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Canada's Long History of Waffling on Electoral Reform

Our government established a special committee to consider the subject of proportional representation, and the committee noted that “it must be apparent to all that the present system of election in single-member constituencies meets fully the purpose intended only when not more than two candidates are nominated.” The committee proposed that a plebiscite be held to determine whether voters would wish to apply the principle of proportional representation. The year was 1921!

The process by which citizens elect members to the House of Commons has been analyzed and pondered over by special parliamentary committees in 1921 and 1935-37, by a parliamentary task force in 1979, by Royal Commissions in 1985 and 1991, and by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004. In 2005 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs recommended “A process that engages citizens and parliamentarians in an examination of our electoral system with a review of all options”. Eleven years went by before the current government appointed yet another special committee to study electoral reform in June 2016.

That the 2015 election would be the nation’s last first-past-the-post (FPTP) election was an election promise by the Liberal Party’s leader. But, as Machiavelli reminds us in The Prince, “a sagacious prince then cannot and should not fulfill his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes which induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist.”

In the Speech from the Throne a year ago the Governor General stated that: “The Government will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post system.” To change our voting system was no longer merely an election promise by a party leader; it was now a firm commitment by the Government of Canada to its citizens. In his mandate letter to the Minister of Democratic Institutions the Prime Minister reminded her that “It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we fulfill our promises.”

The committee recommended that a referendum be held “in which the current system is on the ballot” as well as “a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less.” The committee further recommended “that the Government complete the design of the alternate electoral system that is proposed on the referendum ballot prior to the start of the referendum campaign period.” The Gallagher Index, named after Prof. of Comparative Politics Michael Gallaghern who created it, measures the difference between the percentage of votes parties receive and the percentage of seats gained from the vote; the higher the score the wider the difference between the two.

New Zealand switched from FPTP to proportional representation in 1996. New Zealand’s average Gallagher Index score in FPTP elections from 1946 to 1993 was 11.10. The average score for the seven proportional elections held since 1996 is 2.83. Canada’s average score for the 22 elections held since 1945 is 11.61, worse than New Zealand’s when it decided to adopt proportional voting.

One of the committee’s key discoveries arising from consulting Canadians online was that a majority (53.5%) believe that “Canada’s electoral system should favour the following outcome: no single political party holds the majority of seats in Parliament, thereby increasing the likelihood that political parties will work together to pass legislation.”

The committee’s final report includes a supplemental report by its Liberal members, and a supplemental opinion by its NDP and Green Party members. The NDP/Green members support the government’s throne speech promises and call on the Minister, the Prime Minister and Cabinet “to fulfill the worthy goals buttressed by evidence in the work of our committee.” The Liberal members recommend further comprehensive and effective citizens engagement before making any changes. They believe that the process cannot be completed before 2019.

Should I place my bet on Machiavelli’s Prince?