Written by Mark Coffin

Originally Published in the Chronicle Herald on Aug 6 2013

Porter Airlines launches a seat sale every few months. Sometimes Air Canada beats them to it. Whenever one of these airlines launches a new sale, the other is quick to follow.

Porter Airlines launches a seat sale every few months. Sometimes Air Canada beats them to it. Whenever one of these airlines launches a new sale, the other is quick to follow. When seat sales are on, chances are, more people will end up buying tickets for both airlines than otherwise would have. The airlines know this is how it works, and they steer clear from advertising that directly attacks competitors. When private companies do criticize their competitors, the best ones do it with a certain degree of poetry, perhaps so that only the most enlightened reader, or only their competitors themselves, will pick up on the subtle dig. That’s more than we can say about the latest political advertising in Nova Scotia.

The governing NDP recently released a snappyYouTube video painting Opposition Leader, Stephen McNeil, as villain for carrying on a variety of ordinary affairs. This includes hiring consultants and questioning the government on energy issues. McNeil was also hit on some fair ground, for his consent to Manning McDonald’s paid vacation in Florida. Neither the Liberals nor the Tories have clean hands when it comes to using donor money and taxpayer subsidies to attack their rivals. We ought to expect better of our politicians, but we shouldn’t be surprised.

It’s easy to attack the attackers, so instead, consider the question TVO’s Steve Paikin is asking, and reflect on why political parties advertise differently than airlines.

The difference between the two boils down to the difference between votes and money. When I purchase a ticket for a flight, my money guarantees me a seat. Every now and then, a flight is overbooked and someone gets bumped to a later flight. Yet, I’ve flown a dozen times in the last five years, and it’s never happened to me. The odds are pretty high you’ll get to where you need to go.

In the political marketplace your vote is far less likely to win your favourite politician a seat in the legislature, and even less likely to affect the party that forms our government. Many MPs and MLAs regularly win their ridings by taking advantage of the majority of voters being split between other candidates. So long as there are three or more candidates in a riding, a majority is not required to win. In Nova Scotia, our so-called “majority” government was elected with only 45 percent of the popular vote. That’s because our voting system is winner-take-all. Candidates who lose the election in their riding go back to their day jobs, while elected candidates from opposition parties sit impatiently in our legislature for a half-decade while holding precisely zero percent of the power.

If the airline marketplace worked more like our voting system, you would be forced to fly with whichever airline the largest number of Canadians wanted to fly with, even if that wasn’t where you decided to spend your money. We wouldn’t see seat sales any more. Instead, airline marketing departments would dig up incriminating videos and quotes of pilots at competing airlines that would make you question whether it was safe to fly in airplanes at all. Canadians would stop flying and most airlines would go out of business. We didn’t design our marketplace this way, because it’s downright foolish. So why are we hanging on to such an absurd voting system?

If we want to see fewer attack ads, we need to remove the incentives to attack by making our votes work more like our money. Better voting systems exist. One option to consider is proportional representation. In a proportional system, a party’s seat count in our legislature would be roughly proportional to their share of the popular vote received on election day. Single-party majority governments would be unheard of, and cooperation would be required for anything to get done.

Another option is the preferential ballot. In this system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Voters who chose the last place candidate automatically have their vote transferred to their second choice, and the process continues until one candidate receives a majority. Candidates would be inclined to “play nice” because each would want to be the others’ supporters second choice.

Neither system is perfect, but a good start would be for voters and politicians to recognize some of the overwhelming imperfections of the system we have. Both systems require more cooperation between candidates and parties that want to win, and would remove some of the incentive to attack.

A better voting system would also add an incentive for citizens to vote. In alternative systems, it’s easy to see how your vote affects who gets elected. Voter turnout in recent elections has reached record lows. If we want to fix this, we can’t just blame the unengaged citizens. We must also consider ways to fix the system that allow non-voters to see a window of opportunity, where they currently see a wall.


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