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The Government we Deserve

by Archives October 21, 2008

In the upcoming months and years, Canadians will hear much from Harper on his strengthened minority government’s “mandate.” We will be informed that we have apparently given sanction to his platform in its entirety. But it will be a lie. And it will remain so until we change the way we vote.
More than 60 per cent of Canadians voted for parties staunchly opposed to Harper’s vision of Canada on a range of issues, from the environment to the economy. His party barely gained a percentage point more than in the 2006 election, but as a result of heightened vote-splitting on the left, he managed to pick up almost 20 seats more.
And yet, this enormous perversion of democracy is something Canadians have grown quite accustomed to over the years. In the “free-trade” election of 1988, a decisive majority of Canadians supported parties staunchly opposed to the proposed free trade pact with the United States. With these votes divided between the Liberals and New Democrats, however, Brian Mulroney’s government was returned to power with an artificial majority of seats. He proceeded to interpret the results as a ringing endorsement of his policies. With the Canadian people largely opposed to such massive economic integration with our neighbour to the south, Canada was forcibly propelled into the era of free trade. History has since erased any memory of the electorate’s true will.
Today we find ourselves in the same boat. Worse, we have no one to blame but ourselves. If Canadians truly wanted a proportional electoral system which accurately reflected their will, we would demand it. Instead, we seem content to allow the minority view to prevail in election after election. We stubbornly cling to an antiquated 19th century electoral system, which has been abandoned by every other advanced democracy in the world except us, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Fair Vote Canada, a multi-partisan citizens group formed in 2000 to promote electoral reform, estimates the number of “orphan voters” – votes which receive no representation in Parliament – at a staggering seven million (in short, the majority of voters). It’s a reality Montrealers know all too well. Most of us are confined to solid Liberal or Bloc ridings and enjoy virtually no chance of affecting the government’s outcome in Ottawa. In practice, this also means most voters are neglected by the national parties, who see little benefit in wasting limited resources on races which are often a foregone conclusion.
Aside from the stark reality of countless disenfranchised voters, and a government unresponsive to the majority view, our First-Past-the-Post system exerts an additional destabilizing force on the fabric of the Canadian nation. Simply put, our electoral system exerts great strains on the federation, painting an exaggerated portrait of a balkanized country beset by vast regional differences.
Nothing can better illustrate this than the bloated presence of the Bloc Québécois in the House of Commons. Despite a consistent majority of Quebecers who support federalist parties, the province has repeatedly sent large majorities of Bloc MPs to Ottawa, seizing two thirds of the province’s seat share in the latest election despite falling to under 40 per cent of the popular vote. The deleterious effects of such an outcome for the unity of our country cannot be understated. Not only do Quebecers lack sufficient representation in our national political parties, but the rest of Canada is again confronted with the image of an isolationist Quebec, demanding ever more from the federal government, while partaking less and less in our common institutions.
While the case of the Bloc is the most salient example, similar instances play out across the country every time we have an election. Consider the urban Tories, federalist Quebecers, Western Liberals, New Democrats and Greens everywhere – none of whom are properly represented in the national Parliament. Our image of ourselves is distorted as a result.
While the issue of electoral reform might not appear on any federal party’s agenda any time soon, the provinces have the ability to forge ahead with their own reforms, exerting pressure on the national government in the process. Here in Quebec, a government-commissioned report was released almost a year ago urging the adoption of a proportional voting system. The Charest Liberals, who promised in 2003 to enact voting system reform, have since shelved it, and have done so with impunity.
If Canadians hope to see their views reflected in government in the near future, it’s incumbent on us to abandon our apathy and demand from our leaders a truer, more responsive democracy. If we should not, we will have no one to blame for the results but ourselves.

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