Canadians say they want electoral reform. Do they?
Friday’s throne speech was brief by recent standards, but there was still plenty of substance to mull over — not least the priority it gave to democratic reform.
If the importance of democratic reform wasn’t already clear enough from the government’s election platform, or from the appointment of Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, it should have been apparent to anyone who read the ministerial mandate letters.
From those letters we see that two ministers will split the lion’s share of responsibility for the democratic reform agenda. Ms. Monsef will focus on Senate and electoral reform — that is, the processes for selecting our elected and unelected parliamentarians — while Leader of the Government in the House Dominic LeBlanc will take the lead on making the House of Commons a more democratic place.
The division of responsibilities between Mr. LeBlanc and Ms. Monsef follows a compelling logic: Reform of the House is ultimately in the hands of the House, and much can be accomplished through changes to the Standing Orders and day-to-day practice. That includes — as the throne speech had the temerity to point out — simply discontinuing doubtful practices such as omnibus bills and dubiously timed prorogations. Increased resources and improved processes for parliamentary committees, together with changes such as broader recourse to free votes, should take the restoration of Parliament’s self-respect a bit further.
But while no one doubts that Mr. LeBlanc has his hands full, Ms. Monsef probably has the tougher slog before she can bring about real change. The ‘easy’ part, Senate reform, was already old news by the time the new appointment process was announced in the throne speech. Recognizing a constitutional can of worms when he sees one, the prime minister has opted merely for an appointment process that tries to avoid naming party hacks (heretofore a central goal of Upper Chamber appointments). But this is Canada, and the easy answer has already run into the snag of provincial non-cooperation.
As for electoral reform — that’s complicated, and the throne speech indicated that Ms. Monsef will be consulting with Canadians on how to go about it. Our current single member plurality system is said to be off the table. That leaves several main contenders.
One is the ranked ballot, under which voters rank candidates in their riding from their most to least preferred. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, the one with the least votes is eliminated; if your number one candidate is eliminated, your vote is transferred to your second choice until someone gets the magical 50-per-cent-plus-one. Sound complicated? It isn’t really — it’s a kind of “virtual run-off” election — but the fact that it sounds like it was culled from an IQ test could be enough to sink it.
The other main options are variants of proportional representation, either in its pure form or a mixed one. Under the pure form the elector votes for a party and seats are allotted proportionately, prioritized (presumably) by a party slate. Under a mixed system, electors have two votes — that is, in addition to the proportional rep vote they also cast a vote for their single-member constituencies.
One thing that should make electoral reform easier is that Canadians are squarely behind it … sort of. If we look to a survey report released by the Broadbent Institute earlier this month, it seems 83 per cent of respondents favour changes to our system. But digging a bit deeper, it turns out only 42 per cent want a major overhaul. The other 41 per cent would be satisfied with some tinkering. It’s not clear what they have in mind — or whether they know themselves.
And if we look closer at what respondents identified as the top five goals of a voting system, they don’t especially favour reform:
- A ballot that’s simple and easy to understand;
- A system that produces strong and stable governments;
- A system that allows voters to directly elect MPs who represent their communities;
- A system that ensures the government has MPs from every region, and;
- A system that ensures that a party’s number of parliamentary seats closely matches its actual level of support.
Ranked ballots tend to meet criteria two through four; in fact, by favouring broad “umbrella” parties (which tend to be popular first and second choices) such a system could actually intensify “artificial majorities”. These majorities would be less polarizing than some we have had, but they’d still make it tough for small parties. That, along with perceived complexity (in other words, failure to meet criteria one and five) will be a big handicap — as will the fact that the current government likely would fare even better under such a system.
Pure proportional representation is often criticized for failure to meet criteria two and three. The downside of giving more of a voice to smaller parties is a potential fragmentation of Parliament along European lines. And people tend to like having a local MP, which is one reason why a lot of proportional rep systems actually follow the mixed model. Another issue is party discipline; if we fear that MPs aren’t individually-minded enough now, how will being ranked on a party slate affect them?
So, it seems only the existing single member plurality system satisfies four of the five criteria (one through four). That shouldn’t make reform impossible, but won’t make it easy either — especially with the tight timelines that will have to be met if everything is to be up and running at Elections Canada in time for 2019.
Maryantonett Flumian is the president of the Institute on Governance and a former long-serving federal deputy minister.