Ten rea­sons Lib­er­als wrong to ram through re­form

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY WAR­REN KIN­SELLA Troy Me­dia colum­nist War­ren Kin­sella is a Cana­dian jour­nal­ist, po­lit­i­cal ad­viser and com­men­ta­tor

“A change — whether to ranked bal­lots, or pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, manda­tory vot­ing, on­line vot­ing, or what­ever — like this is very big. Any gov­ern­ment which wishes to make a change to the way our democ­racy ac­tu­ally func­tions needs to be act­ing (and seen to be act­ing) in a way that is quintessen­tially demo­cratic. Re­fus­ing to lis­ten to crit­ics isn’t be­ing demo­cratic.”

I was on a CTV panel when the Speech from the Throne was read out. This part wasn’t a sur­prise, but I was sur­prised the Lib­er­als were dou­bling down on it:

“The Gov­ern­ment will . . . take ac­tion to en­sure that 2015 will be the last fed­eral elec­tion con­ducted un­der the first-past-the­p­ost vot­ing sys­tem.”

There are 10 rea­sons I can think of, off the top of my head no less, why they are wrong to ram this through, as they seem in­tent on do­ing. Here they are: The gov­ern­ment has no spe­cific man­date for any spe­cific change. They need to go and get one. Four sen­tences on page eight of a glossy cam­paign doc­u­ment that was likely read by only a few hun­dred Cana­di­ans isn’t suf­fi­cient.

A change — whether to ranked bal­lots, or pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, manda­tory vot­ing, on­line vot­ing, or what­ever — like this is very big. Any gov­ern­ment which wishes to make a change to the way our democ­racy ac­tu­ally func­tions needs to be act­ing (and seen to be act­ing) in a way that is quintessen­tially demo­cratic. Re­fus­ing to lis­ten to crit­ics isn’t be­ing demo­cratic.

The likely changes seem to be weighted in favour of the in­cum­bent Lib­eral gov­ern­ment. That’s wrong. It ren­ders the whole thing il­le­git­i­mate from the start, and pos­si­bly il­le­gal.

It’s be­ing rushed. A whole­sale and un­de­fined re­vi­sion of vot­ing laws by 2017? Is any group of peo­ple clam­our­ing for that much change, that fast? Is it pos­si­ble to re­vise ap­prox­i­mately 150 years of vot­ing rules in about 15 months? Maybe — but if you have a so­lu­tion to a prob­lem, you need to per­suade the peo­ple (who are the bosses, af­ter all) that they have a prob­lem that is worth solv­ing.

Sev­eral prov­inces, in­clud­ing On­tario dur­ing an elec­tion in which I was in­volved, have sought a man­date to change elec­tion rules. Ev­ery one of them went down to de­feat. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment needs to pay heed to that — but they’re not.

It’ll be chal­lenged in court, and pos­si­bly hung up for years. In par­tic­u­lar, it’ll be noted un­der sec­tion three of the Char­ter — the doc­u­ment, note well, that was birthed by the cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter’s fa­ther — no gov­ern­ment is per­mit­ted to over­ride “the right to vote.” What does that mean? Well, our high­est court in Figueroa [1 SCR 912, 2003 SCC 37] de­creed: “In a democ­racy, sov­er­eign power re­sides in the peo­ple as a whole and each cit­i­zen must have a gen­uine op­por­tu­nity to take part in the gov­er­nance of the coun­try through par­tic­i­pa­tion in the se­lec­tion of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.” The Supremes are likely to be sym­pa­thetic to an ar­gu­ment that an ill-de­fined, rammed-through gutting of elec­tion laws doesn’t give the peo­ple “a gen­uine op­por­tu­nity to take part.”

It is po­lit­i­cally un­wise. When Stephen Harper tried to ram through changes to elec­tion fi­nanc­ing laws, ones that he too had made pass­ing ref­er­ence to in the just-held elec­tion cam­paign, Lib­er­als rightly were in­censed — and they very nearly de­feated Harper’s gov­ern­ment for try­ing to rig the rules in its favour. The changes be­ing sug­gested by Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment are far more fun­da­men­tal — they go to the very heart of our democ­racy it­self. That’s more im­por­tant than fi­nanc­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in coun­tries which prac­tise it, leads to in­sta­bil­ity. Ma­jori­ties be­come rare, and con­tin­ual elec­tion cy­cles be­come the norm. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, fringe groups — neo-Nazis and the like — start to win seats, and ac­quire le­git­i­macy as a re­sult.

Ranked bal­lots — which the Lib­er­als likely favour, be­cause it favours them — is also prob­lem­atic. Does a ranked sys­tem truly re­flect a voter’s vot­ing pref­er­ences? (Prob­a­bly not.) Doesn’t it re­sult in more vot­ing er­rors? (It does.) Does lower turnout hap­pen? (Usu­ally.) Doesn’t it pro­duce lots of run-offs, which para­dox­i­cally leads back to the very sys­tem that the gov­ern­ment is seek­ing to change in the first place? (Um, yes. Yes it does.)

It’s our democ­racy, not a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal party’s. It isn’t per­fect, but it has been at the cen­tre of col­lec­tive ef­forts to pro­duce a near-per­fect na­tion. Mess with it at your own risk, Mr. Trudeau.

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