Tuesday, December 29, 2015

How soon they forget: Harper's Conservatives changed electoral finance laws without a referendum...

The private conservative media (which makes up the vast majority of private sector media in Canada) has been giving a lot of ink lately to their cause of stopping any kind of electoral system reform.  This is but a small sampling just in the last couple days. 

Why?  Because First-Past-The-Post in Canada has served their narrow conservative interests well.  First-Past-The-Post is one of the last vestiges of old-style politics where the establishment elites of the country controlled its politics.  Granted, things are much watered down since the time when only white aristocratic males who owned property decided who could govern.  But First-Past-The-Post has the effect of ensuring only establishment parties with appeal to mainstream voters can walk away with 100% control of government with as little as 35% of the vote.  It's a fundamentally undemocratic system.  

It's worthy to note that whenever new electoral systems are implemented in emerging democracies in recent years elsewhere in the world, the West insists on implementing proportional representation systems.  That way, extremist parties that only garner about 30 to 40 per cent of the vote can't walk away with absolute majorities, as they would under First-Past-The-Post.  Proportional representation does ensure that all viewpoints (that receive support over a threshold of 5% or so of the vote) gain representation in the legislative body.  First-Past-The-Post almost always ensures that only big parties win seats.

It's easy under First-Past-The-Post for the Conservatives to win majority power in Canada.  It only takes a divided progressive opposition.  Even a conservative as polarizing as Stephen Harper was able to win a majority with just 39.6% of the vote.  He did so because his opponents nicely divided up the rest of the vote to allow his party to claim first place in 166 of 308 seats.

Harper didn't govern for anyone except his Conservative Party base.  His main political strategy was to divide and conquer - to maximize Conservative turnout, while doing everything he could to minimize voter turnout for his opponents.

To that end, he unilaterally used every trick in the book.  First and foremost, his agenda included trying to bankrupt his opponents by changing the country's electoral finance laws.  This was meant to ensure other parties would be simply incapable of mounting a campaign as well-financed as his own.

Harper first tried in 2008 after winning a second minority government to immediately end public subsidies for political parties, which used to provide $1.75 or so for every vote a party received.  When that attempt nearly cost him his government, he shelved the idea until the 2011 election, when he campaigned on it.  Having won a majority with 39.6%, he implemented his promise.  He didn't call a referendum on something he promised to do, even though changing how parties are financed is crucial to how democracies run, even more so than how we count votes which impact on all parties equally, I'd say. 

Harper also implemented other major changes that would deny the right to vote to thousands of Canadians, such as stringent new identification laws to purportedly fight fraud that didn't really exist.  The only real crimes that threatened elections were mostly conducted by Conservatives themselves by overspending or trying to trick opposition voters into going to the wrong polling stations.  But none of those issues were ever seriously addressed by Harper's reforms.  In fact, Harper made it more difficult for Elections Canada to even investigate such electoral crimes in his so-called "Unfair Elections Act" passed in the last Parliament.  

Expatriate Canadians also found their voting rights taken away.  None of these new rules, which fundamentally changed how we conduct our elections, were ever put to a referendum before being implemented.

And of course, I can't recall any conservative apologists in the private media ever demanding a referendum on these changes before Harper unilaterally imposed them.  

Neither did they call for a referendum on the obscene new spending limits that gave the Conservatives a tremendous advantage over their opponents when they called a 78-day campaign this year.  Of course, the Harperites blew that advantage by having no coherent message to sell with all that money.  The call for change was powerful and, aided by a knockout performance by Justin Trudeau in the campaign, won the day, despite the immense disadvantages the Liberals faced.   One major promise of the Liberal platform included making 2015 the last First-Past-The-Post federal election in favour of a new system that ensures that every vote counts, whatever that means. 

Still, when contemplating the future, it's clear that Conservatives are still nostalgic for the divide-and-conquer strategies of Harper and are fearful of any change away from the current voting system, under which they've found it most easy to win fake majorities.  Most Conservatives have long forgotten the politics of Bill Davis, whose inclusive approach to governing, straddling the centre of the political spectrum, kept his Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in power for decades.

The fact is that almost every Conservative politician and commentator is dead set against changing First-Past-The-Post because the status quo serves their narrow political interests best.

Moving to a new system like Alternative Voting, or Instant-Run-Off voting, whereby voters rank their choices by preference to ensure the elected MP has over 50% support in their riding, would force Conservatives to abandon their divide-and-conquer approach to politics.   It won't be enough to inspire just 35% of your riding, while demoralizing the rest.  They'll instead have to rely on second preferences from other voters to get over the top, were such a system adopted. 

Even worse for Conservatives, proportional representation systems would largely benefit parties on the far left which are currently underrepresented, especially the Greens and the NDP.   That's why those parties back moving to PR: when they have little chance to actually win, it's in their best interests to at least hold the balance of power. 

In truth, all parties are hopelessly biased on this question, favouring new systems or current ones that provide them with maximized power.   Their supporters in the media dutifully fall into line as well with the same positions.

I suspect that conservatives demanding a referendum are doing so because they assume any referendum would defeat any possible change.   Every referendum in Canada on the question of electoral reform has been soundly defeated in recent years, with the exception of the 2005 British Columbia vote.  In that 2005 experience, voters gave 57% support for change, without that change being fully fleshed out.  This followed the 2001 election there where the Liberals won 77 out of 79 seats with just 58% of the vote.  The flaws of First-Past-The-Post were glaring and possibly inspired that 57% result.  

But strangely that vote wasn't enough to implement change.  The B.C. Liberals, who had lost their love of reform after winning their huge majority, imposed a 60% threshold for approval.   And due to the indecisive nature of the 2005 result, the government held another referendum in 2009 to clarify, this time putting the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation up against First-Past-The-Post.  And the status quo won easily with 61% of the vote.

The results were similar in Ontario and Prince Edward Island when new systems of PR were put up against First-Past-The-Post.  I worked in 2007 on the Ontario referendum for change.  It was an eye-opening and frustrating experience.  Voters seemed greatly uncertain about switching to PR, particularly worried about the imposition of party lists of candidates, as well as the potential political instability of constant coalition governments going forward.

In truth, Canada has no history of multi-party cooperation that would be necessary for coalition governments and PR.  Hence, why Canadians have seemed quite dubious about moving to PR.  Hence, why conservatives are now demanding a referendum federally, hoping any proposed change the federal Liberals may want to adopt will be defeated.  However, it remains uncertain if a modest and reasonable change like Instant Runoff voting (or preferential voting) would face the same skepticism from the electorate.  Although I'm sure the private sector media would carpet bomb the public with negative coverage of any proposed change that threatened a return to conservative majority power. 

Personally, I'd like to see a change to our system.  I can completely live with Instant Runoff voting as it would greatly improve democracy in this country.  No longer would parties be able to write off the majority of the electorate in favour of their narrow base, as Harper did.  It would also eliminate the need to vote strategically in your riding.  Instead, you could put a "1" next to your top choice, then "2" next to your second preference, and so on.

Parties and candidates would have to compete for second and third preferences before the election.   If there are deals to be made, such as a promise by one leading candidate to prioritize an issue of a secondary candidate or party, those deals could be made public before the vote, not in the back rooms in secret after the vote (which would have to be the case under any system of proportional representation.)

It's foolhardy to suggest that Instant Runoff would only benefit the Liberals.  If the electorate were determined to knock the Grits out of power, they would do so just as efficiently, if not more so, under Instant Runoff as they would under First-Past-The-Post. 

I don't believe the Liberals are obliged to hold a referendum on any proposed change.  They have a mandate to proceed as they set out in their electoral platform.  As we see in this article, the Liberals are sticking to their guns so far. 

It'll be interesting to see how this issue plays out.  I have no doubt Justin Trudeau firmly believes that 2015 should be the last First-Past-The-Post election.  It remains to be seen how widely they consult on any changes and if they can get away with unilateral voting system change, particularly if not only the opposition parties, but also Fair Vote Canada (which only wants PR in order to empower the far left in this country) screams bloody murder about it.

On the other hand, I have found from recent posts on this issue, as well from my experiences in the 2007 referendum, that the public simply does not care much about this issue.  If the opposition couldn't inspire public outrage against changes imposed by Harper last time, I have major doubts conservative opponents of electoral reform today will be any more successful.   They clearly have their work cut out for them. 

This is definitely an issue to watch in 2016.

On that note, this is probably my last post of the year!  So happy New Year to all!  

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