Why Canada Needs Electoral Reform Right Now

Opinion by Kieran Niet.

A silhouette of a hand putting a ballot into a ballot box.

INTRODUCTION

Canada held a federal election in September, and it was not one for the history books. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government ended in the same minority they were hoping to escape, and none of the other parties could be considered much happier. However anti-climactic, this election holds an important lesson: after all that fuss, the government still misrepresents the opinions of the country. Despite coming in second place with only 32% of the votes, the Liberals managed to form government with 47% of the seats. Compare this to the NDP, who won the support of 18% of Canadians, yet is only represented in Parliament with 8% of the seats. Somehow, they have 10 seats less than a party with only 7% of the vote, the Bloc Québécois. The Conservative Party could be the most frustrated, earning the highest percentage of the popular vote (33%) only to hold 21 seats less than the Liberals [1].


Our current “first-past-the-post” electoral system, where the candidate who wins the most votes in each constituency is elected, grossly misrepresents the will of the people. In doing so it alienates and devalues voters’ voices [2]. It is time to implement proportional representation, where a party’s percentage of the vote is reflected directly in their number of seats in Parliament.


THE CURRENT SYSTEM

Canada’s current electoral system is ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP). The country is divided into regional ridings that represent a portion of the population. The beauty of FPTP is its simplicity: whoever wins the most of votes in each riding represents that segment of the population in parliament. Sounds simple, but it can lead to bizarrely skewed results.


In a theoretical riding with four parties, a party with only 40% of the votes can win the riding because the 60% majority is split between the three remaining parties [3]. Under Canada’s current electoral system you do not need support from most of the population to represent them. In the last two elections, the Conservative party won the largest portion of the popular vote, but the Liberals won more seats in Parliament [4]. Can we really call this a representative democracy?


Still, there is a reason this system has survived this long. FPTP is praised for its straightforward, homogenizing nature [5]. FPTP has often been described as very stable because it produces strong parties with cohesive opposition. Since representation is limited to the biggest parties, the dominant players learn to cater their platforms to a wide range of voters. Successful parties in FPTP systems appeal to the safety of the middle ground. Conversely, fringe, extremist parties will never gather enough support to be elected. FPTP governments are usually moderate in policy.


FPTP is also very accessible. Voting requires only a single tick-box for the best candidate out of a handful. For voters who do not engage as actively with their national politics, all they need to consider is the best candidate to represent their local riding or the party that represents their broad interests.


THE PROBLEM

FPTP will tell you that it produces stable governments and happy voters. In Canada, that is far from the case. In the past 20 years, we have had five different minority governments and only three majorities [6].


Furthermore, the value of a majority government is seriously questionable. Majority governments are notorious for pushing through major policy without the need for meaningful input from the opposition. Not only does this give them disturbingly free reign, but it also means that no policy is safe from complete overhaul when a new government is elected [7]. Governments function on a 2–4-year cycle that is built around reelection rather than longevity.


Finally, FPTP contributes to the alienation of voters. When only one perspective is represented by the government, it breeds resentment in the silent majority. What often happens in Canada is that elections are split between traditionally Conservative-voting rural workers in the energy and agriculture sectors, and Liberal/NDP-voting “sheltered” urban residents [8]. If one side prevails, the other goes ignored, and resents the victors even more. Resentment and distrust are not constructive factors in establishing a democratic government.


POSSIBLE SOLUTION

The question remaining is: how should Canada address the problematic nature of Canada’s FPTP electoral system? Implementing proportional representation (PR) system is one solution. Over the past decade, party leaders, MPs, activists, and citizens alike have called for this change. The concept of PR is just as simple as FPTP. Instead of a race to the finish line, PR is a direct translation of the popular vote into government. When a party wins 10% of the popular vote, they will hold 10% of the seats in the legislature [9].


This way, every voter’s voice is heard in government. Parties cannot achieve disproportionate majorities. Instead, they learn to collaborate and find productive consensus. As a result, voter turnout is higher, and citizens are more satisfied with their governments [10]. Countries like Germany and Ireland who use proportional representation have proven these benefits repeatedly.


There are countless different variations of PR, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Canada’s current task is to find one that suits our unique context. Electoral reform is not a far-fetched idea either; Prime Minister Trudeau himself promised to explore alternatives in his first election campaign, but he has not prioritized it in office [11]. What is needed now is a push of public support to force him into action.

 

Bibliography

[1] “Federal Election 2021 Live Results,” CBC News, CBC/Radio Canada, 2021. https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/elections/federal/2021/results/.


[2] Brian Platt. “Trust in Canadian Political Leaders Has Cratered during the Pandemic, Poll Finds - except in Quebec,” National Post, Postmedia Network, May 12, 2021. https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/trust-in-canadian-political-leaders-has-cratered-during-the-pandemic-poll-finds-except-in-quebec.


[3] “First Past The Post (FPTP)” ACE Project, The Electoral Knowledge Network, accessed December 5th, 2021. https://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esd/esd01/esd01a/default


[4] Maham Abedi. “ Tories won the popular vote but the Liberals will govern. Here’s why,” Global News, Corus Entertainment, October 22, 2019. https://globalnews.ca/news/6067754/conservatives-popular-vote-electoral-system/


[5] “Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System,” ACE Project, The Electoral Knowledge Network, accessed November 27, 2021. https://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esd/esd01/esd01a/esd01a01.


[6] Stephen Azzi and D Kwavnik. “Minority Governments in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, October 22, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/minority-government.


[7] Rachel Aiello. “Here's How Canada Changed under Justin Trudeau,” CTV News, Bell Media, July 15, 2019. https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/here-s-how-canada-changed-under-justin-trudeau-1.4494319.


[8] Aaron Wherry. “Two New Solitudes - Rural and Urban - Now Define the Canadian Political Landscape,” CBC News, CBC/Radio Canada, October 3, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/2021-election-rural-urban-conservative-liberal-1.6197095.


[9] “What Is Proportional Representation?” Fair Vote Canada, Fair Vote Canada, accessed November 28, 2021. https://www.fairvote.ca/what-is-proportional-representation/.


[10] Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries (Newhaven/London: Yale University Press, 2012), 285-288.


[11] Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau), “As Prime Minister, I’ll make sure the 2015 election will be the last under first-past-the-post system http://lpc.ca/ao3o #/upfordebate”, Twitter, tweet, September 21, 2015, 8:09PM, https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/646114034463338497?s=20