The styles of politicians are not easily changed. A par- liament notable for the nastiness of its controversy will soon be followed by an election more notable for its fury than for the substance of its issues. More Canadians than ever may decide that there is nothing worth voting for. Yet there could be. This could be the occasion when we begin to reshape federal politics.
One simple cure will not do. The present troubles of poli- tics call for several reforms. That some will take time makes it all the more important to begin where we can. And there is one significant change for which the circumstances are now oppor- tune. The election promised for the coming winter can also be the occasion to improve the way we vote in future elections.
The moment of opportunity is brief. Whether it is taken depends primarily on the NDP. Before the last election, when it seemed that the party might hold the balance of power in the Parliament of 2004, a referendum on electoral reform was seen as the one commitment sufficient to justify sustaining the Martin government in the meantime. In fact, sufficient parliamentary strength for that was narrowly denied (thanks in no small part to the Liberals’ theft of other NDP clothing in the late stages of the election cam- paign). Not until the Conservatives and the Bloc decided to join in voting against the budget, and even then only with help, notably from Belinda Stronach, did the NDP gain the power to save the government.
In those circumstances, re-working some of the budget projections was the natural price to exact. The benefits, both to the country and to the party, are small compared with those of a parliament that better represents public opinion. But they have enhanced Jack Layton’s standing. The NDP has emerged in public opinion as a considerably more credible political force. It is in a position to press effec- tively for electoral reform.
Its power now does not lie in saving the government from defeat in the pres- ent Parliament. The Conservatives and the Bloc will not again unite for that pur- pose, unless the government commits some extraordinary new error or reneges on its promise to call an election soon after the Gomery report. In either of those cases, the NDP could not refrain from joining the rest of the opposition.
The NDP’s power now is to pres- sure the government to offer voters a substantive issue for the coming elec- tion campaign. The Liberals themselves have little that is both positive and realistic left to contribute. They will be chiefly occupied in debate with the Conservatives on the sponsorship outrages, and on those they cannot do better than blunt the edge of criticism. Blaming it all on the leadership most of them loved for more than a decade is not compelling evidence that they are now the people to be trusted to clean house. The government’s promises on spending and on taxes already stretch so far ahead that more of the same will carry little conviction. Indeed, cynicism about politics already runs so high that expensive programs could turn away more votes than they win.
In short, hope of a Liberal majority this winter rests on little but the prospect that, in the polling booths as well as in answering telephone calls from poll- sters, the deficiencies of the Harper-led Conservatives will count for even more in 2006 than they did in 2004. That may be, but it is an uncertain foundation for a campaign, even more for the place in history to which Paul Martin has so long aspired.
Among all the needs that the prime minister has identified as ”œvery, very important,” there are few for which his government still has resources to do much about. There is none that will serve his purpose half as well as fighting the democratic deficit that he helped to name. In the public mind it has come to mean, first, a fair- er voting system. Provincial politicians across the country have picked up the message. So, if they have now learned to be constructive, will the Martinites. It is the best way, both popular and practical, to steal a march on their main opponents. While the Conservatives would not relish elec- toral reform, they could not directly oppose putting it to a referendum, and nagging at the detail would win no votes.
This is not to say that the govern- ment will now jump at an idea that could have been high on its agenda from the beginning. But if not given to jumping it can be pushed. It will be if the NDP has its act together. The way to push this time is to make it plain, now, that in any event the NDP will be campaigning strongly for electoral reform. That could become a telling criticism of the Martin government. It need not be. The Liberals can neutral- ize it, can indeed make it part of their own weaponry against the Conservatives. Instead of just waiting for the Gomery report, they can use the balance of this Parliament for a major achievement. The Liberals and the NDP can get together on legisla- tion for a reform referendum to accompany the winter election. The Bloc could not oppose it. The Conservatives would be stymied.
In the election campaign, the NDP would still have many grounds for crit- icizing the government, but on this main issue would reinforce it. The Liberals would be helped to stay in office this time. The NDP would benefit from a fairer voting system next time. While Liberals may not like the second part of the deal, they must surely recognize what provincial politicians, of various stripes, have clearly seen. Public opinion will before long compel electoral reform. Resistance will buy only a few years’ respite, another election or two as they have been. It is surely better to act now than to have the Conservatives do it their way later. For politicians capable of looking ahead that would be a decisive consideration even if the issue had no bearing on this election. It will have. If the Liberals reject reform, the NDP can now mount a strong cam- paign by itself. It could signifi- cantly reduce the chance of a Liberal majority in 2006.
The electoral system we have was copied from at the beginning of Confederation. It was designed to ensure that every election would pro- duce a majority in Parliament. ”œFirst- past-the-post” winning, election by plurality in single-member constituen- cies, consolidates politically effective opinion into two main parties. Votes for lesser parties are mostly wasted votes. Democracy is rationalized as a revolving choice of Ins and Outs. The party that is In may have been well short of a majority of the total vote, but a majority of parliamentary seats gives it a firm mandate to govern, for four years or so, as it chooses.
Such is the theory. And whatever its faults, in Britain the model does still pro- duce its intended majorities. The Canadian copy broke fifty years ago. The elections of 1957, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1972, and 1979 produced minority gov- ernments. The collapse of the Liberals in 1984 and, most spectacularly, of the Conservatives in 1993 returned us to two decades of majority governments, but also led to a four-party grouping that is at present as established as can be pre- dicted for anything in politics. Elections are therefore again likelier to produce minority than majority governments.
The certainty is that even a majority will be based on closer to a third than a half of the votes cast by Canadians. Account must also be taken of the registered voters who did not think it worth going to the polls, as well as the citizens missed in regis- tration. The last Chrétien term of majority government, without effec- tive opposition in Parliament, was conferred by only one in four of the people who in 2000 were entitled to vote. In 2004, barely one in five of franchised Canadians cast Liberal votes, but that was enough for the party to enjoy the perquisites of office, if not all of its decision- making power, for what may be close to two years.
Such consequences of the electoral system have become plain to public opinion. Rarely have attitudes to a fun- damental of politics changed so quick- ly. Three years ago electoral reform was a subject for little more than academic speculation. It might be favourably dis- cussed, but without expectation that change would be made by politicians who, in office or close to it, owe their postion to the system as it is.
That was the old respect for power. It has gone. The shifts and dithers of recent times have shown that contemporary politicians are sheep in wolves’ clothing. The break- through began with the 2003 legisla- tion on political financing; parties and politicians have all but lost their legal access to money from businesses and other organizations, including trade unions. The reform is imperfect but still magnificent. It has whetted appetites for other reforms. If the power of money can be tamed, other political inequalities are surely not beyond some correction.
Part of the credit for this new mood belongs to the conversion of Paul Martin. His acquisition of party leader- ship had been outstandingly undemoc- ratic. No other aspirant could compete against the $12 million, much of it taken from their businesses by corpo- rate CEOs, that turned the Liberal Party into a Martin machine. But safe from anyone being able to repeat such financing, and apparently ensconced in office, democratic reform became the most explicit item in the new leader’s promise of ”œtransformative change”. Though the specifics were slight, such official sponsorship did much to estab- lish, in media discussion and the public mind, the idea of a ”œdemocratic deficit” in need of correction.
The arguments for change have quickly become well established. Democracy demands that representa- tion in Parliament be aligned with opinion in the country; equali- ty of rights demands that every- one’s vote has the same chance to influence the conduct of government.
Electoral reform does not require a constitutional amend- ment. One Parliament has juris- diction to legislate how the next will be chosen. Accordingly, this Parliament has had its commit- tee on procedure make an extensive investigation of elec- toral systems. The report, tabled in June, proposed that a special parliamentary committee, aided by citizen consultations, should be charged to make a recom- mendation on the future elec- toral system by February 28.
This could not result in leg- islation before the coming election. It should not. Few people would want the present troubled Parliament, in particular, to determine how its successors should be elected. The legal power to do so is not moral authority or political feasibility, for this or indeed for any parliament. Vested interest in the existing system is too strong. So fundamental a change in our democra- cy should stand by itself as a decision of the people. It should be made by majority vote in a referendum. What this Parliament can rightly legislate is not electoral reform but a referendum process for a possible reform.
Provincial politicians have recog- nized that principle for the electoral changes they have under considera- tion. The urgent importance of federal reform does not mean that in Ottawa principle can be set aside. It means that the referendum should be organized for the earliest practicable date. The apparatus of democratic decision-making will in any event be in operation for the promised winter election. There is every reason to make this the occasion when Canadians not only elect their next Parliament, necessarily by the exist- ing method, but also decide whether they would prefer a more representa- tive method of selecting their future governments.
What is therefore required of the present Parliament is simple legisla- tion that sets up a non-partisan proce- dure to define the alternative electoral system to be put to referendum; makes the next election day also referendum day; and makes the referendum result binding on the next government. Legally, of course, the last provision could be overturned by the next Parliament, but politically that would be impossible unless the referendum majority were very narrow indeed.
Such democracy-empowering leg- islation is by far the most constructive action present MPs can take while they are waiting for the Gomery report.
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The referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, which had been bargained among politicians, is not a happy precedent for the way to frame the question. A genuinely non-partisan pro- cedure will be an innovation, but the best way to innovate is often to combine familiar elements. In this case it is a mix of parliamentary committee and independent commission. For exam- ple, the committee might consist of one MP from each of the four parties, with the Speaker as its chair. The committee, not the government, would appoint by consensus a small commission of eminently qualified persons above partisanship. That done, the Speaker would withdraw, but the four MPs would remain involved as additional members of the commission. They would participate fully in planning its work and conducting hearings. They would not, however, have votes when the commission came to its conclusion on the reform proposal to be put to ref- erendum. On that, the independ- ence of the commission from present party interests is crucial.
The commission would have to be given a tight deadline. The February 28 date specified by MPs for their committee would be too close to an election in March. But thanks to its freedom from party controversy, the commission could work faster; January 31 would become realistic. It would require the commis- sion to be quick, by inquiry standards, but the process of consultation and con- sideration need not be any the worse for that. The issues to be covered are not wide. The ground is well trodden.
The aim is a House of Commons more representative of public opinion, nationally and regionally. That has to be reconciled, however, with the dual role of MPs. They are party people, elected to support or to oppose the policies of a government. But the MP is also the rep- resentative of his or her community, speaking on local concerns, acting for all his or her constituents, regardless of party affiliation, in dealings with offi- cialdom. Our kind of federalism, in a country so geographically large and diverse, makes it highly important that communities have a sense of electing ”œour” person in Ottawa. Otherwise the federal government is too remote and mysterious for democratic involvement in nationwide politics.
The sense of community relation with Ottawa is possible, however, only if constituencies are small enough for the MP to be widely known. Many are already too large for a strong sense of identity. It would disappear if the size of constituencies were greatly increased. For that reason, the pure proportional representation (PR) of theory can be ruled off the agenda of possible reforms to be considered. PR requires large con- stituencies, each returning a large group of MPs. It could be reconciled with community representation only if we had senators, elected from single- member constituencies, to take over the Persons-in-Ottawa role; the constitu- tional amendment that would require is not in present prospect.
A small reform sometimes suggested is to replace first-past-the-post elec- tion by the so-called alternative vote; ballots would be marked not with a sin- gle cross but with an order of preference. The winner would then have some degree of support from a majority of vot- ers. The MP’s community role would be strengthened. But that, desirable though it is, would not make representation more proportional. Party strengths in the House of Commons would be changed little, if at all. Left of centre opinion on the Prairies would remain greatly under-represented among MPs. So would right of centre opinion in parts of Ontario, federalist opinion in much of Quebec. The resulting regional discon- tents and tensions would continue. The votes of 25 percent of the eligible elec- torate could still be enough to confer on one party four years of full control over the government of Canada. The demo- cratic deficit in the composition of Parliament arises not because voting is first-past-the-post but because it is all done in single-member constituencies.
This was recognized in the propos- al with which a majority of British Columbians agreed in the province’s recent referendum. Multi-member con- stituencies of varying size would use a transferable voting system. However, whatever the merits of this on a provincial scale, at the federal level it would require constituencies far too large for the community role of MPs.
That is why it is not difficult to define the alternative to Parliament as it is. We want to keep our present MPs from single-member constituencies. If we want at the same time to make Parliament ”” and hence government ”” more democratically representative of opinion across the country, there is a way to combine the two purposes. It is to mix in with the present MPs a sec- ond kind, elected differently.
Such a mixed-member-proportional (MMP) parliament has excellent credentials, in Canada as well as from other countries. It was proposed in 1979 by the Pepin-Robarts commission on national unity. The Law Commission of Canada completed in 2004 a careful study that arrived at detailed recommendations. Provincial commissions in Quebec, PEI and New Brunswick have already recommended mixed systems for their legislatures. The spade work has been done.
This is not to dismiss the need for wide consulta- tion and careful considera- tion in preparing the referendum question. It is to say that the issues are already sufficiently defined for a fully considered con- clusion to be attainable within three months or so. The purpose of this article, obviously, is not to pro- pound such a conclusion. It is to identify the most contentious ques- tions involved and thereby to show that the answers are not the kind that improve from long mulling over.
The essence of MMP is that the cit- izen has two votes. One is for a con- stituency candidate just as now. The other is for one of the lists of addition- al, non-constituency candidates sub- mitted by the political parties.
The first question to settle is what, for this purpose, are eligible par- ties: not so many as to confuse the main purpose, which is to arrive at a government accurately based on popu- lar support; not so few that new parties cannot develop. One criterion for which there are precedents is 5 percent of the total national vote in the last election. A good supplementary criteri- on would require that the Chief Electoral Officer be given authority to monitor registered party memberships. A fair provision might then be that if at the beginning of the year a rising party had reached the same member- ship as any party qualified on the 5 percent criterion, then the new party would become qualified to enter its list of candidates in an election that year.
Canada is too big for the lists to be nationwide. An excellent candidate in Newfounland could be almost unknown elsewhere. The new mem- bers must in any event be distributed so that each province’s total of MPs continues to be its constitutionally required share. In practice this means that the party lists should be province- wide for the less populated provinces. Elsewhere, candidates would be better identified if Ontario and Quebec were sub-divided for several regional lists, British Columbia and Alberta for per- haps two apiece. Each region could then embrace some ten or twelve or so single-member constituencies and thus be representationally comparable to most of the smaller provinces.
Democracy requires that a party’s list be set not by fiat of its leader and staff but by a process such as a mail bal- lot of party members in the region, as registered some time before the election call. Further, in the election itself, every voter should be able to mark an order of preference among the listed candidates of the party she or he supports.
Those preferences would determine which, if any, of the candidates on a party’s list become MPs. The number for each party would depend on how many votes for the party’s constituency candidates were ”œwasted” as minority votes. For example, all the constituencies in a south Alberta region could have been won by Conservatives, although there were in total a good many Liberal or NDP supporters spread through the region. At present they are unrepresent- ed in Parliament. With MMP, the regional seats would go mostly to the other parties, so that the province’s total representation in Ottawa, through the two kinds of MPs combined, is divided among the parties as closely as possible in ratio with their shares of the votes.
That is the purpose of a mixed- member parliament. Parties with sub- stantial public support would no longer be greatly under-represented, national- ly or in regional caucuses. Albertans, for example, could no longer feel that, when Conservatives are not in offce, the government side of Parliament is virtually alien territory for Albertans.
How closely a mixed-member electoral system links representation to public opinion depends, obviously, on the relative numbers of the two kinds of MPs. Fixing on that is the most con- tentious issue involved in the reform. It would be simpler if the range of political opinion were much the same across the country. In Canada as it is, representation in reasonably close pro- portion to the spread of opinion calls for electing a considerable proportion of MPs by the new method. The Law Commission proposed one in three.
If that were done by reducing the number of single-member seats, con- stituencies would have to become much bigger: their average number of voters would increase by 50 percent. That is unlikely to be acceptable. One compromise suggestion is to make the ratio of new-style members only one in four, in which case the House of Commons could be held to its present size if the average constituency were bigger by a third. That has the usual defects of compromise. The increase in constituency size would still be signifi- cant, further weakening, in rural areas particularly, the sense of community representation in Ottawa; but the cor- rection to first-past-the-post voting would fall well short of ensuring that party strengths in Parliament are close to opinion in the country.
In other words, we can both retain the virtues of single-member constituen- cies of the present size, and at the same time effectively reform the electoral sys- tem, only if the size of the House of Commons is substantially increased. The most difficult question for the commis- sion to resolve, before a reform proposal can be submitted to referendum, may therefore boil down to this: Should the number of MPs be increased to about 400 (one in four being elected in the new way)? Or is a more thorough move, towards close to proportional representa- tion, worth the cost of about 450 MPs (one in three being the new kind)?
Preparing the referendum question could, of course, be made much more time-consuming than the analysis here suggests. There is always scope for new research to re-tread old research, for confusing thought by academic irrelevancies, for the idealism of want- ing to do everything at once. There are, indeed, other important reforms related directly to elections: for example, find- ing a practicable way to eliminate the power of a prime minister to call an election at the time of his choice. It is even more important to ensure that political parties are more democratic in their internal affairs and that they use public funding for information and debate in the media, rather than for the present style of advertising spots.
Reforms, however, are not revolu- tions; they often come best in incre- ments. Electing MPs in two ways, from single-member constituencies and from wider lists, will not in itself restore pub- lic interest and trust in politics. It will not ”œfix” our democracy for a disillu- sioned generation. But it is the major lessening of the democratic deficit that can be secured by referendum early in 2006. It is the reform that fits the pres- ent times. And nothing would do more to raise the 2006 election campaign above the politics of 2005.