Less than half the vote could give radical rightists all the power

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Photo: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr

Doug Ford, the new Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) leader, is a long way from winning the next Ontario election, which is more than two months away. But it would be foolhardy to ignore the fact that most recent polls put Ford’s PC party at around 40 per cent in the popular vote.

Four out of 10 is far from a majority of votes. Many more Ontarians are inclined to vote against Ford than for him. And a good many of that latter group deeply fear and distrust the new Ontario PC leader.

But the anti-Fords are split among three parties: Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals and Andrea Horvath’s New Democrats, in more or less equal proportion, with a much smaller cohort supporting the Greens.

We still use the first-past-the-post electoral system in Ontario. Under that system, 40 per cent of the vote can easily deliver considerably more than 50 per cent of the seats. Indeed, if current trends were to hold, Ford and his gang would win a big majority on June 7.

Once again, first-past-the-post would give 100 per cent of the power to a party with far fewer than half the votes. To make matters worse, in the current Ontario case the winning party would be the second choice of almost nobody. That would mean a Ford government would not even have the tacit or acquiescent support of the majority who had voted for other parties.

We are still far from the next federal election, but a number of recent polls show a similar possible result federally. Those polls say that if an election were held today we could get a majority government led by federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, the dimpled re-incarnation of Stephen Harper.

Our archaic and awkward electoral system is set, yet again, to produce political whiplash.  

A united right vs. a divided centre-left

In the days when the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives both occupied territory somewhere near the centre, leaping from a majority of one to a majority of the other did not have enormous consequences. Those days are gone.

Former Ontario PC Premier Mike Harris and Reformer turned Conservative Stephen Harper changed the Canadian political landscape. The federal Conservatives and their Ontario cousins are now U.S. Republican-style parties of the hard right.

Both of them: oppose any significant environmental measures (including, famously, a tax on carbon emissions); advocate a tax system that favours the wealthy; demonize measures such as social assistance to aid the poor; are hostile to unions, especially public sector unions; do not care about the rights and plight of Indigenous peoples; favour increased privatization of health and other public services; and are cosy with social conservatives who want to ditch sex education and limit or totally eliminate a woman’s right to abortion.

The federal Conservatives are also hostile to refugees, including the most desperate from Syria and other war zones, and concur with U.S. president Donald Trump’s and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s attacks on the Iran nuclear agreement.

And so, these days, if an election were to produce a change from Liberal to Conservative it would constitute a huge and dislocating leap.

Such whiplash, however, would not be the product of a big shift in public opinion. It would be the artefact of an electoral system that tends to translate relatively small shifts in popular vote into huge shifts in seat count.

Ontario made a feeble stab at changing its electoral system in 2007.

Back then, a citizens’ assembly recommended a mixed-member proportional system, in which the vast majority of members would be still elected by first-past-the-post.  It was quite literally a modest proposal.

That reform exercise was, however, poorly funded and those in charge invested scant effort to educate the public about the proposed new system. As well, the media elite was almost to a person vehemently opposed to reform. The fact that the new system would have entailed a small increase in the size of the legislature became a big sticking point.

“We’ll have more politicians!” naysayers shouted hysterically, and the proposal went down in flames.

Liberal brains’ trust must be kicking themselves

Federally, we appeared to have a good chance at reform in 2105 when the Justin Trudeau Liberals came to power. What happened, though, was that Trudeau prevaricated for a while and then dashed the hopes of those who had believed his oft-repeated promise.

When the prime minister finally decided to totally ditch electoral reform last year, he made a dismissive comment about not having to “tick a box on an electoral program”. But when he rolled out the idea, in the spring of 2015, changing the electoral system looked a lot bigger than a little box.

Electoral reform was, in point of fact, a great big deal for Trudeau and his party. It was the centrepiece of the Liberals’ democratic reform program, which was, in turn, a big part of their election platform.

By the time 2017 rolled around, Trudeau had taken to observing that many who had urged reform on him when Harper was prime minister did not think it was so important now.  When your candidate wins, the electoral system is perfectly acceptable, it seems.

Now, in Ontario, we’re hearing lots of calls for strategic voting to stop Ford. One slight problem: For whom should we vote when the two non-Ford options seem to be about evenly matched?

It is far too late to do anything about Ontario’s electoral system. And in Ottawa, it would look disingenuous, to put it mildly, for the Liberals to re-open the reform subject. But it is not necessarily too late federally. Theoretically there would still be time to institute a new electoral system, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

There must be at least some, however, among the Liberals’ band of youthful wunderkind, who are kicking themselves at the golden opportunity they lost to give Canada a fairer and more representative electoral system. 

Photo: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr

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