Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Entering the fray

I find myself in a strange position relative to the upcoming Canadian election. The choice seems so starkly clear: progress or regress, acting boldly or procrastinating weakly. But in Canadian politics no choice is clear. There are always so many factors at play: four or five parties to choose from, four of which are arguably on the progressive side, either socially, economically, or both; past behaviour, which in the short term almost invariably plays against the reigning party; the numerous cultural divides—East and West and Centre, French and English, Rural and Urban; the not-so-creeping advance of "American-style" attack and smear politics; and principles, those poor mistreated things.

It almost makes one admire the simplicity of our neighbour's two-party republic, and it certainly highlights the failings of the first-past-the-post electoral system in the present day, in Canada at least. Let me say this: Canada has a de facto two-party system. It has always been this way, and it will likely remain this way until we demand some form of proportional representation. What I mean by that is that there are two strong national political parties in Canada, which generally trade turns governing the country. They do this not by winning the most votes, but by winning the most ridings, effectively preventing any other party from gaining a significant hold on power. They win the most ridings by either dividing the activists from the moderates, or by playing on our fears and dividing and conquering.

There are other parties; indeed there have been quite a number in Canada's great history, spanning the political spectrum. The current Conservative party was actually formed from a coalition of two previous "right-wing" parties. These alternative parties commonly win large percentages of the popular vote (the NDP won 17.5 percent in 2006...), which rarely amount to a similar number of actual seats in Parliament (...but only 9.4 percent of the seats).

One thing is: our existing system favours the major parties; only partly because they are more centrist in scope. Certainly, the greater part of Canada's population falls in the centre of the political spectrum, but clearly, given the voting results, many people look to other parties, for many possible reasons.

Another thing is: political partisanship in itself simplifies politics and encourages simplistic views and opinions, particularly at this media-drenched time. It encourages our representatives to insult us during elections by attacking, dividing and lying. Moreover, for some reason, our system discourages multi-party coalition governments, though to me, this seems like an ideal solution, considering our several progressive parties. Instead, the system demands strategic voting in order to encourage a majority win for one party. Often—and currently—in order to prevent an undesirable party from gaining a majority, voters have to choose between voting for their preferred candidate or voting for the party most likely to win. This is usually an evil choice, offering no satisfaction for the undecided, and the incumbent party can easily take advantage of the situation.

And another: the media distort the messages of all the parties to support the one they believe in. They show ads that are offensive and often highly dubious; they irresponsibly base so much of their election reporting on polls, knowing that in our system these cannot represent the final numbers; they collude to exclude dissenting voices from the political debate.

Such is the state of our confederation. But I'm not pessimistic about the outcome. I believe in the Canadian spirit and Canadian intelligence. We are better and smarter than the current level of debate happening in the country right now and I think we won't be cowed by scare tactics and insults. It seems clear that many or most of us have been inspired by the dignity Barack Obama has shown in the U.S. election campaign, and I'm sure we dream that we could have a candidate of similar stature and oratory skill. Canada has not seen such a person since Pierre Trudeau.

But no candidate is perfect, and certainly no political party is perfect. Certainly, they must earn our trust and act responsibly, but we also must think clearly and vote responsibly. In our case, unfortunately, this means examining what you want Canada to look like in the coming years, and how you think your vote might best achieve that end. It's "strategic", and I hate it, but it's where we are and who we are, and it's our duty.

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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.