The Greens, electoral reform, and the Canadian leaders’ debate

Last week, Canadian party leaders participated in a debate. It is currently the only one scheduled to include the Greens leader, Elizabeth May (the party’s only MP).

The debate included an entire segment devoted to, as moderator Paul Wells put it, “Canada’s democracy — how it works, why it doesn’t always work as well as we hoped.” (From my south of the border perspective, I can only admire a debate that actually asks such a question, rather than implicitly assuming that the debate and election themselves are proof of how great democracy is working, but enough of that digression for now.)

The first question within this segment of the debate went to May, and the exchange, which you can read in the transcript, is very interesting.

Paul Wells: Our first question on this to Elizabeth May. Ms. May, you’ve called the government we have now an elected dictatorship and you’ve called for electoral reform, but this election will be won and lost under the current electoral system. Do you worry that Green candidates will take support away from other parties that could defeat this government? Might the Green Party help reelect this government?

Elizabeth May: When I refer to the government as an elected dictatorship, it’s not personal in any way to the Prime Minister nor to his party…

The only job description for a member of parliament is that found in the Constitution, which is to represent your constituencies.

So we need to actually revisit parliamentary democracy, understand that this election isn’t about electing a prime minister — we don’t do that in this country; we elect members of parliament. And their job is to find the government that will hold the confidence of the House, so we can work for Canadians…

As far as Greens being concerned about this, not at all. We have had success and we’ve now had election – my election in Saanich–Gulf Islands, but across provinces — in British Columbia Andrew Weaver, in New Brunswick David Coon, in Prince Edward Island Peter Bevan-Baker. All of us got elected by driving voter turnout.

So instead of fixating on this splitting the vote non-problem, vote-splitting, we need to focus on the real problem, which is 40 percent of Canadians in the last number of elections haven’t voted. And vote abandoning, in my view, is a much bigger problem than vote-splitting…

Paul Wells: You’ve said we don’t elect a prime minister, and that’s true, but we saw quite a mess of a coalition crisis in 2008. Are we headed towards that sort of arbitrage among parties after the next election if there’s no majority?

Elizabeth May: I can’t tell you how committed Green MPs as a caucus will be to working with other parties, working across party lines to ensure that we go from a precarious, perhaps two-year minority parliament to a stable, productive, effective parliament, because you look at really great parliaments in this country, and I refer viewers back to Lester B. Pearson where the small group of NDPers under David Lewis and Diefenbaker in the Conservatives and Lester B. Pearson delivered our social safety net.

I find the exchange interesting for the effort to drive the discussion way from vote-splitting and choosing a prime minister–two common perceptions of elections in parliamentary systems using first-past-the-post electoral systems. These are perceptions that are, of course, harmful to small parties. So May attempts to emphasize local viability of Greens, and the advantages of cross-party cooperation in a non-majority parliament.

Then things returned pretty quickly to business as more-or-less usual, with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau engaging NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in a debate over the Clarity Act (regarding another potential Quebec secession referendum).

A bit later, Wells raises the issue of electoral reform directly, referencing the proposal of the Liberal Party (see p. 8 of the linked PDF). I will just quote a few snippets here. PM Stephen Harper (Conservative):

Well, I think it’s a very fundamental change to the way our political system would work in this country. We have a Westminster system. Voters are able to elect governments. They don’t elect coalitions that make up the government later. And you know, Canadians – Paul, this has come up before. It was subject of a referendum and plebiscite in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. I have not found Canadians who want to make this fundamental change. In fact, whenever Canadians are asked, they reject it. We know the rules. Let’s play under the rules that Canadians support.

Mulcair did not use the immediate opportunity to talk up his party’s stated commitment to introducing proportional representation (MMP, specifically). Instead he talked about the current government’s “Unfair Elections Act” (it is, actually, of course, the Fair Elections Act). Later, however, Mulcair did say, “We think that there are three main things we can do with regard to our institutions. The first is to make sure that every vote counts with a proportional representation system.” (The others were “open up parliament” to more public scrutiny and abolish the Senate.)

Unless I missed it, Trudeau himself never mentioned his own party’s commitment to electoral reform. Perhaps he thought it was enough that Wells invoked it and gave Harper a chance to denounce it.