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Promises always look easier in opposition. The Trudeau government has already repeatedly faced this reality and it’s confronting them now on the question of our voting system. Mr. Trudeau famously promised that the 2015 election would be the last fought under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but he didn’t commit to a particular alternative, or how we decide on that alternative. That’s the tough task at hand.

There are several curious aspects to this business. What if the alternative favoured by most Canadians is actually the present one, as several provincial referenda on the subject suggest? Yet first-past-the-post is not open for discussion, it seems. The PM has already ruled it out. Many commentators are convinced that’s because the Liberal Party has the most to gain from dumping FPTP and introducing a preferential voting system. Yet the Liberals have done just fine over the decades with the present system.

Since Laurier became Liberal leader in 1887, they’ve gotten 50 per cent of the vote only three times yet formed majority governments 16 times, including 2015. They haven’t actually won 50 per cent of the vote since Mackenzie King’s first election in 1940, 76 years ago, yet have won 10 majority governments in that time. In his five elections, despite Trudeaumania, Pierre Trudeau never won more than 45 per cent of the vote, yet formed three majorities. Why in the world are the Liberals looking to dump a system that’s been so good to them?

Conversely, why are the Conservatives apparently so anxious to maintain FPTP, when it’s been such a blessing to the Liberals? Only they know.

Why are the NDP so gung-ho for proportional representation, when some of their greatest successes were a gift of FPTP? In the famous Orange Sweep of 2011, Jack Layton led the NDP to an unprecedented three-fifths of the seats in Quebec, with 43 per cent of the votes. FPTP provided the extra seats.

In fact, at the provincial level, FPTP has blessed the NDP across the country. It’s been the party’s magical elixir. When Bob Rae led the Ontario NDP in 1990, he won a massive majority with only 37 per cent of the vote. Rachel Notley won her smashing majority with 40 per cent of the vote. The NDP has won three majority governments in B.C., never taking more than 40 per cent of the vote. It governed Manitoba for 17 years through four elections and never quite got 50 per cent of the vote.

In all these cases, the final results were determined by how the three parties split the vote in any given seat. That’s also how Steven Harper won his four governments. In his only majority he received 39 per cent of the vote.

Still, if I were advising either the Liberals or NDP, I’d strongly recommend they take the high road and oppose FPTP, even if they’ve benefited from it. It’s a simple matter of principle. Proportional representation (PR) is more democratic than FPTP, because the government elected will accurately reflect the way Canadians vote.

But to raise issues related to democracy is to raise the question of referendums (or referenda), which are favoured by the Conservatives. They insist only a referendum can legitimize something as fundamental to our democracy as changing our voting system. Presumably the Conservatives also believe a referendum would end up supporting the FPTP status quo, as they themselves do.

But there’s a huge problem here. As any sensible political scientist will attest, the legitimacy of a referendum depends to a substantial extent on the clarity of its language. It must not be too complex or raise issues that most voters will find baffling and thereby diminish the credibility of the result.

Here for example is the question from the 2007 Ontario Referendum on Electoral Reform:

Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?

The existing electoral system.

The alternative electoral system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly (Mixed Member Proportional).

It’s true that an education campaign was launched, but we can reasonably wonder how many people were really familiar with the Citizens’ Assembly and its proposed Mixed Member Proportional system. It’s hardly a surprise that the existing system, known first-hand by all, won in a walk 63 per cent to 37 per cent.

How can a referendum on our national voting system be any less convoluted than the Ontario one? Even if the references are less obscure, there are so many issue to be voted on: do Canadians actually favour a new system? If so, do Canadians believe a referendum is needed to decide on that voting system? If so, how do we determine what kind of alternative voting system has the most support?

Each of these requires a straightforward question. But not all can be explained straightforwardly. To ask all of them on the same ballot is a surefire way to overwhelm that majority of Canadians who don’t follow politics closely. Citizens must then also choose which of the FPTP systems they prefer. But each one has its own complications and can be tortuous to explain clearly. So logically each of these questions demands its own referendum, which is too preposterous to contemplate. It will never happen. So we’ll never in fact know the views of most Canadians on these fundamental matters.

As for achieving the government’s undefined goal of “widespread support” for the option chosen, virtually the only surefire way to do so is to introduce mandatory voting. But logically of course that too should have a referendum of its own…

P.S. Last week I wrote a romantic ode to the 300 South African dancing firefighters who had flown to Canada to help with the Beast in Alberta. Alas, I seem to have romanticized the picture greatly, and by this week a good number of the striking firefighters are on their way home. The issue, while confusing, is an old-fashioned prosaic exploitation of working people. For more see this story.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Interested in contributing to this series on proportional representation? Send us a pitch to [email protected] with the title “Proportional representation series”

Part 1: Proportional representation is not ‘too complicated’ — the fix is in

Part 2: Activists gear up for ‘historic opportunity’ to usher in proportional representation

Part 3: Proportional representation for Canada: A primer

Part 4: Nation-to-nation recognition, not electoral reform, key to increasing Indigenous voter turnout


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

Image: Flickr/Andrew Bates


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...