NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh broke a cardinal rule of Canadian politics recently when he dropped the “c” word — coalition. Although coalitions are healthy, democratic and quite common around the world, Canada’s two biggest political parties use it as a blunt object to scare voters.
Canada has been governed by Liberals or Conservatives for its entire 152-year history, and in all that time, neither party has seriously delivered changes to the electoral system that would reflect what voters ask for at the ballot box.
It’s difficult to let go of power, especially when you allow yourself to believe you’re revered. That’s the stuff of dictatorships, though, and it should have no role in a democracy.
The promise was clear in the 2015 Speech from the Throne — first-past-the-post elections were toast and Canada’s antiquated electoral system would finally see the overhaul we so desperately need. First-past-the-post means that in every riding, the candidate who wins the most votes wins. The winner doesn’t need an absolute majority, or more than 50 per cent of the votes.
But the allure of total power that first-past-the-post offers to political parties earning less than 40 per cent of the popular vote is apparently too seductive. So here we are again.
We’re stuck with first-past-the-post in Canada, but that doesn’t mean we have to return to the time-honoured tradition of using our vote as nothing more than a veto of the worst possible option. That’s how Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer want us to understand minority parliaments, because they both thirst for inflated majorities.
We can work creatively to bring about democratic renewal, but doing so requires a firm commitment from key opposition parties like the NDP, Greens and even the Bloc Québécois.
Look to Trinidad & Tobago
My proposal is simple — do what Trinidad and Tobago did in their 2010 election. Faced with a mighty incumbent party and a desire to change their first-past-the-post system into something that better translated votes into seats, opposition parties formed the People’s Partnership in which each member maintained their party’s distinctiveness, but came together on several overlapping interests.
This was not a traditional coalition government. That’s because unlike coalition governments that are cobbled together when a single party fails to win a majority of seats, such an arrangement is carefully negotiated ahead of the election and delivered to citizens so they have a real choice ahead of the election.
Candidates would run in the election under their party’s banner — be it Green, NDP, BQ or as an Independent — with the clear understanding that they intend to work with fellow parties as promised ahead of the vote.
This would lead to far more seats for all these parties. And it puts voters in charge of essentially hiring a government for four years, rather than leaving them to the whim of partisan horse-trading that follows a minority election.
Even if we had a proportional representation system, the best we could hope for is a small party acting as a king- or queen-maker. That lets the small party veto policy, but only if they are willing to fight an election.
This is better, sure, but we should be dispensing with royalty, not trying to exercise just a little more control over it.
You might be thinking: What makes this proposal different from just forming a new party?
Party loyalty demanded
A fellowship of parties maintains party distinctiveness, and establishes a temporary basis of unity until the goals are achieved. Forming a new party or switching our electoral model won’t remedy the fundamental democratic failings of our system and its related political culture, in particular how it demands party loyalty.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, former Liberal justice minister and attorney general, recently told The Current that the confines of party whips and political agenda are harming the ability of members of Parliament to do what is right, which shaped her decision to run as an Independent.
If the NDP, Greens, BQ and influential Independents like Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott formed a limited partnership — a one-term government collaborating on areas of overlapping interest — they could win the election or, at a minimum, offer a powerful and constructive perspective on critical issues facing the next Parliament.
Such a fellowship would negotiate who would represent the group, and by extension, an actual majority of voters. This person would be both the leader of their individual party and the leader of the one-term fellowship.
Ultimately, their priorities would be up to them to determine, but in my reading of the non-contentious points of agreement in Canada based on what parties have been talking about publicly, it would include:
1) Committing to be a one-term government, with no ambition of seeking re-election. This will protect whoever leads the fellowship from falling victim to the allure of power that contaminated Justin Trudeau and former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissesser, who both got cold feet when it came time to deliver on electoral reform. It cost Persad-Bissesser her job, and Trinidad & Tobago their chance at democratic renewal.
The People’s Partnership in Trinidad accomplished lots in its tenure in office, but failed to overcome the hubris of majority power. They had no one-term commitment, and sought to preserve their own majority status in subsequent elections, which they lost. We must learn from that mistake in Canada — a one-term commitment solidifies a serious promise to Canadian voters.
2) Working toward democratic renewal, including lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. Much has been done by all parties on this in the last Parliament, and it should be resumed. Teenagers are more politically engaged than ever, and if 16-year-olds can drive, carry a gun in the Canadian Army Reserves and give sexual consent, they should be able to vote.
3) Addressing the climate emergency and its broad implications, including Indigenous sovereignty and provincial jurisdiction.
5) Marginally increasing taxes on the wealthiest.
6) Building nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous Peoples across the country instead of reducing their concerns to pipelines. This includes enshrining the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law.
It ain’t perfect, but it’s a concrete start.