Columnists *love* the status quo, even when the facts don't add up.
If there is one overriding bias among the ranks of Toronto’s pundit core, it is to always swerve towards the status quo. Anything advocating major change—or, at least, any major change that might affect the average Toronto opinion columnist—is automatically suspect. Actual facts as to whether that suspicion is justified are entirely beside the point. All that really matters is the math: Pundit + Potential Change = Badly Written And Researched Opinion Column.
And so today we dive into the latest from National Post columnist Kelly McParland, who, by addressing electoral reform and politics in Australia, provides an excellent example of the form.
McParland is suspicious of the electoral reform the Liberals promised during their campaign and which they hope to implement. McParland notes, not unfairly, that the Liberals favour single-transferable vote for electoral reform because the party thinks–correctly–that they will be the consensus “they’re okay, I guess” choice for the majority of the electorate. (He does not explain why more accurately representing the will of the electorate would be bad.)
But this is not the main thrust of McParland’s column. His thesis is: single-transferable voting is worrisome, because Australia uses a variation of single-transferable vote for their parliamentary and Senate elections (McParland helpfully links to the Wikipedia page on Australia’s electoral system, because explaining the actual ins and outs of their voting system is not really what his column is about; it’s about the suspicion of new ideas), and because Australian politics are presently a bit of a mess. But there is a problem with McParland’s thesis, which is that it is remarkably stupid.
McParland comments at length on how Australia has had “six prime ministers in six years” and that this is a liability of the the country’s electoral system. First off, technically Australia has only had five prime ministers in six years (Kevin Rudd held the office twice). Secondly, three of those changes weren’t elections but rather the result of intra-party politicking resulting in a party leadership change, which can happen in any Parliamentary system–just ask Thomas Mulcair about that, or take a look at Britain and what’s going on with seemingly every political party post-Brexit. Australia has only had three elections since 2010 (in 2010, 2013 and this year), and that’s because their constitution requires elections every three years.
But what makes this sillier is that McParland is so obviously cherrypicking. Before Kevin Rudd first became Prime Minister in 2007, his predecessor in the office was John Howard—who had the job for 11 years. Before him, there was Paul Keating (five years). Before him, Bob Hawke (eight) and Malcolm Fraser (eight) and in fact you have to go to Gough Whitlam’s term ending in 1975 to find another Prime Minister who ran their country for fewer than three years. Of course, if you apply the rigorous standard McParland has chosen for his column, you could argue that at one point Canada had five Prime Ministers in five years. Of course, the years were 1979-1984, and the Prime Ministers were Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, Trudeau again, John Turner and Brian Mulroney, and Turner was never elected but only became PM through a leadership squabble with Trudeau. But that’s not important: what’s important is that we have incontrovertible evidence that our first-past-the-post system leads to electoral chaos, per McParland’s rigorous standard.
But McParland isn’t finished! He’s also very concerned about small parties ruining everything!
Any candidate with a strong local power base can form a vanity party and hope to win enough seats to hold the government to ransom. In Australia there’s the Nick Xenophon Team, the Jacqui Lambie Network, the Palmer United Party of mining magnate Nick Palmer, the father-son Katter’s Australian Party of Bob and Rob Katter and–elected Saturday after a 20-year-absence–the radical anti-immigrant organization around Pauline Hanson, who has demanded a Royal Commission on Islam as her price for co-operation.
Sometimes the tiny parties team up to form a block of mini-interests. For three years, Xenophon, the Greens and the Family First Party were able to claim the balance of power in the Senate. A new arrival Saturday was 72-year-old Derryn Hinch, a former broadcaster and reformed hellraiser known as “The Human headline”, who says he’s never voted before but won a Senate seat for his Derryn Hinch Justice Party on the first try. Hinch, who believes he’s the only Australian senator to have a liver transplant, champions a registry to collect and publicize information on sex offenders.
To be clear: Nick Xenophon is an independent center-left Senator in Australia, has been for about a decade, who’s running a slate of candidates in this election with the hopes of picking up an additional Senator and maybe two or three MPs. Jacquie Lambie is a seemingly horrible right-wing Senator who used to be a member of the now-defunct Palmer United Party. The Katter’s Australian party had, up until this election, one MP in their ranks. Pauline Hanson is indeed an awful person and her One Nation Party is one Pauline Hanson strong in the Senate. Derryn Hinch is also kind of nuts and is one Senator.
You may have noticed a bit of a trend here, which is this: all that the Australian system does is encourage smaller parties and more independent candidates, particularly in the less powerful Senate. McParland sees this and thinks that crazy bigots like Pauline Hanson and Jacquie Lambie are symptoms of the system, but Pauline Hanson and Jacquie Lambie were both members of the Liberal Party for years before striking out on their own or getting turfed out for political indiscretions; we can see from countless examples in other countries that the Pauline Hansons of the world get co-opted into larger parties when a country’s electoral system encourages larger parties over smaller ones. After all: Hanson may be a particularly odious right-wing politician with some reprehensible views, but a right-wing politician she is nonetheless; she votes with the center-right Liberals on most issues. Is it particularly better that Canadian parties mostly make sure that their lunatics and cranks stay within party ranks? Is anybody crying halleluljahs that Rob Anders or Dean Del Mastro remain in the Tory ranks instead of striking out on their own?
The Hansons of the world exist because every country has bigots, and those bigots vote. Either they will vote for independent candidates like Hanson, or they will vote for large parties who pander to them. In Canada, the choice has been the latter: Stephen Harper famously hired Australian right-wing political adviser Lynton Crosby to help with the Conservative campaign last year, and as a result the Tories hard-pivoted to a campaign that targeted Muslims and trumpeted the values of “old stock Canadians.” That campaign failed, but it didn’t fail because there weren’t voters attracted to the Tories by such messages; it only failed because this time around, they were outnumbered.
McParland’s worry that the Australian system gives too much power to small parties is ridiculous in any event. Small parties have held the balance of power only a handful of times in Australia’s House of Representatives, which in practice is a two-party system between center-left Labor and the center-right coalition of the Liberal and National parties. They have more power in Australia’s Senate, but the Australian Senate is wildly different from the Canadian Senate in so many ways that to simply imply that single-transferable vote is to blame is to simplify to the point of absurdity.
Granted, most Toronto pundits could probably use a CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION sign permanently taped to the tops of their computers, but that’s usually what happens when you start your opinion column with the conclusion and work your way backwards, which is what McParland has done. Which is why his conclusion is so impressive:
If that sounds like a better way to run a country than the relative certainty that comes with Canada’s first-past-the-post system, by all means lend your support to the Liberal reform campaign.
The “relative certainty” of Canada’s system produced minority governments for seven years, during which time Stephen Harper used the prorogue power to avoid losing a vote of confidence. But, for McParland, the obvious choice is always the devil we know.
Too Big to Edit is Torontoist’s new media criticism column. See an article you’d like us to analyze? Tweet it to us @Torontoist, or email editors (at) torontoist.com
For as little as $1 a month, you can support articles like this by becoming one of the first Torontoist subscribers. Get great perks and fund local journalism that makes a difference—join Raccoon Nation now.