OUT OF ALL PROPORTION Electoral reform needed to make sure every one of our votes count

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU BUILT US UP ONLY TO LET US DOWN. He has declared his promise of electoral reform inoperative. The next federal election in 2019 will still use the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to decide who gets to run the federal government.

This should surprise us. Trudeau repeated his electoral reform promise to “make every vote count” 1,800 times. He confirmed that he really meant to keep that promise with a specific commitment in the Speech from the Throne after taking power.

Yet little more than a year later Trudeau broke his promise. “Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate,” he wrote to newly-appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.

Distorting democracy
Trudeau’s choice will perpetuate the possibility of gross distortions of our democracy. FPTP demolishes the principle of majority rule and the principle that no vote is worth any more than any other vote.

In our FPTP system coming first is all that matters. It only takes one vote to make you the winner. It’s a winner-takes-all system. How many votes others got doesn’t matter. All the votes cast for them just don’t count. They are worthless. This makes no democratic sense.

Since 1930, FPTP has put 13 parties into power in Ottawa with a “false majority”—a majority of the seats in parliament without a majority of the overall vote.

FPTP also distorts what votes are worth. Our worst ever example of this came in the 1993 Liberal federal election win: the Liberals got 5,647,952 votes and 177 seats; the Progressive Conservatives got 2,186,422 votes and just two seats!

That means it took just 32,000 votes to elect a Liberal and 1.1 million votes to elect a Progressive Conservative. That made every Liberal vote in Canada worth 34 times more than every Progressive Conservative vote!

These possibilities mock our desire for a fair vote and any commitment to make every vote count.

Why Trudeau broke his promise
Trudeau claims he could find no consensus about which voting system should replace FPTP. He also claims there is no strong public support for changing the voting system.

That’s not what a special parliamentary committee found. The committee travelled the country to speak to Canadians. They found significant support for electoral reform. Enough to recommend:

“...the government should, as it develops a new electoral system … minimize the level of distortion between the popular will of the electorate and the resultant seat allocations in Parliament.”

The truth is there is no real incentive for the Liberals to change something that favours them so much. After all, it was FPTP that gave them a “false majority” in 2015 with 54.4% of the seats in parliament, with just 39.5% of the total vote.

In fact, the last time the Liberals secured a true majority (a majority of the vote and the seats in parliament) was in 1949. The Liberals have only won two true majorities since 1930.

If proportional representation had been used in 2015, the Liberals would have secured just an estimated 134 seats, well short of a majority. To form government, Trudeau would have had to negotiate a coalition with the NDP or Conservatives.

Two favoured proportional representation systems
The parliamentary committee proposed a referendum to change to a proportional representation (PR) system. But, it left it up to the government to choose what kind of PR system to offer in such a referendum.

There are many possibilities. The two most favoured in Canada are:

the single transferable vote systems, and
the mixed member proportional and
SINGLE TRANSFERABLE VOTE  In the single transferable vote system, voters are divided into larger ridings typically with five MPs elected for each riding. Voters rank their candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper. After the votes have been counted, the second preference votes from the candidate with the least votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates. This process is repeated until the winning candidates secure more than 50 percent of the vote.

MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL  The mixed member proportional (MMP) system would retain the first-past-the-post constituencies. However, voters would also cast a second ballot for the party of their choice on a regional list. Parties would then receive seats from the list vote proportional to the percentage of votes they secured.

Both voting systems ensure that a more diverse range of policies are represented in parliament. Since it’s harder to get an overall majority in seats, parties are forced to cooperate and negotiate coalitions to secure a majority.

Critics of PR suggest these systems produce unstable governments because they give small parties a voice. Advocates counter by pointing to the experience of countries that use proportional systems. Neither New Zealand, nor the regional parliament in Scotland, have had any trouble establishing stable and secure governments based on the results of elections carried out using MMP.

Stuck with first-past-the-post
It seems certain we will use FPTP to elect our MPs in the 2019 federal election. Trudeau is dug in. Earlier this year he declared: “I will not move towards any form of proportional representation.”

This means our democracy at the federal level may again be distorted. However, proportional representation is an idea whose time may have come in two provinces.

British Columbia is in the middle of a referendum on electoral reform that will end on November 30. This will be British Columbia’s third referendum on electoral reform.

A May 2005 referendum failed to reach the 60% threshold set by the government and PR was not adopted.

BC voters in 2009 were asked which electoral system should be used to elect legislators: the existing first-past-the-post electoral system or a PR system unique to BC. The 2009 PR choice was defeated by a vote of 1.5 to one—against.

Prince Edward Island held a non-binding plebiscite on electoral reform in 2016. Islanders were asked which of five voting systems they would prefer to use in electing members to their Legislative Assembly. The plebiscite, after four instant run-off rounds, indicated mixed member proportional representation was the preferred choice with over 52% support on the final ballot.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s government has passed a bill in the PEI Legislative Assembly to hold a second referendum on electoral reform at the next provincial general election set for October 2019.

PEI government to fund electoral reform campaigns
The P.E.I. government will provide $75,000 in taxpayer funding for both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns for the province’s upcoming referendum on electoral reform.

Beyond that, no groups will be permitted to solicit donations or otherwise raise money to pay for advertising or promotion for one side or the other.

There will be just one question on the referendum ballot:

Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system? No / Yes

Either answer on the referendum ballot would need more than 50 per cent support to be considered binding — but there’s a catch.

The 50 per cent required doesn’t refer to the number of referendum ballots cast — it refers to the number of people who vote in the general election.

That means if more Islanders vote in the general election than in the referendum, it will push up the margin of victory required by either the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ side to be considered binding by government.

However, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that the current government can’t force the hand of a future government. So, the decision on whether to change P.E.I.’s electoral system will ultimately rest with whatever government Islanders choose the day of the vote.


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.