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Challenging the status quo in Ottawa and Victoria



Through the recent writing and insights of a couple of better-known columnists, reading the tea leaves of Canadian politics in the spring of 2004 has begun to make a little more sense. The status quo in both Ottawa and Victoria is being challenged, but the full impact won’t be seen for some time.

A week or so ago the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson pointed out that unlike any federal election in recent memory, the current campaign is not about the economy, or some aspect of the economy. In the last 25 years federal elections were all about wrestling the deficit under control, economic recovery, fighting inflation, free trade or jobs, jobs, jobs.

This time around the election is all about spending money, with each party leader promising to spend more than the other. And, unlike in previous elections, there have been few people asking whether we can afford it. The promises made on health care alone would have left voters incredulous in any other election.

But in the long run health care – or the armed forces or any other sacred cow that gets milked approximately every four years – may not be the most important funding issue in this election. No, the most important funding promise may be just $1.75. In fact it’s not just a promise, it’s guaranteed.

One dollar and seventy-five cents is how much each party will receive annually for each vote it garners in this election, assuming the party gets the support of at least 2 per cent of voters.

The most likely beneficiary of this is the Green Party, which will again be hard pressed to claim a seat in the Commons in this election. However, the Greens may receive more than 2 per cent of the vote, and so will be building a little nest egg leading up to the next election.

Since money is the fount of political ability, the $1.75 per vote may eventually be seen as a significant step in electoral reform – but only if people get out and vote. After all the votes for the Liberals, Alliance, Bloc, NDP and Progressive Conservatives were counted in the 2000 election "all other parties" received just 2.2 per cent of votes, for a total of 290,000 votes.

Still, if people go to the polls thinking that their vote will put money in the hands of a party they truly believe in – as opposed to the Canadian tradition of holding your nose and voting for the lesser of three or four evils – the races in many ridings will become a lot closer. This, of course, leads to questioning of our current first-past-the-post system of electing government representatives.

When the provincial Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform passed through Whistler recently the 25 people who turned out unanimously expressed dissatisfaction with the current system. Nearly everyone favoured some form of proportional representation, with most suggesting that proportional representation would allow them to vote for a candidate or party that represents their views. The current system, some people pointed out, sees much of the electorate voting for an anonymous backbencher who must follow the line of his or her party leader. The forum has heard similar comments across the province.

And yet, as Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer pointed out last week, former justice Thomas Berger’s recommendation to the City of Vancouver for municipal electoral reform was to go to a ward system – essentially a municipal version of federal and provincial elections. Voters elect officials who represent different parts of the city in a first-past-the-post system.

The strength of the ward system, Palmer and Berger pointed out, is regional representation. Voters may not agree with their elected representative, but that representative is responsible to all the people of a specific region.

Voters will have at least one, and perhaps two, opportunities to challenge the status quo. The final recommendation for electoral reform by the Citizens’ Assembly may become a referendum question on the ballot during the next provincial election, which is less than a year away.

And on June 28 voters across the country have an opportunity to help fund whatever party they feel best represents them.

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