Friday, April 13, 2007

Make or break

The most interesting part of today's developments in the agreement between the Libs and Greens is one which has received surprisingly little attention. For all the discussion of the leaders' ridings and possible cooperation on the environment, it's the prospect of action on electoral reform which will prove to be either May's crowning achievement in the alliance, or a severe disappointment in the making for progressives in both parties. And right now, the latter unfortunately looks far more likely.

Let's look first at what's been said about electoral reform by the respective parties today. From Dion and May's joint statement as posted by Saskboy:
Another issue where we believe progress could be made is in the potential for electoral reform.
Sadly, this falls short of any commitment to act in any way, and indeed two separate weasel phrases ("progress could be made" and "potential") allow for virtually unlimited deniability against any argument that either party has committed toward any change. (Let's leave aside for the rest of this post the possibility that "electoral reform" itself could be interpreted to mean many different things.)

In May's individual statement, that wording gets turned into this:
(I)n addition to not running against me in Central Nova, he has signaled a willingness to reform our electoral system.
Not surprisingly, this appears to take the joint statement up a level: there's a big difference between identifying a possible area of future change, and demonstrating any real willingness or commitment to make changes in that area given the chance.

By contrast, the Libs don't include anything about electoral reform in their press release - unless one counts a change in government as "electoral reform":
“The planet has reached its limit. The human-caused damage to our natural environment is devastating,” (Dion) said. “Currently, our two parties agree that urgent action is needed. So, too, do the vast majority of Canadians. Yet our electoral system could return to government the only political party that does not believe action is required urgently.”
Somehow this doesn't sound like the words of anybody who'll be joining Fair Vote Canada anytime soon.

Just for fun, let's go one step further to Saskboy's spin on the above passages:
May has an agreement from the Dion Liberals to make meaningful electoral reforms when he goes to power...
Do we need to go through this again?

Getting back to the substance of the matter, it seems glaringly clear that Dion hasn't actually committed to anything approaching electoral reform. But will that necessarily remain true going forward?

Unfortunately, Dion himself has demonstrated at best a tepid interest in electoral reform. Remember this from the Lib leadership campaign:
I had read previously in Miles Lunn's blog that Dion had been positive about the German Mixed-Member Proportional voting system (which combines our current system with compensatory seats that would come from some sort of party list, making the result proportional), so I began there. He confirmed that yes, he is personally in favour of a reform toward a system that would involve two-thirds of the seats being elected as they are now and a further one-third through "compensatory proportional representation," adding that he would want a "five percent threshhold in every province" (meaning that a party would have to attain at least 5% of the vote in any given province in order to gain seats there). In fact, he says that he once wrote a book chapter with University of Saskatchewan professor and electoral systems expert John Courtney, outlining the details of the proposal he favoured. All this was delightful to hear, especially after my disappointing encounter with Gerard Kennedy, who didn't even seem to know what proportional representation was. Also, the reason Dion gave for his support for this reform is one of my own main reasons for favouring proportional representation: he wants to "guarantee that each region of our country is not marginalized," i.e., to make it possible for, say, a Liberal government to have MPs elected in areas where they tend to be weaker, so that one region of a country doesn't dominate another.

For all this positive talk about electoral reform, though, he's clearly not willing to push it himself. "That is a debate that I cannot impose as a candidate in this race," he said, because "it's something that we will need to have a parliamentary review to look at." All he is willing to commit to as prime minister is "an open debate with the people discussing it and coming with their solutions and their suggestions and we'll see if a consensus may come from it." This is similar to what Paul Martin promised but didn't deliver on, and it falls far short of a real federal-level citizens' assembly on electoral reform similar to the ones they had in B.C. and currently have in Ontario, followed by a cross-country referendum. To me, this suggests that Dion wouldn't be willing to give the voters the power to make real decisions on their electoral system, which worries me.

Much more of a concern, though, is the fact that he doesn't seem to have thought beyond the theoretical details of his favoured reform to the changes that it would necessarily make in our political culture. When asked about what he would do if his party attained a minority of seats under his leadership, he said "I'm confident that we can win a majority" in three different ways. In fact, he regards the fact that a his favoured system would produce few, if any, single-party majority governments as "a problem of the reform." When asked directly about his openness to forming a coalition with another party, he ignored the question entirely, and when I later pointed out that the electoral system he favours has almost always tended to produce coalitions in other countries, he said that "Canada is not accustomed to having coalitions, and I'm not sure that Canadians are ready for that."
In sum, while Dion might be seen as sympathizing with the value of electoral reform, he's had no qualms about saying that he refuses to try to push any change within his own party. And it seems fairly obvious that a Lib party structure built on an expectation of majority government is going to need an awful lot of persuading to accept a system which will make that outcome far less likely.

So there's plenty of reason to be skeptical about Dion's personal interest in electoral reform. And today's announcement doesn't do anything to suggest that the Greens have managed to change that fact.

Which isn't to say that today's announcement can't be the start of a genuine sea change. But the next necessary step is for Dion to prove to Canadians that he actually values the possibility of electoral reform - by speaking out about it personally, making sure it receives prominent placement in the Libs' next party platform, and taking on the inertia within his party head-on. And if that doesn't happen, then today's words can only be seen an attempt to fool the Greens' base, rather than the first step toward anything positive.

In contrast, if Dion defies my expectations by following through, that would be the time for the NDP to start serious talks with both the Libs and Greens. And I'd be the first to criticize them if they refused to work with two parties who were clearly headed in the right direction on electoral reform. But even then it's worth noting that based on the Libs' track record for delaying or ignoring promises, there would be a serious need for safeguards in any electoral coalition.

Sadly, though, the issue doesn't seem likely to get down to that level of detail. After all, the logical place for Dion to start the discussion would be the announcement of the deal - yet as noted above, the issue of electoral reform didn't even get mentioned by the Libs. Which appears to signal that Dion's putative interest in electoral reform will go no further than today's joint statement...and that Green supporters have just one more reason to disbelieve their own leader in claiming to have accomplished anything.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

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