This week, Ottawa wrapped up 2015 by starting a public debate on one aspect of electoral reform. The Conservative Party announced that they would use their majority in the Senate to block any electoral reform legislation that does not include a referendum on the issue. The entire discussion should serve as evidence for how what I’ll call “Big Politics” lobbies for its own interests when it comes to electoral reform.
First, a comment on lobbying: Whenever legislation is proposed, you can expect one part of the public to support it and another to oppose it. Sometimes, the issue can present a significant economic impact on one subgroup. You can expect taxi license holders to oppose Uber, Big Tobacco to oppose smoking restrictions, teacher unions to encourage more education spending, factories to solicit subsidization, failed companies to want bailouts, etc. To the extent that these groups conduct their lobbying by making information available to decision-makers, they play an important role in the democratic process. As long as they are not resorting to intimidation, extortion, or bribery tactics, they should be allowed to have their voice heard as long as their message is taken in context.
One must understand that electoral reform can have a significant economic impact on politicians who put food on their family’s table by winning elections. Accepting this fact will help to understand the positions that the different parties have taken on this issue.
Throughout the 1990s, when the federal Liberal Party won landslide majority governments and controlled the Senate, you didn’t hear a word from them about changing how people vote. It was only after the 2011 election, where they were reduced to 34 (out of 308) seats and third party status, with their future existence in question, that electoral reform appeared on their platform.
The NDP and Green parties, who have never formed a government under the existing rules and who consistently win less seats than their percentage of the popular vote, absolutely want to change the way elections are run.
The Conservative Party campaigned in the most recent election opposing any changes to the current First Past the Post system. At the time, they were sitting on a majority government earned with only 39.62% of the popular vote (in the 2011 election). With vivid memories of the Reform/PC days, they understood that vote splitting was now working in their favour and had provided them with several unlikely seats in large urban centres… and wanted to keep it that way.
Now that we understand where the parties were coming from in October, let’s look at their positions since then. The Liberals, ironically, ended up winning a majority government with… wait for it… 39.47% of the popular vote. When the Conservatives had achieved the same result in 2011, it was evidence of how the system was broken. This time, however, the Liberals interpreted this result as a strong mandate from the Canadian people. Almost immediately after the election, there were murmurs from party insiders that maybe they should leave the system alone. Instead of breaking their promise, however, Trudeau has indicated that he personally prefers a ranked ballot (without the accompanying proportional elected Senate in the Manougian model). He hopes to be the second choice for NDP and Green voters, solidifying an advantage over the Conservatives.
The Conservatives, under interim leader Rona Ambrose, have taken a good position for a bad reason. They argue that any change to the electoral system should be subject to a referendum by the population. The Liberal response is that no referendum is required because almost 70% of voters chose parties that wanted reform.
I wish I could slap both dominant parties’ wrists. If Trudeau really thinks that he has no need to consult voters and that his 40% majority grants him the right to alter our democratic system according to his choosing, he is already showing the Liberal arrogance that almost led to his party’s extinction. Would he feel comfortable giving the Bank of Montreal the final say on Canada’s financial regulations?
And the Conservatives have not yet abandoned their position that no reforms are required to our current First Past the Post system. They are only demanding a referendum because three similar provincial referendums have failed in the last 10 years. They are hoping to maintain the status quo where they do get a shot at governing every once in a while. For their own sake, they better realize that pinning their hopes on splitting the left-wing vote is not a sustainable long-term strategy.
A referendum is absolutely required as validation that the new system serves voters and not the ones who came up with it. It is more important than ever for you to make your voice heard and hold the politicians accountable. Next week, I’ll be going into more depth about electoral reform referendums that have taken place in Canada and other English-speaking countries.