From my leftish viewpoint, I’d say this new Parliament presents a great opportunity — and I don’t just mean the opportunity to avoid disaster.

When Paul Martin began whanging that guitar on Sunday night before the election, I couldn’t imagine anyone voting for him or his party next day. He had the manic look in his eye of Richard Reed, the shoe bomber: “Look, I’m blowing myself up, and everyone around me, too.” It isn’t over till the jittery guy strums, and this was over. Yet voters saw past it and other distractions. They delivered what seemed like a unified message from a single mind: You — go sit in the corner. You — you’re in charge, but only by default. The rest of you — act nice.

People keep talking about the eerily co-ordinated quality of the result, as if voters found a way to act as appendages of the same body. Hmm, the body politic. Environics pollster Michael Adams sort of takes credit for it on behalf of his profession, saying pollsters provided ongoing feedback by which people could adjust their votes. Polls as a self-non-fulfilling prophecy. I’m dubious, but it’s charming how everyone finds a way to make themselves the hero of the movie.

And in democratic terms, it wasn’t nearly as bad as most elections. The Conservatives, with 36 per cent of the votes, got “only” 40 per cent of seats. The Liberals, with 30 per cent of votes, got 33 per cent of seats. The NDP, with 17 per cent of the vote, got 9 per cent of seats (better than last time, when they got 6 per cent of seats for 16 per cent of votes). And the Bloc Québécois, happily, got 16 per cent of seats for just 10 per cent of votes.

The Greens, with 4.5 per cent of the vote, got, um, well, too bad.

But it could have been worse. If the Tories gleaned just two per cent more of the vote, reaching 38 per cent, they might have won the “solid majority” of seats with which the Chrétien Liberals were rewarded in 1997. Have you noticed how majority has been defined down to 38 per cent from the fusty old mark of 50-per-cent-plus-one? When did that happen? These kinds of stats have been available for the entire history of our estimable, British-based electoral system, described by Churchill and innumerable others quoting him, as “the worst form of government except all those other forms . . .” Yet, they were rarely cited in election reporting in the past, as if it was unseemly, like mentioning child poverty too loudly or spitting in the punchbowl. Now, at least it’s acceptable.

But hopeful? Opportunities? I’m saying this Parliament has more potential for creative, democratic compromise than all those sclerotic bodies that had a majority elected by a minority that then got to do all the damage it wanted, unimpeded, for four or five years. Normally you don’t even talk about the potential of a Parliament. Everyone focuses on the government. That changes when there is a fractured, minority situation.

Take democratic reform itself. The Harper conservatives, i.e., the old Reform Party, put democratic change on the national agenda long before other parties. But they were not keen on proportional representation (PR), where the number of reps actually jibes with votes cast. That’s because they were from the West, which “wanted in.” PR might have meant even less power, in terms of members elected, than they had. So they demanded Senate reform instead, to give more power to less-populous provinces like Alberta. But now they’re morphing into a national party, and PR may seem less of a threat. (I grant a wishful quality is seeping in here.) Now, what if other parties take the lead on PR? Could Stephen Harper and his government buy in? Especially if they proposed and got in return, Senate reform to solidify the role of the regions and provinces?

Or take a national child-care program, in my view the biggest loss in the Liberal downfall. What if the losing parties, who all favour it, impose it? They have the votes to do so. But rather than let his government fall on the matter, what if Mr. Harper agreed to it, on condition that his own child-care subsidy, or tax benefit, be enacted, too — the one (beer and popcorn) meant to help people who want to keep their young kids at home?

There now — for those still feeling grumpy about the results — wasn’t that constructive?


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.