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Electoral reform reversal shows Justin Trudeau takes Canadians for fools

When the new Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould (No, this is not fake news -- the Trudeau Liberals still do have a minister tasked with democratic institutions) released her mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau it read: 

"A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada's interest. Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate."

Can I believe my ears? No clear preference for a new electoral system? No consensus on electoral reform? Did the Prime Minister just tour Canada with his fingers stuck in his aural orifices? No change to Canada's electoral system?

Was it not a mere eighteen months ago that Justin Trudeau stood before audiences -- from proverbial coast to coast to coast -- and solemnly intoned:

"We need change. We need to know that when we cast a ballot it counts. That when we vote, it matters. So, I'm proposing that we make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first past the post. [Prolonged and sustained applause] … And within eighteen months of forming government we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform."

Was the commitment to electoral reform not one of the 32 pledges made by Justin Trudeau in the Liberal Party's electoral platform? Was that platform not called, "Real Change. A fair and open government?" Did not the Liberal Party explicitly state, "A Liberal government will change course. We will restore the integrity of our electoral process and improve the fairness of our elections." Did I imagine all of this?

Did not Governor General David Johnson -- representing her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and speaking on the behalf of the new Liberal Government of Justin Trudeau in the Speech from the Throne to open the forty-second Parliament of Canada -- not say, "To make sure that every vote counts, the Government will undertake consultations on electoral reform, and will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." Was I in the twilight zone when I heard this?

Were all Canadians experiencing auditory hallucinations?

If so, then Canadians can now be excused if they are suffering from the effects of exploding head syndrome. I was not in the least surprised to hear NDP MP Nathan Cullen -- a parliamentarian who has spent years working on electoral reform -- say:

"This is disgraceful for a prime minister to act this way. Particularly, one that promised to be so much different than the last government. Today the Prime Minster stood up and said to Canadians, 'I lied to get elected.' The sense of betrayal is real. I’m thinking about all those Canadians who in good faith invested in this conversation. The government of Canada asked them for their opinion, they gave it, and the government … ignored it. I just hope for more in our world than governments who are so arrogant."

I was not in the least shocked to hear federal Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, say that this move by Prime Minister Trudeau is the worst government betrayal of her adult life, adding that:

"The Liberal promise was not, 'we will consult and then tell you what we find.' There was never a pre-condition that they must find a national consensus before taking action. The promise was crystal clear. And I have to say as a woman leader of a federal political party, that I am deeply ashamed that our feminist Prime Minister threw two young women cabinet ministers under the bus on a key election promise. That he left them twisting in the wind. 

"I am deeply afraid that this betrayal will strike much more deeply in the hearts of Canadians than Prime Minister Trudeau recognizes. Particularly, among young people, in a time of dangerous politics. You must never do anything as a politician … that feeds cynicism. Cynicism has enough to feed (on) itself."

I feel much like Cullen and May. I could forgive the government many transgressions, but not this one. This is more than a solemn broken promise, it is a complete break of faith with their electoral mandate.

The Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform

 

When the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) was in Halifax, Nova Scotia in October of 2016 as part of their cross-country hearings, I was called as an expert witness. I have been writing about and advocating with respect to electoral reform for the past decade, working with organizations such Fair Vote Canada, Fair Vote Nova Scotia, Project Democracy, and Democracy: Vox Populi.

I participated in a panel discussion before the Committee and provided oral and written submissions. I sat in on other panels and listened to presentations from the public. I had a chance to discuss the work of the Committee with several members including Nathan Cullen (NDP, Skeena–Bulkley Valley), Elizabeth May (Green, Saanich–Gulf Islands), Ruby Sahota (Liberal, Brampton North), and Francis Scarpaleggia (Liberal, Lac-Saint-Louis).

I was impressed. After having testified previously before Parliamentary committees in the era of the Harper Conservatives when committees were purposely rendered dysfunctional and were riven by hyperpartisanship, I found the ERRE members remarkably well informed with regard to the many aspects of electoral reform. They asked salient and knowledgeable questions and were clearly interested in the responses. Relations between committee members of all political persuasions (every parliamentary party had representation) were beyond cordial and collegial -- they were downright friendly. The Committee was ably chaired by Francis Scarpaleggia with co-chairs Nathan Cullen and Scott Reid (Conservative, Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston). It was impossible not to come away with the feeling that this was an effective committee, committed to their task.

One of the important dimensions of selecting a better electoral system (such as one of the many flavours of proportional representation), is not only that it is much better and fairer in terms of representing the full spectrum of political beliefs found in society within the institutions of government, but that the system whereby we select our elected representatives itself paves the way towards such better governance.

Politics is a partisan activity, and so it should be. There exist different political visions and there should be a vigorous and informed contest as to which political course we follow. However, there is partisan and there is hyperpartisan.

A critical aspect of governance is the recognition that there exist other points of view. That a healthy society needs to operate on the basis of compromise and/or consensus. That no matter how sincere are our convictions, it is unreasonable to suppose that every decision will reflect our views alone. That effective governance is importantly predicated on the participation of the broadest possible spectrum of society feeling that it has a stake -- and a voice -- in that government.

Governments elected on the basis of systems of proportional representation are most frequently minority or coalition ones. This means that ministers sit across the cabinet table from their political rivals, and they must negotiate agreements with them. This can certainly be difficult, but it is a stepping-stone in achieving good government, representative of all and seen as being representative of all. Talking, debating, and finding commonalities is the heart and soul of effective politics. Forcing things down the throats of your opponents is not -- an understanding that evaded the Harper Conservatives.

This extends beyond legislators themselves to the electorate. If everyone's political voice is represented at the table where decisions are made, then everyone has a corresponding stake in the outcome. Even if the resulting decision does not reflect your view, you, through your political party, have been represented in the decision-making process. No one wins every battle. Compromises and tradeoffs sometimes have to be made. This is the hallmark of an effective polity.

In my brief exposure to the functioning of the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform it seemed to me that I could see a template of civility, collegiality, and consensus alive and well and operating within the Committee itself. If we want to foster better governance in Canada through electoral reform, then this group of parliamentarians were providing an example of just how this could work.

That was a solid accomplishment. Thus, Justin Trudeau's abandonment of it, is a both betrayal and a significant setback in achieving such better politics and better governance.

The Committee's Report

On December 1, 2016, the ERRE Committee released its report, "Strengthening Democracy in Canada: Principles, Processes, and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform." It is a fine and wide-ranging document (168 pages plus an additional 180 pages of appendices) that covers considerable ground related to electoral reform including chapters on the Canadian Constitution and electoral reform; a history of electoral reform efforts from 1921 to the present; a description of the features of and strengths and weakness of various electoral systems; ways of adapting these to a specifically Canadian context; mandatory voting; online voting; voting systems and how they can contribute to a diversity of representation, engagement, and participation of citizens; and how to move forward on electoral reform in Canada. It's  highly worthwhile reading.

The Committee concluded with 13 recommendations that included:

• Emphasizing the critical importance of having an electoral system that minimizes the gap between the popular will of the electorate and the resulting parliamentary seat allocations;

• The Committee recommended against mandatory voting and online and electronic voting;

• The Committee advocated for measures that would improve voter turnout of historically disenfranchised and under-represented groups; those with disabilities; the early registration of youth; and measures to improve overall voter participation;

• Crucially, the Committee acknowledged that, of those who wanted change, the overwhelming majority of testimony was in favour of proportional representation (my emphasis).

Sidebar: The Gallagher Index

In the report the Committee made reference to a statistical measure called the Gallagher Index that shows how well a voting system reflects popular will in parliamentary composition (i.e., the principle democratic objective of electoral systems). It's a simple formula (see below) that, however, was pilloried by then Minister of Electoral Institutions, Marayam Monsef, clearly trying to give the impression that the committee was recommending an abstruse and incomprehensible electoral system. Monsef either failed to understand the index at all or else was deliberately trying to undermine the work of the Committee. 

The Gallagher Index is not the basis of an electoral system, simply a measure to gauge how well electoral systems perform in achieving democratic fairness. Monsef's antics were a silly and pointless piece of parliamentary theatre that she was forced to apologize for on the following day.

[Note: Anyone with any familiarity with statistics will recognize this formula as the square root of half of the sum of the square of the percentages of the vote (V) and the percentages of the seats (S); an elementary statistical way of indicating disparities between the two. Such measures are routinely employed in statistics; the Gallagher Index adapts this for use in an electoral context. Values range from "0," which would indicate a perfect fit between vote and seats, and 100, which would be a complete mismatch.] 

In that context, the Committee recommended an electoral system that had a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less, which is interpreted as an "excellent" fit between the popular will of the electorate and the resulting parliamentary seat allocations. As a basis of reference, in the last Canadian federal election, FPTP delivered an electoral result with a Gallagher Index of 12.02. Democratically speaking this is rather poor. How does this compare with other electoral systems?

In 2005 in New Zealand, which uses an MMP system of proportional representation, the election result had a Gallagher Index of 1.13, in other words, phenomenal. The 2012 Australian election (Australia uses an Alternative Vote, or Ranked Ballot voting system), in contrast, delivered a result with a Gallagher Index of 31.16 -- in other words, terrible.

So, while the Committee did not recommend any specific voting system, its emphasis on ensuring an excellent fit between the popular will of the electorate and the resulting parliamentary seat allocations (the core requirement for a genuinely democratic system) makes clear what the choice needs to be -- a system of proportional representation (PR).

The specific "flavour" of the PR system to be employed, whether a Multi-Member Proportional (MMP) approach, a Single Transferable Vote (STV) approach, a Rural-Urban Proportional Representation (RUP) approach, or variants on these (they can all be "tweaked" to best adapt them to the Canadian demographic, geographic, and political context) is something that the report leaves for the government to determine.

In their supplementary opinion to the report, the NDP and Green parties highlighted both MMP and RUP as approaches that would yield a Gallagher score of less than four, and so they recommended the government consider one of these two proportional representation methods as the system to implement in Canada.

The Consultation

Not only did the ERRE Committee deliver an excellent and well-considered report to the government, it also reflected what the 196 expert witnesses and 567 Canadians who spoke to the Committee during the 57 meetings that the Committee held in every province and territory of the country. 

There were 296 submissions that argued against the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system (85.1 per cent) whereas only 44 (14.9 per cent) were in favour. Only a small proportion (4.8 per cent of those who testified) spoke in favour of an alternative vote (AV), and an even larger percentage (7.1 per cent) spoke against AV. Finally, 291 submissions (92.4 per cent) were in favour of a system of proportional representation (PR); only 22 (7.6 per cent) of submissions argued against it. [Figure 1]

[Note: not all submissions to the ERRE Committee concerned themselves with changes to the voting system; some focused on mandatory voting, electronic voting, changes to the age of eligibility, measures to improve voter turnout, measures to expand participation amongst under-represented constituencies, etc. -- all topics that were part of the committee's mandate.]

 

In regard to the question of whether a referendum was needed in order to proceed with electoral reform, 28 submissions (19 per cent) were in favour of such a referendum before proceeding. Eighty-one per cent argued that either no referendum at all was required (59 per cent), or that a referendum should be undertaken only after one or several election cycles (22 per cent) following the New Zealand example (see further information below). [Figure 2]

What Do Canadians Want?

Thanks to the work of Frank Graves at Ekos Politics we know with considerable precision what Canadians want. [See: The Public Outlook on Electoral Reform: What do Canadians Want? dated October, 2016.] Fifty-one per cent of Canadians are dissatisfied with the current FPTP electoral system (compared to 36 per cent who are satisfied; 13 per cent don't know or did not respond (DK/NR)]. [Figure 3]

Forty-three per cent of Canadians believe PR is the superior electoral system (compared to 26 per cent who favour AV, and 29 per cent who favour FPTP). Only 19 per cent think that PR is the worst option for Canada (compared to 32 per cent that feel AV is the worst, and 41 per cent that feel FPTP is the worst system). [Figure 4]

 

Crucially, when asked whether electoral reform is something that the Liberal Party should deliver on (having campaigned on this promise), 59 percent agreed (as compared to 21 percent who disagreed; 16 per cent thought neither; 4 per cent DK/NR). [Figure 5]

 

When asked if the federal government should move ahead with replacing Canada's FPTP electoral system, 62 per cent of Canadians said "yes" (compared to 31 per cent who said no; 8 per cent DK/NR). And, of the people who wanted the federal government to take action on electoral reform, 63 per cent wanted a PR system (compared to 36 per cent for AV; 2 per cent DK/NR). [Figure 6]

 

Electoral Reform: The turning tide

I have been investigating public engagement with issues of electoral reform for a number of years. (For example, see: Interest in electoral reform spikes dramatically.) Below is a figure (from a report being prepared for publication) that illustrates the dramatic increase in interest in electoral reform in Canada in the last decade and a half. The time series depicted is the 14 years from 2003 to 2016 and illustrates the number of references to the term "Electoral Reform" in online sources. The data is only from Canadian sources and is adjusted to compensate for the overall year-to-year growth of web content (the moving trend line is also plotted). [Figure 7]

 

It shows a dramatic spike in interest in electoral reform in Canada since 2009, increasing almost 31 fold over that seven-year interval. This data doesn't tell you what Canadians are saying about electoral reform, but it tells you that interest in the subject has increased enormously in the country in the last seven years. This is a hot topic in Canadian discourse. 

Does Justin Trudeau take Canadians for fools?

When scuttling the Liberal government's promise to reform the electoral system, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said:

"There is no consensus. There is no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible to do something that harms Canada's stability."

Does Justin Trudeau take Canadians for fools? A consensus does not mean unanimity. It does not mean that everyone agrees. Such a high bar would be unachievable. Recent polling (above) shows that 62 per cent of Canadians want electoral reform. And of those, 63 per cent favour a system of proportional representation. Interest in proportional representation has increased over thirty-fold in the last seven years.

The Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform (a committee representing every political party in Parliament) spent half a year studying the issue in great detail, travelling to every province and territory of the country in 57 meetings that drew testimony from 196 expert witnesses and 567 Canadians who appeared before the committee. [Note: Additionally 22,247 Canadians responded to an online electronic consultation.] The vast majority (85.1 per cent) opposed the present electoral system, and of those, 92.4 per cent favoured some form of proportional representation. How can this be understood as indicating anything but an very strong desire -- under any reasonable interpretation, a consensus -- that Canadians clearly want to jettison the first-past-the-post system and to embrace a system of proportional representation? What other conclusion can reasonably be drawn?

Does Justin Trudeau take Canadians for fools? Does he believe that we will ignore the evidence of our eyes and ears? Trudeau made the issue of electoral reform central to his election bid in 2015. He iterated and reiterated his political commitment to electoral reform from coast to coast to coast. It was one of 32 key promises in the Liberal Electoral Platform ("Real Change" no less). Justin Trudeau created a new ministry and minister explicitly for this purpose. He repeated the promise in the Throne Speech at the opening of the 42nd Parliament. No one could possibly accuse him or the Liberal Party in being less than forthright in their commitment to implement electoral reform. They said it over, and over, and over again in completely unambiguous terms.

And Canadians took Justin Trudeau at his word. Fifty-nine per cent of Canadians maintain that this is a promise that the Liberals campaigned on and that they must deliver on their promise.

Does Justin Trudeau take Canadians for fools? How is it possible -- with a straight face -- to maintain that there is not sufficient consensus to move on this initiative? In the face of a detailed study by the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform that addresses every question related to the subject, how is it possible to credibly claim that, "there is no clear path forward"?

How can honouring an oft-repeated, explicit, and unambiguous promise to implement something that is widely supported by Canadians be construed as "irresponsible"? How on earth could keeping your political word "harm Canadian stability"? What could that even mean? Is not breaking iron-clad commitments something which is harmful to the Canadian political fabric?

Does Justin Trudeau take Canadians for fools?

I'll let you decide.

Why electoral reform?

Why electoral reform? Here are extracts from my testimony before the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform on October 4, 2016.

Electoral reform is critically important for the future of Canadian democracy. The idea that citizens should determine the governance of a country was a radical one originating in the sixth century BC in Athens. Over two and a half millennia it spread throughout much of the world, and as it dispersed it evolved. In Athens only land-owning men who were over 20 and were not slaves were permitted to vote.

In Canada the secret ballot was introduced in 1874 and women were enfranchised in 1918. There were once voting restrictions related to wealth, religion, race, and ethnicity in Canada. All these have now been eliminated and we recognize they are incompatible with an inclusive, egalitarian, and fair society. One important obstacle that does remain is the first-past-the-post electoral system.

It's understandable how it came into being. From 1867 to 1920 there were effectively only two political parties the Conservatives and Liberals. [Except for the very first election in 1867 when the Anti-Confederates, lead by Nova Scotia Premier and later Lieutenant Governor, Joseph Howe, briefly formed a separate block in Parliament]. In a two-party polity, first-past-the-post produces acceptably democratic outcomes, and over the first third of our country's existence this was how things were done.

However, in 1921 the Progressive and United Farmer's parties came into being, and since then -- almost a century -- there has never been a period when less than three -- and frequently four or five -- political parties have been represented in Parliament. The proliferation of parties characterizes the evolution of democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries and is a positive development that we need to attune our electoral system to.

It doesn't require great mathematical acumen to understand why first-past-the-post begins to break down when there are more than two parties. The greater the number, the more unrepresentative are electoral outcomes as a result of "splits" in the vote. Because outcome is determined exclusively by which party's candidate is first, de facto every vote cast for every candidate other than the runner-up amounts to a vote for the winner. This leads to highly unrepresentative results in which the spectrum of elected candidates can depart dramatically from levels of support in the country. Thus, parties that have significant support, but rank numerically second in many ridings, have a much diminished chance of parliamentary representation. And parties ranked third or fourth -- even though this may include hundreds of thousands of Canadians -- have only a miniscule chance of representation.

This is problematic for the democratic health of a country. First of all, on first principles, we ought to strive for a Parliament that fairly represents the spectrum of political belief in our country. Secondly, with a plurality of parties on the political field, outcomes under first-past-the-post give rise to the view that many ballots are "wasted" -- that these political convictions result in no meaningful democratic expression. Such voters feel disenfranchised by the system. This, not unreasonably, gives rise to political cynicism, never good for the political health of a country, and nowhere more so than amongst young voters.

 

In Canada, voter turnout has been diminishing for the past half century from almost 80 per cent between 1958 and 1963, to 58.8 per cent in 2008, before rebounding to 68.5 per cent in 2015. Elections Canada has only tracked youth turnout since the year 2000, but over that time turnout for the 18–24 age demographic has averaged 44.1 per cent, whereas overall turnout has averaged 62.5 per cent, i.e., almost a third lower. I'm not suggesting that first-past-the-post is entirely responsible for declining turnout, but there is evidence that unrepresentative outcomes contribute to an alienation from electoral participation and political engagement.

 

Canada has not been alone in this regard and many mature, stable democracies in the developed world have adopted better electoral systems. Indeed, in the developed world, only Canada, Great Britain, and the United States continue to employ the first-past-the-post system. Elsewhere systems of proportional representation are employed: at last count in 94 countries. Voters in all these jurisdictions have been able to understand and employ PR and there is no reason to suppose that Canadians would any less adept.

There are a number of different approaches to proportional representation, from party lists, mixed-member (MMP), and single-transferable vote (STV) systems, and there are variations in how these are implemented. There is a large discourse around their respective advantages. However, the most salient issue is that we implement proportional representation and not, for example, a ranked ballot system. In my view, electoral systems that are based on pure proportionality, for example those in Israel or Italy, would not be suitable in a Canadian context.

It is important to set a threshold for parliamentary representation -- 5 per cent is frequently used, although in some jurisdictions it ranges down to 2 or 3 per cent. It is democratically defensible to posit that a political inclination does have to meet a minimum threshold of acceptance before it is given representation in the forum that determines the direction of the country.

In my view, maintaining a geographical connection between elected representatives and the electorate is also desirable. It assists voters in feeling connected to "their" parliamentarians and is useful, both for constituency work, and in terms of geographically-linked community expression -- something important in as large and culturally diverse a nation as Canada. These objectives can be readily achieved by various implementations of MMP, STV and Party List approaches.

It's also worth underscoring that although electoral reform is not a panacea for all political problems, it can play an important role in contributing to a more productive political climate. With minority or coalition governments a frequent outcome with proportional representation, there is the necessity for political parties to work together. With several parties round the table, everyone has a stake in reaching a mutually acceptable solution. With representatives of multiple parties involved in decision-making, there is a sense of "ownership" of the decision, even if every party did not achieve all that was desired. Simply put, this results in better governance and an easier path of public acceptance of government decisions.

With respect to ranked ballot systems (a.k.a,, preferential ballots, alternative vote, or instant runoff voting), which are used for federal elections only in Australia and Papua New Guinea (and for presidential elections in Ireland), this approach produces more representative results than first-past-the-post in non-partisan contexts, for example, in municipal elections or in intra-party elections to select leaders where second and third choices of trailing contenders who are eliminated can be factored into the choices for leading candidates. Thus, the candidate who "wins" has the strongest support overall, and not just of the fraction that selected them first. It is, however, a winner-take-all, majoritarian approach that, while suitable for selecting a single position, is completely unsuitable for selecting a representative body and does nothing to address proportional inequalities.

In my view, a referendum on this question is not required. The federal Liberal Party campaigned explicitly and prominently on a platform of electoral reform. We need to get on with it. It is easy to conjecture all manner of difficulties with regard to a new approach to voting (the vast majority of which prove to be red herrings) and the status quo always exerts an inertial pull.

What might be useful to consider would be a referendum some time after electoral reform was implemented. For instance, in New Zealand the previous first-past-the-post system was replaced by an MMP one in 1996. In 2011, after 15 years and six elections, New Zealanders were asked if they favored MMP or wished to change to another system (i.e., return to FPTP or one of three other potential options). From an informed perspective, and by a margin of 57.8 percent in favour, they chose to continue with MMP.

For all of the above reasons, our choice in Canada should be clear. For a vibrant democracy and representative fairness we require the implementation of a system of proportional representation.

Fair Vote Canada

For those who want even more detailed information about electoral reform and proportional representation I can't think of a better resource to consult than the superb website of Fair Vote Canada that addresses a plethora of issues on this topic. I won't try and replicate the unambiguous case for electoral reform and proportional representation that emerges from a reading of these documents -- read them yourself and draw your own conclusions. 

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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