The Sunday Magazine

Canadians may or may not elect the government they want

It's fair to say that there's an odour of cynicism in the autumn air with an election five weeks away. Author and electoral reform advocate Dave Meslin, political scientist Melanee Thomas and former Conservative senator and long-time political insider Hugh Segal join Michael Enright for a lively discussion about how well Canadian voters are served by our parliamentary democracy – and how well our parliamentary democracy is served by voters.
A woman enters Maple High School in Vaughan, Ont., to cast her vote in the Canadian federal election on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

The election campaign lasts just a few weeks, but political operatives have been plotting, planning and preparing for many months.

Canadians will choose from among many parties, but the reality is that no matter how they vote Justin Trudeau or Andrew Scheer will be prime minister. Canada has had either a liberal or conservative government since Confederation.

In almost every Western democracy in the world, if a single party takes complete control of a legislature against the will of a majority of voters, it's called a coup. And in Canada we call it an election.- Dave Meslin

Voters may want a leader who will safeguard the future of the planet and ease their anxieties about the economy. Young voters may be more politically engaged than ever. But the autumn air is carrying a distinct odour of cynicism about the entire electoral exercise.

Are we marking our ballots for a party, a policy or a leader? Why do so many people elect not to vote at all? And what will it all mean when we wake up on October 22nd, the day after the election?

Dave Meslin, a community activist and author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, believes the way we do politics is discouraging for many Canadians.

"If we had a system that actually delivered on some kind of proportional or semi-proportional allocation of seats, based on how Canadians actually vote, that would allow for more interesting policy ideas, which would wake everyone up," he said. "When you have two parties exchanging power back and forth for 150 years, let's be honest. They're both dinosaur parties."

Political veteran Hugh Segal believes it is "the ultimate act of civility in a society" to line up and vote.

Melanee Thomas (Paul Kent Photo)

"Sometimes [you're] voting for a party which you know can't form a government, but you believe in either the local candidate or what the party stands for," Segal said. "It's about a system which accommodates political parties understanding how to lose elections and fight another day. That's the intrinsic core of our civility as a society. And you don't have to look very far these days to see what happens when that civility is diminished." 

Melanee Thomas says this idea is essential to a democratic system. She is associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary and, this year, a Visiting Fellow at McGill University.

"Every democracy is predicated on the concept of loser's consent," she said. "What worries me most about going into our particular election now is this erosion of the idea that people are going to consent to be governed by somebody that they did not choose."

Thomas is alarmed about people who promote the rhetoric that our electoral process is illegitimate: "It is a [form of] disrespect for voters to say that just because they had a first choice – and that's how they marked X on a very simple ballot – means that they fundamentally rejected who actually won."

Meslin does not share that fear.

"What's disrespectful about our voting system is that 60 per cent can vote against a particular party, then that party cannot only win, but win a majority of the seats," he noted. "In almost every Western democracy in the world, if a single party takes complete control of a legislature against the will of a majority of voters, it's called a coup. And in Canada we call it an election."

Michael Enright with Dave Meslin and Hugh Segal. (Talin Vartanian/CBC)