Electoral Reform, Minority Governments, and The Bloc

December 6th, 2008 by Potato

This week’s events in federal politics have certainly been interesting if nothing else.

Parliament is fractured into four small parties; the Cons are the largest ones (and hence formed the minority government after the election), but are the least willing to work with the others. The Liberals and NDP even combined don’t outnumber the Cons, so to govern one side or the other has to get support from the fourth party: the Bloc. Harper did it not so very long ago, giving them concessions of billions of dollars and “nation” status. Now the Liberal-NDP coalition has received support from the Bloc to overturn the Cons.

Harper has come out with all kinds of vitriol about how the coalition is making deals with separatists; coming from a still-technically-sitting prime minister, this is worrying some people that it’s stirring up the hornet’s nest of Quebec separation just as that issue was finally dying a quiet death, that he will alienate quebecers (38% of whom voted Bloc — more than the Cons got nationally). Likewise, there is valid criticism that by having to go to the Bloc, both sides (the Cons in 2000 and 2006, the Liberal-NDP coalition now) are giving a separatist party legitimacy in the House.

The Bloc is, ostensibly, a separatist party. They were founded to promote Quebec sovereignty… but let’s get real. The separatists lost two referendums on sovereignty. The Bloc doesn’t even put up the pretense of asking for another in the near future. No, the Bloc has gone from being a separatist party to being a mean-spirited, single-minded regional party. They are the party of “give Quebec everything and screw the rest of Canada”; which, I suppose, is not all that different from the mindset of a separatist party. The difference being that it’s quite possible for other regional parties to form even without the separatist agenda/rhetoric.

First-past-the-post election systems, like we have, tend to come down to two-party systems due to issues like strategic voting. Interestingly, this has not happened in Canada — true, really only the Cons and the Liberals have any chance of forming a government, but that doesn’t stop the NDP and the Bloc from putting up strong showings, and even the Greens (and in past elections, Reform) compete. Of course, many ridings come down to two-way races, but nationally it’s a mess.

Oddly enough, this mess of smaller parties is one of the criticisms levelled against alternative voting schemes like proportional representation. Since the population is so fractured on who they support, a proportional representation scheme would most likely return minority government after minority government. Then fringe parties with distributed support who would never get enough concentration to elect an MP in the current system might get in and hold the power to make or break coalitions. Of course, that’s exactly what we face now. The trick of course is that the Bloc have gamed the system: they just need to win a few first-past the post races to be a viable fringe party, by which I mean that obviously they can use regional specialization to their advantage.

This is probably going to be bad for Canadian politics going forward. I mean, the Bloc model is working, and this is not a feature. To compete in a first-past-the-post environment the former Progressive Conservative party merged with the Reform to form our current Con disaster. It used to be that you could sway a centrist between the Liberals and the PC party, as evidenced by decades of alternating majority governments between the two. But now the gulf between the two is quite wide (today’s Cons are indisputably right-wing rather than right-of-centre), and there is little hope or point in trying to “unite the left”.

With things looking like a series of minority governments on the horizon for the next several years if not decades, the door opens to coalition makers and breakers, and further regional specialization. Years ago, my friends and I used to shake our heads at the Bloc, and jokingly say that we would form the “Bloc Ontarioquois” party to counter them. No one is starting such a party yet to the best of my knowledge, but it can’t be long before it happens. The Cons are increasingly seen as the party of the “West” (which somehow excludes Canada’s westernmost province), and it’s only a matter of time before an Ontario/BC-centric party decides to get in on the action. That could be either the Liberals or the NDP, both of which get half their support from Canada’s largest province, or a new party (hopefully one without the initials BO).

Things could turn around: federalism could return to Quebec, or the main federalist parties could learn to work together without having to pander to the Bloc. But I think that the time for electoral reform might have come. Depending on the system (I prefer STV myself, to continue electing MPs to represent ridings, and then just have ~5 MPs per riding, with ~30 on the ballot to rank as you please, as complicated as that might make the ballots), that might open the door to national fringe or single-issue parties (the marijuana party, or the pro-life party as common examples bandied about), but I think that might be preferable to the tearing apart of our country by rabid regional factions that are more interested in gaming the system for local advantage than getting everyone to run a big country together.

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