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Keeping first-past-the-post is a gift to the right

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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We can now see the Liberal strategy for the next election clearly.

It is based on the idea of wasted votes.

Politics in the West has become scary, what with Brexit and Trump, and far-right, populist parties growing throughout Europe.

Internationally, Trudeau's Canada is seen as, in the New York Times' words: "Leading the Free World."

Progressives can legitimately argue that the prime minister is, too often, far better at the symbolic stuff than the real.

But Justin Trudeau has taken many stances that are a big departure from his right-wing predecessor and are the polar opposite of what is happening in Trumpland. Voters on the port side of the boat can't argue that his heart is not in the right place.

That's why the Liberals think they can defy history and win another majority next time.

History does teach the opposite. A party in power tends, over time, to make more enemies than friends, and since the 1950s, prime ministers who won big majorities always lost support the next time. That was true of John Diefenbaker, Justin Trudeau's father Pierre, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper.

Trudeau and his advisers believe, however, that in 2019 they will be able to convince voters on the left not to "waste their votes" and opt, again, for the Liberals. The alternative might be frighteningly odious.

Raising false fears of 'instability'

As for electoral reform, after promising it repeatedly (up until about two weeks ago), the prime minister now says changing the current system would create instability.

The truth is, in fact, that the status quo -- first-past-the-post -- has created instability in the past, and threatens to do so in the future.

Liberals talk darkly about how a partly proportional system might give extreme, alt-right politicians a handful of seats in parliament.

Well, in 2011, first-past-the-post gave a party that was on the right edge of Canadian politics not just a few seats, but a majority government.

And, of course, in the U.S., the first-past-the-post, state-by-state, Electoral College system put a mentally unstable, extremist in the White House, even though his opponent earned nearly three million more votes.

In addition, Germany has had a mixed-member proportional system since the end of the Second World War, and has had stable, consensual and effective coalition governments the entire time.

The German system requires that a party must garner at least five per cent of the vote to get any seats, and that has kept out extreme elements.

Currently there are no extremists in the German parliament.

It is true that the anti-immigration AfD (Alternative for Germany) has risen in the polls and could gain a foothold in the election to be held later this year. Ironically, however, the AfD would likely do better under Canadian-style first-past-the-post than in the German system, which combines first-past-the-post and proportional. The AfD's support is fairly concentrated geographically, which is the key to success under first-past-the-post.

The Canadian right needs first-past-the-post to win a majority

The argument that a system with a degree of proportionality is more likely than our current system to allow extremist or otherwise disruptive elements into parliament is not, in the end, supported by the evidence.

In Canada, first-past-the-post elevated a separatist party that ran candidates in only one province to the status of official opposition. That result helped destabilize the Canadian federation on the eve of the nail-biter 1995 Quebec referendum.

And that is just one example of the skewed, and potentially destabilizing, results you can get from our current system.

For all the talk about how a major change in the electoral system would be wrenching and require enormous political energy, at a time when the Canadian government must focus intensely on the Trump challenge, the truth is that maintaining the current system could turn out to be the high risk and imprudent course of action.

And who is happiest about the prime minister backing away from his reform pledge?

You've got it: the large, frisky and divisive, right-wing element in the Conservative party.

They are rubbing their hands with glee -- first, because Trudeau has damaged his brand by reneging on a major promise without providing a valid reason; and second, because right-of-centre Conservatives now have another chance to win a majority with far less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

NDP should adopt Trudeau's preferential ballot

Having said all that, here is a radical suggestion for the NDP.

Trudeau has indicated quite clearly that if he could see something resembling a consensus in favour of the system he favours, which is not partly proportional but a preferential ballot, his government might still be pursuing electoral reform.

New Democrats should call his bluff.

They should tell him they would support a preferential ballot, even without a referendum, on the condition that the switch would be for one election only. Parliament would have to decide on a new electoral system, or maintenance of the preferential ballot, before the subsequent election. Any reform legislation presented to the current parliament would have to include a binding commitment to that principle, leaving the door wide open to the adoption, in the future, of a partly proportional system.

A preferential system maintains our current single-member constituencies, but allows voters to rank candidates -- first choice, second, etc.

When no candidate wins 50 per cent plus one of first choices, second choices are counted, and then third, until someone actually wins a majority.

The system is sometimes called an instant run-off.

A modest reform of this sort would work against divisive, non-consensual parties that seek only to be the first choice of enough voters to get them a majority of seats, even if they alienate nearly everyone else.

Polling indicates that had we a preferential system last time, the Liberal majority would have been even bigger.

That's why the NDP fears the preferential option.

But NDPers should not make the mistake of projecting last election's results onto future votes. It is quite possible that if we have a preferential system in 2019 the NDP, and even the Greens, could gain a large proportion of second-choice votes.

And just because the Liberals are (notionally) the party of the centre does not mean they will always be the first or second choice of most voters.

In 2019, the Liberals' tactic of scaring NDP and Green supporters into voting for them might not work as well as they hope.

And voters who tend to lean rightward, but who, hankering for a change, voted for Trudeau in 2015, will have many reasons to turn back to the Conservatives in 2019.

The Liberals will not be running on a long list of bright and shiny promises, next time. They will have a record to defend. Thousands of their 2015 voters will, inevitably, be unhappy with one aspect or other of their record.

And so, in 2019, Trudeau risks not just losing support and his majority, as did his father, but losing power, as did Stephen Harper.

And, if the votes land in the right places, a party that would undo basic environmental protections, disrespect science, demonize unions and sweep Indigenous challenges under the rug could, once again, gain 100 per cent of the power with less than 40 per cent of the vote.

A preferential ballot would protect against that all-too-real possibility.

A party that pursued a divisive, narrowcasting strategy might have its fair share of ardent first choice supporters -- enough, perhaps, under first-past-the-post, to win a majority of seats. But such a party would not likely earn enough second- and third-choice votes to win a majority.

Trudeau did not do himself honour by reneging on his electoral reform promise.

NDPers should now rise above their understandable sense of betrayal and announce that they are ready to do what is best for the country by supporting a preferential ballot -- for now, at least, if not forever. 

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Keep Karl on Parl

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