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Federal Politics

Here’s Why Electoral Reform Isn’t Dead in Canada

The need is greater than ever, and there are signs of political progress.

Anita Nickerson and Gisela Ruckert 2 Feb

Anita Nickerson is the executive director of Fair Vote Canada. Gisela Ruckert is a board member of Fair Vote Canada and a long-time environmental campaigner. 

How many times have we heard blustering declarations from armchair critics and jaded pundits that proportional representation is most definitely, indisputably and irrevocably dead as a doornail?

And yet, just as tulips gather strength beneath the frozen ground of winter, the electoral reform movement continues to grow deeper roots and gain momentum.

Change that fundamentally threatens the power of elites often takes longer ― but it can succeed.

As we write, two exciting developments are unfolding that could kickstart the next chance for electoral reform in Canada.

First, a resolution in support of a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform is making its way to the national convention of the Liberal Party of Canada in May.

This resolution arrives on the convention floor as a “fast-tracked” resolution ― the number one resolution from Liberal party members in B.C. It came from the party’s own grassroots.

That means it will be debated and voted on by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Liberal MPs, staffers and every member in the room.

This resolution comes on the heels of a national poll by EKOS showing that 76 per cent of Canadians would support a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The assembly would be an independent, non-partisan body that would learn from experts, consult Canadians and make a recommendation.

This includes 73 per cent of Liberal voters, 69 per cent of Conservative voters, 84 per cent of NDP voters, 91 per cent of Green voters, 88 per cent of Bloc voters, and 72 per cent of People’s Party voters.

Policy resolutions are a springboard for change

Many Canadians don’t realize that the infamous, abandoned 2015 Liberal campaign promise to end first-past-the-post started as a resolution at a Liberal party convention almost a decade ago.

Before federal electoral reform was even on anyone’s radar, diligent and hopeful changemakers quietly toiled away behind the scenes. Their work gave Canada its best chance at electoral reform in 100 years.

Fast-forward to 2023, where we see the next generation of equality minded Canadians once again laying the groundwork for a breakthrough.

Liberals ought to be in a more agreeable frame of mind this time. Whereas Trudeau was riding high on an unexpected majority in 2015, he now leads a minority government elected by a mere 32.6 per cent of voters ― the lowest level of popular support of any government in Canadian history.

At the same time, far from the machinations in party backrooms, citizens in the Yukon are stubbornly fighting for their own democratic revolution. 

A tight-knit bunch, Yukoners understand the power of sticking together to beat the odds. As one reform advocate observed, “We do things differently here. I have come to believe that there is something in the water that brings out people’s best selves when the going gets hard, especially at -40 degrees.”

That “can do” spirit has brought a scrappy team of electoral reformers to the verge of a major leap forward.

The Yukon’s all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform has just sent a survey to every household asking if Yukoners support the creation of a Yukon Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

If Yukoners say yes, citizen leadership could inspire and renew hope across the country ― at a time when it is sorely needed.

Reform is more urgently needed than ever

We can all see what’s happening: political leaders across the country are whipping up the most extreme members of their base with words that alienate, enrage and divide.

With such corrosive rhetoric filling the airwaves, it’s not surprising that a majority of people of all partisan stripes believe that politicians don’t care what they think. Given that governments are beholden only to their party’s increasingly narrow base, that’s not an irrational conclusion. 

After the disruption of the “freedom” convoy, the need to invoke the Emergencies Act, a dismal 43-per-cent turnout in Ontario’s election and that province’s attempts to override Charter rights through the reckless use of the notwithstanding clause, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong with our democracy.

The election of Pierre Poilievre as leader of the Conservative party while riding a wave of anger and campaigning on a populist message has sparked alarm about the precarious state of Canada’s democratic health.

Canada is not immune to global forces

The 2022 V-Dem report, which compared 180 countries on 71 different measures of democracy, points to a precipitous rise in autocracies around the globe over the past decade. Its depressing conclusion is that the democratic advancements of the past 30 years have now been “eradicated.”

While there are obviously multiple causes, one thing is clear: winner-take-all voting is making the situation worse.

A 2020 Cambridge University study identified some causes of Canada’s democratic decline, including the winner-take-all electoral system, economic inequality and regional grievances (the latter two being exacerbated by our winner-take-all electoral system).

Denmark and Ireland show us a better way

While Canadians work to modernize our archaic voting system, comparative studies point to alternatives that produce better outcomes. New research shows that proportional representation reduces partisan hostility among voters, reduces political polarization, reduces hostility in Parliament, and can help protect climate policy from the impact of the far right.

Examples abound of countries with proportional representation finding common ground through collaboration and innovation.

After Denmark’s 2022 election, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reached across party lines to form an unprecedented, broad coalition of left and right. A culture of co-operation between parties ensures that Danish voters are among the most satisfied in the world.

Ireland is governed by parties who were sworn enemies for most of the past century. Working together with a historic agreement, they are taking democracy to the next level by empowering citizens to drive evidence-based policy. Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies are producing results and have become a model for the world.

In difficult times, faced with a multitude of complex crises from climate to health care, it is important that governance systems help, rather than hinder, progress.

Good ideas can’t be kept down

What lessons can we learn from other movements that have succeeded in wresting power from the ruling class?

First, such movements have always faced obstacles that appeared to most people to be insurmountable. Every movement that finally won defied popular wisdom and beat the odds.

Citizens who take on institutions ― who seek to change not just one policy, but to alter the centres of power ― will hit brick walls and suffer multiple (sometimes crushing) defeats.

Often, they work in the shadow of a monotonous, predictable chorus of pundits, politicians and special interests who confidently pronounce their campaign to be a lost cause. Until it isn’t.

Proportional representation is coming to Canada because Canadians will keep fighting for it until it does.

With the real perils facing democracy in Canada and the serious challenges ahead, it can’t come soon enough.

Yes, we’re ready. Bring on electoral reform.  [Tyee]

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