National Post (Latest Edition)
The Liberals’ ‘Trudeaucracy’ plan
It’s a struggle to imagine any government implementing the entirety or even the majority of this agenda
It was a curious decision for the Liberals to include “saving home mail delivery” in the exhaustive democratic reform package they released this week, under the title, Real Change: A Fair and Open Government. Big-city mayors and the federal New Democrats have been fronting a rights-based argument for home delivery: “This is about fairness,” as NDP snail mail frontman Alexandre Boulerice put it — which was weird, considering NDP policy would only benefit people who enjoyed home mail delivery as of December 2013, when Canada Post announced the phase-out. If a politician is going to flag something as unfair, he should probably have at least a long-term plan to implement fairness, not just a plan to revert to a previous level of unfairness. But it’s less weird than making home mail delivery about “fair and open government.”
It’s a small pity, because its inclusion makes one wonder how serious the Liberals are about all the other stuff in there — stuff that actually matters — and distracts from what is otherwise a fascinating read. All the democratic reform stuff is in there. Our new Trudeaucracy would spew government information left, right and centre, both as a default position and on demand; in Parliament, there would be more free votes, empowered committees and a more independent parliamentary budget officer, and no more omnibus bills or cynical prorogations; there would be an end to partisan advertising masquerading as public service message, and the return of the long-form census; the list goes on and on. It makes Michael Chong’s similarly principled Reform Act look about as consequential as Bill C-387, An Act to Establish Leif Erikson Day.
Perhaps the most noticeable pledge, for Canadians who don’t spend tons of time pondering Parliament, is this: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” Within 18 months, a Liberal government would conclude an exhaustive “national engagement process,” an “all-party parliamentary committee” would recommend measures and the government would “bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform … such as ranked ballots, proportional representation (PR), mandatory voting, and online voting.”
The PR fans have been full of beans ever since, naturally. Two of the three leading federal parties are now committed to ditching first-past-the-post. So if you think literally any other system would be better, you’re going to be thrilled. But I’m not the first to observe that there’s a bit of friction within the plan: it intends to empower MPs, even as it flirts indirectly with election models that can do the opposite.
There’s nothing inherently harmful about PR systems that complicate the channels of power and accountability between citizens and MPs — mixed member proportional representation (MMP), for example, which populates chambers with “list” members who aren’t beholden to any constituency. But it would be a peculiar move at this wretched point in the history of Canada’s Parliament, where most everyone seems to agree that parties and their leaders hold far too much sway. Trudeau furthermore suggests accomplishing through a parliamentary committee something that PR advocates in two provinces have struggled to sell during provincial referendums.
The idea of reversing the flow of power between grassroots riding associations, candidates and leaders has been all the rage ever since Chong began banging the drum, in furtherance of a parliamentary vision that I very much share. But as a result, over the course of the debate, I’ve found myself drifting further and further away from the PR camp.
The whole premise of the argument for the Reform Act was that 338 riding associations ought to be able to pick the candidate of their choice, and 100,000 or so riding residents ought then to be able to pick the MP of their choice, and that the MPs whose leader can command majority support in the House of Commons would then form government. There’s nothing in that premise about the popular vote corresponding with the seat count. It’s completely beside the point, like home mail delivery is to fair and open government. It’s just 338 separate jurisdictions sending 338 representatives to Ottawa to bash things out on their behalf, and I rather like it that way.
But there is a way to strengthen that system: ranked ballots, which is to say any of several systems that allow people to vote for their first and (optionally) second and third and fourth choices, such that the winner has the approval, however grudging, of a majority of his constituents. Some market this as a game-changer; not me. I think it’s just a more logical way for real people (as opposed to partisans) to decide between the imperfect options available, one that strengthens the bond between an MP and his constituents — the bedrock of our much-abused system of government — and strengthens his mandate. Trudeau has expressed support for this in the past. Ontario is set to allow its municipalities to opt in to such a system. It’s a struggle to imagine any government implementing the entirety or even the majority of this agenda. Ranked ballots, however, seems within reach.