Trudeau Government’s Electoral Reform
Electoral Reform in the Age of the
Cartel Party System
The reforms to the electoral law the Trudeau government plans to put forward will not improve “accessibility and inclusiveness,” “legitimacy” or “integrity” as the Liberals say. The claim is also not true that changing the way votes are counted (from first-past-the-post to a proportional, ranked ballot or mixed system) will create a more equal footing for all political parties and for independent candidates and increase voter participation. These reforms are not designed to address the problem of how to “make every vote count.” So long as people are just to choose between one method of counting votes or another and there is no discussion of the problems the system called representative democracy is facing and what can be done about these problems, the exercise is self-serving.
This is the case because we are in the age of the cartel party system. Along with the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands, political power is also being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The higher echelons of a select few political parties form a cartel which exercises power using mafia-style methods including shady deals and turf wars. The cartel parties fund themselves through the state, politicize the interests of private monopolies which directly take over governance, and rule through the police powers, i.e., the arbitrary powers of Cabinet.
Parliamentary majorities are used to reform the electoral act in a manner that undermines the political theory on which the institutions which comprise the representative democracy are based. With the connivance of the other parties which comprise the cartel party system, they pass laws which violate rights with impunity and claim that this is democratic. The only problem they recognize is that these laws and institutions are not perceived to be democratic or the MPs and governments representative. They hope to make the process appear more legitimate by changing the way votes are counted. However, unless the method used gives people greater control over who gets elected and what they do once elected, it will only compound the problem not alleviate it, let alone resolve it.
The deliberation on how to reform the electoral laws ignores the development of the cartel party system in Canada and the dangers this poses to the democratic institutions. It ignores the fact that the equilibrium of the Canadian parliamentary system with a party-in-power and a party-in-opposition both claiming national representation collapsed in 1993. The coherence of the prior three-party system as well as the coherence of the parties comprising it, collapsed with it. Notwithstanding, the deliberation on how to reform the electoral system to change the method of counting votes is being conducted as though this were not the case.
The pillar of the functioning of the party-dominated system of representative democracy — political parties as primary organizations — is corrupted. These political parties are supposed to provide the link between the electors and the government, including the organizational structures for popular involvement in the political process. During elections, they are supposed to channel the political will of the people, with the expectation that it will be turned into the legal will in the form of party government. Those who are not represented by the party-in-power are supposed to be represented by the party-in-opposition. Since the early ’90s, however, it is acknowledged that less than two per cent of electors belong to a political party. It is these non-representative political parties which select the candidates. Today, this is degenerating further and it is increasingly the leader who choses the candidates. Riding associations also no longer exercise control over local candidates and merely serve fundraising purposes.
Together with this, the age of the cartel party system is marked by the increased public subsidization of political parties, introduced by political parties that had already entrenched themselves through previously legislated privileges and colluded to keep the people out. These parties are marked by their increasing dependence on state subsidies and their decreasing reliance on members and supporters for both financial support and volunteerism. This has developed in Canada to such an extent that Canada’s political parties are increasingly described as “empty vessels” without members.
Since 1993, reforms to the electoral law have significantly restructured the political institutions of Canada and further concentrated power in the hands of the Cabinet, eroding the duties, responsibilities and rights of the Members of Parliament, not to mention those of the Canadian people, to participate in the decision-making process. What emerges is that the Royal Prerogative itself needs to be eliminated, along with the failed mechanisms that are supposed to curb it and that have been turned into their opposite. What is required is a system that transfers power to the hands of the Canadian people. This is where sovereignty should be vested, not in the elites who wield the Royal Prerogative.
All the consultations, ministers, hearings of the Parliamentary Committee and townhalls held by MPs to promote the position of their own party confirm that piecemeal reforms are unacceptable and disregard:
1) the demands and concerns of Canadians for empowerment;
2) the political theory upon which the parliamentary system is based, the impact of changes in light of that theory, and the further undermining of the system of representative democracy based on it;
3) the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the executive;
4) the need to involve the polity in full debate on these matters so that the deliberations can be brought into the realm of public opinion rather than marginalized partisan parliamentary exchanges and committee reviews;
5) the need to involve Canadians in deciding for themselves what kind of changes should be enacted to the political and electoral process.
Canadians must continue to raise matters beyond the scope of how votes are counted in order to draw meaningful conclusions on the matter of the method of counting votes and all the other problems of the democracy that point to the need for renewal. Without taking into account all of the other factors vis-a-vis the incoherent state of Canada’s electoral and political system no reforms can favour the polity.
The time has long since come for recognizing that there are profound problems with the system which must be addressed by putting the need to empower Canadians in the first place and by putting their role in deciding how this should be done at centre stage. The tinkering with the system fails to address this need and exacerbates the crisis of a system that has lost all coherence and may well become even more dysfunctional than it is now.
The new method of counting votes will not reverse the further concentration of power in the hands of the upper echelons of the political parties and may even accentuate it. It will give rise to further absolutism. It will further exclude and marginalize Canadians from the political process and further erode the role of Parliament in deliberating on legislation. It will obliterate the building of public opinion for changes that are required to move the society forward.
All the evidence indicates that the piecemeal and perfunctory approach to electoral and political reform has no other aim than hiding the overall impact of these changes on the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands.
In this era of the cartel party system, the practice of the party-in-power using a self-serving agenda of electoral reform to the detriment of other parties and independent candidates and the entire polity will continue and further exacerbate the crisis of the system. When it suits the party-in-power, especially in a majority situation where it can do as it wishes, nothing prevents it from using consultations along with closed-door negotiations and shady dealings to reach whatever conclusion it wants. The electors and the Members of Parliament will be left as marginalized as ever.
Dubious “Electoral Reform Dialogue” in Vancouver
The Trudeau government has launched a series of public meetings across Canada to hurriedly promote their conception of what electoral reform should look like, before the imminent announcement of the results of deliberations by the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform. These meetings are publicized as “electoral reform dialogues,” despite the fact that the matter has undoubtedly already been decided by the Liberal and other members of the Committee, who “spent the entire summer working in a boot camp to get this done.”
One such “dialogue” took place in Vancouver on Friday evening, September 9, at the Sandman Hotel. Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Reform, presided over this meeting, as she has at other such meetings. A “feel good” chauvinist atmosphere, complete with cheerleaders in a staged charade, proclaimed, “Everything is just fine in this great country. We just need to get more people to vote.” Monsef’s comportment resembled a corporate motivational speaker whose cheerful disposition falls apart when someone contradicts the mantra. She started out with inane comments about what a “wonderful democracy” Canada has, and reiterating the “five guiding principles” that are to underlie deliberations about electoral reform: “effectiveness and legitimacy; engagement; accessibility and inclusiveness; integrity and local representation.”
Among the 300 or so people attending this event were a sizeable number of Liberal supporters, including two Liberal MPs and about 20 youthful members of LeadNow who were all wearing purple T-shirts and buttons, and who clapped and cheered on cue. Their members had functioned as part of the Liberal election machine in the October 2015 election.
An atmosphere of “this is all fun and games” prevailed, with Monsef orchestrating everyone getting into small groups to “get to know one another” before posing to them the questions/issues that people were supposed to deliberate on. The following issues were to be discussed for two minutes by each member of the group:
1. Possible different electoral systems whereby “votes get translated into seats in the Parliament”;
2. Should there be online voting? (in order to “get more youth and others out to vote”);
3. Should there be compulsory voting? (“to deal with the problem that 30 per cent of Canadian people chose not to vote in the 2015 federal election”; this would, she stated, “strengthen democracy, make it healthier and would give the government more legitimacy”).
And there were two more questions pertaining to ranking the relative importance of the “five guiding principles.”
A member of the Privy Council was introduced to the audience, and she rapidly went over three different kinds of electoral processes that people are to be made aware of: 1. The current “first-past-the-post” system; 2. Systems belonging to the “proportional family”; 3. Mixed systems.
Then the deliberations began. A scribe for each group was given 30 seconds to write up the deliberations of the group, then (if his or her group was selected by Monsef) to present the results to the other groups. The pieces of paper were then collected to form part of the proven “feedback” by the Canadian electorate concerning the matter of electoral reform.
Amongst other things, when asked if the government would hold a referendum before implementing any changes, Minister Monsef dismissed the question with her personal view that referendums are “costly” and “divisive.”
Despite the forced atmosphere of levity during these proceedings, it was evident that most people who attended were very serious about the issue of electoral reform and were not happy with the haste of these supposed “consultations.” A Vancouver City Councillor (a member of the Green Party) declared that “our democracy is in peril.” Many others tried to break through the muzzle that had effectively been imposed on them. For example, one of the groups, that had been ignored up to then, firmly opposed the assigned question “how would compulsory voting be enforced?” The spokesperson of the group announced that the members of the group rejected this question as it was illegitimate: previously, in a mock “compulsory” vote on compulsory voting (playfully put to the audience by Monsef), the crowd had overwhelmingly put up their hands to oppose this idea. Some members of the ignored group had chosen rather to talk about how the electorate needs to be engaged in the electoral process and that rather than the government funding political parties, the government needs to fund the political process to engage people in it.
Like the Kinder Morgan hearings, the consultations the Trudeau government is holding on electoral reform are a farce. They are completely diversionary and taken out of context which ignores the fact that the present electoral process is discredited and cannot be fixed with superficial reforms detached from social and political developments.
For the government to claim it is “consulting the people” but not permit the narrow parameters of the discussion to be challenged is unacceptable. No space for discussion on the need for democratic renewal or the need for people to be empowered to become decision makers is permitted. “Representative democracy” and domination of the political process by cartel parties must not be challenged. The expected outcome is that the Liberals will use their majority to force their preferred version of “electoral reform” (or rather, their preferred method of counting the votes) with the aim of propping up and legitimizing the outmoded political process which marginalizes the vast majority of citizens while concentrating power in the Prime Minister’s office.