It’s now pretty clear that this federal government has been trying to make some huge changes to institutions at the very foundation of this country — the Supreme Court, the Senate and, not least of all, the laws over how people are chosen to sit in the Commons.
We need more than just a spirited debate among elites about those proposals. We need a national referendum — an election, in other words. Not in 2015, but right now.
It may sound like a radical idea, but stand back and look at what’s been happening in a country that often lectures other nations and Quebec separatists about the need to obtain democratic consent for big change.
The Supreme Court, on its own power, stood in the way last week of the Conservative government’s proposed changes to Quebec’s representation on the court, for which we should be grateful. And yet the government is still making vague noises about trying to get its way nonetheless.
The Senate, also under siege, isn’t strong enough to defend itself from changes being contemplated and the Commons has now become a vehicle for ramming through whatever the government chooses, opposition be damned.
That’s no way to change the institutions of government. We’re dealing with matters on which the public, not the politicians, lawyers or even the judges, are owed the final word.
Note what we keep telling Quebec — for sweeping change, you need the consent of the governed, amounting to at least 50 per cent plus one of the population, and a clear question.
Needless to point out, the Conservatives did not win a 50-plus-one mandate in the 2011 election. Nor did they campaign on changing the nature of the Supreme Court, the Senate or the election laws.
But if Prime Minister Stephen Harper has become convinced since the last election that these changes are necessary, why not take them to the people? Not with advertising or slogans, but an actual, democratic election? Why not argue the case to the electorate?
We did it for free trade with the United States in the 1980s, because we did believe we were dealing in a nation-changing policy back then.
Surely the same can be argued in the case of proposed alterations to some of the rocks on which governance is based in Canada: the courts, Parliament and so on.
It’s the Fair Elections Act that has really put this thought into my head, though, about the need for an election sooner rather than later. How do we put the democracy into democratic reform?
Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand , has been saying for several weeks now that this country is on the verge of changing its electoral laws in a very unusual way — unusual not just for this country, but compared to others in the world.
Normally, electoral reform is done with wide, multipartisan consent, simply because our democratic rights are so basic. (They are often why wars are fought, for instance.) But there’s been no wide consultation — much less consent — for what the Conservatives are planning.
Political-science professors, domestic and international , have joined the protest. Mayrand himself is out there on a limb. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, encouragingly, is taking the matter to the people.
But unlike the Supreme Court, which had the power to stop the changes, none of the election-law dissenters has an ability to defend the democratic institutions from undemocratic changes.
If it’s good enough for Quebec, it should be good enough for the whole of Canada. A truly “fair” electoral reform would have the consent of 50 per cent plus one of the population, based on clear questions posed to the electorate.
I know. We all got sick of back-to-back elections from 2006 through to 2011, and believe me, I’m in no great hurry to cover a campaign that almost certainly will be the nastiest we’ve seen in some time.
But voter fatigue isn’t a good enough reason to sit back and shrug as changes are made to our institutions by a government that was never asked — or asked — to fiddle with them. So, as the old saying goes: let the people decide.