Conservative lead in national poll shows need to change voting system

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Voting in the Conservative Party of Canada

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Kevin O'Leary promises to punish provinces that levy carbon taxes or, in other unspecified ways, do not go along with his fiscal policies. He would cut federal transfers for health and other services to those provinces that dared defy him.

Maxime Bernier wants to end such transfers altogether, and equalization payments to boot. He would also reduce the corporate tax rate by five points, privatize Canada Post, end supply management and kick the CRTC out of telecom regulation.

Kellie Leitch wants to scrap the CBC and impose an arbitrary cultural values test on immigrants.

Andrew Scheer, one of the notionally moderate Conservative leadership candidates, would scrap the current carbon tax and align Canadian climate change policies with those of the Trump-led U.S.

Think none of them could really become prime minister? Think again. Consider the Conservatives' leadership voting system. And then consider this: under our first-past-the-post electoral system, it is possible — even likely — for a party with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. A Canadian prime minister with a majority government has almost unfettered power to make his or her agenda the law of the land.

After you've thought through all of that, remember this: Justin Trudeau has walked away from his campaign promise to change the way we vote.

Conservatives, leading in one poll, promise an extremist government

Of late, Conservative candidates have been pushing Trump-style populist buttons with increasing fervour. They have taken to attacking refugees.

Early on, O'Leary portrayed himself as the son of a Lebanese immigrant and not a Trump clone. Now, he wants to use the Charter of Rights' notwithstanding clause to deny basic human rights, guaranteed by an international treaty, to asylum seekers fleeing the refugee-hostile U.S. For his part, Bernier proposes using the army to push those refugee claimants back into the not-so-welcoming arms of U.S. authorities.

The picture is becoming clearer each day.

In 2019, when Canadians next go to the polls, the official opposition will offer an anti-environmental, anti-science, opposed to public services, hostile to human rights and, generally, right-wing populist alternative to the current party in power. In other words, the Conservative Party will propose a kind of government not too different from that of our neighbour to the south.

And in case readers think such an extremist choice would be beyond the pale for Canadian voters, the most recent federal politics opinion poll from Forum Research puts the still-leaderless Conservatives in the lead. Based on a mere 38 per cent of the popular vote, Forum's analysts say, the Conservatives would actually win a majority of the seats, if an election were held today.

In that context, it is worth remembering that, in Canada, prime ministers with majorities, regardless of their level of popular support, have enormous and unchecked power, far greater than do U.S. presidents. For all the virtues of our Westminster-style parliamentary system, it lacks the famous checks-and-balances of the U.S. system. There, the executive and legislative branches of government are separate and distinct.

As for the current malaise in Canada, it seems the Trudeau government's do-nothing budget did not exactly excite the electorate. If the government does succeed in fulfilling its pledge on marijuana, that might help with some voters. But, in the end, legalizing pot is a marginal issue, which will not move most Canadians.

Voters are fundamentally motivated by their sense of economic self-interest and well-being -- and that varies from region to region and person to person. When 2019 rolls around, you can bet that many Canadians will not be feeling better off than they were four years earlier. They will have lots of often-conflicting reasons to vote against the Justin Trudeau Liberals.

It is almost impossible to expect the charisma and charm that carried Justin Trudeau's Liberals to a first victory will sustain them a second time. Voters will judge the government on its record, on the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately scale. And many who were charmed in 2015 will be grumpy and dissatisfied in 2019. 

The current Prime Minister's father discovered that cruel fact in 1972. Four years earlier Pierre Trudeau had won a big majority. When he faced the people a second time, he came within a hair's breadth of losing. He only hung on to a bare minority. Trudeau père was lucky -- and, in any event, had he lost, the new PM would have been the decent and moderate Robert Stanfield, not some flame-throwing, right-of-centre ideologue.

Canadians, and Justin Trudeau, might not be so lucky in 2019. The choices are starker than they were in Trudeau’s father’s time. And that next election will, again, be fought under the first-past-the-post system. First-past-the-post has the devilish tendency to produce artificial and unearned majorities. 

Changing the electoral system is still possible

The election is two years away, however. There is still time, if not a lot, for the current prime minister to reconsider his position on changing the electoral system. Maybe his party's current popularity dip will give him and his advisers pause. If you flip on a promise, after all, you can always flop back.

The NDP should make it easy for the prime minister by offering to keep an open mind if he were to express a willingness to reconsider electoral reform. NDPers have been almost doctrinally opposed to Trudeau's favoured option: the preferential ballot or instant run-off. That option would not be a radical change. It would keep the same number of MPs and ridings we have now, but allow voters to rank candidates. It would then factor second and third choices into the selection of the ultimate winners.

The preferential ballot would militate against parties that practiced divisive and negative politics -- parties that seek to motivate only enough hard-core supporters to win a majority of the seats, even if they turn off the majority of the electorate in the process.

For their part, NDP politicians believe the preferential vote system would favour the Liberals, because expert analysis has shown such a system would have given the Liberals an even bigger victory than they won last time.

The NDPers' mistake is in failing to understand that the next election will be a whole new ball game, with a new set of circumstances and contingencies. It is quite possible that a centre-left party that did not bear the scars of having governed for four years could do quite well, next time, under a preferential system. 

Image: Twitter/@CPC_HQ

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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