Max Fawcett’s pitch for the Liberals and NDP to merge, while superficially appealing to progressives, is a plan that may provide short-term gain for those parties but is sure to lock in long-term pain for all Canadians.

A Pierre Poilievre-led false majority government is no doubt a grim and frightening prospect for progressives, one which will bring the dire failings of our first-past-the-post system into stark relief. Hard-won gains, from Canada’s climate plan to the nascent pharmacare program, could be on the chopping block. The list of policy reversals may be long and the consequences brutal.

Perhaps even more concerning is the potential sidelining of our charter rights through reckless use of the notwithstanding clause to push forward a partisan agenda, as Poilievre has recently threatened. Politicizing human rights issues to dangle them like red meat before their party’s base before an election signifies a new low in Canadian politics.

The notwithstanding clause was controversial from the start, but it has not aged well. Combined with a first-past-the-post electoral system, it puts us in a frightening predicament.

If the current projection holds, Fawcett is right about the reckoning ― and soul-searching ― that lies ahead for the Liberals and the NDP in 2025. A crushing majority government for the Conservatives could finally force a serious conversation within and between Liberals and the NDP about reforming Canadian democracy.

But before we rush headlong into entrenching a two-party system like the one that bedevils our neighbours to the south by embracing a merger between the Liberals and NDP, it is worth asking a couple of important questions.

What is the problem we are trying to solve?

What reforms will serve the next generation of voters as governments grapple with the long-term problems ahead?

The conversation could easily start with what most of us don’t want.

The last few years have seen an alarming rise in partisan polarization, rage-farming and voter alienation. Voter turnout continues to drop as Canadians opt out of an increasingly fractious political culture.

Prominent Canadians from across the political spectrum recently penned an open letter expressing grave concern that Canadians are losing their ability to listen and engage in genuine dialogue with those they disagree with.

As our ranking on The Economist’s annual Democracy Index continues its downward slide, analysts have repeatedly warned that Canada’s democratic problems are starting to mirror the growing dysfunction of winner-take-all politics in the United States.

It goes without saying that we don’t want to shift these dangerous trends into overdrive.

If we start with the objective of creating a more representative, inclusive and co-operative political system, any proposed “solution” that gives two big parties an even stronger grip on power must be seen as patently counterproductive.

Instead of fixing the problems that plague countries with winner-take-all voting systems (polarization, alienated voters and jarring policy lurch), devolving into a two-party political system will amplify them.

There’s a lot at stake for all Canadians, and we are running out of time. We need to get the solution right the first time.

Wicked problems like the housing shortage, the failing health-care system and climate change have been decades in the making. The short-sighted nature of winner-take-all politics guarantees that progress will remain elusive.

Effective solutions require plans and commitment well beyond the life of any single government. Their implementation often does not produce the immediate, dramatic improvements for which politicians hope to be rewarded at the ballot box.

Even when one government makes a start, first-past-the-post means that key programs are at risk of being torn up completely by the next. Politicians are incentivized to reduce complex problems to nothing more than partisan wedges with which to bludgeon their opponents.

To succeed in the long term, we need an electoral system that motivates parties to find common ground and work together to create policies that will last.

If the Liberals and NDP truly want to avoid getting stuck in this same doom loop again and again, they should show the courage and conviction to act on the lesson they are offered every time they find themselves heading for electoral disaster: Canadians would be better served by legitimate improvements that will benefit not only progressives but all voters. There is an obvious solution ― but it involves compromise.

Decades of peer-reviewed research shows that countries with proportional representation have lower income inequality, higher economic growth, better health outcomes, more ambitious climate protection and more resilient democracies.

In other words, on things that profoundly impact the daily lives of ordinary citizens, governments elected through proportional representation deliver better outcomes.

Policies are created in an environment of less toxic partisanship. While parties or leaders with “extreme” views are part of any democracy, proportional representation eliminates the risk that any leader with an “extreme” view will be handed all the power with 39 per cent of the vote.

Programs and policies negotiated under proportional, multi-party governments are generally much less likely to be reversed. While shifts in policies and priorities do occur when governments change, outright reversals are rare.

A culture of collaboration, along with some degree of continuity in the parties forming government, provides a higher level of protection for social and environmental policies and programs.

For example, nine parties in Denmark ― including conservatives ― co-operated to pass ambitious climate legislation in 2020. Regardless of which parties form government in the future, Denmark has committed to its citizens, investors and the world that it is serious about consistently tackling climate change.

We know proportional representation is achievable because other countries have done it. Dialogue and compromise to reach a multi-party agreement is how most OECD countries achieved PR.

Unfortunately, since 2017, the Liberals haven’t been willing to come to the table.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been obstinate, unrelenting and ultimately decisive in his personal opposition to any form or degree of proportionality. As he stated in 2017 when he broke the promise, “It was my choice to make.”

A Poilievre false majority combined with new leadership in the Liberal Party could finally place a multi-party agreement on electoral reform within reach.

If the 39 Liberal MPs who bucked the party line when they voted for a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform are any indication, it’s a conversation many Liberals are ready to have.

Well before the Liberal Party’s precipitous drop in the polls, its grassroots membership voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform at their 2023 national convention. Their vote was in lockstep with the opinion of a strong majority of Canadians, across the political spectrum.

Pierre Poilievre's politicizing of human rights issues to dangle it like red meat before his base before an election signifies a new low in Canadian politics, write Anita Nickerson & Gisela Ruckert @FairVoteCanada #EqualVotingPower #cdnpoli

As Fawcett says, the failure of the Liberals and NDP to come to an agreement on electoral reform may be “one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of the last decade.”

Let’s hope that the excruciating aftermath of the next election serves as a catalyst for them to finally do what they should have done years ago: work together to protect our democracy and ensure Canadians get the governments they voted for.

Note: A version of this column appeared on the Fair Vote Canada website on April 12, 2024.

Anita Nickerson is the executive director of Fair Vote Canada. She lives in Kitchener, Ont., with her husband and daughter.

Gisela Ruckert is a member of Fair Vote Canada's national board. She is a grassroots advocate for community resilience in her home city of Kamloops, B.C.

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"The last few years have seen an alarming rise in partisan polarization, rage-farming and voter alienation. Voter turnout continues to drop as Canadians opt out of an increasingly fractious political culture."

Part of the reason for that is political parties are no longer focused on what Canadians expect from their government elected. The conservatives spend more time being divisive, rage farming, disrupting the House of Commons, and just behaving like children. Religious ideology is making its way into decisions by the likes of conservatives and shouldn't be.

The NDP want to play Santa to Canadians, but fail to understand that things like dental care or pharmacare are not free and ultimately Canadians will need to pay more taxes to cover the costs of these programs. It is not that Canadians don't need these services; you need to understand the added tax burden on Canadians they bring. History just shows how costs typically overrun and taxpayers foot the bill in the end.

The Liberals meanwhile are slowly self-destructing from within, with a leader who refuses to see the forest for the trees and won't step aside.

It doesn't seem to matter who is elected, Canadians get the shaft as the elected government, provinces and opposition don't play nice anymore. The quality of the politicians is poor and self-serving these days. It would go a long way if, to run for any political party, politicians met certain criteria, education, real-world work experience and knowledge of our charters and laws of the land. Take someone like Pierre Poilievre who has never worked a day in his life as a working Canadian, and out of touch with the real world.

So why even bother to vote, the end result is always the same, none of the player work together these days.

I think the NDP understand that revenue stuff quite well. At the provincial level, if you look at the actual record, the NDP run up the least deficits, the Conservatives the most. The reason is that the more right wing you are, the more obsessed you are with reducing the amount of revenue coming from the wealthy and corporations. So they throw away the money and then say "Oh no, we're broke, we can't do anything useful!" Which is convenient, because government doing useful things means their wealthy good buddies don't get to make a profit from it.

Lots of successful countries afford the stuff the NDP want. That's because their corporate tax isn't fifteen freaking percent minus loopholes. Put Canadian tax levels on the wealthy and corporations back to their levels from the 80s even, bring back taxes on large inheritances, and there would be tons more money than you need for the most expansive NDP wishlist.

And that's before you even get to the fact that overall, stuff like pharmacare ends up costing less than people paying individually.

Very good article. I like the example of Denmark with 9 parties passing progressive climate legislation.

An NDP/Liberal merger would alienate the Liberal Party's conservative base and convince them to go blue. With current polling numbers, things would be comparable to Japan's "1955 system".

Good article. One problem we have is, the Liberals never seem to learn. They think they're still "Canada's Natural Governing Party" and any interruption in that is just a hiccup, and so they always figure they're better off holding out for the next Liberal majority government than allowing proportional representation. What the Liberals need to wrap their heads around is that the media and in general information landscape has shifted; any "Robert Stanfield's football" hatchet jobs being done will be against them now, not for them. If this were the media landscape of the 70s, someone like Poilievre would be "That crazy whining guy" instead of presented as a serious candidate for next Prime Minister. Nowadays, the Liberals will lose more from first-past-the-post than they will gain. They should go for proportional, but I don't know how long and hard they'll have to get hammered before that will sink in.

Excellent article. Denmark is a very positive example. Certainly the challenges Canada faces are globally common - including the very polarized sound bites. Change has been happening for decades as stated and looking nostalgically to the past is not a solution to address current and future challenges. There is a worry with this thinking and the reference to "common sense" is a simpleton's policy. It didn't work 20 years ago with the Harris Gov and today's world is exponentially more complex.

Everyone - get on the Fair Vote Canada mailing list and help Anita and others across the country to push for the electoral reform we desperately need.