Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Back to plan A

Just before the election call last November, I argued that it would be worse for the Liberals to be reelected than it would be to end up with a Tory minority government. My reasoning was that the Conservatives wouldn't actually be good for the country, but that in a minority they would be harmless buffoons, and the time away from the governing benches would give the Liberals a chance to regroup and fix themselves. And as a bonus, buffoon-bashing would make for good sport for comedians and bloggers alike.

Somewhere along the line, though--I'm not sure exactly when, but I'm sure it was by the time James Bow started talking about Conservative-NDP cooperation--I started feeling hopeful that a Tory minority government, working together with more progressive parties, might actually be able to accomplish a couple of useful things while the Liberals got their act back together. Ethics would certainly be an area where the two poles on the Canadian political spectrum could compromise enough to agree, right? And then there's my very own pet issue, democratic reform--if the NDP could be brought around to the Conservative plans for Senate reform, then maybe, just maybe, the Tories would be willing to see the light on proportional representation?

So how's my faint yet fervent hope for a productive session shaping up now that the country is faced with a real live Tory minority government? Well, since assuming office on Monday, Harper has done the following:

  • appointed an unelected party bagman from Québec to the Senate (after arguing for a decade that Senators should only ever be elected)
  • handed that same unelected party bagman the Ministry for Public Works--the cabinet position that's virtually synonymous with the sponsorship scandal--which is a decision that renders the opposition unable to take him to task in Question Period for anything might happen in that ministry for the duration of this government
  • enticed a former Liberal cabinet minister to cross the floor in exchange for another top position (after being very vocal in his criticism of Belinda Stronach for doing something similar in reverse last spring)
  • appointed a Defence Minister who's a former defence lobbyist, and
  • appointed a Justice Minister who plans to bypass Parliament to get rid of the gun registry and who's pleaded guilty to violating election laws in Manitoba.
Well. So much for that ethics plan.

How about democratic reform, though? Well, we know that Harper passed over his own former Democratic Reform critic and avid supporter of proportional representation Scott Reid--who didn't even get a parliamentary secretary post--in favour of Niagara Falls' Rob Nicholson. That was a bit of a blow for us electoral reformers, but maybe this Nicholson character is okay, too?

As it turns out, not so much. As a stand-in member of the House Committee studying electoral reform in the last parliament, he once asked the following question of Law Commission of Canada president Nathalie Des Rosiers:
Let me put to you one of the problems that may arise with a system wherein one-third of the members of the legislature or the House of Commons would be prepared by party list.

I put to you the criticism that I've heard from the European experience on this. A couple of European countries have one variation of this or another. One of the criticisms that I remember hearing years ago was that if you have a system in which a party puts out a list and elects the members on the basis of its percentage of the national vote, there are some who say there is a problem for democracy inasmuch as the people don't get an opportunity to say yea or nay on particular candidates.

I'll give you an example. If you are in the top five, I would suppose, of any of the major political parties of this country, it means the Canadian electorate can never get at you, because no matter how poorly your party does, if it comes up with 5% of the vote, you get the top [...] Presumably, if there were a hundred members, for instance, your party would always get 5% of those. There are those in Europe who say this is undemocratic, that we cannot get at some of these old party hacks who have no connection to the electorate other than that they are in solid with their political party and they just stay on forever. That would be one of the criticisms, it seems to me, and one of the challenges that we would have to answer for Canadians. Could you address that?
Never mind that there are many established methods for assembling party lists--including primary elections and using the "best seconds" from riding races--which can hardly be described as "undemocratic." To Nicholson, party lists must inherently smack of cronyism and a lack of democracy. Strike one.

At the same meeting, then, our new Democratic Reform minister tried again:

There are those who would argue that the three major democracies in the world that have the first-past-the-post system, with some variations, are Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. There are also those who can make a pretty strong argument that those have been the most successful, or among the most successful, democracies in the world. As a matter of fact, I think I would be hard pressed to come up with any other countries outside of those three that have a longer democratic tradition than Britain and Canada and the United States.

There are those who would say that if you alter the system, you would be building instability, and that instability has been a great problem in the world in terms of the economy and a host of other problems, and that if we traded our particular system for some other system, we will have unstable government and we will be buying into a different type of system that doesn't have a record as successful as the one that we have. I ask for your comment on that.
Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the "instability" contention under either Mixed-Member Proportional (Germany's system) or Single Transferable Vote (Ireland's system), which are the only two PR-based systems that have been proposed for Canada. To Nicholson, PR must necessarily be synonymous with Italy, and all hail the status quo that allows the vast majority of votes cast to disappear into the ether. Strike two.

As if that weren't bad enough, over at, the former campaign manager for one of the candidates who ran against Nicholson reports that Nicholson didn't just evade questions on proportional representation during the campaign--as many people in the bigger parties tend to do when they don't want to come off as mere political opportunists only interested in their party's success--but actively defended the first-past-the-post system by arguing that proportional representation would eliminate direct constituency representation. Never mind that there's not a single electoral reformer proposing that Canada adopt the kind of pure list system that he's talking about--both of the possible models proposed for Canada include direct constituency representation. To Rob Nicholson, our newly appointed Minister for Democratic Reform, democratic reform consists only of changes that might help the Conservative party win a phony majority for themselves in the next election. Strike three, you're out.

So it's back to plan A. The advantages of a Tory minority government consist solely of giving the Liberals their time out and ample opportunities for buffoon-bashing. There is a bright side, though: if Harper's first week as prime minister is any indication, there will be more than enough buffoonery in this government to keep the bloggers and comedians occupied for the next little while.


Anonymous said...

Dear Ideal Pragmatist,

Well, at least it looks like I'm in for a good run of This Hour Has 22 Minutes when I get back home. That should make me happy...

After the last election, and having lived in Eastern Europe for a bit, and having become one of the 35% of Albertans who has no representation in her own Province, I have become a stronger proponent of the proportional representation system, though I have not followed the issue in Parliament - didn't even know it had be brought up! Can you give me some details on that? When was it proposed and by whom? Or were the comments that you quote above made outside of question period?

Just FYI, I was directed to your site by LJ user soupytwist. I also gather from one of your other posts that you are a recent Canadian? Glad ot have you!


Anonymous said...

(Sorry, me again - I have just realised that you have the President of Fair Vote Canada listed under your blogs - I have just recently found this organization and want to join when I return back to Calgary. May I ask if you already belong and how things are going?)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Under the Liberals, a special House committee was struck to investigate changing the electoral system. It spent a long time deliberating and took some trips abroad to find out how they do things elsewhere, before it finally stalled because the Liberals were dragging their feet. The excerpts I quote here were from a session where they brought in the president of the Law Commission of Canada to ask her questions. The Commission has recommended a switch to a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system, which would maintain our existing riding system but add to it 1/3 of MPs elected by some (unspecified) form of party list. So she was mainly answering questions about that.

I am indeed on the executive of the Alberta chapter of Fair Vote Canada. We meet in Edmonton, though, not in Calgary! Things are slow but steady for our local chapter, but the national chapter is really chugging along. It's quite exciting.

By the way, I'm just an idealistic pragmatist, not an ideal one. :-)

Anonymous said...

Well, I will definitely be joining up when I get back in a month!