(Editor's note: Read Part 2.)
“Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly…”
– Section 3, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
As we celebrate Canada Day, it is worth reflecting on our nation’s most precious and undervalued instrument for self-determination: our right to vote.
It is a right that is intrinsically tied to our electoral system that, in turn, determines how our votes are to be counted and translated into our representative voices in Parliament and the governments that exercise power on our behalf.
How sadly ironic it is, then, that the opposition parties who now agree that our first-past-the-post system is unfair and unrepresentative should also want the politicians who get elected under that system on October 19 to make that decision for us.
The federal Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens now all want to change our current electoral system to make it fairer and more representative in how it reflects each party’s proportional share of the popular vote. Excellent.
But they want to do that without giving Canadians a direct say on the matter. They want the politicians in Parliament to decide what type of electoral system our country should have, not us.
And that is dead wrong.
If our voting system is to be changed, all Canadians should have a vote on whatever proposed model might be put in its place, by way of a national referendum.
That is the only fair and democratic way to decide something so fundamental as how we elect our supposed voices in Parliament and how we collectively “choose” our so-called “responsible governments”. It goes to very heart of our right to vote, protected under the Charter.
The NDP, the Greens, and the Liberals have now all seen the light.
They say that our current electoral system may be a model for more stable government, but that it also devalues democratic expression as its distorts voting power and denies effective representation. And so, it has to go.
We need to change the system to “make every vote count.”
But how, exactly? To be replaced by what? By whom? And at what consequence to our country, to its governance, and to its political foundations?
Our nation yawns in indifference.
The subject is dry as toast and the choices are hard to fathom.
Some other plurality/majority model perhaps? A Block Vote, Alternative Vote, or Two Round system? Or better yet, some form of proportional representation, be it List PR or a Single Transferable Vote?
Or possibly a Mixed Member Proportional system? It combines elements from both of those main models, with two votes for each voter—one for their preferred candidate in each electoral district and another for their preferred party.
Of course, in that model, favoured by both the NDP and Green Party, we would also have to consider the method for allocating those proportionately awarded party seats. How to do that? The Sainte-Laguë method? The Webster method? The D'Hondt method? And how to deal with any “overhang” and “underhang” seats?
But wait, there are other options!
What about a semi-proportional system? A Single Non-Transferable Vote? Or perhaps some type of parallel voting system? Heck, we might want to go with either a Supplementary Member model, or a Mixed Member Majoritarian Member system.
Whatever. It is all Greek to most Canadians.
The mind boggles at the myriad electoral models and empty acronyms that make our eyes glaze over and that turn away our tweeting thumbs.
Electoral reform may be a top-of-mind concern for political parties and interest groups whose voices are diminished and marginalized by our simple plurality voting system. But it is certainly not on anyone’s “trending now” list.
Few Canadians are using the channels for expression they have today to fight for the right to have a direct say tomorrow.
Not even in the hashtag #poli Twitterverse.
The goal of improving Canada’s voting system is entirely laudable. Yet the legitimacy of that enterprise will be fatally compromised if the voters who would be directly affected by any proposed alternative are denied the right to give it their democratic blessing.
It would be the height of absurdity and an offence to democracy to change a system that allegedly lacks legitimacy by putting the matter to a vote of the same elected representatives who its critics contend do not speak for the majority of Canadians.
The Green Party maintains “Our electoral system unfairly punishes Conservative voters in cities, Liberal and NDP voters in the west, and Green voters throughout Canada. Ultimately, it does not produce governments that reflect the diversity of people in Canada, nor does it do a good job of accurately reflecting voters’ wishes.”
Then why on Earth would the Green Party want the people who get elected under that electoral system to be the only ones who get a vote to change it? Why does it want Parliament to make that decision, instead of affording Canadians their most basic democratic right of self-determination?
The New Democrats make a similar argument.
They say, “Under our current system, too many Canadians are being shut out….Far too many Canadians are currently represented in Parliament by people they voted against….Over 60 per cent of Canadians did not vote for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, yet the Conservatives enjoy a majority of seats in the House of Commons – a false majority.”
By that logic, regardless who wins the fall election, it will produce a Parliament and a government that the NDP says “shuts out” too many Canadians. It will also give us unrepresentative MPs that “far too many” of us “voted against.” If all goes well for the NDP, it might even elect a “false majority” Mulcair government.
So why, then, should an NDP government get to decide on behalf of all those newly disenfranchised Canadians what sort of electoral system they should have, to supplant the one that has been in place since Confederation?
What say will Canadians have in that matter? Who knows? All we know is that the NDP is officially committed to “Ensuring electoral reform is based on a transparent process with wide citizen involvement.” Like its online petition, perhaps.
It urges us all to “call on Parliament to adopt a proportional representation voting system so that the House of Commons better reflects the diversity and political preferences of all Canadians.”
That petition may be primarily aimed at collecting supporters’ names and emails for the NDP’s own partisan purposes; yet it is also illuminating.
It suggests that Tom Mulcair is content to let the members of Parliament decide what voting system Canada should adopt, instead of putting that decision to us and running the risk that a majority of Canadians might reject it.
Why would any party want to bring in a new voting system that a majority of its citizens might not actually want? Why would any leader want to put in place a new electoral system that could not past the most fundamental acid test of democracy?
Politicians often seem to find twisted rationales for justifying morally bankrupt positions that are above all intended to serve their own partisan interests, public interest be damned.
Trudeau is no exception.
If his True Grits prevail, 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under our present system. A “national engagement process…will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered.”
Good stuff. But how?
“This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.”
How reassuring. Trudeau’s “consultation” process—like Elizabeth May’s—would be carried out by a special “non-partisan” parliamentary committee of partisans. Not by judges or by some other independent body.
Why put the task to an independent body, like a Citizen’s Assembly, as in British Columbia and Ontario, or to some other independent commission, like the ones employed in PEI and New Brunswick?
Better to just ask our elected foxes to redesign our collective chicken coop.
Better to have the parties’ hand-picked minions study the alternatives, prove we were consulted and recommend the “right” course to Parliament, for its wise men and women to decide on our behalf.
Anyway, it is best not to risk being told directly by Canadians that the politicians’ recommended model for electing themselves and their parties is less preferable to the status quo. We all know too well how that worked out in Ontario, British Columbia, and PEI.
In each case, when given a choice and armed with ballots to make their mark for any “better” electoral system recommended by various independent processes, Canadians have emphatically said “no thanks.”
Oh, Canada. Trudeau, Mulcair, and May know us better than we know ourselves.
They have seen the true enemy of a “truer” democracy and they believe that it is us, the people of Canada.
We cannot be trusted to democratically embrace the electoral changes we really need, as determined by our intellectual betters. Rather, the best way to make our vote really count is to elect a new government that vows to deny us a vote on how our future votes will count in Canada’s electoral system.
Welcome to young Trudeau’s new Just Society: it will just not trust you enough to vote for your voting system.
Welcome to the Brave New World: one that promises to better represent our aims and interests through a supposedly fairer voting system that is predicated on the fear that we might reject it, if given the chance to vote.
Happy Canada Day.
The Dalai Lama once wisely observed, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”
To that end, all voters would be well advised to consider the desired endgame of electoral reform and the best means to achieve it. And all political parties would do Canadians a service if they trusted us enough to let us vote on any proposed change in our electoral system.
We will not enhance democracy by subverting that most fundamental democratic right. We will not strengthen the legitimacy of our election choices by denying voters a chance to choose a new electoral system that will determine how their votes count and apply.
Trudeau, Mulcair, and May may be right that our electoral system should be reformed to make Parliament more broadly representative of each party’s level of popular support and to produce governments that are formed with a “fairer” show of majority support.
But the way they hope to advance that end in their mutual partisan interests is itself hopelessly distorted in its backwards view of “responsible government.” It is wrong for Canada and should be corrected, so that more of us might have cause to celebrate and support their vision for change.