Why Trudeau Abandoned Electoral Reform

The case against change

It was incontestably part of the Liberal platform in 2015. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau solemnly pledged to change the electoral system so that the next election, presumably in 2019, would be decided by a new way to count votes. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform was created in the spring of 2016, and it delivered its report in December. It proposed two things. The first was that Canada replace its traditional system of voting (the ­single-member plurality system known widely as the first-past-the-post model) with a proportional system of representation (where seats in the House of Commons would be allocated according to the proportion of votes each party received). Second, it recommended that the idea be put to a referendum.

Both notions were poisonous to the Liberals, and Trudeau abandoned the commitment. For one, he had consistently said that he did not want to go to the people. That position was surprising, since British Columbia had done it twice, as had Ontario and Prince Edward Island. (The United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Australian Capital Territory also put their electoral reforms to the people.) Prince Edward Island even held a second referendum in October 2016 while the issue was being debated in Ottawa.

Just as importantly, the Liberals certainly did not want a proportional system. It was never clear what Trudeau expected. There were indications that he was favourable to the idea of ranked ballots—the system whereby voters choose their favourites in descending order. It took little time for experts to predict, using past results and some imagination, that under such a system the Liberals would be guaranteed a place in government forever. It was a non-starter for the majority of non-Liberals on the committee.

That the parliamentary committee would lean this way would not be surprising to any attentive watcher of its hearings (full disclosure: I appeared before it in July 2016 to argue that a referendum was a necessity for constitutional reasons). Most of the people who addressed the committee and who spoke in favour of reform wished for a proportional system, which is used in most countries around the world. This made a number of members of the committee quite happy. The New Democrats have argued in favour of it since the founding of their party almost 60 years ago; the Greens also supported the idea. Both parties have been less well represented in the Commons than their harvest of votes would indicate, a sign that their support was “inefficient,” or too thinly spread across the ridings. With a proportional system, both parties would surely become important partners in governing coalitions, and could even hold the balance of power.

The proportional-representation lobby has been working hard for over a generation now, and its argument is easy to understand. The current system allows parties that fail to win a majority of votes to nevertheless form majorities in Parliament. It also shuts out of power parties that consistently receive substantial support from the people. The system is further accused of favouring a system of strategic voting that forces individuals to vote for parties that do not necessarily reflect their priorities. Some PR enthusiasts have argued that the current system is directly responsible for low participation rates in elections. Some people consider that the current structure brings out the worse in Canadians: it makes them argumentative and divisive.

Yet most people do not buy those arguments. Polls and referendums consistently show that, notwithstanding its flaws, the FPTP system is considered valuable and that only a minority of voters want it changed. Various surveys also clearly show that Canadians want any proposals to be put to a popular vote.

The parliamentary committee experience showed, all the same, that the argument to keep the status quo needs to be fleshed out and that those who favour the current system are unorganized and less compelled to defend their point of view. Complacency easily settles in: after all, most people are in this camp and need no convincing.

Should We Change How We Vote? Evaluating Canada’s Electoral System aims to fill that void. It was conceived by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada late last summer, as observers alarmingly noted the crescendo of voices in favour of a pro-PR reform. Editors Andrew Potter and Daniel Weinstock of McGill University and Peter Loewen at the University of Toronto organized conferences in each city and then collected the papers that find form in this book. It was designed as a red-hot instrument of battle, but the belligerents have all gone home now. It will have to remain safely sheathed, at least for the moment.

That does not mean this book is not useful. In fact, it should be read in preparation for future battles. Sixteen of the 17 short essays contained in this smart collection debunk the notions that proportional representation, or any other scheme, will actually deliver better democracy or a better, more representative House of Commons or government.

This collection contains the work of scholars who mostly live along Highway 401, from Windsor to Montreal, as well as four British Columbians. The first section, “Guiding Principles,” contributes an overview of past efforts in Canada to reform the electoral system. It provides a handy reminder of what was attempted in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Loewen makes the point that the Canadian system has proven to be remarkably “robust” in dealing with various shocks over the past 150 years and warns that advocates for other systems would have to prove in some detail why a system that has worked effectively should be abandoned. He also observes that parties in proportional systems tend to be more static and dogmatic in their views and less willing to compromise and change along with popular views. Coalitions of such parties do not last very long either, and governments change routinely. He notes, like many other contributors, that direct accountability of members of Parliament to voters has also been highly valued in Canada and he wonders how a proportional system that necessarily features candidates drawn from a list could be seen as an improvement.

The second section focuses on “Evidence and Experience.” The various authors argue that the democratic diseases that have affected Canada (drops in voter turnout rates, for instance) are common in other advanced countries—including those that use PR. They collectively debunk the idea that proportional systems lead to more transparent governance. They show that “reformed” systems such as in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland still face grave issues of democratic input and regional representation. In fact, the Canadian system, they show, has done a much better job of it.

The third section examines “Issues and Alter­natives.” In one notable chapter, Erin Tolley from the University of Toronto points out that in the 2015 election, Canada’s system did very well in ensuring that racial minorities and indigenous peoples be adequately represented in the House of Commons. Her conclusion is that the current system is perfectly adaptable and she dismisses the argument that only a move toward proportional representation could do better.

The fourth part is entitled “How Should We Decide.” It tackles the issue of a referendum on the question. All four authors in this section support the idea, albeit for different reasons. Keith Archer, the chief electoral officer of British Columbia, maintains that a referendum is necessary. Hoi Kong, of McGill University’s law school, notes that there are serious doubts whether Parliament could change the system unilaterally. More importantly, I think, Dominique Leydet of the Université de Montréal argues that a referendum is inevitable but that it could only take place following a long, mature conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

It is easy to debunk the idea that a PR system would deliver better governance to Canada. Studies by noted scholars (many of whom also presented to the parliamentary committee) have demonstrated that voters in proportional systems are no happier with how they elect their legislatures than Canadians are with their FPTP system. People are not pleased to see government depend on political coalitions that, in turn, rely on small parties to stay in power. They do not like the idea that these coalitions are formed by agreements hatched in the dark. What is all the more remarkable is that people who voted for parties that are left out of governing coalitions are even less satisfied. In other words, there is absolutely no empirical evidence that Canadian democracy would be improved by the adoption of some system of proportional representation.

This book reminds us of how poorly prepared Canadians are in addressing this issue. Each of these short essays deepens the realization that defenders of the current system need to extend their research on the impact of the electoral system on Canada’s political culture. Colin Macleod of the University of Victoria makes a particularly compelling point as he examines the sites of the “deliberative character of Canadian democracy” in light of what other countries have experienced. He concludes that the FPTP system offers more opportunities for genuine political debate than a PR system.

The reality is that the Canadian electoral system, at both the federal and provincial levels, readily creates new parties but at the same time spawns coping mechanisms. The system that allows a party to form a government even though a majority voted against it forces the government to be moderate and responsive. If a party goes too far, it risks its political future. The structure basically allows a few changed minds to radically alter a parliament. Governments in Canada that grow arrogant soon find their members sitting on the opposition bench. No proportional system can deliver that. Small parties, or parties that represent only regions or particular world views, do not last much longer than three electoral cycles in this country. They may profit from a burst of dissatisfaction, but voters eventually realize that these parties have next to no chance to form a government in the FPTP system.

In a PR system, however, these parties could play a role and even form part of a coalition, affirming the validity of their views. They thus can become a regular feature of the political landscape. Many advocates of PR imagine that the Canadian parliament in a system such as this would remain as it is, but with more seats for the NDP (or the Greens). The reality, given the history of Canada, is more likely that such a system would give life to multiple parties of regional and sectoral interests, each with valid claims. People have forgotten that over a dozen parties (including the big-tent parties) have been represented in the House of Commons since 1867. Dozens more were also created, but never succeeded. In a system where there is already a strong impulse to create parties, a PR model would encourage it even more. The evidence is clear in other jurisdictions that have adopted it. It makes for great political theatre, but makes governance unpredictable and unstable.

It just may be that our faulty electoral system is the only thing that keeps this country together. Most of the institutions that provided some national cohesion—religion, business and labour elites, education, the written press (maybe even the CBC/SRC!)—have lost their influence. Like it or not, some of the few things Canadians now have in common are national parties.

Dozens of presentations to the parliamentary committee made arguments like the ones in this book. It turns out they resonated well with the decision makers in government. As such, this book accidentally yields insight into the real reasons the tongue-tied Liberal government dropped its commitments and its improvised process of reform in January 2017: it realized it had no support outside its tight little circles, and that a move to PR would be ruinous. Before any serious reform is pursued, the points raised by this book need to be addressed.

The Canadian electoral system is far from perfect, but it has been robust, has served the people well most of the time and has preserved its legitimacy. It has created a system that is competitive federally, provincially and intergovernmentally. There is no doubt that many feel as though their votes do not count. This can be addressed with some creativity without throwing overboard a system that has delivered accountability and a consistent alternance of power. Governments with majorities know that their support can be liquidated by a fickle Canadian public. The Canadian voting system is predictably unpredictable, and voters like it that way. Turns out the Liberals can live with it, too.