With the Conservative Party leadership vote on Saturday, it’s a good time to talk about the state of democracy in Canada. I see a wide range of problems – difficulties that prevent parties from electing their favoured candidate and structural issues that stop us from solving some of the country’s long-term challenges.
First of all, the Conservatives are using an undemocratic method to elect their leader. They have abandoned “one person one vote.” Instead, they have a system giving each electoral district 100 votes.
This means the vote of 3,000 members in a downtown Calgary riding has the same weight as a Quebec riding with 75 people. Interestingly, while the Calgary folks might favour any one of a number of candidates, many of the 78 ridings in Quebec are likely to go to local favorite Maxime Bernier.
Sometimes parties don’t make an effort to maintain the purity of their party label.
For instance, Bernier is not a Conservative in his ideology. He’s really a libertarian. He would end federal government support for health care. He would further cut the taxes of the rich and corporations.
He also would end development aid to poor countries. He would dismantle supply management in the dairy industry.
Sad day for democracy
It strikes me odd that when electing a new leader, the parties encourage anyone to join. My political views are far left of the Conservative Party. However, I could have taken out a party membership in March and voted for any one of the baker’s dozen of leadership hopefuls.
Politics can be so undemocratic that leadership campaigns can be literally “stolen” by politicians.
If the 2015 Ontario PC leadership race had been a popularity contest of regular party members, Patrick Brown would have finished well down the list of candidates. When the leadership race began, the party had only 10,000 members. But Brown said he sold membership to something like 50,000 supporters, and he won easily. That was a sad day for democracy.
One of the great political sagas of modern time concerns the illegal spending and dirty tricks to help elect Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservative leader in 1983.
Among them was a group of shadowy Quebec operatives who built a base for Mulroney by driving around the province handing out cash to get people to join the party and support Mulroney to defeat then leader Joe Clark.
Clark’s leadership was endorsed by 66.9 per cent of leadership review delegates. Amazingly, he said it wasn’t enough and he resigned. Had he known that the Quebec group had used dirty tricks, perhaps he would not have quit and Mulroney would not have had the chance to contest and win the leadership later.
To prevent serious abuses of the democratic process, political parties need to adopt regulations that prevent voter “stacking” tactics when electing leaders, and Elections Canada should have the resources to monitor the entire electoral process.
New electoral system?
Other governance issues need to be addressed. Despite what Justin Trudeau says, I believe the majority of Canadians want some form of proportional representation (PR).
However, while PR will encourage more people to vote, it will not solve the most serious issues facing government – the power of corporations to strongly influence and even dictate to government.
Perhaps we need an entirely new electoral system to overcome corporate power and other problems.
Our four-year term electoral system is badly flawed. In his book, What I Learned About Politics, Graham Steele writes that politics is a “low, dirty business” and a “charade.” Once elected, ideas don’t matter, and principles are abandoned to focus on re-election, says the former Nova Scotia New Democratic Party finance minister.
We saw the manipulation by Liberal Premier Christy Clark in the B.C. election, and now, in Ontario, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is promising everything imaginable to improve her position in the polls before there’s an election.
Our winner-take-all electoral system does not make governments keep their noses to the grindstone. A majority government is often a runaway government – the government has its own agenda and can get away with paying little attention to what it told the public during the election campaign.
If we lived in an ideal world, I would change the system to better suit democracy and the public.
One of the worst features of our system is the sweeping disruption we can see after an election. When a right-wing government is replaced by a moderate government, everything the old politicians did is thrown out. Perhaps four years later the governing ideology is reversed. Major problems, such as health care and poverty are never properly addressed, let alone resolved.
I’d prefer us to elect a portion of our MPs every few years instead of having one huge election. Perhaps half of the MPs would be elected every four years. This might mean parties would focus less on winning and more on delivering.
I’d like to have rules in a system that would force Parliament to deal with the major issues of the day instead of the issues that will advance their fortunes in Parliament. I’m not a fan of direct government, but I’d like to see a system of frequent public consultation that could keep politicians honest.
I’d like to have a system under which more independents – people of integrity – could be elected. Many highly-qualified people who would like to serve the country understandably dislike the current system.
As part of such a process, we desperately need more public education about all aspects of politics and government.
Time to experiment
How about a political system designed to tackle problems that the majority of people feel to be crucial? Our health care system is in bad shape and no government has gotten beyond the infighting to try and fix it.
If the Liberals did not fear being thrown out of office after four years, perhaps Trudeau would deal more seriously with the environmental crisis he is seriously underplaying.
To deal with these big issues we would need to form long-standing – perhaps longer than four years – all-party committees that would include outside experts. A highly-respected committee that would consult with and inform the public of its progress from time to time would have the power to make a final decision on the issue.
In my view, our so-called democratic governments frequently do not serve the interests of the public on key issues. As discussed, they pay too much attention to getting re-elected and are too often swayed by the interests of corporations and the powerful.
Certainly our electoral politics has come a long way from the days when only people who owned property could vote, or when women were denied the vote. However, it’s still an archaic system that requires discussion and even experimentation to make it better.