It’s time to punt first-past-the-post for a system that works

ELECTION WRAP-UP by Gregory Beatty

Several times over the last decade, I’ve written Canada should follow the lead of Germany, Sweden, Iceland and dozens of other prosperous and civilized countries, and ditch first-past-the-post elections for proportional representation.

To make my case, I’d always refer to the latest election. In 2008, for instance, the Gilles Duceppe-led Bloc Quebecois, with support concentrated in a single province, parlayed 1,379,911 votes into 48 seats, while the Green Party under leader Elizabeth May received 937,613 votes, but didn’t win a single seat because its support was spread across the country.

Closer to home in 2011, the federal NDP received 32.3 per cent of the Saskatchewan vote but didn’t win a single seat while the Conservatives, with 56.3 of the vote and eight blended rural/urban ridings, snagged 13 of 14 seats.

This election, though, I can’t crunch the numbers. That’s because as the parties jockeyed for position during the 11-week campaign — with a minority Parliament forecast, but pollsters unable to rule out the Conservatives benefiting from a favourable vote split and eking out a majority — Canadians desperate to see Harper gone began to consider strategic voting.

“Anybody But Conservative” became the rallying cry, and websites sprang up to inform voters of key ridings where a vote split could result in a Conservative being inadvertently elected.

It’s impossible to know how many strategic votes were cast in ridings across Canada. But once the Liberals emerged as the best bet to defeat the Conservatives, NDP support plummeted. The Greens were surely hurt too, especially in May’s home province of B.C.

Elections should be joyous occasions where citizens from all walks of life come together to debate the current state of their country and what path they should follow going forward. Instead, millions of Canadians were frustrated and afraid that their voice wasn’t going to be heard again.

I say “again”, because in 2011 non-Conservative voters outnumbered Conservative supporters by 60.4 to 39.6 per cent. But with the centre/centre-left vote split between the NDP, Liberals, BQ and Greens, the Cons won a majority. The margin of victory wasn’t massive (166 of 308 seats), but it delivered 100 PER CENT OF THE POWER.

Crunch the numbers with all the no-shows and Canadians ineligible to vote thrown in, and the Conservative vote total of 5,832,401 translates into a mere 17 per cent of the population.

Voter turnout was up this election, so that’s good. But the long-term trend is down, and critics say FPTP is a major factor. Sure, dissenting voters in ridings where a party/candidate is dominant can show up and, Don Quixote-like, cast their ballot. But really, why bother?

Under proportional representation, every vote that’s cast is meaningful. And that, supporters argue, will motivate people to vote.

The main argument against PR is that it limits the likelihood of a majority government being elected, leading to parliamentary logjams and unsavory bargaining between major and minor parties to marshal political support.

Better the flawed certainty of FPTP, goes the argument, than the chaos of countries such as Italy and Israel.

But in the vast majority of countries, PR works just fine. Coalitions are common, yes, but that forces parties to co-operate more and tone down the rhetoric to avoid alienating potential political allies.

One thing that made strategic voting semi-tolerable this time is that the main contenders to supplant the Cons — the Liberals and NDP — have both committed to electoral reform.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau released his party’s platform in June, vowing this would be the last election fought under FPTP. The clock is already ticking on the Liberal’s mandate, with the next election due in 2019. And there’s a ton of pressing priorities for the new government. But democratic reform is an absolute must.

At his June news conference, Trudeau promised to strike an all-party committee to study alternatives to FPTP. The Liberals are said to favour a preferential ballot where voters rank their choices. If no one gets a majority, the last-place candidate drops out and supporters shift to their second-choice. That continues until one candidate hits the magic 50 per cent mark.

When the NDP introduced a parliamentary motion to replace FPTP in December 2014, it suggested a mixed proportional system where voters elect a candidate in their constituency, but also vote for a party on the national level to represent them in parliament.

Justin Trudeau’s heart seems to be in the right place, so I’m hopeful the Liberals will follow through on their promise of electoral reform. To be on the safe side, though, I’m wondering if a constitutional challenge to FPTP wouldn’t force the government’s hand.

When I gave the Elections Act a quick skim, I didn’t find any reference to FPTP. It seems to largely be a product of British parliamentary tradition, with roots dating back to the 12th century. In fact, pretty much the only countries that use it now are those with ties to the British Commonwealth. And even some of them, such as New Zealand, have abandoned it.

S. 3 of the Charter of Rights & Freedoms addresses “Democratic Rights”. It says every Canadian has a right to both vote and run for election at the federal and provincial level.

Voting, in other words, is a vital right. And I’d argue that when Canadians are forced to contemplate voting strategically to thwart the inequities of FPTP, that violates s. 2 of the Charter guaranteeing freedom of conscience, thought, opinion, expression, association and even peaceful assembly. Throw in s.7 related to life, liberty and security of person if you want, but to me the argument seems compelling.

Here’s hoping we never, ever have to go through another first-past-the-post election again.