A tough road ahead for the electoral reform committee

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By Jay Fallis

January 27th, 2017



For those of you that have been following the electoral reform debate over the last few months, you may be a little disoriented. Initially we saw the appointment of an electoral reform committee that showed great promise. This committee was designed to be representative of the parties in the House of Commons which meant practicing consensual politics could help to bring about a new political mantra in Ottawa.

When the committee hosted its first witness, it was clear that this political cleanse so many had been hoping for would be difficult to achieve. That witness, then Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, while responsive to the committee, did not confirm that the recommendations of the committee would be taken seriously by the Canadian Government.

As the committee continued to meet and witnesses came and went, it seemed that while progress was being made and MPs were interested in the information being presented, there continued to be partisan overtones. This made it difficult to have a neutral educated discussion on the matter as each side tried to convey their own points.

Now, as our Prime Minister wavers on his promise to bring in a new electoral system by 2019, there is concern both on and off of Parliament Hill, that the committee may not have accomplished its objective.

Although there are many good arguments coming from both sides of this debate, the real discussion should come down to one thing: voters should have a greater capacity to influence the results of elections.

Gouild with Gov Gen and PM on swearing in

Karina Gould with the Governor General and the Prime Minister after being sworn in as the Minister for Democratic Institutions.

In the 2015 federal election, Burlington and Oakville elected three candidates: Liberals John Oliver, Pam Damoff, and newly minted Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould. Together they gained support from 92,611 voters across both cities. However, that meant 102,989 votes, roughly 52.7% of voters from the Burlington and Oakville area, did not influence the final results. How is this fair for those that do not vote Liberal in these two cities?

What would electoral reform mean for residents of Burlington and Oakville? Should anyone here really care?
There have been many different proposals put before the committee, but generally speaking the favoured concept is a family of systems referred to as “Proportional Representation”. This type of system ensures that no matter where a person lives, their ballot will more often than not go toward electing a candidate of their choice.

That might mean that instead of an MP for Burlington, an MP for Oakville North—Burlington, and an MP for Oakville, there would be one MP for Burlington, one MP for Oakville and a third MP representing the entirety of both cities. The advantage of this would be having representatives from at least two parties in the area, ensuring that local interests on multiple sides of the political spectrum are represented. This would also allow residents the opportunity to seek assistance from representatives they feel most comfortable dealing with, and with whom they are politically aligned.

However, the affects to local political practices will not be the only thing that changes under a new electoral system. A proportional electoral system would mean a different form of government. Majority governments, dominated by one political party would become a thing of the past, and coalition governments would likely become the norm.

A coalition government, whereby multiple parties help to form government, are proven to be difficult for the winning party to control. However, there are many advantages that come with these forms of government as well.

Elections - FPP vs Proportional

What the current government would have looked like had members of the House of Commons been chosen on a proportional representation model.

Experience on the international stage suggests that parties in coalition governments are much more likely to negotiate, meaning that more segments of the Canadian population would be considered during the creation and passing of legislation. Furthermore, the tendencies of coalition governments are to spend more on infrastructure and services while also proving to be more capable of balancing a budget.

While the effects of implementing a proportionally representative electoral system may not be cut and dry, it would seem that many benefits could flow from its implementation for both the country of Canada and the cities of Burlington and Oakville.

However, the government will need to defy both partisan logic and political history to say yes to a system from which many Canadians would likely benefit.

Jay Fallis Bio PicJay Fallis writes on politics for several newspapers in Canada. His preference for “proportional representation” is one of several choices available.

Burlington’s MP, Karina Gould, now the Minister of Democratic Institutions, is tasked with bring a recommendation the Cabinet on how, if and when any changes will be made to the way Canadians choose the form of government representation they want.

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7 comments to A tough road ahead for the electoral reform committee

  • Jay Fallis

    Hi Brian,

    I think you are dead on. Today’s moves certainly seem to reflect that way of thinking.



  • Brian Roach

    An interesting discussion, Jay, but the problem is that the proportional representation model won’t be considered by the Liberal government because it lessens their potential power. This is why the Liberals seem to prefer the ‘Ranked Ballot’ approach which favors the Liberals (as a mushy middle type 2nd choice). I’m sure this is why Monsef blasted the committee, if the option chosen doesn’t favour the Liberals, then Justin won’t implement it.

  • Jay Fallis

    Hello again Stephen,

    I would certainly agree that the more data we can collect on this the better. It varies of course on which PR system you’re looking at. Of course, Ireland and New Zealand are smaller case samples. However, the use of MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) in Germany or MMM (Mixed Member Majoritarian) in Japan are just some of the case studies we can use to analyze the affects of PR in more populated countries.

    I also would agree with you that more energy and effort can be devoted to the consultative process.As you had mentioned there are a lot of modern avenues that politicians could take to become more accessible to the public. It seems logical that they should be taking advantage of these.

    However, that is not to say we can’t be advocating for both modifications at the same time. While it might not be clear cut, one could suggest that certain PR systems could facilitate more consultation as more voters play a role in the election of political representatives. The logic here being that a politician would no longer be able to appeal to the plurality, instead they would need to appeal to all voters. Thus more consultation with voters would be necessary. Furthermore, with more representatives available for each voter, accessibility could be improved upon.

    However, to be clear I am not aware of any studies that suggest one results in the other. It might also depend on the type of PR system that is in place. I am aware that Irish politicians have very close relationships with their constituents. However, such accessibility might have more to do with the size of the riding or the size of the country.

    Thanks again for writing! Always great to get a different perspective on things.


  • Stephen White

    Thanks for your comments Jay. A few remarks in rebuttal:

    Before we revamp our parliamentary system I would want to see better supporting data on its effectiveness from a more cosmopolitan and diverse group of countries than Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand. Sorry, but these aren’t exactly G8 or G20 countries. Their populations are small in relation to Canada’s. Ireland’s economy is up and down like a toilet seat, and much of its success is due to cuts in the corporate tax rate. Similarly, PEI’s population is less than Burlington’s.

    Again, to my earlier point: far too much time, energy and effort is being devoted in this discussion to the election process, and far too little to the policy making, consultative process between elections. The issue is how to meaningfully engage citizens so that their voices and perspectives are well and truly reflected in the policy consultation process.

    I’m no huge fan of our local MP but I will give credit where credit is rightfully and duly deserved. Ms. Gould has made sincere overtures to hold public meetings and forums to invite citizens to provide input on democratic reforms. That kind of initiative needs to be formally instituted on not just this but other policy issues as well. While elections are important, so too is the process by which and through which average citizens have an opportunity to provide input on public policy.

  • Jay Fallis

    Thanks very much Dan and Steve for writing!
    I always appreciate the feedback.

    To comment on Steve’s critiques, there are a couple of things worth noting.

    First, while governments in Proportionally Representative electoral systems do not last as long as those in FPTP systems, the difference is not as significant as one might assume.

    Dr. Dennis Pilon found that the average government in a PR system lasted 1.8 years, while the average government in a first past the post system lasts 2.5.

    Second, while there are examples of countries with governments where longevity is limited, this lack of longevity is not necessarily the sole product of the electoral system in place. Other factors such as political culture likely play a significant role as well.
    Additionally, there are many more countries where PR systems have produced consistently sturdy governments, and where citizens are pleased with the outcomes (Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, etc.)
    It is also important to note that the implementation of thresholds and other modifications to the electoral system and parliamentary system can eliminate many political parties from arising and guarantee greater government longevity.

    Third, while you might accept your party receiving proportionally fewer seats than they had received in the popular vote, I know that there are many Canadians who are disgruntled by this fact. You might be saying something different if the 2015 election had produced the results of the 1993 election where only 2 Progressive Conservatives were elected despite receiving more popular support than the party who won the official opposition. It is also important to note that the the more seats and stature an opposition party has in the House of Commons, the more power they have to influence legislation especially in a PR system.

    Fourth, the most recent referendum on electoral reform in PEI did pass a few months ago. Rather, its failure is based on the government’s refusal to act on the results.
    The 2005 BC referendum is also worth noting. Although it did not pass, the PR system being proposed received support from more than half the province (57.7%). However, the threshold for the referendum to pass was 60% as opposed to 50%. So to say that referendum failures in Canada indicate a lack of interest for the implementation of a PR system is misleading.

    Fifth, as mentioned in my article countries with PR systems perform better economically. This includes a higher capacity to produce economic growth. This is likely because the transition from government to government is never as ideologically drastic as in a FPTP system.

    Thanks again for reading!


  • Stephen White

    “Experience on the international stage suggests that parties in coalition governments are much more likely to negotiate, meaning that more segments of the Canadian population would be considered during the creation and passing of legislation. ”

    Really Jay? How many governments has Italy had since 1945? How about France? How many political parties do they have in Israel?

    The current system may not be perfect, but compared to the endless bickering that goes on in coalition governments, not to mention the frequency of elections, the cost and the lack of political and economic certainty, it is infinitely better.

    As a Conservative Party supporter I accept the fact that the Liberals won the last election and that they have a majority government. I don’t question it, and I don’t challenge it. Do I really care whether the Liberals got 184 seats rather than 143? No. Do I really care that my Party got 99 instead of 107 seats? No. Do I care that the Green Party received 1 seat instead of 7? No. If the Conservatives had 107 seats instead of the 99 would it materially affect the success of Parliament, or overall policy direction? Hardly.

    Every referendum that has been conducted in this country has confirmed that Canadians prefer “First Past the Post”. The reason is that the current system is transparent and easily understood. It also creates political stability, and political stability is a precursor to economic growth and prosperity. If the Trudeau government wants to focus on the reform of democratic institutions then why not re-direct attention on measures to engage the electorate BETWEEN ELECTIONS rather than once every four years. Why not leverage social media and technology to see how citizens can provide direct feedback, ideas and suggestions throughout the government’s term of office?

  • Dan Lyons

    The concept of proportional representation and it’s inherent new parliamentary structure forces a collaborative approach in government. The surveys conducted by the Liberal government had some very clear response themes – 1. Canadians want more cooperation and collaboration between parties (read – less destructive partisan bickering and time wasting) and 2.Representation that reflects balance and the values of ALL Canadians. There are several ways to accomplish this – one is proportional representation. Other possibilities are a re-think of the decision structure and mechanism within parliament itself. It surely would be a heck of a lot easier to simply have a voting system that sends the right balance of people into parliament than to revise the machine of government. One would also think that the clear message that has been repeated ad-nauseum by Canadians of every political stripe cannot be ignored. It’s time.