Sunday, January 29, 2006

The body unpolitic

The Globe and Mail, January 27, 2006

RICK SALUTIN

From my leftish viewpoint, I'd say this new Parliament presents a great opportunity --and I don't t just mean the opportunity to avoid disaster.

When Paul Martin began whanging that guitar on Sunday night before the election, I couldn't imagine anyone voting for him or his party next day. He had the manic look in his eye of Richard Reed, the shoe bomber: 'Look, I'm blowing myself up, and everyone around me, too.' It isn't over till the jittery guy strums, and this was over. Yet voters saw past it and other distractions. They delivered what seemed like a unified message from a single mind: You- go sit in the corner. You-you're in charge, but only by default. The rest of you - act nice.

People keep talking about the eerily co-ordinated quality of the result, as if voters found away to act as appendages of the same body. Hmm, the body politic. Environics pollster Michael Adams sort of takes credit for it on behalf of his profession, saying pollsters provided ongoing feedback by which people could adjust their votes. Polls as a self-non-fulfilling prophecy. I'm dubious, but it's charming how everyone finds a way to make themselves the hero of the movie.

And in democratic terms, it wasn't nearly as bad as most elections. The Conservatives, with 36 per cent of the votes, got "only" 40 per cent of seats. The Liberals, with 30 per cent of votes, got 33 per cent of seats. The NDP, with 17 per cent of the vote, got 9 per cent of seats (better than last time, when they got 6 per cent of seats for 16 per cent of votes). And the Bloc Québécois, happily, got 16 per cent of seats for just 10 percent of votes. The Greens, with 4.5 per cent of the vote, got, um, well, too bad.

But it could have been worse. If the Tories gleaned just 2 per cent, more of the vote, reaching 38 per cent, they might have won the "solid majority" of seats with which Chrétien Liberals were rewarded in 1997. Have you noticed how majority has been defined down to 38 per cent from the fusty old mark of 50-per-cent-plus-one? When did that happen? These kinds of stats have been available for the entire history of our estimable, British-based electoral system, described by Churchill and innumerable others quoting him, as "the worst form of government except all those other forms. . ." Yet, they were rarely cited in election reporting in the past, as if it was unseemly, like mentioning child poverty too loudly or spitting in the punchbowl. Now, at least it's acceptable.

But hopeful? Opportunities? I'm saying this Parliament has more potential for creative, democratic compromise than all those sclerotic bodies that had a majority elected by a minority that then got to do all the damage it wanted, unimpeded, for four or five years. Normally you don't even talk about the potential of a Parliament. Everyone focuses on the government. That changes when there is a fractured, minority situation.

Take democratic reform itself. The Harper conservatives, i.e. the old Reform Party, put democratic change on the national agenda long before other parties. But they were not keen on proportional representation (PR), where the number of reps actually jibes with votes cast. That's because they were from the West, which "wanted in." PR might have meant even less power, in terms of members elected, than they had. So they demanded Senate reform instead, to give more power to less-populous provinces like Alberta. But now they're morphing into a national party, and PR may seem less of a threat. (I grant a wishful quality is seeping in here.) Now, what if other parties take the lead on PR? Could Stephen Harper and his government buy in? Especially if they proposed and got in return, Senate reform to solidify the role of the regions and provinces?

Or take a national child-care program, in my view the biggest loss in the Liberal downfall. What if the losing parties, who all favour it, impose it? They have the votes to do so. But rather than let his government fall on the matter, what if Mr. Harper agreed to it, on condition that his own child-care subsidy, or tax benefit, be enacted, too - the one (beer and popcorn) meant to help people who want to keep their young kids at home?



I agree that this Parliament is rife with possibility. Remember, this is not the outcome we expected, lo, those many weeks ago when the election was called.

Where are the deals to be made? Since the situation is unimaginable, we may as well think the unthinkable.

The opposition has the power to outvote the government, or even to take it over. But to do it, they must cooperate. Darn.

Only the Liberals hold the balance of power with the government. But the NDP and the Bloc Québécois may be better off than they seem.

True, the NDP and the Liberals together don't make it.

The Liberals and the Bloc, together with the Independent, hold a bare majority of seats, but that's a hard deal to make and harder to keep together.

The Bloc and the NDP are a much better match. They are both Social Democratic parties, and they agree on most things, including daycare and healthcare.

The NDP and the Bloc together could deal with either the Liberals or Harper. They might even be able to play them off against each other.

Duceppe is well respected in English Canada. He is an old hand, and always performs well in the leaders' debates. Although resolute in promoting his party's line, he seems neither agressive nor unreasonable.

The problem, of course is that the Bloc have this foible - they want to take apart the country. That makes them coalition poison, and they themselves have never been interested in coalition. Greasing the wheels of confederation is not what they are there for.

At least that's what they claim. Their bottom line is they "will do what's in the best interests of Quebeckers." That's as admirable as it is vague.

We would have to agree to disagree about all that for a while, so no change on the unity front.

Looking ahead, the Bloc may decide it's a good time to deal, and may want to hedge their bets. When your polls are trending down, proportional representation starts to look mighty fine.

The game's afoot.

The prize is democracy.

Wayne

P.S. We can love the Senate because it is harmless, like the Queen. A slightly elected Senate could start taking itself way too seriously and become a democratic nightmare.

Changing the Senate means changing the Constitution, or you're cheating. If Harper is going to open up that bag of bees, it will have to be done right, with a complete restructuring and re-imagining of the Upper House - by the people of Canada.

A proportionally elected Senate would be lovely, but no substitute for a fair voting system in the House of Commons. That's where the government is.

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