Survival of rational politics needs successful electoral reform

Canada Day was quite the blowout this year. Praise from the widely-admired President Obama might have been enough in itself to swell patriotic pride beyond the routine observance. But when you add in a comparison of Canada’s relatively happy state with what’s going on around us things look even better. What with the poison being stirred up by Donald Trump and the gong show that has emerged following the Brexit vote Justin Trudeau’s sun-drenched Canada has emerged as the favourite progeny of the Anglo-Saxon family. We may even be “the envy of the world” if you believe the headline over a story in Britain’s Independent newspaper.

As the Independent sees things, Canada’s “political waters remain calm as a millpond” in this “bastion of objectivity and rationality.” Some may find that a bit of a stretch, but just to show how far we have come, all three candidates for the Conservative Party leadership reportedly marched in this year’s Toronto Pride Parade along with, of course, Justin Trudeau.

With all of this harmony it is easy to forget that things were quite different less than 12 months ago. At Canada Day 2015 Brexit was just a distant possibility and Trump was being dismissed as a clown. But here in Canada we were about to enter a long and nasty election campaign, highlighted by a barbaric practices snitch line and attempts to stir up niqabphobia.

While the Conservatives have to be held responsible for raising those particular travesties, I would argue that the campaign dynamic that gave rise to them was much dictated by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. A clear majority of voters had long ago made up their minds to get rid of the Stephen Harper Conservatives, but didn’t know which opposition party to support in order to bring about that result. The Conservative re-election strategy was to hope that confusion among anti-Conservative voters continued right up to election day while doing everything possible to maximize their own votes by using fear and prejudice to motivate their supporters.

Change a challenge

The campaign strategy was a doubling down of the game plan the Harperites had been following since winning a majority of seats in 2011 – stay in power by keeping your supporters happy while taking advantage of FPTP and a divided opposition. That approach of firing up the base while ignoring the concerns of the majority of Canadians was evident in many policy areas (NS Observer, June 23, 2015), notably foreign affairs, the environment, First Nations, corrections and culture.

But amidst a campaign dominated by rabble rousing and strategic voting, there emerged, for me at least, the faint possibility that the game was up for FPTP and the shortcomings of that system so starkly revealed under the Conservatives. A few weeks before the campaign began the Liberals had joined the NDP and the Greens in calling for some form of proportional representation (PR) to replace the FPTP. Justin Trudeau famously declared his commitment “to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

Even at the time the commitment looked very ambitious. The first hurdle is to get agreement on what system should replace FPTP. The Liberals favour a ranked system, the NDP and the Greens the mixed member proportional system. Canadians will get the opportunity to discuss the merits of these (and other) approaches to PR when the parliamentary committee on electoral reform gets rolling in the near future.

The second challenge is to get public buy-in. Despite the flaws of FPTP, provinces that have tried to change it have encountered public resistance. Ontario, B.C. and P.E.I have all followed up consultations with referenda, but each time voters opted for the status quo. That’s likely why the Liberal platform eschewed a referendum, opting instead for parliamentary committee to come up with a plan within 18 months.

The Conservatives, once and likely future beneficiaries of FPTP, were quick to jump on the referendum bandwagon. It doesn’t really matter whether this was motivated by commitment to grassroots democracy, or a realization that their preferred brand of hard right politics would face tough sledding under PR. In the age of Brexit and assaults from all sides against political “elites,” the Conservatives have the high ground. They also have the backing of most of the media pundits, led by the faux populist Rex Murphy, who uses any opportunity provided by his CBC soapbox to heap scorn on the notion that we can change the electoral system without going to the people in a referendum.

The election result creates an even bigger difficulty. As things turned out the FPTP system did not save the Conservatives. Their base stayed strong, but the Liberals under Trudeau attracted millions of new voters. Thanks to FPTP, the 39.5% of voters who went for the Liberals gave them 54% of the seats in the House of Commons. The FPTP system was reasonably fair to the Conservatives – they held on to 29% of the seats, with 31.9% of the vote.

As always, it was the smaller parties who were most disadvantaged. The NDP won only 13% of the seats with 19.7% of the vote, the Greens just a single seat – 0.3% of the total – with 3.4% of the vote. And the part of the country that suffered most from the distortions of FPTP was ours – the Liberals won all of the seats with about 60% of the vote across the four Atlantic Provinces. After a seemingly endless campaign, there were hundreds of thousands of “wasted votes” and not a single Conservative or New Democrat surviving to raise issues from a non-Liberal perspective.

No incentive for Liberals

Unsurprisingly, there have not been a lot of Question Period queries directed at the Liberal government about, say, health transfers, transit infrastructure or the state of the Atlantic economy. And this is made even more convenient for the Liberals by the fact that Liberal governments are in power in all four provinces. Political debate is a rare thing in these parts, replaced by cooperation, closed-door meetings and photo ops. (Like Monday’s meeting in P.E.I. between Atlantic Premiers and federal cabinet ministers on immigration. It may all be wonderful, but you’d need to interview a fly on the wall to know for sure).

So what does this have to do with changing our electoral system? Just this. The path to electoral reform is a difficult one. The Trudeau Liberals will need to spend what the insiders call “political capital” to bring it about. Pursuing electoral reform will carry a hefty political price tag, whether the Liberals, with NDP support, do it by parliamentary resolution or through a referendum. And in the short term, there is no obvious political gain for the Liberals.

You can’t accurately extrapolate 2015 FPTP results to a 2019 election contested under PR. But voter preferences remaining fairly constant, a Liberal minority government would be the most likely result nationally. And for sure, in this neck of the woods a fair number of Liberal MPs will be out of a job. There may be a few idealists in the Liberal caucus who will put the long-term health of our democracy ahead of re-election in 2019. But even those lonely souls would have to answer the question put by a less altruistic colleague: why should we spend our scarce political capital on a project that will just end up costing some of us our jobs?

There will be a lot of chatter about electoral reform over the next few months. There may even be a few town hall meetings if our local Liberal MPs deign to hold them. (The parliamentary committee is “inviting” MPs to conduct town halls in their ridings and report back by Nov. 1, 2016). But given all of the obstacles – in particular the fact the two main parties will not benefit from change – it is very likely that FPTP will still be around in 2019. And that would be unfortunate.

It may be that in the meantime the Conservatives will chose a leader who moves them back to the centre/right territory occupied by Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. But with FPTP there remains the possibility that Conservatives will say to heck with the better angels and keep using the old Harper formula. It’s a sad fact that despite the snitch line, the niqab, the Ford brothers rally and the power of “time for a change”, the Conservatives received over 5.6 million votes from Canadians in 2015, only 218,000 fewer than in 2011.

And there are still plenty of fears to be stoked in the electorate by a party willing to do so. A couple of days after the Independent went gaga over us, the Toronto Star reported the disturbing results of a survey carried out for an immigrant and refugee advocacy group. The survey found “an epidemic of Islamophobia in Ontario.”

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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One Response to Survival of rational politics needs successful electoral reform

  1. Great article Richard. Thanks.

    Like

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