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margaret wente

Who wants Trudeau’s electoral reform? Add to ...

Here’s an opinion poll you can do totally on your own. Next time you’re in Timmies, ask the first five people in line what they think are the most urgent issues facing our country. They can list as many things as they want. Write down their answers. Keep on asking everyone who comes in the door. Note how many times they mention “electoral reform.”

I’ll bet you a box of Timbits the answer is “zero.”

Yet electoral reform turns out to be among the most urgent matters on our new government’s agenda. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thinks it is so pressing that there’s no time to hold a referendum. Eighteen months from now, we’ll have a new system, cooked up by a bunch of experts that does not include you. What might this new system be? No one has a clue.

The urgency is curious. Hardly anyone (apart from a few wonks) is clamouring for electoral reform. Many Canadians do not think our voting system is a major problem. Most voters likely didn’t have a clue that electoral reform was even in the Liberal platform. After all, we’ve had the same voting system since Confederation. It isn’t perfect, but our country is still here, and everybody understands how it works. So why the rush?

The answer is that Liberal strategists thought electoral reform was a big, bold promise that made them sound good – kind of like that promise to get all the refugees to Canada by New Year’s. It showed that Mr. Trudeau is a man of vision and action. He’s the change guy! That’s why he got elected. So now he needs to change a lot of stuff, whether it needs changing or not.

Electoral reform isn’t like the spanking law (which the Liberals also vow to change). It’s at the core of our democratic institutions. So you’d think that voters would be entitled to register an opinion about it. But evidently not. Maybe the Liberals think we’re too stupid to decide such important matters for ourselves. Or maybe they’re afraid we would just vote to keep the system we have. That’s what usually happens.

The biggest objection to Canada’s first-past-the-post system is that one party can get all the power with only a fraction of the votes. But at least the voters know who’s in charge. If you want a look at an alternative, I highly recommend the TV series Borgen, which features the ups and downs of a fictional Danish female politician. Denmark has 10 parties in revolving coalition governments. Even the Danes don’t understand how their system works. (Borgen’s politics are incomprehensible, but fortunately the sex is great.)

I won’t list the various alternatives to what we have – I’d need a lot more space, and it would make your head hurt. (Mine too.) As the government’s House Leader, Dominic LeBlanc, admitted to Maclean’s, there is “a high level of confusion and misunderstanding about options.”

The most important thing you need to know is this: No system is, or can be, perfect. No system can simultaneously be completely fair to smaller parties, allow a direct link between each MP and a community of constituents, and produce governments that directly reflect the millions of votes cast. This isn’t my opinion. It’s been mathematically proven by something called Arrow’s impossibility theorem. You can look it up.

As flawed as our system is, it has its virtues. The greatest one is clarity. Any party that wins a majority has the chance to fully implement its agenda, for better or for worse. Unlike a coalition, it doesn’t have to compromise its platform to retain power. In due course the voters get to pass judgment on how they’ve performed. If it’s time to throw the rascals out, they know how to do it.

Mr. Trudeau thinks that electoral reform will attract disaffected voters back to politics. I doubt it. Voters are attracted back to politics when there are issues and candidates they care passionately about. What attracted them back this time was Mr. Sunny Ways himself. The Liberals would be smart to keep that in mind. It’s likely that most people who voted Liberal had only the sketchiest idea what the party platform was.

So it might come as a shock when they discover that the Liberals are hell-bent on ripping up a voting system that has served us reasonably well since 1867, and replacing it with something that’s much more complicated, poorly understood, and possibly of most benefit to – guess who – Liberals. If this strikes you as arrogant and dictatorial – er, wasn’t that the other guy?

The Liberals insist that by voting for them, we also voted for every plank and splinter in their platform. They could be in for a surprise. But we did vote for activist government, and that’s exactly what we got. The eager beavers who are now in charge are overflowing with solutions we don’t need for problems we don’t have. They are going to be very, very busy. And electoral reform is just the start.

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