In the final days of the election, the spectre of electoral reform returned to haunt the campaign trail as Justin Trudeau was asked about the issue.
He indicated he was still open to adopting an alternative vote (AV) electoral system in which voters rank their candidate preferences before instant run-off rounds eliminate the least popular ones from the ballot and redistribute their next-ranked choice until someone secures majority support.
The AV system is not a proportional system (PR) and the prime minister was clear that he opposed the latter because it “gives more weight to smaller parties that are perhaps fringe parties.” He was also clear that electoral reform is not a priority for him. No kidding.
In 2015, Trudeau promised that an elected Liberal government would make Canada’s 42nd general election the last under first past the post. After long, detailed committee work, the government abandoned its electoral reform promise when it became clear it could not secure the AV system it wanted.
Experts and other witnesses tended to prefer a proportional system — including me — based on its capacity to reflect voter preference within a multi-party system. In 2017, then-NDP MP Nathan Cullen tried to revive the effort with a “Keep Your Promise” tour, but the whole rigmarole was over, forgotten by most and remembered by few as a cynical blip.
Proportional representation aims to match popular vote to seat count, ensuring that each voter has a high probability of contributing to electing a candidate and that the Parliaments we return will match the preferences of the electorate.
PR supporters argue that minority governments and coalition governments — Cabinets that include members from more than one party — incentivize and induce cooperation among parliamentarians and between government and opposition. The case for PR is therefore rooted in a particular conception of fairness as having your vote “count” and an expectation of better politics and policy.
The rise of the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC) forces PR supporters and the country to consider what a new electoral system might mean for the country. Would such a system embolden extremists? Would it give them the balance of power in the House of Commons? Would it affect our policy agenda?
The movement of the PPC from two per cent in 2019 to five per cent (with mail-in ballots still to be tallied) this time around doesn’t unmake the case for PR. Indeed, in a mixed-member proportional system, thresholds of five per cent to earn seats, which exist around the world including in Germany and New Zealand, help ensure that fringe parties do not hijack legislatures.
Moreover, a proportional system could dilute support for parties like the PPC, especially if they are ephemeral party movements that are issue dependent, as may be the case with the purple party side and the pandemic.
Nonetheless, any conversation about electoral form must seriously reckon with extremist fringe parties but ought not to accept as a given that the system will return them. It ought to also engage with the fact that under the current system leaders like Maxime Bernier could — and in Bernier’s case, nearly did — win the leadership of mainstream parties.
The fact is that Canada is increasingly jamming a multi-party system into an electoral system designed for two parties: first past the post is a system that, in theory, tends towards two parties. That’s known as Duverger’s Law.
It doesn’t work that way in Canada, though. Depending on what happens with mail-in ballots, the Liberals may have just formed a government with the lowest popular support in the country’s history. They are well on track to govern with the express consent of just one in five eligible voters. That doesn’t mean their government is illegitimate — it’s legitimate. It’s constitutional.
If the Liberals have the confidence of the House of Commons, which they’re expected to secure, then they can govern. But recent electoral returns suggest at least that parties are efficient at mobilizing the least amount of voters to make the most amount of impact. That’s not a good thing. We ought to consider that while this is how the system works, it’s not working particularly well for voters who, en masse, indicate preferences that are not reflected in our Parliament or in our government. Something’s gotta give.
Whatever the virtues of PR and the vices of the current arrangement, electoral reform is unlikely to make an appearance on the agenda any time soon. Recent efforts across the country at the provincial level have failed in British Columbia (three times), Ontario, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island. Reform attempts were often undermined by political forces, cynical maneuverings, and rules stacked against change, but they failed nonetheless.
The status quo is intransigent and the vested interests of the Liberal Party and other plurality beneficiaries mean that PR is a non-starter for the “natural governing party” and those working hard to join it.
The Conservatives are averse to reform, perhaps out of concern that the combined New Democrat and Liberal vote tends to form a clear centrist or centre-left majority that could be destined to dominate parliaments. The NDP and Greens are all for electoral reform, but they aren’t driving the bus.
But while the electoral reform issue may not dominate or register in the 44th Parliament or the top of minds of many Canadians, that doesn’t mean it will go away. And it shouldn’t.
David Moscrop is a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and the author of “Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.”