October election could be a dry run for proportional representation

If current polling trends hold, we are heading for a minority government in October.

By Doreen Barrie

Troy Media guest column

If current polling trends hold, we are heading for a minority government in October, and the two front-runners might have to approach rivals to construct a stable government. Unaccustomed as they are to such a scenario and given that “coalition” is a four-letter word in Canada, they will have their work cut out for them.

The challenge flows from our First-Past-the-Post electoral system and the adversarial nature of our Westminster-style parliamentary system. As we shall see, they combine to produce a climate in which co-operation and compromise are alien, making it difficult to adapt to a new reality.

The Conservative Party won a majority in 2011 with about 40 per cent of the vote. It is thus fair to say that most Canadians do not favour the Conservatives, but our electoral system does. Not surprisingly, both the Liberals and NDP support electoral reform, but are they capable of dealing with a shift to new political terrain? In the current system, the winner takes all and does not have to pay the slightest attention to suggestions or criticisms from opposition parties. A majority government has a clear field and does not need to compromise to get legislation passed. The prevailing culture is therefore resistant to co-operation, and we cannot wave a wand and change it.

Will Canadian political parties be able to adapt to the imperatives of proportional representation when and if it is introduced? The result of the October election may be a dry run if they have to combine forces to keep the Conservatives at bay. NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, has expressed interest in a coalition with the Liberals, but Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has ruled out a “formal” coalition.

The term coalition government is carrying baggage left over from the 2008 campaign when the Liberals and New Democrats, along with the Bloc, proposed one. Reaction from the Conservatives was vitriolic with accusations that the other parties were committing treason for trying to topple a democratically-elected government.

But it is perfectly legal for the Governor General to turn to another party in the House should the governing party lose a vote of confidence. It is a testament to the power of messaging that the Conservatives were able to convince Canadians that what their rivals were proposing was tantamount to a coup d’état.

Ever since, party leaders, when asked if they will form a coalition, deny that they will. Yet, if there is a hung parliament, a party must enter into some type of arrangement with another party, even if voters feel betrayed.

Our adversarial, Westminster-style parliamentary system further exacerbates the situation. As Question Period demonstrates, MPs are encouraged to go for the jugular in their attempts to best their opponents. There is no incentive to engage in a productive debate; on the contrary, there are perverse incentives to ridicule ideas and suggestions from across the aisle.

Against such a backdrop, it is difficult to imagine how parties and leaders with such predispositions will come together to govern the country.

The disappointing aspect of this state of affairs is that, in the process of jousting (some of which is just theatre), the parties forget that they were elected to represent the interests of the electorate. It often seems the public interest is being sacrificed on the altar of personal ambition and partisan interest. If parties lose sight of the fact that power, though heady, is something to be exercised for the greater good, they are doing us a disservice.

There is growing cynicism about politics and politicians among Canadian voters. If party leaders behave badly after the October election, it will further disillusion Canadians and turn them off. There might be short-term gain for political parties but damage to the body politic will be long-lasting.

Doreen Barrie is a Political Scientist at the University of Calgary. She is the author of The Other Alberta: Decoding a Political Enigma.

© 2015 Distributed by Troy Media


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