Since Canada's miniature constitutional crisis began a few weeks ago, I have come to realize that I am talking at cross-purposes with my fellow Canadians. I have been misperceiving the statements by supporters of Stephen Harper's government as a problem of political literacy.
Statements that it is "undemocratic" for a group of MPs representing 54 per cent of voters and 52 per cent of parliamentarians to attempt to govern have so distracted me with their inaccuracy and inconsistency with parliamentary tradition that I have fallen into explaining that Canadian democracy does not work the way they claim. A leader of a party supported by 37 per cent of voters, holding 47 per cent of the seats in Parliament does not, based on any rules I know, have a "clear mandate" to rule unilaterally.
But that is not the point. Political debates are not and never should be about how things are. Politics is about how people think things should be. To look at recent polls, it is clear that a clear majority of Canadians believe it should be illegal for a set of parties supported by the majority to rule our country if the party that received the largest number of votes in the last election does not lead that group. They show a clear majority of Canadians do not believe that a government should require the confidence of a majority either of parliamentarians or of Canadians in order to govern.
Canadians want their government to be led the Prime Minister, not Parliament. We don't want the majority to rule but rather the largest plurality to do so. My disagreement with the majority of Canadians is not, as many of us have been pretending, a civic literacy issue. It is a civic values issue.
We leftists tend, erroneously, to believe ourselves more educated and intelligent than our opponents, that if we just "educate" people, they will come around to our point of view. This does a disservice both to our opponents, by insulting their intelligence, and to ourselves by recommending stupid political strategies.
What if instead of believing Canadians don't understand democracy, we consider the possibility that Canadians don't like democracy?
Democratic decision-making has three features: (a) public participation, (b) deliberation and (c) majority rule. While 59 per cent of Canadians remain willing to participate, it is increasingly evident that the second and third aspects have lost buy-in. Canadians prefer executive dictatorship to deliberation and negotiation; and they prefer rule by substantial minorities to rule by the majority.
How have we come to this point?
First, we need to look to our plurality voting system. A system that awards representation to the winner of the most votes in a single riding, irrespective of their proportion of the vote (recent elections have been won with as little as 29 per cent) means that "false majorities" are routinely produced when the party garnering less than a majority of the vote wins a "majority government" by coming first in the majority of seats.
But in the past, Canadians did believe in deliberative democracy and majority rule, despite our flawed voting system. Canadians expected Pierre Trudeau to co-govern during his minority government in 1972 and mocked Joe Clark for his failure to assemble a working parliamentary majority in 1979. He became an object of derision for his inability to assemble a voting majority in the Commons. Contrast the mockery of Clark to the contemporary indignation towards the parties that could not bring themselves to vote for the mini-budget. In the minds of most Canadians, it was not Harper who was at fault for failing to assemble a majority; it was the opposition for defying his one-man rule.
And what appears to have transformed that anger into outrage and a massive windfall of support for the Conservatives was opposition parties' plans to co-operate. Again and again, open line show callers and bloggers stated, "nobody voted for the coalition." True. But nobody voted for dismantling the nation's political funding system or a fire sale of crown assets, or any of the other proposals in the mini-budget. In the past, we have shown boundless tolerance for radical changes of direction after elections and the implementation of hitherto-unannounced policies (e.g. the Chretien government's radical reworking of social program funding) or cancellation of prominent portions of parties' platforms.
Obviously, there was something especially offensive about this particular deviation from campaign trail statements. And I would suggest that it was the idea of a coalition itself that Canadians found offensive, the idea that decision-making should be collaborative, deliberative and based in the Commons rather than the Prime Minister's Office. Canadians had come to expect Prime Ministerial dictatorship. And when it wasn't delivered they were disappointed to see the potential end of the plurality-based executive autocracy they have enjoyed during both minority and "majority" administrations for more than a generation.
Current polls show that support for personal, autocratic governance transcends Canada's right-left divide. Even as an increasing majority of Canadians come to perceive Harper's views as out of sync with theirs, a growing majority believe his government has the right to govern with or without parliament's consent.
This belief comes from a shifting perception of what makes a government and its leader legitimate. In most countries, the increasing diversity of political opinion has resulted in more proportional voting systems and coalition-building; it has reinforced deliberation and negotiation in politics. These changes have been made not simply out of respect for diversity but out of a growing demand for social and political order in the face of an increasingly diverse and atomized society. Yet Canadians, motivated by the same anxieties, have chosen a different response. We seek to vest power in the person who is most capable of fusing a subset of these atomized groups and individuals back into some kind of unified formation.
In our voting system, the most successful party is one best at reducing the number of choices its potential voters feel that they have. A look at Liberal messaging shows that Jean Chretien became increasingly reliant on his ability to convince potential NDP and Green Party supporters to vote for his party. And despite his antipathy for Chretien, Paul Martin intensified this approach. What we missed during that time was how this change in Liberal tactics helped to change Canadian ideas of what made a legitimate government. As the Liberals lost their capacity to intimidate left-of-centre voters, they lost power. And Canadians learned a lesson: a government's legitimacy comes not from its ability to appeal to the majority but instead from its ability to control and discipline its own supporters and potential supporters.
Of course, the Liberal Party's fortunes were not the main way this lesson was imparted to Canadians. They learned this best through the "unite the right" movements that began in 1997. The failure of the Canadian Alliance to limit competition and restrict choices available to conservatives was correctly portrayed as the reason that conservative Canadians failed to retake power in 2000. The democratic, voluntary processes set up by Preston Manning to concentrate the conservative vote were rejected as insufficient and conservative activists embarked on the project of the total eradication of one of their two parliamentary parties.
Stephen Harper's instrumental involvement in the process of destroying the Progressive Conservative Party and restricting the choices of right-of-centre voters has come to be perceived by Canadians as the source of his and his party's political legitimacy. Canadians today perceive the basis of a leader's legitimacy to rule stemming not from his ability to gain the support of the majority but his ability to control and discipline his electoral base by restricting their choices on their ballot and intimidating them into concentrating their votes more effectively than their competitors.
For Canadians, entitlement to rule comes not from the capacity to build a coalition representing the majority but instead from the capacity to discipline one's core constituency. This is why, much as they find these attributes of Harper personally distasteful at a human level, Canadians appear politically undaunted by the image of a Prime Minister who rules his party by fear and centralizes power in his own hands. What offended Canadians about the likes of Randy White and other undisciplined, bigoted members of the Class of '93 Reformers was not their bigotry, per se. It was the way their public statements demonstrated Manning's inability to offer the discipline and control Chretien could.
While some see this is as evidence of the Americanization of Canadian politics, it is far more Russian than American. Americans can barely comprehend the idea of an "official opposition," because they assume that every single member of the legislative branch, just like the executive, part of the government and responsible for co-governing the nation. Executive leadership is an American value. Total executive hegemony, at least on this continent, is a thoroughly Canadian one.
Lest leftists misread this as an indictment of the right, let me be clear: this is a national problem. One need only look at the City of Toronto, bastion of coalition support in recent weeks. Municipally, NDP and labour leaders have vociferously supported creating a "strong mayor" system of municipal governance. In Toronto, our NDP mayor and his supporters argue that our legislative body, the city council, is "dysfunctional." But instead of supporting reforms to the body, their solution is "to drain the power of council" into the mayor's office. New Democrats join Liberals and Conservatives in demanding the radical disempowerment of the legislature and concentration of power in a mayoral autocracy able to set civic policy without the consent of a legislative majority.
This should not surprise us. For all the obfuscation of their public campaign, the most vociferous defenders of plurality voting and minority rule in the 2005 B.C. referendum on proportional representation were New Democrats, eager for the next time a right-wing vote split results a 39 per cent "majority" government for them.
Western NDPers internalized decades ago a belief the majority of Canadian voters are now coming to accept: what entitles you to rule is not the confidence of the majority but rather the relative discipline of your gang. And in this model, coalition-building, deliberative governance and majority rule are the very opposite of political legitimacy in today's Canada.
Stuart Parker is a director of Fair Voting BC and the Toronto Democracy Initiative. In the past, he has served as a director of Fair Vote Canada and the leader of the Green Party of British Columbia. He is currently an instructor at the University of Toronto's History Department.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.