It would be tempting to say that this week’s SNC Lavalin scandal in Ottawa has revealed some hitherto unknown abuse of power in the upper circles in Parliament. It would, however, be entirely incorrect. All this week’s scandal has done is reiterate, for the umpteenth time, how broken our electoral system is.
Canada’s Parliament, and in particular, the Prime Minister’s Office is a perfect example of the observation that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We’ve seen it over and over again, from scandals such as Airbus and Shawinigate to Harper’s intentional filibustering of Parliamentary Committees (which effectively meant all decision making came from the PMO) and muzzling of MPs.
The shift of power away from MPs, and therefore the voters, into the hands of a few non-elected power brokers who inform the PMO has only made the problem worse.
This behaviour is entirely predictable. Our electoral system is designed to award the winner with 100% power. The most razor thin of margins in popular vote can, because of First Past The Post, result in horribly lopsided power allotments. Thus managing the message and the agenda to eke out that last percentage of votes to maintain the majority is critical to success. The revelation that the PMO pressured the Attorney General of Canada on a legal decision, in an effort to preserve votes, should come as no surprise.
And, as if in evidence of just how fine a line it is, the CPC has pulled into the lead in the polls on the strength of this scandal.
So here we go again, on the endless cycle of Liberal Majority turned to CPC Majority turned to Liberal Majority ad infinitum. With occasional breaks for short-lived minority governments of either blue or red.
Past Time for a Change
Trudeau broke his promise that 2015 would be the last unfair election. The Electoral Reform committee he established did remarkable work and crafted a report strongly in favour of proportional representation.
The ERRE rejected Ranked Ballot. Which was clearly Trudeau’s favourite. And, sadly, in an early display of top-down PMO power, he shut down the whole exercise.
PEI ran a referendum on proportional representation a few years ago that showed a preference for proportional representation. But it wasn’t implemented because the governing Liberals rejected it on the basis of too low a turnout. Ironically, a government elected to 100% power with a 40% popular vote rejected a proposal with a 52% popular vote.
BC’s recent referendum on PR came out strongly in favour of maintaining FPTP. Some have speculated that powerful corporate bodies supported an aggressive fear-and-misinformation-based “no” campaign. Others feel that, perhaps, the NDP’s heart wasn’t in it and that they could have mounted a more informative and positive campaign.
Now we have a timely announcement from the new government in Quebec that they will be implementing proportional representation without a referendum. They plan on bringing together experts to design, by consultation and consensus, a system for Quebec. This is what the ERRE Committee did, too, but their mandate was never to design the system; just create the recommendation. In this, Quebec is charting a new course that neither PEI or BC chose to; identifying a problem and putting together experts to engineer an appropriate solution.
Some folks will certainly be miffed that such an important decision is not going to public polls. It is clear however, that referendum are blunt instruments. From Brexit to California’s 2008 Prop 8 to BC’s Pro Rep we can see that well-funded campaigns of misinformation and fear can purchase an outcome. Green Party policy in these cases is that referendums would be used where required for a Constitutional amendment. But referendums, in general, are not consultative and consensus building processes.
Quebec’s current government is willing to surrender the opportunity to gain 100% power in the future to create a fairer and less top-down government. That’s leadership of the kind we sure could use in Ottawa.
PEI is also on the brink of an election in which the Greens appear to have a chance at winning. They are likely watching Quebec very closely.