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.”
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?
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
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.