We don’t just need to change Canada’s unfair elections. We need to make the right changes

Feature by Gregory Beatty

From legalizing cannabis and revamping the Harper government’s Bill C-51 anti-terrorism legislation to reviewing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and addressing grievous inequities in the health and well-being of Canada’s indigenous people, the federal Liberals have a lot on their parliamentary plate.

Recently, the government added to the workload by striking a 10-member committee to study electoral reform. That’s long been a platform plank for the Green and NDP parties, and during last October’s election the Liberals promised it too.

“This is not about what’s good for one party over another,” Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions insisted at a May 11 press conference announcing the committee. “This is about what’s in the best interests of Canadians.”

Opposition parties were quick to challenge that assertion. The whole point of electoral reform is to replace our flawed first-past-the-post system with something that more accurately reflects the popular vote. In a two-party election, FPTP works fine. But when you have more than two major parties, as Canada does, the vote gets fragmented, leading to all sorts of potential injustices that, as plummeting voter turnouts would suggest, are turning Canadians off politics.

Our two most recent federal governments, the Harper Conservatives and Trudeau Liberals, for instance, were both elected to healthy majorities even though they won less than 40 per cent of the vote. Throw in the generally low voter turnout, and a majority government can be elected by fewer than 20 per cent of Canadians — one in five.

That’s unjust.

But instead of allocating the 10 committee seats based on the share of the vote each party received last election, as opposition parties urged, the Liberals used the actual FPTP seat totals from the election. So there are six Liberal MPs, three Conservative and one New Democrat. Green MP Elizabeth May and a Bloc Quebecois MP will also sit on the committee, but have no vote.

The Liberal power-play drew scads of media criticism. Fair Vote Canada, an advocacy organization for electoral reform, wasn’t impressed, either.

“Forming the committee using results tainted by the unfair first-past-the-post election may skew the results to something that isn’t good,” says Nancy Carswell of FVC’s Saskatchewan chapter. “Because the Liberals have 54 per cent of the seats with 40 per cent of the vote they have a phoney majority. Therefore, they also have a phoney majority on the committee.”

The issue’s an important one, as this is a major step for Canada. Mind you, it’s a step many other prosperous democratic countries (Germany, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, to name a few) have already made.

In fact, along with the U.S. and U.K., Canada is one of the few countries cleaving to good ol’ FPTP.

The Trudeau Liberals have indicated they favour a ranked ballot where voters cast a ballot for a preferred candidate, then rank the remaining parties in descending order of preference.

Fair Vote Canada is not a fan of that option, says Carswell.

“We fear alternative voting through a ranked ballot. As Ed Broadbent has said, it’s first-past-the-post on steroids. What happens with a ranked ballot is that the choice goes toward the middle. And the Liberals are the middle. So under a ranked ballot the Liberals, in theory, could be in office forever.”

Number crunching done by CBC justifies FVC’s concern. Plug the vote totals from each riding in last fall’s election into a ranked ballot, and the Liberal seat total jumps from 184 to 224, while the Conservatives drop from 99 to 61. The NDP total increases marginally from 44 to 50 seats, while the BQ drop from 12 to two and the Greens hold steady at one.

A ranked ballot is only one option being considered. As for the other alternatives, Carswell says, Fair Vote Canada doesn’t have an official preference.

“However, numerous reports and commissions recommend mixed-member proportional representation for Canada,” she says.

What that involves is a two-tier voting system, with MPs elected to represent specific ridings in the country, and other representatives chosen from party lists based on the share of popular vote.

For comparison purposes, when CBC crunched the 2015 election numbers in a proportional representation system, the Liberal seat total dropped to 134 from 184, while the Conservatives rose to 109 from 99, with the NDP, BQ and Greens winning 67, 16 and 12 seats respectively.

Quite a difference, isn’t it? In fact, had the last election been held under PR, we’d have a minority Liberal government with the NDP holding the balance of power now. That’s one argument supporters of the ranked ballot tout — of all the alternatives to FPTP, it offers the best chance of yielding a majority government, so you avoid the gridlock and chaos that often occurs in a minority situation.

But that fear is rooted in the hyper-adversarial nature of first-past-the-post politics, Carswell argues.

“I always think of PR as switching the focus from beating the other party to winning voters because to get into office you only need to win votes — you don’t need to beat the other party,”. she says. “Therefore, when you’re in office, to continue winning voters you want to be as productive as possible. That will hopefully produce — and it has in other countries — more cooperative governments.”

Experience in other countries has also shown that PR leads to greater involvement of women and minorities in politics. A base threshold of voter support is often required before a party is eligible for seats too, so that eliminates the possibility of fringe parties holding undue political influence in coalition governments.

The Liberals haven’t set up a public consultation process yet, but the committee is supposed to deliver its report by Dec. 1. To give Elections Canada time to prepare for the next election in 2019, a decision will need to be made by the fall of 2017.

First, though, the Conservatives are demanding that any proposed change be approved in a referendum. At the provincial level, referendums have been a graveyard for electoral reform. That would suit the Conservatives fine, as they are regarded by political analysts as having the most to lose should the country move away from FPTP.

But holding a referendum would open the door to all sorts of hardball politicking as parties with a vested interest in FPTP fought to keep it. And the provincial experience has shown that unless voters are truly motivated to learn about what’s being proposed, they simply opt for the status quo, so Fair Vote Canada doesn’t support a referendum — at least not yet, says Carswell.

“People understand the principle of PR, it’s when you come to explaining the system that you lose them. That’s why we voted in our MPs — to look at complex issues. So that’s why it’s important for them, and the committee, to do this work and represent us, and come back and say ‘This is what we recommend.’”

And if a referendum must be held, Carswell suggests doing what New Zealand did.

“I admired New Zealand, and this is me personally and not Fair Vote Canada. But they had a referendum three elections after they brought in PR. Then they said to people ‘Hey, what do you think of this system? Do you want to go back?’ That’s brilliant, I think.”

If that were to happen in Canada, Carswell has no doubt what the result would be.

“I’ve spoken to people from other countries where they have PR, and they don’t get our system. They don’t know why we persist in using first-past-the-post. As soon as people do it, I believe, they aren’t going to want to go back.”