Lately, I’ve had a strong urge to run away. Just pack a bag and leave. But, you know what they say – no matter where you go, there you are. I hate cliches, but it seems apt. Politically, many Canadians seem to feel the same: angry, frustrated, and having a strong desire for meaningful change. These feelings became evident on the morning after the election as we awoke to a more fractured political landscape. There is a sense of being stuck in the mud, spinning our political wheels. Although it would be nice to pack a bag and wake up in a better Canada, it won’t make a difference unless we deal with our shit. As far as our politics are concerned, that means addressing two issues that lay at the centre of our malaise: our system, and our discourse.
With regards to our system, for those who read my writing regularly I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but here goes: ELECTORAL REFORM!!! In the wake of the federal election results, any doubt about the importance of overhauling Canada’s First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system should be entirely obliterated. Never mind affordability, climate change or whatever other policy interests we may have, without electoral reform, we may never be able to take meaningful action on any of them.
Fair Vote Canada is an organization that advocates for a regional proportional representation (PR) model to be adopted in Canada. This is also the model that was recommended by 88% of the expert witnesses brought before the House of Commons Committee on the issue before the Liberals back-pedalled in 2017. If we had had PR, the seat count would have looked like this: 116 Liberals, 117 Conservatives, 57 NDP, 22 Greens, and 26 Bloc. Instead, we ended up with this: 157, 121, 24, 3, and 32, respectively. Despite the Conservatives winning 34% of the popular vote, they only gained 36% of the seats. While the Liberals, who only took 33% of the vote, walked away with 46% of the seats.
Some reading this may think the mismatch between the popular vote and the seat count is a good thing. In fact, when I pointed out the skewed results, a friend of mine responded with, ‘hey, we kept the Conservatives out, that’s all that matters’. Actually, no. That’s not ALL that matters. As much as I disagree with Scheer and the Conservatives, I recognize the fact that many Canadians now feel that their voices will go unheard in Ottawa – and that’s a big problem.
If you’re a supporter of the NDP or Greens, you should be even more upset. The Bloc Quebecois, while only representing the interests of Quebec, got 7.7% of the popular vote but 9% of the seats in the House. Meanwhile, the NDP with 15.9% only scored 7% of the seats up for grabs. The Greens are a similar story – gaining 6.5% of the popular vote, but 1% of the seats. So yes, the Conservatives were kept out, but so too was a stronger progressive voice. We’ve effectively cut off our nose to spite our face. This representational imbalance is not only limiting the ability of progressives in getting to Ottawa, it’s contributing to the growing polarization of our political discourse.
In his book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce gets into the ‘groupthink’ that torpedoed the 2016 Clinton campaign in the U.S. Essentially, Clinton’s team alienated a huge demographic of voters by dismissing them outright as racists. In doing so, they created a space for Donald Trump to pour gas on the populist fire. And sweet Baby Jesus, did he ever! All meaningful discussion was drowned out by crowds chanting, ‘lock her up!’ In 2016, and here in Canada in the last few weeks, politics hasn’t been about policy, but personality.
The 2019 federal campaign was one of the few I can recall that focused more on identity politics than on foreign policy. Considering that foreign policy is pretty much the raison d’être for the federal government to even exist, the fact it was discussed so little is a problem – and that’s putting it mildly. Let me be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that issues around equality, justice and undoing systemic racism are not important. These issues are very important. But, as important as these issues are, pursuing them at the cost of serious foreign policy debate is at best, a myopic and self-indulgent act in a global order that is highly volatile and downright dangerous at the moment.
If you’re worried about racism, gender inequality or affordable housing, the issue isn’t whether or not everyone in Canada is using the appropriate pronouns – it’s making sure everyone has proper representation. In short, electoral reform. The only visible minority federal leader, Jagmeet Singh, won more votes than the Bloc, and still ended up with only 24 seats to the Bloc’s 32. That’s right, the dude who supports a religious symbols ban won more seats with less votes than the dude with the turban. Get pissed about that! Secure representation, and the route to equality will be there.
In The Left’s Case Against Open Borders, Irish political scientist, Anegla Nagle, lays out how the left actually ended up making the case for corporate America’s interests instead of their own. In her essay, Nagle states, ‘acting on the correct moral impulse to defend the human dignity of migrants, the Left has ended up pulling the front line too far back, effectively defending the exploitative system of migration itself’. In other words, well intentioned movements can end up becoming, ‘useful idiots’ for the status quo.
Let’s put this in the context of the 2019 election. Trudeau is pretty good at talking about feminism and intersectionality. Electoral reform – not so much. Both Trudeau, and Singh, are much better positioned to discuss inclusivity, then they are to talk about China. Andrew Scheer’s base isn’t so much interested in gender politics, and so, conservative commentators can use Scheer’s own personal feelings on things like LGBTQ rights as fuel in a Trump like ‘witch hunt’ narrative. In pushing an identity driven discourse, we’re just helping the politicians avoid much tougher conversations.
Take a look at the issue all leaders latched on to as, ‘most important’ to voters: affordability. Don’t think this is identity related? Many Canadians identify as being middle class, despite the fact that deep down we know such an identity is more illusion than reality. If the focus is on making life more affordable, then politicians don’t have to do the hard stuff, like lowering/eliminating tuition across the board, or forcing higher standards on employers to extend benefits to contract workers. Those are hard discussions. Instead, the party leaders shaped a narrative around a group most Canadians like to identify with – the middle class.
On election night, FPTP reinforced long standing regional divides – divides that have become much more dangerous in our identity driven era. Large numbers of individuals are struggling to separate themselves from the groups they identify with. As a result, we are having a hard time differentiating from policies that will benefit our society, and policies (and politics) that will hurt our individual good, and thus, in time, our collective good. The identity discourse has shifted our focus from individual rights to group rights, and, as Ed Luce points out – it’s good to remember that democracy is defined by individual rights, fascism by group rights.
The identity-driven discourse is reflected in the electoral map. FPTP has contributed to zero, none, nada, zip Liberal MPs from Alberta or Saskatchewan. In the September 25th, 2019 issue of The Atlantic, James Hamblin writes about ‘identity fusion’, and how people use group identity to create a consistent narrative of self. He uses climate change as an example, stating that the issue, ‘might not actually be about climate change, and instead about people protecting their basic sense of order and consistency’. Sound familiar? In the hours following the election of a Liberal minority, many of us were introduced to ‘Wexit’ – the concept of the West leaving confederation.
In Quebec, the issue wasn’t climate change, but immigration. Again, FPTP and identity politics combined forces and sent the Bloc Quebecois back to Ottawa with renewed strength. The Bloc rode a provincial reaction to refugees all the way to the House of Commons. I don’t agree with the religious symbols ban, but I can wrap my head around where in the francophone psyche it’s coming from. That said, we were all too busy talking about how bad blackface is, instead of nailing federal politicians to commit to fighting the ban. Jagmeet Singh used Justin Trudeau’s racism to help generate the ‘Singh surge’, but didn’t actually go after racism in Quebec. In the end, he sacrificed principal in favour of shrewd political calculus and didn’t even get the seats for his effort.
In 2016, Clinton made the mistake of lecturing a vast demographic of white people about privilege. This demographic of white folk also happened to be facing a very real, and very uncertain economic future. People who were struggling to make ends meet suddenly found themselves on the outside. Despite their own hardships, the identity rhetoric made them feel unwelcome – and so, many voted Trump.
In Canada, Albertans are facing a massive provincial deficit, and well above average unemployment numbers. Meanwhile, most Canadians are talking about climate change, the evils of oil and demonizing anyone who even mentions the word pipeline. In Quebec, the protection of language and the safeguarding of francophone culture has always been an issue, but Quebecers still have a strong history of social progress, even more so than the rest of Canada. So, despite Bill 21 it wouldn’t be fair to call the province racist. There must be more going on than the identity driven discourse is allowing for. In both the West and in Quebec, much like Clinton in 2016, we haven’t laid out a clear alternative narrative that creates space for those whose lives will be most impacted.
At the time of writing, the impact of the election hasn’t resonated in serious policy discussion. Trudeau knows there is a problem, but so far, is reluctant to give up the platitudes or the partisanship. The morning after the vote, it became clear the Liberals have a big problem with Alberta and Saskatchewan. Voters completely shut them out. There’s talk of bringing in a ringer from the Senate, or appointing a well-known Westerner to cabinet in order to check the representation box. While there is precedent for such moves, I agree with Andrew Coyne that it seems disingenuous to fein representation when really, there is none.
If the Prime Minister was serious about representation, he’d be talking about electoral reform, not trying to parachute someone with a Calgary postal code into cabinet. That’s not happening. In his first press conference following the vote, Trudeau stood at the podium and said he got the message. In the next breath, he firmly restated that he would not be considering any kind of formal coalition with any party. His stance begs the question: what message did he think Canadians were sending?
Using identity politics to drive the political discourse is a recipe for further polarization. It’s a tactic political leaders, who are either unwilling or unable to reform, have often used to in order to colonize the space meant for serious contemplation of issues. In short, get people angry enough, and you won’t hear the rational voices for all the shouting. If you want to see where identity driven discourse gets you, look no further than Trump’s America, or Brexit Britain. Not working so well, is it? To make matters worse, our electoral system will only compound the division, fracturing the country into more concentrated pockets of regional discontent. That, or we’ll begin to swing to extremes of both left and right.
We can be angry with Albertan’s for riding the wave of oil with no thought to the future, but they did, and yelling at them after the fact isn’t going to change it. It will only demonize those who we desperately need on-side in the battle against climate change. Same with appointing a Westerner to the cabinet in order to tick the representation box. You can do it, but until you enact electoral reform, the democratic deficit the system fosters isn’t going anywhere.
The same applies for Quebec’s Bill 21. We can’t dismiss every Quebecer a racist, especially as Quebec has a history of leading the way on social policy in this country. If the conversation focused more on systemic investment, and less on hijabs, that could go a long way to calming the frustration of francophones in the province, and potentially quell the support for the Bloc. We don’t have to close our borders to those in search of a better life, but we can’t eliminate the border either. We have to keep the welcome mat out, while respecting those who already live in the house. What’s needed will be serious investments in immigration and refugee programs, as well as ensuring the territorial integrity of Canada. That’s a harder conversation than just dismissing Quebecers as racist.
Issues around any group identifier have always invoked a visceral response. Despite this, we need to refocus on policy, not personality. For this to happen, we need to take a page from Pierre Elliot’s book, and place reason before passion. After all, that kind of thinking got us our Charter rights in the first place.
We need to force our politicians out of their self-serving identity driven discourse by not playing into it. Federal politicians need to get back to issues of realpolitik. Our top priority should be electoral reform – it’s a solid solution to the issue of ensuring the adequate representation necessary for the protection of the civil and personal rights we hold dear. Canadians did send a message on election night: we want more collaborative policy solutions that reflect the best interests of all Canadians. If the Prime Minister’s words are anything to go by, it looks like we could be in for more partisan nonsense instead.