Canada’s Liberal government, elected in October 2015, came to office with a commitment to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system. A parliamentary committee has now been established to consider the options for reform and report by December. Louis Massicotte offers an overview of the long, and largely unsuccessful, history of attempts to reform the Canadian electoral system and discusses the prospects for the current debate. He concludes that at this stage success seems unlikely.
In October 2015, Canadians elected a new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who quickly reached international celebrity status and has been enjoying a prolonged honeymoon with the public since then. A few months earlier, when his party languished in third place in opinion polls, Trudeau had boldly promised that the 2015 election would be the last one conducted under first-past-the-Post (FPTP), and that a parliamentary committee would consider two options: ‘ranked ballots’, known as the alternative voting (AV) in Britain, where it was rejected at a referendum in 2011; and MMP (mixed-member proportional system), a German-created mixed system that inspired the systems used for electing the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the London Assembly. On May 10, the terms of reference of the committee were disclosed. The committee is expected to consult widely and to report by December 1. The prospects for success will be discussed below, but it is fitting that we start by summarising the history of electoral system reform in Canada.
Earlier attempts at electoral system reform
In theory, a federal country with ten powerful provinces, including mostly French-speaking Quebec, is the kind of setting that offers plenty of opportunities for electoral innovation. Yet, the predominance of single-member plurality throughout the country is now absolute, and has rarely been challenged successfully in the past. The break-up of the two-party system following World War I, at a time when most of continental Europe was switching to proportional representation, led some Canadians to advocate either AV or the single transferable vote (STV). In 1920, STV was adopted for electing Manitoba’s provincial MLAs from Winnipeg, and this move was completed a few years later by introducing AV for electing rural members. In 1924, Alberta emulated this move by having provincial MLAs from Calgary and Edmonton elected by STV, and rural MLAs by AV. Both provinces kept these mixed systems until the mid 1950s, when they returned to first-past-the-post normalcy. An attempt to adopt the same hybrid failed in Ontario a few weeks before the 1923 election.
Raw party politics led British Columbia to substitute AV for FPTP in advance of the 1952 provincial election. Both right-wing parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, had governed the province as a coalition for ten years, agreeing in 1945 and 1949 to unite behind a single candidate in each riding (constituency in UK parlance) in order to defeat the Socialists, known then as the CCF. When the coalition broke up, both parties tried to control the damage by imposing AV province-wide. Wherever the CCF was leading with less than 50 per cent of the primary vote, second preferences among the two right-wing parties were expected to prop up the locally stronger one, thus keeping the Socialists out. However, both parties under-estimated how fed up with them voters had become. A new right-wing party, W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit, emerged quickly. Thanks to second preferences, he won a minority government in the 1952 election, and a majority the next year, which allowed him to re-establish FPTP. The Conservatives and the Liberals slowly vanished. AV had allowed them to prevent the election of the CCF. A telling detail that should stand as a warning against electoral schemers is that their respective leaders were defeated in their ridings due to the very electoral system they had engineered! While they were leading after the first count, both were swept away by the subsequent preferences of the voters.
The electoral system re-emerged later as an issue in the context of serious existential concerns for the country. In the 1960s, political scientist Alan Cairns had argued that the plurality system had become a threat to national unity because it deprived both major parties of representation in major regions of the country. In 1979, the new Conservative government got only two seats in Québec, then scheduled to vote soon on independence. The next year the shoe was on the other foot, as the ruling Liberals had only two seats in the western provinces. Senators from provinces under-represented within the government caucus had to be appointed to the cabinet in each case. The Pépin-Robarts Commission on National Unity proposed to alleviate this problem by adding 60 seats in the House of Commons, to be distributed so as to make major parties more regionally representative. Members of parliament rejected this approach. An attempt to reach the same goal through a directly elected Senate failed when MPs opted for FPTP instead of some proportional system for electing senators, thus killing the idea.
Numerous but unsuccessful attempts in the 2000s
The next wave of electoral system reform occurred mostly in the provinces during the 2000s. Extensive consultations took place through royal commissions and parliamentary committees in Québec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, while British Columbia and Ontario opted for the new and fashionable device of citizen assemblies composed of randomly selected persons with no ties to political parties. Whatever their nature, all these bodies opted for some form of proportional representation. While BC’s citizens’ assembly favoured STV, all others offered MMP models, an approach that was also recommended for federal elections by the Law Commission of Canada. In early 2005, the country was seemingly ripe for major electoral reform.
It came to nothing. In BC, STV was supported in 2005 by 57 per cent of the voters at a referendum, but failed to win because politicians had set the threshold for victory at 60 per cent. In a second referendum held four years later, STV failed again, this time with only 39 per cent of the vote. In 2007, 63 per cent of the voters of Ontario decisively rejected MMP in a referendum. In 2005, a similar proportion of PEI residents had rejected MMP. In Québec, the MMP system proposed by the government was criticised on all sides and was killed by the ruling party’s caucus. In New Brunswick, no action was taken until the government was defeated in 2006, and the issue was shelved. The Law Commission of Canada proposal was coldly greeted by federal MPs and was forgotten after the Liberals’ defeat in 2006.
The ongoing debate
Whilst grassroot organisations like Fair Vote Canada and Québec’s Mouvement pour une Démocratie Nouvelle have done their best to maintain some pressure on hostile legislators and a mostly indifferent public, the consultations that will take place over the next months stand against a background of abject failure everywhere. They had an inauspicious start. The federal Conservatives are happy with the existing system. Their own problem was solved in 2003 when both rightist parties, the Reform/Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, overcame their mutual hatreds and merged. They see electoral system reform as an existential threat and demand that a referendum be held before the implementation of a new system. The left-wing New Democrats, following their spectacular failure in the 2015 election, have seemingly lost hope of establishing themselves as the major alternative to the incumbents, and mostly support MMP. So, for obvious reasons, do the Greens. As to the ruling Liberals, they envisage two very different options: MMP would deprive them of a majority, while AV could entrench them in power for a longer period of time, thanks to the second preferences of the NDP and Green voters.
Prime Minister Trudeau is known to personally support AV, a position that makes much sense in terms of party interests. Yet, for this very reason, any attempt to ram AV through parliament without support from the opposition parties, and without a referendum, might engineer a backlash among Canadians. Further, the government has no majority in the Senate, whose consent is required. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform will be dominated by the Liberals (six members, against three Conservatives and one New Democrat). The single members from both the Bloc Québécois and the Greens will have the right to speak but not the right to vote, a feature that, while in keeping with standard parliamentary rules, drew strong criticism in the media.
Public comment has been definitely unenthusiastic from the start. In a typical display of institutional conservatism, Canadian-style, the discussion has focused on the procedure rather than on the substance. While not legally required, a referendum is viewed by many as a prerequisite. Some constitutional lawyers argue that electoral reform might necessitate the consent of some provinces. Others prefer a citizens’ assembly to a parliamentary committee for dealing with the issue as they assume, plausibly, that most MPs are hostile to reforming the very system that got them elected. Nobody, of course, could fathom that the electoral system could be changed by unilateral government action subject to 18 minutes notice, though it actually was in the Australian State of Queensland last April.
If MMP were selected, a complete overhaul of electoral district boundaries would become necessary, consuming at least 18 months, though AV would be less cumbersome to introduce because present single-member districts would be kept. Members of parliament have been warned by the Chief Electoral Officer that the holding of a referendum would necessitate a further six month-delay because the existing legislation was passed in 1992 and has not kept pace with the changes brought meanwhile to the Canada Elections Act. All this must be done within a tight schedule, as the next election is scheduled for October 2019.
Such considerations may explain why the Liberals waited for so long before proposing the terms of reference of the special committee. The latter is expected to travel within Canada and abroad, to hold hearings throughout the country, and to examine the outcomes of the town hall consultations that every MP will hopefully conduct in their respective constituencies. At this stage, success seems unlikely, but for those who are interested in electoral reform, the next months should be worth following closely.
About the author
Louis Massicotte is a Professor at the Department of Political Science at Université Laval, Québec.