome?’

Q: It sounds like a very human thing happened, which is that people are angry that these questions point out that a best-of-all-worlds fantasy scenario doesn’t exist.

A: A lot of the reactions I was getting were, ‘No no, you just don’t understand. We can devise a perfect system that preserves accountability, that leads to cooperation, that maximizes representation, you just don’t know this particular system that I’ve found that can do this.’ It’s one of the big frustrations I always have in policy debates, which is the ‘Everybody is stupid except me’ argument. Okay, but the committee report specifically says that there are trade-offs. The 2004 report that recommended mixed-member proportional said there are trade-offs. And yet when the survey asks that question, somehow it’s an affront to the whole process.

The one that I find kind of amusing is people were offended by the fact by the question that makes reference to an extreme party. And yet if you read the report, in the very system that was recommended, scholars note that it increases the possibility of extreme parties—they even use the word ‘extreme.’ And then you look south of the border or you look at what’s happening in European elections and you’re saying, ‘Are we really so special?’ Are we really so unique as Canadians, when you have two leadership candidates for the right-of-centre party that are espousing anti-immigration policies, that this is unfathomable in Canada, that you might have, as you do in many other western liberal democratic societies, strong anti-immigrant parties?

And what’s even more offensive to me is people are saying this whole survey is fear-mongering. I’m sorry, but asking if you’re okay with extreme parties or if there are trade-offs when parties have to cooperate to govern, meanwhile it’s perfectly acceptable to declare that Canada is not a democracy under first past the post? That’s not inflammatory? That’s not fear-mongering? But saying, ‘Hey, there’s a possibility of more extreme parties coming out, what do you think?’ or ‘If parties have to cooperate in government, they might have to cooperate with some pretty unsavoury folk,’ you can’t talk about that?

Q: You wound up some of your Twitter comments yesterday saying, “Want a survey on different systems as opposed to their effects? Hold a referendum.” Do you view that as the next logical step here?

A: For me, I don’t think there are any real insights to be gained in asking on a survey about the different systems, that’s my point. If the main critique is that the survey didn’t give people the opportunity to say, ‘We want a proportional system,’ or ‘We want to change the status quo,’ then why would you even bother with a survey? Just follow what the committee report said and hold your referendum.

If, on the other hand, you’re the government or somebody like me, who is not quite sure people fully understand what is at stake, and this issue has been dominated by people who already have a preferred system and already have a pretty good idea about what it all means and are being a little coy about what the effects are, then maybe it’s useful to invite Canadians to take a look at the different options, or at least take a look at the consequences that various systems bring. Similarly, if you are a government who is kind of coming to the conclusion that you’re probably going to have to hold a referendum, then maybe a survey like this is a good way to get a sense about what people care about and how you’re going to argue your case in the referendum. The survey has lots of problems, but at the very least, it actually introduces this other side of the equation.

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