This is Some Bullshit: An Update on Canadian Electoral Reform

Last time we had a conversation about electoral reform on this site, it was in the fall of 2016. The post came in the aftermath of the publication of a report from an all-party Special Committee of the House of Commons that was specifically tasked with studying options for electoral reform in Canada.

This month, the Liberal Party published a new document in response to an official electoral reform petition submitted to the Government of Canada’s petition website. The response effectively summarizes and clarifies the justifications the Liberals are using in abandoning their campaign promise of electoral reform.

On the face of it, the current Liberal majority government might deserve a little credit for looking into electoral reform at all right after sweeping in to power in 2015. However, there are a few facts in that election that show exactly why the Canadian system needs to be reformed:

  • While the Liberals did win a majority of seats in Parliament in the last election, all three left-leaning political parties are fundamentally pretty close. In this system, where a minority government is worse than useless, voters on the left tend to align en masse, to the detriment of the other left-leaning parties. In 2015, it was the Liberals that benefited from this.
  • In the previous (2011) federal election, the NDP won a third (103/308) of the seats in Parliament, nearly tripling their seat count from 2008. In 2015, that seat total was back near where it started, at 44 seats. This comes from the aforementioned mass movement of voters (leaving Liberal and PQ in 2011, moving back to those parties in 2015) attempting to counter the unified Conservative voting block.
  • Even though the Liberals did win a majority of seats in Parliament in 2015, the party only managed to win 39 percent of the vote, a clear sign of a broken system.
  • Finally, the fact that this election was described as a ‘change’ election, and whether you believe that narrative or not, people did want changes to the political landscape, and that includes the way elected officials are chosen.

One of the main points of the Liberal response to electoral reform is the idea that in consultation with MPs, voting experts, and voters, no clear alternative to first-past-the-post presented itself. Therefore, the report concludes, the best option at present is to change nothing, as though a new clear alternative voting system will suddenly present itself at some point.

This is some bullshit.

Electoral systems are like climate science. They do not care if you believe in them. A good system doesn’t get your party into power unless you represent a majority of voters best. A bad electoral system may elect the best-suited party or candidate, or it may not. A key point here is that when the Liberals promised electoral reform, they didn’t promise to look in to other options for holding more representative elections. The party platform specifically promises that the 2015 election would be the last one held under first-past-the-post, and that a plan to do better would be presented to Parliament within 18 months of the election.

One of the biggest problems in politics today is that there is no motivation for a party not in power to present a clear policy alternative to the ruling party. The Liberals ran on ‘NOT first-past-the-post’, but never actually came up with anything to replace it. This is a clear sign the party didn’t want to reform the system, they just wanted to benefit from its flaws in the election.

Another example from the last year is the Republican-proposed American Health Care Act, which failed miserably even among hard-line conservative Republicans. This is because for at least 7 years, Republicans in the US House of Representatives ran and voted on ‘NOT Obamacare’, without spending much time (it seems) thinking about a health care system that actually stood a chance of passing through the Republican legislative branch.

One possible reason for this massive disconnect between parties in power and opposition parties is that an increasing amount of time in a politician’s day (especially one trying to get elected) is spent campaigning (fundraising). After becoming a member of the Liberal Party, I saw first hand just how many emails and phone calls active voters get encouraging them to donate as much money as possible to the Party.

These emails make it very clear that the goal is to ‘beat’ the Conservatives, but fails to make the link between money raised campaigning and actual changes in vote tallies. I have never contributed any money to a political campaign, because I have yet to be shown a good reason to do so, or even why campaigns raise money (other than to allow them to campaign even more).

Even campaign ads, on television or on lawn signs, don’t typically give reasons why voters should choose a given candidate, just that voters should vote for their preferred party, whoever the candidate is. Given massive fundraising totals, it does seem like this tactic works pretty well, though it isn’t very clear why.

It could be that parties have decided that the optimal strategy is to make any political opponents into nemeses, positioning them as enemies in the legislative battlefield. While this might work in a two-party system, positioning the NDP as a bad choice compared to the Liberals seems counterproductive at best. With multiple parties and several decent choices for small-L liberal voters in abundance in Canada (and elsewhere), it seems as though a combination of electoral change and some cooperation would lead to some real social progress in the near future.

The obvious shortcomings in the current Canadian political system are well-described and well-known. The Liberals are in power with 39 percent of the vote. The Green Party consistently gets 4-6 percent of the vote, but has never had even one percent of seats in Parliament, almost certainly because any splitting of the vote on the left would give the Conservative Party a plurality of seats.

Any of several changes to the electoral system would undoubtedly balance voting and hold big parties accountable to voters in a consistent way. If asked, I have no doubt MPs and voters would choose a different voting system, but that option was never presented by the Liberal Party.

A referendum would be no better than the nationwide poll in terms of informing the government of what voters want. Because voters aren’t necessarily even aware of what the options are, an all-party committee that discusses what changes to make, as opposed to whether or not the system needs reform. With all parties at the table, at least some discussion can be had, in order to make the system more representative, no matter what changes are made in the end.

Politics has become is a horse race, with winning election being the main goal. This destroys most opportunities for meaningful debate around what’s best for Canadians and the world, and removes incentives to compromise, instead rewarding efforts to ‘win’ political points.

The Liberal Party should at least put in some effort in if they actually want to prove that a clear majority of the Canadian people actually don’t want reform. Saying that Canadians aren’t in agreement over what system to use is irrelevant when it’s so clear we are all ready for some Real Change.

The Problem with Power in Politics

There is a catch-22 in politics that is difficult for even the most transparent and beloved leaders to shake. As the American Presidential election hits the homestretch, it’s all too easy to forget that just about one year ago, Canada had its very own set of relatively historic elections.

In 2015, left-leaning voters from the New Democrat and Liberal parties sought to remove the Conservative party from power, after a few too many undesirable decisions and a call for change. Among the grand ideals presented by the Liberal Party last year was the call for electoral reform, changes to the system that chooses our government.

The ‘first-past-the-post’ system Canada currently uses doesn’t leave government representative of the true nature of voter distribution, and Liberals rightly called for an overhaul of the election process to make things more fair. Voters were generally moved by this motion, and the Liberal party ended up taking a majority of the seats in the house of Parliament. Having a majority will generally make it much easier to pass legislation to change the electoral laws, and this was a major piece of the Liberal platform.

The Liberals said that they would be introducing legislation seeking to change the electoral process within 18 months of getting into office, one of over 200 promises they have vowed to keep. Now, in many cases, for a number of reasons, it’s nearly impossible to keep ALL the promises you make once a government is actually in power. For instance, the Liberals have been forced to walk back plans to balance our nation’s budget, in large part because Conservatives who were on the way out weren’t particularly honest about the state of the budget for the last few years.

However, electoral reform was a tent-pole feature of the Liberal platform, and walking it back now once you’re in power is a very damaging thing to do. Nobody WANTS to change the system that made them successful, but in this case it is absolutely necessary. I agree with a lot of the policy changes the Liberal government has made over the last year, but this is a big mis-step.

The Liberals took a majority (184/338 = 54 percent) of the seats in Parliament in the last election, but they only received 39.5 percent of the vote across Canada. This isn’t the least representative election that has even taken place, but it’s not exactly something to brag about. The NDP lost a lot of ground from the previous election because many NDP voters were more disenfranchised with the Conservatives than they were motivated by the Liberals, but didn’t want to split the vote and lose, as they did in 2011.

The NDP and Liberals are relatively close in ideology in a number of important ways, but the NDP have policy plans with lots of support too. However, with a system that often relies on strategic voting with more than two parties, the lesser of two similar parties are often stifled politically, to the detriment of the whole system.

Now, I’m not claiming to know what the best electoral process for Canada and Canadians would be. I’m not suggesting the government listen to me and I’m not prescribing any system for Canada. But changing your mind about following through on the promise that ‘2015 be the last federal election held under the first-past-the-post voting system‘ is a terrible idea.

I like a lot of what the Liberals have done for Canada in the last year, and a big part of that is that the government has been relatively transparent about their goals and necessary changes to those goals. But walking back this important piece of policy simply because it might mean that you lose political power when it comes to re-election is simply not a good excuse.

Canada was thirsty for change in 2015 and you rode that wave straight into office, and for the most part, we love how you’ve shown the world so much of what makes Canada great. Just because we’re now a year into the cycle and the reform talk has died down doesn’t mean we aren’t still thirsty for this change.

First-past-the-post is a broken system that doesn’t work that well with multiple parties. Give us ranked ballots, some form of proportional representation, mandatory voting, or take your (hopefully pluripartisan) ‘Parliamentary committee’ and come up with something totally different to ensure Canadians of all colours feel their voices and ideals are heard. All we’re asking is that you find something better than this clearly broken, unrepresentative system. Keep doing that, and fulfilling your other promises like you have been, and we will undoubtedly keep voting for you.