Canadians expect -- and were promised -- a fairer deal from Liberals on electoral reform

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Electoral reform may or may not happen, despite Prime Minister Trudeau's solemn pledge to replace the first-past-the-post system before the next election.

The whole process is fraught with uncertainty and clouded by partisan politics.

One thing is certain, though: the current process is eliciting a lot of comment, little of it favourable.

Few, on either the right or left, believe a parliamentary committee in which the Liberals have six voting members and the combined opposition parties four is a good plan.

That sort of representation by party may be the way standing committees of the House are normally formed, but this special committee is not just any old committee.

Its job will be to set the rules of the game. And it does not seem fair, to a great many who have commented, for the Liberals to use the advantage they gained via the old rules, which they say must change, to give themselves untrammelled power to set the new rules.

One could add that it is also politically maladroit to proceed as the Liberals have.

If they wanted electoral reform to earn widespread popular support, the governing Liberals would be more likely to succeed if the new system were not the choice of only one party.

Now, the Conservatives probably want the status quo and nothing else. And they will almost certainly insist that any potential change be submitted to a national referendum.

It will be difficult for the Liberals to find common ground with the Conservatives.

But the New Democrats favour change -- only not exactly, it appears, the change the Liberals are thought to favour. At least for now.

NDPers want mixed-member proportional (not pure proportional, mind you, and for more on that, see below), while most Liberals seem to favour some sort of ranked ballot.

But at least the two parties both want change, and there might be room for some sort of compromise that satisfied both, such as a mixed member system that was also preferential. That is entirely possible.

Let's say the composition of the committee were modified to represent parties on the basis of their popular vote in last election, rather then their seat count.

That would give the Liberals five seats (rather than six), the Conservatives three (which they now have) and the NDP two. Whether or not the Greens and Bloc get voting seats, rather than the non-voting they now have, is a question for another day.

Under this modified scenario, the committee would function more or less like a minority government. The five Liberals would not be able to adopt any measures without someone else's support.

The benefit to the Liberals would be that any ultimate recommendation the committee might make would not look like something concocted to suit the Liberals alone.

Why the current government does not have the courage of its democratic convictions to proceed this way is something of a mystery.

During the election campaign Justin Trudeau promised an all-party committee to examine electoral reform, a pledge repeated  in the Speech from the Throne.

Nowhere did the Prime Minister add that it would be an all-party committee on which the Liberals could happily ignore the other parties, and use their majority to pass whatever they wished.

That's the way the Harper government functioned. And voters had expected -- and been promised -- better from the new Trudeau government.

Define terms accurately

And while we're on the subject of electoral reform: as we get into the nitty-gritty, many of us might have a tendency to be a bit vague and sloppy in describing the various options.

This is already happening.

Take this example from a seasoned journalist who is usually more scrupulous about the facts, the Toronto Star's Tom Walkom:

"In other countries that use PR, such as Germany, governments are relatively stable and coalitions tend to hold. Often that's because these countries require political parties to meet a significant vote threshold -- say five per cent of the total -- before being allowed to take seats …"

That is Walkom's second reference to Germany, in a column that makes the point that Canada would be no more or less democratic with or without a new electoral system.

It's sort of a non-point, but hard to refute.

The problem with the reference to Germany is that Walkom never tells his readers the most important fact: namely, that Germany does not have pure proportional, but rather a hybrid system, half first-past-the-post and half proportional.

That is the reason -- as much as the five per cent threshold -- for Germany's relative stability.

Most Canadians who advocate introducing proportionality into our system favour something along the lines of the German system, usually called mixed member proportional.

Too often, however, commentators miss that nuance, and speak as though one option on the table would be a purely proportional system, with all the drawbacks such a system might entail.

If we're going to have any useful dialogue on electoral reform we will have to be punctiliously clear as to what we're talking about.

And do not forget the stability of the Canadian federation

And finally, for today, there is an aspect of the electoral system that the terms of reference for the special committee do not mention, but which could be crucial for the stability of Canada not only as a democracy, but as a federation.

This writer wrote about that issue -- the federalism issue -- last November.

This is some of what I had to say at the time, which might be even more pertinent now that the starting gun has been sounded on the race to a new electoral system. 

Changing the federal voting system is usually portrayed as a matter of fairness, of making every vote count. 

Those who argue for reform say the current winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system breeds political apathy and cynicism, because voters who did not happen to choose the winning candidate in their riding can legitimately feel their votes were wasted.

But there is another pernicious aspect to Canada's first-past-the-post system.

For the most part, first-past-the-post rewards parties that manage to geographically concentrate their votes.

We saw an extreme version of that in the 1993 election, when the Proressive Conservative (PC) party got only two seats with over 16 per cent of the popular vote, while the separatist Bloc Québecois won 54 seats with slightly more than half the Conservatives’ vote total.

The PC vote was spread thinly over all the ridings in the country, while the Bloc only bothered to run candidates in Quebec's 75 ridings.

The third place party, Reform, of which Stephen Harper was one of the newly elected members, got only slightly more votes than the PCs, but about 25 times the number of seats.

Its vote, too, was geographically concentrated. It ran no candidates in Quebec and focused most of its efforts on the four western provinces, where it won all but one of its seats.

Electoral systems create incentives for political behaviour and some of the incentives of first-past-the-post have had a pernicious impact on the unity and cohesion of the Canadian federation.

Let us imagine that back in 1993 we had a different electoral system.

Under most alternative systems, the Bloc would have had a much smaller number of seats and national parties such as the Conservatives and New Democrats would have had more.

If the Bloc, then led by Lucien Bouchard, had been more of a rump than a powerhouse in Ottawa maybe Canadian history would be different.

We might still have had to endure the Quebec referendum of 1995, but the Bloc leader might not have had the stature to assume the key and nearly decisive role he did in that near death experience for the Canadian federation.

The entirely western-focused Reform party would also have been relatively smaller vis-à-vis the PCs. In the merger process that happened about a decade later the balance of power between the two would have been very different.

It would not have been inevitable that we would end up with Stephen Harper as the merged party's leader, and, ultimately, prime minister.

We might have had a less polarizing and more centrist Conservative leader.

First-past-the-post has created its own sort of instability

The most important lesson here is that it is unhealthy for Canadian federalism to have an electoral system that artificially exaggerates political parties' popularity in some regions while it underrepresents them in others.

At first blush, the current election seems to have produced a far less skewed result than that of 1993.

Still, nearly half the voters of New Brunswick who picked parties other than the Liberals got not a single seat for their troubles.  Nor did the one-fifth of voters who chose the NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador -- to cite just two examples.

In giant Ontario, all parties are represented, but does it make sense that all save two of the 49 MPs from the vast Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are from one political party?

The Liberals did well in the GTA, but not that well. 

Is it healthy for Canadian democracy if voters who supported the Conservatives or New Democrats in Canada's largest metropolitan region are so vastly under-represented, or without representation at all?

One could reasonably argue that it is not. Would it not be useful for a large and important region such as metropolitan Toronto to have a number of vigorous opposition voices in the House of Commons, voices who would speak up for local concerns when government members might remain silent?

The October election produced a good result for the Liberals.

They have balanced representation across the country, something no party has achieved since the 1980s. But the first-past-the-post system does not usually produce such a result.

Even Jean Chrétien’s three consecutive majorities depended on his getting all or almost all the seats in Ontario, while failing to win significant representation in francophone Quebec or in western provinces such as Alberta.

When he sets out to reform the electoral system, as he has solemnly promised to do, the newly elected prime minister will want to consider the federalism, as well as the fairness, dimension.

In evaluating the impact of first-past-the-post, Justin Trudeau would be well advised to look beyond the most recent election results to possible outcomes of future elections.

As they have in the past, future first-past-the-post elections would likely exaggerate the power and influence of political parties that seek not to find common ground among Canadians but to exacerbate regional differences. 

That would not be good for the long term health of the federal system in Canada. 

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