In advance of the 2015 federal general election the then Official Opposition, the Liberal Party of Canada, unveiled a platform that included the following statement about electoral reform:
We will make every vote count.
We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. (emphasis added)
We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.
This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.
There were no qualifications, no mention of uncertainty and needing to learn more, no mention of needing to prove a consensus or of needing to conduct a referendum, no mention of needing to prove that Canadians were ‘engaged’ with the issue, no suggestion that time would reveal different priorities that would derail this commitment.
Not only did the statement appear to be unequivocal: it was also highlighted. It was certainly allowed to appear to be one of the central planks of the Liberal campaign. And, the first post-election Speech from the Throne (December 4th, 2015) contained this statement:
“To make sure that every vote counts, the Government will undertake consultations on electoral reform, and will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” (emphasis added)
By February 1st, 2017, the position had reversed. The Mandate Letter for the current Minister of Democratic Institutions contains this phrase:
“Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”
Was the reversal the new standard of political cynicism and hypocrisy? Was it a reluctant necessity in the face of some overwhelming crisis that required an exclusive focus? Did it reflect some startlingly new and significant information that could not have been previously known? (Had the Liberal Party simply experienced, like St. Paul, a remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus?) Was the reversal simply the abandonment of a poorly thought out and unwise original decision (without acknowledging that the original decision was poorly thought out and unwise)? Was it evidence of a caucus and/or party revolt against what had been a unilateral and internally unpopular decision by the Party Leader?
How we answer these and similar questions will determine our attitude toward the Liberal Party of Canada, a Liberal government, and Mr. Trudeau.
First, of course, we must consider whether the issue is important to us, personally and as a community.
I value civil democracy in many different embodiments. I also think of it as a dynamic institution that is not perfect at any moment in time and must constantly evolve to meet changing needs and expectations, overcome experienced shortcomings, and anticipate the future.
In a nation the size of Canada one of the vital embodiments of civil democracy is self-government by means of a representative assembly (the House of Commons or the provincial Legislative Assembly). Personally, I believe that the way we choose our representative assemblies – the so-called ‘first past the post’ system – is outmoded and not aligned with our current expectation of the best that is possible for choosing a representative assembly. No successor to the current system would represent the realization of the ideal, but it would be a long-overdue and major step toward alignment of democratic practice with democratic thought.
The first past the post system has a number of very significant shortcomings.
(1) The current system is so well understood that it is being ‘gamed’ by all the players: political parties, interest groups, academics and the media. The political process needs to have some uncertainty re-introduced.
(2) The system encourages binary thought processes, which are outmoded and dangerous given the future that lies before us. We need to move away from bi-polar and competitive outlooks toward multi-polar and collaborative outlooks.
(3) The system discourages involvement by citizens who want more ‘richness’ than is represented by the two-party system, and this discouragement contributes to lower voter turnout.
(4) Even with strict election financing laws, the current system gives money undue leverage, since the first past the post system provides a considerable multiplier effect (money, to votes, to representation).
(5) The negotiation of differing interests is an absolutely legitimate part of the political process, but the negotiations should take place more or less in public, between parties, rather than in virtually complete secrecy within the caucus of a single party (especially one that may have 80% of the representation on the basis of 40% of the votes cast).
(6) Many citizens are cynical about the current political system. This cynicism is fed, in part, by the feeling that the voting system marginalizes citizens. Cynicism about the political system feeds cynicism about political decisions and politicians, which is bad for the community.
There are many other, perhaps even more important, shortcomings to the current system.
We need to take a step forward, because we have reached a point at which the shortcomings of the current process, and the associated public cynicism, compromise every policy and institutional decision that is made in the context of this process.
There is no one step that would be universally acknowledged as the realization of some ideal after which we wouldn’t need to think any more about our voting process. Any one of many steps, if carefully thought out, would represent real progress and would leave the door open to new and better understandings and later evolutionary developments.
Next, what the Liberals have done.