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jeffrey simpson

Prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau insists that the Oct. 19 election will be the last held under the existing voting system – first past the post.

Suppose it happens. Any new system would hurt the Conservative Party that evolved under Stephen Harper and the leaders of the Canadian Alliance and Reform parties, Stockwell Day and Preston Manning.

There are two broad alternatives to the electoral status quo, and various subdivisions within each alternative. The first is preferential voting; the second is proportional representation.

Under preferential voting, electors list their candidate choices in order of preference. That would be bad news for the today's Conservatives. They are the least favoured second-choice for Liberals and New Democrat voters. Worse, according to Nanos Research, the number of voters who might consider voting Conservative falls below the number who might accept the Liberals or the NDP.

Under proportional representation, parties in Parliament more or less reflect the number of votes received. Almost always under PR, a minority government ensues after negotiations among parties. None of the other parties, at least these days, would get into political bed with the Conservatives. Proportional representation would, therefore, also be bad news for the Conservatives.

Forget possible new electoral systems. The Conservatives have narrowed themselves to the point of being difficult to get elected under any system.

The Conservatives have a rural base of which the population is declining. They are very weak in most of the largest cities – Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Winnipeg. In the four large cities of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Tories retain political strength, but not as much as in past elections.

The cities are where the "elites" largely swell, the voters that the Harper Party disliked and actually ran against. Cities, however, are the biggest centres for finance, internationalization, intellectual creativity, large universities and cultural communities.

Cut yourself off from these centres and a party becomes removed from tomorrow. Conservatives do well among people over 65 and those with the least formal education. Those are hardly the groups on which a party can build a bigger future.

Conservatives thought their strength would lie in the suburbs: two-parent families, hockey dads, mortgage holders – what the Australian Liberal Party calls "battlers." Better still, Conservatives thought, would be the party's strength among "ethnic" voters in the suburbs. Instead, the suburbs of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal went Liberal red, as did swaths of the suburbs in Vancouver. So much for that Conservative political calculation.

What the Harper Party tried had worked for three elections: targeting only 40 per cent of the electorate and squeezing as many votes as possible from that two-fifths share to win a majority. It was akin in poker to drawing to an inside straight. It can happen, but not often.

It has been said, by Defence Minister Jason Kenney among others, that the Conservatives were done in by their style. The party needed to put on a happier face, ran this postmortem. True, but only to a point. More fundamental was the narrowcasting of the party's appeal to only 40 per cent of the electorate, a strategy that reflected ideological thinking.

Even if no changes are made to the electoral system, the Conservatives need to learn the lessons of the past 25 years. The narrower they are, the more they lose. But the chances are that they will not heed this lesson, because the party now lies in the hands of the MPs just elected, the young, ideological staffers – the so-called "boys in shorts" – who worked on Parliament Hill in the Harper years, and the people who worked in party headquarters.

Mr. Trudeau's promise to change the electoral system into something else is a long-term threat to today's Conservatives, but the threat might evaporate should the new prime minister act as a true democrat. A country's electoral system belongs to the people. It is absolutely fundamental, like a constitution, and therefore should be changed only with the approval of the people in a direct vote.

New Zealanders voted in a plebiscite to move from first past the post, to a form of PR. A group of New Zealand parliamentarians did not change the system – the people did. Given a chance to vote on a new system, by contrast, citizens in Ontario, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia (the second time) chose the status quo.

Who knows what Canadians as a whole would support? Respect for democracy, however, requires that for something as fundamental as electoral change, the people decide.

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