One of the most important, and potentially transformative, aspects of the Liberal election campaign was Justin Trudeau’s promise that 2015 would be the last election under the First-Past-the-Post or Single Member Plurality electoral system. Now, however, Prime Minister Trudeau is saying that electoral reform is not on the government’s agenda as the issue is potentially too divisive for Canada and could lead to marginal parties winning seats in the House of Commons.
Electoral reform could make the Canadian government significantly more accountable to the Canadian public. The tyranny of the majority and the almost absolute power of a Prime Minister backed by a majority in the House would end. Most likely, we would see significantly more minority governments. Parties would be required to work together and compromise in order to govern and advance policy that is in the best interests of an actual majority of Canadians (not just the 40% that elects a majority government under the current system).
Lori B. Turnball, Mark D. Jarvis and Peter Aucoin’s award-winning book, Democratizing the Constitution, provides an excellent analysis of the increasing abuses of power of the office of Prime Minister in past decades and demonstrates that the Canadian PM governs with fewer checks on his power that any of his peers. Whether you like Trudeau or not, the election of Donald Trump in the USA and his spree of executive orders demonstrates the importance of having institutions that check the power of the leader. The Canadian Parliament has become very ineffective at this job.
Trudeau may be right in that the issue could be divisive; most important political issues are to some extent. There is no need, however, to have a referendum on electoral reform. The government, with its majority of seats gained through the distortion of the popular vote under the current system, has the power to deliver on this promise and would actually have the support of others in the House. In fact, a referendum on what is a very complicated issue is probably a bad idea (e.g. Brexit). There are arguably other, better models for consulting Canadian voters, such as the Citizens Assembly created on electoral reform in BC which brought a representative group of citizens from all walks of life together to discuss the issue in depth with experts.
As for the issue of marginal or fringe parties winning seats, there are ways to protect against this. Most proportional electoral systems have a threshold that parties must meet in order to be able to claim their seats. Germany and New Zealand, for example, have fairly high thresholds: parties must win 5% of the popular vote in order to get their seats. In the Canadian context, this would mean that the Green and BQ parties would not have met the threshold in 2015 and the Liberals would have a minority government with the Conservatives and NDP in opposition. Of course, one of the great things about changing the electoral system is that it also changes the way people vote – you don’t have to worry about splitting the vote in your riding and you can vote according to your own beliefs as opposed to voting to keep someone out. More proportional electoral systems also have much higher voter turnout rates because every vote counts.
These facts may represent the actual reasons behind Trudeau’s sidestepping of electoral change. Apparently, Trudeau favoured a preferential voting system, in which candidates are ranked. This is a system that tends to reproduce the results we see under our current system. While it seems more democratic to have more choices on the ballot, in the end, the major parties win and new or alternative voices are excluded. In all likelihood, the recommendation of the committee he appointed—that Canada adopt a proportional system—would mean an end to majority governments and the tremendous power of the Canadian Prime Minister.
Significant political change requires political courage and sacrifice. Unfortunately, it appears that our Prime Minister has chosen the well-trodden path of privilege and power instead.
Shauna Wilton, Political Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on March 7, 2017.