Campaign trail lies

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Lorne Eckersley

Lorne Eckersley

Canadian voters, perhaps for their own sanity, tend to have short memories. I can only assume that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is counting on exactly that.

Among the many breaths of fresh air we saw in the 2015 federal election by the young Liberal Party leader was a promise, repeated as many as 2,000 times, according to media reports.

Google the subject today and you won’t have to look long before coming across a Liberal web site post, which states: “We will make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

I don’t like the “first-past-the-post” system for many reasons, including the name’s implication that there is a post to be passed. There is no post—it simply means which ever candidate gets the most votes in a Canadian election wins. He or she might get only a third of the votes—or potentially even less—but if they get more than their rivals, they get the job. The system simply tosses out all of the votes cast for other candidates.

When I heard Trudeau promise to introduce a new system of voting, it gave me one more reason to think he was more than just not Stephen Harper, he was a creative thinker and a courageous politician.

And when he appointed a parliamentary committee to explore voting system options, and soon after re-jigged the appointments so his party could not control the committee, Canadians who were looking for change had every right to be optimistic.

Fast forward to the last few weeks, though, and those same optimists are now, with good reason, angry. The first hint that a rotting smell was starting to emerge was comments that there was no consensus for a new system. Really, I thought? How can consensus be found if no option is put forward for discussion? We know there are many ways to count and allocate votes. British Columbians became pretty well versed on the different versions earlier in this decade when we had a referendum about whether to adopt a recommended change by a citizens’ panel.

I’m not going to go into details here—it seems like a waste of time now—but suffice to say that other countries have different voting systems. None are perfect, and why would we expect otherwise? But what they have in common is that they do not ignore the wishes of all but the citizens who cast ballots for the candidate who gets a plurality. They do attempt to give voice to other voters as well.

Trudeau, he says, prefers a preferential ballot system, which differs from proportional representation, but still does not ignore the wishes of the non-plurality voters. But now, apparently, that he has seen the political light, he is worried that a change in voting systems could lead to an ultra-right wing party or a Quebec nationalist party gaining the balance of power in a minority government situation.

Of course it could just as easily give a party more in line with Trudeau’s values that same power. But do we really want to abandon change because of what might happen, the worst possible scenario? Is that what democracy is about? No. We cast our ballots and we live with what we get.

The most common argument against proportional representation is that it encourages fracturing of parties, and gives rise to more single-issue groups. More often than not it means a minority government that can rule only with coalitions. But polls continue to indicate that Canadians are not fearful of minority parties. Personally, I like them. Anything that forces groups to focus on their common interests rather than their differences is fine with me.

I grew royally fed up with the long Liberal Party rein that ended with a worn out Paul Martin as Prime Minister, and I was happy to see a decade-long run by Stephen Harper put behind us, too. If we are going to see changes in governance and leaders every few years, I am fine with that. At the very least it will keep more people engaged with what is going on with our governments than is now the case. When only about half of eligible voters can find a reason to drag themselves to a polling booth every four years or so, something needs to change. And, if a large enough proportion of traditional non-voters are as annoyed as they have a right to be, they are going to remember Trudeau’s duplicity, and he and his party will pay the price in 2019.