If the next federal election were being held under a proportional representation system, would the Conservative Party care if their leader spoke French?
That’s the question. My answer is “no.” That is, of course, speculative, but here is my thinking.
Right now what the Conservative Party is aiming for is a majority government. If that is the objective, then you can’t afford not to compete for the 70-odd Quebec seats that have a francophone majority electorate. If there’s one thing everyone can agree upon, it’s that first-past-the-post electoral systems create enormous pressure to create very broad-based political parties, that appeal to the maximum number of voters. That is the precisely the pressure that the Conservative party is experiencing now.
Proportional representation (PR) takes majority government off the table, even with the current party configuration. PR would also generate new parties over time, further increasing the difficulty of obtaining a majority. So all political parties, including the Conservative, will be looking at forming coalition governments. The question then becomes, should you accept the compromises required to keep a Quebec wing of the party happy, including narrowing the leadership contest to those with passable French, or should you just forget about Quebec, and look to enter into a coalition with a Quebec-based party after the election? I think Conservatives would opt for the latter.
Quebec voters, it should be noted, also accept a number of significant compromises, in order to ensure that they have a “seat at the table” of any federal government. Under a PR system, the possibility of a majority government in which Quebec is shut out becomes much less of a concern. Thus the best way to ensure a “seat at the table” is to have a soft-nationalist, non-ideological party, that basically vows to defend and advance Quebec’s interests at the federal level, and is willing to enter into coalition with any other party to form a government, as long as their list of demands is met. In other words, I think you would see the emergence of an ethnic party in Quebec (maybe evolving from the Bloc), that would get 40-50 seats in every election, enough to hold the balance of power in any future Canadian government. They would then use that power in a highly instrumental fashion, to extract as much money and power as they can from the Canadian federation.
If an ethnic party emerged in Quebec (or the existing ethnic party, the Bloc Quebecois, found a way to regain its electoral appeal, and toned down the separatism), then I think that the most other political parties would find it pointless to compete seriously in most of the ridings outside Montreal and the Eastern Townships. Easier just to form a coalition with that party. Also Conservatives, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, are not in a very compromise-friendly mood these days. The Alberta wing in particular would be more than happy just to write off Quebec, hoping to make a deal later.
Also, in case the Conservative Party did not decide to write off Quebec, but continued to make the compromises necessary to remain a truly national party, competitive in all ridings across Canada, then you would see the emergence of a far-right, anti-immigrant splinter party, based in Western Canada, funded largely by the oil industry. This party would also need to be included in any right-wing governing coalition.
None of this, incidentally, would improve the quality of political deliberation in Canada. What you would get instead is just a lot more horsetrading and deal-making. This is all dependent, of course, on the scenarios that I am envisaging, which seem the most likely to me. I am curious what sort of scenarios supporters of PR are imagining. Are they the same, but being evaluated differently? Or are they imagining that things will play out quite differently?
So maybe my questions to PR supporters should be more basic. Switching to a PR system, apart from bringing the Green Party into parliament, would probably result in the creation of 2-3 more viable political parties. What do you think these will be, and what impact do you think their appearance will have upon the existing parties? Or upon the quality of Canadian democracy more generally?