Fixing our electoral system; does what we have in place now reflect the wishes of the people who get out and vote?

December 4, 2013

By Ray Rivers

BURLINGTON, ON.  Well there you have it.  Four by-elections last Monday, Nov 25,  and nothing changed.  The polling advantage is always with the opposition in a by-election, so while the Liberal numbers were up, they only managed to keep the seats they had – which means the Conservatives won.

We live in a polarized nation with strong party loyalties in some key geographic regions of the country, so that should not have been an unexpected outcome. But even so, in that close Brandan-Souris by-election, more people voted against, than for, the candidate who won. This is because our political system hands victory to the one with the most votes, regardless how small a percentage of all the votes that might be.  Its called first-past-the-post(FPP) – something designed for a two-party system, which we dont have.

Jean Chretien won a majority by splitting the right-wing vote and coming up the middle.

Jean Chretien snatched his first parliamentary majority between the jaws of the split right-wing vote, the PCs and Reform, allowing him to come up through the middle and win with the support of less than half the electorate.  Stephen Harper is a keen observer of history and a quick-study, so he followed Chretiens lead.  He began by uniting the two parties on the right.  Then he focused on eroding the Liberals strengths and boosting the NDP in their stead. His strategy worked thanks to the Sponsorship scandal, unfortunate Liberals leadership choices, and an ever-opportunistic Jack Layton, pandering to the separatists.  Though Harpers win was even more skewed than Chretiens – at less than 40% of the vote – win he did.

But isnt there something wrong with this picture?  Over 85 democratic nations around the world have adopted alternate electoral systems which better represent the public will.  And, in my book that makes those nations better democracies.  I am most familiar with New Zealands proportional electoral system, first introduced following a referendum in the early 1990s and supported by 85% of the voters.  It is a mixed-member system where half the electoral seats are selected via the traditional FPP, as we have here.  And then the balance are awarded to each political party based on their share of the popular vote. 

Since it is rare that one political party wins an absolute majority in a multi-party system, cooperation and coalitions among parties are the norm.  And multiple parties means greater policy choices for the voters.  If minority government gives you unease, recall that that we experienced some of Canadas best government when the parties worked together in a minority situation, with Pearson in 60s and Trudeau in the 70s. Still, referenda on moving to some form of proportional electoral system were recently held in B.C. and Ontario, and both failed.  In the case of Ontario, the result was unsurprising given the McGuinty governments almost stealth-like lead-up to the vote. 

Stephen Harper realized he had to unite the right – he did and he has been winning ever since.

Federal elections in Australia are conducted using a preferential ballot, another option.  Voters prioritize candidates on their ballot.  If no one wins a simple majority on the first ballot, second and third choices are counted, as needed, until a candidate meets the 50% threshold.  Under this system Jean Chretien would not likely have had three majority terms of office, nor would Harper today.  The federal Liberal party adopted a resolution, at their last policy conference, to move to a preferential ballot when they next come to power, but once in power governments often lose heart to change the system that got them there.

Amid Senate-gate and so much attention focused on what to do with the largely symbolic Senate, there has been little discussion about the lower house, the Commons.  Ontario MP Michael Chong has been working on a private members bill intended to add accountability to the role of the MP and to rein in dictatorial PMs.  Chong had been a minister in the early Harper government but resigned over the problematic Quebec is a nation resolution, which his boss rammed through Parliament.  Given his background and the potential threat his initiative poses for prime ministerial control, it is unlikely his bill will see the light of day.

The objective of any election is for the voters to win.  do Canadians feel they have won today?

And even if the Liberals get into government and implement their preferential ballot, what is the chance that a subsequent government would not simply quash that system, the way Harper killed Chretiens progressive electoral funding program?  We might just have to content ourselves with being stuck with an inferior electoral system.  And continue to see elections like the one in Brandon-Souris, last Monday, where the Conservative candidate won with a respectable 44% of the vote.  Respectable, that is, until we realize that over half of all the voters opposed him. 

Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province. He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.

Background:

Michael Chong: Caucus should get to call the shots.

2011 Federal election results:

Brandon-Souris election results 

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6 comments to Fixing our electoral system; does what we have in place now reflect the wishes of the people who get out and vote?

  • Navigator

    I think much too much is made of the “more people voted against than voted for” argument when complaining about a FPP system. We were never treated to this argument when the Liberals were in power; we only started to hear it repeated endlessly when the Conservatives got their majority.

    One cannot say with exactitude what causes people to vote for one candidate over another. It may be party loyalty. It may be a preference in policy options. It may be unhappiness with a leader of a party rather than the party itself. It may be a very popular local candidate. In fact, I think Mr. Rivers’s attempt at gaining public office failed on the basis of the popularity of the local incumbent more than any other factor.

    Another consideration relates to the ability of the parties to “get out the vote” on election day. The better organization will generally have the advantage. Having been a campaign manager myself I cannot emphasize enough the critical factor of getting people to get off their posteriors and go to the local polling station to cast their ballots. Everything else in a political campaign that precedes the day of the election can be considered simply foreplay. Parties will pour resources into ridings that are critical to their campaigns just for this purpose.

    I don’t see the FPP system being a problem with multi-parties. A third option is always good to keep the other two mainstream parties on their toes. Look what the NDP did to the Liberals in the last federal go around.

    We should also consider the poor voter turnout in the recent by -elections. If there were a lot of unhappiness with the incumbent parties and the proposed candidates the turnout might have been higher. Apparently, those ridings exhibited a lot of complacency, despite the damaged reputation of the Tory leader and the buzz his Liberal rival has been receiving.

    While Australia and New Zealand may have interesting lessons for us, we should also consider the historical arc of other countries like Italy and Israel that suffer under endless coalition governments. I have long suspected that Israel might have progressed better with its Arab problems if it had our system rather than one that allows the extremist religious wingnuts to have an outsized voice in its parliament.

    Finally, Canada has for decades been rated as one of the best countries in the world in a number of important social, cultural, educational, freedom and enterprise categories. In some international polls we have come out number one, but very often in the top 10. We didn’t get that position by having poor governments. So, if there is a problem with the system, by all means fix it, but I remain unconvinced that there is any practical problem to be addressed, merely some academic preference for tinkering with what has already served us well.

  • Tony Pullin

    I remember that MMP (mixed member proportional) was on the ballot in Ontario 2007. I forget what some of the arguments against it were…

  • Raj Mourham

    The U.S. system is superior to ours.

    • Greg S

      Very insightful comment.

      Would you mind elaborating? There are deep flaws in a two party system and the electoral college system.

      Look how Bush Jr won his second term. It was not by popular vote, and they have a two party system.

      • Raj Mourham

        The Bush win is somewhat ironic, as history will prove that he was probably the best president in the political history of North America; of course within the context of what was taking place in the world at the time.

        The flawed two party system also has shown that it functions more effectively than the Canadian system. The Americans really know how to run government.

  • bill statten

    thank-you for a clear and concise article on our electoral system. And you have fairly balanced your critic of our two major federal parties most benefiting from the current system.