Change in Ottawa

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In an article in The Globe and Mail entitled Majority governments may soon be a thing of the past, columnist Jeffrey Simpson examines the potential change of the electoral system in Canada from the first-past-the post (FPTP) approach currently in use to a system of proportional representation (PR). 

As Simpson points out, given that the New Democratic Party and the Green Party are both committed to electoral reform and proportional representation, and that the Liberal party has also committed to scrapping FPTP (they haven’t settled on whether they support a system of PR or of ranked balloting) the chances that FPTP is headed for the political dustbin are very high indeed, despite the near absolute zero degree of interest on the part of the Harper Conservatives in electoral reform. In the developed world, Canada, the United States, and Great Britain are virtually the only democracies that still labour under an FPTP system. [Note: I’ve recently discussed this issue and related points in greater detail in The art and science of strategic voting.]

Fair Vote Canada

Since coalition or minority governments are far more likely under a system of proportional representation, majority governments in Canada may well become a vanishing rarity.

Simpson’s article is a good survey and I agree with him on most points, however, one thing he wrote caught my attention, namely:

“The general public seems not much interested in electoral change, judging by how little the parties who want change have mentioned their ideas in the campaign. With their omnipresent focus groups and internal polls to guide what to talk about, parties follow rather than lead public opinion. If the voters were charged up about system change, the parties would be talking about it incessantly, as they do about the economy.”

Democracy: Vox PpuliHaving been involved in electoral reform initiatives for the past decade through Fair Vote Canada, Fair Vote Nova Scotia, Project Democracy, and most recently Democracy: Vox Populi, it seemed to me that I’d never witnessed such a degree of interest in electoral reform and proportional representation, and so much discussion about these topics. Or was this simply confirmation bias — the tendency to see in the world what one is already predisposed to seeing?

So, I decided to test the hypothesis.

The search engine Google allows one to conduct a variety of specialized and advanced searches using its suite of search tools. So, I searched for the number of uses of the phrases “electoral reform” and “proportional representation” — and only within Canadian documents — to see whether there has been a historical change in interest in these topics as indicated by the number of times they were employed in the media, reports, and various other internet documents (these searches exclude social media). I examined the past fourteen years from 2002 until the present.  What did I find?

 References in Canadian Media

As you can see, for both terms there was a very slow but steady increase in the number of references from 2002 until 2010. At this point, interest in electoral reform began to increase very sharply from 2,300 in 2010 to 9,160 in 2014. References to proportional representation remained at a plateau level of  approximately 3,500 per year between 2010 and 2014. However, in 2015 there has been a massive increase in the use of both terms, particularly electoral reform.

[Note: for purposes of comparison with previous years, the data for 2015 are normalized to 365 days. This is necessary since we are only 281 days into the 2015 calendar year. After October 19 interest might, of course, increase or decrease, but even the references to date in 2015 (16,800) are almost double what they were in 2014.]

What is clear is that public engagement in electoral reform has increased greatly over the past 14 years — 38-fold over that time period, and that interest has increased dramatically (over nine-fold) in just the past five years. Interest in proportional representation has jumped over seven-fold in the last decade, and interest in both has spiked even further in the last year.

Change in OttawaSo while it certainly is the case that this topic doesn’t command the same degree of interest as, say, the economy (to use Simpson’s point of comparison), and consequently political parties are not discussing it as frequently as they do that subject, the evidence shows that there is a much greater interest in electoral reform than was the case even five years ago, and that this interest is growing exponentially.

A poll conducted (October 3-5, 2015) for CTV by Nanos Research indicates that 67 per cent of Canadians think it is time for political change in Ottawa. Only 26 per cent think that we should stay with the political status quo (6 per cent are unsure). If, after October 19th Canada has a government of a different political complexion than at present, and electoral reform moves from the back burner to the front, I can’t but think that the level of interest and attention to this issue will continue to grow at the current exponential rate. I can’t wait. 

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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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...