Canada will face some challenges in a Trump America, post-Brexit world. The potential for geopolitical instability and difficulties with a U.S. in political turmoil is considerable. Canada will feel the rise of divisive politics elsewhere and so Canadians need to better understand why its political system has worked so well.
Shortly before he left office, U.S. president Barack Obama said one way he would want to be described was that he cared for American democracy. His final speech to Americans revolved around how America’s democracy is threatened more from within than without – a position opposite to that it found itself in when the Second World War broke out.
When Prime Minster Justin Trudeau pledged during the 2015 election campaign to get rid of our first-past-the-post electoral system, it seemed to his party a good idea at the time. It did not turn out that way. The case for change was never made. There were two possible outcomes. One (any form of proportional representative) would hurt the governing Liberals immediately, and so was a non-starter. The other would ostensibly help them, but could end up hurting them electorally if the change was seen to be for their advantage.
Canada today has the best political system in the world. It is essential Canadians understand that fact given the governance stresses in the United States, U.K. and Europe. Canada has come through a 45-year-long existential crisis in which Quebec not only survived the transformational Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, but became a postmodern society with prosperity and social peace. In its 1995 referendum, Quebec had the choice to stay in, or leave. For Canada, having the choice was more important than preserving the country at all costs. For the United States, preserving the country with the Civil War took priority over choice – at a huge cost that continues 150 years later. Since Confederation, Canada’s politics have arguably produced the best mutual-accommodation society in history, making Canada the least troubled by unreconcilable differences.
The Liberals would have faced a realpolitik challenge if they had decided to proceed with electoral reform. When I fought federal policy overreach in tax- and competition-law reform in the sixties through to the eighties, I learned an important lesson: Although the public finds it difficult to assess complex public policy questions, they believe they can figure out whether the process is fair or is for self-serving politics. The excesses of the Pierre Trudeau government’s economic policy bumped up against that in the seventies and eighties. The same would likely apply today to electoral reform.
Mackenzie King would have never got into the electoral reform mess in the first place. Canada’s longest-serving prime minister seemed to know both what was right for Canada and how to govern Canada to get there. This enabled him to consolidate much that was right on many fronts – national unity, the economy, social advance, and relations with the United States.
Like Canadians, King had his own aspirations and principles. His particular political genius enabled him to achieve both his and theirs. The former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield once privately said that Mackenzie King was Canada’s greatest leader, because he had the most patience with the Canadian people.