Elections, Coalitions and Proper Representation

Posted: June 7, 2014 in Current Events, Election, politics

If we had a federal election and (hypothetically) the NDP garnered 40% of the vote with the Liberals and Conservatives each getting 30%, it would be quite possible for the NDP to form a majority government in this country’s electoral system. If fact, theoretically, it is possible for any party to get a 40% vote in every riding and end up controlling 100% of the Parliamentary seats. It is not likely to happen only because of quirky regional differences that has politically like minded people grouped in certain pockets of the country. It seems to me to be a rather weak democracy where proper proportional representation of the public is dependent on random demographics. Representation in Parliament seems to be more a matter of dumb luck than genuine representation.

The American system of government was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy, which Ben Franklin studied in some detail. It was a system based on consensus. Each tribe constituted one house in their system and each house had to approve a decision independently before it could proceed. It was a long, drawn out process, but it always resulted in decisions that took into account the vast majority of people without ever ignoring the opinions of any one particular group.

Obviously, the idea of government by consensus was too unwieldy for the American people, but we see in its current system the elements that Franklin wanted to keep in order to insure balance. It’s not a perfect system, and when, like now, its members are uncompromising, it has its problems. However as far as direct representation of the people goes, it’s not bad. (The fact that the elected representatives often don’t follow through on the mandates for which they were elected is another matter.)  The Canadian parliamentary system is completely different, leading to certain complications.

Let’s get back to our hypothetical NDP government. It would have 40% of the popular vote, but could hold a majority of seats in government, which means that it could effectively pass any legislation it wanted to. The opposition could protest and the Senate could stall, but in the end they would be able to enact any legislation that didn’t offend the Supreme Court. And they would. They would be in a position to fundamentally change the nature of governance in Canada. They could institute new social programs; they could make changes to pension plans; they could alter trade agreement to suit their ideology. All with 40% support and a majority of Canadians disapproving (perhaps strongly) of the direction of their actions. They would be acting as if they had the support of a majority of Canadians, which would be a lie.

What I have described is exactly what the Canadian Parliament is facing now, except it is not the NDP, but rather a Conservative government which gathered 39% of the popular vote in the 2011 election.

I do not dispute the fact that the government that wins has to govern. I dispute the fact that a government that represents less than half of the population, even with a majority of seats, should govern with disdain for the opposing views and with impunity. There has to be an element of humbleness in governing, along with a respect for the wishes of the country. Such governments that see their conditional win as an unconditional opportunity to rule rather than govern are completely missing the spirit of democracy.

That’s what is happening with the current Conservative government under Stephen Harper. The latest article by Andrew Coyne points out only some of the more recent decisions by the federal Conservatives that seem to be more rule by decree than good governance. Harper has a long history of being intolerant of the kind of transparency that comes from the media. He has been known to just get rid of the people that don’t agree with him, or ease them out of the picture any way he can, like the CBC. Or if the offending matter might be data, he shuts down or defunds the source. He shows disrespect for the other branches of government, like the Supreme Court.

Generally speaking, these are not the actions of a man who currently only has about 34% support of the Canadian voters, and is, indeed, in second place behind the Liberals. These are not the actions of a government that respects the fact that, even at their highest support, almost 60% of the population do not think they are doing a good job. This is not authentic governance, but rather governance by opportunity. These are not the actions of a government that understands that but for the fact that the Left is split into two factions, and even more so because of the drain on Liberal support in Quebec by the PQ, they’d probably never win another election. The last fact should be particularly obvious because, had it not been for their wise move to merge the PC and Reform Parties, had these still been two factions of the Right, then too would their victory be extremely elusive.  (It’s why the Tea Party doesn’t dare separate into a third party south of the border.)

A government, any government, needs to govern not rule. It needs to make decisions that represent its platform, but with the recognition that, not representing all of the constituents, it needs to temper its actions. This is the issue with the current election in Ontario, with the PC agenda being almost Tea Party Right, and yet they expect to enact it even with only 35% support from the public. Fortunately a coalition of the Centre and Left would probably derail that.

Coalition governments are condemned by political parties. No, wait. They are condemned by conservative political parties. Because they are the only ones who can be bumped by them. During the time that the Liberals held a minority government, they essentially had to foster a coalition style government with the NDP. There had to be a consensus of agreement or a willingness to compromise in order to pass legislation. In my view, this was a great setup. It produced a government that was attempting to satisfy at least 60% of the voters, rather than the 30%-35% that normally seems to be the case (and which is always the case if the PCs win.)

Let’s face it, if the NDP and Green Parties didn’t exist and split off votes from the Liberals, the PC party would likely never win an election. Yes, some centrist Liberals might bounce back and forth between the two parties (as they probably do now), but the Left side of the political spectrum in Ontario (and indeed Canada) can lay claim to between 55%-65% of the field.

In this particular election, that’s very important. The PC party is hell bent on a platform that is radical and extreme in its nature, is not taken seriously by economists and is contrary to the wishes of the majority of the voters of the province. If, as the polls suggest, the PCs were to get 35% or even 40% of the popular vote, even if that translated into a majority government (which is possible), it would mean that a party that represents significantly less than 50% of the public is going to make highly significant changes to the province (the way the Federal Conservatives are impacting the nation). That doesn’t seem very democratic.

If the PC party wins a minority government (which seems the best they’re likely to do), their opposition would probably represent 65% of the population. And “opposition” is the right word, because those who do not vote PC in this election are probably strongly opposed to the policies that they want to initiate. The responsible thing to do would be for the opposition parties to form a coalition. It’s not cheating the PCs; it’s not defying democracy. It is the only way that the will of the majority will actually be considered. You can bet that the PCs won’t temper their plans out of respect for the majority. They will seize the opportunity to make whatever changes they think are ideologically correct.
At the very least, legislation is not going to get passed. Even if they don’t form a formal coalition government, I don’t see the Liberals and NDP voting for many of the PC programs and propping up a minority government for long. A coalition government, may, in fact, be the only alternative to another election in the near future.

In Ontario, where the PCs represent the Right, the Liberals represent the Centre and Moderate Left and the NDP represent the far Left, that is the way the game has to be played. (There is a bit of confusion around some of those distinctions in this election, but I think it will return to normal rather quickly.)


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