Canada’s democracy needs help but reform is still an uphill battle

Proper Proportions | by Gregory Beatty

When the federal Liberals legalized cannabis on Oct. 17, they delivered on a major campaign promise from the 2015 election.

Unfortunately they’ve bailed on another key election promise —replacing the dysfunctional First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system with some form of Proportional Representation (PR).

It’s particularly galling because even though a 2016 round of all-party committee’s hearings showed public interest was strong, the Liberal government ultimately decided Canadians were “divided” on the issue and backed away from election reform. Much to the dismay of those who supported change.

“It was truly devastating to think 2015 wasn’t the last unfair election,” says Nancy Carswell of Fair Vote Saskatchewan, the provincial chapter of Fair Vote Canada which advocates for electoral reform. “We’re non-partisan, but we had supported Liberal candidates who promised PR and it broke our hearts.”

It’s not all grim, though. PR might be dormant at the federal level, but at the provincial and even municipal levels it’s very much alive.

On Oct. 22, London Ontario became the first Canadian city to elect its mayor and city council with a ranked ballot. B.C. has just embarked on a month-long referendum campaign on whether it should switch to PR for provincial elections, and the newly elected CAQ government in Quebec has promised to introduce PR legislation within a year.

So yeah, these are exciting times for PR advocates.

But as the federal debacle showed, electoral reform is a tough nut to crack.

Partisan Blockage

Back to federal politics: Fair Vote Canada disputes the federal Liberals’ characterization of the 2016 proportional representation consultations as muddled and inconclusive, says Carswell.

“If I recall correctly, the government did not track who was doing what,” she says. “Fair Vote Canada stepped into that hole, and we have evidence that over 85 per cent of the people who presented favoured PR. That’s huge.”

Heading into the consultations, the NDP and Greens both favoured PR. The Conservatives, however,  wanted nothing to do with PR. Conservative support tends to top out at 35 per cent so a PR system would sharply reduce their chances of ever winning power, because the majority of Canadians vote for centre-left and progressive parties.

That leaves the Liberals.

“We think they wanted the ranked ballot, and that’s why they rejected the findings of the committee and said there was no agreement,” says Carswell.

“Well, what it was is that it didn’t agree with their agenda.”

A ranked ballot, like the one London just used, works fine for single-office elections. But with federal and provincial elections, voters are choosing individual MPs/MLAs from multiple parties to represent them in an assembly. So the dynamics are more complex.

In addition to their core support, the federal Liberals would always stand a good chance of being the second choice of Conservatives who would never vote NDP, and of NDPers who would never vote Conservative.

So a ranked ballot would have totally worked in their favour.

But it wouldn’t have delivered true PR, says Carswell.

“The ranked ballot can be used in a PR system, but if I end up having to settle for my second or third choice, then I don’t have representation,” she says.

Pumping PR

The main strike against First-Past-The-Post is that it’s a winner-take-all system that rarely, if ever, delivers a just result.

Probably the most notorious example in Canadian electoral history was the 1987 New Brunswick election. Running against the scandal-plagued Richard Hatfield Conservatives, Frank McKenna’s Liberals won all 58 seats. They received 60.4 per cent of the vote, which is impressive, but that still left 39.6 of New Brunswick voters (or 159,831 people, compared to the 246,702 who voted Liberal) unrepresented in the legislature.

That’s far from the only problem with FPTP says Carswell. It also favours the rich.

“PR is the best way of breaking money’s hold on lobbying because you can’t buy a party anymore,” she says. “That whole thing where lobbyists go ‘Oh, it looks like the Liberals are going to win, so I’m going to invest heavily in them and get 100 per cent of the power through them’ is gone.”

PR wouldn’t eliminate money’s influence on politics. But it would restrict it, and open up space for non-wealthy Canadians to have a seat at the table.

Defenders of FPTP argue that regardless of its flaws, it’s the best system to deliver a majority government and ensure political stability.

But that no longer holds true in our increasingly polarized, social media-inflamed world. In fact, if anything, FPTP is exacerbating existing tensions, says Carswell.

“FPTP, as a system, can produce violent swings between parties with just a small shift in votes in certain ridings,” she says. “But with PR, if there’s a small shift in votes, there’s a small shift in power.”

Yes, coalition governments are more likely under PR. But because they’re forged in a less adversarial environment where parties aren’t engaged in a life-and-death struggle for power, they’re typically less fractious than the occasional FPTP coalition we see today.

“Evidence shows that parties, under PR, are more collaborative and less confrontational because they know afterwards they are going to be sharing power,” says Carswell. “So [while] they are out there trying to win votes, they’re not beating up the other parties.”

Don’t misunderstand: the parties and candidates still campaign vigorously, and engage in passionate debates. But because they know that after the smoke has cleared they might have to work together in a coalition, they don’t resort to the toxic vitriol that has come to dominate politics in FPTP countries.

As has been well-documented, voter turnout has been plummeting in Canada and other FPTP countries in recent decades. PR can help reverse that, says Carswell, both by toning down the negative politicking that has turned off so many people, and by providing assurance that when a person votes their vote will count — even if it’s cast in a riding where their party isn’t popular.

“People who don’t vote are criticized — I think unjustly,” says Carswell. “They’ve done the math. They know their vote isn’t going to count. So why would you do something that isn’t going to work?”

Tough Sell

Twice before, in 2005 and 2009, B.C. has held referendums on electoral reform. In the first, 57.7 per cent actually voted for PR. But because the Gordon Campbell-led Liberals had set a super-majority threshold of 60 per cent, it failed to pass.

In 2009, only 39.9 per cent supported electoral reform.

For this referendum, the B.C. government sent out packages to all voters outlining the various options for reform. Voters have until Nov. 30 to cast their ballots.

But past experience in B.C. and other jurisdictions suggests that fear-based campaigning by anti-PR forces — combined with voter apathy and confusion — makes it an uphill struggle to achieve PR through a referendum.

“The fear-based campaign focuses on fringe parties and coalition governments,” says Carswell. “They always bring up the big two examples of Italy and Israel and use them as horror stories of what PR can cause.”

Both countries are notorious for their splintered politics, with 20 plus parties and fragile coalitions were rump parties often hold the balance of power. But for every horror story, there are many other positive examples — including such icons of democratic civility and prosperity as Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Iceland and Switzerland, where PR works fine.

Among developed countries, only Canada, the U.S., U.K. and India still use FPTP.

“In the 2012 book Patterns of Democracy, Arend Lijphart examined [governance models] in 36 countries,” says Carswell. “He found that those with PR systems had lower income inequality, better environmental performance, higher voter turnout, higher satisfaction with democracy and more women elected.”

Where PR initiatives typically bog down is in the various electoral models that are put before voters. Rather than add to the confusion in the B.C. referendum, Fair Vote Canada is focussing on what won’t change.

“We’re telling people that under all the systems being considered they will still have local representation,” says Carswell. “There will be no significant increase in MLAs, there’s a five per cent threshold to be eligible for proportional seats [to limit fringe parties], and after two elections there will be a second referendum saying ‘Hey, do you want to go back to FPTP, or do you like PR?’”

Carswell concedes anti-PR forces might view Fair Vote Canada’s reluctance to talk specific models as a cop out. But Canada is a big country with a small, but diverse, population. So why not think creatively in a regional and national sense and custom-design systems to meet our needs?

“It all starts with PR,” Carswell concludes. “Because under PR, I can vote for the party I want, my vote will count, and I will have representation.”