Given the prospect of minority government, there’s been much chatter from Andrew Scheer about the “modern convention” that the party that wins the most seats in a Canadian election gets to try to form government.
But as a former Speaker of the House of Commons, Scheer knows that the prime minister is the person who commands the support of a majority of MPs. Whether it’s a minority or majority government makes no difference. If a group of dissident MPs were to abandon a prime minister and give their confidence and a majority of support to the opposition leader, that person could then control the House of Commons. Scheer knows that the plurality convention — if we can even call it that — has no real authority.
And these are unconventional times that call for unconventional measures.
We are, as virtually all scientists agree, at a critical stage in a climate emergency in which we have a decade to mitigate its worst possible impacts. And yet, if we listen to the Conservative leader, democracy demands that a party that captures about 32 per cent of the popular vote ought to be given the right to do as little as they please for nearly half of the decade we have left to implement bold climate policy.
We must think unconventionally about what democracy means to understand why what we’ve been doing for the past 400 years isn’t good enough. We are truly in a crisis of democracy when the will of an over-entitled minority gets to decide that millions of young people and their allies don’t have a right to clean air, drinking water, regular crop harvests, and weather patterns that won’t destroy their homes.
The democratic deficit facing Canada can’t be dealt with by parliamentary conventions that are hundreds of years outdated. Right now, youth — faced with the consequences of preceding generations’ selfish and stupid decisions, which have made catastrophic climate change and economic instability their main inheritance — are systemically excluded from decision-making.
If that’s democratic convention, I want no part of it. Those who will live with the consequences of whether the Canadian government meaningfully acts in the decade left to mitigate the impacts of runaway climate change are being held hostage by a caricature of democracy that first included some women scarcely 100 years ago, people of Asian descent only in 1948, and First Nations 12 years after that. And this is a system that does a bad job of translating popular support into seats in the House of Commons — so much so that we were promised 2015 would be the last election determined by first-past-the-post voting.
The question we are forced to contend with is this: Will our fetishization of our broken, colonial-era Westminister democratic system be the final say on the will of the people, when we are embroiled in a climate emergency that the Conservatives are explicitly planning to ignore?
One need not be a radical to realize that such a course of action is madness. Fortunately, there’s nothing at all radical or revolutionary about simply working within the flawed electoral system to prevent the Conservative party (or any other plurality-wielding party) from climate inaction. It’s perfectly lawful and, though unconventional, necessary in our current state of affairs.
If self-identified “progressive” parties win a majority of seats and a majority of popular support, which they almost surely will, it would be morally inexcusable for them to allow a party that is not taking the climate emergency seriously to control the legislative agenda for four of the next 10 years that we have left to act.
The two big parties have had 152 years to improve democratic accountability, and at least 25 years to address the climate emergency. They have utterly failed on both counts, and now we’re out of time.
If Scheer wins a plurality but not a majority, the Greens, NDP, Liberals, and Bloc Québécois have a moral obligation to stop the pipeline highway. This would be the enactment of democracy, not the hijacking of it. A limited form of democracy tied to a 400-year-old colonial system of gently reformed feudalism is not as important as the continued viability of life on our planet.
We live in unconventional times, and conventional democracy in Canada has been a story of exclusion rather than inclusion. If we can’t stomach applying the actual logic of first-past-the-post democracy — which would entitle elected officials to support a person who instills confidence that they will address the climate emergency — then what else are we willing to accept? Sabotaging pipeline highways? Or denying our children the right to a planet they can live on?
We should not be more prepared to live with an increasingly unlivable planet than to accept an unconventional parliamentary arrangement after the election.
Ajay Parasram is an assistant professor in international development studies and history at Dalhousie University.