Don't go chasing waterfalls

The case against a one-time pact to bury first-past-the-post

Andrew Coyne has another go at making the case for a one-time electoral cooperation pact among the opposition parties to achieve electoral reform, as Elizabeth May has also recently proposed. I still think this is a crazy idea.

Andrew notes that the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens are variously interested in replacing our first-past-the-post system for electing MPs. He then builds his case thusly.

It will be objected that much of this is merely an expression of the parties’ self interest, or more charitably that their principles show a remarkable tendency to align with their self-interest: under proportional representation the Greens would win many more seats than the one they have now, as until recently would the NDP, while the alternative vote tends to favour middle of the road parties like the Liberals. Fair enough. I happen to think these are also useful reforms in the public interest. But it is to those parties’ supporters I address myself here: to their self-interest as much as their ideals.

Because none of this is going to happen as things stand: neither the Conservatives’ defeat nor the democratic reforms each proposes would follow. It is not going to happen so long as the Conservatives maintain their apparently unshakeable hold on 35% to 40% of the voters that have stuck with them for much of the past decade. And it is not going to happen so long as the rest is divided up more or less evenly amongst two or three opposition parties…

So the long-term answer to the opposition’s dilemma is electoral reform, based on some form of proportonal representation. But that isn’t going to happen until they can figure out how to beat the Conservatives in the short term. The obvious answer is for the three parties to cooperate in some way at the ballot box: to combine, rather than split their votes.

The premise here seems to be that it is unlikely the Conservatives will win anything less than another majority mandate in 2015. If you were taking wagers right now, approximately two years away from the next vote, the odds would obviously have to favour the Conservatives. But another Conservative majority is not nearly a sure thing. The Conservatives polled at 33% in December. And the two years between now and the next election leave plenty of time for unforeseen developments. Incumbents at the federal level have a tendency to hold power for awhile, but they also have a tendency to eventually lose.

Could the New Democrats or Liberals win a majority government in 2015? It looks unlikely now, but the NDP was ahead of the Conservatives and in the mid-30s a year ago and the Liberals were ahead of the Conservatives and in the mid-30s in 2009. If the threshold for a majority government is around 39%, the possibility of an NDP or Liberal majority can’t be entirely dismissed.

Eight and a half years ago, the Liberals won a minority government with 36.7% of the popular vote. The Conservatives took 29.6%, the NDP 15.7% and the Bloc Quebecois 12.4%. How possible is it that the New Democrats or Liberals could win 36% of the popular vote in 2015? Could we see something like a 35-30-25 split with the Liberals or New Democrats in first and the Conservatives in second? Maybe you wouldn’t wager your life savings on it happening, but you’d be unwise to wager your life savings on it not happening.

But then, the opposition parties don’t even need to “win” the next election, do they? If the Conservatives are reduced to a minority and the House of Commons math works for the other parties, some combination of the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens could form a coalition government. How possible is a coalition government taking power in 2015? (We nearly had one in 2008. And with that experience, the parties might now be better prepared to pull it off.) Once again, you might not want to bet on it, but you can’t discount the possibility entirely either.

So an NDP or Liberal minority or a NDP-Liberal-Green coalition are within the realm of possibility (and not merely as far-fetched scenarios). And either scenario, I would posit, could result in a government interested in electoral reform. Andrew might be right that the long-term situation seems, right now, to favour the Conservatives. But I don’t think that means the next election result is assured. And therein lies a real opportunity for change.

Andrew proceeds to consider the options. He rules out a merger as unrealistic (I agree). He writes that a “formal coalition” also wouldn’t work (I disagree). He then arrives at his preferred option.

As it happens, however, an alternative has emerged that has found significant supporters in all three parties. It is to forge a purely temporary alliance, a one-time electoral pact. Party riding associations would agree to run a single candidate against the Conservatives, on a platform with essentially one plank: electoral reform. Were it to win it would govern just long enough to reform the electoral system, then dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.

There are a lot of questions to ask about this proposal. Andrew acknowledges as much.

A favourite counterargument is to rattle off a number of obvious practical questions in quick succession — How would these common candidates be selected? Would this apply in all ridings, or just some? Could voters be persuaded to turn the election into a referendum on electoral reform? — in a tone that implies they could not be answered. Which is certainly true, as long as no one bothers to try.

Let’s allow that some of the finer details could be worked out. I think there are valid questions to be asked about how the parties would sort this out amongst themselves, but let’s imagine that those questions could be answered and those problems solved. Let’s just deal with that third question: could an election be turned into a referendum on electoral reform?

Are enough voters so interested in electoral reform that they would support turning the next election into a referendum on that subject? Could enough voters be convinced to momentarily suspend their concerns about other issues? Could enough voters be convinced to ignore the other policy differences between the NDP, Liberals and Greens? Could enough voters be convinced to ignore the possible ramifications of all other policy debates between the parties to vote with the hope that a real election would then be run in short order?

I’ll try to answer those questions: No. Granted, I can’t predict the future with certainty (and have just finished arguing against making such predictions). Perhaps the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens could persuade voters to make this a singular focus. But this strikes me as implausible. I don’t think voters, in general, are so interested in electoral reform that they’d go along with this. At the very least, it seems like a remarkable gamble for the three parties to make. (And, keep in mind, the Conservatives would be keen to explain, loudly and repeatedly and prominently, why this was such a terrible idea.)

But only here now do we reach what is, for me, the deal breaker. Let’s say another Conservative majority was, under the status quo, overwhelmingly likely. Let’s say voters (or enough voters) were keen (or could be convinced to be keen) to turn the next election into a referendum on electoral reform. Let’s even say that an NDP-Liberal-Green pact would win that referendum.

What then?

Fundamentally overhauling the electoral system would probably take more than a couple days. Legislation would conceivably have to be passed through the House. Legislation would conceivably have to be passed through the Senate (how would a Conservative majority in the Senate handle such legislation?).

Even if you imagine this proceeding as expeditiously as possible, this would take some period of time (A month? A few months? More?). Someone would have to be Prime Minister while this was happening. Someone would have to be governing. How would that work? Conceivably they would have no mandate beyond changing the electoral system. Would they promise to not touch anything else for as long as they were in government? Would they promise to just carry on with Conservative policy until another election could be held? (Would anyone believe them if they promised as much?) What if something bad happened? What if something came up that required government action?

This is not a rhetorical device. I’m not trying to bury the idea in questions. I honestly want to know how this would work because I honestly don’t understand how this is supposed to work. What kind of government would we have for however long it took to change the federal electoral system and what would be the ramifications of having such a government?

I basically agree that the way in which we elect MPs could be improved (I recently came down with a crush on the ranked ballot). But I don’t like complicated solutions. Complicated solutions are usually the least achievable. Which is not to say they shouldn’t ever be pursued. But, in this case, I think there are less complicated options that might be entertained first.

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