Flickr/Αλέξης Τσίπρας Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!


Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

You are getting lots of advice to walk away from your pledge to change Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Those who counsel you to break this promise include: the Toronto Star, the interim leader of the official opposition, a number of Liberal MPs, some eminent professors emeritus, and, no doubt, many who advise you privately.

And it might be true, as some have suggested, that this is one promise you could get away with breaking.

But you should keep it all the same.

It’s not a matter of political calculation; it is one of protecting Canada from an extremist party winning a majority in Parliament with even less than the 39 per cent of the popular vote your party got last time. In the most recent British election, first-past-the-post gave the Conservatives a majority with a mere 37 per cent of the popular vote.

Elevating a separatist to Official Opposition leader

Now, it is true that our current first-past-the-post system sometimes delivers consensual, reasonable and effective majority governments in Canada.

It did so last time, in 2015. And it did so in 1984 and 1988, when Canadians elected back-to-back majority Progressive Conservative governments led by Brian Mulroney .

But first-past-the-post can — and all too often does — deliver perverse results.

In 1993, for instance, our electoral system elevated a separatist leader, whose party had run candidates in only one province, to the position of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Lucien Bouchard’s party had come fourth in the popular vote that year, but, because its votes were all in one province, and because our electoral system disproportionately rewards parties that place first in a given region, Bouchard’s party came second in seats.

The Bloc Québecois leader then proceeded to use the prestige, power and money of his new office to work hard to tear Canada apart. He almost succeeded in the Quebec referendum of 1995. 

In the next election, in 1997, the Bloc came fifth in the popular vote, behind not only the Liberals, and the new official opposition Reform Party, but also behind the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP. Yet it came third in seats, with 44.

In that year, the geographical skewing effect of first-past-the-post gave us an official opposition that only had seats in the four western provinces. The NDP and Progressive Conservatives had more broad-based support, with seats in six provinces in both the east and the west each, but, again, first-past-the-post tends to award geographic concentration.

And so, in 1997, we elevated the Reform Party to a position of influence beyond its actual popular support. There is a straight line from that skewed electoral result to the Stephen Harper Conservative governments of 2006 to 2015.

Indeed, there are built-in incentives in our current system for parties to narrowcast, to geographically and ideologically concentrate their support, rather than appeal to voters across regions and ideologies.

In 1997, the more pragmatic and moderate Progressive Conservatives had 18.8 per cent of the popular vote, spread across the country, while the more radical and divisive Reform Party had only slightly more, 19.4 per cent, and yet Reform won three times as many seats as the Progressive Conservatives: 60 to 20. The secret to Reform’s success was that it concentrated its support in the three most western provinces.

And so, during the 1990s, the electoral system gave a helping hand to those who wanted to split up Canada and to those who pursued a radical and regionally focused agenda.

The fact that we had majority Liberal governments obscured the fact that there were destabilizing, centripetal forces in our polity, whose influence was much exaggerated by the electoral system.

Harper was tempered with a minority; not so much with a majority

More recently, the first-past-the-post system gave us a roughly fair translation of the popular will in the elections of 2006 and 2008, when Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives (minus the Progressive part) won back-to-back victories, but only minorities each time.

As your party’s immigration critic during that time, you know that being in a minority forced Harper and his ministers to curb some of their more harsh and extreme tendencies.

When Harper’s Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, wanted to reform the refugee system he had to put water in his wine in order to get opposition support.

The result was legislation that, while it tightened some of the procedures required of asylum seekers, maintained a measure of fairness and balance. On the matter of designating safe countries of origin, for instance, the compromise legislation took the determination away from politicians and gave it to non-partisan human rights specialists.

Then, in 2011, with a tiny increase in popular vote, Harper got his majority and everything changed overnight.

The Conservatives were free of all restraints and proceeded to pass a long list of legislative measures, all of which were opposed by the parties that represented more than 60 per cent of the electorate.

The Harper government effectuated a radical lurch to the right on environmental, justice, international development, immigration and fiscal policy.

There was no evidence the majority of Canadians supported Harper’s gutting of the fisheries act, to cite one example. A number of former Conservative ministers even opposed that one.

Nor did Canadians want, or vote for, a series of mandatory minimum criminal sentences that tied the hands of police and the courts. Many provinces opposed these measures, but to no avail. And the opposition in parliament had no leverage because the Conservatives did not need their votes to pass legislation.

Canadians did not vote for the elimination of health care for refugees — nor for the numerous other harsh measures aimed at asylum seekers that your government must now undo.

And finally, so few informed Canadians supported Harper’s oxymoronically named Fair Elections Act that only a tiny fraction of the witnesses who testified before two parliamentary committees spoke in its favour. The Conservative majority, on a straight, party-line vote, cheerfully enacted the Fair Elections measures nonetheless. Now your government has to repair the damage. 

First-past-the-post is a fun house mirror

It was our first-past-the-post electoral system, not the democratic will of the people, that created the hot mess that was the Harper majority government, with the emphasis on majority.

And we could have the same result next time. Kevin O’Leary and Kellie Leitch are waiting in the wings.

The point here is not, as some have written, to rig the system so that it always produces a notionally progressive government.

The point is to change a system that too often works like a distorting, fun house mirror. First-past-the-post can too easily transform an electorate’s mitigated and moderate desire for a measure of change into a lurching, radical shift in political orientation. That can be dangerous.

There are, of course, a great many problematic aspects of first-past-the-post — such as, for example, the fact that it encourages people to vote tactically rather than out of conviction.

But what is most disquieting about our current electoral system is its capacity to produce extreme changes in governing philosophy, based on small movements in voter preference. We don’t need that kind of instability in Canada. There is enough elsewhere in the world.

The truth is that there are times when the more prudent and cautious course of action is not to stand pat and do nothing. It is to act.

When it comes to our electoral system, this is one of those times. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...