This post is the first of a new series on the history and future of Canadian multi-party democracy. The posts will be based on a spreadsheet of election results which I’ve assembled using Elections Canada data for recent elections, and Wikipedia tables for older ones. The spreadsheet is not yet finished but will be posted when it is. The first posts only make use of part of the data set, so I’m going ahead with them anyways.
One of the most important things that people should realize, and generally don’t, about the present state of Parliamentary democracy in Canada is that we have a structural, steadily growing democratic deficit which continues to increase regardless of voter turnout levels, regardless of how responsive political parties are or are not to public opinion, and regardless of how much or how little freedom of speech is granted to backbench MPs by party leaders. The problem, quite simply, is that we do not have enough MPs.
I have made this suggestion before on this blog, and it never goes over very well, because we generally consider MPs to be like mosquitoes: we may grudgingly accept that they’re necessary for the ecosystem, but we don’t like them around us, we certainly don’t like listening to their ceaseless whines, and the fewer of them there are, the better.
Which may be true at the moment, but at the same time, the fewer MPs you have, the weaker your democracy is and the more power is centralized in a small number of unrepresentative hands. Because of population growth, we have lost, quite literally, 97% of the representation in Parliament that our ancestors enjoyed in 1867. It’s the democratic equivalent of currency inflation: the value of your vote is shrinking, and it has been shrinking for a long, long time.
This chart shows the number of voters who actually cast ballots — not the number of registered voters — per average MP since 1867. If we adjusted for declining voter turnout by using the actual number of registered voters, that curve would be even steeper. Ironically, cratering voter turnout levels are actually “good” for the democratic deficit in statistical terms, insofar as they increase the relative voting power of the shrinking number of people who actually bother to make their way to the ballot box.
Beyond that, though, the reality is stark. In 1867, if you were an actual voter, you were one of about 1500 people to whom your MP was accountable. Today, you’re one of almost 50,000. Given this fact, is it any surprise that we feel as though our views are not represented in Parliament?
Even if an MP today decided that instead of living in Ottawa he would just tour the constituency full-time, meeting every single voter individually, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, that would still mean that the average voter could expect less than five minutes of face-time with her MP. In contrast, in 1867, the average voter could have spent almost an hour and a half with his MP.
I hope you caught my slippage in pronouns there. One of the responses to what I’m saying will doubtless be that, at least until recently, Canada got much more democratic. After all, after much strife, the white male establishment grudgingly admitted its own bigotry. Women were enfranchised. Japanese and Chinese were re-enfranchised. Later, too much later in my opinion, aboriginal people were re-enfranchised.
But the important thing to take away is that the Parliamentary system was never adjusted to account for the increased number of voters. Between 1914 (when no women could vote) and 1921 (when all could), the electorate more than doubled, ballooning from 1.3 million to 3.1 million. Yet the seat count in the House of Commons rose only slightly, from 221 to 235. Since then, the democratic deficit has climbed slowly but steadily.
In theory, if population grows and voter turnout either stabilizes or recovers, that democratic deficit will only grow further. Under the current representation formula, the number of seats in Parliament is fixed at 279 plus special allocations. In practice it’s significantly higher because of the special allocations: you can’t take away any of a province’s guaranteed seats, so PEI will always have four, and Quebec will not lose seats in the current allocation even though its population share is dwindling, etc., etc.
The reason we’re getting several new seats for 2015 is because population growth in the West means they are getting a higher share of the 279 “base” seats, Quebec is retaining more “special” seats, etc. But this representation formula, because the base seat count is fixed, will never be able to cope with long-term population growth.
How this problem should be solved, or whether it even needs to be solved, is another question entirely. But I think that whatever else might be said about the decline and future of democracy, it has to be accepted that Parliamentary representation in its present form grants far, far less representation to the public than it once did, and consequently that it is not surprising that MPs feel less and less beholden to the electorate.
All of that said, you might assume that the declining voter turnout is a direct consequence of the declining value of your vote. I don’t think so, because, as I’ve been saying repeatedly for the last couple of weeks, most people don’t particularly care because they are intellectually lazy. The only people committed enough to actually make this sort of calculation are the ones who are probably interested enough in politics to vote anyways. That said, the larger the constituency, the less useful your vote is to your MP, and the less work he or she will and even can do in order to earn it.