In this era of dangerous populism, Canada’s electoral system condemns moderates to the political margins



“Some polls suggest that a third of [Conservative party] supporters identify with the populists: pro-oil and pro-Trump, they despise so-called ‘elites’ and dismiss climate change as a hoax.  It is this constituency that threatens to overtake the Conservative party.”

—Dan Leger in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, January 20, 2020

Politics is a rigorous job that places excessive demands onto those foolish enough to partake.  You could be forgiven for thinking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had taken up contortionism as a new hobby in the elusive quest for work-life balance when he offered a myriad of dubious excuses after violating his promise to reform Canada’s election system.

“Do you think Kellie Leitch should have her own party?” was one such straw-man rationalization Trudeau glibly offered to an Iqaluit resident, suggesting that a switch to proportional representation would empower small, fringe political parties.  But in the age of Donald Trump and Doug Ford, it’s the big-tent Conservative party potentially forming a populist majority government – a process aided by the current voting system – that presents a much greater danger.

The mechanism we use to elect our federal governments, known as “first past the post” or “single-member plurality,” inevitably results in a two-party political system.  Traditionally, it incentivized the two largest parties to self-moderate and effectively barred the political fringe from securing a foothold in Parliament.  Proponents of this voting system justified its drawbacks – fewer options for voters, disproportional election results and “majority” governments constructed from a minority of the vote – as a necessary sacrifice in exchange for moderate and stable governments.

But in an era of populists seizing control of big-tent political parties and coming to power, the values trade-off used to vindicate Canada’s voting system has become increasingly tenuous.  An electoral system intended to obstruct the political fringe has instead paved an alarmingly simple path for them to achieve electoral victory.

First past the post was once considered a political firewall that protected the country from extremists.  Today, with big-tent parties anointing populist leaders, our voting system that attempts to award one party unilateral control of government despite only earning a minority of the vote has made it easier than ever before for the fringe to acquire remarkable political power.

Just ask Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a populist at the head of a majority government engineered from barely 40 percent of the popular vote.

Are fears of such a scenario occurring at the federal level unwarranted?  Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, the two frontrunner candidates for the vacant Conservative leadership, are supposedly from the moderate wing of the party.  Yet MacKay raised eyebrows with militaristic early campaign slogans about “warriors,” while O’Toole appeared to be dog-whistling to the disaffected by bemoaning “cancel culture.”  This style of rhetoric bears scant resemblance to the temperate eras of Brian Mulroney or Joe Clark.

Even if populists are kept away from the Conservative leadership, such individuals could still come to prominence as ministers, just as Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander did under Stephen Harper’s majority government.  Remember the xenophobic “barbaric cultural practices” legislation and accompanying snitch phone line from 2015?

Under the threat of swelling populism, not only is Canada’s voting system unable to thwart the galvanization of the political fringe or the emasculation of moderates, but it also keeps moderates ensconced as prisoners within increasingly populist big-tent parties.  It would be perfectly reasonable for moderate Conservatives, repulsed by their party’s ideological drift, to want to create a new political party as an alternative.  But the threat of vote-splitting – another insidious characteristic of first-past-the-post elections – dissuades them from doing so, forcing them instead into silent hibernation as they’re cast away to the margins of the big tent.  As they bide their time in the hope of the party returning to moderation, they inadvertently help prop up the populist party they have come to loathe.  It’s the party-political equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.

If you were ever puzzled why moderates such as Michael Chong remain largely mute rather than forming their own political party, the answer lies almost entirely in our voting system.

The idea of the political fringe coming to power under first-past-the-post elections was once considered nearly impossible.  But now that this scenario has become reality, it’s time Canada revisits why we’re clinging onto an anachronistic voting system we inherited from Britain.

A change in electoral system could eliminate the monopoly that parties have over entire swathes of the political spectrum, introducing much-needed competition.  This would free moderates from big-tent parties that had strayed populist to instead create alternatives, which in turn would give voters a broader menu of options, including a party more likely to match their political leanings.

But would a move to proportional representation open the door to fringe parties securing a foothold in parliament?  Not necessarily.  Many countries use thresholds to prevent fringe parties from winning any list seats unless they secure a certain minimum of the popular vote.  New Zealand uses a five percent threshold.  To put this in a Canadian context: the People’s party, led by Maxime Bernier, wouldn’t have reached such a threshold even if their popular vote ballooned to three times what they achieved in the election last October.

But whether Bernier and his ilk can muster two percent, or five percent, or even 10 percent isn’t the issue.  Real power comes from forming government, not from winning a few handfuls of seats and becoming a parliamentary pariah eschewed by other parties.

Whether the federal Conservative party, led by someone like Doug Ford, could secure majority control of Parliament despite only earning a minority of the vote is what Canadians need to fear.  And such a manipulation of our election results, in which the popular vote is strictly ignored and “false majorities” are artificially manufactured from a minority of the vote, is entirely down to Canada’s archaic voting system.

The creation of such false-majority governments was once considered a desirable feature of our electoral system that allowed governments to be “strong” and “get things done.”  But in a time of festering populism, do we really want to continue giving individual political parties such an easy path to unilateral power?

Forget Maxine Bernier and the People’s party.  Much more chilling is the notion of an effective demagogue at the helm of a big-tent Conservative party when the Liberals are in power and a “hard-change” election is on the horizon, all under the auspices of a voting system geared to provide full control of Parliament to a single political party.

That thought alone should even make most Conservatives into fans of proportional representation, especially when we consider sinister developments south of the border.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Devon Rowcliffe.    @DevonRowcliffe

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