There is an old saying that voters get the government they deserve; but it’s not true. Try as we might, the majority of voters usually get some other government, a righteous group of partisans who, on the basis of support from an activist minority, insist they are governing with “a mandate from the people.”
The current British Columbia government is an obvious example. Here, BCNDP leader John Horgan captured a smaller portion of the popular vote (40.28%) than his BC Liberal rivals (40.36%), and he won fewer seats (41 to 43 on election day). Yet he sits, now, in the Office of the Premier making transformative decisions in governance and policy. But Horgan has more claim than most to the big desk. He assumed the premiership only after winning support from Andrew Weaver, leader of the BC Greens, that won an additional 16.84 per cent of the popular vote. Horgan can legitimately claim a majority mandate. That’s unusual, in B.C. and in Canada.
Since the renowned W.A.C. Bennett forged a Social Credit coalition in 1952, only one British Columbia leader claimed the premiership with majority support: Gordon Campbell, who captured 57.62 per cent of the vote in 2001, following the implosion of the 1990s BCNDP. That’s it. In 66 years and 19 elections, 17 of which gave the winning party a commanding majority in the Legislature, every other government had more votes against it than for it.
The federal case is similar. Just twice since 1953 have winning parties captured electoral majorities: in 1958, John Diefenbaker won a 53.66-per-cent majority against the withered and unpopular Liberals of the just-departed leader Louis St. Laurent; and in 1984, Brian Mulroney won a bare 50-per cent majority against the withered and unpopular Liberals of just-departed leader Pierre Trudeau. Every other prime minister ruled regardless that most people had voted for someone else. The famously “popular” Liberal Jean Chretien, for example, never did better than 41.24 per cent support (1993). And Conservative Stephen Harper, who worked tirelessly to change not just policy but Canada’s very perception of its political history, topped out at 39.62 per cent (2011).
No surprise, then, that voters are disillusioned. Turnout in federal elections, near 80 per cent in the 1950s, declined inexorably, dropping below 60 per cent in 2008 before rebounding to a still-disappointing 68.3 per cent in 2015. In B.C., turnout was below 60 per cent in five of the last six elections. It seems many people, whose choice has been ignored so consistently, have just quit trying.
We’ve seen other bleak effects from first-past-the-post distortion: our political discourse has grown more belligerent as campaigners work to fire up their base rather than moderating policies to attract majority support. And then there are the pendulum swings. New governments apply themselves first to undoing the policies and achievements of their predecessors. In Legislatures and Parliament, government ministers disdain actual debate in favour of the smart-mouthed mocking of the opposition – further stoking electoral cynicism.
Imagine an alternative in which every premier or prime minister had to win or assemble an actual majority before claiming power. Imagine governments that had to be responsive, not just in the six or nine months leading up to an election, but during their whole tenure.
The current B.C. scenario offers hope on two fronts. First, minority status has already forced the BCNDP to moderate its positions. Certainly, it has implemented some pendulous changes – cancelling the Massey bridge and opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline – but Premier Horgan is clearly stepping with care, working to maintain the support of BC Green leader Weaver while not alienating moderate voters he hopes might support him in an election that could come at any time. It looks like democracy in action – not episodically, but all the time.
The second hope arises from the coming referendum on proportional representation – a fairer system in which this kind of direct voter impact and political accountability would be the rule, not the exception.
Many in the major political parties dismiss electoral reform. They have thrived with bouts of power delivered by minority supporters; why would they choose accountability instead?
The answer, as beleaguered voters might attest, is simple. It is the right thing to do – and having watched the alternative, it seems increasingly clear that the future of democracy depends upon it.
James Hoggan is a public relations expert, author and former chair of the David Suzuki Foundation. Richard Littlemore is a writer and policy analyst. The two are long-time collaborators, including on the award-winning DeSmogBlog.com and the book Climate Cover-up.