Why Issue Advocacy is More Important than Reforming the Political System

Canada needs democratic reform, ideally we need democratic reform that diminishes the power of political parties and party leaders. Any system where 30-40% of the population can essentially set up a monolithic dictatorship for 4-5 years at a time is broken. I’ll return to that topic in later posts though. 

There seems to be, among certain parts of the population, a perception that enacting a system like proportional representation is some kind of cure-all for Canadian politics. It isn’t. Let’s say that you have a proportional system and your party gets 9% of the vote and so 9% of the seats in parliament, that would come to 30 of the 338 seats in Parliament.

Under the current system, or even a proportional representation system, 30 seats is not enough to do much on your own. You certainly can’t govern with it. It’s possible, depending on the circumstances that those 30 seats could be part of a coalition and could contribute to policy decisions. They could not help very much or get much of what they wanted though. 

Most Canadians would rather stick to the current system, where 35% can earn you a majority government, than risk being held hostage by 9% of the electorate pushing unpopular ideas. So the people who think that getting a proportional representation system will somehow create a socialist (or libertarian) utopia, are wrong. 

Personally I fear how some of those people may react when they still don’t get most of what they want. 

On the other hand, issue advocacy can work without any seats in parliament at all. Equal rights (for women, visible minorities, people with physical handicaps and LGBT people) was once a fringe issue. National health care, child labor laws, universal public education, the five day work week, the minimum wage, and compensation for work related injuries were all fringe issues. 

Many of the national laws and institutions that we take for granted today started as fringe issues. Their advocates tirelessly pushed them forward and once they had convinced a sufficient number of people those fringe issues were adopted into the official platforms of major political parties. 

Proportional representation will not change that. Fringe parties will push fringe issues until they are no longer fringe issues. Some ideas will never take hold, and it is those ideas that will keep fringe parties on the fringe. Other ideas will catch on, they will become popular and once they are popular they will be adopted and passed by the larger parties, who will get full credit (in public opinion and in history) for passing them. 

There seem to be many people on the fringes of the right and the left who believe that proportional representation is a shortcut to enacting their agendas. They seem to believe that if they get better representation in Parliament that their fringe ideas will become popular or that their ideas can simply be enacted and will become popular once people get used to them. They assume that the public simply doesn’t understand what great ideas they are. 

In some cases they are right and, over time, the public may come to accept their ideas. In many cases though they are wrong, the public does understand, they simply don’t agree. In a democracy you can’t, or at least shouldn’t be able to, force the public to accept ideas that they do not like - no matter how brilliant those ideas might be. 

So, yes, proportional representation is a better system than what we have now, but it is not the best system and it won’t really change very much. 

You do not need a political party to promote an idea, a handful of seats in Parliament won’t speed things up much and spending time trying to build and maintain a party, field candidates, manage elections and deal with issues which are not part of your agenda can actually slow you down. 

Your time and resources are really better spent simply promoting your ideas or talking about your issues and trying to build the critical mass necessary so that the larger parties cannot ignore your issues and may be forced to adopt your positions. 

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