Thoughts on Electoral Reform, and the Abandonment Thereof

The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.

I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.

1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.

2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.

3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.

4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that

(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;

(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT

(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.

5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)

6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.

(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)

I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.

For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.

Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.

Party Databases and Privacy

I’ve been concerned about the privacy implications of party databases for some time now: political parties are exempt from privacy legislation like PIPEDA, and as far as I’m aware there are no real limits on what data they can collect on voters and how it can be used. As Susan Delacourt notes on iPolitics,

because political parties are neither entirely private nor public institutions, they fall into a grey area when it comes to privacy protection — and those databases, as the outgoing Chief Electoral Officer put it, are operating in the “Wild West” of privacy laws.

The lack of a firewall between party and government bothers me even more: contacting your MP, which is something every engaged citizen ought to do, is a good way to get your details entered into a party database, and during my ministerial correspondence years I handled a number of letters forwarded by the Harper PMO to our department for a response that were tagged with the Conservatives’ party database, CIMS.

But now it looks like party databases are finally getting some overdue scrutiny, with a House of Commons committee set to explore whether there should be rules on how parties collect and use data.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it. At a minimum, I’d like it if I had the right to see exactly what data the political parties keep on me. That ought to go some way toward keeping the parties in line.

How the Pontiac MRC Voted in 2015

More than 14 months after the election is hardly the definition of timely, and it’ll be a few years before the next one, but I suddenly remembered that I meant to look at the poll-by-poll results for my electoral district, Pontiac, and see how much the vote in my particular sector — the Pontiac MRC (municipalité régionale de comté, roughly equivalent to a county) — differed from the electoral district as a whole.

Continue reading “How the Pontiac MRC Voted in 2015”

Expatriate Voting Rights

At the moment, Canadians living outside the country for more than five years are no longer able to vote in Canadian elections. (This is actually a fairly common practice: plenty of countries have limits on expatriates voting — except, notably, the Americans, who also have to file tax returns from abroad.) The Hufffington Post is reporting that the federal government plans to change this, giving every Canadian abroad the right to vote by special ballot regardless of time spent outside the country.

Dale Smith is skeptical, pointing out that Canadians vote for members of Parliament, not governments: “[A]s an expat who has been out of the country — and in particular that riding — for more than five years, does it really make sense for you to continue to cast a ballot in said riding if you don’t actually live there?” Dale’s got a point. If we decide that Canadians should retain the right to vote no matter how long they spend outside the country, it doesn’t make sense that their votes should be applied to a constituency they might not have set foot in for decades.

There’s a solution to that, though I’m not sure Canada would go for it: overseas constituencies. More than a dozen countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, set aside a small number of constituencies for their overseas citizens. In practice they can be problematic: voter turnout for said seats is often tiny. Now there are 2.8 million Canadians abroad, more than live in the Atlantic provinces: what fraction of them will actually vote, and to what extent should that determine how many seats they get? (Do we want two dozen seats elected by a few hundred or few thousand voters each, for example?) The details would be messy. But I suspect that this is the only logical outcome for perpetual absentee voting rights.

‘The Embodiment of Everything She Purports to Run Against’

This is the third in a series of posts tracking statements made by or about Kellie Leitch, a member of Parliament and candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Leitch has advocated testing immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” and has welcomed Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.” I’m writing these posts because (a) this kind of extremism needs to be opposed at every stage and defeated at the earliest possible opportunity and (b) sunlight is the best disinfectant.

So:

Over the weekend Kellie Leitch bristled at criticism from fellow leadership candidate Michael Chong during a broadcast of CTV’s Question Period, saying “I am not a racist. I am not a person who’s out groping other individuals.” Well, all right then. As LBJ could tell you, having to issue that kind of denial is not good for your political career: most politicians don’t have to say that they’re not racists or gropers. Dale Smith cites this as an example of Leitch playing the victim card. Another example is the bizarre report of a break-in at her home — which turned out not to be an actual break-in, but an alarm going off. Regardless of whether the incident was real or serious, her campaign certainly seems to be torquing it.

Meanwhile, Chris Alexander, who joined Leitch in announcing the barbaric cultural practices hotline during the 2015 election and is now also a CPC leadership candidate, is slamming Leitch’s attempts to bring Trump-style politics north of the border. And Leitch’s policy is costing her some high-profile supporters: she’s lost retired senator Hugh Segal, Graham Fox (Joe Clark’s former chief of staff) and former Newfoundland and Labrador deputy premier Steve Kent, all of whom had previously endorsed her.

Leitch says she’s not concerned about racists supporting her campaign. (“It’s not for me to speak about other individuals.”) Wrong answer. The correct answer is “I don’t want their votes.” When bafflegab and obfuscation appear in the place of clear and unequivocal denunciation, it’s … very telling.

The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom warns that the forces that brought Trump and other right-wing populists to power need to be understood, and that we can’t assume that it can’t happen here in Canada. But is Leitch capable of becoming a Trump-like figure?

Not, it would seem, an authentic one. The CBC’s Robyn Urback notes that the former cabinet minister and surgeon “is the embodiment of everything she purports to run against” and is running “a completely inauthentic, deliberately provocative campaign.” And in the National Post, John Ivison notes that, no matter how much she tries to pick and choose from the Donald Trump playbook, “[t]he problem for Leitch is that she’s no Donald Trump. […] she lacks Trump’s populism, narcissism and conceit.”

And in Kellie Leitch News …

To follow up on my earlier post on Trump-wannabe Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, because I’m keeping track, damn it:

She’s been condemned by fellow leadership candidates Michael Chong and Deepak Obhrai; Obhrai also reports he’s getting angry emails telling him to leave the country thanks to his opposition to Leitch’s immigration policies.

At the Conservatives’ leadership debate last Wednesday, Leitch cited Points of Entry, a book by McMaster sociology professor Victor Satzewich that looks at decision-making by visa officers, as evidence that Canada’s immigration standards are weak. Trouble is, Satzewich disagrees with Leitch, and would rather not have his work used to make her argument. BuzzfeediPolitics.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite her anti-elite rhetoric, Leitch is holding a $500-a-plate fundraiser in Toronto next Monday. It’s possible that Leitch, a paediatric surgeon and university professor, may need an explanation of what “elite” means. Now you can run a campaign strictly on small donations (many politicians have, and have made a hair-shirt point of it) but it’s unlikely she’d have raised the $450,000 she has as of September 30 if she had. You kind of need the elites for that kind of dosh. In the July-September quarter, for example, she raised $215,635.97 from 811 donors, an average of $265.89 per donor. Not exactly small donations from lots of grassroots supporters.1

Brian Alkerton is joining the Conservative Party just to vote against her, and suggests the rest of us do the same. The trouble with candidates like her is that sometimes they win despite everything, as we’ve seen elsewhere, and we can’t assume that she’ll be defeated later if she wins now. The world is full of black swans lately.

Thinking ahead to the next election. Simcoe–Grey, Leitch’s constituency, is normally considered a safe Conservative seat, but it’s not an impossible one. The Liberals held it in the 1990s, losing it narrowly to Helena Guergis in 2004 by only 100 votes. In 2011 Leitch won the seat; she was re-elected in 2015 with 46.6 percent of the vote vs. the Liberal candidate’s 38.6 percent — a margin of 5,260 votes. Difficult but not impossible, for a decent candidate with a well-funded campaign. Hint, hint.

(Much of the above via Dale Smith.)

Note
  1. Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong have raised $428K and $209K, respectively, to the end of September. In the July-September quarter, Bernier raised $307,605.89 from 1,838 donors during that quarter — an average of $167.36 per donor. Michael Chong raised $124,224.34 from 243 donors — an average of $511.21 per donor.

Oh No You Don’t. Oh No You Don’t.

Last night Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch sent out a message to her supporters that described Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.”

This is the same Kellie Leitch who announced the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline during the last federal election campaign. The same Kellie Leitch who wants to test immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” — whatever they are. (Love to know who determines what is and isn’t a barbaric cultural practice or an anti-Canadian value.)

It is, shall we say, of a piece.

I get what Leitch is trying to do. There are more than a dozen candidates for the Conservative party leadership, and she needs to stand out. Cosplaying Ilse Koch seems to have accomplished that goal. She’s gotten no shortage of attention, including Maclean’s cover story, and according to the Ottawa Citizen she leads the field among polled Conservative supporters.

But here’s the thing. Aping Trump’s strategy to stand out from the pack is a short-term strategy at best. The next federal election will be in 2019. If Leitch manages to win — and if the Earth has not yet been turned into a smouldering cinder by then — by 2019 we will be in the third year of the Trump presidency. At that point I expect Trump’s popularity in Canada, such as it is, to be at its utter nadir. Leitch’s faux-populist, xenophobic message will be long past its sell-by date.

I don’t intend to let things go on that long, though. This rhetoric must be opposed, forcefully and continuously. If this isn’t an anti-Canadian value or a barbaric cultural practice, then nothing is.