Friday, 3 February 2017

The Quagmire of Electoral Reform in Canada

In 2015, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said this would be the last election under the broken first-past-the-post system in Canada. Now, in February, 2017, he says nothing is going to change in our electoral system. This is deeply frustrating to those who fervently want to see a system where they can feel that their vote counts, and they have representation in government. This feeling seems to be primarily based in places where progressives find that their riding will always elect a Conservative, thus leaving them unrepresented. Conservatives in progressive ridings probably feel similarly put out when they can't get their preferred party's candidate elected. However, the official CPC line has been opposed to electoral reform. It is seen as a huge threat because if you never get much more than 30% of the vote nationally, the progressive vote must be split in just the right way between the other parties for you to form a government. That is under f-p-t-p, but if any of the other proposed systems were implemented, it would be almost impossible, without a radical shift in the Canadian zeitgeist, for the CPC to gain power.


To combat any change, the CPC called out loudly for a national referendum, knowing full well that such referenda are terrible tools for forming policy. The entire concept is unwieldy, for one thing. To effectively hold a meaningful referendum, the entire population would have to be educated on all of the possible new systems. Here is one attempt to clarify the different systems and how they would work. While it is not really all that complicated, it seems not enough Canadians actually care enough about the electoral process to learn, evaluate, and form an opinion. Only if we all learn and understand could a referendum be remotely meaningful. In ignorance, many people would vote the way their favourite party directed them to vote, or simply not bother to vote at all.

To add to this, there would be diverse and conflicting information about the impact any different system would have on our country. Some would be educated and measured, but some would border on the hysterical. I imagine the CPC would send out their usual biased polls: "Would you vote to keep our well-functioning electoral system as it is, and as it has served Canadians well for 150 years, or would you vote for an untested and more complicated system that could have dire ramifications for the Canadian way of life?" And then ask for money to help them fight this unnecessary, unwanted, and expensive change to Canada.

The CPC undoubtedly knew that the task of educating the general public would be onerous. They knew there is a natural tendency, when dealing with complicated issues, for people to go with the status quo. And with their mighty war chests, they can afford to put on a huge campaign in favour of voting against change. They possibly also felt that if the government's position was defeated in a referendum, this would be a launching point for a vote of no confidence. The Liberal government was, no doubt, also aware of these pitfalls.

The Hornet's Nest

I expect that before the election, Trudeau and his advisors did not realise what a hornet's nest this issue could be. They put themselves in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. If they changed the electoral model, the CPC and NDP would scream that they only did it to ensure they keep winning every election. The Liberals favoured one model, the NDP another, and the CPC wants FPTP. So no one would ever reach a consensus on what to do. If the Liberals brought in their preferred electoral system, the other parties would talk loudly about dictatorial government, changing this fundamental thing without a plebicite. On the progressive side, there is the strongly held opinion that the last election was, essentially, a referendum on this issue.

By withdrawing from electoral reform, the Liberals now have the other parties screaming that Trudeau broke his promise. Never mind that the CPC got exactly what they wanted all along. Are they happy? No. Of course not.

The Real Problem (s)

Our political system is set up to be adversarial. It's like people cheering on their favourite sports teams. Each party has a philosophy, it's true. But each party (and their followers) have even bigger egos. If one party puts forward an idea, any idea, the other parties will knock it down. Not because it would be bad for the country, but because the other party thought of it.  Governing should not be about power, or revenge, or ideology.  Governing should be doing what is best and right for the country. Governing should be working together with those who have different ideas to reach mutually acceptable policies that improve life for all Canadians. We have seen in the US what an intractable opposition party can do to suspend government's work. The GOP shut down the government there when they didn't get their own way.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, sometimes comments wistfully about a time when she first began working in public service, when consultation and co-operation were a major part of policy development. Government members would meet informally with members of the opposition parties and discuss how to create policies that all sides could support, in the interest of the country. And that is how it should work. Not everyone would get exactly what they wanted but significant issues would be addressed with reasonable accommodation. Surely that is better than a small group getting whatever they want and everyone else being unhappy.

The adversarial nature of politics in this country has been developing over a long time. It did not start with Stephen Harper, although he did push the "my way or the highway" approach to governance well along. The US is now further down that path, and no doubt Donald Trump will push it much further. While Harper was careful to not push too far too fast, Trump clearly is out of control and does whatever comes into his head, refusing advice from anyone except a small coterie of the like-minded.

Some form of proportional representation would force greater consultation and co-operation, potentially heading off any reprise of a Harper-style or Trump-style government in the future. Much like in a minority government, no one party would have sufficient power to force through unpopular legislation.  Some have worried that such a system would allow "fringe" parties too much voice and the entire legislative machine would bog down in attending to minutiae. This seems unlikely, as fringe parties are just that. If many people voted for them, they would be mainstream parties.

Ultimately, in an ideal system, MPs would be elected to represent their constituents' interests, rather than toe a party line. Like many Canadians, I have no representation in Parliament by the MP for my riding. He is CPC and I feel he would sooner spit on me than listen to what I think about things. He has been spectacularly unresponsive to letters I have written, and appears to vote with the party on all issues. Eventually, one is inclined to give up and be resigned to having no voice in Ottawa. And I believe a lot of Canadians, of every political stripe, have encountered these feelings. If we are to have a truly representative democracy, all people must be represented.

Which brings us back to the mechanics of making such a change, and why it failed.

There is the non-co-operation of those from the various parties who were tasked with coming up with a plan. CPC said no reform. NDP wanted mixed member proportional representation. Liberals wanted preferential ballot proportional representation. Stalemate.

Then there are Canadians, ourselves. Did we drop the ball when we were asked for our opinions? Did we fail to make the government and our opposition MPs see that we really want this? Or do enough Canadians want the old system to quash the idea? This analysis of the data gathered from seems to suggest otherwise. If, as the article says, about 80% of Canadians believe democracy in Canada could be improved, why has this fallen from the government's legislative plans? More importantly, what can Canadians who care do about it?

Given that a referendum would be a horribly divisive and unwieldy process, how can we let Justin Trudeau know that we are not pleased with his decision? For starters, we can write letters. Both to him and to our local MPs, however unrepresentative they may be. Being deluged with mail, especially real physical mail, has been known to shift political plans in the past. You can find contact information for your MP right here, just by entering your postal code. And remember, letters addressed to the House of Commons do not require postage.

You can also get involved with a group like Fair Vote Canada and see what events and actions are planned near where you live. You can sign the online petition at Lead Now Canada (either the primary national petition, or there are several set up now that are specific to a region or riding, or sign both!)

You can also give the government an earful here. They are asking for our opinions about what they are doing. So, tell them, already!

This is our country and our democracy. We have a responsibility to speak up when we are not happy with the direction our government takes. Bitching and moaning on FaceBook and Twitter doesn't help. Speaking directly to our MPs might.

No comments:

Post a Comment