Fair Voting Part 3: Why Now is the Time

Posted on May 20, 2011

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On Monday I explained why we need to get rid of the first past the post system, and on Tuesday I looked at two possible systems that might replace it. All those debates, however, will be for naught if we can’t actually make it happen. While a Harper majority is perhaps the government least conducive to electoral reform, the specifics of this parliament might actually present a reasonable opportunity to start gathering a critical mass of public support for the issue. I’m wildly speculating here, but I’ve got a few thoughts as to why the time is ripe:

  • Partisan Liberals will be taking the idea much more seriously. They have stayed quiet on the issue of electoral reform so far because up until now it would not have been to their benefit.  As you have probably heard, however, they kind of got their asses kicked a few weeks ago. I am sure that there will be factions in the Liberal party that, with characteristic grit arrogance, expect to be back on top in no time, but I think that there will be enough realists to realize that it is in the party’s best interest to not have its vote split against the NDP. In any case, all the Liberals I know are pretty smart and principled people, and without the partisan incentive to keep the First Past the Post system, I’m pretty sure the party can come around.
  • The NDP has been in favour of electoral reform for a while now, but they might not be for much longer. During the election, they made it a fairly important plank of their platform.  This has made strategic sense for them up until now. They’re on the upsurge, though, and if they continue to gain in vote share, then it might not be long before they re-think this policy out of self-interest.
  • The Green Party has been strengthened by Elizabeth May’s election, and electoral reform is one of their key issues. Their supporters, who will be growing in number, will overwhelmingly support the campaign.
  • The Conservative party is not the monolith that Stephen Harper wants it to be. Given that Harper rules his own caucus with even more of an iron fist than he rules the country, he’s inevitably going to piss off his some of his base during the next four years in which he’s free to basically do whatever he wants. Whether it’s Libertarians kicking up a fuss about corporate welfare, social conservatives angry that they don’t get their handout, or Ontarians who resent the massive transfers of wealth that Harper will send to Alberta, there will be those who, even if they remain in the Tory camp, will start to re-think the whole majority thing.
  • The election result demonstrated the failure of our system like never before. A very small gain in the popular vote gave Harper a four-year blank cheque for the country. I like to think that most of the country, regardless of their political bent, is smart enough to see that there’s something wrong with that.

This unique combination of factors will not last forever. This is especially true of the first two. Whether the Liberals regain their former place or are permanently replaced by the NDP, it’s likely that one of them will abandon their commitment to electoral reform before another few election cycles are finished. We’re in a crucial interim phase in which virtually every opposition party, or sixty percent of the electorate, can be counted on to support electoral reform. We need to strike while the iron is hot.

Of course, hot though the iron may be, we kind of lack a hammer right now. Shitty extended metaphors aside, we can’t formally raise the issue at the Federal level so long as the Tories retain their majority. Harper will certainly not be taking any action to dismantle the system that got him elected, so we’ll have to wait until the end of this four year term. Electoral reform has to be the ballot issue when Harper finally does decide to dissolve this parliament, and we need an overwhelming national desire for change by the time we get a government that will put the question to a referendum. Like Harper himself, we’re playing the long game here. We can’t make the same mistake the British did by springing the issue on a country that hasn’t heard of it before. We need a breakthrough at the smaller government level,  in a province or a municipality, so that we can demonstrate that electoral reform works.

Luckily, there are people already working towards this. Check out the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, for starters. If you don’t live in Toronto, then see what you can do to raise the issue in your area. If the municipal government of Dunlop, Manitoba is our first breakthrough, then it will be a breakthrough all the same. We’ve got four years to make sure that this kind of electoral disaster never happens again. Let’s get started.

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