Could Trudeau surpass Chrétien’s democratic reform legacy in a fraction of the time?

1 Comment

Could Trudeau surpass Chrétien’s democratic reform legacy in a fraction of the time?

by Devon Rowcliffe

Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces the opportunity to achieve one of the greatest democratic reforms in Canadian history.  Rather tantalizingly, this objective could be achieved within just two years—a mere fraction of the time it took former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien to enact his boldest democratic reforms.

Trudeau’s Liberals have promised that the 2015 federal election will be the last such contest that utilizes the first-past-the-post voting system. Their pledge is to “convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots [and] proportional representation,” and that electoral reform legislation will be introduced within 18 months of forming government.

This timeframe is startlingly rapid compared to the reign of Chrétien—he didn’t unveil his most brazen democratic reforms until the final year of his decade-plus mandate. The highlight of his delayed feat was a ban against corporate and union donations to political parties, meant to address concerns that “big money” had an insidious effect upon Canadian politics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 federal election campaign. (Photo by Day Donaldson; some rights reserved)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 federal election campaign. (Photo by Day Donaldson; some rights reserved)

If Trudeau has the tenacity, his achievements in democratic reform could easily overshadow those of Chrétien. Were Canada to adopt an electoral system that results in proportional representation, such a monumental change would mean the end of false-majority governments and strategic voting, as well as the dawn of a parliament that reflects the true, aggregate will of the country’s electorate. Enacting proportional representation would also usher in a new era of consensus politics in which political parties would be compelled to cooperate with each other to pass legislation, curtailing the venomous parliamentary debates that achieve little other than vacuous, defamatory theatre.

A less courageous option for Trudeau would instead be to adopt ranked ballots, also known as “instant-runoff voting” or “alternative vote.” This is a relatively obscure electoral system, currently used by Australia’s lower house, and previously utilized provincially in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia between the 1920s and 1950s.

Many political cynics, myself included, expect that the Liberals will choose ranked ballots instead of proportional representation, because doing so would be in their self-interest for two reasons. First, ranked ballots tend to favour centrist parties, and would likely produce favourable election results for the Liberals.

Justin Trudeau campaigning during the spring of 2014. (Photo by Alex Guibord; some rights reserved)

Justin Trudeau campaigning during the spring of 2014. (Photo by Alex Guibord; some rights reserved)

Second, ranked ballots would mean relatively little change from the status quo. Roughly only one in ten ridings would find different results if ranked ballots were adopted. Ranked ballots produce winner-takes-all results that aren’t proportional: they maintain false-majority governments, strategic voting would persist, and the two largest political parties would continue to benefit at the expense of smaller parties. If our current voting system is to be discarded, both the Liberals and Conservatives are likely to favour ranked ballots as the alternative, as it would result in the smallest possible change from the first-past-the-post system that has kept them in power for so long.

Will Trudeau have the fortitude to adopt proportional representation, despite that ranked voting would be more advantageous for the Liberals? Looking back to Chrétien’s 2004 ban against political contributions from corporations and unions, his act could be perceived as stouthearted, given that the Liberals had previously benefitted the most from such donations. Chrétien was committed to use the ban to strengthen Canadian democracy, even though he knew it would hinder his political party in subsequent elections. Some view this historical act as a noble sacrifice—putting the interests of the country before that of one’s own political party.

Will Justin Trudeau have the courage to prioritize democratic reinvigoration over the political advantage of false-majority governments and inflated seat numbers that the Liberals (and Conservatives) have benefitted so much from over the decades? Does Trudeau, like Chrétien before him, have the audacity to make improvements to his country’s democracy that would simultaneously hinder his party’s ability to acquire solitary power again in the future?

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien. (Photo by Jason Paris; some rights reserved)

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien. (Photo by Jason Paris; some rights reserved)

Unlike Chrétien, however, Trudeau need not wait until the twilight of his time as prime minister to cement a legacy of meaningful democratic reform. He could accomplish it well before the end of his initial four-year term in power—and by doing so, Trudeau would appear more determined to reinforce Canadian democracy than Chrétien had been.

During the recent federal election campaign, the Liberals brandished “real change now” as their slogan. The “now” aspect seems likely, given Trudeau’s promise of introducing legislation within 18 months. But just how “real” of a change is our national voting system about to undergo?

Which is the greater priority for Justin Trudeau: the health of Canada’s democracy, or the Liberal Party’s quest for future power? Whether Trudeau ultimately becomes known as a generational change agent or as a force of inertia who insulates the Big Red Machine will be partly determined by this momentous decision.

1 Comment

7 candidates, 4 chairs: diverse voices silenced by Vancouver riding debates that exclude candidates — The Georgia Straight

Comment

7 candidates, 4 chairs: diverse voices silenced by Vancouver riding debates that exclude candidates — The Georgia Straight

by Devon Rowcliffe

What possible benefit is there to voters when debate hosts decide to act as gatekeepers and impose arbitrary barriers against candidate participation? Some of the candidates and their ideas may be eccentric, but if they refrain from spreading hatred or making offensive statements, why exclude them?

Are policies such as reducing copyright terms, legalizing marijuana, or raising the personal income tax exemption so egregious that it is worth curtailing our democratic options in order to silence such ideas?

Independent and small-party candidates typically run modest campaigns buoyed only with meagre funding, which prevents them from purchasing advertising. Neighbourhood hustings remain one of the few avenues they have to share their ideas about how our society should be governed. If local debates become increasingly exclusive, prospective candidates outside of the large parties may decide that participating in our democracy just isn't worth the time and effort.

READ MORE

Comment

Guns, drugs, hookers, and freedom: meet the political party formerly banned by Elections Canada — The Georgia Straight

Comment

Guns, drugs, hookers, and freedom: meet the political party formerly banned by Elections Canada — The Georgia Straight

by Devon Rowcliffe

“I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana plants with guns.”

They’re both left-wing and right-wing. They steadfastly oppose anti-terrorism legislation such as Bill C-51, advocate for legalizing drugs and prostitution, and promote a non-interventionist foreign policy. Yet this same group also wants to allow private healthcare, decrease taxes, and make it easier to obtain guns.

What could be behind this seeming paradox? The Libertarian Party of Canada. The above quote is from party leader Tim Moen, and features in political advertising that has taken the Internet by storm in… the United States of America.

Will they be able to garner similar adoration here in Canada in time for the federal election on October 19?

READ MORE

Comment

Uncertain consequence of voting “no” muddles transit referendum — The Georgia Straight

Comment

Uncertain consequence of voting “no” muddles transit referendum — The Georgia Straight

by Devon Rowcliffe

Can a referendum truly be deemed “fair” if voters are thoroughly confused as to the consequences of one of its two options?

Two weeks from now, Metro Vancouver voters will begin receiving their transit referendum ballots in the mail. They will be asked whether they approve a regional sales tax of 0.5 percent, which will be used to generate $7.5 billion to fund transit and transportation improvements across the region.

It seems straightforward enough—until you consider that retaining the status quo is nowhere to be found on the ballot.

The result of a Yes vote is obvious. But what of a potential No victory? This is where things become confusing—which could bestow a massive advantage upon the No side.

There is a troubling lack of clarity as to the consequence of a No result in the referendum. Possibilities are numerous, ranging from the rejection of new transit and a massive expansion of highways and automobile use (against the wishes of the municipalities), through to merely collecting the $7.5 billion for new transit through a different type of regional tax, as well as everything imaginable in between.

READ MORE

Comment

Canada's Oliekrisen? Why plummeting oil prices may hasten our shift to renewable energy — Vancouver Observer

Comment

Canada's Oliekrisen? Why plummeting oil prices may hasten our shift to renewable energy — Vancouver Observer

by Devon Rowcliffe

A rapid increase in oil prices during the 1970s caused Denmark to radically alter its national energy policy, with the goal of replacing fossil fuels entirely with renewable energy. More than 40 years later, will the notable drop in oil prices ironically lead Canada to a similar shift?

The 1973 oil crisis, caused by a sudden and significant increase in the price of oil, shocked many Western economies. Denmark was hit particularly hard, as imported oil had accounted for more than 92 percent of the country's energy. The danger of being overly reliant upon one source of energy controlled by external forces was brutally exposed, and the Danes vowed never to repeat their oliekrisen (“the oil crisis”) experience.

Denmark began an aggressive, long-term transition to eliminate its oil dependency, replacing it with renewable energy and district heating. The Nordic country is currently on track to have renewables cover 70 per cent of its national energy needs by 2025. Rather ambitiously, Denmark aims to be entirely fossil-fuel free by 2050, including in its transportation sector.

This was an example of an oil-importing country that fell victim to high oil prices. But what about the flip side of the coin? What happens to oil-producing countries such as Canada when the price of oil suddenly plummets? Will there be an increased political will to diversify Canada’s energy sector, for fear of boom-and-bust economic cycles?

READ MORE

Comment