In fall 2016, Green Party leader Elizabeth May and her colleagues on the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform spent weeks crisscrossing the country to canvass Canadians’ opinions on changing the way they choose their Members of Parliament.
“We heard from hundreds of thousands of Canadians that they wanted proportional representation,” said May in a recent interview.
In its December 2016 report to Parliament, the committee recommended PR as a replacement for the first-past-the-post system the Liberals promised to end during the 2015 federal election campaign.
However, two months after the report was released, the Trudeau government declared electoral reform dead.
For May, though, the issue is very much alive. She plans to promote proportional representation in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 21 federal election and hopes for a minority government that would advance the issue in the next Parliament.
“In an era where so-called populists like Donald Trump or Doug Ford can get to power, it’s incredibly important that we ensure that no one can get power in Canada with less than the majority of the popular vote yet have 100 per cent of the power,” said May. “We must prevent that from ever happening by getting rid of first-past-the-post now, because it is the only election system, other than preferential voting, that allows that kind of distortion to happen when a party with a minority public support can gain a false majority.”
Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 23rd prime minister in 2015 when his Liberals formed a majority government with 184 seats in the House of Commons. But the party received only 39.5 per cent of the popular vote.
May said that as part of its 2019 federal election campaign platform the Greens will call for the creation of a national citizens’ assembly to determine the best alternative to the first-past-the-post system.
Fifteen years ago, a similar body in B.C. recommended a single transferable vote system, which received the support of 58 per cent of British Columbians in a 2005 referendum — not enough to meet the 60-per-cent threshold established by the provincial government. A second referendum, held in 2009, essentially reversed the results, with 61 per cent of the province’s residents voting against changing their first-past-the-post electoral system.
“One of the reasons it was so well-received in 2005 was not that every British Columbia voter really felt confident that they understood exactly how a single transferable voting system would work, but that they felt a lot of trust and confidence that the recommendation wasn’t coming from people within political parties that had self-interest at stake but from average voters on a citizens’ assembly,” explained May, the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.
(May also noted that her party’s democratic reform critic, Anna Keenan, who’s running as a Green candidate in the federal riding of Malpeque, Prince Edward Island, also led the pro-PR side in a provincial referendum earlier this year that found a slim majority of Islanders in favour of keeping their first-past-the-post system.)
May also believes the Liberals’ about-face on electoral reform will hurt them in October.
“A lot of people voted Liberal because they believed Justin Trudeau when he said 2015 would be the last election under first-past-the-post — and I will count myself among those people who believed him,” she said.
If the election results in a minority government, May plans to raise proportional representation as part of the conditions to support either a Liberal or Conservative government.
“We need to make sure that we get rid of first-past-the-post, whether it’s mixed-member proportional or single transferable vote or the rural-urban option that was included in last year’s referendum in B.C. or any other mathematical formulas described as consensus-based systems — and have voting that’s fair,” she explained.
“It’s clear that the system we have now is the worst.”
May referred to Patterns of Democracy, a 1999 book by Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart that examines 36 democracies, including Canada’s.
“Not only do consensus-based systems have higher voter turnout and more women elected, but they also have stronger environmental regulations and better economic performance,” said the Green leader, who added that during her recent Community Matters Tour, in which she held 33 town hall meetings in every province and the Northwest Territories, at least one question regarding PR was raised.
The NDP also supports proportional representation, but the party takes a slightly different approach.
As part of their 2019 election campaign platform, the New Democrats say that if they form the next federal government they will introduce a mixed-member proportional system and establish a citizens’ assembly to determine how it would work for the following election, which would presumably be held in 2023.
A national referendum would be held after that election to allow Canadians to decide if they like the new system or whether they would prefer to return to first-past-the-post. (An NDP government would also lower the voting age to 16.)
“Canadians have told us directly that the voting system we have is broken or more generally that their vote doesn’t matter,” said NDP democratic reform critic Daniel Blaikie. “We feel strongly that we could improve upon what we have greatly, and an important piece of that puzzle is changing the way we vote.”
As with the Greens, the New Democrats would put electoral reform — along with other key NDP issues, such as universal pharmacare and national childcare — on the table during any negotiations in a minority Parliament, said Blaikie, who represents the Winnipeg riding of Elmwood-Transcona in the House of Commons.
A national citizens’ assembly would design the mixed-member proportional system, he said, figuring out the proportion of MPs who would represent ridings versus those representing parties, and the popular vote threshold required before parties win seats. It would consider how riding MPs should be elected, and how party MPs selected — by the leader, or based on candidates who receive the most votes or on regions they represent?
“It would produce Parliaments that better reflect the diversity of opinion in Canada,” said Blaikie. “The idea that people would have the opportunity to vote for a local candidate, who might be with the NDP, and vote for a party that might be Conservative or Green, I think holds a lot of appeal for people who are tired of being forced into a situation where they have to choose between candidates and parties.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is to “give Canadians a direct say between two concrete alternatives in a referendum, and the confidence they need to try something new and not be worried that they’re just taking a leap of faith.”
But PR is more than just a campaign commitment for him. “Electoral reform is one of my reasons for supporting the NDP,” said Blaikie, who established a Fair Vote chapter in Winnipeg about 15 years ago.
Fair Vote Canada will also be supporting the NDP, along with the Greens and any party or candidate who is a PR advocate in the election campaign.
Fair Vote is also calling for a national citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. And, in lockstep with the Green Party, Fair Vote has linked proportional representation with climate policy.
“Winner-take-all electoral systems such as first-past-the-post produce frequent ‘policy lurch’ — where one government elected with less than half the votes reverses the policies of the previous government. Over time, we move back and forth, instead of forward,” according to Fair Vote’s federal campaign objectives.
“On climate policy, scientists have told us we have only 11 years to reduce emissions. We simply don’t have time for the policy lurches of first-past-the-post. Proportional representation means that parties must work together to create policy — so every policy has the support of parties representing a real majority of voters. These policies are much more likely to last through changes of government. Lobbyists may not wield so much power in proportional systems, since they now need to convince multiple parties to agree to their objectives.”
Fair Vote is also taking a different approach to promoting PR during the election campaign than it did four years ago, according to president Réal Lavergne.
“In the 2015 election, our role was limited to providing information on the stance of different parties and candidates across the country,” explained Lavergne, a retired policy analyst with the federal government who holds a PhD in political economy from the University of Toronto. “This time, we are going to be campaigning in a limited number of ridings — in the order of 25, 30 ridings — actively encouraging our supporters to help elect pro-proportional representation candidates.”
One of the targeted ridings is Elmwood-Transcona, and Fair Vote will endorse both the Green candidate and Blaikie, who narrowly won the seat in 2015 against the Tory incumbent, Lawrence Toet, who’s running again this year.
“We know that the NDP and the Greens are supportive of PR, and the Bloc [Québécois] is supportive as well, though it doesn’t have a written pro-PR policy,” said Lavergne. The Bloc, like the Conservative party, also indicated support for a referendum on the issue, which he said could be seen as a “delaying tactic.”
“We’re looking at focusing on swing ridings where a pro-PR candidate is going head-to-head with a non-PR candidate.”
Ultimately, Fair Vote is hoping for a Liberal minority government that would allow the NDP, Greens and Bloc to help advance PR, particularly through the establishment of a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform.
The Conservative Party of Canada has not released any policy statement on electoral reform as part of their 2019 election campaign, and neither the party’s shadow minister for democratic institutions, Stephanie Kusie, nor Leader Andrew Scheer’s press secretaries responded to The Tyee’s requests for more information. However, the Tory members of the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform insisted that a national referendum would have to be held before any changes were made to the electoral system.
Proportional representation advocates could get a boost from Quebec, where Premier François Legault’s government is expected to table a bill on Oct. 1 that would introduce mixed-member proportional. Given that now-governing Coalition Avenir Québec, along with the Parti Québécois, Québec solidaire and Quebec’s Green Party, signed an agreement in May 2018 in support of such legislation, Quebec could become the first Canadian jurisdiction to have PR since it was briefly in place — under a single transferable vote system — in Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton in the first half of the 20th century.
Should the political route fail, the country’s highest court could weigh in on electoral reform.
Fair Voting BC and Springtide, a Halifax-based political activist group, are raising money to launch a constitutional challenge against the current voting system. They want the Supreme Court of Canada to rule that first-past-the-post violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and most particularly Section 3, which guarantees Canadians the right to vote. The groups plan to argue that should be extended to mean a right to “a meaningful and effective” vote, Lavergne said.
In an appearance before the House electoral reform committee in 2016, veteran PR advocate Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, explained how first-past-the-post hasn’t worked in Canada since the two-party system ended in 1921.
The multiparty system, he argued, produced 14 “false” majority governments out of 30 federal elections since then. “False” means a party that wins a majority of the House seats but not most of the popular vote. Only three were “true” majority governments: Liberal Mackenzie King’s in 1940; Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker’s in 1958; and PC Brian Mulroney’s in 1984, when each of them won 50 per cent or more of the seats and half or more of the popular vote. The other 13 were minority governments.
Russell, author of the 2008 book, Two Cheers for Minority Government: The Evolution of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy, told the committee fears proportional representation would bring instability are misplaced.
“You get a lot of votes of confidence when there is a really good possibility that you can bring the government down, have an election, and get a majority. And oh boy, do party leaders love majorities.”
But proportional representation reduces the incentive, as parties are less likely to emerge from the next election with a majority.
Russell told The Tyee that “PR represents the will of the people better.”
Political scientist David Moscrop said even if the election produces a Conservative or Liberal minority government, the other parties will have limited leverage in pushing proportional representation. The best they can likely achieve is a commitment to a referendum on electoral forum, he said.
“I can’t imagine the Liberals or the Conservatives undermining the possibility of winning a future majority by adopting PR,” said Moscrop, a postdoctoral fellow focused on democratic deliberation and political decision making in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa.
“The biggest challenge electoral reform faces is a lack of salience. It’s just not relevant for most people most of the time, the way climate change has been through people making the connection to it from extreme weather events or insurance rates increasing. PR advocates often try to make it about values, but even then it remains abstract because you’ve got to find a way to link those values to outcomes.”
“It’s a not a vote-getter,” said Moscrop, author of the 2019 book, Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.
He expects that an ambitious climate agenda or comprehensive pharmacare program would be more likely to top the agenda in any negotiations in a minority Parliament. “But if they’re trading things off, PR will be the first to go.”
Moscrop added that the odds of Trudeau dusting off his 2015 electoral-reform commitment are next to nil. “Politically, it would hurt him to go back because it would remind people that he broke his promise, which is the last thing he’s going to want.”
“The probability of a government featuring PR over, say, the next five years is also very low,” he explained. “Third-party organizations will continue to push for it and keep the flame burning, as they should. But I think we’ll be talking about climate change and pharmacare.”
But even if the public will is there, it still could take many years for proportional representation to replace first-past-the post, according to Moscrop.
He points to the example of New Zealand, which adopted a mixed-member proportional system in 1996 following a 1993 referendum. But the idea to move to MMP came a decade earlier when the country’s Labour Party, which campaigned for it, formed government in 1984 and established a royal commission that recommended it two years later.
And if proportional representation comes to Canada, expect it to first appear at the provincial level, said Moscrop.
“I would imagine somewhere in Atlantic Canada, or Quebec.”
The Tyee’s federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.