Image: Flickr/Canada 2020

Some great reporting by Karl Nerenberg today on the latest developments in the House of Commons Committee looking at voting reform — Trump helps make the argument for electoral reform in Canada

It has been heartening to see some discontent about the U.S. Electoral College system but would have been even more heartening had it been an issue before election day. Canadian electoral reformers have a lot to be proud of in how far this issue has moved ahead compared to the U.S. which is almost beginning to look beyond redemption. There will be a price to pay in Canada for Trump’s ascendance. When the strongman farts, no one is allowed to leave the room. 

I wanted to take a step back to remind readers of what was the most under-reported and least-repeated promise of the election. Justin Trudeau said “we will make every vote count” in the next election — 2015 will be the last first past the post election. No referendum required. “We will make every vote count.” See the video if you don’t believe me. And he said it in front of all 337 Liberal candidates who received the message with what looks like true joy. So no one can say they didn’t hear that promise as some Liberal MPs do their own skating. 

You’d never know those words were uttered because there’s been a silent consensus among the elites –a conspiracy of sorts — in the Liberal and Conservative parties as well the celebrity plutocracy and corporate media (most shamefully), to pretend those words were never uttered. Because if they weren’t spoken, then there’s no need to talk about it. The fact is that only about half of us routinely elect someone we voted for to go to Ottawa on our behalf. The other half don’t count. Isn’t that the very problem Trudeau promised to fix? Tossing half the votes away is wrong. It is undemocratic. It is unfair. Democracy and government are supposed to be about the voters and all the people more generally, not about the political parties, leaders and candidates. 

If we are to call ourselves a representative democracy, every voter must have an equal vote — no matter where they live and which candidate they support. If the mainstream party politicians were democrats, you’d think they’d understand, respect it and aspire for equality. But many are not democrats. So they don’t. The great lengths to which they go to not talk about a system where half the votes don’t count demonstrates its indefencibility.

No opposition voices from all of Atlantic Canada? “Better than the alternative,” they say. No government representation on all of Vancouver Island? “Better than the alternative.” Parties holding all the cards in an undemocratic, rigged-against-the-voter system that privileges the equality of ridings above the equality of voters? “Better than the alternative.” That’s their main defence when forced to defend. Fear of the unknown combined with willful misinformation and sometimes outright lies. All the while crowing about how this is “democracy” at its best? Instead of talking about disenfranchised voters and phony majorities, they talk about imaginary boogie men. And “what-ifs.” And referendums. And the Constitution. And how indispensable MPs are in their riding offices helping voters with clogged drains. “Who is going to unclog the toilet for God’s sake?” they bemoan.

But, Trudeau did make the promise to make every vote count — in those exact words — and repeated them in the Throne Speech. Words have meaning. “Make every vote count” was one of the key phrases used by voting reform advocates in Fair Vote Canada for many years. It results in proportional representation. Trudeau, the leader of the third party at the time he made the promise, knew what FVC meant. What did he mean? We still don’t know. We know that he used to support the Alternative Vote (ranked ballots in single member ridings) but that won’t make every vote count. We know that he’s buying time to avoid taking a position once the Committee makes its recommendations on December 1.

How do we know? Because he is rolling out a new Canada-wide postcard campaign and consultation on democratic values. Will the questions be as biased toward the status quo, as reported yesterday after Fair Vote Canada released some sample questions provided by a supporter? But why does Trudeau want more time? Is he unhappy with what the Committee heard? Or didn’t hear? Does he need more results that will counter the Committee’s evidence? Or does he need more time to convince the backroom Liberals that there is indeed popular support for proportional representation? We just don’t know why.

Occam’s razor may lead us to certain assumptions about the nature of zebras and their stripes but we don’t know because the Liberals have been so tight-lipped while they dance around in a fog of ambiguity. It’s easy to suspect the obvious but hope is better than fear. Trudeau promised to do politics differently. And on one level, proof of his commitment to “make every vote count” boils down to whether or not the PM now supports proportional representation. If he does and wants it to succeed, he will lead his party into the 21st century. Yes, he might piss off a lot of insiders and MPs by doing so but so what? What are they going to do? Fire him? He was their salvation (watch the video again) and he remains their greatest strength. It is a legacy issue for him. 

And if he won’t support PR, the sooner we know, the better. Whose side is Justin on? Is he for the rights of all voters or the mutual interests of the Liberal and Conservative parties’ backrooms? We know the Conservative Party won’t support PR. Like the Liberals, first past the post is their birthright. Their path to power. That’s why the CPC demands a rigged referendum to defend it. There are some democratic conservatives but not all conservatives are democrats. No different than the Liberals and even the NDP. 

Referendums and plebiscites

Today I heard a P.E.I. MLA say that changing the P.E.I. voting system to mixed-member proportional would disrespect both the soldiers who died at war and the “founding fathers” who met in Charlottetown in the 19th century. So he was supporting a Liberal government bill to hold another plebiscite to overrule last week’s plebiscite in which mixed-member proportional came out on top with more than 50 per cent. After the results were in, P.E.I. Premier Wade Machlauchlan let everyone now that he was effectively counting the people who didn’t vote as “first past the post” supporters to discredit the results using the excuse that voter turnout was not as high as he would have liked. (The P.E.I. plebiscite is now competing with Trudeau’s “make every vote count” promise as the most un-reported event in recent history).

No one said this was going to be easy. But if we don’t call out the powers that be for their use of words and lack thereof, they will continue to practice the big lie. Why? Because it works. “Sure. We’ll give you a referendum. But we’ll set the bar high enough that you can’t win. Or raise it after the vote if you do make the jump. And in case you still win, it’s only advisory. We’ll do what’s best for all the voters.” Experience in B.C., Ontario, and P.E.I. show that the elites cannot be trusted to administer a fair referendum on behalf of all the voters. 

Having said that, kudos to Nathan Cullen, Elizabeth May and the others for applying pressure to get the Liberals on the right side of history as the Committee wraps up its work. I don’t believe a referendum that was not promised is required or desirable to extend democratic voting. I hold out hope for a majority report recommending PR rather than an all-party report recommending a referendum. That would be a bold move by the Liberals right now. Then the debate can shift to where it ought to have been since the change of government a year ago — what kind of proportional representation is best for Canada? 

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Image: Flickr/Canada 2020

Gary Shaul

Gary Shaul is a union activist who has been involved with a number of issues including electoral reform, anti-war, international solidarity, human rights and the environment. A Toronto resident, he has...