Liberals will fix election rules while keeping first-past-the-post

The Trudeau government is pushing through Bill C-76, which will regulate how federal elections are run in Canada. As we mentioned in this space on May 4, many of the bill’s provisions roll back measures the Harper government enacted in its oxymoronically entitled Fair Elections Act. 

C-76 will allow one voter to vouch for another who lacks the necessary paper identification, a time-honoured practice Harper banned.

The bill will end Harper’s prohibition of the Chief Electoral Officer communicating openly and freely with Canadians. Elections Canada will once again be allowed to engage in get-out-the-vote information campaigns, for instance.

C-76 will permit the use, as identification, of the Voter Information Cards (VICs) Elections Canada provides to all voters. The Conservatives maliciously banned the VICs, knowing full well they were the only ID many poor, Indigenous and young voters would have.

Some measures in C-76 are not rollbacks of Harper measures; they are new initiatives. For instance, the bill limits spending by outside groups, known as third parties, to $700,000, and, for the first time, regulates campaign-style activity by parties during the so-called pre-writ period, before the official campaigns get underway. 

The Conservatives abhor those latter provisions. The ability to spend outside the official campaign period has been a boon for the Conservatives, with their well-filled coffers. 

The Conservatives also do not like the fact that the Liberal government has not ruled out using time allocation to get C-76 through parliament before the House rises for the summer. When in power, the Harper team made frequent use of time allocation, and, in general showed scant regard for parliament. They are in opposition now, so, naturally, their views have changed. 

NDPers generally support C-76. In the last parliament it was NDP MP Craig Scott who led the charge against the restrictive and unfair Fair Elections Act. But New Democrats are also uncomfortable with time allocation. The NDP’s democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen says the timing problems for C-76 are of the Liberals’ own creation. They delayed too long in bringing it forward, and even killed an earlier bill that contained some of the measures now rolled into C-76.

Despite opposition qualms, it is hard to imagine the Liberal government will not find a way to get this bill through the House, and quickly at that. However, as we learned from the experience of the marijuana bill, among others, the now largely independent Senate will be another matter.  The current crop of Senators do not seem to feel impelled to do the government’s bidding, at least not in haste. 

The timing is important because the clock is ticking loudly on these election measures. The next federal vote is less than a year and a half away, and Elections Canada says it will take some time for it to implement some of the measures in C-76.

We will keep the same voting system with all its flaws

What is missing from this entire effort, as rabble readers will know, is any mention of Trudeau’s signature democratic reform promise: the end to the first-past-the-post voting system. After repeating his promise to change the electoral system hundreds of times, both before and after the 2015 election, the prime minister woke up one morning and casually and insouciantly dropped it. He said he did not feel duty-bound to tick a box on an electoral program. 

If Trudeau’s betrayal of a key and oft-repeated promise seems outrageous to some, many of his supporters do not seem to care a whit. One 2015 Liberal voter told this writer he thought our electoral system works just fine and he was happy Trudeau broke that particular promise.  Another bemoaned the fact that a split on the centre-left could help elect Doug Ford in Ontario, while, in the same breath, he raised the canard that a reformed electoral system would fractionalize the Canadian parliament Israeli-style. 

One hears that latter argument a lot. The fact that nobody has every proposed anything resembling the Israeli purely proportional system for Canada does not seem to matter to those who want to keep our cosy and familiar first-past-the-post system.

In reality, there are two main proposals that electoral reformers frequently float in Canada. 

One is for a mixed member proportional system, such as they have in Germany, in which half or more of members of parliament would be elected under the same first-past-the-post method we now use and the other half would be elected proportionately, by party.

The other is for a single transferable ballot, which combines some of the features of what was once Justin Trudeau’s favourite reform option, the ranked ballot, and the proportional vote. 

Trudeau’s beloved ranked ballot system allows voters to indicated first, second and third choices (and sometimes more) on their ballot. When candidates win more than half the first choices they are automatically elected.  When no candidate crosses the 50 per cent line on first choices, officials then count second, and, if necessary, third and subsequent choices -- until one candidate has more than half the total votes.  

With a ranked ballot we would still have the same one-MP-per-riding system we have now. The benefit of taking into account second, third and fourth choices would be to mitigate against electing a majority for a party that could command, say, a solid and firm 39 per cent of first choices, but virtually nobody else’s second choice.

The single transferable vote system, like Trudeau’s once-favoured option, also provides for ranking first, second, third and fourth choices. But it then apportions the vote proportionately, in multi-member ridings. The result would be that we would all have multiple members of parliament, and often of different parties. The parties with more support in each large riding would get more members; but other parties would not, as a rule, be left out completely – as they are under first-past-the-post. 

Journalistic reductionism and mockery of reform do not help

Both the mixed member proportional and single transferable systems would tend to eliminate the syndrome we suffer from now in which whole regions within provinces and, sometimes, whole provinces or regions of the country elect members from only one party. 

In the 2015 election, the Liberals won every single in seat in the four Atlantic provinces. That meant, for instance, the quarter of voters in New Brunswick who voted Conservative or one in five in Newfoundland who voted New Democrat got zero representation.  

Trudeau was once seized with this and the many other aberrations of first-past-the-post. He no longer cares. 

Currently, the most prominent federal champion of electoral reform is the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh. This past Sunday CBC Radio’s Michael Enright did a feature interview with Singh, which ranged widely, touching on both policy and personality. At one point Enright asked the New Democratic leader why he was so committed to changing the electoral system, which, Enright said seems to be a quixotic task, given the history of failed efforts.  Singh gave a reasonable and coherent reply, emphasizing the need to give everyone a voice in a democracy. 

Enright was less interested, however in the merits of reform than its saleability. It would be as likely for Canadians to accept reform as for him to date Taylor Swift, the veteran CBC host said. 

And then the distinguished journalist and broadcaster, who takes pride in mastering complex subjects and rendering them understandable to listeners, averred that he himself has difficulty grasping the subtleties and complexities of electoral reform.

It was mockery parading as public interest journalism, and helps explain why a good many intelligent and informed Canadians are so woefully uninformed about the true nature of electoral reform. 

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