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Electoral reform, the power of the PMO and Justin Trudeau

by Henry Milner

The big news in this election was strategic voting gone awry. “Anybody but Harper” voters deserted the NDP in larger numbers than expected, resulting in a Liberal majority rather than the Liberal minority supported by the NDP that almost everyone expected. What was also unexpected was that in francophone Quebec a fair number of these deserters went to Justin Trudeau, giving 36 per cent of Quebec’s vote and 55 per cent of its seats to the Liberals. As the NDP’s Anne McGrath put it, the niqab issue “shook the party’s Quebec supporters loose.”

From various discussions I had, one part of the answer to why so many went to the Liberals is simple bread-and-butter politics: lower taxes for the “middle class,” retirement at 65 rather than 67 and home postal delivery for those of a certain age, and federal civil service jobs and job security for residents of the Outaouais. The one really significant such promise made by the NDP, universal inexpensive day-care, meant nothing in Quebec, which has it already.

As I write, it is too soon to judge the wisdom of the voters. In my view, the most important consequence of the Liberals’ success at winning a majority rather than needing the NDP’s support to govern will be on the prospects for electoral system reform. The NDP was committed to bringing in proportional representation. Indeed, had we voted this time under PR, Trudeau – who promised that this would be the last election under first-past-the-post – and Tom Mulcair would be negotiating the fine points of a working relationship. (In his accompanying article, Wilf Day simulates how the seats would have been distributed had the election been fought under PR.)

Electoral reform is usually discussed in terms of PR’s well-known advantages in fairly representing the views of voters. The election results highlight this point. To put it bluntly, under FPTP strategic voting by NDP supporters brought an unwanted result: a much weaker NDP and, thus, a majority Liberal government. Here, however, I want to stress a second point, one that really hasn’t entered the discussion: the relationship between the electoral system and the workings of our democratic institutions.

A refreshingly revealing moment in the campaign came when Justin Trudeau said in his interview with Peter Mansbridge in early September that since it was his father who started concentrating power in his office when prime minister, it was only fitting that he be the one to end it. Mansbridge correctly reminded him that Stephen Harper had also promised to devolve power away from the PMO.

Underlying Mansbridge’s point is the fact that the problem of PMO autocracy lies more in institutions than in the will of individual politicians. But which institutions? In two full-column editorials in late August, the Globe and Mail bemoaned the lengths – as revealed in the Duffy trial – to which Harper’s PMO would go to control the flow of information to Canadians, indeed to everyone outside the small circle close to the Prime Minister. This theme was taken up on October 1 by Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson. Noting the low quality of the Tories’ front bench, he asked why someone should want to be a cabinet minister when you had to get the permission of the PMO to make any sort of public intervention. (Simpson had written a book in 2001 portraying Jean Chrétien’s government as a “friendly dictatorship”).

The Globe’s solution was more free votes and the like to pull MPs out from under the thumb of the PMO. Such an approach presumes that our “Westminster” institutions can still function the way we are taught they do in our civics textbooks. In the standard Westminster model, Canadian voters choose among party programs and give a clear mandate to their preferred party. The “loyal” opposition identifies weaknesses in the governing party’s proposed measures and offers alternatives which find their way into parliamentary debate, and are reported by the press gallery to an attentive citizenry. The process produces, where needed, improved legislation plus a basis for judging the government on its record after four years.

The Westminster model is based on majority government. Minority governments are aberrations to be avoided since they are not clearly accountable. This is why the model is associated with our first-past-the-post electoral system. Unfair and unrepresentative as the outcomes of elections under it often are, FPTP has the saving grace of usually turning parties with plurality voter support into parliamentary majorities.

But the Westminster model simply doesn’t fit. While evident under previous governments, its weaknesses will not be perceived as a problem during Trudeau’s honeymoon period, with the Conservatives looking for a new leader and the NDP trying to figure out what went wrong. But the honeymoon will be over in a year or two, if not sooner. Then Trudeau’s adviser Gerald Butts, like Nigel Wright in Harper’s PMO, will be faced with the exigencies of majority government. It will be necessary for the PMO, or whatever the institution at the centre of government working closely with the party leadership will be called, to reassert itself.

It is the media’s job to get at the facts underlying the government’s pronouncements, the very same facts that the opposition needs to discredit the government. So the opposition, working in tandem with the media, will be trying to catch government spokespersons in an error of fact or a contradiction. Hence, whatever the initial inclinations of its boss, the prime minister, it falls on the central political body to keep this from happening by shaping and controlling what comes out from members of the cabinet, caucus and bureaucracy. This in turn makes the media only more determined to get at the underlying facts, which, in turn, generates greater efforts to control – a vicious circle. The 24-hour news cycle, the blogs, the Twitter feeds and the like make the process much more pressing than the one Simpson described 15 years ago.

Tweaking the system with more free votes will not change much: the problem lies in the accumulation of power in one place under majority government. One solution would be to adopt American-style separation of powers. But experience there suggests it to be a cure worse than the disease. The solution lies in sharing power at the highest level of our Westminster system, replacing majority government by stable minority government.

Minority government sometimes happens under FPTP, but it is considered the exception rather than the rule, and thus unstable. As we saw in this election, like the last one, in Canada you can win a majority of seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote, so minority governments’ priority becomes finding an excuse for calling an early election in which they ask for and expect to get a majority. To get stable minority or coalition governments, we need to put an end to this expectation. To do that we need to replace our electoral system with one used in most mature democracies: proportional representation. In his article, Wilf Day sets out the logic of a PR system made to measure for Canada.

PR elections result in power being shared by the largest party with one or more other parties. While these parties agree to support a common program, their relationship to the media and the population at large is beyond the control of the prime minister and his party. In other words, PMO autocracy is no longer possible. Minority government, the bane of the classic Westminster system, turns out to be a solid basis for adopting PR as an antidote to the way our institutions work today.

If Trudeau is really interested in making government less secretive and more cooperative, he will need to live up to his promise that this will be the last election under FPTP. Have we good reason to expect this? The language in the Liberals’ platform leaves much room for doubt:

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered. This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.

Mandatory and online voting are perfectly compatible with FPTP, while ranked ballots do not result in any more proportional outcomes than FPTP, but do favour the centrist party.1 There is good reason, thus, to suspect that this is the only alternative to FPTP that the Liberals will consider. I tabulated the numbers on the website of Fair Vote Canada, which contacted all the candidates for their position. The result was: 68 Liberals endorsed PR, 28 leaned toward PR, 30 were ambiguous, one was opposed and 202 gave no response. And that was when they could not expect to govern alone.

So it will be up to Justin Trudeau. He has proved willing to make institutional changes that went beyond his party’s traditional position – for example, by setting Liberal senators free of the Liberal whip. And, as reported in the Toronto Star, when asked on the day after the election, he did not step back from his commitment that this would be the last election under FPTP. But doing so in any meaningful way means standing up to those in his party who see in FPTP the assurance of their again becoming the natural governing party and relegating the NDP to long-term small party status. My own inclination is to be sceptical. Easy promises, a winning smile and a mastery of set pieces can win an election, but go only so far when it comes to governing. I very much hope that Prime Minister Trudeau II will exceed my expectations.

Note

1 Dennis Pilon, “Electoral Reform: Here’s the Evidence, Mr. Trudeau,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2015, pp. 51–60.

 

Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads.

 

 



About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.




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