I had not heard of John Pepall before his book Against Reform landed, with no great thud, on my desk last month. The bio in the book calls him “a writer and political commentator based in Toronto.” Since Against Reform is a political commentary and Pepall wrote it, the bio adds little to our knowledge.
His website features 20 years of political writing, including a review of an Elizabeth May book that was rejected by the Literary Review of Canada for being “mean-spirited.” I like him already. Pepall on May’s critique of Canadian journalism: “What seems to disturb her is not that her interests and ideas are not reflected in the media but that others are. Happily she proposes no remedy.”
Pepall’s book reveals interests and ideas not often reflected in the media. Against Reform is a corker, a funny little rebuttal to just about everything you usually read about our ailing democracy.
You sometimes hear that our democracy is broken and we need to fix the rules and structure of Parliament and our elections to set things right again. Colleague Coyne and I peddled that line in a televised town hall a year ago. The personable Conservative MP Michael Chong fills his days with such arguments. Pepall isn’t buying. Against Reform takes issue with every possible reform: free votes in the Commons, an elected Senate, proportional representation, fixed election dates, parliamentary review of judicial appointments.
He doesn’t claim our current system is perfect, only that rule changes wouldn’t help. “It is a usual claim of reformers that people have lost faith in politicians, and reforms are needed to restore faith. They do not say how once our unreformed institutions produced politicians who were trusted. The claim of lost faith is groundless. As long as there have been politicians, they have been mistrusted. Only ignorance of history and a factitious nostalgia could make anyone think otherwise.”
Most reforms seek to bring our governments’ decisions more closely into line with the will of the people. Pepall is sure this is a bad idea. First, because the people have no will: they are distracted and unsure, and even when one has a will, the next one disagrees. Governments should act now and be judged later. “We choose a government, hold it responsible, turf it out. With electoral reform and possibly an elected Senate that would end. The conflicts amongst us would be carried up and politicians would make deals beyond our control.”
An argument against change is conservative on its face, but Pepall will upset readers of any partisan stripe. He did not like Stephen Harper’s doomed fixed-election law because it perpetuated the idea that Harper won a set term when he won the election. “Winning an election is not like winning a prize that you get to keep until the next tournament. The Conservatives were the most effective government available after the election. They had no claim to remain the government any longer than they remained the most effective government available. The parties represented in the House of Commons must make that judgment.”
That’s a limited endorsement of the idea that a coalition of parties might take power once a government falls. But Pepall does not like systems designed to produce coalition governments routinely. “With coalition governments and multi-party elections, no one owns the record. The government the voters have known is not running. If it gave satisfaction, there is no guarantee its components will coalesce after the election. However bad it was, much of it will likely be back after the election.”
But the system we have now doesn’t mirror the will of the people! The winning party gets more seats than its share of votes, the losing parties less. To Pepall this is all an excellent system. “If proportionality and making every citizen’s vote count is the goal, why should we apply it to parties and not to policies? If 50 per cent of the people oppose capital punishment and 40 per cent support it and 10 per cent are undecided, why should we not give five out of 10 murderers a life sentence, hang four, and keep one on death row until the undecided make up their minds?”
Pepall’s chapters on the most ambitious recent reform efforts, the electoral-system referendums in British Columbia and Ontario, are darkly comic cautionary tales. No B.C. resident with any background in partisan politics was permitted to participate in the province’s “Citizens’ Assembly.” So, writes Pepall, people who had never thought much about politics “were persuaded to toss aside election procedures developed and used over centuries and over much of the democratic world and to replace them with the most complex and technical system ever devised.”
No wonder such reforms receive chillier receptions from the average voter than from the self-selecting crusaders who take part in these reform exercises. Electoral reform has failed in two B.C. referendums and one in Ontario. Explaining the proposals doesn’t seem to help. “Elections Ontario spent almost $7 million on an ‘education’ program, sending out leaflets, running ads in all media, and sending out ‘resource officers’ to talk down to community groups.”
The “down” in that sentence is a nice touch. It suggests that Pepall is out to have fun as much as to provoke. Pepall assigns himself an unglamorous role, standing against progress. Without him it would be easier to forget that there is a reason for things, and that sometimes a fix looks like a fix only until you try it.