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Canada needs electoral reform

The problems with Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system came into sharper focus following the federal election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can’t ignore the issue any longer.

Fair Vote Canada, our electoral reform partner, says the October 21 election results make the country look much more divided than it really is.

The current first-past-the-post electoral system does not provide equal weight to each vote. This time, Liberals benefitted the most, getting 157 seats with only 33.1% of the popular vote. That works out to 47% of the available seats with less than one-third of a vote. The Conservatives earned slightly more of the popular vote (34.4%), but have 121 seats in the House of Commons.

The Bloc Québécois earned the biggest disproportion – 32 seats with only 7.7% of the popular vote. The NDP got more than double the amount of votes as the Bloc (15.9%), but came away with 8 fewer seats.

In a media release about the election results, Fair Vote Canada President Réal Lavergne obliged party leaders to look past partisanship and get in line with what Canadians want.

“Canadian voters are ready for more collaborative decision-making. They expect politicians to work together, not in their own interest,” he said. “We need a government for a full four-year term to deal with the climate crisis, keep our economy working, and deal with the uncertainties south of the border. Coalition governments are generally very stable, but even more importantly, they lead to policies that are built on consensus and can stand the test of time. Minority governments are affected by the temptation on the part of one party or another to roll the dice and try to win a false majority as soon as public opinion polls look favourable.”

Western representation lacking

While much has been said about the “blue wall” across Alberta and Saskatchewan (with the exception of the NDP win in Edmonton-Strathcona) being a sign of a broken country, others say it’s another example of our broken electoral system.  

“[Our] first-past-the-post electoral system acts like a lever, taking relatively small shifts in popular vote and amplifying them out of all proportion. So instead of discussing a 10-per-cent shift in popular vote towards the Conservatives, we end up raving about ‘sweeps,’ ‘waves’ and ‘surges.’ If anything, it is this overheated rhetoric that sustains the Wexit narrative, not the run-of-the-mill shift in support toward the Conservatives,” Fair Vote Canada advocates argue in an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal.

In fact, the first-past-the-post electoral system distorted voting results across the entire country. Simply put, we didn’t get the government we elected.

Theconversation.com notes that if proportional representation had been implemented in 2015 – as the Liberal Party promised Canadians it would be – our House of Commons would have looked much different. The website states that “supposing a five per cent cut-off for parties to be represented in the House of Commons, the seat totals using the total national vote would look like something close to this:

Results of 2019 Election under Proportional Representation

The website goes on to say that “In this scenario, eight remaining seats representing just over two per cent of the population who voted for other parties would have to be apportioned to the main parties, using an agreed-upon formula to make fractional numbers into whole seats.”

The first-past-the-post system can make people feel like their vote doesn’t count. It can also lead people to “strategic voting” where those who want to vote for progressive values – and who want to ensure the Conservative Party will not be in power – will end up voting for Liberals to block the Conservative candidate. This fear-based voting means that people aren’t voting for the party they want, but against the party don’t want.

As reported by the Canadian Press, a recent Leger poll reveals that more than one-third of voters “took into account the chances that their vote would prevent another party’s candidate from being victorious. And almost as many waited until the final week of the campaign to make their choice.”

Liberals say no coalition

Soon after the election, Prime Minister Trudeau said the Liberals will attempt to govern without forming a coalition. This means the Liberals will be relying on different parties to pass different parts of their political agenda. Voters who wanted a progressive agenda have no commitment from the Liberals that they will get it. In fact, the Liberals may look to the Conservatives to prop up their plans for projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which is expected to cost additional billions of dollars in public money and will destroy Canada’s efforts to confront the climate crisis, going against the will of most Canadians.

Both the NDP and the Greens ran on platforms supporting proportional representation. An Angus Reid poll conducted in September 2019 showed that 77% of Canadians want to move toward a system of proportional representation. Canada is one of only a handful of countries that is still using the broken first-past-the-post voting system.

It is clear the Liberal and Conservative parties don’t want to bring in proportional representation because they will lose their chance to hold power with a fraction of Canadians’ votes.  In 2011 the Conservatives held a majority with only 39.6% of the votes. In 2015, the Liberals held a majority with only 39.5% of the votes. This is undemocratic and it needs to change.

The Council of Canadians will continue to advocate for electoral reform and the true democratic change so everyone’s vote has equal value and there is increased government accountability to all citizens.