Yesterday, Canada had an election that was notable for its pointlessness. The Liberal party went into the election with a minority government. And it came out with the same thing.
The election was, however, an interesting testament to the pragmatism of the powerful. Like Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is gifted at lofty rhetoric. But he’s ultimately a pragmatist, dedicated to holding on to power.
Trudeau called the election because polls suggested that he could win a majority. Interestingly, when Trudeau looked at the polls, it seems he didn’t factor in the backlash that would result from calling an election during COVID, especially since the last Canadian election was just 2 years ago. And so Canadians woke up this morning to find the government largely unchanged.
On that note, the election results remind me of another aspect of power over principles. Back in 2015, Trudeau ran on a bold platform of electoral reform, promising to get rid of Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post system.
For a while, it looked like the Trudeau government might make good on its promise. In 2016, it commissioned a Special Committee on Electoral Reform that recommended, among other things, that Canada have a referendum on implementing proportional representation. But the Trudeau government quietly shelved the report and abandoned its commitment to electoral reform.
It’s easy to understand this reversal. During the Harper years, the Liberals suffered a series of humiliating electoral defeats, despite the fact that their popular support remained largely unchanged. Today, the tables have turned. The Liberals are now benefiting from the first-past-the-post system. And so unsurprisingly, they want to keep it.
The numbers speak for themselves. If we take the portion of parliamentary seats won by each party and divide it them by the portion of the popular vote, we find that Liberals are hugely over-represented. Conservatives (who won the popular vote) are more-or-less at parity. And the NDP and Greens are vastly under-represented.
During the recent election, Trudeau claimed to remain ‘open’ to electoral reform. But given the numbers above, I suspect this is empty rhetoric. The Liberal’s grasp on power depends on over-representation, which electoral reform would take away.
In a sense, this dilemma cuts to the core of democracy. We expect the powerful to do what’s in their own best interest. The purpose of democracy is, in large part, to get the powerful to do things that are in the public interest. Every now and then, representative democracy succeeds in achieving this inversion. But most of the time it fails.
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