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Max Fawcett’s pitch for the Liberals and NDP to merge, while superficially appealing to progressives, is a plan that may provide short-term gain for those parties, but will lock in long-term pain for all Canadians.

A Poilievre-led false majority government is no doubt a grim and frightening prospect for progressives, one which will bring the dire failings of our first-past-the-post system into stark relief. Hard-won gains, from Canada’s climate plan to the nascent pharmacare program, could be on the chopping block. The list of policy reversals may be long and the consequences brutal.

If the current projection holds, Fawcett is right about the reckoning―and soul-searching―that lies ahead for the Liberals and the NDP in 2025. A crushing majority government for the Conservatives could finally force a serious conversation within and between Liberals and the NDP about reforming Canadian democracy.

But before we rush headlong into entrenching a two-party system like the one that bedevils our neighbours to the south, it is worth asking a couple of important questions.

What is the problem we are trying to solve?

What reforms will serve the next generation of voters as governments grapple with the long-term problems ahead?

The conversation could easily start with what most of us don’t want.

The last few years have seen an alarming rise in partisan polarization, rage-farming, and voter alienation. Voter turnout continues to drop as Canadians opt out of an increasingly fractious political culture.

Prominent Canadians from across the political spectrum recently penned an open letter expressing grave concern that Canadians are losing their ability to listen and engage in genuine dialogue with those they disagree with.

As our ranking on the Economist’s annual Democracy Index continues its downward slide, analysts have repeatedly warned that Canada’s democratic problems are starting to mirror the growing dysfunction of winner-take-all politics in the United States.

It goes without saying that we don’t want to shift those trends into overdrive.

If we start with the objective of creating a more representative, inclusive and cooperative political system, any proposed “solution” that gives two big parties an even stronger grip on power must be seen as patently counterproductive.

Instead of fixing the problems that plague countries with winner-take-all voting systems (polarization, alienated voters, and jarring policy lurch), devolving to a two-party political system will amplify them.

There’s a lot at stake for all Canadians, and we are running out of time. We need to get the solution right the first time.

Wicked problems like the housing shortage, the failing healthcare system and climate change have been decades in the making. The short-sighted nature of winner-take-all politics guarantees that progress will remain elusive. 

Effective solutions require plans and commitment well beyond the life of any single government. Their implementation often does not produce the dramatic, immediate improvements for which politicians hope to be rewarded at the ballot box.

Even when one government makes a start, first-past-the-post means that key programs  are at risk of being torn up completely by the next. Politicians are incentivized to reduce complex problems to nothing more than partisan wedges with which to bludgeon their opponents.

To succeed in the long term, we need an electoral system that motivates parties to find common ground and work together to create policies that will  last.

If the Liberals and NDP truly want to avoid getting stuck in this same doom loop again and again, they should show the courage and conviction to act on the lesson they are offered every time they find themselves heading for electoral disaster: Canadians would be better served by legitimate improvements that will benefit not only progressives but all voters. There is an obvious solution―but it involves compromise. 

Decades of peer-reviewed research shows that countries with proportional representation have lower income inequality, higher economic growth, better health outcomes, more ambitious climate protection and more resilient democracies.

In other words, on things that profoundly impact the daily lives of ordinary citizens, governments elected through proportional representation deliver better outcomes and policies are created in an environment of less toxic partisanship.

While parties or leaders with “extreme” views are part of any democracy, proportional representation eliminates the risk that any leader with an “extreme” view will be handed all the power with 39% of the vote. 

Programs and policies negotiated under proportional, multi-party governments are generally much less likely to be reversed. While shifts in policies and priorities do occur when governments change, outright reversals are rare. 

A culture of collaboration, along with some degree of continuity in the parties forming government, provides a higher level of protection for social and environmental policies and programs.

For example, nine parties in Denmark―including conservatives―cooperated to pass ambitious climate legislation in 2020. Regardless of which parties form government in the future, Denmark has committed to its citizens, investors, and the world that it is serious about consistently tackling climate change.

We know proportional representation is achievable, because other countries have done it. Dialogue and compromise to reach a multi-party agreement is how most OECD countries achieved PR.

Unfortunately, since 2017, the Liberals haven’t been willing to come to the table.

Justin Trudeau has been obstinate, unrelenting and ultimately, decisive, in his personal opposition to any form or degree of proportionality. As he stated in 2017 when he broke the promise, “it was my choice to make”.

A Pierre Poilievre false majority combined with new leadership in the Liberal Party could finally place a multi-party agreement on electoral reform within reach.

If the 39 Liberal MPs who bucked the party line when they voted for a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral reform are any indication, it’s a conversation many Liberals are ready to have.

Well before the Liberal Party’s precipitous drop in the polls, the party’s grassroots membership voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform at their 2023 national convention. Their vote was in lockstep with the opinion of a strong majority of Canadians, across the political spectrum.

As Fawcett says, the failure of the Liberals and NDP to come to an agreement on electoral reform may be “one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of the last decade.” Let’s hope that the excruciating aftermath of the next election serves as a catalyst for them to finally do what they should have done years ago: work together to protect our democracy and ensure that Canadians get the governments they voted for.

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