In the 2015 election, the Liberal Party committed to a platform they called "Make Every Vote Count." Now, they are poised to embark on a process that could make Canada fairer and more inclusive for all voters.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for democracy. So what’s the problem we’re trying to fix?
On October 19, over 9,000,000 voters (51.8 per cent) were unable to make their vote count and elect a representative to bring their voices to Ottawa.
The country elected a majority Liberal government, but as usual did so with less than a majority of the vote (39.5 per cent). Most Liberals in Alberta and Saskatchewan, New Democrats and Conservatives in Toronto and Atlantic Canada— and Greens nearly everywhere— elected no representation to Parliament.
That's a big problem. When your vote means nothing, it disempowers citizens and breeds disdain for democracy— and widespread apathy.
And problems with majoritarian systems like first-past-the-post (FPTP) don’t end on election day. When parties can easily win 100 per cent of the power with as little as 39 per cent of the popular vote, they can lose their majority just as quickly.
To say the least, this undermines stable solutions. FPTP voting creates an endless cycle of policy lurch, where the new government reverses the policies of the previous government at a huge cost to citizens.
Thus "winner-take-all" electoral systems force parties to focus policy decisions on four-year cycles, with constant campaigning aimed at winning another 39 per cent majority. Long-term solutions on issues Canadians care about are sidelined in favour of inaction, pandering, or quick fixes that don’t always last.
Stephen Harper spent his term undoing Liberal policy and infrastructure and now the Trudeau Government will start over and rebuild what was lost: Canada Post, the long form census, pulling troops out of Syria, rebuilding our Coast Guard, unmuzzling scientists, rebuilding our criminal law system, restoring healthcare for refugees… you get the point.
We are so used to this dysfunctional system—it’s the water Canadians have been swimming in since Confederation— that we don’t know or believe there’s a better way. There is.
With proportional representation (PR), voters elect stable, collaborative, majority governments. These governments outperform winner-take-all countries on policy innovation— and are better able to limit the degree to which powerful economic interests can influence policy to their advantage at the expense of the common good.
The result is that countries with proportional systems score higher on UN measures of health, education, standard of living and environmental protection. Their media promote a broader discussion of policy options during an election campaign, and the result is more informed electorate.
The core benefit of PR is obvious: the more closely political power is proportional to the vote, the better a country's policies reflect the wishes of voters.
It also increases the representation of women in Parliament by offering voters more choices. Around the world, FPTP systems exclude women in practice and lead to "himocracy" or rule by men, rather than true democracy.
We are all encouraged to see gender parity in Trudeau’s new Cabinet, but the total makeup of the House still hovers around 26 per cent— below the 30 per cent threshold the UN says is needed to address the concerns of women and influence policy over the long-term.
Proportional representation would change that.
Eighty-five per cent of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) use some form of proportional representation. This provides us with a variety of templates available to create a truly representative, truly Canadian electoral system.
Since the October election, citizens have sent over 9,000 letters to Prime Minister Trudeau and MP Maryam Monsef asking for a process we can trust. After four years of parliamentary committee dog and pony shows with predefined outcomes, Canadians have said that the people must be involved in the electoral reform process right from the start— and that they want the outcome to create equal and effective votes for all citizens.
Consultations can come in a variety of forms. Let the government (and media) undertake due diligence in their research on electoral reform. We want a robust and informed consultation process that includes, citizens, experts and partisans. Let’s talk about the quality of our democracy and how we make it better. Then create legislation that is based on the principles Canadians want embodied in their electoral system.
So, why haven’t we done this already? Critics, most often backroom operatives, point to red herrings in order to scare the electorate away from a system that will require parties to share power and work together. Sitting governments rarely push hard for proportional representation if the current system benefits their party.
We’ve all heard the objections. “Israel! Italy! Accountable MPs! It’s all too complicated!” You rarely hear the critics pointing to Sweden, New Zealand and Germany— countries with much more in common with Canada— as examples. (Israel, by the way, uses a form of PR called a “country-wide closed-list system.” It is a type of proportional system that would require a change in our constitution, and nobody has ever seriously recommended it.)
And what many of these criticisms miss is that Proportional Representation is not one specific system, but a principle that informs several systems we can choose from. The principle is, fundamentally, that if a party earns 39 per cent of the vote, it should receive about 39 per cent of the seats and all citizens deserve representation. As noted, most OECD countries use PR, and each have tailored a proportional system to meet their unique needs.
Then there’s the cry of so many pundits, partisan and otherwise: “This is just the losers whining again! Canadians soundly rejected PR in a previous referendum!”
Yes, what about those referendums? First, of 80 countries which use proportional representation, including most of our peers, only two, Switzerland and New Zealand, brought it in through referendum. Referendums in Canada have tended to be difficult and divisive experiences. Implementing evidence-based policy does require public and expert consultation — which the government has promised to do — but calls for a referendum are premature. Sixty-three per cent of voters supported parties who included proportional representation in their platforms. Add the Bloc, who support PR, and you get 68 per cent. If sufficient cross-party support can be found for a particular electoral reform proposal, then a referendum may not be necessary.
Both Ontario and B.C. offered their citizens an opportunity to change their voting systems through referenda. Both mandated super majorities of 60 per cent approval to change the voting system that citizens used to hire and fire them. In British Columbia, the first referenda garnered 58 per cent of the vote but again, did not meet the super-majority threshold of 60 per cent mandated by Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government—which, not coincidentally, enjoyed a 46 per cent majority. One of the funniest online comments I have seen on the subject asked, ‘Why would the turkeys vote for Christmas?’
Political scientists will tell you that every referendum lacked clear information and public education. Let’s give the government a chance to develop a robust consultation process that acknowledges the problems, seeks advice from experts, citizens and partisans and builds consent around a well-communicated, evidence-based solution that benefits the citizens and the country.
We need to learn from past experiences and do better. What we don’t need is another process that is set up to fail.