In his first throne speech as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau promised that 2015 would be the last federal election conducted under the single-member plurality (SMP) voting system. But after fourteen months of cross-country consultations, Trudeau abandoned his promise, citing a lack of clear consensus among Canadians. The move triggered protests across the country, with critics calling the reversal an act of ‘cynical betrayal’ on behalf of the Liberal Party.
Two years later, it seems as though the conversation about electoral reform has all but disappeared from the Canadian political conscience. With the 2019 federal election approaching, however, it is vital that Canadians put electoral reform back on the agenda and demand a more representative model of democracy.
In recent years, both the Canadian public and policymakers have questioned both the effectiveness and fairness of our current electoral system. Single-member plurality – whereby the country is divided into ridings and the candidate receiving a plurality of votes earns a seat in Parliament – has significant implications for the health of Canadian democracy.
Alternatively, proportional representation (PR), which is used in the majority of developed democracies, is the umbrella name for electoral systems that strive to match a party’s percentage of seats in Ottawa with its popular vote. Notably, Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain are anomalies in their use of SMP.
A mixed-member proportional (MMP) system – which incorporates PR and is currently employed in nine countries – would be a smart first step for electoral reform in Canada. Under MMP’s ‘hybrid’ design, half of the House’s representatives would be chosen using the current system to maintain accountability. For the other half, voters would cast their ballot for a national party, and that party would be allotted seats to match its percentage of the national vote. Accordingly, this would work to align the proportion of seats received by a party closer to its actual percentage of the popular vote.
SMP, in its use of the winner-takes-all principle, tends to favour the largest parties with geographically concentrated support at the expense of smaller parties with diffused support. Consequently, shifting to MMP would likely reduce seat counts for the Liberals and Conservatives, while benefiting the New Democratic and Green Party.
One of the most obvious problems with SMP is that it distorts voters’ preferences by artificially skewing the percentage of seats a party holds in Parliament. For instance, the 2015 federal election produced a majority government for Trudeau’s Liberals. They snatched 55 percent of available seats, despite winning less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Similarly, in last year’s New Brunswick provincial election, the PC party captured more seats than the Liberals, despite garnering six percent less of the provincial vote.
While single-member plurality may have made sense when Canada had a two-party political system, now, with three or four candidates running in many elections, often votes cast by the majority of constituents end up essentially wasted.
Diverse Society, Homogeneous House
Single-member plurality also harms Canadian politics by preventing full representation of minority groups in Parliament. SMP makes it more difficult for minority candidates to be elected because the groups they claim to represent rarely constitute a plurality in their constituencies. Proportional systems afford minority candidates better election prospects and tend to encourage “ticket balancing” – the process of ensuring that party lists include minorities, women and other underrepresented groups.
When one examines the track record of ensuring equal representation in Parliament, SMP’s failures become apparent. In the 2011 federal election, visible minorities made up only 9.1 percent of elected MPs, despite constituting more than 19 percent of the population. Of Canada’s 1.4 million Indigenous citizens, only seven gained seats in Ottawa. This being said, Canadians made great strides in the most recent federal election. Citizens elected the most diverse group of candidates in history, with record representation of visible minorities, foreign-born Canadians, indigenous folks and women.
Even after 2015’s breakthrough, however, the House is still primarily white, male and English-speaking. If we value a democratic system that is cooperative and affords decision-making power to a broad range of citizens, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Reality Check: Canada Under PR
Supporters of the current system often argue that SMP produces majority governments, thereby avoiding messy coalition building and instability. As well, it is believed that the current system has encouraged brokerage parties that strive to be ‘all-encompassing’ rather than single-issued. Proportional representation, they argue, would only augment extremist voices in Parliament, especially the far right.
But such fears are largely unwarranted. While it is true that proportional representation seldom results in one-party majorities, Canada certainly is not a stranger to minority government: of the 22 federal elections under SMP since 1945, nine have resulted in minority governments.
Additionally, there’s little reason to believe a change in the electoral system would suddenly give power to extremist parties. Most MMP systems today have an election threshold – such as Germany’s five percent cutoff – below which a party cannot gain representation. If anything, MMP could alleviate rapid policy shifts, such as the ones Ontario is witnessing under Doug Ford.
Fighting For Change
Not all Canadians have forgotten about the importance of a fair voting system. Within the past six months, referendums were held in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, with PR suffering defeats in both provinces. Citizens were especially divided in PEI, where the ‘No’ side won with less than 51 percent of votes. Electoral reform activists across the country have argued that short campaign periods and public misinformation have given the unfamiliar system a disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Québec premier François Legault is currently poised to adopt some form of MMP, and New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh has vowed to work towards electoral reform if his party wins this year’s federal election. (To be fair, though, we know all too well about campaign promises that are broken once candidates gain power).
Vernon Bogdanor, who has written extensively on the value of proportional representation, contends “to meet the canons of democracy, an electoral system should perform two functions. It should ensure, first, that the majority rules and, secondly, that significant minorities are heard”. Canada’s current system fails considerably on both counts. As October’s federal election approaches, Canadians must make electoral reform a dominant policy issue. If Trudeau isn’t ready for real democracy, let’s elect someone who is.
Edited by Lewie Haar and Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by Ryan Hodnett, via Wikimedia Commons