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We need a referendum on electoral reform? No! We need a national referendum on the TPP!

Justin Trudeau

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Lately it has been very hard to avoid noisy demands for a national referendum on the federal Liberal government's electoral reform plans. These demands all emanate from the Conservative Party and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Canadian Perpetual Outrage Industry.

Funny, though, isn't it, how we never heard anything about such referenda back in the bad old days when the Conservatives were in the drivers' seat, bragging about how they were going to change the country beyond recognition? They nearly succeeded, but for the grace of God and Justin Trudeau's solid left hook!

So let me ask you this about that: if our democratic electoral mechanisms are so important that they can't be trusted to politicians and ought only to be changed by national referendum, what about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement? After all, it was negotiated in secret by the Harper government and actually surrenders our national sovereignty to corporate-run transnational entities.

Surely, according to the Tories' anti-electoral-reform arguments, the case is even stronger for a national referendum on the TPP? Why aren't they campaigning for that? (Suggestion: Don't hold your breath waiting for that campaign to get under way.)

In truth, the Tory opposition to electoral reform, while natural enough, has little to do with the fundamentals of democracy, as their support for the TPP handily illustrates. Pretty obviously, it's because the only way Conservative Party of Stephen Harper and Rona Ambrose can hope to hold power in today's Canada is the first-past-the-post system, which only delivers the people's will in most places if there are just two parties competing for the people's vote. Throw in a third party with strong support on the centre-left, and the way is open to yet another future Conservative majority.

If that happened, as Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin pointed out last month, the Conservatives would need "a genuine majority" to govern the way they did under Harper, and that in turn would require them "to go back to being the kind of inclusive, somewhat progressive party they once were."

Now that's an existential threat worthy of keeping Brad Wall awake all night!

This is the real explanation for why preserving first-past-the-post -- or, as we used to say in political science class, single-member plurality -- has become the modern Republicanized Canadian Conservative Party's hill to die on.

So don't be fooled. The Tory referendum demand is just democratic-sounding flapdoodle, desperate rhetoric designed to stall electoral reform until the Cons can get another kick at changing the country beyond recognition under first-past-the-post.

This looks less likely now that the Liberals have bent enough to get the NDP on side to "start work on electoral reform in a collaborative manner," as New Democrat Alexandre Boulerice, MP for Rosemont-La Petite-Partie, told iPolitics recently. But this story is far from over, so the Conservative referendum campaign will loudly continue.

Indeed, the fact things are moving as swiftly as they are is bound to arouse the Conservatives, their online supporters and mainstream media echo chamber to real fury. So if you think the fanciful predictions you have heard up to now are dire, just wait!

Not long after last fall's federal elections, which brought Trudeau's Liberals to power partly on a promise of electoral reform in some unspecified form, the Conservatives vowed to use their appointed majority in the unelected Senate to block any such change.

"The entire Conservative caucus, both in the House and the Senate, will be opposing any radical changes to the electoral system without a referendum," Don Plett, the Conservative Whip in the Senate, told The Globe and Mail at the time. Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, said much the same thing. (Remember, by the way, when Canadian Conservatives say "radical," they mean anything they don't like for any reason.)

I think we can safely assume the Conservatives will do just that, and democracy be damned.

Meanwhile, though, the Tories are not just good with the TPP, they're warm for its form!

Yet if Parliament ratifies the TPP, as may well happen under a Liberal majority too, Canada will never again be able to expand our public health-care system, for example by implementing a national pharmacare program.

The TPP was sold as a "free trade agreement" among 12 Pacific Rim Countries, but would be more accurately described as an investor-protection straightjacket. As a result of its strong investor protection provisions, foreign investors would have the ability to sue Canada for billions of dollars if the federal or provincial governments tried to extend public health programs that replace services now provided by the private sector.

That would put a desperately needed pharmacare program, for example, right in the crosshairs -- and hand plenty of ammunition to the opponents of public services to label new ones "unaffordable."

Basic health insurance coverage would be grandfathered under the agreement, but any weakening of its provisions by a market-fundamentalist provincial government could never be put right again.

Other negative impacts of being part of the TPP would include:

  • It extends periods during which drug patents are in force, making it harder and more expensive to introduce lower-cost generic drugs
  • It gives foreign drug companies the right to appeal and tie up Canadian regulatory decisions, adversely impacting approvals and safety
  • It allows Canadians' personal data to be stored in the United States, and therefore makes it subject to intrusive U.S. security laws like the fascistic PATRIOT Act, which could easily grow worse under the next Administration

All this strongly suggests why the Harper Conservatives negotiated the TPP in secrecy.

I would say this wholesale surrender of national sovereignty and vast limitation of democracy that just happens to tie law-makers' hands on policies not likely to be advocated by today's radical Conservatives is the most pressing issue for a national referendum today, wouldn't you?

Failing that, we can cross our fingers and pray for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to keep their promise to scuttle this wretched scheme.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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