Saturday, October 22, 2016

“On electoral reform, the Liberals have their fingers in their ears,” by Brian Henry


Our Liberal government has made a terrible hash of its bid to engage Canadians in a dialogue about electoral reform. Along with 65% or 73% of Canadians (according to different polls (here & here), I believe that if the government is going to change our electoral system it ought to hold a referendum.

I even put my name to a petition urging the Liberals to do just that. After all, the government claims it wants to hear from Canadians, so what the heck. Some 14,000 other Canadians also thought it was worthwhile engaging in the dialogue the Liberals say they want and also put their names to the petition.

Apparently, though, the Liberals only want to talk to people who agree with them. The minister of democratic reform was good enough to respond to our petition, but apparently without reading it. She did not say whether the government might consider a referendum. She didn’t argue against a referendum. Apparently she didn’t even notice our petition concerned a referendum.

Instead, her response was a collection of off-the-shelf talking points, including two references to the importance of listening to Canadians.

Well, Canadians have spoken: a large majority want a referendum. The Liberal response? To put their fingers in their ears and sing, “La, la, la – we can’t hear you!”

For that matter, Canadians have already spoken on the outcome of the process: we don’t want electoral change. A poll conducted by Insights West found 62% of Canadians are satisfied with our current system, while only 25% dissatisfied (here).

The Broadbent Institute conducted a poll on the issue, and much as this left wing think tank would have loved to report that Canadians want a new electoral system, people just didn’t cooperate. Fifty-eight percent said they’d like only minor changes or no changes, compared to 41% who wanted big changes.

Mind you, that minority who’d like a new voting system don’t all want the same system. When, or if, the Liberals do propose some specific plan, the “change” vote will split, with many saying, No, not this change.

Indeed, Ontario, BC and PEI have already gone down the path of electoral reform, and since these provinces were led by people who believe in democracy, they held referenda. Each time, the proposed change to the way we vote was defeated. In Ontario, by far Canada’s most populous province, the proposal suffered one of the most massive political defeats in Canadian history.

The Liberals know all this. Trudeau has even used the likelihood of defeat as an argument against a referendum. “Many of the people who propose we need a referendum,” said Trudeau, “well they know that the fact is that referendums are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform.”

Well, yes, if people don’t want electoral reform, then we shouldn’t have it. That’s called listening to Canadians.

But Trudeau began the debate about electoral change by declaring that 2015 would be the last election held under our current “first past the post” system – in other words, he began disallowing the option most Canadians want. This isn’t listening. This is the Liberals putting their whole fists in their ears and singing, “My way.”

In truth, most Canadians don’t want to discuss our electoral system at all. 

Unfortunately, interested parties are involved. The Greens and the NDP are currently polling at 5% and 13% (here), but would still like to force their policies on Canadians by holding the balance of power. That’s what they hope a move toward proportional representation will give them.

For their part, some Liberals are scheming for a perpetual majority – one that pushes the NDP right off the electoral map – which is what they hope a move toward a preferential ballot will give them.

But the strongest force driving the debate about electoral reform comes from a small but obsessive cult of political wonks. These Utopians share a collective delusion that breaking our electoral system and replacing it with something shiny and new will bring political nirvana down from the heavens.

Of course, others argue that electoral change will multiply our problems. (For example, see what I had to say in the Toronto Star during the debate about electoral reform in Ontario here).

Most Canadians, though, would simply like our politicians to get on with governing.

Maybe there’s hope. In an interview with Paul Wells of the Toronto Star back at the beginning of summer, Trudeau said: “Actually, I have moved in my thinking toward a greater degree of openness towards what Canadians actually want.”

And then just a couple days ago, he told Le Devoir that maybe he won’t change things after all. "With the current system, they {Canadians} now have a government with which they’re happier {his government}. And the need to change the electoral system is less compelling," Trudeau said modestly (here).

He might have added that the Liberals have found almost no support for the preferential voting system which they'd prefer, while any form of proportional system (which the NDP prefers) would be a disaster for the Liberals. It would threaten, not only the Liberal majority next election, but even the continued existence of the Liberal party. (See halfway down here).

But I shouldn’t be cynical. If Trudeau decides to drop the idea of changing the way we vote – for whatever reason – then he can get on with things Canadians actually want him to work on: improving the lot of our aboriginal peoples, funding hospitals, maybe even building a pipeline. Hey, it’s a wonderful world – anything’s possible. 

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