Tories: Adapting To Electoral Reform

February 1st, 2017 | M. Menuck
One of the less scrutinized pledges of Justin Trudeau's election platform was his promise that the 2015 federal election would be the last one contested under Canada's old First-Past-The-Post electoral system (where whichever candidate who comes first in the vote count in their particular riding wins and everyone else gets nothing). Given that Trudeau did not emerge as the favourite in the race until very near to election day, and even then no one really expected him to attain a majority mandate until the results came in on E-Day itself, the public could be forgiven for not pondering the implications of this one line commitment too much. Indeed, given the almost cartoonishly haphazard handling of the electoral reform file to date, it seems the government itself did not give much consideration to the subject.

The conventional wisdom is that electoral reform in any shape or form would likely be fatal for conservative politics in Canada, and bitterly opposed by those of us on the right for our very survival. A system of ranked ballots, which is Justin Trudeau's clearly preferred choice, most certainly would, as it would place the Liberal Party as the near certain recipient of the second choice votes of both the Tories on the right and the NDP on the left. However, proportional representation, commonly known by its short form of PR, need not necessarily be an option conservatives should dismiss out of hand.

It's true that under a proportional model of representation Canadian conservatives would need to adjust their way of approaching politics. FPTP is very much an electoral system that requires a "big tent" approach to be successful. A political movement can only succeed if it appeals to a broad number of different constituencies often with vastly conflicting agendas. One sees this in the current federal Conservative Party of Canada, which is supported by libertarians and social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and Red Tories, along with various assorted gun rights advocates, foreign policy hawks, and classical liberals. Holding such a diverse coalition together is a delicate balancing act that very often boils down to the cliched approach of appealing to the "mushy middle" of Canadian politics.

Ironically, the path to success under proportional representation would take the exact opposite approach, with a reversion of the old set up of the 1990s and early 2000s where there were multiple conservative parties each appealing to different political factions of the population (and often geographical regions of the country). A scenario where Canada has a classical liberal/fiscally conservative party that appeals to urban voters, a socially conservative, traditionalist party courting voters in rural areas, and a more Western populist style party of the old Reform/CA era who all agreed to work with together in coalition is one where the conservative political movement could compete and very well succeed under PR.

Such a scenario would present opportunity as well, particularly to those factions of the present conservative coalition that have often gotten the short end of the stick under the status quo. The "big tent" nature of FPTP means that political parties need to get all of their various supporters to stay with them with the most attention inevitably going to appeasing those voters most likely to switch to the other side, which in Canada is typically fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters from the suburbs and urban areas. Social conservatives and Western based reformers, who are perceived as "safer" voters, often find their concerns on issues ranging from abortion to senate reform placed at the back of the line.

For a real life example of the opportunities proportional representation offers, look no further than Europe and the recent experience of its populist-nationalist parties. From Denmark, to the Netherlands, to Austria, one can find examples of small political parties often able to muster no more than 10 to 15% of the vote, extracting meaningful political concessions that address their issues via coalition governing arrangements. 

Coalition governments by their very nature are expected to involve compromise and concessions to the various parties that make them up, and their supporters understand this. One could easily envision how a more traditionally inclined, socially conservative junior partner to a coalition government could easily extract a variety of concessions on numerous political issues that would be impossible for the current Conservative Party, under the FPTP, out of fear it would be branded as caving in to its party's radical wing.

None of which is to say conservatives should automatically take up the cause of proportional representation. The current Westminster system has its own strengths, not the least of which is its place in our national history and roots in our heritage as a child of the British Empire. These are not things to be dismissed lightly. However, conservative voters should be aware that the prospect of electoral reform need not entirely be all doom and gloom. The details, as always, are what truly matter.