Council of Canadians calls on Trudeau to implement proportional representation

Maude Barlow

The Council of Canadians encourages Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau  to implement proportional representation in time for the October 21, 2019 federal election.

It is one of the options that Trudeau will be considering as part of his electoral reform pledge. The Liberal platform states, "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform."

The Council of Canadians believes the current first-past-the-post system is unfair.

Desmog Canada has explained, "Under the current first-past-the-post system, the country is divided into 338 ridings. Within those ridings, which hold a roughly equal number of people, voters select one Member of Parliament to represent them. ...This means that even if a fairly large proportion of the popular vote goes to any given party, they may not win representation in parliament. ...If every vote counted, far more people would be likely to vote and vote their conscience."

We believe proportional representation is a better system.

The CBC explains, "Proportional representation, where parties are awarded seats based on the popular vote, is often seen as the most fair, the most truly representative of the voters' wishes and the approach most championed by smaller parties. It works quite simply — receive 40 per cent of the vote, receive 40 per cent of the seats. ...Many political scientists seem keenest on the mixed member proportional (MMP) system, like they have in Germany and New Zealand, which combines proportional representation with single member ridings. Voters would be asked to vote twice: for the candidate and for the party. So if a party won 20 per cent of the vote, but its candidates only won 15 per cent, the party would top up its representation in the House with extra MPs."

We have been expressing our support for proportional representation for years.

In February 2006, we reaffirmed our support for proportional representation as an important aspect of electoral reform in Canada and called on the federal government to make this a priority and to consult with Canadians on a preferred model before its adoption. In September 2007, we noted in an action alert, "The Council of Canadians believes that MMP is more democratic than our current electoral system. It ensures a fairer representation of votes cast, and prevents a governing party from holding total power after earning only a small percentage of the popular vote, which is the case now with the first-past-the-post system. MMP would also allow for a better representation of parties, of people and their issues." In a speech given on the steps of Parliament Hill during a January 2010 anti-prorogation rally, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow stated, "It is time for electoral reform and proportional representation in Canada." And in April 2010, the Council of Canadians commissioned an Environics poll that found that 62 per cent of Canadians support "moving towards a system of proportional representation in Canadian elections."

Proportional representation would have changed the outcome of the Oct. 19 federal election. In our commentary the day after the election, we noted, "If we had a system of proportional representation that would have been the outcome last night. Under that system, the Liberals would have won a minority government of about 133 seats (rather than a majority with 184 seats), the NDP 67 seats and the Greens 12 seats. We could have had a stable minority government through a multi-party coalition or accord. Instead, the Liberals won 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons with just 39.5 per cent of the vote. We believe this is wrong."

Additionally, the Council of Canadians opposes the ranked ballot system.

Desmog explains, "Ranked ballots, also called preferential ballots or alternative voting, allow voters to rank candidates according to preference. The candidate that secures the majority (over 50 per cent) of the first-place votes wins. In the case that no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the votes, the candidate with the lowest first-place votes is eliminated from the running, with their second-place votes being added to the totals of the candidates still in the running. This happens until a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote."

York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, an expert in electoral reform, says, "The ranked ballot would benefit the Liberals the most because it would funnel support from both directions to that party." And Fair Vote Canada electoral expert Wilfred Day says, "A preferential ballot…is the same system as today — winner takes all. I’m doubtful the Liberals will try to go for the preferential ballot because it’s too obviously a partisan fix rather than a democratic reform. A democratic reform, of course, is to make every vote count equally." Desmog adds, "Day said he doubts the Liberals will push for ranked ballots because the change could appear self serving. He said ranking systems tend to benefit centrist parties, or second-choice parties, rather than marginal parties. So preferential voting would be great for the Liberals..."

Given the 18-month deadline Trudeau has set for himself, we can expect to see his electoral reform legislation by May 2017.

Further reading
The Council and proportional representation (Sept. 3, 2009 blog)
Council of Canadians supports Fair Vote Canada's Declaration of Voters' Rights (Oct. 27, 2014)