If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. When it comes to electoral reform, that ought to be the attitude of both Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP. After failing to reach an agreement on the best way to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post system, both sides have since moved on to other priorities. But with Pierre Poilievre’s rise and the ongoing spread of Trumpist politics in Canada, they ought to revisit the issue — and soon.

Replacing Canada’s first-past-the-post system and the artificial majorities it often creates with a more proportional one would pour political cement on the Liberal government’s signature policies, from its carbon tax and climate plan to the child-care agreements it has struck with the provinces. It would protect the new dental care and pharmacare deals that are currently being fleshed out, both popular with most Canadians. And it would prevent Poilievre or other populist leaders from further undermining key Canadian institutions like the Bank of Canada and the CBC.

Why? Because only a government that served the will and interests of a majority of Canadians could reliably command the confidence of Parliament under a more proportional system. That would probably mean the end of majority governments in Canada, but that’s only a bad thing for the partisan staffers and elected officials who work in them. When it comes to better serving voters’ needs, a proportional system and the sometimes messy coalitions they tend to produce seem like a far better option.

A proportional system would also address the divisiveness and polarization that’s out there right now. Conservatives like to blame the prime minister and his approach to anti-vaccine holdouts for the current political strife, while progressives fault conservatives and the alt-right information ecosystem they’ve built. Either way, it’s clearly a problem standing in the way of level-headed policy and public leadership. While parties once worked across the partisan aisle, the battle lines are now clearly drawn and heavily fortified.

Embracing a more proportional electoral system would fix that. It would foster collaboration and force parties to talk more, fight less and find common ground. It would also encourage more diversity in local representation, whether that’s Liberals and New Democrats getting elected on the Prairies or Conservatives winning seats in Toronto and Montreal.

Electoral reform didn’t happen back in 2016 because the governing Liberals and Opposition New Democrats had different preferred electoral systems in mind and couldn’t bridge that gap. But the imperatives for electoral reform are far stronger today than they were then, and there’s a system out there that can help both sides meet in the middle: single transferable vote, or STV.

This system was proposed by British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in October 2004 and earned the support of 57.7 per cent of voters in a 2005 referendum (the threshold for victory was set at 60 per cent). Its greatest weakness (other than its name sounding perilously close to STD) is its complexity, which delighted political science professors and pundits but frustrated and confused the general public. Under an STV system, multiple representatives are elected in expanded constituencies, with voters asked to rank them as they see fit.

As the final report from the Citizens’ Assembly noted, “because each district is likely to elect members from different parties in proportion to the votes cast, voters may well be able to go to an MLA who shares their political views. This will help provide more effective local representation.”

Better still, the very nature of the system forces candidates to be more collegial and less combative. “Recognizing that they may not be ‘first preference’ on enough ballots to win a seat, candidates will need to encourage supporters of other candidates to mark them as their second or third preference,” the Citizens’ Assembly’s report said. “This need to appeal to a greater number of voters should lower the adversarial tone of election contests: voters are unlikely to respond positively to someone who aggressively insults their first choice.”

With the rise of Pierre Poilievre and ongoing spread of Trumpist politics in Canada, Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh ought to revisit proportional representation, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #cdnpoli #ElectoralReform

By combining the best aspects of a proportional system (the NDP’s stated preference) with a ranked ballot (the preferred option for Liberals), STV should serve as an acceptable compromise for both sides. Yes, Conservatives would surely howl about the unfairness of it all, but given they already use a ranked ballot for their own leadership race, that would be a tough political sale for them to make. They might also benefit from the change, given they won the popular vote in the last two elections but finished well behind in seats due to the efficiency of the Liberal vote. And when they’ve been loudly complaining about polarization and divisiveness, how could they reasonably object to an electoral system that reduces both?

It’s not like they’re above tilting the political table in their own direction, either. Doug Ford’s government invoked the notwithstanding clause to override a court decision that struck down parts of his government’s bill limiting third-party election advertising, while Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in Alberta passed legislation last December that seemed designed to help him survive his leadership challenge and smooth the road to re-election in 2023.

The supply-and-confidence agreement between the Liberals and NDP has already produced some modest victories, including the recently announced dental care plan. But if Trudeau and Singh want to deliver a truly lasting win for Canadians, they should revisit their positions on electoral reform and find a way to deliver on the promises made in the 2015 election campaign. There is still time to heal our politics and create a system that rewards our better angels rather than empowering our worst.

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Good article. It should however read that Electoral Reform can save us from any one party’s imposed rule unless it has the ballot box support of at least 51% of all of the eligible-to-vote electorate.

Another good article from Max Fawcett. I would like to make one correction in relation to his remark that the last attempt at electoral reform failed was simply that the NDP and Liberals couldn't agree on which voting system should be enacted to replace the current first past the post. In fact, after Trudeau made his election promise to bring in electoral reform, and after the all party/public committee studied the matter, and over 80% of the committee recommended some form of proportional representation, Trudeau claimed that there was no consensus reached by the committee and because they didn't recommend his 'ranked ballot' preference, which would have still favoured the established Liberal and Conservative parties, he went against the recommendations of the committee and put a halt to the reform process. Anyone interested in the efforts to bring about a more fair, workable electoral system should check out FairVoteCanada (https://www.fairvote.ca) for an extensive review of literature and studies on proportional representation electoral systems being used by many democracies throughout the world.

The Liberal talking points on electoral reform: a collection that belongs in an alternative facts class of its own.”
– National affairs writer Chantal Hebert

You are absolutely correct in your summation of Trudeau’s actions; particularly his excuses for not endorsing a system of Proportional Representation (PR) following the report from the Electoral Reform Committee (ERRE).

Trudeau’s rejection of electoral reform was a thinly disguised attempt to cover up the rejection of the Liberal’s only (obviously preconceived) choice for electoral reform - winner-take-all ranked ballot - by both the experts and the public during the public consultation process held by the ERRE. Ranked ballots are not a voting system, but rather just a tool for use in conjunction with an electoral system. The use of a ranked ballot with FPTP will only continue, exaggerate, or even exacerbate the many problems with FPTP. It does NOTHING to further proportionality in the makeup of government. The Liberal party support for a winner-take-all ranked ballot system is nothing but a cynical tactic of self-preservation, as they would benefit more than any other party from such a system.
The use of a ranked ballot with PR (PR-STV) is a totally different kettle of fish as the objective of proportionality in government is largely maintained under such a system; at least much more so than FPTP with ranked ballot. However, I think I prefer Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) over PR-STV as it seems to come closer to true proportionality in government.

“In the end, 88% of the experts the ERRE heard (invited and vetted by all parties) and 87% the public who testified were for PR. The ERRE online survey found strong support for both the principle of PR and specific proportional systems.” (Fair Vote Canada)

Fourteen years of Canada-wide polling on electoral reform has shown majority support for proportionality in government; as well, fourteen separate committees, assemblies and commissions on electoral reform have all recommended proportional representation. In the run up to the 2015 election, three parties, Liberals, NDP and Green, supported electoral reform (63% of voters ); in particular the need for proportionality in parliament. In that context, Trudeau’s comments that there is no consensus are bogus and irrelevant.

Incidentally, the ERRE also recommended against the use of referendums to gauge public support for electoral reform; a stance that was supported by the vast majority of the experts (on electoral systems) that the ERRE invited to make presentations on electoral reform.

The use of referendums to gauge public support for a complex issue like electoral reform is a flawed process, for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the obvious fact that referendums favour the status quo to a huge extent; the devil you know (FPTP) versus the devil you don’t (PR).
People are generally nervous and uncomfortable with change, especially change that is unfamiliar to them. Opponents of electoral reform capitalize on this fear of change by utilizing fear-mongering, misinformation, innuendo, outright lies, and other disinformation to scare voters off voting to support proportional representation. Truth in advertising isn’t applicable to politics (pity) so there’s no recourse to these nefarious tactics.

If the current federal government doesn’t make a move toward an electoral system of PR in the next three years (if they’re smart they will), eventually a province (possibly Quebec) will switch to an appropriate made-in-Canada PR electoral system and then the floodgates will finally open when the people of Canada see what proportionality in politics looks like; (and that it isn’t a three-headed monster). No country has ever gone back to FPTP after experiencing PR for a few election cycles.

Lastly, democratic principles demand that the rights of the minority are protected and respected by the majority. The use of referendums by government delayed women getting the vote in Switzerland until 1971; because women being given the vote threatened the status quo and the power brokers in control. So we need to ditch electoral reform referendums and preferably use Citizens’ Assemblies to study, investigate and consider options before making recommendations on how to move forward with introducing proportionality in our governments.

We need to give all voters the right to have their votes count and to be reflected as close as possible in the makeup of our governments; anything else is unsatisfactory. That’s really the “bottom line” on the need for true electoral reform in Canada.

Exemplary comments. Kudos!

I'm convinced and on-board.

I would prefer a Mixed-Member Proportional system, known as MMP, over a BC-STV style system (that is, with big multi-member ridings). So would most experts and pretty much all the witnesses the parliamentary committee called back when Trudeau dropped the whole thing because nobody would back his proposed system that was not proportional. So apparently do lots of countries, since MMP systems have become fairly common in the world whereas I'm unaware of any jurisdiction bringing in a BC-STV style system. I voted for the STV thing in BC when it was that or the status quo. But it's complex and unwieldy, the ridings are huuuge, it's only moderately proportional, and it's very hard to figure out what votes result in what people being elected.

So yeah, I favour an MMP system, with a "Best Losers" approach to who becomes the regional top-up MPs; the "Best Losers" method avoids both party-controlled lists and complications on the ballot, and ensures that everyone who becomes an MP has faced the public in an election. The way it works is that once it has been figured out which parties need top-up MPs for proportionality, you look at the candidates for that party that didn't win in their ridings, and the ones that came closest get to be the top-up regional MPs.

Note that STV systems by default do not involve multi-member ridings, and are not proportional, and tend to favour centrists and similar "compromise" candidates who are more likely to garner second-choice votes. That kind of non-proportional STV system is actually what the Liberals wanted a few years back. They have their uses--I like them for mayoral races, party leadership races and similar things where you are only electing one person. I also think that American style "proposition" ballots would be much, much better if you had multiple options for an issue and people voted on them with an STV-type ballot. But for parliamentary elections--well, they're great if you're a Liberal and hoping to win endless majorities by picking up second choice votes as the compromise party.

Mm, just to be clear it should maybe be pointed out that Single Transferable Vote (STV), ranked ballot, and instant runoff, are all the same thing.

Au contraire... STV, as proposed in BC -- with multi-representative ridings -- is clearly NOT AT ALL the same thing, as ranked ballot for single-rep rididngs.

A video explanation, while not perfect, helps: https://youtu.be/y-4_yuK-K-k

On the topic of PR, many seem to peevishly assume that the Liberals are arrogantly guarding a position fabricated by them as Canada's "natural governing party" despite that being a valid, democratic choice of voters over our country's history. Indeed, progressives are still the majority and on the latest poll where the cons under Skippy have jumped ahead of the Liberals to 35% right off the bat, the combined numbers of the Liberals and the NDP are still 50%, so with the agreement between them this will maintain the majority. And these ARE early days with the boy wonder as well.
Every other party besides the usual right/left split of Liberals and Conservatives, (which now includes the lovely People's Party of Canada) looks to increasing their footprint, but imagine having to deal with those yahoos on top of the ongoing antics of the Convoy Party of Canada. It would be like trying to negotiate with Putin.

re; Fringe parties: Most Prop. Rep. systems have a percentage threshold that precludes participation of fringe parties from government. However, any kind of Prop. Rep. that includes STV at the riding level still leaves the gate open for individual fringe candidates - the equivalent of Independents in our current system.
My preference is for the original BC Citizens version, which actually gained 60% plus approval in all but one riding, which voted 57.8% YES, and that was the basis for the incumbents refusal to implement. An unreasonably high barrier to change.

It’s absolutely critical that there is an established minimum threshold that any party must reach before they qualify for any proportionality seats in government; this amount is usually 4%-5%; similarly the “made-in-Canada” PR systems recommended by Fair Vote Canada have a 5% threshold. This doesn’t preclude a fringe party candidate winning a seat in government by topping the vote count in that particular riding; it’s not impossible, but is rather unlikely.

The 2005 BC referendum on a specific option of PR (STV) resulted in a large majority of voters (57.7%) supporting it. Unfortunately, the BC Liberal government (opposed to electoral reform) had set a 60% threshold for this referendum to pass; very ironic given that NO majority governments in Canada has ever attained that level of support. In fact, only two majority governments in Canada have managed to attain a 50%+ threshold of support (i.e. a true majority) in the last 70 years!

Well said, especially about the part where premier Gordon Campbell set the bar too high. A government can win a false majority under the current system, that is, be elected with fewer votes than a majority (say 39%) but still win more seats than the other party, and go on to cause great harm and angst to a province or nation in even a single term. Bill Bennett did that in the early 80s in BC and the reaction nearly shut down the entire province in a general strike. The cuts to social spending still hurt to this day. And those cuts were made concurrent to government overspending on its favourite projects while also cutting taxes for the rich. Pure voodoo economics based on the trickle down theory, which never worked anywhere it was planned.

I would prefer that the Libs and NDP (who together represent nearly 2/3 of the electorate) work on a formula with lots of accountable independent, outside advice and wide public consultation, and impose the system for the next election. They don't need anything but a simple majority vote in parliament.

Alternatively, a referendum should also require only a simple majority to win, not a supermajority.

Strategic voters like me and half my friends in our competitive riding are always trying to keep the fire breathing conservative devil under the trap door by voting for the highest potential winner among a couple of centrist or progressive candidates. With proportionality, we can give it up and vote with our conscience while backing that up with a second choice.

Rufus, please go to the Fair Vote Canada (FVC) website (www.fairvote.ca), click on the “Learn More” icon, then scroll down to where you can find a link to the pertinent STV part of the brief that FVC presented to the Electoral Reform Committee. It’s a very in-depth presentation of STV and covers some “hybrid” STV options. After reading it, I felt that I had a better understanding of the various pros and cons.

Well articulated...and, yes, the Liberals and New Democrats need to get on this quickly! Perhaps as a part of their recent collaborative agreement. The Single Transferable Vote system may limit the People's Party or other alarming entities from gaining any actual foothold as the Reform Party did when it was the only alternative to the Chretien and then Paul Martin's Liberals.

I'm another person who thinks that STV is the way to go. (Shame on the NDP hacks who opposed it in 2009.) One thing that hasn't come up here is, when you ask people what they actually want, it's less party power, and more independents. Well, despite the protests of the "partyocracy" screambags, STV actually gives independent candidates a better shot. Assuming seven- or eight-member ridings (the best size, IMHO), an independent could get elected with about 15% of the vote. And fringe parties like the People's Party would still be excluded.

First rate article. I have always spoken in favour of PR. We need it more than ever.

The array of complicated comments here show why FPTP isn't going anywhere any time soon.
I have also imagined that PR might dethrone the whole "winner take all" in the cult of personality thing, thereby mitigating the entrenched gamesmanship of our politics, instilling instead a more rational, even more administrative sense of PROPORTION. But it has become crystal clear of late that more people are more emotional than rational.
And it's too late; politics is now binary, i.e. it's now them or us, and it's not even a joke that they COULD actually kill us all.
So we truly DO have to be "saved" from a mendatious right wing that has officially lost its mind and put democracy itself on notice.
So instead of buying into the conservative narrative about Trudeau and the Liberals being nefarious, lying, untrustworthy, and "gaming the system" we need to give our collective heads a shake and remember that THEY are the good guys here. And the fact that the always more virtuous in part because they have "no real chance of winning power" NDP HAS signed this agreement with them is as good as it gets. It creates actual proportion here and now when we need it most. Not to mention the stability that's completely and deliberately absent on the "rage-farming" right.
Talk about nefarious.

Our best hope for electoral reform today is charter challenge filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in October 2019 by Fair Voting BC and Springtide. A political party I'm affiliated with, the Animal Protection Party of Canada, is helping financially.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to rule that First-Post-the-Post infringes a number of sections of the Charter or Rights and Freedoms, including Section 3 and Section 15 (1).

Google "Charter Challenge for Fair Voting" for more information.

It is our best hope. It's not lost on me that Prime Minister Trudeau has never defended, protected, or improved Canadians' rights unless forced to buy a court. We're unlikely to get a better electoral system unless a court rules that FPtP infringes Canadians' rights, and it does.

I agree. Here's the link to the Charter Challenge: https://www.charterchallenge.ca/

Join the grassroots supported Charter Challenge for Fair Voting at this link https://www.charterchallenge.ca/
Here's why: The list of politicians who promise to bring change but don't is longer than you thought: It includes Justin Trudeau, François Legault in Quebec, and Mackenzie King from a hundred years ago. With that list growing, I'm betting that we can get this done faster through the courts even though the courts have a reputation of being slow. In fact, if all goes well with the courts might force the change before Pierre Poilievre faces an election. But even if we can't get our wish that soon, I am still betting that the courts will be faster than trying to get a politician to keep their promise on this.

Anything short of Proportional Representation is lipstick on a pig.

The Liberals and their Conservatives, backed by their corporate masters, are afraid of Democracy. Stop apologizing for them and call them what they are, undemocratic.

Somehow Trudeau got off the corporate leash and blurted out no more "first past the post". So instead of democracy, we got more of the status quo when he stuffed the genie back in the bottle.


Thanks Jake for the brief, accurate and colourful way in which you summed up the crisis now facing our Canadian democracies. With sucessive Canadian elections producing yet another autocracy, rather than a democracy, the autocrats assume the role of a dictator and we have to live by the dictator's rule for the next four years. This will only change when a critical number of Canadians raise their voices and demand electoral reform.

Great article. I personally think LocalPR is the best system for Canada, and was designed for Canada by Canadians. I also think it's a system that's palatable to the average Canadian because they still retain their MP. Check it out - https://www.allvotescount.ca