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I’m in favour of a primarily negative approach to electoral reform. I think Justin Trudeau hit the right note when he said this election should be the last first-past-the-post election in Canadian history. Negative isn’t always so negative. This election was mainly about negating Stephen Harper, and only secondarily, who’d replace him. The first thing we do: kill first-past-the-post.

This democratic abomination is an insult to Canadians and a humiliation before the world, most of which doesn’t use it. It means winner take all, but what does that mean? You can win big with a tiny number of votes as long as everyone else gets even fewer. You can win with 10 votes out of 100 cast, if 10 others got nine votes each. Real 50-per-cent majorities don’t matter. It’s staggering that we’ve put up with it so long — as if the magic of casting a ballot blinded us to how it gets nullified and devalued at the same moment.

It’s meant that governments, both federal and provincial, could get a majority of seats, allowing them to behave dictatorially and pass any laws they wanted, with a minority of votes. It happened routinely. The last parliamentary majority based on a majority of votes came in 1984. Are Canadians just stupid? I’d say, not exactly. They put up with it for practical reasons.

For most of the 20th century, we had Liberal governments nationally with a minority of votes. But if you added in NDP (or its predecessor, CCF) votes, they amounted to a majority and the Liberals were sly enough to apply policies — often stolen from the CCF-NDP, like medicare and pensions — that seemed to represent this imaginary “majority.” In Ontario, Conservatives ruled from 1943 to 1985, but they leaned “Red Tory,” to achieve a similar inclusive sense. Canadians being practical, tolerated these ersatz majorities. Then it all changed.

During the Harper years, 60-70 per cent of voters — Liberal, NDP, Bloc, Green — were broadly united behind a mild centre-leftism and against Harperism. Harper ignored that, especially with his 40-per-cent “majority” after 2011. He governed for his 30-40 per cent without even a façade of representing a true majority. This exposed the horror of FPTP as never before. Last week’s election might easily have extended it but we lucked out. That’s why electoral reform seems newly urgent.

Will it happen? Hard to know. Wars will be fought over what to replace it with. There’s a stack of alternatives which all have passionate proponents who’ve spent decades honing proofs that theirs is the only solution. It’s worse than medieval theology or Marxist schisms. Most systems are hellish to explain. Voting change maven Dave Meslin was on CBC Wednesday with Lego towers (CBC budget cuts, y’know) to illustrate options. It was largely incomprehensible. Lots of these perfectionists would opt for no change if it’s not their change.

The Liberals, with their own phoney 39.6-per-cent majority, could choose one system — doubtless the one they think they’d do best under — and ram it through. But should they? Many loud voices will demand a referendum because you shouldn’t make basic changes in democracy in such an undemocratic way.

Yet a referendum might well mean nothing changes. There’ve been several provincial ones recently and all failed — because arbitrary levels for approval were set (B.C., where it had to reach 60 per cent) or few resources went into explaining the changes (Ontario). If there are alternative plans to vote between, forget it.

Personally, and this is where it gets sticky, I’d favour shoving anything — as long as it throttles FPTP forever — through. Once gone it’ll never rise again. No Canadian ever had a chance to vote on our Constitution, either in 1867 or 1982. That’s a shame, but why get fastidious at this point? There was no debate, much less a referendum, on the wretched voting system we got. The sole legitimate use I can imagine for using a phoney parliamentary majority, would be to kill forever the possibility of having phoney majorities. After that, the process could continue — why not — toward a more perfect electoral system.

If there is a referendum I’ll cheerily join the debate and I’ll vote. But I’d happily forego it for the joyous certainty of never seeing FPTP again. That feels like a democratic inconsistency on my part and it embarrasses me. But frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: ahblair/flickr

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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.