Proportional representation

Survey says: Electoral reform isn’t that complicated

A short guide to proposals to change Canada’s federal voting system
Photo: Jamie McCaffrey

Electoral reform isn’t exactly a sexy topic. It’s not as sexy as revolutionary politics, and it doesn’t have a catchy hashtag. But dear reader, electoral reform is important, very important, for democracy in Canada and will have a lasting impact on future generations. Given that the Liberals promised electoral reform as part of their 2015 campaign, it’s worth briefly delving into what electoral reform means in the Canadian context and why it should matter to you.

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Current system: First past the post

Right now Canada uses the first-past-the-post system. The term will make sense in a minute. Imagine that Canada is cut up into hundreds of districts, which are called ridings. In each riding, members of a political party can run for office, and the constituents (i.e., people) of that riding can vote for the person they like. Say in one riding, 49 per cent of the vote goes to Candidate A, and 51 per cent of the vote goes to Candidate B. In the current electoral system, Candidate B gets the one seat assigned to that district and becomes a Member of Parliament. In other words, 49 per cent of people in that riding don’t have representation now; their vote was wasted.

A defining feature of the FPTP electoral system is that one or two main parties —such as the Liberals or the Conservatives — dominate the Canadian political landscape, whereas other smaller or alternative parties — such as the NDP or Green Party — have very little representation and can’t easily win many parliamentary seats.

Alternative: Proportional representation

The FPTP system was devised a long time ago and is a remnant of British rule. Luckily other types of electoral systems exist today. I want to make a strong case for the electoral system called proportional representation, which has been implemented in many European countries.

We need public pressure now to ensure Trudeau is held accountable.

There are different forms of PR. The simplest form is where the number of seats a party receives in Parliament correspond directly to its share of the popular vote. PR will not solve all political woes — such as disenchantment with the state of politics or mistrust of politicians — but PR will ensure that your vote is not wasted.

In a PR system, the elected body (government) reflects the electorate (the people). If I voted for a candidate representing Party A along with 49 per cent of Canadians, and you voted for Party B along with 51 per cent of Canadians, 49 per cent of seats would go to Party A and 51 per cent of the seats would go to Party B. In this sense, votes are not wasted and representation is more accurate and fair. Smaller parties can become real contenders. PR is more inclusive and allows for a diversity of political opinions and interests in government. Because governments would be comprised of more parties, including smaller ones, they would also be forced to cooperate to pass legislation — a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it.

The biggest drawback of PR is that it allows fringe elements and more extreme groups in society to have representation too. However, a few measures can mitigate these effects. For example, a two per cent threshold clause would allow representation only for parties that receive at least two per cent of the popular vote. The world-is-flat warriors and holocaust deniers would probably be eliminated through this rule. A more racist and quasi fascist element usually exists in society, but I don’t think denying representation for the rest of us is the solution. Extremism of any sort can only be combatted with education, a strong working class, opportunities for upward social mobility, robust social programs, and elected officials who don’t exploit vulnerable members of society (and appeal to racism, xenophobia, and hate) to gain power.

According to Global News, if in the most recent Canadian election each party had received the number of seats corresponding directly to its share of the popular vote, the Liberals would have had 40 per cent of seats (instead of 54 per cent in the current system), the Conservatives 32 per cent of seats (instead of 29 per cent in current system), and the NDP 20 per cent of seats (instead of 13 per cent in current system). The Bloc Québécois would have had six additional seats and the Green Party would have had 10 more seats. As you can see, this would have created a different government with no clear majority party. The different parties would be forced to work together and build coalitions to pass legislation, and smaller parties like the Green Party would have had executive representation. If PR had been applied in the United States, Trump would not have won the election.

What to do now

Since Trudeau promised some kind of electoral reform, the prospect of significant electoral change is more feasible now than it has ever been. However, he’s a politician and politicians backpedal. Liberal MP Maryam Monsef has already hinted that if there isn’t a clear mandate from the Canadian public for electoral reform, it won’t happen and we’ll continue switching governments between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

The truth is the current system favours the parties in power, so why would they be interested in changing the status quo? We need public pressure now to ensure Trudeau is held accountable.

Reform may be revolution’s less sexy cousin, but it has its own appeal and we need it.

Steps to action:

  1. educate yourself;
  2. fill out the Liberal-led survey on electoral reform (although this survey is very badly worded and tricky);
  3. contact your local MP;
  4. contact Liberal MP Maryam Monsef and express why electoral reform is important to you;
  5. mobilize via online methods (signature drive, social media, article writing articles, etc.); and
  6. mobilize via ground methods (demonstrations, workshops, signature drives, press releases, etc.).

Talk to friends and family about the importance of electoral reform. Send an email to your work colleagues or classmates. At the very least sign a petition, and if you hear of a local activity, join it. Canadian non-profit organizations and anyone that has an interest in this can band together and issue a combined statement.

Electoral reform has sometimes been depicted or seen as a campaign by primarily educated, white-collar individuals, but electoral reform is everyone’s campaign and could benefit all Canadians. It is a powerful tool for creating better government and better social, economic, Indigenous, environmental, and international policies. To have a government that is more inclusive, diverse, and fair is what a just society needs and is well worth our time.

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