Canada goes democratic in 2010: A fevered fantasy?

Imagine the Canadians Against Proroguing rally next Saturday and there, gazing from a chilly platform over a crowd of university students sprinkled with older folk, stands Michael Ignatieff.


In parka, Sorels and toque the beleaguered Liberal leader looks warm enough to think clearly. He has no notes, no teleprompter.


"My fellow Canadians," Ignatieff begins, "I have some confessions to make. I'm here to ask your forgiveness and understanding and to make some new commitments."


"Today we're protesting Stephen Harper's sudden decision to kill off the last Parliament for a couple of months, but we've got more on our minds.


"The House of Commons was in deep democratic deficit when the Prime Minister put it to sleep. It will be just as undemocratic when it comes back. Whether that's Jan, 25 or March 3 doesn't much matter.


"Confession One," he continues. "Liberals bear a big responsibility for Canada's democratic deficit. My party governed for most of the past century. We never had majority public support in any election. We dined out on that undemocratic voting system.


"Confession Two," he goes on. " I was persuaded to quit Harvard and come home by Liberals who imagined we were still the natural governing party. I saw a quick short-cut to the Prime Minister's office. I parked my advocacy of secular democratic government and chased the dream of undemocratic power.


"Confession Three," he smiles humbly. "I was deluded. It turns out my recruiters couldn't count noses. I've been getting my butt kicked. The House of Commons is deadlocked. The country faces decades of government by a party most Canadians don't trust and can't control. Something's got to change.


"As Liberal leader I now invite the other parties to join me in an immediate rewrite of the Canada Elections Act. The Liberal goal is to assure every adult citizen an equal effective vote and equal representation in the House of Commons.


"Despite what you're thinking, I'm not the first Liberal to have these thoughts. Equal representation is what Pierre Trudeau foresaw with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its guarantee of equal treatment under the law. It's where Jean Chretien was leaning when he provided new public funding for political parties based strictly on their popular vote. It's what Paul Martin saw coming when he promised to attack Canada's democratic deficit.


"Bringing that Liberal tradition up to date, I promise that any government led by Michael Ignatieff will bring democratic voting and equal representation to every Canadian.


"Democratic reform will mean, among other things, fair representation for Liberals in Alberta, for New Democrats in Saskatchewan, for Conservatives in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and for supporters of all the federal parties in Quebec.


"The Liberal Party concedes that "winner-take-all" elections usually leave half the voters or more in each riding with no voice in Parliament. That is simply undemocratic. It's wrong. We've got to change it.


Ignatieff is now warming to his theme, and a mischievous glint comes into his eyes.


"I further promise that the Liberal Party will not quibble, obfuscate or delay the achievement of fair voting and equal representation," he declares. " I invite Jack Layton and Elizabeth May to agree on the main features of a new voting system. We in the Liberal Party will join whatever consensus they reach. I further challenge the Bloc Quebecois and the Conservative Party to match this Liberal commitment. Let all the parties agree to make democratic voting the law of Canada during the next session of Parliament."


He pauses thoughtfully. "It is quite possible, of course, that Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe do not want Canada to have democratic voting. We may have to change the law without their help.


"Today I invite Jack Layton and Elizabeth May to arrange with me, before the next election, a temporary alliance," Ignatieff says. "We need enough riding-by-riding saw-offs to produce a clear House of Commons majority of Liberals, New Democrats and Greens committed to a previously agreed voting reform.


Turning straight to a camera, Ignatieff delivers his final flourish. "Canadians here and everywhere: if you want reform, insist on the electoral alliance. It's the only way you'll ever get democratic voting.


As Ignatieff sits down the crowd, initially stunned into silence, gradually breaks into applause and then loud chants of "Go, Iggy, Go."


The student chair whispers in his ear: "Fantastic, but where the hell did that come from?"


"Well," Ignatieff whispers back "we showed the Americans medicare and they're finally starting to get it. Now we have to show them democracy. They need it even more than we do."


John Deverell is Treasurer of Fair Vote Canada, the multi-partisan campaign for voting reform. He's an author, journalist and former president of the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild CEP Local 87.


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