Struggles in US and UK .. electoral reform in Canada .. and the hopeful island of blue in the red state of Texas

Jul 13th, 2016 | By | Category: In Brief

“Mourners hold candles aloft during a vigil outside city hall in Dallas, Texas Monday. Photograph: Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images.”

GANATSEKWYAGON, ON.  JULY 13, 2016. Rachel Maddow, back from her (unexplained?) absence last week, was showing some footage of a vigil for slain police officers in Dallas Monday night.

In the morning a piece on the CNN website had mourned “A tragic first week of July.” (Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge ; Philando Castile in Minnesota ; then  “tragic climax in Dallas” ; then three other shootings, “in Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia” ; and then another in Michigan.)

And then, across the ocean on another wavelength altogether, “David Cameron to resign by Wednesday, Theresa May to be next British PM.” (And now it’s happened, much more quickly than anyone seems to have thought.)

In the midst of these jarring events in other places, it can seem almost reassuring to think that in Canada the big political news is “Welcome to the summer of electoral reform.” Four recent pieces by Aaron Wherry on the CBC News site offer a quick review :

Mohawk princess Pauline Johnson, aka Tekahionwake, who in her early 20th century poem “Canadian Born” memorably advised : “The Dutch may have their Holland, the Spaniard have his Spain, / The Yankee to the south of us must south of us remain ...”

(1) “Liberals back down on electoral reform committee, support NDP changes … Government supports amended motion to move ahead with study of voting reforms” (JUNE 2)  ;

(2) “Welcome to the summer of electoral reform: No sunscreen required for dozen lucky MPs … Members of the electoral reform committee meet in Ottawa for the first time” (JUNE 21);

(3) “Chief electoral officer warns of tight timeline to implement electoral reform …Marc Mayrand says he needs new legislation well in advance of next election” (JULY 7) ;

(4) “Maryam Monsef’s earnest guide to electoral reform for cynics … Is it possible for politicians to have an uncynical debate about electoral reform?” (JULY 10).

Also yesterday on this subject, from the Hill Times : “Most want referendum on electoral reform, new poll suggests, question dominates initial House committee, feds deke and dodge … a poll conducted by Forum Research released Monday found 65 per cent of respondents think a national referendum on electoral reform should be held … All 338 MPs are set to hold town halls in their ridings on electoral reform, with reports on feedback from constituents due by Oct. 14.”

“The House Special Committee on Electoral Reform will spend the summer studying ways to improve Canada's electoral system. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright.”

Note as well that the current head of the Cambridge politics department in the UK, David Runciman, has offered a wider international context for the work of the Canadian committee. “The primary cause of this referendum result,” Runciman has urged in connection with Theresa May’s new  Brexit challenge, “is the first-past-the-post system.”

(Which is what the Canadian electoral reform committee is supposed to be trying to change or replace. Because, eg, it allows one party to win a majority of seats in parliament, with much less than a proper democratic majority of the popular vote. See Stephen Harper, 2011—2015 and Justin Trudeau, 2015—???? – and many other examples from Canadian political history!)

* * * *

Like others, I find it hard not to be realistically cynical about all this – as in Aaron Wherry’s  “Maryam Monsef’s earnest guide to electoral reform for cynics.”

Maryam Monsef, Muslim from Peterborough, ON, and Justin Trudeau’s Minister of Democratic Institutions – a key player in the Canadian electoral reform debate.

Barring some intriguing fresh developments, Mr. Wherry’s current conclusions on the Canadian federal case strike me as apt enough : “If the committee room is the scene of thoughtful consideration and the nation’s living rooms are witness to hundreds of ‘dialogues’ … and if there emerges something like consensus amongst MPs and the public, it might be possible for reform to be implemented by next spring and for most of the country to feel okay about that.”

On the other hand (Mr. Wherry goes on) : “The cynic might suggest that is unlikely. An optimist might suggest that a noble effort could even bring the public along … But without noble effort and positive public sentiment it will be treacherous to proceed with reform … And, particularly for the party that has a promise to keep, a seemingly earnest attempt at achieving reform would at least make failure to achieve it easier to explain.”

Aaron Wherry on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Or, each main party has a pretty clear idea of what particular electoral system would work best for it (ranked ballot [LIB], no change [CON], mixed member proportional [NDP], etc, etc).  And there seems a very good chance that inability to finally agree on any replacement means the next federal election in Canada will be fought on the basis of first past the post – as in every other election since 1867.

In 2019 Prime Minister Trudeau will say we tried to bring change on this front, as he promised, but the other parties just couldn’t agree. (And first past the post did bring quite a strong Liberal majority government in 2015. [Majority of seats in the elected Canadian House of Commons, that is. The Liberals only won not quite 40% of the popular vote, like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2011.] Maybe it can do the same in 2019 ????)

Meanwhile, two events this past Tuesday (yesterday) made me feel slightly more optimistic about just what is going on among the Yankees (and others) to the south of us, who must south of us remain.

“Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves to supporters with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a rally in Portsmouth, N.H., Tuesday, July 12, 2016, where Sanders endorsed her for president.” JIM COLE, ASSOCIATED PRESS.

The first was Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton – and perhaps more importantly the new energy and progressive panache in Hillary’s response to Bernie’s endorsement.

For the first time in this campaign I heard things from Hillary that made it seem she might actually be worth voting for in her own right – and not just as the only even half-sane alternative to the increasingly alarming reactionary rhetoric of Mr.Trump.

The second event this past Tuesday was the near flawless and inspiring tribute to the five slain Dallas police officers  – led by Mayor Mike Rawlings, Police Chief David Brown, an excellent interfaith choir, Dallas citizen George W. Bush, and of course especially the altogether impressive President Barack Obama.

At the near flawless and inspiring July 12 tribute to the five slain Dallas police officers – led by Mayor Mike Rawlings, Police Chief David Brown, an excellent interfaith choir, Dallas citizen George W. Bush, and the altogether impressive President Barack Obama.

For a wild moment it almost seemed that the various American tragedies of the first week of July 2016 and beyond just might somehow lead to something good …

It would no doubt be wrong to push this thought too hard at this exact moment. As Richard Dunham (and Emily Ramshaw and Matt Stiles) urged some half a dozen years ago : “Dallas is a blue island in the red sea of Texas.” Yet nowadays that itself (along with the increasing diversity of the lone-star-state demography) can pass as a hopeful thought for the future.

And at a time when such benign phenomena in the USA today seem far and few between, it is encouraging to even think briefly that Democracy in America just may have a future to more than match its past …

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