A tinpot Parliament voted in by a tiny minority

One crude but effective remedy is to do as Australia has done: make voting mandatory

A tinpot Parliament voted in by a tiny minority

In retrospect, the wonder is not that two in five Canadians do not vote: the wonder is that three in five still do. Consider what happened in the recent election. Consider what happens in every election:

After dissolving Parliament at a time calculated to no other purpose but its own re-election, the government of the day, though it offers little in the way of a serious platform and differs hardly at all with its main opposition, is nevertheless able, by a combination of false promises, venomous attack ads, and fortuitous media blunders, to stampede a little over a third of the electorate into voting for it, which when processed through the vote splits and other tricks of the first-past-the-post electoral system, is magically transformed into a majority—or in the present example, a near-majority.

Thus empowered, the prime minister rules with something approaching dictatorial powers until such time as he desires to repeat the process, ideally shortly after the opposition has exhausted its energies and its funds choosing another leader. As for the other 306 members of Parliament, their usefulness ceases the day they are elected. From then on, their role is strictly to vote as instructed—to stand up and sit down when they are told.

As I say, it’s a wonder anybody votes at all. If this were one of those tinpot parliaments in an undemocratic country, it would be dismissed as “largely ceremonial.” But it is a tinpot Parliament, and with the latest appalling turnout figures, it’s touch and go whether we should even properly be described as a democracy. The official figure is 59.1 per cent, but that’s of registered voters—that is, of the names Elections Canada maintains on its permanent voters list. Throw in those who registered on election day, or those who never registered at all, and the reality is that barely half of the voting-age population cast their ballot.

So we have something of a crisis on our hands. It is not only a crisis of legitimacy—between plummeting turnout and the increasing fragmentation of the electorate, governments are routinely elected nowadays with the support of little more than two in 10 adult Canadians—but an existential crisis. With so few Canadians bothering to take part in national elections, it is debatable who the resulting Parliament is answerable to, or what it represents. The Canadian polity—the very notion of Canada as a single, self-governing people—is dissolving before our eyes.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? I want to be realistic here. We could ask that the parties behave less thuggishly, or that the media cover elections less asininely; we could suggest that elections ought to be a discussion with the voters, not a self-enclosed loop of partisan spin and media gotcha; but it’s not going to happen on its own. We have to change the structure of these things, and with it the incentives for the various players to behave in different ways.

The simplest reform we could make would be to stop treating televised debates as some kind of dangerous innovation, to be used sparingly and only after furious last-minute negotiations. Nearly 50 years after Nixon-Kennedy, it is time the debates—the one opportunity for the voters to have sustained, unmediated exposure to the party leaders and their positions—were acknowledged as the central feature of any modern campaign. Let future elections be constructed along a spine of regular debates, one a week at least, their terms spelled out in the election laws.

More debates would mean that each one could be more substantive and detailed, without the scattershot generality or prizefight hysteria that inevitably attends today’s one-offs. They would also use up more of the “oxygen” of a campaign, leaving less for the moronic advertisements and silly photo-ops that are the parties’ current vehicles of choice. They would give the media something to talk about, besides polls and gaffes.

That’s just a start. We might also abolish the current system of taxpayer funding of campaigns, for example, which subsidizes parties that have little real support among the public (or in the case of the Bloc, commitment to Canada). Parties that had to raise all of their funds from individual voters would be that much more attentive to their concerns—not just on election day, but every day in between.

A crude but effective remedy would be to do as the Australians have done, and make voting mandatory. It needn’t be enforced overly harshly; we might even frame it as a positive incentive for voting, a tax credit of some kind. And you could still spoil your ballot, or vote “none of the above,” or whatever means you wished to signal your displeasure. The one option that wouldn’t be available to you would be to sit on your duff.

But there’s no getting around it. If we really want to give people more incentive to vote, we have to make the vote itself worth something. That means reforming an electoral system that, for too many people, effectively wastes their vote. The 940,000 people who voted for the Green party without electing a single member are only the most egregious example. The hundreds of thousands of people who voted Liberal across the Prairies, or who voted Conservative in Toronto and Montreal, were also largely shut out. So, for that matter, is anyone in any riding who votes for anyone but the winning candidate. Usually that’s the majority: 50.7 per cent, in the latest exercise.

The fundamental promise of democracy is “one person, one vote”: everyone gets one vote, and every vote is equal. That is simply not the case in Canada today, and may explain why so many Canadians refuse to indulge in the charade. What looks like apathy may in fact be resistance.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.