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:
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.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.
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?
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.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.
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.
As if that weren't bad enough, over at rabble.ca, 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.