Prime Minister Paul Martin will bring down a Speech from the Throne today,
that he hopes will set the national agenda for the coming federal election.
Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson will extol the vision of a new Canada in a
new century, committed to economic innovation, urban renewal, a New Deal for
First Nations, and a confident and militarily robust role in world affairs.
There is another item on that agenda, one Mr. Martin has been trying to
ignore. Five provinces ’Äî British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick
and Prince Edward Island ’Äî are at various stages in their evolution toward a
new electoral system based on some form of proportional representation. And
the Law Commission of Canada has revealed that it will recommend the same for
the House of Commons.
The question is whether Mr. Martin, who wants to make Parliament more
accountable to its own members and to the public, is prepared to embrace
electoral reform, or whether he will shunt it aside.
Moving our provincial and federal governments away from the current
first-past-the-post method of selecting legislators, and toward one of the
several proportional systems already in use in most developed countries, would
profoundly reshape Canadian politics.
Journalistic exaggeration? Consider what would happen if this spring's
election were fought under PR rules, with the results reflecting the most
recent Ipsos-Reid poll.
The Liberals would have 148 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons ’Äî
impressive, but not good enough to form a government, which means Prime
Minister Paul Martin would need to seek a working relationship with another
Assuming he refused to talk to the Bloc Quˆ©bˆ©cois (which, under PR, would
be reduced to 31 seats in the House), Mr. Martin would have three choices.
If he wanted to govern from the right, the Prime Minister might approach
the Conservatives, who would have 59 seats. Would they agree to join a
government of national unity?
Mr. Martin would first have to commit to substantial tax cuts and
aggressive debt reduction, sacrificing his cherished programs for urban
renewal and help for natives.
If that was too much for him to take, Mr. Martin might approach Jack
Layton, who would be leading the NDP's first-ever 49-seat caucus.
But what price NDP support? At the least, an end to Canadian participation
in the national missile-defence system, part of a general chilling of Canada-U.S.
relations that would accompany a Liberal-NDP coalition government.
Or maybe Mr. Martin would want to talk to the Green Party, which would have
12 seats in the House.
Would they give their support in exchange for strong commitments to adhere
to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming? Perhaps that would be enough for a
shaky Liberal-Green coalition.
Things would certainly be interesting. They could also be unstable. With
each succeeding election, more political parties might appear.
The Conservatives could split again into their Prairie-populist and
Support could bleed from the NDP to the Greens.
Even the Liberals could be riven by factions, with Sheila Copps Liberals
forming a separate caucus from Martin Liberals.
Those who favour efficient government would despair at all the compromises
involved in brokering a working coalition. But then, such brokerage already
happens within political parties, much of it hidden from public scrutiny.
There is a bigger issue. Since Confederation, Canada has grappled with
geographic, linguistic and cultural divisions. Will a move to PR foster
factional parties that cater to and exploit local grievances? Or are we now
mature and confident enough as a nation to elect stable coalitions that govern
in the national interest? Are we, in other words, the Canada that Mr. Martin
claims we are?
The Prime Minister, through Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, will give his
initial response to the Law Commission report after it is presented to the
House in March. But nothing will be, or should be, attempted before the spring
The real choice for Mr. Martin will come after the election. Assuming he
wins it, he can then either let the issue languish in some committee, waiting
to see how things play out in the provinces, or he can put it on a front
burner, asking for public consultation and a report that could produce
electoral reform in time for the 2008 election.
No one should want to rush into this: We don't know whether most Canadians
even understand what a move to PR would entail, let alone whether they would
approve such a change.
But for better or worse, electoral reform is now on the national agenda.
The Law Commission has put it there.