electoral oddities

More Yukoners voted for Doug Graham and Bev Buckway last week than voted for the entire Yukon cabinet in the 2006 election. Graham got 2,678 votes, Buckway 2,540 and Premier Dennis Fentie and his gang only 2,535.

More Yukoners voted for Doug Graham and Bev Buckway last week than voted for the entire Yukon cabinet in the 2006 election.

Graham got 2,678 votes, Buckway 2,540 and Premier Dennis Fentie and his gang only 2,535.

Even political newbie Ranj Pillai got 2,422, only 113 votes behind the people who control our $763-million transfer payment from Ottawa. And if more than 37 per cent had turned out to vote, he probably would have beaten them by a landslide.

OK, so it’s an unfair comparison. But it’s a good point to remember when people sneer about municipal politics and talk as if the Yukon government is the “senior” level of government. In the end, who has more democratic legitimacy, a minister who won his seat 276 to 238, or a council where everyone convinced at least 1,750 Yukoners to vote for them?

It’s also worth noting that all 14 municipal candidates, as well as “Spoiled Ballot,” got more votes than the Yukon’s senator, Dan Lang. And he gets to vote on really big issues, such as criminal justice bills and whether to send the army to war.

Our electoral system is odd, and no one would design it this way from scratch.

In fact, our system wasn’t designed by anyone. The Westminster system emerged from the fog of Anglo-Saxon tribal customs, with early “Witenagemots” or “Meetings of Wise Men” debating the king about important issues, like how much you had to pay if you killed a Welshman (110 shillings at one point; priests were a lot more, especially if you had the bad taste to slay one during a service).

Later on, layers of Norman feudalism and some just plain weirdness grew on top, as anyone who has visited Parliament in Ottawa and spotted “The Usher of the Black Rod” will know.

Despite all this, the system has worked pretty well. At least compared to a lot of African countries with theoretically well-designed constitutions, but alarming track records.

One of the most powerful features of our system has been its ability to evolve with society. This has allowed us to (mostly) avoid crisis and revolution.

Our system has actually changed significantly in living memory. For example, women were allowed to vote in 1918 and aboriginal people in 1960 (without giving up their status, that is). Responsible government came to the Yukon in 1979 and First Nation self-government was inaugurated in the 1990s.

So even if the system seems stuck in the muskeg sometimes, change is almost certain to occur over the coming decades.

One candidate for reform is the voting system for MLAs or MPs. Some favour proportional representation, saying it is unfair that the Green Party should get seven per cent of the vote but none of the seats. Others favour voting schemes where voters indicate a second and third choice, preventing situations where, say, the Conservative candidate wins with 30 per cent of the vote while the Liberals and NDP get 25 per cent each. Multimember constituencies are another idea, with a district sending several MPs to Ottawa.

British Columbia’s proposed electoral reform combined the last two ideas, but failed to pass in referenda in 2005 and 2009.

A critique of this kind of reform is that it just changes how MLAs or MPs are selected, not what they do once elected. The fundamental balances of power are unaffected: executive versus legislature versus courts, federal versus provincial versus municipal, region versus region, and so on.

Senate reform is another area with substantial momentum for change, even if vested interests in Ottawa have been putting up a successful rearguard action so far. An unelected upper house is so ridiculous that even the British are reforming the House of Lords. Change is sure to come in Canada.

The Yukon government is so far refusing to follow Alberta and Saskatchewan’s lead in holding senate elections to put pressure on the prime minister of the day to appoint someone chosen by the people. But you can expect that, some day, the Yukon will have an elected senator.

Perhaps the most important issue facing Westminster systems today is the centralization of power in the leader. From London to Ottawa to Whitehorse, we see a system evolving where ministers are increasingly subservient to the boss. They depend on the boss for their jobs, perks, election funding and even permission to be on the ballot for the party. It’s no surprise they toe the line.

And because cabinets are now so large that a significant portion of the ruling party’s caucus is in them, this essentially guts the legislature’s traditional role of holding the cabinet accountable. In Whitehorse, for example, the cabinet only needs two other votes to pass a law. The cabinet also essentially controls the agenda at the legislature. Again, it’s no surprise that opportunities for tough questions and hard-hitting debate are few.

This is a case where the Americans may have a better system. Their state governors and cabinets are separate from the state legislatures.

For example, the Republican state senators in Juneau did a better job of keeping an eye on Sarah Palin than any Yukon legislature has ever been able to do with the Yukon cabinet.

Another feature of the American system is a more broadly diffused set of bodies and elected accountability. Canadians smirk at Americans electing their dog-catchers and port commissioners, but recent events have revealed that some more independence for Yukon Energy and the Yukon Hospital Corporation might not be a bad thing. The new school in Juneau was another example, with a partly elected school board and multiple voter ballots on the project itself. It was a complicated process, but Juneau-ites got real input on the project and got a concrete result.

Democracy is messy but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s better than any of the alternatives. We will never have a perfect system that satisfies everyone. But we should keep thinking about reform.

The Senate and the premier’s office would be good places to start.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book, Game OnYukon! was just launched.