Canada's New Government Makes Its First Big Mistake
Canada's two-month-old Liberal government is facing its first controversy, one that highlights an enduring dilemma in public policy: When is it worth going ahead with a good idea that the public doesn't like?
Among the many campaign promises of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a commitment to change the way Canadians elect their federal government. As in the U.S., the candidate with the most votes in a district (Canadians call them ridings) gets a seat in the legislature (what Canadians call first-past-the-post). But in Canada, the winner usually gets fewer than half the votes, because of an increasingly fractured multiparty system.
The Liberals are considering several options that would better allocate parliamentary seats based on voters' preferences. But Canadians are a conservative bunch, reluctant to change even the traditions they don't especially like. Since 2005, two of the country's three largest provinces have held referendums on electoral reform, and both failed. So the Liberal government, which had left the door open to a similar vote nationwide, said over the weekend that none would take place, all but conceding that its proposals wouldn't survive a plebiscite.
On the merits, the argument for electoral reform is quite good, and it's not clear how else it will come about. At best, the current system produces governments that unevenly reflect the public will; at worst, it results in unstable minorities that can fall without warning. Either way, some voters fairly conclude that their preferences get ignored, which may explain why typical Canadian voter turnout is 10 points below the average for developed countries.
The Liberals haven't said what exactly they would install in place of the status quo. One option is to replace the first-past-the-post method with a system that distributes parliamentary seats based on a party's share of the national vote, rather than on the results at the district level. (If this distribution had been in effect in October's election, the Liberals would not have gotten a majority government.) Another proposed reform is a so-called ranked ballot, in which voters indicate their second or even third choice, should their preferred candidate fail to win.
Both ideas have their flaws. The national allocation system would get rid of local representation. The ranked ballot could encourage parties to pursue similar policies, trying to capture other parties' votes, and perhaps discourage innovative ideas. But both proposals would be more democratic than the status quo.
By itself, the public's resistance to reform doesn't mean the government should drop the issue. As the past few years in American politics have shown, some issues are too intractable to wait for a clear majority of public support. Two of the chief accomplishments of Barack Obama's presidency were the 2009 stimulus and the 2010 health-care overhaul. The former probably averted a depression, and the latter made it possible for 17 million people to afford to see a doctor. Yet neither gained broad popular appeal.
Those examples demonstrate the criteria to use in justifying sweeping legislation on which the public remains ambivalent or worse. One is urgency; another is the high toll of continued inaction. (Climate change, another area where Obama has acted despite broad public antagonism, checks both boxes.)
Advocates of Canadian electoral reform can't invoke either argument. There should be a high bar for disregarding the will of the public. Proceeding without a referendum could be the new government's first meaningful error, and it looks entirely self-inflicted.
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