Cutting Through the Electoral Reform Hysteria

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By Sabrina Kim 

Breaking their promise that the 2015 election would be Canada’s last under the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, the Liberals scrapped electoral reform from their mandate last Wednesday. The backlash to this decision has been relentless.

That same day, Nathan Cullen, the NDP democratic reform critic lashed out to reporters: “Rather than keep his word to the millions of Canadians who voted for him […] Mr. Trudeau chose today instead to spit in their face”.

Feelings of betrayal and demands for accountability are not unwarranted – the Liberals made a bold campaign promise, and pledged 1,813 times afterwards that they would follow through with it. Once we cut through the hysteria, however, and evaluate their reasons for reversal, we may be tempted to sympathize with some of them.

The government’s reasoning is threefold – it will not be pursuing reform due to (1) a lack of consensus regarding FPTP’s replacement; (2) fears that a referendum would be “too divisive”, and (3) newfound concerns that a proportional system would bring extremist parties into the legislature.

Two of the pillars on which this argument rests are shaky at best. The “lack of consensus” explanation, for instance, is not very convincing. Given the wide array of reform options and varying preferences of Canadians, it’s hard to imagine a “clear consensus” ever having emerged on the issue. The promise for reform, in any case, was never conditional on a consensus.

Less convincing is the government’s reasoning for not holding a referendum. Referendums, they now claim, are divisive, and could set a precedent for another referendum on Quebec sovereignty. The problem here is that referendums have always been divisive, and the threat of the Mouvement souverainiste is decades old. To break a promise and justify it with points that were obvious when it was made is questionable logic.

The Government’s third reason for reversal, however, is actually quite convincing. Their fears of a proportional system empowering extremist parties are timely and legitimate.  Given the recent strength of populist, anti-immigrant, nationalist movements across the globe, which we have certainly not been immune to, Trudeau’s broken promise may prove to be a blessing.

Yet somehow, in a turn of fate that has some of us asking whether we’ve stepped into an alternate dimension, the American political landscape has changed so unexpectedly that not even Nate Silver could see it coming.

When the Liberals first made the promise for electoral reform on June 16th, 2015, the political climate was remarkably different from what it is today. To put things in perspective, on that same day, Donald Trump had just launched his presidential campaign from Trump Tower NYC, and most of us were laughing about the impossibility of a Trump presidency (I know I was). Yet somehow, in a turn of fate that has some of us asking whether we’ve stepped into an alternate dimension, the American political landscape has changed so unexpectedly that not even Nate Silver could see it coming.

The wave of populist, anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment across the Western world was not reasonably foreseeable. The Paris attacks, the Brussels bombing, the Munich shooting and Brexit (to name a few), had yet to occur. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hadn’t even announced her open-border policy for Syrian refugees yet.

Today, by contrast, the Dutch anti-Islam Party for Freedom and Marine Le Pen’s Front National are both in the lead for their March and April elections respectively. Likewise, the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party — whose leader has suggested guards may have to shoot migrants crossing the border — is currently polling at an all-time high. Ironic for the country cited as the liberal West’s “last defender”.

Despite our wishful thinking, we are not immune to the rhetoric underpinning these movements either. While right-wing extremism in Canada has always existed, it has been creeping out from the shadows since Trump’s election. Examples of its manifestation are the mosque shooting in Quebec City, the vandalizing of synagogues in Ottawa, and the distribution of anti-Chinese pamphlets in Vancouver. Closer to home was the littering of “Make Canada Great Again” posters with anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ imagery on McGill campus. Such extremism is not difficult to find online either – go to stormfront.org and you will see threads titled “Brown people are still invading” and “I am sorry but only white people are Canadian”.

As antiquated as they may be, majoritarian systems prevent extremist political parties from forming and subsequently sitting in the House of Commons.

While extremist and nationalist movements are gaining momentum across the world and at home, we have good reason to appreciate our FPTP electoral system. As antiquated as they may be, majoritarian systems prevent extremist political parties from forming and subsequently sitting in the House of Commons. Where majoritarian systems tend to see fewer political parties represented in the legislature, proportional systems favour multipartism and greater representation of minor fringe parties. Consequently, radical right parties are more than twice as likely to gain seats in PR elections.

It’s not that extremism will cease to exist under majoritarian rules — if that were the case, our neighbors wouldn’t be governed by Donald Trump. Rather, it’s that our current system severely undercuts the likelihood of extremist parties gaining democratic legitimacy and policy-making power. With rules deterring radical right activists from channeling their energies into politics, they will likely prefer to mobilize through other organizations like interest groups, and online forums.

The question of whether a political system should be limiting certain views is obviously a valid one. At the end of the day, however, there is no “best” electoral system, only the one most well-suited at a given time. Hence why leading political scientist in the field Pippa Norris states: “in constitutional design, there are no easy choices”. The Trudeau government made a tough choice last week by breaking its promise for electoral reform. In light of these dark political times however – times that were unimaginable two years ago – Trudeau’s decision is not as outrageous as critics have made it out to be. The stability of our electoral system and party politics is a testament to the power of the status quo in the face of extremism and tumult.

2 Comments

  • Jessica says:

    “The stability of our electoral system and party politics is a testament to the power of the status quo in the face of extremism and tumult.” Mic drop.

    FANTASTIC SABRINA — 5 STARS

  • Wyatt Hnatiw says:

    This is a terrible argument for one very simple reason: the ruling party in a democracy should not and cannot limit the terms on which we have democracy.

    Deciding that FPTP is the best solution because the alternative might lead to the election and representation of people you don’t like is a childish, anti democratic sentiment.

    You have essentially stated that there are certain beliefs that are unwelcome in our democracy. Whether you agree with anti-immigration, nationalist policies or not and for the record I don’t, that is a horrifying attitude to take towards the way democracy works.

    Who gets to decide what these wrongthink ideas are? Is it you? Is it Trudeau? Do you trust any person, or group of a few hundred to decide what is best, forever for an entire nation?

    I don’t want Canada to turn into the US, but deciding to forever hamstring our democratic system because you find some ideas gross is not the answer

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