Panelists fail to make case for electoral change

Tuesday night's debate on electoral reform was over, but municipal councillor Dave Stockdale was still seething, his red face buried in his hands.

Tuesday night’s debate on electoral reform was over, but municipal councillor Dave Stockdale was still seething, his red face buried in his hands.

Dave Brekke, the evening’s organizer, was offering some final comments on why the current electoral system isn’t democratic when Stockdale exploded.

“Do you want to take away Old Crow’s seat?” he said, speaking over Brekke, referring to the way Old Crow’s 260 inhabitants get one legislative seat while other seats in the Yukon can represent over a thousand people.

The debate was on.

Brekke turned around and faced Stockdale, and both men began talking over each other for a few very confusing seconds.

“Dave, Dave, Dave!” yelled John Streicker, the night’s moderator, who didn’t make it clear which Dave he was talking to. “I have to step in.”

Stockdale, whose other outbursts earlier in the evening included rants against Switzerland for being complicit in the Holocaust and reasons why Quebec should separate, piped down.

It was the night’s only face-to-face confrontation on whether proportional representation should replace our current first-past-the-post system, and, unfortunately, it happened when the official debate was already over.

The earlier part of the evening was a much more wide-ranging discussion by seven panelists on the current malaise between Yukoners and their political system.

No matter what way you cut it – the number of voters, the quality of debate in the legislature, people’s opinions of politicians – the system is very, very sick.

It’s the same for Canadians across the country. People are tuning out politics like never before, the panelists agreed.

But the question is whether the problem is caused by the structure of our voting system, or by some other cultural or social force.

“It might be the federal leader we have and it might be the territorial leader we have,” said Kirk Cameron, one of the panelists who is also a Liberal party candidate in the Whitehorse Centre byelection.

“People are really frustrated with the system,” he said.

Electoral reform should not be considered a panacea for all of our democracy’s ills, said Keith Halliday, an economist and another panelist.

“It’s not how they get to the House, but what they do when they get there,” said Halliday.

He’s worked in the European Parliament, where a form of proportional representation is used.

Halliday recalled one representative for the Green Party from Frankfurt, who was elected because the party earned a certain amount of the popular vote, not because it won the majority of votes in one electoral district.

She interpreted her role as a voice for all Green Party members, and focused more on that and less on representing the will of her constituents in Strasbourg.

Proportional representation also results in smaller parties becoming more popular, said Halliday.

In the Israeli Knesset, small hard-right parties are holding up the Middle East peace process hostage because the Israel government depends on their support to remain in power, he said.

Both Cameron and Streicker quoted studies that found only a modest boost in voter participation after proportional representation is brought in.

Throughout the evening, no one made a solid case for why proportional representation would solve voter apathy.

Panelists Steven Smyth, Don Roberts and New Democratic leader Elizabeth Hanson backed proportional representation but with a very why-not kind of approach.

“I don’t know what the solution is, but things have to change,” said Roberts.

Halliday and Cameron both hinted the problem might lay in the executive, which has grown more powerful in Ottawa and Whitehorse, rather than the legislature.

Premiers and prime ministers set the tone for the political discourse, and it’s clear that Yukoners and Canadians don’t feel they’re looking in a mirror when they look at politics.

The values Canadians used in everyday affairs aren’t making it to our legislatures – that much was clear from Tuesday’s debate.

“We need to find out what our values are as a society, then we can move to how we want those brought in (to the political system),” said Cameron.

But Canadians could also be unfamiliar with how tough, mean and confrontational politics is.

“You’re living in a utopian worldview,” said Stockdale.

Then again, maybe it’s not politics but the people currently involved in it.

Stockdale said you have to really pester him if you want him and other politicians to do something, as if being a politician is a reactive, not an active, job.

“We’re just not upset enough to change,” he said.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com

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