Saturday Apr 29

Northern Light: Canada’s Current Electoral System Has Democracy Problems

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I see some Americans liberals are swooning over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and juxtaposed to Donald Trump they may well should. Meanwhile, progressive Canadians who once saw him as a champion for their causes are waking up to the political realities of a ‘Big L’ Liberal majority government in Canada.

Case in point: Electoral Reform, the campaign to change Canada’s electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.

Canada’s current electoral system has democracy problems.

First, it gives the Prime Minister immense political power because the there is only one legislative body that has any power in Canada, the House of Commons. The senate and the executive branch - the Queens representative - are, very rightly so, mainly symbolic or procedural bodies.

Second, a party can get a majority of seats in the House of Commons with less than 40% of the vote. As a Prime Minister, the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament, all you need to rule with an iron fist is to keep members of your own party voting in line, which is not hard to do.

Justin Trudeau stated, time and time again while the third party leader that a Liberal government would bring about electoral reform. He promised that the 2015 election would be the last one in Canada to use the first-past-the-post system. It was going to be fairer, more Canadian, he said.

Sure enough, early in 2017, Trudeau went back on his word. Turns out he thinks the electoral system that got him a majority government was fine the way it was. Sacrebleu!! Campaigners and activists were aghast that he lied.

To a more jaded person (like me), having Justin Trudeau lie about this comes as much of a surprise as a sunrise in the morning. It’s just plan naive to think that Justin was going to reform an electoral system that gives him almost full control of the parliament. Sure, he promised he would change it. He also had all the great kissing baby shots and smooth lines in the election campaign. But to think he was going to give away power once in power? Did people actually think this?

Not exactly. The dcampaigners’ hopeful campaign strategy for winning electoral reform was actually contingent on having a minority government elected in the 2015 election. The thinking went like this: use a strategic voting to defeat the Harper Conservatives by electing a pro-electoral reform candidate (Liberal, Green, or NDP) in as many places as possible. Then, hope that one of these parties wins a minority government. Then lastly, once that’s in place, use public pressure to force them together on legislation after the election.

LeadNow.ca, an online campaign organization, was leading the push. They targeted swing ridings across the country, getting people to sign commitments to vote for the candidate most likely to defeat a Harper Conservative. They were able to use the campaign to build up their organizational name recognition, build lists, and thereby increase their fundraising capacity. Organizationally, for them, all of this, despite the loss, must be in some ways a win based on those things. But it surely stings the way it ended.

Looking into the campaign a bit shows that they were too naive and too hopeful, and did not put resources to truly building their base as much as they should have.

There is the glaring irony of endorsing Liberals on the basis of an electoral reform commitment. To have that same commitment and endorsement help Trudeau win a majority and thereby kill any chance of getting electoral reform. Aye aye aye.

The main tactic of the LeadNow campaign was to endorse candidates who supported electoral reform who had the best shot of winning. First they used digital lists to get volunteer canvass teams in each riding, who then went door to door getting commitments to vote for the LeadNow-endorsed candidate. Secondly, they would use their digital lists to fundraise money. Third, they used that money to pay for polling to find out which pro-electoral reform candidate had the best shot at winning in each riding. Fourth, they used the polling data as the basis of the endorsement. Last, they attempted to mobilize their committed voters from the list and get them to the polls to vote for the endorsed candidate, thereby helping ensure that the vote was not split.

That’s a hopeful campaign plan with lots of uncontrollable parts. I find two things I find particularly jarring.

One being that LeadNow states that they did 57 polls in their 37 targeted ridings. Not only is this a massive resource drain, but it is not even the best way to determine who to endorse. If you do have an active and robust local membership base in
each riding, then why not have your membership decide on a riding by riding basis who they think should win. The membership could talk to the candidates, get informed on past election results, and make a far more informed decision than a poll that is only right 19 times out of 20. Further, 57 polls! The cost must have been astronomical.

Second, how do you get your supporters to all vote in a bloc for a candidate that you determined late in the game based on polling? That is far easier said than done, and in the end I wonder how much it actually happened. Normal GOTV is hard work. I can only imagine what this was like. A volunteers-based ground crew armed with some phone and door lists, and a digital organizing team surly not located in the riding were supposed to get traditional NDP voters to vote Liberal, and visa versa? I find it hard to believe that this happened in a way that LeadNow could control. Further, it is not as if electoral reform is really a top issue for any voter except a few activists. It’s a stretch for me to think that this issue could really sway voters in a substantive or measurable way.

Nonetheless there were successes in the strategy. The air time that LeadNow and the Electoral Reform campaign garnered during the election was substantial. TV pundits talked about them as players. Papers across the country ran stories about the significance of their endorsement. That’s big for any new organization.

Overall, I have little doubt that this effort helped defeat Harper’s Conservatives. The problem is just that the new boss is a lot like the old boss on this issue and many more. He is better dressed though!!

John Anderson is the Head Organizer of Toronto ACORN. Since 2004 John has helped to develop the ACORN Canada operations in Toronto, Ontario, and British Columbia. He is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg.

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