Partisan Electoral Reform

I can’t help but look at the electoral reform plans put forward by Andrew Coyne and Joyce Murray and wonder what they’re thinking. Cooperating to win power to enact electoral reform is a huge suggestion that has very clearly not been properly thought through by either of them. By framing cooperation as an electoral reform issue, rather than simply as a method for replacing the Harper government, these plans are not only misguided but they actually weaken both of the positions that they appear to advance.

Coyne states, regarding the Conservatives, that: “the longer they stay in power, the more opportunity they will have to change the rules to their advantage, and the harder it will be for any opposition party to dislodge them.” Looking back, at the Conservative record, this is true; whenever they’re given the opportunity to change the rules to benefit themselves – like when they reduced the cap on individual political contributions, or when they eliminated the per vote subsidy – they take it. But this is precisely why we must not follow Coyne’s plan: because it follows the Conservative pattern exactly. Instead, we need to break the cycle of each party changing the rules to entrench themselves once they take power. If anything, following suit legitimizes what the conservatives are doing. We can’t change the rules as a way of crying foul because somebody else changed the rules.

My concerns with Coyne’s plan are the ethical issues that surround such an idea, which he skates over quite quickly in establishing his case. He writes:

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.

This is not a point that can be skirted, it must be addressed directly: I can think of nothing worse than changing the rules of a game with the express intention of handicapping one participant. The subject of electoral reform has attracted many intelligent, thoughtful people to discuss its merits; perverting it into another partisan ploy will undo all of that effort if, as we’re claiming to improve the system, we are seen to be penalizing the Tories. If electoral reform comes to Canada it must be at the insistence of Canadians, through a referendum, or with the cooperation of all parties. The idea of explicitly excluding the Conservatives from the process of reform cannot be condemned in harsh enough terms; that we might even consider at all it is a damning indictment of our political conversation.

Aaron Wherry does a very good job, in Maclean’s, dealing with the logistical issues with the Coyne/Murray plan, but even if it’s practically untenable, its proponents will still tout it as a plan that is sound in theory. It’s not enough that this plan will never be enacted, we need to put to rest the notion that electoral reform can solve petty, temporary problems. Suggesting that we undertake electoral reform with an explicitly partisan intent is to taint the very foundation of our democracy.

2 Comments on “Partisan Electoral Reform”

  1. […] Young objects to the idea of a one-time pact to reform the electoral system on different […]

  2. Andrew F says:

    The Conservatives have already gotten the ball rolling. They reformed the political funding system, essentially rigging it in their own favour. They did this without the consent of the other parties, and without a referendum. There was hardly a broad consensus that this was an appropriate change.

    Turnabout is fair play. If the change is accepted through a referendum, it would have far more legitimacy than the changes the Tories have made to our democratic system.

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