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Jackson Doughart
Jackson Doughart joined the Prince Arthur Herald staff in June 2013, and now serves as Editor of the English section. He holds a master's degree in political studies from Queen's University and formerly interned at the National Post. By day, he is Research Coordinator at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax.

Don’t worry. Electoral reform won’t happen

Conservatives have been up in arms over the past couple of weeks on account of the Liberal government’s plans on electoral reform. They have every right to be indignant. Even if you think that changing the electoral system is a legitimate project, and that a referendum is not required to enact reform, one can’t accept the stacking of the committee with Liberals, which ensures the input of others to be ultimately irrelevant in its recommendations. Any change to the system should be made with the consent of all parties represented in the House of Commons. Even the Bloc and the Greens, after all, represent constituents and therefore deserve a seat at the table; short of a plebiscite, the only way that this process can be legitimate is if Parliament – acting as an independent body of legislators constituted by members belonging to the various parties – can arrive at a consensus approved of by all, and not merely the one party with a voting majority.

But in a spirit of one-half cynicism, one-half equanimity, I’m here to tell you that there isn’t much to worry about. The odds are still overwhelming that electoral reform will not happen – not this time, perhaps not ever. This has always been a point of frustration among those who believe strongly that first-past-the-post should be replaced by a more proportional model; most people never seemed to care, and it was never important enough to the governing parties to intervene against this dearth of public demand.

These facts remain essentially unchanged. The ephemeral nature of the public’s enthusiasm for electoral reform is perhaps best demonstrated by the national glee at our new “sunny ways” regime, delivered to the Canadian people via nothing less than first-past-the-post. It’s hard to imagine people glowing so much about a government whose method of election they viewed as illegitimate. In other words, this is something that the Liberals are going to be able to wait out, if they so wish. For the appetite that the Liberals are now fulfilling is one of the appearance of change – in governing style, attitude toward opponents, receptiveness to “evidenced-based” policy suggestions, and so on – not necessarily change itself. The fact that they are going to hold consultations across the country is probably supererogatory at this point; the key is that Stephen Harper didn’t ever consider the idea of electoral reform while in office, let alone send out his lieutenants to document the views of every Joe and Clair about the system. That the Liberals will be able to say that they did so in 2019 is yet one more check mark dissociating their “style” from that of their predecessors.


[I]f the consultations uncover a public appetite for actual change, Prime Minister Centerfold can manufacture an epiphany about needing a referendum after all, and the Liberal-controlled Parliament – controlling the funding supply for these things – can kibosh the movement through neglect, or simply author a plebiscite question which guarantees a status quo outcome


Our parties have stayed true to their characteristics through this process. The NDP has the most principled and reformist position on offer – namely to actually change the animating principle of elections to proportional representation – but their opinion matters little as the third-place party in Parliament. The Conservatives are sceptical of change and cling to a foundational principle of theirs, i.e. that major changes in law and process should only be enacted with the consent of the governed. To whatever degree that the public will adopt an oppositional stance to this committee and its recommendations, it will echo the Tory objections. And as usual, the Liberals are doing what is good for the Liberals.

This is why I can’t see anything changing. The Liberals are a party to whom first-past-the-post has been very kind. It is possible that they could ram through an alternative system that keeps the floor plan of first-past-the-post but moves the furniture around a bit, to their marginal strategic benefit in future elections. (A ranked-ballot system in which second choices are employed to “top up” candidate votes to a majority within a given riding might have this effect, since Conservative and NDP voters might be less likely to select one another’s candidate as a second choice than they would choose a Liberal. To both NDP and Conservative die-hards, the Liberals are just softer versions of their ideological enemies.) But doing so involves potential consequences: the opposition parties could rightfully paint the move as autocratic, which could damage the government’s bid for re-election. And however accurately we might imagine our predictions of alternate systems to be, the possible outcomes for a new model would still be an unknown for all parties. That’s a big gamble for the Liberals, who have been afforded power through the incumbent formula so often.



More from the PAH:


Tom Kott: Constraining personal identity is not the Government’s job

Henry Srebrnik: The return of Ross Perot

Alex Whalen: Was the Duffy scandal to blame for Harper’s demise?



The only change that would be a fundamental is to proportional representation. And PR’s effect would be to make changes in Parliament’s balance of power continuous and contingent (on Important Piece of Legislation X or Budget Y, or for that matter on Party Z’s degree of unity at a given moment) rather than definite and cyclical. Imagine the party seat counts under PR as different-coloured gobs of play-dough, having to be pulled apart and reassembled into a governing figure as often as necessary between elections. What we have now is, for all intents and purposes, an electoral college for the office of Prime Minister, with the PMO’s power ebbing in minority times.

So far, it seems that both the Liberals and the Conservatives prefer to bank on the cycle of supreme majority-government power coming round to them in due time. And, as always, their opinions are the only ones who matter most here. So here’s what will probably happen: once the consultations are done and the opinions of Canadians are duly collected, it will emerge that most of the surveyed people don’t care much for the Liberal reform proposal on offer, or don’t understand it, or both. Then the government can say it did its mandated work and toss the issue into the dustbin of history. Or if the consultations uncover a public appetite for actual change, Prime Minister Centerfold can manufacture an epiphany about needing a referendum after all, and the Liberal-controlled Parliament – controlling the funding supply for these things – can kibosh the movement through neglect, or simply author a plebiscite question which guarantees a status quo outcome.

All of this would be far more likely than the Government ramming reform down the national throat. In time, the Liberals will come to excuse themselves from this campaign promise, and the governed will duly give its consent.

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