By Jakob Sanderson
— The 2015 Canadian Federal election will be the most competitive since our confederation, with three legitimate parties with a chance to govern. However, in my riding, along with many of yours, our vote will nonetheless be wasted as our local MP is widely expected to win in a landslide, rendering all alternative voters moot. With this historic campaign underway, I thought I would share an updated version of an essay I wrote in University this past year. Hopefully this is the last election under our current First Past The Post system. —
It is high time that Proportional Representation succeeds our out-dated and frankly un-democratic elections
Democracy at its core is the ‘power of the people.’ And a fair democracy is integral when ‘the people’ are as varying in ideals and needs as they are in Canada. This variance is not a bad thing. Canada prides itself on being among the most multicultural and diverse countries in the world. Unfortunately, its acting democratic body, our electoral system, is fundamentally undemocratic.
The out of date, and out of place, system we use to wage our elections has historically been nothing but a parliamentary see-saw between two centrist, populist sets of ideals. Canada’s elections have a great potential to mirror our multicultural and diverse regional makeup. There were five parties winning seats in last term’s election, and we have a history of regionally distinct and small, ideological parties. But our ‘first past the post’ system, or FPTP, overestimates the national significance of these regional parties that may poll highly in distinct areas, but don’t even run candidates country-wide. In contrast, our system punishes national alternative parties that have small, but consistent and relevant, support countrywide. The Green Party for example is rarely able to garner the most support in a particular ‘riding,’ despite having a very strong and vocal following nationwide. ‘Strategic voters’ may even shift support from the Greens to the lesser evil of the pluralist parties just to gain some semblance of a voice in the house. In the end, we are often left with duels between the ‘Tories and Grits’ that often represent far more seats in the house than they do proportions of the popular vote. By skewing the results of the popular vote to achieve a consistently pluralist parliament, our elections ignore smaller parties and their supporters, while overestimating regional influence and the centrist, brokerage parties. Initiating proportional representation, or PR, is the most democratic, accurate, and fully representative electoral reform for Canada.
‘If it Ain’t broke,’ Fix it? Proportional Representation is the Answer for Canada
In a country that is relatively stable with a historically strong record of leadership it is common to assume that our electoral system, if not flawless, certainly functions well enough. I don’t find that easily refutable, as our situation is undeniably better than many. However, there are major holes in our system that could easily be fixed by instituting electoral reform, in the shape of PR.
Others are more apt to fight without kid gloves on when discussing a system which, frankly, fails democratically and mathematically. “Politics is broken in Canada” (Coyne, 2009), states Macleans’ political columnist Andrew Coyne. And here’s why: a true democracy makes every vote count and count equally. However, in Canada’s last election “49.6 per cent of voters cast votes for candidates who did not get elected” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 141). That means half of Canada may as well sit at home each year re-watching Breaking Bad and updating their iTunes playlists instead of fulfilling their democratic duty, while having the same affect on our government. Any vote not cast for a winning MP candidate has no value at all, because of the winner-takes-all result in the FPTP system we use. To go further, a party could conceivably gain 20 per cent support in each riding across Canada and not have one voice of the 308 in the House of Commons. Un-democratic and mathematically befuddling predicaments like this happen more often than one would think or want to know about.
How to make Parliament Mirror the Country
So, what’s the ‘better way’ I’ve been talking about? Proportional Representation runs on “the principle that a party’s seat share should equal a party’s vote share” (Loenen, 2003: 57). There are many variations, but I would like to see a mixed-member plurality, or MMP, adopted. MMP simply means that we cast multiple votes per ballot as opposed to FPTP, which is classified as a ‘single member plurality,’ or SMP. In MMP “voters would vote twice: once for the candidate they want to represent their particular district, and a second vote for the party they prefer” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 140). The local representative would be chosen in the same manner as under FPTP. The other half of the seats would be decided by supplying MPs from a ‘party list’ until the percentages of MPs from each party matched the percentage of popular vote. This would solve many problems for voters: Because “elections hardly mobilize voters on the basis of (who would make) a better ombudsperson” (Pilon, 2007: 34), “voters are frequently faced with the dilemma of voting for a less preferred local riding candidate in order to support their favoured party” (Scott, Wherry: 2014).
In MMP, voters get to support their party of choice, while also voting for the person they are most comfortable with representing their riding. People may vote for two different parties if they so choose. That is why MMP is ‘the best of both worlds” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 141). Under MMP, every voter has at least one vote directly affecting parliament’s makeup, all parties get their fair share of the vote, and majority governments will only occur if a party actually gets a majority of the vote. As you may surmise, all of those situations are far from a reality under FPTP.
False Majorities and Ignored Minorities
Most majorities under FPTP are what we call “False Majorities,” or as the esteemed leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, calls them; “elected dictatorships.” The party in power makes up more than 50 per cent of the house, but does not have more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. We live under a false majority right now; Stephen Harper’s ‘majority government’ easily controls the house, yet only has the support of 39.6 per cent of Canada (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 143). As I said, this is the case in most majority governments in Canada. “In 1998’s (Quebec provincial
election), the PQ won a majority Government and 61% of the seats, with 42.9% of the vote, (even though) the Provincial Liberal Party (drew) 43.6% of the vote” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 144).
This case produced not just a false majority, but the wrong winner. More of Quebec voted for a Liberal Premier, yet they were rewarded with the separatist PQ. Unfortunately, there are multiple cases of ‘wrong winners.’ “In 2006, the governing New Brunswick Conservatives gained more support than in the previous election as well as more support than the (then) opposition liberals- and still lost the election” (Pilon, 2007: 44).
These cases show that the distortions of FPTP are completely un-democratic and in-tolerable. Why they occur so often is because our elections are run with as many as five seat-holding parties. This is a contradiction of Duverger’s Law, which says that only two-party states can support a FPTP system (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 143). The USA, for example, with only the Democrats and Republicans getting significant votes, would likely find MMP redundant. Canada, however, has a unique political and cultural structure that should be reflected and celebrated in our elections each year, rather than it being distorted or stamped out.
‘Bloc Party’: Why Alternative National Parties get shut out under FPTP
Of the oddities in the Canadian system that I have brought up, perhaps none is more prevalent when realizing the need to adopt MMP than our abundance of regional parties. It’s true that our brethren to the south once saw the likes of Ross Perot or the exclusively-southern George Wallace skewing election results under single member plurality, but Canada has consistently had doctrinal parties on ballots that often had only one region’s interests at heart. These parties often flourish under FPTP, because they gain huge support in their distinct area, while not wasting votes in the ridings where they wouldn’t win anyway.
The Regional Trap
The Bloc Quebecois party is the best, recent example. In the 2006 federal election “A million more Canadians voted for the NDP than supported the BQ, but the NDP won twenty-two fewer seats” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 144).
The NDP, until their recent contention, and the Greens, have often been the biggest victims of these parties. The antithesis of the regional parties, the NDP and Green Party have a national vision for the country but it is rarely shared by a significant enough amount of people that they find much success on a riding to riding basis. “In the entire country, where almost one million Green Party supporters elected no representatives in the 2008 federal election, an almost equal number of Bloc Quebecois voters in Quebec elected forty-nine members” (Couture, 2014: 7).
The ‘regional trap’ has not only applied to left-leaning parties throughout the years, particularly when the Conservatives split in two in the aftermath of Mulroney’s stay on Sussex Drive. In 1993’s Federal Election, “Canada’s oldest political party, the Conservative Party, received 16% of the vote but was reduced to two seats in the House of Commons (it would have won forty-six seats under PR). At the same time, the regionally based, right-wing Reform Party won fifty-four seats with only 18% of the vote and the “separatist” Bloc Québécois took fifty-two seats with just 13% of the vote” (Dyck, 2000: 266 as cited in Couture, 2014: 7). Here, the Conservatives who maintained a national vision were outright punished for not pandering to distinct regions of the country. It is unfortunate that a once-great historical democracy has been reduced to rewarding opportunism over national vision, but FPTP promotes just that.
One of the best ways to show the regional distortions of FPTP is by showing how many votes are needed to elect an MP depending on the region or party. For example, if 500,000 votes give a party 20 seats in one province and 5 in another you could say that province A requires 25,000 votes per MP, and province B requires 100,000. “In the 2000 federal election … it took fewer than 30,000 BC Alliance voters to elect an MP, while in Ontario, it took over half a million to do so” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 142). Clearly, due to the Alliance’s vast difference in popularity between the east and west, votes cast for the Alliance in that election were not of equal weight.
The Art of Disenfranchisement: Why FPTP Weakens National Unity
The difference in party popularity due to regionalism in Canada affects even the most populist parties. “In the 1980 federal election, the Liberal Party formed the government but did not win a single seat in BC, Alberta or Saskatchewan” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 144). That’s a serious problem. Trudeau’s election disenfranchised Western Canada, as its residents had no say in their head of state.
The reality here is that Trudeau’s Liberals weren’t completely without support in the West. But they were not able to win an individual riding and therefore did not have a mandate to govern from a third of our country. Under FPTP, a party can gain power while completely ignoring a large portion of the country, certainly making their job easier when it comes endearing themselves to the regions in which they received a mandate. That is not to say Trudeau simply wrote off all of western Canada, but it is inarguable that “(single member) plurality gives parties an incentive to favour regions where they might receive large electoral payoffs, while ignoring other regions” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 144). When entire regions of the can be ignored it’s easy to see how separatist parties take roots under FPTP. By promoting disenfranchisement and separatism, FPTP fails to promote a united Canada.
A Parliament for the Pluralists: The Entrenched, Dug-in Drudgery of FPTP
As highlighted above, pluralist parties do not have to reach the entire country, or even the majority of voters to gain power. Thus, Canada is run exclusively by pluralist policy and there is very little power in the hands of doctrinal options. Again I will point to the idea of votes per MP to show the distortions of FPTP. This time we see that populist parties require far less national support to gain seats than doctrinal parties. “In 2006 every Conservative seat represented 43,339 voters while every NDP seat represented 89,296 voters” (Pilon, 2007: 35).
In the 2001 BC provincial election, the results were even more dramatic; an NDP seat was gained needing 171, 443 voters while a Liberal seat required just 11, 894 (Loenen, 2003: 51). It is natural that ideological, and perhaps ‘radical,’ parties will fail to win elections, but there is no reason that they should have to work twice, or even seventeen times, as hard to gain seats. That’s a result of so many votes being completely wasted in ridings where these parties are not victorious.
While we covered earlier that most majority governments in Canada are indeed ‘false majorities,’ there are still some instances where a party is so popular that it truly gains a majority of the vote. In the 1987 New Brunswick Provincial Election “Frank McKennna’s Liberal party won 100 percent of the seats with just 60 percent of the popular vote” (Hiemstra, Jansen, 2008: 141). Of course, if parties are this popular in a province, they have earned the right, and the mandate, to run a majority legislature. However, with 40 per cent of the voters still against them, it is hardly fair that any party should take power in the form of a constitutional oligarchy.
Because instances of true majorities such as McKenna’s are so rare, many opponents of PR systems state that the highly likelihood of minority governments makes PR systems an ideological pipedream that is chaotic and unstable in practise. However, that is simply not true. “Because (single member) plurality tends to over represent larger parties, there is pressure from political elites within the minority government to go back to the polls… and hope that, this time, their minority vote will be transformed into a legislative majority” (Pilon, 2007: 45). Just a small uptick in popularity can become a very large swing due to the distortions of SMP. As we witnessed under Harper minorities, PMs rarely shy away from going to the polls if they think they can gain a majority. Therefore, it is single member pluralities that tend to cause more frequent elections, and frenzied instability.
Omnibus Bills: An Ominous Sign of our Hypocritical Democracy
Furthermore, as loathsome as the constant votes and advertisement warfare that often come with FPTP minorities can be, it is the actions of the false majority governments that are far more egregious. “A government with a false majority can still conduct business as if it has a true majority by using techniques such as “omnibus bills”. This is a tactic that lumps together legislation that not only was not part of the original election platform that got that governing elected, but the individual elements of proposed legislation are not debated in the usual manner and, instead, voted on as a whole in a “take it or leave it” manner” (Couture, 6). One such omnibus bill is the controversial Bill C-51, that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals supported despite being on record as disagreeing with several parts of the bill.
With these types of bills, there is no room for democratic discourse, opposition, or any meaningful debate. The cabinet is simply whipped into voting on legislation that shapes our country, even if the majority of the people don’t vote for it, and the members of the party in power silently dissent. In fact “John Stuart Mill predicted as early as the 1850s that mass, extra-parliamentary parties would rob MPs of their independence. He was overjoyed when he learned of Thomas Hare’s invention- a new voting system, the Single Transferable Vote (another variation of PR)” (Loenen, 2003: 55). Canadian government however, prefers to drown in pluralist power-play than redeem our ‘democratic deficit.’
Again, it cannot be reiterated enough, that over 60 per cent of Canadians don’t electorally support our government. But it is no matter. Pluralism wins in FPTP, and votes for ideological, doctrinal parties are too often wasted. In our system, “parties serious about winning (must) adopt unprincipled and ultimately destructive behaviours and strategies” (Couture, 2014: 5). “The NewDemocrats suffered from this fear-based campaign pitch for years, and now the Greens are the main target of the argument,” writes Green-Leader and MP Elizabeth May. “Indeed if you (were) a Green voter, your votes might as well not have been counted at all (in 2008): 938,000 Green votes were worth exactly zero seats” (Coyne: 2009).
Ending the Apathy: A Need for Change
When ideals and principles give way to the perils of pluralism, democracy tends to disappear as well. Why would people bother to throw their support behind their preferred candidate when they know their vote is going to waste? Why would one support our rigid and un-democratic system at all?
Alexis De Toqueville, the famed early liberal, wrote in his masterpiece Democracy in America that “civic zeal seems to me to be inseparable from the exercise of political right” (as cited in Loenen 1997: 38). In fact, I’ve been a factor of FPTP-induced apathy in my own riding; Upon trying to volunteer for the NDP in my own riding, who now stand a great chance to govern nationally, I learned that they still don’t have a candidate in my riding, and when they do name one, they are unlikely to put forth any organized campaign, given Dan Vandal, the Liberal candidate is extremely likely to win. I was encouraged to volunteer elsewhere if I wanted to help Thomas Mulcair’s Prime Ministerial bid. With The dawn of proportional representation, in the form of mixed-member plurality, every vote would carry national significance. My voting NDP, Green, Cosnervative or Liberal would directly effect the governance on Sussex drive, even if my local riding is a landslide. This new era of politics could inspire a once-great democratic responsibility to once again take hold of the Canadian citizen.
Yes, Canada is un-broken in the way that it functions day-to-day. But a closer look has proved that we are suffering a ‘democratic deficit.’ The system we use to form our elect is highly flawed and not suited to our unique needs and political culture. Proportional representation is. With PR breathing fresh air into our proud parliament, once again Canada will be at the forefront of western democracy. Once again, Canadians can take to the polls with vigor and pride when we dawn a new era of Canadian parliament. And for the first time, Canadians’ votes will truly go from the ballot to the hill.
— I am ecsatic to say that three National parties running for election now support an adoption of Proportional Representation Elections at the highest level. The only one who does not are Harper’s Conservatives. Please do us all a favour and ensure that this is the last year of First Past the Post elections. —
Couture, L. (2014). Proportional Representation: Redeeming the democratic deficit. The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 19(11).
Coyne, A. (2009, May 7). A vote that really counts. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from http://www.macleans.ca/general/a-vote-that-really-counts/3/
Dyck, Rand. 2000. Canadian Politics, 3rd ed. Toronto, Canada: Nelson.
Folke, O. (2011). Shades of Brown and Green: Party effects in Proportional Election Systems. Stockholm: Columbia University.
Hiemstra, J., Jansen, H., & Wiseman, N. (2015). Is a Mixed-Member Proportional Electoral System in Canada’s Interest. In M. Charlton & P. Baker (Eds.), Crosscurrents (8th ed., pp. 136-165). Toronto, Canada: Nelson.
Loenen, N. (1997). Citizenship and Democracy. Toronto, Canada: Dundurn Press.
Loenen, N. (2003). A Case for Changing the Voting system and a Consideration of Alternative Systems. In G. Gibson (Ed.), Fixing Canadian Democracy (pp. 49-68). Vancouver, Canada: The Fraser Institute.
Pilon, D. (2007). The Politics of Voting. Toronto, Canada: Edmund Montgomery Ltd.
Wherry, A., & May, E. (2012, December 10). Elizabeth May’s proposal for electoral reform. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/elizabeth-mays-proposal-for-electoral-reform/
Wherry, A., & Scott, C. (2014, December 8). The Case for Mixed-Member Proportional Representation. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from http://www.macleans.ca/politics/the-case-for-mixed-member-proportional-representation