A controversy has erupted in the National Hockey League over its first-past-the-post scoring system. Fair Goal NHL, a public interest group, is calling for sweeping changes to the way that goals are counted during hockey games. Currently, the winner in a game is determined solely by counting up the goals and handing absolute victory to the team that gets the highest score.
According to a spokesperson for FGNHL, only seven per cent of goals scored in play-off games last year were “successful goals,” or goals which eventually lead to winning the Stanley Cup. Clearly, this disenfranchises the players who scored goals in a losing effort, or who won the game but lost the series, or who made it to the finals but lost. What to do about all those unsuccessful goals?
To address the inequity of first-past-the-post hockey, FGNHL proposes a hybrid mixed-player team-list single-transferable-goal play-off season, with the Stanley Cup shared between the first-past-the-post champions and the winners of a complex two-tiered scoring system.
OK, for all its faults the NHL hasn’t turned quite that silly yet. But in the larger arena of Canadian politics, such silliness abounds. Fair Vote Canada, a group which advocates for proportional representation, asserts that votes cast for the losing side “don’t even count,” that majority governments elected under the present system are “phony,” and that the way we currently elect our governments “is not democracy.” But Yukon PR booster Dave Brekke goes them one better. In his view: “843 voters are NOT represented because they voted for losing candidates.” (His capitals).
It is, as PR promoters like to point out, common in Canada for a government to win a majority with only a plurality of votes. Opponents of Stephen Harper are fond of saying that he holds a majority government with only 39 per cent of the vote. This complaint ignores the fact that there are more than two political parties in Canada. The NDP, with 30 per cent, came second, and the Liberals, with 20 per cent, came third. A fringe party with less than 10 per cent of the vote came last. How is this unfair?
Consider three friends voting on whether to order pizza or Chinese. If two vote for pizza, was the one who voted for Chinese disenfranchised? After all, she got 33 per cent of the vote, and no wontons. If people all over town are voting on take-out, and pizza is winning most of the time, do we need a system to reconcile the votes of all the losing voters? Observe the language: you win a vote, or you lose it. That’s been called democracy for centuries.
Contrary to Brekke’s claim, all Yukoners are represented in the Yukon Legislative Assembly. Many are not represented by the person they voted for, but that’s what voting is about. Brekke suggests that voters are disenfranchised unless they can “point to an MLA whom their vote helped to elect and be relatively comfortable taking their compliments, suggestions or concerns to.” Voters, take your suggestions and concerns to your MLA, whether you voted for them or not. If they refuse to help because you’re not a supporter, expose them: they are not doing their job.
Some of the imbalance in the current system is built in to protect regional interests, and we in the Yukon should be grateful for that, and wary of those who seek to change it. One thing that unites PR supporters and conservatives is the notion that to be fair, votes ought to count equally. There are six ridings in the Greater Toronto Area each with between 150,000 and 180,000 voters. In order to balance our vote with theirs, we would have to live in a riding composed of the three territories, plus Labrador and Prince George-Peace River.
Proportional representation is fairly common around the world. It exists in Germany, and in 2004 it allowed the neo-Nazi NPD to elect 12 members with 10 per cent of the vote in a provincial election in Saxony. Under Israel’s PR system tiny right-wing extremist parties hold the balance of power and are a tremendous impediment to peace and democracy. There are currently 39 parties in the Italian legislature, an institution so fractious it barely functions at all.
Canada’s electoral system is not perfect, but then whose is? Democracy is a messy business. There may be benefits to be gained by making the voting system more proportional, but there are also great risks. Electoral reform should be an ongoing process, and we should always be open to improvements in the system, as well as cautious about jumping into grand experiments based on silly talk. The heated rhetoric coming out of the PR camp implies that the current system is a total failure, and there’s a perfect one out there waiting to replace it. They’re wrong on both counts.
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.