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Will Quebec Finally Become a Distinct Society Politically?

These are interesting times in North America. There are general elections looming in both Canada and the United States. In 2019, Canadians will decide if they want to continue to be led by Justin Trudeau, and in 2020 Americans will decide if they want to be led by Donald Trump. 

In Quebec the situation is different. The biggest decision facing the population is whether it will continue to elect its government with an outdated electoral system that regularly distorts the outcome of how the voters actually voted. For example, in Canada, Justin Trudeau leads a majority government with only 39% of the popular vote, whereas in the United States, Donald Trump is the President despite the fact that he obtained fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.

As should be expected, the question of democratic legitimacy remains a central issue to how both Canada and the United States are governed. In both countries, governments were formed that did not respect the desires of the electorate as expressed by the popular vote. In short, the systemic distortions produced by the respective electoral methods allows for a the will of the majority to be circumvented in favor of the desires of the few.

The question concerning the democratic legitimacy of elected governments in both countries is nothing new. Attempts to change the voting system in Canada have come and go for more than 100 years. In the United States talks about changing how the electoral college elects the President surface when its method produces a democratically unacceptable result as it did in the last Presidential election in 2016.

The continued use of such overtly flawed electoral systems brings to the surface the cultural values of the nations that use them. Evidently, there must be a larger societal good that is advanced in the place of having fair elections. Taking into consideration the very large inequalities in the manner wealth is distributed in English speaking countries -- the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada are among the worst offenders among developed countries -- the electoral systems in place in each of these respective countries advance the desire to concentrate great wealth with a small minority at the expense of the majority of its citizens.

In Quebec, however, although the province uses the same first-past-the-post voting method like the rest of the provinces and states in North America, the inequality in the distribution of wealth in Quebec is significantly smaller. In 2016, using the most widely used measure for wealth distribution, Quebec's Gini coefficient (0.292) was almost identical to Germany's (0.291) and more in keeping with Sweden (0.273), Finland (0.264) and Norway (0.250) than that of the United States (0.457).

Having lived in Quebec for twenty-five years and having learned to speak French fluently, I can attest that from a cultural perspective Quebec is a distinct society when compared to the rest of North America. Maintaining the continued survival of a French-speaking community requires much more concern with the well-being of the collectivity than a simple focus on the well-being of the individual so common in English-speaking societies. As a result, the state is much more present in the social-economic sphere, the most obvious example being the language laws that promote the use of French and limit the use of English in commercial activities. Moreover, there is strength in numbers so the Quebec government actively supports the formation and the well-being families via generous maternity and paternity leave, government-subsidized day care, and inexpensive post-secondary education. 

Indeed, the very fact of being a French speaker in Quebec carries with it a deeper concern for the well-being of other French speakers because the continued survival of the community requires a level of attention to its overall health not found in those regions in North America where a laissez-faire mentality reigns. Consequently, although how the Quebec government performs is always under scrutiny, its continued presence and legitimacy in the society is not subject to debate as is the case in the rest of North America. For instance, people in Quebec pay higher taxes than those living in other states and provinces, but there exists a widely-held realization within the population that those taxes are converted into social programs that benefit the entire population.

Historically, these fundamental cultural differences have fueled the political desire to create an independent state in Quebec, separate but associated with the rest of Canada. There were two referendums (1980 and 1995) concerning the creation of a sovereign state but in both instances the proposal was rejected. Subsequently, the support for a sovereign state has waned but those fundamental cultural differences remain, which brings us to the question of the decision to use a different electoral system in Quebec than in the rest of North America.

Notwithstanding the continued desire to create an independent state in a significant minority of the population, there is a proposal on the table to change the electoral system in Quebec supported in principle by three of the four political parties represented in the National Assembly that would bring its political system in much better alignment with its political culture than the one in use today that was transplanted upon North American soil by the British.

In summary, single member plurality voting (SMP) systems (better known as first-past-the-post) allow for the strongest minority within a country to rule as if they were the majority and to impose their agenda upon the electorate despite the fact that their agenda is very often at odds with the desires of the majority. In fact, elections in countries that use SMP do not have as there objective to reflect the voting intentions of the electorate. 

Rather, the distortions inherent to the systems tilt the voting intentions towards a single party that will be declared, more often than not, the winner of a winner-take-all contest and awarded the right to rule as if it had the support of the majority of the voters. As a result, we can say that this type of electoral system produces an authoritarian government which lacks democratic legitimacy but rewards those who finance the electoral campaigns quite handsomely. This is one of the legacies of the British Empire.

Conversely, if we look at Europe and, in particular, countries that are small, relatively homogeneous, and like Quebec, that need to protect and promote a historic, linguistic community (Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands), we notice that their governments are consensual, arising from the use of electoral systems that do not distort in any meaningful way the composition of the respective national assemblies from the popular vote. 

Consequently, the authority to govern is not based on the systemic distortions inherent to the voting method and the ensuing governments represent a variety of viewpoints since these voting systems (proportional representation) do not normally award a majority government to a single political party.

Presently, the new voting system being considered to replace the outdated British variant is a proportional voting method and the current Premier of Quebec, Francois Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec party promised that he would implement the change, unlike the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, who made the same promise in the last federal election but then broke it once he became Prime Minister.

It has been said that the willingness to change the electoral system is proportional to the proximity to power. Once elected by a SMP system, the political parties that propose to make the change when in opposition invariably find the reasons not to make the change once they form the government.

Clearly, the ball is squarely in Francois Legault's court. What remains to be seen is whether he will act in a politically expedient manner, or bring Quebec into the twenty-first century by breaking with the past to give Quebec an electoral system that reflects its distinct culture.   

This post first appeared on The Disgruntled Democrat, please read the originial post: here

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Will Quebec Finally Become a Distinct Society Politically?


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