By Jeremy Woo
“Democratic reform” is a tagline used by politicians to convince Canadians that somehow more democratic means of governance are in the works. Surprisingly, the federal government even has a Minister for Democratic Reform. However, this convenient expression currently means little to Canadian democracy. In reality, Canada’s archaic political system is in a very sorry state, especially at a federal level. A minority of voters have near-absolute rule over the majority, parties with significant national support are not represented in Parliament and voter apathy is embarrassingly rampant.
These difficulties can be traced back to Canada’s ancient electoral system called first-past-the-post, a plurality voting system where a candidate wins an election by attaining more votes than any other candidate in their riding. This electoral method is susceptible to undemocratic outcomes. Reform of this antiquated system has the potential to place power back in the hands of Canadians. Though Canada still stands as a fortress of democracy in the world, Parliament is beginning to look like a dilapidated shed — real electoral reform is necessary to maintain and improve Canada’s democracy.
The most notable problem with Canada’s current electoral system is its ability to elect a majority government with a minority of votes. At present, the Conservative Party of Canada forms a majority government in Parliament. Therefore, Conservatives can essentially pass any legislation that they want, despite the fact that only 37.65 per cent of voters elected Conservative candidates in the most recent federal election. This inherent flaw is not new in Canadian politics. The last three majority governments in Canada have lacked the support of a majority of voters, yet were given the power to make decisions that affected all Canadians.
Canadians must demand an electoral system that distributes seats proportionate to the actual popular vote so that the beliefs of a minority cannot ignore the voices of a majority.
Furthermore, thanks to the geographic distribution of seats in Canada, parties with widespread, nationwide support lack proper representation in Parliament. The nature of the current electoral system requires candidates to have a heavy concentration of support in one riding or a certain area. This effectively discriminates against parties such as the Green Party, whose support is spread across the country. In the 2008 federal election, the Green Party received nearly 1,000,000 votes without earning a seat in Parliament. One could compare this to the marginally higher 1,379,991 votes received by the regionally concentrated Bloc Québécois, a party that won an astounding 49 seats. This minor differential of votes resulted in major inequality.
Canada’s democratic electoral system left almost one million people unrepresented. This conundrum causes the natural tendency to focus on regions instead of the nation at large within political parties.
Parties with national support and a national vision spread across the country are largely unrewarded for their efforts. For example, the New Democratic Party does not bother campaigning in Calgary, because history dictates that Calgary ridings are “unwinnable.” The NDP has no incentive to waste resources and create policies to benefit the electorate in a region dominated by conservatism. Electoral reform could result in a new system that takes the national popular vote into account, ending discrimination against parties with national support and giving leaders a reason to create a national vision in order to attract votes from every corner of Canada.
Finally, Canada’s current electoral system causes voter apathy, especially in ridings where one party is dominant. For example, Conservative Rob Anders was elected to Parliament for Calgary West in 2011 with 62.2 per cent of the vote. Supporters of other parties would have little incentive to vote, as they already believe that the Conservatives will win their riding in spite of their ballot. A reformed system that takes votes into account nationwide would reinvigorate a jaded electorate — a vote would count towards a national total for a party, regardless of one’s geographic location. Voter apathy could explain Canada’s embarrassing voter turnout. Approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians reported to the polls last election, compared to 75 per cent of Dutch voters and 89 per cent of Belgian voters in their most recent elections. This can be partially attributed to electoral systems that more closely reflect the national popular vote. Reform has the opportunity to make every vote valuable, and no vote would be useless as too many are today.
Through the tumults of time, the great Canadian fort of democracy has stood strong. However, the winds of change are blowing, and the Canadian electoral system needs renovations to avoid becoming a run-down shack that does not provide strength to the people within it. The majority of people must not be marginalized by an antiquated electoral system. Canada is a proud democracy — a minority should not be able to control the destiny of an unwilling majority. Let us take to our tool belts, gather our lumber and build real democratic reform that is fair, proportionate and representative of all Canadians.