27 October 2007

Subverting reform?

The CBC's Don Newman has an interesting take on Stephen Harper's likely ambivalence over the fixed election dates that were part of his package of constitutional reforms: Hard to Get a Date. Prior to adopting this reform, a government could easily time an election by requesting dissolution of Parliament at virtually any moment it deemed favourable to its own electoral fortunes. I myself have favoured fixed election dates because it promised to remove one more of the vast powers of the prime minister.

However, as Newman points out, a clever PM in a minority government may find a way around this. If the principal opposition party is in disarray, as are the Liberals at the moment, and if the opinion polls show the Conservatives in majority territory, the temptation will be great for Harper to engineer the defeat of his own government, as Trudeau did in 1974, in the hopes that he might receive a majority in the ensuing election. That may be what he's doing by proposing legislation he knows will be unpalatable to the opposition. Of course, this could all backfire on Harper if the public perceives him to be subverting his own reform for partisan purposes.

In a multiparty democracy, where coalition rather than minority governments are the norm, a prime minister would not be able to do this on his own, because he would have his coalition partners to answer to. Moreover, if he were leading a coalition government commanding the majority of seats in the lower chamber, the felt need to engage in this tactic would be unlikely to present itself.

This raises once again the issue of electoral reform. Ontario voters just defeated the mixed-member-proportional system (MMP), seemingly indicating that they are satisfied to be ruled by a government most of them opposed. As French political scientist Maurice Duverger demonstrated more than half a century ago, there is a causal connection between electoral and party systems. Proportional representation (PR) tends to produce multiple parties none of which by itself is likely to command a majority of seats in parliament. This forces them to co-operate in coalition governments, as they do in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, which adopted MMP a decade and a half ago, Thérèse Arseneau, a Canadian expat living amongst the Kiwis, defends the new system against its detractors: MMP still the better option.

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