The Quebec-based group l’Association pour la revendication des droits démocratiques is nearing the end of the legal battle it started in 2004. After early losses in the lower courts, it is taking its case against Quebec’s (and by implication Canada’s) first-past-the-post electoral system to the nation’s Supreme Court, with the backing of Fair Vote Canada and Green leader Elizabeth May. It will argue, with some justification, that first-past-the-post violates the “democratic rights” and “equality rights” provisions (sections 3 and 15) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I am reluctant to admit this — both as a strong supporter of proportional representation and as a Green Party member — but I think this is the wrong approach. While it is true that there is evidence in some opinion polls of vague support for electoral reform in Canada, every time a concrete question is placed on a referendum ballot, proportional voting systems seem to lose their popularity. I understand that this is frustrating, but it would be unfair for proportional representation advocates, having failed to convince the public, to turn around and sneak their changes in through the judicial back door. Societies have a right to any electoral system of their choosing, and at the very least, ours has not yet made up its mind.
In 2003, a small number of Quebec sovereigntists proposed the abandonment of their longstanding call for a referendum on independence, preferring instead to read the election of a Parti Quebecois majority government as a sufficient mandate for secession. The mainstream of the sovereignty movement swiftly rejected this idea, understanding that the principle of independence by referendum had always been at its heart. There is something admirable in this recognition that there is a right way to go about achieving change, and a wrong way.
I never thought I’d say this, but electoral reformers could learn a thing or two from Quebec separatists.