Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Moving Towards Electoral Reform

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (LPC - Papineau, QC) has repeatedly stated that 2015 will be the last election fought under the first-past-the-post model. Some version of electoral reform is on its way, that much seems very likely. I was tempted to say inevitable but there is a caveat that I will address soon.

The electoral reform will be selected by an parliamentary committee that will study this question, provide and recommendation and the government will move forward from there. Of course any parliamentary committee will be composed of Members of Parliament who are members of political parties with distinct interests in the electoral reform question.

The Greens and NDP are aligned on the electoral reform debate. They favour a proportional system. In such a system the number of seats a party wins in the House of Commons would approximately match the number of votes that party received. So, in the last election the Liberals received about 39% of the vote and would therefore be allocated 39% of the seats. The Greens and NDP favour this position for two reasons. The first explanation is rooted in equity. In a proportional system every vote is equal, there are no geographic distortions and minority desires are not shut out. The second reason is, of course, political. Smaller parties prefer proportional representation because their popularity often exceeds their ability to elect members. Both the NDP and Greens have concentrated support in certain areas but also receive votes across the country that do not add up enough to elect members. Proportional representation reflects that support in the House of Commons. Proportional representation is the standard in the democratic world. Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the vast majority of Europe and Latin America all use it.

The Conservatives oppose all forms of electoral reform. This is because the only system that allows them to form government in the current political dynamic is the first-past-the-post model. The Conservative Party is, at the moment, Canada's only right-wing party. The rest of the political spectrum is filled with centre/centre-left/left-wing parties. It is fair to say that in any given election that about 25-40% of the public may vote Conservative, which means they are very unlikely to form a government under proportional representation. Proportional systems encourage coalition governments and the Conservatives would have a much more difficult time finding willing partners. Their closest allies would be the Liberal Party, their chief rival. The Conservative Party has a vested interest in seeing electoral reform fail.

The Liberals are in a different place entirely. While I can recall Liberals advocating for proportional representation Justin Trudeau has expressed that the preferential ballot is more to his liking. Unsurprisingly the preferential ballot would likely disproportionately benefit the Liberal Party. In a preferential ballot voters rank their choices (1, 2, 3, 4). The candidate with the fewest votes is bumped off and those votes are redistributed to their second choice. This continues until one candidates has a majority of the votes. This reform would have the least dramatic implementation while still reshaping our politics. The impact would be particularly pronounced in Quebec now that many races are four-way contests.

Given the composition of the House of Commons I expect that this committee will recommend a preferential ballot. The question is whether or not the committee will impose a poison pill - a referendum. Referenda on electoral reforms have failed consistently in Canada. The status quo simply bears too much weight and the fear of change is pervasive. In any referendum the Conservatives would campaign hard and at least some percentage of the chattering classes will be dissatisfied that their preferred system wasn't chosen. In moments of deep cynicism I would not be surprised if the Liberals attached a referendum if proportional is selected to see that it fail.

Ultimately I hope 2015 is the last election with the first-past-the-post system. My preference is for a mixed-member proportional system, as they use in Germany. Given my opposition to FPTP I would even consider preferential as a more desirable option than the current model. If carried through this will be a major component of Trudeau's legacy, but it will be a very difficult task.

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