Electoral reform may finally be coming to Canada
Originally published in The Capitol Report in May 2016.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that the October federal election would be the last time Canada would use the first-past-the-post voting system.
The issue of electoral reform found it way onto the Liberal party platform during the 2015 election and after winning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed through with his platform promise by appointing Maryam Monsef as the Minister of Democratic Institutions. The issue of federal electoral reform is moving forward and will be addressed through an all-party committee dedicated to the cause.
This is not the first time electoral reform has been addressed. Canada’s history is spattered with discussion and small changes to Canada’s voting system. Reform has allowed for the expansion of voting rights to minorities and women, but the system has yet to see a complete overhaul. Provincial and municipal levels of government have experimented with other systems, but on the federal level elections have always been conducted with the first-past-the-post system.
“I wasn’t surprised to see it on the platform, because the issue is always kind of there,” Marc Dupont, professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said. “If you ask any politician at any given time they will always say we need to reform the system or something to that effect. I think they are seriously considering it this time though.”
Experts say that first-past-the-post will generally create more stable majority governments, and systems such as proportional representation will create more coalition governments. The main criticism of the current system is that it can generate a false majority. Parties are able to win the majority in parliament without getting a majority of the votes. This might be why Canada is seeing this issue be addressed now.
“I think some people got fed up with Harper being able to control the country for ten years with around 39 per cent of the electorate,” Dupont said. “I think overall the Liberals promised a more transparent and accountable government and I think that they are saying that if we have a proportional system even the smaller parties, like the Green party and the NDP, will have their ‘fair’ representation in parliament.”
Dupont suggests that a proportional system may not directly benefit the Liberal party but may benefit the progressives. A coalition between the Liberals, Green party and the NDP could account for around 60 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.
The Conservative party has pushed back against electoral reform and “will be opposing any radical changes to the electoral system without a referendum,” Don Plett, the Conservative Whip in the Senate, said in an interview with John Ibbitson. The Conservatives insist that fundamental changes to the current system must be approved by the majority of Canadians.
It is unclear yet whether the issue will eventually go to a referendum but it clear that many Canadians are ready to see a change. Some citizens, along with groups such as Fair Vote Canada, have been passionately pushing for reform.
Abacus Data conducted a survey for the Broadbent Institute in November and it indicated that overall Canadians want to see changes made to the electoral system. Only 17 per cent of the 2,986 Canadians surveyed online feel that the current system works well and does not need to be changed. Nine per cent of respondents’ felt the system needs to be changed completely while, 33 per cent felt major changes needed to be made. The remaining 41 per cent felt the system needed only minor changes.
The research showed that those who live in Quebec or vote for the NDP, Green party or Bloc Quebecois were more likely to believe that the system needs either major changes or to be overhauled completely.
Over a third of people who voted for the Liberals or Conservatives in the last election thought major changes or a complete change of the system is needed.
Canadians were also asked what system they favoured and 44 per cent ranked either mixed member proportional system or a pure proportional system as their first choice choice. Forty three per cent ranked our current system, single member plurality, as their second most preferred system. The least favoured system was the ranked/preferential ballot system and garnered support from only 14 per cent of respondents.
Monsef said in an interview with Joan Bryden that she hopes the changes will create “a stronger democratic system that allows for a higher voter turnout, that engages the voices of those who at the moment feel like they’re ignored, those who feel like their issues don’t matter and that their hopes and aspirations don’t count.”
The committee will not only look at reforming the first-past-the-post system, but will also consider mandatory voting and online voting. The parliamentary committee will recommend changes no later than May 2017.