The political world was rocked a few weeks back by the shocking revelation that Justin Trudeau, elected Prime Minister late in 2015 on a promise of reforming Canada’s electoral system, felt he was not bound to do so. He clarified a few hours later that he would implement whatever reform the all-party committee currently studying the issue recommends.
This was a much more diplomatic answer, and it mollified those from whom Trudeau enjoys more than his fair share of goodwill. It’s a cagey commitment upon examination, however: the three parties show no sign of agreeing on a reform, raising doubt about whether any clear recommendation will emerge from the committee. If none does, Trudeau has committed to nothing.
This is sneaky, but not unprecedented. Politicians are not always entirely honest during elections, and the Liberal Party in particular is known for changing course upon taking power. One could almost say the party campaigns and governs as two unrelated beings: a progressive and idealistic champion of universal rights, and a pompous manservant of the banks and oil companies.
Fool me once, shame on the Liberal Party; fool me every four years over the course of a generation, shame on the voters.
Voters, not surprisingly, enjoy voting for the Liberal Party when it campaigns, and are often bitterly disappointed when it comes to power and changes forms. Never again, we say. Then the Conservative Party chooses a leader who’s so embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch on TV (and possibly, though not necessarily, more right-wing than the Liberals in power) that voters flock to the fantasy again and again.
This isn’t really news either, and it’s nice work if you can get it. Fool me once, shame on the Liberal Party; fool me every four years over the course of a generation, shame on the voters. If we voted for the Liberals because we wanted to never have to see Stephen Harper on TV again, we’re happy; if we voted Liberal because we wanted to end first-past-the-post, we were almost certainly conned.
Not all voters, though. And this is where I start to get a bit angry.
Most people vote in a slight haze of comprehension, devoting a small part of their lives to absorbing the news and voting what they hope is the right way; they vote, to the best of their abilities, according to their interests, or the interests of their community or family, or according to whoever’s vision of the future is most compelling.
These people, the vast majority of voters, are not the problem.
They wish they knew more about the issues and the parties, and they hope they didn’t make a bad choice. They don’t have candidate’s name on lawn signs, they don’t post partisan memes on Facebook, and they don’t rush to the polls to support a particular party. They vote because they believe they have a duty to vote. These people, the vast majority of voters, are not the problem.
The problem is the supercilious voters, the pedants who urge others to ignore their own political compass and vote according to their calculation of the greater political good—a greater political good, quite coincidentally I’m sure, that is always the same: vote for a Liberal member to prevent the election of a Conservative member.
In 2015, with a weak Liberal Party and a strong New Democratic Party going into the election, this old prescription was a difficult sell. There were a lot of floating anti-Conservative Xs looking for the best box, but the Liberals, having finished third in 2011, weren’t necessarily the obvious choice.
But the Liberals were well-practiced in the art of vacuuming up errant votes, and they settled on a masterfully cynical ploy: they would promise to get rid of first-past-the-post, a system that had explicitly benefited them in almost every previous election, and which other parties had a long history of opposing, and would position themselves as the one party that could make electoral reform happen.
The appeal to anti-Conservative voters had the novel advantage of finality: this would be the last time voters would have to make such a calculation.
There was a delicious irony in this development, in that the only reason voters feel compelled to vote strategically in the first place is that our electoral system isn’t kind to votes for losing parties. The appeal to anti-Conservative voters to vote Liberal in order to get rid of first-past-the-post had the novel advantage of finality: this would be the last time voters would have to make such a calculation.
The beauty of this political pyramid scheme was that, the more informed you were about the political process, the better your memory of previous electoral disappointments, the more likely you were to not only fall for it, but urge others to do so. The better you understood complicated issues and knew the players, the better you could think strategically, the more likely you were to become complicit in the con.
If Trudeau follows through on the letter of his commitment rather than its spirit, we will go into the next election without a reform to our electoral system, and someone you think is cleverer than you will undoubtedly urge you to think beyond your fuzzy comprehension of the issues, and vote for someone they think will game the system in a salutary way. If you’re smart, you’ll ignore them.
Illustration by B Mroz.