In 2004, the Law Commission of Canada suggested the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, our current electoral regime, needed reform because it did not reflect the views of Canadians about their democracy.
The commission, a federal law reform body that existed from 1997 to 2006, recommended the changes because the FPTP system distorts results by giving a majority of seats to parties that have received a minority in voter preference — that is to say a party with 40 per cent of the vote can easily win 75 per cent of the seats in the legislature.
This distortion, the commission said, undermines voters’ confidence because the resulting Parliament does not reflect how the population actually voted.
I was president of the commission at the time so I remember well how many people opposed the conclusion of the report. They argued that FPTP continued to be a great system for Canada because Canadians did not like minority governments and preferred stability over more nuanced representation.
In 2019 — unless the Conservatives outdo themselves before Monday — Canadians may decide they prefer a minority government over the arrogance of a majority government.
Consider the following: in recent weeks, the parties that have gained ground are those that will not form a government on their own. The Bloc Québécois will never form government, but it is gaining substantial support in Quebec. The NDP is not in a position to form government, either, but it is pushing its numbers to undercut any Liberal majority. The Green Party has similar objectives but with lower numbers.
Canadians may be thinking now what the Law Commission had predicted 15 years ago: that stability comes at too high a price and with too much distortion. Canadians may want politics that require that political parties to work together, in a formal or informal coalition, rather than boldly implement their platform without much regard for opposing views.
The 2019 election could mark the beginning of a new form of politics, with the two big traditional parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, becoming coalition builders rather than vying for absolute control of Parliament.
This transformation of our politics will require different skill sets in politicians: less boasting, more listening. Compromise will be necessary. Canadians may be ready for that as well.
Or not. Both Conservatives and Liberals are using the old rhetoric of strategic voting, of voting against one large party rather than for a third party. This strategy has worked in the past and has created many majority governments that clearly reflect what Canadians do not like but are more ambiguous about what Canadians really want.
Strategic voting is part of the FPTP system. That is why the Law Commission recommended a change in our electoral system 15 years ago that would add more nuance and proportionality to Parliament.
Although electoral reform was on the ballot in 2015 and is one of the promises that the Liberal government did not fulfil, no one has talked about much about it in 2019. It could be that voters are changing their behaviours faster than politicians.
On Oct. 21, we will see whether Canadians are changing the rules on their own.
Nathalie Des Rosiers is principal of Massey College at the University of Toronto. She was Liberal MPP for Ottawa-Vanier in the Ontario legislature from 2016 to 2019.