Electoral Reform: A Case of Orchestrated Failure?

Natalie Brunet

Shortly after coming to power, the federal Liberal government announced in their Speech from the Throne that 2015 would be the “last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post [FPTP] voting system.” 

Motivation for change

The main argument advanced against FPTP systems is that they often produce significant distortion between the number of seats obtained by a party and their share of popular vote. Former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna’s electoral win in 1987 offers one of the most memorable examples: McKenna’s party won all 58 seats in the legislature despite having only obtained 60 per cent of the popular vote. At the federal level, in 1993, the Bloc Québecois formed the Official Opposition despite having achieved only fourth place in the total popular vote. Given these disproportionate outcomes, many argue that a change to our system is long overdue.

Previous attempts at reform*

At the federal level, recent legislation on changing the electoral system has only been brought forward through private members’ bills and not government legislation. These bills have never passed second reading. No referendum or plebiscite vote has ever taken place.

For a look at the various reports presented to Parliament and federal consultations that have taken place since 2004, please see the Library of Parliament’s Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in Canada and Elsewhere.

Current process

The Liberals struck a Special Committee on Electoral Reform, whose membership, following pressure from the opposition, was reformed to avoid a Liberal majority and include sitting and voting members from all parties with Members elected to the House of Commons. The committee was given a matter of months to hear from experts on the topic. Minister of Democratic Reform Maryam Monsef conducted nearly 40 cross-country consultations on the issue, and encouraged Members of Parliament to conduct town halls in their communities. All MPs were asked to submit a report to the Committee by October 14, to be included in the final condensed report with recommendations for the government to consider when crafting legislation in early 2018. The Committee has received an overwhelming amount of information to sift through, which beyond the MP reports, also include over “150 submitted briefs, 22,247 responses to e-consultations, and testimony from more than 300 witnesses.”  Throughout this process, the Conservatives have been arguing that a referendum on the question would be a more democratic manner of deciding.

Will reform happen?

Maybe. Less than a year following their promise, the Liberals seem less enthused. Prime Minister Trudeau stated in an exclusive to Le Devoir that so many Canadians were unhappy with the past government that they believed electoral reform was the only solution, but that the change in government has made the motivation for change less compelling. When questioned following the release of the interview, Trudeau was quick to backtrack and reaffirmed his commitment to the consultation process his government has set out. Still, Monsef continues to state that the government “will not move forward on reforms without the broad support of Canadians.” Given the fact that major political parties still disagree on the approach to take and that 57% of Canadians believe that “the process should be slowed down and subject to more public consultations”, it seems unlikely that the nebulous target of “broad support” will be reached when the government moves to draft legislation in the new year.

Province House, PEI Legislature

Provincial developments: Prince Edward Island

The federal government is not the only one attempting electoral reform at the moment. Prince Edward Island is currently voting in a plebiscite on the issue.

Motivation for change

The impetus for change in PEI is also related to issues of distortion with FPTP, which have been central in recent PEI provincial elections. Six out of eight past provincial elections have produced an opposition with five or fewer MLAs (in a legislative assembly of 32 until the 1996 election and 27 thereafter) despite the popular vote being divided more evenly between political parties.

Previous attempts at reform

For Islanders, electoral change is not as foreign as it might be at the federal level. There are two cases of significant electoral reform in recent memory:

1. In 1994, the province went from having 16 dual-member districts to 27 single-member districts. Beginning in 1893, the two positions were elected by different electorates: one by all eligible voters while the other only by property owners in the riding. The tradition of electing two members per riding also assured adequate representation in the Legislative Assembly for both Catholics and Protestants in ridings where the population was mixed. After 1966, both positions were elected by all members of the electorate. By 1994, the importance of electing members of Parliament with different religious backgrounds in mixed ridings no longer seemed necessary. There was little difference between the two elected positions to Legislative Assembly. The Electoral Reform Committee proposed redistricting with only one member per riding. With a few changes to the number of ridings, the Legislative Assembly approved the change and created a new 27-member chamber, which were first elected in 1996. For a historical approach to this reform, read Paul Connelly’s Prince Edward Island’s transition from a 32-seat to a 27-seat Legislature”

2. More recently, in 2005, following multiple elections in which the opposition was reduced to only a few members despite earning nearly 40 per cent of the popular vote, a plebiscite was put forward on a change to the electoral system from first-past-the-post to a multi-member plurality on a single ballot. The requirements for passage were extremely stringent: over 60 per cent support was needed, as well as a simple majority in 16 of 27 ridings. The initiative failed catastrophically, with only 38.42 per cent favouring the change and few ridings even reaching the single majority. The initiative also had an extremely low turnout–in a province where turnout had been above 80% for provincial elections in the past 30 years–with only 33 per cent of the population voting on the initiative. Following the plebiscite, Jeanne Lea, Liberal MLA and member of the Yes Coalition, criticized the high threshold, the short timeline for education and the reduced number of polling stations due to the lower funding given to Elections PEI.

Current process

Voting is taking place between October 29th and November 7th online and by phone, and in person on November 4th and 5th. In a first for the country, the voter list was expanded to include 16 and 17 year olds who will be eligible to vote in the next provincial general election in 2018.

While Elections PEI has committed to educating the public about the new plebiscite and options proposed, the task is much more difficult given that five options are being proposed.

The options proposed for the new system are:

  1. First-Past-the-Post
  2. First-Past-the-Post Plus Leaders
  3. Dual Member Proportional
  4. Multi Member Proportional
  5. Preferential Ballot

Elections PEI has provided short videos (linked above) explaining the different options.

Will reform happen?

A change in the electoral system in PEI is unlikely to occur. First of all, there has been no threshold identified by the Premier for what would require the province to consider adopting the system that is selected. Second, with so many options on the table, it may be difficult for Islanders to understand and distinguish all systems proposed and to then make an informed decision. The plebiscite is a ranked ballot initiative, meaning Islanders will be able to rank all proposed options for the new electoral system rather than selecting only one, but even that may just lead them back to the system they understand best.

* A previous version of this article stated: At the federal level, a serious look at changing the voting system had never taken place in Parliament.

Natalie Brunet is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto and a Junior Fellow of Massey College. A proud Franco-Ontarian, Natalie has lived in five different provinces, including New Brunswick, where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Mount Allison University. Most recently, she worked on the Hill through the Parliamentary Internship Programme and in youth civic engagement at CIVIX. 


3 Comments Add yours

  1. activist2014 says:

    “At the federal level, a serious look at changing the voting system had never taken place in Parliament.” You must be kidding! Mackenzie King promised PR during the 1921 election. Trudeau Sr. proposed PR in 1979. There has been much discussion of electoral reform since then – most recently, the 2004 Law Commission on Electoral Reform. The Liberal minority government collapsed before it could be implemented. Prior to that, a panel of MPs toured various countries to study electoral systems – including Scott Reid. Just search Open Parliament to see how often electoral reform and proportional representation have been discussed in Parliament.

  2. activist2014 says:

    ” 57% of Canadians believe that “the process should be slowed down and subject to more public consultations” The very same poll indicated that 59% want Liberals to follow through in electoral reform and 47% want it done for 2019. http://www.ekospolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/ekos_data_tables_october_20_2016.pdf

    An Environics polls released Nov 2 indicates overwhelming support from LPC, GPC and NDP supporters with the CPC split on the issue.

    Click to access Environics+-+EVC+Omnibus+Report+-+Nov+2016.pdf

    You also need to look at the results of the town halls, dialogues & consultations. Detailed spreadsheets are provided. http://www.fairvote.ca/strong-mandate/

    As Frank Graves indicated, there is a deep malaise among Cdns about how our govt operates. This issue is not going away.

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