Rarely if ever has our electoral system undergone such sweeping change. The current hullabaloo is over the Conservatives' scrapping the traditional televised debate format. But in the larger scheme of things this is small beer.
Among the many other big changes in the last few years:
- The Tories have overturned the rules for political party financing. A public per-vote subsidy for the parties was in place. Now the financing has been privatized;
- They've brought in what they call a Fair Elections Act, a significant reordering that among many other things tightens the eligibility rules for voting;
- After a long-running feud with Elections Canada, the Conservatives via the act have stripped away powers of the agency both to police elections and to run advertising to get people out to vote;
- The Conservatives have changed the very nature of campaigning. They've made it an around-the-clock enterprise, the use of personalized attack ads outside the election writ period being just one example;
- They've changed the rules governing the timing of elections so that we now have a fixed-date system.
What to make of it all? The Tories argue that the changes are for the betterment of democracy. Opposition critics say it's all about the governing party gaming the system to its advantage.
On the party financing changes, the new way favours the party which can raise the most money. The Tories can rightly say that if the other parties aren't as good at fundraising, tough bananas for them. Others argue that we should be moving away from a money-driven electoral system, not closer to one.
With their Elections Act, which this newspaper argues should be thrown out, eligibility changes are ostensibly designed to eliminate voter fraud. That has been criticized as a red herring. With the new tougher voter ID requirements, says elections expert Harry Neufeld, countless numbers of voters will be caught unawares and not be able to vote. A suppressed voter turnout, critics say, favours the Tories. Republicans in the United States, they note, use tactics like tougher ID requirements.
With the introduction of the permanent campaign atmosphere, we see the harsh advertising, debate often reduced to talking points, a 24 Seven vanity video by the Prime Minister. Do the people really want all politics all the time? Are we moving toward the polarized political atmosphere as seen in the U.S.?
The Tories' fixed-date election reform is a good one. But they lost credibility by violating it with a surprise election call in 2008.
On the change in the debates format, the governing party is right in saying more debates are necessary. But a system wherein it can orchestrate the debates is hardly a healthy one. The Tories are setting up debates on specified topics such as foreign policy and the economy. In such encounters they don't have to deal with subjects like climate change, the Duffy scandal, the Supreme Court, parliamentary democracy.
There will be, it appears, only one English-language debate with wide-open subject matter. From various applicants, the Tories have chosen Maclean's-Rogers to run it with veteran journalist Paul Wells moderating. This again has the look of table-setting, though it could backfire. Sensitive to any impression he'll go easy on them, Mr. Wells might well do the opposite.
Of all the changes, none address two of the most serious problems in our electoral system. One is the first-past-the-post system, the flaws of which are obvious. Some form of proportional representation is needed. The other is our dismal voter turnout. That could be fixed by moving to a compulsory voting system that is used in many other countries. The big argument against it is that you are taking away citizens' freedoms by forcing them to vote. That could be solved by giving people a choice on the ballot to vote for nobody. It might be a popular option.