Getting the government you want

Stop me if you've heard this one.

I'm a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, but I'm not voting for Justin Trudeau. Nor Thomas Mulcair, nor Elizabeth May. And not for Gilles Duceppe, and certainly not for the other non-francophone guy, the one with his own hair stylist to keep his helmet in place. That's not how things work here. Nor does it matter what national poll numbers say, or even provincial poll numbers. The only thing that counts for any individual voter is the riding (electoral district) in which they live and vote.

Each of us has one vote to cast for a Member of Parliament to represent our riding. The candidate who garners the most votes, even if less than a majority, becomes the MP for that riding. If that winning candidate is a member of one of the major political parties (as is most likely), the seat is added to the total count for that party. The leader of the party with the most seats in the (now) 338-member House of Commons will almost certainly ask the Governor General to form the next government, and that leader will then become Prime Minister.

We don't vote for Prime Minister. We don't even truly vote for a government. We only vote for one MP from one party and hope the result is what we want.

I wrote once that in a race with more than two candidates, which is true in pretty much every riding in Canada (unlike in the United States), it's possible and even probable for a candidate to win with less than a majority. In a three-way race, a candidate needs only 33 1/3 per cent plus one of the vote. In a four-way race, the minimum would be 25 per cent plus one

Ah, first past the post. Officially called single-member plurality, because you elect one candidate from each riding, and all a candidate needs is a plurality of votes to win. In so many ridings, Not-the-Winner actually gets the most votes. The trouble is that Not-the-Winner is more than one person. And that's how a party can win a majority of seats with only a plurality of total votes. Riding by riding.

There have been calls for electoral reform before, and this time around they are part of the platforms of three of the major parties. The New Democratic Party favours a system called mixed-member proportional, in which MPs are still elected by riding but there would also be a party list of candidates, with seats awarded based on total percentage of the vote. The Green Party also supports a proportional system. The Liberal Party favours a preferential ballot (there are several forms) in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, and then a mathematical formula (which can get complicated) is used to determine which candidate has the most support if no candidate gets a majority. Either system would be preferable to the current one, which unsurprisingly is favoured by the ruling Conservative Party.

My riding is a new one, the result of the redrawing of electoral boundaries earlier this year, but it mostly overlaps with the old one. So the NDP candidate is virtually an incumbent. He is a prominent, high-visibility MP, and he's quite popular in a city which has tended historically to vote labour-left. The chances of any other candidate prevailing on election day are slim to none (and, as the saying goes, Slim just left town). Under MMP, my vote would at least count toward some number of seats from the Liberal list. Under a preferential ballot system, I could mark the Liberal candidate as my number-one choice, rank the rest of the candidates (probably Green then NDP, or vice versa, with the Conservative candidate ranked dead last). The result would almost certainly be the same, but at least my vote wouldn't feel so wasted. And with preferential voting, if the first place vote is scattered but one candidate is the second or even third choice of a lot of voters, that might make a difference in the outcome.

Since we're stuck with first past the post for this election, what are voters to do? They can vote their conscience, mark an X next to the candidate they want to win (either for personal or party reasons), and hope the national outcome is what they want. But if they've had it with the Conservative government and want to make sure the Conservatives are is held to no more than a minority if not turfed outright, they can vote strategically. That means to vote for the candidate in their riding who is most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. In a riding like mine, the choice is easy. I could probably even vote for the Liberal candidate without hurting the chances of the NDP candidate. In some ridings, the decision is more difficult, because two or more non-Conservative candidates might have a good chance of winning. That's where things get sticky, and where vote-splitting among the non-Conservative candidates can allow the Conservative candidate to come up the middle.

I realize that a lot of people disdain strategic voting. It feels dishonest. We might have to hold our noses and vote for a candidate we might not prefer just because they're not the Conservative candidate. We have to let go of any illusion that our preferred party is competitive in every riding, because that's just not so. In your heart of hearts, you know it's not so.

I hate strategic voting too. But under the current electoral system, since I want to ensure that a moving van pulls up at 24 Sussex after the election, I see no other choice. I have to play according to the rules of an unfair system, and that means I have to game those rules as much as possible, and encourage other like-minded souls to do the same. Within the unfair framework, that's both fair and legal. And, I daresay for any who also want that moving van to pull up, necessary. If we can gang up on the Conservatives and give one or the other major party enough seats to form government, separately or in cooperation, then we can have electoral reform, among other good things. And from then on we will be able to vote as we really feel without the distorted outcome we get now.

I assume that Conservative supporters, if I have any among my readers, stopped reading at the beginning. For the rest, I hope you consider carefully before you vote, think of the desired outcome, and put partisanship aside if necessary.


The sound of music

I'm old enough to have grown up listening to AM radio. As a kid I listened to Top 40 music (and short wave broadcasts) on an old tube radio that sat on my desk. Later, I got a really nice transistor radio that actually had an FM band. But even with FM sound quality, we're still talking tiny transistor radio speaker. The fidelity of my parents' stereo in the den was better, but even that was far from audiophile quality.

I grew up appreciating music more than sound quality.

Later, when I was at university, I had roommates and friends who owned nicer stereo systems. I also worked at a stereo store, absorbing the prejudices of audiophile salespeople. The self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, the first with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was so well recorded that we used it for speaker demos. John McFee's bass! Mick Fleetwood's drums! The crispness of the cymbals and fullness of the voices! (Fleetwood Mac were early users of the aural exciter.) We had a jazz record that had been recorded directly to disc, played back on some of the finest equipment then available. Vibration-damping wooden tonearms! Multiradial styli! Speakers with nearly flat response from 20 to 20,000 Hz!

I definitely got spoiled working there. And fortunately I was able to buy some pretty decent equipment at employee rates, below cost. Even then I couldn't afford the high-end stuff, but my system was pretty good for the price. I kept it long enough for it to become an antique. The was always the first thing you set up when you moved into a new place. It provided the soundtrack for the move.

Sadly, I no longer have that system. It was not really that good by modern standards, and I thought I was going to get some newer, better equipment. I have yet to do that.

Instead, what do I do? Listen to MP3s on my computer while I work. Listen to what I have stored on my phone via Bluetooth in my car or through earbuds when I'm on a plane and occasionally while riding transit (although there I'm more likely to read a book). Occasionally pop a CD into the car player. But nothing like the old days of indulging in substances while the Skull and Roses album was blasting through speakers, or lying on the floor with awesome headphones on while "Revolution 9" made your head explode.

So I'm basically almost back to AM radio. Okay, not nearly that bad, despite Neil Young's fulminations. MP3s provide reasonable fidelity. But they do provide much less audio information than a CD or vinyl record can convey. The sound truly is degraded. But how much does that matter? Even though I still appreciate good sound quality, not much. I'm mostly concerned with hearing a variety of music, new music, old music, rock, blues, jazz, whatever. The music. Not so much the sound quality.

This was true even when I had a good stereo. I still listened to music on cassette. I still had my Sony Walkman in my bag. I still heard songs on my none-too-fancy FM car radio.

Have you ever listened to field recordings, the kind that Alan and John Lomax made in the early part of the 20th century? They were lugging around the best reel-to-reel recorder they had, using the best microphones they could, but you're still hearing very degraded sound, full of hiss and scratches. And if that's too distracting, then it is. I have known people who could not have got past the poor sound. But if you can focus instead on the music itself, as degraded as the sound quality is, you hear real people playing real songs and singing with voices that shoot electricity up your spine. High fidelity is great, and it's best to be able to reproduce a performance as faithfully as possible. But in the end, it's the music that matters most. At least to me.

I still want to get a new stereo setup. For one thing, I want to listen to some records that I haven't heard in years or even decades. And I wouldn't mind getting back into collecting classical and jazz recordings and playing them on some good equipment. But no doubt I will continue to buy music in MP3 format, or whatever improvement comes along next. I won't give a shit about Young's Pono system. I won't use up tons of hard drive space with FLAC files.

I can hear the difference between my band's recordings in lossless WAV format (as originally recorded) and in compressed, degraded MP3 format, even on my inexpensive Sennheiser computer headset. I will always want to put the best sound on CD or, with enough money, vinyl. But I will always be more concerned with the music itself than with sound reproduction. Anyone who grew up with inferior sound quality is pretty skilled at filling in what they can't hear.