There is obvious and considerable irony in the fact that after having declared the 2015 election to be Canada’s last under first-past-the-post (FPTP), the Liberals ended up benefitting from it greatly in 2019.
Despite garnering only 33.1 per cent of the vote — the lowest percentage ever for any majority of minority government in Canada, and a lower vote total than the opposition Conservatives — the Liberals captured just over 46 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. As far as minority governments go, it’s a fairly comfortable one.
Interestingly, the party least likely to complain about the voting system, the Conservatives, ended up with a seat total closely matching their vote total: 35.8 per cent of the seats off 34.4 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, the parties who are most supportive of electoral reform got the rawest deal: 7.1 per cent of the seats for the NDP with 15.9 per cent of the vote, while the Green Party got 0.9 per cent of the seats despite 6.5 per cent of the vote (the Bloc Quebecois received 7.7. per cent of the vote and took 9.5 per cent of the seats).
All in all, a bit of a wacky result — not for the first time and probably not for the last time under our system. Yet, despite that, there is no great clamour for changing that system. One could have made the case that the Liberal victory in 2015, coupled with the party’s promise of electoral reform, indicated support for change. However, breaking that promise didn’t really seem to carry any repercussions. It may just be that Canadians see FPTP, despite its faults, as having served Canada well. As far as track records go, 152 years is pretty impressive.
A system of proportional representation might have given us a Parliament more closely resembling the vote total, but would we necessarily be better off? Would we have better government? Better representation? I would argue not.
The Liberals won 157 seats, which means they won 157 separate elections at the local level. There is value in Canadians having a direct say in who their local representative is, even if a strong case can be made that those individual Members of Parliament should have more independence and therefore more power. That would be one way of improving our current system.
Monday’s election could have produced a chaotic situation in our Parliament, but instead we have some degree of stability. In fact, stability has been a hallmark of Canada’s democracy, and we’re better off for it. As one expert noted this week, Canada’s tradition of having “brokerage parties” — parties that can bring about compromises while at the same time bringing different interests together — is likely directly attributable to our FPTP system.
Canadians in B.C., Ontario, and most recently, Prince Edward Island, have rejected electoral reform. That election this year in P.E.I. actually produced a result that closely matched the popular vote. In Alberta’s recent provincial election, the UCP won both a majority of the vote and a majority of the seats. Weird results, like the one we saw this week, are not the norm in our system.
Again, this is not to say that our system is perfect or that it’s heads-and-shoulders above all others. The onus is on proponents of reform to make the case for why it’s so bad that it needs to be thrown out, and they’ve simply failed on that front.
Given that electoral reform seems to be a non-starter, it would be far more productive to look at ways of improving our current system. Empowering individual MPs, as noted, would be of value. There are also certain regions of the country — especially Alberta, my home province — that ought to have more representation (i.e. more seats) in Parliament. We could also allow for more direct democracy: citizens’ initiative and voter recall, for example.
Justin Trudeau and the Liberals might have got more than they deserved on Monday, but that’s no reason to blow up a system of democracy that has, for the most part, served Canada well.