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Trudeau’s Lost Opportunity to Build a Better Democracy

Proportional representation not perfect, but cynical broken promise much worse.

Crawford Kilian 14 Feb

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

I was as disappointed as anyone with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s about-face on electoral reform. When he campaigned on the issue, he made Conservatives and New Democrats alike look like boring old hacks. With Trudeau, Canadians could actually vote for what they wanted, not for the least bad option. But once in power, he glided from visionary game-changer to boring old hack with remarkable speed.

Putting Maryam Monsef in charge of the process in 2015 looked like political genius: an immigrant (from Afghanistan no less!) and a young woman, in a key cabinet position. But she soon started taking flak, even about trivia like whether she’d been born in Afghanistan or Iran.

Then Monsef launched the governent’s online consultation with, which came under immediate attack as a rigged survey. Having taken one for the team, Monsef was removed from her post.

By then it was pretty clear that Canadians supporting electoral reform had been seduced and abandoned; Trudeau reversed himself as swiftly and clumsily as his dad had abandoned his election-winning stand against wage and price controls in the 1970s.

Despite having grown up in federal and international politics, Trudeau has defended his retreat to orthodoxy rather poorly. Somehow proportional representation might let a crazy person become prime minister (an argument against Kellie Leitch, and an indirect shot at Donald Trump, but not really a logical consequence). Referendums were dangerous — just ask Gordon Campbell. A “consensus” was lacking, and his own preference for a ranked ballot hadn’t done so well. So he chose to stick with first past the post until some distant future time when we could consider electoral reform again.

I confess I don’t see his logic. Trudeau offered a legitimate change in our democratic system, and got elected on that offer. He didn’t say we’d be stuck with it until the end of time. If we could change the system once, we could change it again. And again, until we got it right.

I also don’t see his fondness for the preferential ballot. That was how W.A.C. Bennett, a Conservative defector, turned his proto-Trumpist Social Credit party from a crazy fringe into B.C.’s ruling party. Everyone in early-1950s B.C. was fed up with the old Liberal-Conservative coalition, and the alternative was the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, which would later morph into the NDP. Social Credit was a leftover from the Depression, with few supporters and no program.

But the big issue for many B.C. voters was getting rid of the coalition by any means. When given a preferential ballot in the 1952 election, thousands of pissed-off CCF voters listed Social Credit as their second choice. Wacky Bennett got in and promptly ditched the preferential ballot. Then he and his crazy fringe ruled by first past the post for 20 years against an opposition divided among the CCF/NDP, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives.

Winning with 33 per cent

When Dave Barrett’s NDP finally broke the old man’s grip in 1972, one of his new MLAs was Colin Gabelmann, then a young guy running as a sacrificial lamb in suburban North Vancouver-Seymour. First-past-the-post had worked for the NDP this time, when Gabelmann was running against a popular Liberal incumbent (Barrie Clarke), the head of the provincial Conservatives (Derril Warren) and a no-hoper Socred. Gabelmann won with barely 33 per cent of the vote.

But over the next three years most Liberal and Conservative supporters shifted their allegiance to Social Credit, ensuring the NDP’s defeat in 1975. At some point in the early 1970s, I talked with Gabelmann about our electoral system, and he said something that has stuck with me:

“In first-past-the-post, you build a coalition before the election. In proportional representation, you build the coalition after.”

And that’s really all it is. Bill Bennett revived Social Credit by rebuilding its coalition with Liberals and Conservatives. Gordon Campbell hijacked the Liberal Party that Gordon Wilson had revived, and formed a coalition with the remnant Socreds. Stephen Harper broke the old Progressive Conservatives, then built a far-right coalition in which the Red Tories had little say. All three won multi-term governments. (And Harper had the chutzpah to deplore “coalitions.”)

It’s a great way to win majorities with a minority of the popular vote, but the junior members of the coalition are really in it just for the money and the scraps of power. If they dare step out of line, they derail the gravy train and are likely out of office for good.

Working for a temporary majority

With proportional representation, various parties have to talk to one another to see where they have enough in common to work together for a while. If enough parties can agree on a common platform, they can build a temporary majority. A majority of voters, therefore, will be reasonably happy with the compromise.

If we’d had proportional representation in 2015, the Liberals would have won about 135 seats, not 184. The Conservatives would have had around 108, and the NDP would have 68. A Liberal-NDP coalition of 201 seats would have been a natural result, given the hostility of Canadian voters to Harper’s Conservatives.

Such a post-election coalition could have exploited Trudeau’s glamour and extended his honeymoon, but he would have paid a considerable price for it: Tom Mulcair would have been a key figure in a Trudeau coalition cabinet, not a has-been. The Trudeau coalition would be a bit farther to the left, just as it was in the 1970s when David Lewis’s NDP held the balance of power.

I have no idea how such a coalition would have worked out. Would Mulcair have agreed to approve Kinder Morgan, saving Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP government but at the cost of support in B.C.? Would the NDP have prodded Trudeau into open criticism of Trump? Would the coalition’s compromises have revived the Conservatives’ hopes for the next election?

The 2019 election would throw everything up in the air again. Maybe more people would vote Green if they could reasonably hope to elect more MPs. Maybe right-wing Liberals would defect to the Conservatives (under Kevin O’Leary?) as they did in 2011 when Jack Layton seemed about to win. From the point of view of a Liberal majority government, it would be crazy. Worse yet, it would be unpredictable.

A century in power

So it makes sense that Justin Trudeau himself wanted a ranked-ballot system like the one that put W.A.C. Bennett in power for 20 years. After the 2015 election, the Council of Canadians pointed out that a ranked ballot would have given Trudeau a 224-member majority. Plenty of New Democrats, and likely a lot of Red Tories, would have made Trudeau their second preference, and the Liberals would have been in power for the rest of the century.

If voters didn’t like ranked ballots, Trudeau had no choice but to retreat to first-past-the-post. If he’d called for proportional representation, his own caucus would have kicked him out of office. Better that than a century of making embarrassing deals with New Democrats or Greens or new upstart parties.

So it’s the ugly prospect of post-election deals that discourages proportional representation — especially when you can rule for years on a solid minority against a fractured majority. Yes, such deals can be awful; Israel’s government has sustained itself only by accepting some very nasty splinter parties. Italy’s coalition governments have enjoyed an average life expectancy of about one year since 1945.

Nonetheless, Canada could have tried out proportional representation in 2019, if Trudeau had promised that we could try something else (even a return to first-past-the-post) in 2023. It would have been an experiment in democracy, engaging millions of alienated Canadians and legitimizing whatever government emerged.

Instead, Justin Trudeau won power through first-past-the-post, and is clearly resolved to keep it. Some other party will have to promise a better alternative, and keep that promise.  [Tyee]

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