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Why a failed bid for electoral reform is a win for Canada

Canada will face some challenges in a Trump America, post-Brexit world. The potential for geopolitical instability and difficulties with a U.S. in political turmoil is considerable. Canada will feel the rise of divisive politics elsewhere and so Canadians need to better understand why its political system has worked so well.

Shortly before he left office, U.S. president Barack Obama said one way he would want to be described was that he cared for American democracy. His final speech to Americans revolved around how America's democracy is threatened more from within than without – a position opposite to that it found itself in when the Second World War broke out.

When Prime Minster Justin Trudeau pledged during the 2015 election campaign to get rid of our first-past-the-post electoral system, it seemed to his party a good idea at the time. It did not turn out that way. The case for change was never made. There were two possible outcomes. One (any form of proportional representative) would hurt the governing Liberals immediately, and so was a non-starter. The other would ostensibly help them, but could end up hurting them electorally if the change was seen to be for their advantage.

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Canada today has the best political system in the world. It is essential Canadians understand that fact given the governance stresses in the United States, U.K. and Europe. Canada has come through a 45-year-long existential crisis in which Quebec not only survived the transformational Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, but became a postmodern society with prosperity and social peace. In its 1995 referendum, Quebec had the choice to stay in, or leave. For Canada, having the choice was more important than preserving the country at all costs. For the United States, preserving the country with the Civil War took priority over choice – at a huge cost that continues 150 years later. Since Confederation, Canada's politics have arguably produced the best mutual-accommodation society in history, making Canada the least troubled by unreconcilable differences.

Practical politics

The Liberals would have faced a realpolitik challenge if they had decided to proceed with electoral reform. When I fought federal policy overreach in tax- and competition-law reform in the sixties through to the eighties, I learned an important lesson: Although the public finds it difficult to assess complex public policy questions, they believe they can figure out whether the process is fair or is for self-serving politics. The excesses of the Pierre Trudeau government's economic policy bumped up against that in the seventies and eighties. The same would likely apply today to electoral reform.

Mackenzie King would have never got into the electoral reform mess in the first place. Canada's longest-serving prime minister seemed to know both what was right for Canada and how to govern Canada to get there. This enabled him to consolidate much that was right on many fronts – national unity, the economy, social advance, and relations with the United States.

Like Canadians, King had his own aspirations and principles. His particular political genius enabled him to achieve both his and theirs. The former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield once privately said that Mackenzie King was Canada's greatest leader, because he had the most patience with the Canadian people.

The proponents of electoral reform never stated how any change would bring about improvements on either the governance or the aspirational fronts. The current government could never make a strong case for any change that would command broad support. The good news is a project they should never had proposed has now been dropped.

The nature of Canadian politics

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No one has shown how any alternative voting system would enable Canada to govern itself better. Rather, the first-past-the-post system is well-rooted in Canada's dominant political reality – its regional nature. It preserves the local-constituency roots of the House of Commons and works against extremes – the curse of the American system.

A system that factored in overall national or provincial numbers would sharpen ideological differences and make Canada's regional challenges harder. The first-past-the-post system, on the other hand, requires compromise to come in the first instance from the voter – the safest place. The voters, not a group of competing politicians, have to make compromises between their policy aspirations and what is politically achievable.

Some think reform may get more people engaged and voting. But reform isn't needed to do so. When voters see high stakes, they become politically engaged and their turnout increases. The Quebec referendum and the 2015 federal election are two examples. The other suggested rationale for reform is that people who vote for parties that are underrepresented in seats in relation to the national vote are not fairly represented. That criticism depends on the idea that a proportionate share of the national vote is preferable to regarding the local constituency as the heart of the system – a national-ideology preference over Canada's regional reality. The result would likely be endless minority governments. This would shift the need to compromise away from the voters and make mutual accommodation more difficult.

Former prime minister Joe Clark was derided when he called Canada a "community of communities." The idea seemed weak opposite Pierre Trudeau's strong federal stance. As things turned out, Trudeau's efforts to centralize proved an overreach and weakened the federal government. Former prime minster Brian Mulroney's looser approach and focus on the economy strengthened the country. Centralization was the wrong remedy for both Quebec separatism and Western Canadian alienation. Today's Canada is both a country and a community of communities. The regional nature of Canada's politics is rooted in its communities, alongside a strong nationwide conviction we are blessed to live in Canada.

A ranked-voting system, which drops candidates off and transfers their votes to their next preferred person until there is a majority, would not necessarily offend Canada's regional political reality. But it would so favour the Liberals right now that it would be dangerous politics and might result in underrepresentation of regional views. Proportional representation comes from Europe – a completely different world divided more by ideology and class than Canada. Nor is Europe an example of a politics that is working well. Any version proportional representation can only increase the role of third parties and make mutual accommodation more difficult. With the partial exception of First Nations, Canada's mutual accommodation challenges are primarily regional. Canada works best when its choices come out of its own distinctive particularities – not an abstract idea.

An amazing political system

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The Canadian political system meets the most fundamental of all tests – it works in real life and has done so over long stretches of time and through many challenges. It is dynamic, resilient, flexible and responsive. Things get done. Laurier got it right for Canada in 1887 when he said his guiding political principle would be to pursue public purpose through compromise – to move from aspirational to practical politics. The difference with the U.S. political system and culture could not be more fundamental. In Canada, it is compromise to achieve public purpose. In America, it is no compromise, which makes achieving public purpose harder

Canada's first-past-the-post, community-rooted, regionally driven, compromise-based electoral system has delivered. Regional differences are always a challenge, but not as difficult as differences of class, ideology, language, religion, ethnicity, identity and culture elsewhere. Almost every decade has seen Canada get closer to Laurier's vision and to broaden beyond it to pluralism and inclusiveness – that is, mutual accommodation.

Fooling around with how we got where we are would be bad policy and politics. Canada works because there is space between communities and regions. It is held together by two official languages and shared territory; values, including the Charter of Rights (with another Canadian mutual accommodation in the "notwithstanding" clause opt-out); and our do-what-it-takes mutual-accommodation ways.

How Reform/Alliance and the Parti Québecois helped

Canada's political challenges from the beginning have come from its difficult and vast geography and its complicated history. Historically, Canada has been divided between the two founding colonial groups, French and English, each with their own language, religion, and law, and with First Nations, now on the path to reconciliation. It has shared the continent with its powerful and wealthy neighbour, the United States.

Europe and its battles, in contrast, originated with nationalist, class, ideological, and economic differences. These also exist in Canada, but not with the same intensity as in Europe. Canada has always needed a practical "what works" approach. Regional third parties have played a big role in helping Canada make that happen. They have lost ground or disappeared when less needed.

In the 1980s and early 90s, the great centrifugal forces of Quebec separatism and Western Canada alienation were underrepresented in Canada's Parliament. Two third parties emerged to fill the gap – the Reform (later Alliance) Party and the Bloc Québécois. Each made it once to official Opposition status. One of former prime minister Stephen Harper's greatest achievements was to take the regional Alliance Party and make it into a national party. His greatest successes are that in 2006, Western Canada wanted in, and Quebec was not sure about staying. By 2015, Western Canada was in, and Quebec is staying. Also, under Mr. Harper, immigration and various forms of social-conservative divisiveness prevalent in other countries were shut down. It is a system that has brought prosperity and social peace to more and more people. Canada's political system constrains excesses from its leaders and voters. The American system makes them worse. Mr. Harper and Mr. Trump each understand their own countries on this matter.

Canada's system delivers

The recent Orlando massacre is another reason to be grateful for our political system. Sometimes quickly, sometimes more slowly, it mostly delivers what the public wants. A majority of Americans want assault weapons banned; 85 per cent want stronger background checks. But their system cannot deliver. In Canada, when a government gets a policy wrong – the National Energy Program, for example, or long-term census – a change of government allows for swift remedying. Timing and patience are important for big changes.

Mackenzie King called the CCF "Liberals in a hurry." Most of the broadly acceptable changes the CCF/NDP wanted have, over time, been enacted to the extent a majority of Canadians supported them. The CCF/NDP have seen a lot of their agenda enacted, though for good reasons they have never achieved power federally (too class- and ideology-oriented to make the needed regional accommodations). Justin Trudeau referred to Conservatives as our neighbours – not our enemies. Hillary Clinton called Trump voters the "deplorables."

Our two most ideologically-driven and uncompromising prime ministers of the last century, Pierre Trudeau and Stephen Harper, were constrained by mutual accommodation – Mr. Trudeau more overtly than Mr. Harper. Mr. Trump and the Tea Party were spurred on by division. Mr. Trudeau was forced by Canada's system to abandon unilateral constitutional patriation and accept the "notwithstanding clause" override to his Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This made a Quebec language bill possible, and helped keep Quebec in Canada. It also came from the intervention of Western premiers, who would not accept the courts as the final word in every situation. Mr. Harper's regionally-based Conservative politics failed him in the end, but enabled him to unite the right side of the Canadian electorate. He left office with a strong party that can be a serious contender for government once it better understands today's world and Canada's economy and how best to fit in.

A system that gets what is needed

Most Canadians increasingly like the strengths and pleasures of their inclusiveness. Too few grasp its political foundations. Strong political goals and ideas are essential, but they need consensus. The path is compromise through creativity and patience. Canada has done better than other countries in getting both. Canada's electoral system has made it possible to govern what would otherwise be a hard-to-govern country. Over time it has delivered what most Canadians want and the country needs – pretty damn good when you look at the United States, the U.K. and Europe in 2017.

William A. Macdonald is a Toronto writer who, to spark discussion of the nation's future, has created, with associate William R.K. Innes, The Canadian Narrative Project at www.canadiandifference.ca.

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