Trudeau’s Electoral Evasions
Justin Trudeau’s democratic reform antics indicate that he wasn’t really serious about the Liberal Party’s ambitious program to alter the status quo. For the time being at least, Trudeau is proving himself quite ordinary and even typical of past politicians whose apparent idealism crumbled under pressure. Unfortunately, he shares responsibility with those Canadians who seem satisfied with a long series of interchangeable Liberal/ Conservative governments mainly concerned with power retention and impression management.
Contrary to popular assumptions, government is not a business and candidates are not branded products to be advertised and sold like soft drinks. Business philosophy and language have infiltrated politics to the extent that potential candidates are obliged to adopt boardroom rhetoric lest they be dismissed as naïve or even socialistic. This has been called “marketing democracy” or “stock market democracy”; a system where the influence of business lobbyists creates a de facto situation of one dollar, one vote.
The most significant aspect of Trudeau’s diminishing democratic reforms was his commitment to replacing Canada’s antiquated First Past the Post (FPTP) system with some form of proportional representation. This priority seemed extremely important to the prime minister back on December 2, 2016 when he told the Canadian Press that, “…he wouldn’t abandon his promise to replace FPTP - which gave the Liberals a majority government with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote - simply because it was difficult to do.”
Trudeau’s subsequent reversal and claims of weak public consensus are contradicted by the fact that the main alternative to FPTP, proportional representation, was not openly and broadly debated. According to a February 5, 2017 CBC story, “Except within the testimony of academics at the special committee, the political and public discourse never got to that [specific] point, the Liberals preferring to keep the discussion focused on values.” Notably, varying styles of proportional representation have been adopted by 21 Europeans nations, many of whom are party to the recentlysigned Canada-european Trade Agreement (CETA).
Fair Vote Canada provides a good summary of proportional representation (PR): “Our current system, first-pastthe-post divides the country into 338 contiguous nonoverlapping areas known as ridings […]proportional representation is any voting system designed to produce a representative body where the voters are represented in that body in proportion to how they voted[…]. Our current voting system elects only one MP in each riding […]. In contrast, any PR voting system elects several MPS to represent a given geographic region so that most voters in that region have a voice in Parliament.”
While such an arrangement is great for supporters of a small party like the Greens, there are strong reasons for a governing politician to resist change. According to a November 11, 2016 Samara piece, “The Liberal Party [under Justin Trudeau] directly benefited from the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The 42nd parliament offers another example of […] a “false majority” government. Liberal candidates won less than 40% of the vote, yet they captured 54% of the seats. If seats were allocated in proportion to votes, the Liberals would have won something like 135 seats rather than 184.” A cynical person would note the obvious shortterm benefits of keeping the FPTP system, even if it means that millions of Canadians are basically wasting their ballots.
In fact, a really cynical person might well ask why an ambitious leader would willingly limit their existing power or their potential to gain future power? As the Samara authors noted, “A majority in parliament gives the Liberals the means to effect change, but paradoxically may diminish their motivation [to adopt a more representative system].” As all prime ministers quickly discover, their declared idealism is soon tamed by the realities of power and the weight of endless demands for accommodation and advantage.
At least in matters of policy, the current Liberal government differs little from that of the previous Harper and Chretien/ Martin regimes. I can’t help but be skeptical about someone with the audacity to present themselves as the nation’s greatest hope. Such a pose demonstrates a dangerous egotism. Unfortunately, a genuinely humble but realistic person could never complete the subtle vetting process whereby the fledgling politician gradually impresses the nation’s power brokers with expressions of fealty to their interests. We are therefore left with individuals who serve power at all times; and working people when convenient. Our prime ministers, far from being the best candidates; have rather been the most ambitious and often the most ruthless and well-financed.
One of the main benefits of proportional representation is its potential to better reflect the views of a broad range of people, many of whom object to the increasing concentration of wealth in a tiny minority of the population. To a far greater extent than hard work and ambition, extreme concentrations of wealth are a direct result of government policy on taxation, trade, environmental and labor law. Proportional representation would limit the secretive influence of private power on the legislative process. In this way, Canada may differentiate itself from current trends in the United States.
In conclusion, I’ll offer a few simple and economical suggestions to improve the fairness of our democratic process. The first, certain to encounter fierce resistance, is the notion of forbidding retired politicians from accepting remuneration of any kind: money, property, services or privileges. Instead, these individuals would receive a fair pension and would be free to volunteer unlimited time and energy to any cause or organization. In this way, we could attract potential politicians more interested in Canada’s welfare than their personal benefit.
As well, Canadian society would benefit from radical changes to the current system of individual and organizational donations to political candidates. At the risk of U.s.-style freedom of expression challenges, I suggest that limited donations to political parties and individual candidates at all levels be replaced by unlimited donations to a general election fund. Political parties would be required to remit all donations to the general fund aside from a minimal sum for operating expenses. Such tax deductible donations would be fairly distributed among candidates according to non-partisan legislation. In this way, wisdom might compete fairly with volume.
While some form of proportional representation is vastly better than the current system, in the interim a simple change to voting rules in the House of Commons would strongly encourage cooperation among parties and more directly reflect the peoples’ will. If legislation required a 60 to 70 per cent majority vote, the governing party would be obliged to form practical coalitions that might temper the adversarial nature of parliament.
Finally, I find it outrageous that MPS are required to vote openly under simultaneous and often-contradictory pressure from both their party and constituencies. This contradiction could easily be resolved by secret votes that would remove, for example, the Prime Minister’s power to intimidate and punish those MPS who dare to oppose the government’s stance on a given issue. Since Canadians select their politicians by secret ballot, why not extend that privilege to those who determine our laws and foreign policy?
The House of Commons where 338 Members of Parliament convene to debate issues and make law. Under the current electoral system, a candidate need only best his nearest competitor by a single vote to become elected. Photo courtesy Government of Canada.