Elec­toral re­form re­quires ref­er­en­dum

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Troy Me­dia colum­nist Michael Taube, a news­pa­per colum­nist and political com­men­ta­tor, was a speech­writer for for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper

The fed­eral Lib­eral pro­posal for elec­toral re­form in Canada has its mer­its. The govern­ment’s plan to force im­prove­ments to our democ­racy, how­ever, is bla­tantly un­demo­cratic. Let’s ex­am­ine why. One of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s key strate­gies was that the 2015 fed­eral elec­tion would be the last “held un­der the firstpast-the-post vot­ing sys­tem.” While it wasn’t a cam­paign prom­ise equiv­a­lent to the part­ing of the political Red Sea, it held wa­ter with vot­ers — in­clud­ing me, one of a few Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives who has long sup­ported elec­toral re­form.

First-past-the-post (FPTP) vot­ing is used in var­i­ous coun­tries, in­clud­ing the U.S., United King­dom and Canada. It’s a win­ner-take-all sys­tem with a for­mula that’s easy to un­der­stand. If a political can­di­date fin­ishes first in a rid­ing, be it by one vote or (say) one mil­lion votes, he/she wins the seat. The political party with the most seats will form govern­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately, FPTP is flawed in one im­por­tant sense: pop­u­lar sup­port is mean­ing­less.

Most of Canada’s fed­eral gov­ern­ments have been formed with the win­ning party earn­ing less than half of over­all pop­u­lar sup­port. The only ex­cep­tions have been Sir Wil­frid Lau­rier (1900, 1904), Sir Robert Borden (1917), Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King (1940), John Diefen­baker (1958) and Brian Mul­roney (1984).

In the 2011 fed­eral elec­tion, Stephen Harper and the Tories won a ma­jor­ity govern­ment (166 out of 308 seats) and earned 39.62 per cent of pop­u­lar sup­port. In the 2015 fed­eral elec­tion, Trudeau and the Lib­er­als won a ma­jor­ity govern­ment (184 out of 338 seats) and earned 39.47 per cent of pop­u­lar sup­port.

Yes, you read that cor­rectly. The Trudeau Lib­er­als won 18 more seats than the Harper Tories - in a larger Par­lia­ment with a slightly lower per­cent­age of pop­u­lar sup­port.

Does that make one govern­ment more le­git­i­mate than the other? No, since they both won their re­spec­tive elec­tions fair and square. What it does mean is this Lib­eral govern­ment, much like the pre­ced­ing Tory govern­ment, was not sup­ported by more than 60 per cent of all el­i­gi­ble vot­ers.

Yet any pro­posal that could dra­mat­i­cally change a long­stand­ing com­po­nent of our political process must be, in the­ory, sup­ported by a ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans.

Switch­ing from the his­toric FPTP model to a new pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion model surely fits into this lat­ter cat­e­gory.

Ah, but the Lib­er­als don’t agree. In late De­cem­ber, Lib­eral House Leader Do­minic LeBlanc made this state­ment on CTV’s Ques­tion Pe­riod: “Our plan is not to have a na­tional ref­er­en­dum. Our plan is to use Par­lia­ment to con­sult Cana­di­ans. That has al­ways been our plan and I don’t have any rea­son to think that’s been changed.”

The plan, in case you’re won­der­ing, is re­port­edly to con­sult an all-party com­mit­tee about var­i­ous elec­toral re­form strate­gies, in­clud­ing ranked bal­lots, mixed-mem­ber pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion and sin­gle trans­fer­able vote. Our sys­tem would then be re­formed in about 18 months.

Cana­di­ans wouldn’t have di­rect in­put into the Lib­er­als’ elec­toral re­form plan. Your 39.47 per cent fed­eral govern­ment will tell us how we’ll all vote in 2019. If you don’t like it, lump it.

This is an un­be­liev­ably fool­ish strat­egy. You can’t strongly sup­port a demo­cratic prin­ci­ple, and then im­ple­ment it in the most un­demo­cratic fash­ion imag­in­able. By do­ing so, this im­por­tant ex­er­cise in im­prov­ing Canada’s flawed elec­toral sys­tem has al­ready been de­feated at the start­ing gate.

As Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion fed­eral di­rec­tor Aaron Wu­drick nicely put it in the Na­tional Post on Dec. 30, “The Trudeau govern­ment has a man­date to ex­plore elec­toral re­form. It does not have a man­date to im­pose any­thing it draws up with­out ask­ing Cana­di­ans first.”

Here’s my ad­vice to the Lib­er­als. Hold a ref­er­en­dum on elec­toral re­form, and let the Cana­dian peo­ple de­cide. It’s the demo­cratic thing to do.

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