There’s been a national electoral reform awareness-raising community dialogue tour, “meaningful consultations with Canadians” by means of town-hall meetings by the dozen, “safe, inclusive and respectful” powerpoint presentations, workshops, informal surveys, write-in polls and carefully-crafted national public opinion surveys. There have been 57 separate meetings of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform since June.
There have been quite a few lively shouting matches in the House of Commons, disturbing allegations of bad faith, and counter-allegations of broken promises. Last week there was a hullabaloo about something called the Gallagher Index, a sort of Ouija Board you can use to divine a voting system’s proportionality by gazing intently at the square root of half of the sum of the squares of the difference between the percentage of the votes in an election and the percentage of seats a given voting system produces, if I’m not mistaken.
This week’s uproars have hinged on a national postcard mailout and a strangely creepy and quite possibly pointless Vox Pop Labs interactive online survey that gets around to telling you whether you’re a Guardian, a Challenger, a Pragmatist, a Cooperator or an Innovator. Nobody seems to know what it’s for.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insists that well before we all go the polls again, he’s going to keep his promise to replace the first-past-the-post system Canadians have been using since Confederation. But rookie Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef insists that the question of how we’ll vote, exactly, requires further public engagement. So maybe there will be séances, or ritual drumming, or palmistry.
It could well be that the Liberal party intends to screw us out of the national referendum on a proportional-voting system that the majority of us wanted and expected. It could also be that in all the shouting, we’re missing a larger and far more important point: Canadians are almost uniquely fortunate among the people of the world at the moment, in that we’re even capable of having these kinds of elaborate and arcane arguments at all. We don’t know how lucky we are.
In either case, the Liberals as well as the Opposition parties should be mindful of the explosive forces they’re dealing with here. Canada is not magically immune to the corrosion of disillusionment and cynicism that has sent liberal democracy into a tailspin the world round over the past decade. It was a dangerously deep malaise among Canadians about this country’s political institutions that moved Trudeau to promise electoral reform in the first place. And that pledge played no small role in the Liberals’ election win last October, even if it was with only 39.6 per cent of the popular vote.
One of the ugliest features of the now mercifully concluded American election cycle was president-elect Donald Trump’s incitement of paranoia among his far-right lumpen followers about the integrity of the electoral system itself. It was rigged, he bellowed. There would be widespread, organized voter fraud on election day. He’s still talking like that.
During the final months of Stephen Harper’s tired and cranky Conservative government, in a poll carried out by the Environics Institute and the Institute on Governance (IOG) for the Americas Barometer Study, one in three Canadians expressed a strong degree of distrust in Parliament, and nearly seven in 10 said they feared political parties would illegally manipulate the results of the upcoming federal election. Unlike the American hysteria, the Canadian paranoia was most pronounced among voters who identified themselves as “on the political left.”
Around the same time, the 75-year-old American institution Freedom House released its annual assessment of human rights and democracy around the world. All the standard indicators of free societies had continued to fall for the ninth year in a row. “Acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government — and of an international system built on democratic ideals — is under greater threat than at any other point in the last 25 years,” said Arch Puddington, Freedom House vice-president for research.
“The time is out of joint. The post-1989 liberal order is unravelling before our eyes,” is the way Ivan Krastev, a fellow with the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, puts it. Owing to the belligerence of the emboldened regimes in Beijing and Moscow and the proliferation of armed conflicts around the word, Western democracies are in eclipse. The shine has gone off the Western model of free markets and globalization. Liberal democracies themselves are in crisis, owing to the rise of what is usually called populism.