From the Hill - January 19, 2016

Electoral Reform – promises made

Voters made clear choices for change in the federal election, and one of those choices was for electoral reform.  The Liberals, NDP and Green parties all loudly pledged that the 2015 election would be the last held in Canada under the first-past-the-post system, and those parties collectively received about two-thirds of the popular vote in the election. 

Why did these promises resonate with many Canadians?  Because too many citizens feel that their vote doesn’t count in the present system.  The recent federal election resulted in a large Liberal majority, despite the fact that the Liberals only received 39% of the popular vote.  Coincidentally, this was the same level of popular vote that gave the Conservatives a strong majority in Ottawa in the 2011 election.  We need a new electoral system that better reflects the views of Canadians.

The NDP ran on a promise to bring in proportional representation—a system that would combine the geographical riding representation we have now with a selection of MPs based on overall popular vote.  This would create a parliament where the proportion MPs from each party would match the proportion of the popular vote received. While some are concerned that this would create more minority parliaments, it can easily be shown that minority governments generally promote cooperation and collaboration among parties and work well in most democratic countries around the world.

The Liberals ran on a promise to simply change the electoral system, stating that they would consult Canadians in some manner to select an alternative to first-past-the-post.  Some say the Liberals favour a preferential ballot, a system that would create more false majorities instead of fewer. Hopefully a proper consultation process will settle on a new method that will be a significant improvement on the old one.

Before the House of Commons broke for Christmas, the Conservatives repeatedly called for the government to hold a referendum on this issue, claiming that this would be the only democratic way to choose a new electoral system.  And in a truly ironic twist, they recently threatened to block any electoral change bill in the decidedly undemocratic Senate.

I think that Canadians have already signalled that the government should move ahead on electoral reform, joining over 90% of the world’s developed countries that have abandoned first-past-the-post.  They want a new system that will make every vote count and fight political cynicism across the country.  People are naturally skeptical—even afraid—of changing a system they know well.  I like Nathan Cullen’s suggestion to let the people decide whether to keep the new system after a couple of elections—then they’d be choosing based on knowledge, not on fear of the unknown.