As newly minted Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould made the media rounds to defend the government's backtrack from its campaign promise to make 2015 the last election under first-past-the-post, she repeatedly stressed one point: Canadians think highly of our democracy and cherish the electoral system that we have.
Fair enough. Canadians should think highly of our democracy. For the past 150 years, our first-past-the-post electoral system has generally produced competent governments, laying the groundwork for one of the world's most prosperous countries.
But then, so did America's electoral system -- until last November, when an unstable demagogue with explicitly racist and xenophobic policies was elected under a first-past-the-post system supposedly designed to exclude extremists from the political process.
The recent American election seems to poke a Trump-sized hole in Justin Trudeau's latest excuse for abandoning electoral reform. In the Arctic for his cross-country "listening tour" this past weekend, Trudeau belatedly defended his government's about-face by claiming that proportional representation would augment extremist voices in the House of Commons, plunging Canada into "an era of instability and uncertainty." Asked about his policy reversal by a woman in Iqaluit, the response from our sunny-ways prime minister verged on panic. "Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party?" he asked combatively.
The irony, of course, is that Kellie Leitch already has a party, and it's one with a lot more influence than any alt-right protest party of Trudeau's imagination would ever wield in Canada's Parliament. If U.S. President Donald Trump's election south of the border has demonstrated anything, it's that the biggest political extremist threat comes not from small, radical parties on the fringes of political discourse, but from extremist politicians hijacking a major party and using its established legitimacy to validate their views.
Canada's major political parties have started to lose their ideological core.
Our current electoral system amplifies this risk. Because political parties under first-past-the-post need to have broad public appeal to get elected, they stretch their message to appeal to wide swathes of voters, growing into big-tent parties that can accommodate a wide array of political views. The broad appeal of political parties under first-past-the-post is often cited as an argument for our current electoral system, with Trudeau arguing that "the strength of our democracy is that we have to pull people into big parties that have the diversity of Canada, and we learn to get along." But when parties become too broad, they lose their meaning, becoming vehicles for the ambitions of their leaders rather than coherent political associations with unified ideologies.
In the United States, the ideological diffusion of a Republican Party that encompassed everyone from free market libertarians to socially conservative evangelicals to alt-right Internet trolls allowed Trump to commandeer a party with no ideological core and reshape it into a political juggernaut that helped to legitimize his xenophobic policy positions.
And unfortunately, like the Republicans and Democrats in the United States, Canada's major political parties have started to lose their ideological core.
The Conservatives claim to stand for small government and fiscal responsibility, but spent much of Stephen Harper's tenure bailing out failing industries and running deficits to stimulate the economy. The NDP is supposedly a social-democratic party, but ran the last election on an economic platform that could have been stolen from any Progressive Conservative campaign of years past.
This ideological bankruptcy opens up opportunities for demagogues whose views would ordinarily be confined to the fringes of political discourse. Because first-past-the-post requires parties to draw broad support to be successful, it offers little incentive for extremist politicians to strike out on their own. Instead, these candidates infiltrate big-tent mainstream parties. And because the Canadian political parties have such malleable ideologies, their party infrastructure could easily be redirected toward legitimizing and promoting the view of an opportunistic demagogue -- say, a Kellie Leitch -- if one were to be elected party leader.
First-past-the-post thus gives extremists a bigger platform than they could ever hope for under proportional representation.
Compounding the ease with which first-past-the-post allows extremist candidates to hijack parties is that fact that there are few alternatives to a demagogic candidate when there are only two or three major parties -- a hallmark of first-past-the-post electoral systems. After winning the Republican nomination, Trump only had to defeat one considerably flawed candidate to become president of the United States. It's not difficult to imagine a Trump-like Canadian politician defeating a candidate as flawed as Stéphane Dion or Michael Ignatieff and becoming prime minister of Canada.
With almost three million fewer votes than Clinton, Donald Trump is not a product of American voters. He is a product of America's political institutions. The xenophobia and frustrations that led to the election of Trump are present everywhere in the Western world, including Canada. But the way in which these fears ultimately get channeled into our politics depends our electoral system. If Justin Trudeau were really interested in blocking the rise of extremist voices in Canadian politics, he would keep his promise to ditch first-past-the-post.
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