Trudeau’s Elec­toral Eva­sions

The Victoria Standard - - COMMENTARY - MOR­GAN DUCHESNEY

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.

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