Rivers: There is a Better Way to get the Government we Deserve and Need.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

November 6th, 2019


Part Two – It’s Not a Horse Race 

If not First-Past-the-Post (FPP) then what? Most parliamentary democracies around the world have evolved into some kind of proportional representation. We, in Canada, have not.

Harper 2015Proportional representation could be as simple as introducing a preferential or ranked ballot, as discussed last column. Also called a single transferable vote, it pretty much ensures that the political party elected as government had been supported by the majority of voters. In our last election the Conservatives had more popular support than the Liberals. But would they have gained more seats with a preferential ballot?

There are more complicated and sophisticated forms of proportional representation and a link below provides an extensive discussion of these. New Zealand and Germany are good case examples. New Zealand, a fellow Commonwealth nation, has pioneered so much regarding democratic governance including becoming the first democracy to enfranchise women voters.

New Zealanders came to their version of proportional representation, called MMP for multi member proportional, via a series of public referendums. The first one in 1992 indicated almost 80% of the people wanted to change away from FPP. The next year a majority of voters chose MMP over the outdated FPP and a few years later it was in place.

Just to be sure people were satisfied with the change they had made, a follow-up referendum in 2011 confirmed they were on the right track and they would stick with MMP. New Zealanders get two votes at election time – one for the local candidate and one for the party they support. The party then appoints its best candidates based on the proportion of the vote they obtained. Being a 50-50% MMP there are an equal number of MPs elected by riding and appointed by the parties.

Coalitions among parties is pretty much the order of the day, though there is always the possibility of majority governments as well. Cooperation rather than conflict, though, is much more the modus operandi. That doesn’t mean parliament moves at snail pace as compromise might imply, but there should be fewer dramatic swings in policy, as we see in our system. Policies such as the long gun registry, the Northern Gateway pipeline and the non-partisan Senate would have had more consensus before implementation and more consensus before major changes.

Pearson Lester

Lester B. Pearson was the 14th prime minister of Canada from 1963 to 1968, as the head of two back-to-back Liberal minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.

For those who believe that Canada’s experience with minority government and quasi-coalitions or even rarer rare full-coalitions has been productive, MMP is the answer you’ve been waiting for. These folk would argue that our best governments have been during periods of minority, and will point to Lester Pearson as a shining example.

So what would have happened had Canada had a system of MMP instead FPP in the last election?

It’s all hypothetical, particularly since strategic voting had played such a big role in determining the final results. But assuming that voters hypothetically chose their MPs in the same manner as they did their parties, the results might look something like what we see in the table below, despite rounding errors.

RIVERS PART 2 GRAPHIC(note: includes rounding errors and excludes independent)

In this hypothetical illustration based on the last election, the Liberals would still have earned the most seats though the Conservatives would have improved their position relative to them. The NDP would have moved from fourth to third place, better representing the percentage of the vote they got. And the Greens would have remained in last place though their strength in members would have increased to better represent their popular support.

The depiction above presumes the same number of electoral districts and that the House is expanded to accommodate a doubling of members (50% MMP). Note that while today the Liberals could govern with support from either of the NDP or BQ, under our hypothetical MMP they would need the BQ plus at least one of the other parties. The Conservatives, as before, would not be able to govern without the support of at least two of the third parties or with the support of the Liberals.

Jason Kenney arrives for a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Jason Kenney served in the Harper government – now he wants to form a government as Prime Minister.

Mr. Trudeau is challenged to make his new minority government work with a nation more divided than we have seen in decades. While it is easy to understand Quebecers voting for a party dedicated to their interests and with a charismatic leader, what happened in the west is concerning. The Liberal shut out was deliberate and orchestrated somewhat by the Alberta premier and his Saskatchewan cohort.

Jason Kenney’s goal was to defeat Justin Trudeau and he very nearly succeeded. It was a dangerous manoeuvre for a provincial premier which exceeded anything this country has ever seen, and even over the top given the performances of former Quebec separatist leaders like Lucien Bouchard, Rene Levesque or even Jacques Parizeau.

Though the newly formed Wexit political entity, seems like an adolescent bad joke today, one should not underestimate the ability of this movement to damage the apple cart we call confederation. We could call them Canada’s tea party with their “Make Alberta Great Again” blue hats and upturned Canadian flags, but nobody should dismiss them as just a fringe movement or childish pack of whackos.

transcan pipeline ready togo in

Would this be if it was an international border ?

Perhaps one day they’ll explain why it would be easier for a landlocked Alberta to build a pipeline across an international border than over a provincial boundary – and why with the highest provincial per capita incomes contributing to national equalization is so unfair. Still, without some kind of formal representation in Canada’s government, these separatist voices in the west will only become louder, angrier and nastier.

And that alone should give Mr. Trudeau cause to think about adopting some form of proportional government which would allow the Wexiters and the Greens, and even the Bloc, the scope to channel their energy in a productive way.

Part 1

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes regularly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers

Background links:

What Canada Can Learn –    Proportional Representation –     German Political System

New Zealand System –     More NZ System –     WEXIT

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4 comments to Rivers: There is a Better Way to get the Government we Deserve and Need.

  • Dave Dennison


    I have been a resident of New Zealand for 24 years After observing the MMP system over this time I have decided that MMP is not my favourite system for the following reasons:

    -As you said a majority is theoretically possible, but minority or coalition governments are the norm. Minority parties often have the deciding swing votes, which gives them much more influence than their numbers justify. After each election in NZ, there is a period of horse-trading for several weeks where the minority parties bargain to get the best deal from the major parties as the price for their support. This all happens in back rooms and does not seem very democratic at all.

    – Coalitions between parties give the governing party ready-made excuses for not keeping their promises. (e.g. We would have liked to deliver on that issue, but under MMP we couldn’t get our coalition partners to agree).

    -List MP’s are put up by the parties and you get party hacks in Parliament who would never get elected. Canada has the Senate for that. Party lists are sometimes useful to address gender, or ethnic or regional imbalances within a party’s caucus. For example Trudeau could get western MP’s into his caucus through the party list, even if no one voted for them (is this democratic?). You could also use the list to get individuals with particular skills or profile into parliament who fail to be elected in their home town. On balance however, I prefer that the MP’s should answer to constituents somewhere, not just to their parties.

    People of good will can make almost any reasonable system work, and that seems to be the case here in NZ (mostly). There is a risk that Canada may turn out more like Italy which has had 61 governments in 72 years, according to Wikipedia.

    If we must change (do we really need to?), I would prefer Ranked Choice vote (Instant-Runoff) system. This reduces the chance that 2 similar candidates would split the vote and elect a 3rd candidate that the majority does not support. Supporters of minor parties could vote for their favourites, without feeling the vote is wasted or the need to strategically vote for someone they don’t like to prevent someone worse getting in. There would be a better chance that the government will represent a majority of voters.

    There may be a better way to get the government that you deserve, but I am not convinced that New Zealand-style MMP is it.


    Your description of MMP is not quite how it works in New Zealand. MP’s are selected from party lists to make up the numbers in parliament so that the proportions of total seats for each party are approximately the same as the party vote. The short video at the link below shows how it works (in New Zealand accent):


    New Zealand has about 60% electorate MP’s and 40% list MP’s. However, if this system was applied to your notional Canadian Parliament with 337 electoral seats and 337 list seats, then

    Liberals would get 229 MPs, including 157 electorate MP’s and 72 list MP’s
    Conservatives would get 238 MP’s, including 121 electorate MP’s and 117 list MP’s
    NDP total 110, 24 electorate and 86 list MPs
    BQ total 52, 32 electorate and 20 list MPs
    Greens would get 45 MP’s, including 3 electorate MP’s and 42 list MP’s

    You can see from this example why the Greens are so hot about MMP.

    In your example, the NDP would auction their support to the Liberals or Conservatives to get the best deal (policies, cabinet positions, etc). No combination of BQ and Greens could form a majority without the NDP and the government would be decided entirely on the whim of the NDP leader.

  • Ray Rivers

    Thanks again for your comments everyone. And David to your point on Brexit I think it can be dysfunctional to mix democratic processes – in this case direct democracy through a referendum over top of established representative democracy through an elected parliament.

    The end result is the kind of confusion we’ve seen. As Boris Johnson put it his morning “Why should MPs decide that they [can] cancel the result of a referendum?” But sir , why not? Hadn’t the referendum been advertised as non-binding.

    Again to your excellent point, David, one could argue that there should have been a referendum on the quality of the referendum question. Polling is generally a good idea, but a referendum undermines our established democratic processes.

  • Jim Thomson

    Isn’t MMP what the parliamentary committee that investigated changes proposed, and Trudeau rejected?
    Didn’t you say in part one that Trudeau should have unilaterally instituted the transferable ballot?
    And what about the 30+% of people who don’t vote?
    Shouldn’t we adopt Australia’s mandatory voting?

    Make every voter count!

  • Fred Pritchard

    Ray – I am tired of the west complaining. They elected Harper for 10 years in govt, and he didn’t build one inch of pipeline. They will never be happy in Alberta. They always feel hard done by because the rest of us don’t share their religions, prolife, hate the gays views that they have in Alberta. So perhaps it is best they leave and take their CON MP’s with them. In 15 years Alberta will be broke anyway once the need for oil is gone, so they will be drag on the rest of us anyway.