Time to cooperate: A modest proposal for a progressive alliance on electoral reform

The two contests for the federal leadership, the NDP -- already started -- and the Liberal -- on hold -- give an opportunity to think political realignment in Canada.

These leadership races could be an opportunity for serious debate about proportional representation, to give every person an equal vote, and climate change, the most urgent issue humankind faces, and one where the majority in Parliament is at odds with the majority of Canadians.

The great obstacle to proportional representation is the risk incurred in opening up the Constitution for amendment. But the consequences of keeping things as they are worse: the ongoing impasse -- majority governments with as little as 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, and a declining voting rate. (The Conservatives now control both Houses of Parliament and judicial appointments with that low percentage, and there is no reason to think they won't succeed again.)

Proportional representation would make temporary electoral alliances practical. We have little chance of getting significant action on climate change without one. As well, PR would result in more women being elected.

The proposed Liberal-New Democrat merger as the means to stop Conservative majorities has too many disadvantages. The parties are too far apart on too much. The demise of the Liberal Party is New Democrat wishful thinking at its worst. The Liberals have recovered from bad defeats before and the NDP fallen from better days, too.

The Conservative majority is the cause, and only cause, of Canada's disgraceful policy on climate change, earning us the "fossil of the year" award at international meetings. An electoral alliance with a commitment to a comprehensive climate action strategy, including Liberals, New Democrats and Greens, could change that.

A progressive electoral alliance could also undo some of the damage done by the federal Conservatives with their puny 39.6 per cent majority:

• Reverse the massive, expensive prison building program;.

• Repeal the sentencing changes made to fill these prisons.

• Institute a national childcare program.

• Bring in a plan to end child poverty.

• Make taxes fairer--remember the "progressive" income tax?

• Reinstate the long form of the Census.

• Address such environmental concerns as dying oceans and forests and declining biodiversity.

How to get there?

The first task would be for the three potential partners to formulate a core progressive program that would unite the 60.38 per cent of Canadians who don't want a Conservative government -- and do want strong action on climate. Most Canadians are not climate-change deniers and most want more done than either the current Conservative or previous Liberal governments have been willing to do, if less than hard-core environmentalists might want. A serious climate change commitment could draw in idealistic young people to the political arena for the first time.

The Liberals would have to get over their fear of a carbon tax (although we could oblige by calling it something else). Stéphane Dion's "greenshift plan" was defeated without being understood. The principle was good, its presentation a fiasco. The NDP similarly must drop its "axe the tax" tactic, which cost it the last B.C. election. Jack Layton's excellent Climate Change Accountability Act gives a sound basis for a new start.

Clearly there has to be a process of policy building in both those major parties. Both have gone through such exercises before and can again. A majority government and a fixed election date give time.

Compulsory voting, as in Australia, is sometimes proposed as the way to improve turn-out. The better way is to ensure that people's votes are not "wasted," or perversely result in electing the party furthest removed from theirs in policy -- the case for Greens now fearing to elect Conservatives.

Proposals for proportional representation have been defeated in two provinces, and for reason, but getting it right should not be beyond us.

Might we need a referendum? I am sceptical that any adequate climate action strategy will ever be adopted nationally, or survive if adopted, without broad public support. Usually right wingers, suspicious of government, are the advocates of referenda. Not so here. Indeed we need strong government to end fossil fuel subsidies, price carbon and regulate adequately. An electoral alliance that brought in a good plan would risk losing it all at the next election. Referendum approval would give it legitimacy.

A referendum might be needed also to get proportional representation, for provincial support is required for Constitutional change, and provinces can be ornery on amendments. With public support from a referendum, it would be hard for provinces to refuse.

Lynn McDonald is a former NDP MP and environment critic, and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. She currently works on climate change, as co-founder of JustEarth: A Coalition for Environmental Justice, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Climate Action Network. Professionally, she is a sociologist, now University Professor Emerita at the University of Guelph, and director of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale.


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