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A vote for sustainable government

Nova Scotians put the environment at the top of their political concerns. So why does our first-past-the-post system continue to fail us?


Despite ample evidence that we're destroying our environment and, thus, our future, our elected leaders don't care. They should. According to a poll conducted in April, Marketing & Research Intelligence Association found 88 percent of Atlantic Canadians feel fighting global warming should be top priority, the highest rate in Canada.

If we care so much about environment, why do we keep electing leaders who don't?

The answer, according to Derek Simon of Fair Vote Nova Scotia, may lie in our First Past the Post electoral system. "Our system masks extremists within parties that need their support in order to win," Simon says. Because of the winner-take-all design of our system, parties can't afford disunity within, and must accommodate bigotry and religious extremism while downplaying moderate stances favouring energy efficiency.

Some heavyweight research has Simon's back. A 1999 study of governments in 36 countries found that nations using proportional representation systems performed significantly better on carbon dioxide emissions, fertilizer consumption, deforestation and energy efficiency.

That environmental superiority likely stems from the strong presence of Green Party representatives in proportional representation countries. According to Elizabeth May, Green Party candidate for Central Nova Scotia, "Our mainstream parties don't have environment on their agendas. Proportional representation systems eliminate strategic voting and push parties with environmental agendas forward."

"Not only do they give the Green Party more stake," Simon adds, "but the evidence shows that these systems allow for more greens from other parties."

While our FPP system forces eco-conscious conservatives to the sidelines, proportional systems allow elected representatives from all parties to speak and vote their minds on all issues, which means the green agenda gets more airplay in the halls of power. Simon speaks from more than just a theoretical perspective. "Living in Ireland and New Zealand I saw more green candidates with seats and more general concern for environment from mainstream parties." Simon and May say proportional representation is more a principle than an electoral system itself. Many electoral systems follow the principle that the number of representatives a party has is proportional to the number of votes it garners.

"We are dedicated to electoral reform," Simon says of Fair Vote Nova Scotia. "We don't push a particular system---we'd like to see a citizen-driven forum to choose a system; a citizen's assembly where people learn about different processes and a democratic referendum to choose a system specific to the needs of Nova Scotia."

Simon says a similar process was undergone in BC three years ago, which rejected the system chosen by the citizen forum. "That process fell not on the selection process but on the referendum," he says.

Electoral systems are enormously complex, and little time was given to educate the public about what they were voting for---or against, as it turned out. BC is planning another referendum on a proportional representation system, this time with fully funded "yes" and "no" campaigns.

"Same thing happened in Ontario," Simon adds. "They didn't know what they were voting on" when a referendum on a proportional representation system was included in the 2007 provincial election.

May disagrees about Ontario. "A lot of people did their homework during the Ontario election and learned about proportional representation, but those who want it don't want the system that was proposed."

May recommends a national citizens' assembly followed by a two-stage Canadian referendum. "One, do you want First Past the Post or a proportional representation system? And two, if you want proportional representation, which kind?" May says.

For our province, the greener hope of electoral reform may still be a long way off. "Most politicians we talk to don't have a position on it and haven't thought about it," Simon says.

Despite the advantages of proportional representation, Andrew Biro, Canada research chair of environmental thought and policy at Acadia, also sees an environmental downside. "The disadvantage is that with proportional representation it tends to be more difficult to implement the radical changes needed," he explains. That's because when your party can no longer win a majority government with 35 percent of the vote, you end up making coalitions and compromises.

Biro offers an assertion by international climate change expert George Monbiot, who argues that to stave off climate change we need to reduce our emissions 80 percent by 2050. "With First Past the Post you have ideological purity," without which making such fundamental changes is difficult.

Perhaps the problem is that elected officials are usually too busy measuring shifts in the wind to sense trouble and seek better directions. Biro says "any kind of political change comes from mobilizing pressure from society. Politicians have to be pushed."

The question remains as to which system allows Nova Scotians to push for sustainability. Given the record of our leaders, it's time we seriously explored that question.

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