'Anything but first-past-the-post' is not the answer to Canada's electoral problem

| October 30, 2015
Photo: flickr/ Andrew Bates

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Canada's new Liberal majority government has promised Canadians a new electoral system in the first half of their mandate. With the election results yet again skewed, a new voting system is desperately needed.

However, in place of calls for "fair voting," "proportional representation" and "equal votes," we now hear some groups and progressives trumpeting the empty term "electoral reform."

As one long-time progressive mistakenly exclaimed, "surely anything would be better than first-past-the-post!"


If the election was run under proportional representation (PR), Canada would have ended up with 137 Liberal MPs, 109 Conservative MPs, 67 NDP MPs, 10 Green MPs and 15 Bloc MPs. That Liberal-NDP coalition the largest plurality of voters went to the polls to create would have come into being.

With a mixed-member PR system -- one that meets Canadian constitutional requirements that all MPs represent a single- or multi-member district in an individual province or territory -- these MPs would reflect the diversity within each of Canada's regions.

Every province would send NDP and Conservative MPs to Ottawa, in contrast to our current result, in which Conservatives and New Democrats in Atlantic Canada have no MPs. And, for the first time, the hundreds of thousands of Greens in Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec would be represented. 

If the Liberals' official policy for voting reform, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) were in effect, we would see a very different result -- -- one that magnified the inequalities of our archaic first-past-the-post (FPTP) system -- according to Nanos Research's polling of voters' second choices in its final pre-election poll.

The Liberal Party would have gained an additional 22 seats, rising to 206 seats; the Conservatives would lose 23 seats, falling to 76; the NDP would do unusually well for a third party, rising to 50, while the Bloc would lose half its caucus, falling to five MPs and the Greens would keep their one seat.

Just as IRV magnifies the disproportionality of our current winner-take-all system, converting the Liberals' 39.5 per cent of the vote into 61 per cent of the seats, instead of the 54 per cent our current system does, it also magnifies regional inequalities.

Not only would IRV insure that the NDP and Conservatives had no Atlantic MPs, it would also reduce these parties' representation throughout English Canada.

The only bright spot for the NDP's picture would be Quebec because the party's first-place tie with the Liberals in Francophone Quebec would result in net gains for both parties at the expense of the Conservatives and Bloc.

At our present political moment, the risk of institutionalizing an even less fair and representative voting system that further magnifies our regional divisions and even more effectively silences minority voices has never been greater.

And that is because the Liberals have been hard at work forging a false political consensus around this IRV policy for half a decade.

Canadians have actually been down this road, or one very like it, before. A little under a century ago, an electoral reform idea took off in North America. A group of "progressives" (that was the name of the political movement that brought us Teddy Roosevelt as well as Tommy Douglas) proposed sweeping changes to municipal politics.

For many years, voters in North America's cities had suffered under a corrupt system of ward bosses controlling single-member ghetto-like wards. By the 1930s, there was a near-consensus that the system was too broken, too corrupt that anything was better than the status quo.

And so the "electoral reform" movement led by "progressives" proposed something called "commission government." The neighbourhood wards, on which the power of the great 19th-century city bosses was built, would be ended and a new system would be inaugurated. Districts would be consolidated into massive multi-member wards and powers exercised by councillors would be transferred to a new, professionalized "city manager" office.

The effects of these reforms were devastating for labour, leftists and low-income communities in cities like Vancouver. Every CCF and labour councillor lost their seat. Voter turnout collapsed. In place of competing party machines knocking on doors in low-income communities, a one-party state based in the city's wealthiest neighbourhood, Shaughnessy, arose. It would take more than 30 years for even a single NDPer to make it onto city council and half a century for leftists to even be included in a government.

The reason this was allowed to happen was that a change-at-all-costs narrative had been built by cynical Liberal Party fixers. The existing voting system was so illegitimate and hated that people began uttering that fateful claim, "anything would be better than this."

Now, Trudeau and his Liberals are about to engage us in a sorry pantomime. Handpicked "electoral reform" movement leaders will join a sham process of consultation, negotiation and brokerage whose conclusion is already foreordained.

Inevitably, it seems a "compromise" of IRV will be announced, bringing reformers and advocates of the current system together. This nonsense of incrementalism where, supposedly, by switching to one of only two systems less proportional than FPTP, we will somehow move Canada towards PR, has been tried-out on Toronto progressives for the past six years, and has succeeded in hornswoggling many otherwise-sharp minds into backing a system best described as "FPTP on steroids."

Canada's only hope is to expose this scheme now, to speak with clarity about the true meaning of fairness and the reasons it is important to change our voting system. It is only by exposing the true agenda of Liberal backroom operatives, by mobilizing sincere and committed advocates for fair voting, that we might shame those in power into engaging sincerely with fixing our voting system.

It will be tough but this, too, has worked before.


Stuart Parker, a Surrey-based writer and university lecturer, has been a leader in Canada's electoral reform movement since 1996, serving on the boards of the Electoral Change Coalition, Fair Voting BC and Fair Vote Canada. He is currently the president of MoVE: the Movement for Voter Equality and Los Altos Institute. His political writing can be found at stuartparker.ca

Photo: flickr/ Andrew Bates



We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.