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Letter: Tackling the cynicism in politics

As the convoy occupation of Ottawa, and other border blockades, finally ended in the past few days, Anton van Walraven asks whether different approaches to politics - both among citizens, politicians, and the voting booth itself - could have prevented the damaging events
Election sign on Bowen 1

To make space for new things to come, over the last few weeks I have been archiving some campaigns I have been involved in since 2015. Two of them were on proportional representation.

What was that again, proportional representation?

It is a type of election systems, in which the number of seats a party wins is proportional to the part of the vote they receive: if a party gets 35 per cent of the vote it gets 35 per cent of the seats; when it gets 20 per cent of the vote, it gets 20 per cent of the seats, etc. There are different forms with or without district representatives, with or without minimum thresholds.

You might recall, that during the 2015 federal election campaign, federal Liberal party leader, then candidate MP Justin Trudeau committed hundreds of times to make the “2015 election the last election using First Past the Post“.

In British Columbia, both BC NDP and BC Greens campaigned in the 2017 provincial election to replace the First Past the Post election system with some form of proportional representation election system.

We know what happened.

The federal Liberals won by a landslide in 2015, instituted a commission on Electoral Reform, but Prime Minister Trudeau pulled the plug on the process without a free-vote in parliament, suggesting it was “ decision to make.” Right there we lost a chance to strengthen our federal democracy.

Here in B.C., the BC NDP government - as agreed in a Confidence and Supply agreement with the BC Greens - organized a referendum, but decided on a Yes and a No side receiving provincial sponsorships to battle it out. The referendum was a train wreck in slow motion. The government had made it impossible for the Yes side to defend its case when it became known that some of the proposed types of proportional representation on the ballot had never been used anywhere, and that, if a Yes vote did prevail, a commission would be designing the final system AFTER the referendum.

Instead of doing it properly, and have a citizens assembly determine the right election system and design the ballot question, to be followed by a proper public information campaign, the BC NDP opted for a very divisive campaign in which the No side crossed the line of what is acceptable more than once. The No Proportional Representation campaign claimed that proportional representation would empower the far-right. It even published the infamous “boots in the streets” video which was widely condemned.

But it worked. It played on people’s fears - and with the mentioned referendum shortcomings - gave voters the option to vote for the devil they know, and go back to sleep. Again we lost a change to strengthen our provincial democracy.

In both cases, it was political cynicism what made the two attempts fail. The party interest was seen as more important than that of the province, or country.

BREAKING - January 2022 - a “trucker” convoy that started in B.C. is making its way to Ottawa to occupy Centretown.

Blocking of border crossings at Coutts, AB, Windsor, and Surrey, BC soon followed.

We were rudely awakened from our pandemic nightmares, when Hakenkreuz, Confederate and Trump flags could be seen close to Parliament Hill. National monuments were desecrated by the “protesters”. Ottawa citizens taken hostage in their neighbourhood exposed to 24/7 train horn blasting, total lawlessness and a police force unwilling to enforce.

Reading that the “freedom” convoy organizers are known far right leaders, donations have been flowing in from the U.S., FOX News is propagandizing the convoy, far-right U.S. politicians cry wolf when the GoFundMe account for the insurgents was shut down, I couldn’t help thinking about the false claims the No side in the B.C. referendum had made about proportional representation empowering the far-right.

Voting against such a nasty election system, we thought that democracy would be fine by itself, that we could rely on an antiquated First Past the Post election system even though there is so much wrong with it; that we don’t have to modernize and strengthen our democracy, that it doesn’t need our attention and care, and the far-right was just a bad dream. Those things only happen in Europe or the U.S.

It is clear to many now that the Far-right doesn’t need an election system to grow, socio-economic circumstances do. Not having a voice, feeling abandoned by labour parties who opted to embrace the market economy in the 1990s, feeling uncertain by societal changes, thinking immigrants are taking their jobs, seeing no future for their children, will drive many folks into the hands of far-right populist leaders, who themselves loved the cover of silence that First Past the Post had given them to recruit, and try to infiltrate our police forces, and military.

But for a couple of years now, in Canada they are emboldened by what has been happening to the south.

Don’t make the mistake to think we can fully eradicate this: there will always a fringe with far-right views, but it is our responsibility to make sure that the people who don’t have such views are always in a vast majority.

How do we do that?

What we have seen since 2018, is that the far-right has not taken power in Europe as the No-side in the B.C. referendum suggested. What was presented as a weakness of proportional representation is its strength, it does allow - as it already did in 2018 and far earlier - for far-right parties to win seats in parliaments, but that comes with consequences. These parties are then out in the open, no cover of silence, and exposed to the scrutiny of the public, media and other political parties. And we can learn without agreeing to the party intents, why some people support or join these kind of groups. Without knowing why, you can never address the circumstances why people do.

In that process, it is crucial to understand that although there are many commonalities as mentioned above, not all reasons for far-right support in one country apply to other countries. In Canada for instance, deep rooted discrimination, not only by the far-right towards - but not limited to - Indigenous People is a major issue: It is the legacy of past and present day colonialism with colonial institutions and legislation still in place.

So we must call on politicians to stop the cynicism. Don’t use election promises to get votes, and then dismiss the promises. Its always unacceptable, but especially so when it concerns foundational matters like Decolonization, Truth and Reconciliation, systemic racism of all kinds, affordable housing, addressing the rising housing costs, livable income, climate change, etc. Not addressing these issues erodes the trust in democracy.

So again, stop the cynicism: it’s time to strengthen democracy and address the issues that need to be addressed.