Does Canadian democracy have a fatal flaw?
The proponents of electoral reform say yes.
The diminishing interest shown by Canadian voters would seem to reinforce that notion. Since the 1988 federal election, total turnout at the polls has decreased by almost 16 percentage points, from 75 per cent of Canadians voting in 1988 to just 59.1 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots last October.
Similar declines in voter turnout are evident at provincial polling stations.
Why have Canadians divorced themselves from such a fundamental process?
Certainly, apathy has many roots, not all of them evil. Many Canadians are satisfied enough with their lives, and trusting enough, that they’re willing to let others decide the future course for them. As dangerous and detached as that sounds, it’s true.
But more significantly, Canadians are apathetic because their voices are unheeded. The majority continue to cast ballots into a void. And even when they select a candidate they believe in and trust, more often than not that candidate is neutered by the political realities that shadow all Canadian parliamentary processes.
Fairness simply isn’t the first order of business in our current system.
Take recent federal election results for example: in 2008, the Conservatives took 46.4 per cent of the seats with 37.6 per cent of the vote (the Bloc Quebecois received 10 per cent of the popular vote but earned 16.2 per cent of the seats); in 2000, Canadians elected a Liberal majority government (57 per cent of all seats) with just 40.1 percent of the vote; in 1997, a Liberal majority of 51.5 per cent of all seats was returned with just 38.5 per cent of the vote; in 1993, the Liberals took 60 per cent of all seats with just 41.3 per cent of the popular vote.
At the same time, the New Democrats drew 18.2 per cent of the popular vote but won just 12 per cent of the seats; and the Green Party drew 6.8 per cent of the vote but won no seats.
The discrepancies are glaring, and they leave millions of Canadians without a voice.
Yet attempts to reform our ‘first-past-the-post’ system have failed, in referendums in Ontario (in 2007) and British Columbia (twice in four years, after Tuesday’s referendum defeat).
More voter apathy, perhaps. Or, more significantly, a failure to deliver a better alternative.
So where is the better alternative?
It is time for Canada to launch a full-scale commission into electoral reform, in partnership with the provinces. Put everything on the table, from provincial legislatures to the House of Commons to the Senate. Search for a system that engages Canadians in the election process but still gives them direct representation, perhaps by giving them two votes, one for a representative, and one for a party or a leader. Examine fixed election dates; open debate and voting on all issues; a fixed number of sitting days; and call-back mechanisms.
The current version of the federal Conservatives are the offspring of the Reform and Canadian Alliance, but all the talk about a new and better way to select and govern seems to have been left in the birthing room. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has only paid lip service to electoral reform, and then only in relation to the Senate.
Democracy must remain a vital part of our national identity. And the only way to ensure that is by engaging the greatest number of Canadians. Reform is long overdue.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.