A 50-50 Legislature

As much as I loathe the various right wing discussion boards on the ‘Net, increasingly I am becoming equally disappointed in the so-called left wing discussion boards, as well. There used to be a time when “right wing” meant “conservative”, which is an honourable position embracing fiscal responsibility, small government and extreme individual freedoms; it has mutated in recent years to mean religious fundamentalism, Draconian social control and war-mongering.

Similarly, “left wing” used to mean “liberal”, which is also an honourable ethic embracing compassion for the most disadvantaged and, to a large extent, the redistribution of wealth; it has also mutated into something quite unattractive: a fascistic ideological fundamentalism ironically embracing Draconian social control akin to that of the right wingers.

In other words, the two extremes are becoming indistinguishable, at least in attitude, values and approach, if not in specific platform content.

As an example of the decline of the Canadian left, I give you this thread on Babble (the discussion forum of the premier Canadian online leftist site, Rabble.ca, for which I have written several features in the past). The thread is about how to address the supposed crisis of women in Canadian politics, specifically their underrepresentation with respect to the true proportion of women in the country. It is suggested early in the thread that a quota system is best. Most disturbing is the way in which anyone questioning whether quotas are undemocratic is immediately attacked. This is certainly not the “leftist” way in which I attained maturity.

It seems to me that criticism of a quota system is quite valid. A quota system would require parties to field women as 50% of their candidates, ensuring that the voting public has a full plate of options before them. Let us list the problems with this approach:

1. Fielding 50% women in no way guarantees that the elected legislature will be 50% women. What happens if none of the women are elected? Will we happily conclude that the elections were fair and that the electorate got what it wanted? Or will we return to the drawing board and engineer another scheme to increase the likelihood of 50-50 representation? If the latter, then I submit that mandating a quota of fielded candidates is a disingenuous policy when the real goal is a 50-50 legislature and nothing short of that will suffice. Why not then just mandate a 50-50 legislature and be done with it? Or is that too obvious an end-run around democracy?

2. If we are to mandate a candidate spread according to one demographic criterion, why not others? I would argue that sex is among the least important of such factors. Wealth is the most important, in my opinion. And why not age? Or race? Or education? Or language? Or marital status? Sexual orientation? Why not then simply mandate a legislature that precisely mirrors the demographic profile of the electorate? It can be done. Or, again, is that too obvious a rejection of true democracy?

3. On a strictly rational basis, by requiring that half your spots go to individuals of a certain chromosomal characteristic, you necessarily limit the number of candidates from either/both chromosomal groups. In other words, what if in one year there are 100 excellent male prospects and no excellent female ones? You still need to dredge up 50 less-than-excellent females to fill the spots, thus denying the electorate 50 excellent choices. Before you think that this is a sexist argument, consider that the argument also works in reverse: in a year with 100 excellent female possibilities and zero stellar male ones, one is still stuck with having to select 50 dredged up men while leaving out 50 excellent women. Perhaps these are highly unlikely scenarious, but they are nonetheless possible and thus philosophically problematic.

Instead of tinkering with quota systems for candidates, those truly concerned with the underrepresentation of certain groups in the legislature should ask themselves two questions:

1. Is equal representation in government truly the goal? Or is the goal rather a society that will effortlessly elect a truly representative government without having its candidate selection process tinkered with? Let’s not put the cart before the horse. A diverse government rendered from a truly fair and un-engineered electoral process is a symptom of a healthy society, not a cause of one.

2. Why do parties not presently field 50% female candidates? Is it because they don’t want to, or is it because women tend not to want to run? The latter is clearly the case, so what is it about politics that keeps women from wanting to be a part of it, or what is it about society that prevents women from be able to be a part of politics? And if at the end of these investigations you find that there are no barriers to full participation, and women simply don’t want to participate in politics as much as men do, what then? Will we force them? Are you prepared to face these possibilities, however unlikely they might be?

It seems to me that those advocating for quota systems in politics have not given the matter sufficient thought.