Canada should reform its electoral system

Based on recent media reports and the rhetoric adopted by the three federal parties, election season is here again. Despite all the “Canadians don’t want an election” talk and complaints about the cost, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find this election entertaining.

While waiting for ours, I amused myself by watching the British, Australian and American elections. One interesting thing to notice when observing elections in different countries is the simple difference in values: a word like “coalition”– which has become a dirty obscenity in Canada– is used as a compliment in most of Europe. While it is automatically assumed that a minority is some sort of “deadlock” in Canada, a single-party majority government would be more remarkable elsewhere. It’s a given that different political cultures have different norms and values. We can learn from countries that have influenced our electoral process, namely Britain which, incidentally, had an election less than a year ago.

Britain also uses a first-past-the-post single riding plurality system. Like Canada, the U.K. is not used to minority governments and the 2010 election commentators always spoke of a “hung” parliament as some sort of an unstable entity that would plunge the country into chaos. Perhaps this was justified, seeing as how the country suffered a great deal of turmoil during their last minority government in 1974. The last U.K. election, however, demonstrated that an issue like electoral reform can be pushed for and implemented even when times are tough economically. The coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats forced compromise. All that was needed was for a party to take up the issue and generate some voter interest. The Liberal Democrats are now in a position to demand reform because they’re being hurt most by the first-past-the-post system. Theirs is not much different from the NDP’s situation in Canada.

Provincially, some progress has been made regarding the liberalization of our political system. Certain provinces hold fixed election dates now, for example. However, every time significant reforms were proposed to change the first-past-the-post system, they failed. British Columbia and Ontario each had referenda on the subject in the last 10 years. It failed to pass in either province.

Generally, this is attributed to voter ignorance and apathy. However, the single transferable vote system proposed in B.C. might have been a tad too complex. In the STV system, voters choose a candidate by ranking their top picks instead of choosing a party. If a candidate meets the quota, her votes are then transferred to the candidate who is ranked second by the voter. The system is attractive because it eliminates wasted votes.

Complexity, however, is only part of the issue. A lot could be accomplished for election reform if there was only a single political party that would tackle the issue. Neither B.C.’s nor Ontario’s major parties officially supported the reforms. Federally, the issue has been kept very quiet. We heard a little bit about parliament reform after Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued the second time, but that was overshadowed by the right’s accusations of a Liberal-NDP coup and the left’s accusation of autocracy. We also hear about senate reform on occasion. On reform to the voting system, almost never.

So why have the major parties kept so quiet and eager to retain the status quo? Who benefits from the first-past-the-post system? Clearly the Tories and the Liberals do and, since coalition governments don’t tend to happen in Canada, those have been the only parties in power. In addition, the system benefits the Bloc.

On the other hand, the Greens and NDP have a lot to gain from establishing proportional representation. If change is going to come, it will have to be from these two parties.

The problems we face with this electoral system are starting to become evident. This current minority setup allows Canadians to suffer all the negative elements of minority parliaments without benefiting from the potentially positive ones. That is, the Conservatives are running the government the only way the two big parties know how: as if they had a majority.

Canada is one of the most mature democracies in the world. It has simply outgrown a two party system. The rise of regional interest parties (the Bloc, Reform), class-conscious movements (NDP) and parties borne out of single-issue lobby groups (Green) is evidence of this. The current system simply cannot accommodate that without being incredibly biased towards the established parties. Minority and coalition situations foster an environment for cooperation. If Britain got over its coalition phobia, so can Canada.

There are several other voter systems for Canada to choose from. Europe seems to be having some success with mixed-member proportional systems. Under this system, a party is allowed to win seats by running candidates in a riding, thereby retaining the benefit of regional representation. The popular vote is then considered and free MPs (not associated with a district) are added from a list to make the number of seats almost perfectly proportional. This system is, in my opinion, the most effective and fair compromise between a single district, list-based proportional representation system and a single district plurality system as we have now.

Electoral reform is plausible and it could even happen within the period of one election. Canadians are by their nature conservative about their institutions. However, with the proper political will to demonstrate how disadvantageous and obsolete our system is, electoral reform could be accomplished quite easily.

Party Seats won % of seats won % of vote
Bloc Quebecois 49 15.9 9.98
Conservatives 143 46.4 37.65
Green Party 0 0 6.78
Liberal Party 77 25 26.26
NDP 37 12 18.18

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