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Electoral changes may be needed

We go to the polls Monday. So, what’s going to get you out? What issue will motivate you to help reverse the trend of falling voter turnout?

This hasn’t been an election about issues, as you may have noticed. Well, not about a host of big ideas, which have long been absent from electoral landscape. Instead, we’ve had a series of tweaks.

Most of the media coverage has been about the election itself: the polls, the politicking, the predictions.

With the campaign in its final week, the buzz was all about the surge of the NDP. Both the Conservatives and the Liberals reacted, as did the Bloc in Quebec. But there wasn’t much analysis as to why the swing; most of the attention was on the resultant tactics. It’s easy to see why: elections-as-sport make for colourful – and easy – coverage for the media, especially as it’s now conventional wisdom Canadians are tuning out.

Maybe, the pundits posit, the lack of charisma is to blame. Nobody’s rallying to the banner of the current leaders, though perhaps the NDP spike is due to Jack Layton being seen as sincere and honest, the kind of guy we could talk to over a beer. Michael Ignatieff, with his renowned intellect, seems a little foreboding, though he has managed to soften that image. Stephen Harper seems neither warm nor engaging, exuding an air of unfriendliness and dishonesty.

We have to go back to Pierre Trudeau for the kind of charisma that captured our attention. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the likes of the outpouring that greeted Barack Obama or Bill Clinton.

Brian Mulroney, the most reviled prime minister, was bombastic. Jean Chrétien had a personal appeal that translated into three majority governments, but he was not the magnetic type.

This time around, an assessment of the leaders runs to character, which does not bode well for Harper, who has shown Canadians he has none. If there is one emerging issue it’s the ABC (anything but Conservative) movement and another push for strategic voting, which has become even more pronounced in areas where the NDP is playing well with the electorate.

Jack Layton’s popularity has also given rise to more discussion of a unite-the-left movement, a merger of the Liberals and NDP akin to the Reform Party and Progressive Conservatives on the right. Vote splitting on the left will allow the Tories to slip up the middle, say proponents of a united front. That position is augmented by some who would prefer two-party politics as in the United States. But that’s certainly not a model we want to emulate.

Problems with American politics extend well beyond the two-party system, but the divisive nature and lack of real representation are real drawbacks.

Accused of Republican tendencies – the playbook is the same – Harper is attempting to institute changes that could push us down the road to both U.S.-style politics and the kind of financial manipulate rampant in their elections by pursuing an end to the per-vote subsidy given to political parties. Few of us like the idea of public money going to political parties – especially those we don’t like – but that funding model beats the alternative of undo corporate influence.

As pollster Nik Nanos suggests, the changes envisioned by Harper could prompt a two-party system, as smaller parties face a financial squeeze.

“If we took the proposal to its logical conclusion, this would probably lead to a two-party state, that would be the logical long-term conclusion,” he says in The Hill Times. “The current regime, whether you love it or hate it, sustains minority views with funding. The Green Party is probably a good example.”

We’d probably be much better off with proportional representation than with what goes on to the south.

Of course, the mere mention of that summons the coalition bogeyman Harper has been beating to death since the campaign began, though only the truly committed are drinking the kool-aid. Coalitions, formal or not, are a common feature in the Westminster system of government, as well as other models used around the globe.

By now, Canadians are familiar with minority governments. The current arrangement has done little given the prime minister, but past minorities have been responsible for some of those big ideas in short supply today, including universal healthcare.

Conventional wisdom holds that mainstream political parties won’t push for electoral reform because the current system serves them just fine. The Liberals, and occasionally the Conservatives, have formed majority governments while capturing less than 50 per cent of the popular vote – at times much less.

Critics argue a proportional system would fragment the House, leading the way to more minority governments. Neglecting the fact that we’ve now had three successive minorities under the existing system, the fragmentation is already underway due to the increase in the number of parties. Where the Reform and Progressive Conservatives formerly split the vote on the right, the Liberals, NDP and Greens all seem to be vying for a similar audience. The presence of the Bloc in Quebec muddies the water still more in Canada’s second-largest province.

Change is already here. The system should reflect changes in the best interest of voters, not politicians and their parties.

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