RIP Electoral Reform (and Real Democracy in Canada)

The hopes of Canadian electoral reform died peacefully on the afternoon of Feb. 1, 2017. Although many of us remained skeptical that it was dead on arrival all along, it remained propped up on life support until Trudeau’s popularity peaked high enough with his strong response to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” that he felt safe enough to order the hit on one of his most direct campaign promises. Am I being too cynical? Perhaps. But no matter how sinister or longstanding the electoral reform conspiracy goes, it does not change the final outcome. This is not a four year setback. Electoral reform will not happen in Canada as long as the two major parties continue to be in power.

Some have said that all the awful going on in the world these days, it is out of touch to mourn for the loss of something so trivial. But on behalf of voters who see electoral reform as a top issue, we would prefer not to be the metaphorical can you kick down the road when the going gets tough. Trudeau talked about the potential a referendum on proportional representation has to divide the country at a time when we need unity. I agree we need unity, but to achieve that we must have a government people believe in and one that help all voters feel heard- not just those we agree with. First Past the Post (FPTP) has long served as a centrifuge by which the political diversity that enriches our country is diluted. In our elections, most votes are wasted on unelected candidates, while 39 per cent of the votes transforms to 55 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power, as was the case with the previous Conservative government and the current Liberals. Many centrists cite this as an appeal of FPTP since it keeps out radical extremists. These scare tactics used to put down proportional representation are simply uniformed.  A threshold on the minimum percentage of votes required to gain a seat could be levied to keep extreme parties out of parliament unless they attract significant support, and even if they do get into parliament, major parties could choose not to put them in their coalition minimizing their influence.  Regardless, democracy is not designed so that politicians can ‘protect’ a wayward citizenry from the top down. Democracy is supposed to be a value neutral system; its purpose is to thoroughly represent the will of the people. While concerns over the likelihood of coalition governments are legitimate, these would only enhance likelihood of parties being forced to compromise and work together, something most Canadians would surely prefer to our polarized system. I would happily watch our parliament ‘suffer’ from a little deadlock if it meant our government would match our political culture. After all, conciliatory minority governments are how we got universal healthcare.

The excuse Trudeau used to 86 the preposterous thought that every vote should be counted equally was even more enraging than the decision in the first place. He blamed us. Even though Canadians voted overwhelmingly for parties that campaigned on ending first past the post, Trudeau wasn’t convinced enough to follow through on his promise. He decided he needed more proof. Why? Is that not the point of an election? You put forward a list of policies you want to enact, and if the public votes for you, you have a mandate to pursue them. Still, he had a multitude of options to test this public support, none of which he seemed interested in pursuing. Polling showed that Canadians’ top two priorities for a new system were proportionality and local representation. In other words, the public wanted Mixed Member Proportionality or Single Transferable Vote. But instead of pursing that directly by, say, having a referendum to determine the national preference, or even asking specifically which system was preferable through a direct survey, Trudeau sent former Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef into the House of Commons to dismiss a multiparty committee report with a calculus flash card and a BuzzFeed survey, turning his promising, young female minister into an international meme. Perhaps the reason Trudeau couldn’t find consensus is because he did everything he could to avoid looking for it.

Over the last 16 months, I learned electoral reform was far more than my personal pet project. Many friends, politically motivated or otherwise, reached out to me about electoral reform. When I was door knocking during the last election, numerous people cited it as a top issue. I went to Minister Monsef’s Winnipeg town hall, where a packed gymnasium of young, old, rural and urban voters put their voices forward, largely citing local representation and proportionality as priorities. The polling, aside from the slanted and useless results, speaks for itself. I truly believe if a non-list proportional representation system had gone to a referendum, it would have passed – which is why it never did.

Trudeau’s sabotage of electoral reform was akin to a first year university student trying to make an argument for his paper, looking at google scholar for three hours trying to find a stat to back it up, not finding anything, then just saying, “Screw it, I’ve got cute hair, the professor likes me” and handing it in anyway. It would have been easier to take, and probably less politically damaging, for Trudeau to have stood up one week after he was elected and just say “we said we liked electoral reform to grab a few left wing votes, but now we have a false majority to protect. You got played, see ya in 2019.” It would have been less insulting to the intelligence of Canadians than the way it played out. Instead, as Andrew Coyne said, the Prime Minister chastised us: “You didn’t step up. You failed to show leadership. You left the hard work of governing to the government,” was the message parlayed to the public.

I alongside many other Canadians watched electoral reform get chewed up by the Liberals and unceremoniously spit out 16 months after the fact. We cannot forget this moment. It is clearer than ever that electoral reform will never happen as long as the two main parties are in charge. The current system benefits them too much. So to my fellow Canadians, I ask you to prove Trudeau wrong when he says you don’t have the appetite for reform. Write your MP, flood the newly-minted Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould’s inbox, or best of all, consider whether or not the party you vote for in 2019 will listen to Canadians when they ask for electoral reform. Because when it comes to ending first past the post, nobody believes you Mr. Trudeau.


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