Centre block of Parliament Hill.
Centre block of Parliament Hill.

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I feel like writing a letter to the editor about surly, negative journalistic reactions to the prospect of electoral reform. There are exceptions, though only Andrew Coyne of the National Post comes to mind.

Many journalists seem preemptively nostalgic for a foul, undemocratic system that has only longevity in its favour, like the death penalty in the U.S. Pardon, the death penalty may have more to be said for it.

I’m perplexed over why they become passionate and fastidious about a political relic rooted in 18th- and 19th-century political worst practices that has lingered longer than it ever should’ve and now only survives here and in the U.K.

Note that the Liberal campaign promise last fall was that this would be the last Canadian election held under the first-past-the-post system. It was a simple negative and I think voters were aware of it to the extent they’re aware of platforms in elections. The implication was that any alternative — proportional representation, mixed member proportional or ranked ballot — would be better than what we have. Didn’t matter which. Out, out, damned spot.

The hostility to reform among parties is understandable. The Tories’ only chance at power lies in our current, rigged (thanks, Trump, the word applies perfectly well here) system. If they needed a genuine majority they’d have to go back to being the kind of inclusive, somewhat progressive party they once were. The NDP want only a proportional system and seem ready to stick with the status horribilis if they can’t get that. Me, I’m good with any change.

But wherefore those journalists? Rosemary Barton, host of CBC’s daily politics show, is irate about the non-voting status of the Greens and Bloc on the committee set up to study reform. She finds it hypocritical. She’s outraged by it — not by Canada never having held a genuinely democratic vote.

CP veteran Jennifer Ditchburn, on Rosie’s show, says she could “rant on forever” — not about democratic sacrilege through the centuries but procedural government ineptitude and especially the timeline! The timeline, O the timeline!

Chantal Hebert in the Star has written on this three times already this month. She says the process has been “largely discredited” and hasn’t been “minimally respectful of Parliament.” I guess I’d say Parliament will deserve more respect once it’s been truly democratized. She also says this isn’t high on Canadians’ list of concerns, which may be true. But if so that’s because people think we already live in a democracy — with all those Parliamentary “majorities” — and maybe the press could spare a little ink to correct that false impression.

Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe, who has consistently opposed basic reform, says “the electoral system, like the Constitution … belongs to the people, not the political parties.” I think he means there must be a referendum.

But we’ve already been handed two constitutions, one in 1867, which Sir John A. decreed people be given no chance to vote on and a similar procedure in 1982. Our “electoral system” isn’t even in either constitution. It’s a hand-me-down from Britain.

Instead of getting mired in a referendum “process” (what alternatives are on it? What percentage is required to win?) how about leapfrogging to a place where minority governments can never again pretend to be majorities?

What’s behind these sour responses to a sunnier democratic future? Have journalists learned to cover elections as they now are and don’t want to retool? That’d be mean-spirited to suggest though if the shoe fits, etc.

Or perhaps they see themselves as surrogates for the benighted, politically deprived masses who they stand in for, holding the elites to account since ordinary people can’t, due to the current political math? That’s convoluted but sounds more like it.

Or are journalists embarrassed at having ignored this rotting system for so long? We all should be but they’re the watchdogs who’ve blithely treated a democratic atrocity as if it’s a virtue or at least something normal, like the weather. Anyone would rather not have such dereliction pointed out.

So they opt to continue covering peccadilloes and light abrasions rather than the limb that got lopped off and never replaced or even sutured. It’s as if some huge story — say, an airliner going down once a week on the same day for years — never got reported, while all the energy went into the occasional fender bender.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Brandon.L/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.