Electoral Reform is Finally on the Political Agenda
A couple of days back, Ed Broadbent, Hugh Segal and I published an op-ed making the case for some form of proportional representation. Yesterday the government announced its process for assessing a range of options to make 2015 the last federal election under our first past the post system. And today the editorial pages are awash with commentary on what kind of reform and what kind of process we need. Electoral reform is now, officially, on the political agenda.
This is one of those issues that prompts either eye-glazed indifference or inflamed passions. For some, me included, electoral reform is a prerequisite for democratic renewal. For many others it’s an inside-the-bubble issue of little direct relevance to the things that matter most to our everyday lives and our future. That latter group has likely expanded during this extended political honeymoon period given that a majority of Canadians, regardless of how they may have voted, seem relatively content with the direction of the government and the country.
The hunger for major electoral reform no doubt increases the more dissatisfied we are with the government our system ended up granting authority to. But electoral reform does matter. We do deserve something better than our winner take all approach. And, finally, we do have an historic opportunity to strengthen our democracy, to fix some of the problems with our current system that undermine unity, exclude voices, and erode trust. The strength and legitimacy of our democratic institutions matter profoundly to our ability to solve our collective action problems from inequality to climate change. We must not squander this opportunity.
It should come as no great surprise that a government that garnered a majority under our current arrangements would proceed with caution, even reluctance, on this issue. Indeed much of the discourse on electoral reform is framed in partisan political terms: which parties would win and which would lose under this system or that (as if parties wouldn’t adapt to change). In any case, this interplay between partisan interests and democratic policy is one of the reasons that process matters so much. As the Toronto Star editorial puts it, it’s almost banal to say that democratic reform should be undertaken democratically but, especially given the high partisan interests, this deserves particular attention.
As Andrew Coyne points out, while most of the process debate revolves around whether or not a referendum is essential, this is not the first issue. Referenda can too easily be manipulated for example in how the question is phrased and where the threshold is set. Whether or not a referendum is deemed essential, what matters most is what comes before. How hard has the government tried to achieve all-party consensus or at least created a truly multiparty approach which is and is seen to be fair and representative? How hard has the government worked to ensure that Canadians are given the information they deserve on the options under consideration? How hard has the government worked to ensure the kind of democratic discourse that ought to precede any such major reform? I suppose as a former public servant it comes as no great surprise that I would argue that process matters. But, frankly, it’s pretty troubling that some would dismiss a commitment to engaged democracy as mere process. Process matters. Democracy matters.
That also suggests that the proponents of reform ought to use language that promotes rather than cuts off such discourse. That means a recognition that no system is perfect and no reform fixes all our democratic deficits. Whatever system we opt for must be designed for Canada; it must, in particular, respect and reflect our federal structure and regional, social and cultural diversity. Design matters. Details matter. Indeed much of the criticism of proportional representation is based on PR designs that would and should never be implemented in Canada. Specifically, we would never adopt, nor has any of the many electoral commissions recommended, a proportional system that did not put local and regional representation – and accountability – at the centre of its design.
Yes, I am one of those who believes that a well-designed proportional system is crucial to strengthened democracy and, to repeat, it would be tragic or at least foolish to squander this opportunity. Success will require not just the right outcome but also the right process getting there. Indeed, if we do find the vision and courage to undertake serious reform, given the stakes, it makes sense to build in a requirement to review how the new system worked and to provide an opportunity for Canadians to assess the consequences.