Updates from Canada: don’t call it constitutional reform

andrew-cookIn October 2015 a Liberal government took office in Canada with commitments to both electoral and second chamber reform. In this post Andrew Cook provides an update. He reports that so far Senate reform has made the greater progress: following the introduction of a new appointments process, a plurality of Senators are now independents. Although a special parliamentary committee has considered options for electoral reform it remains unclear whether the government will be able to make good on its pledge that future federal elections will be conducted under a system other than first-past-the-post.

The government of Justin Trudeau came to power in October 2015 with a wide-ranging platform that included several propositions touching on the operations of the Canadian constitution. As was outlined on this blog at the time, the proposals range from introducing a dedicated Prime Minister’s Question Period in parliament, to reforms of the electoral process that would increase the autonomy of the Chief Electoral Officer and create an independent commission to organise leaders’ debates during election campaigns. The two most significant, and politically challenging, reforms proposed by the Liberal government were a focus of its agenda in 2016. Both electoral reform and reform of Canada’s second chamber, the Senate, have advanced since October 2015 but in different ways. It is worth reviewing the current state of reform in light of the recent developments on both these files.

Senate reform

Reform of Canada’s appointed Senate has long been discussed, and re-emerged as a key issue in the last federal election as a result of a Senate expenses scandal that eventually led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

Harper’s own relatively modest proposals for reform were previously deemed fundamental to the country’s constitutional framework, and therefore requiring substantial provincial consent, so he abandoned them and simply stopped appointing Senators.

The recent return to constitutional debate, which dominated almost two decades of Canadian political life, has not brought with it a renewed interest in reforming the written constitution. Justin Trudeau has repeatedly stated that he does not want to re-open the constitution, which he rightly fears ‘would require protracted constitutional discussions with the provinces.’ Hence rather than considering large-scale Senate reform, such as introduction of elections, Trudeau has created an Independent Advisory Board on Senate Appointments – an attempt to move towards a non-partisan and merit based appointment process. The board selects five candidates for each Senate vacancy, with the Prime Minister making the final decision on who is appointed.

Because there were so many vacancies left by Harper (22 out of the total 105 Senate seats), new appointments by Trudeau resulted in a plurality of Senators being independents by November 2016. They will work together on matters of Senate rules and logistics but will otherwise vote independently. This new reality will have major impacts on both the operation, and role, of the Senate.

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Australia’s double dissolution election: a preview

John Uhr

Australians head to the polls tomorrow to vote in a rare double dissolution election. Harrison Miller and John Uhr discuss the constitutional issues raised by the election and look ahead to the possible result. They suggest that the most likely outcome is that the incumbent centre-right coalition will be re-elected with a reduced majority, though little can be taken for granted given the country’s political instability in recent years.

A week after the UK’s dramatic EU Referendum, Australians are headed to the polls for an election of their own on tomorrow. While not on the scale of Brexit, the 2016 Australian general election is noteworthy nonetheless, with several significant constitutional issues in play.

Australia’s last national election in September 2013 led to the loss of the Rudd-led Labor government which won office under Julia Gillard’s leadership in 2010. The conservative government now led by Malcolm Turnbull won the last election under the leadership of Tony Abbott, who won office for the conservative Liberal-National coalition with a comfortable majority of 15 seats in the 150 member House of Representatives. But Australian Prime Ministers do not get that much comfort: Labor’s Rudd was replaced by Gillard who later was replaced by Rudd. The serving Liberals won office with Abbott who was replaced less than a year ago, in September 2015, by Turnbull, who had earlier led the party in opposition only to be replaced as opposition leader by Abbott. The last Australian Prime Minister serving a complete term was John Howard, from 2004 to 2007.

The Australian parliamentary system has a relatively short three year term for the 150 member House of Representatives. Normally, national elections allow voters to elect all seats in the lower house and one half of the seats in the Senate or upper house, whose members serve six year terms. Next weekend’s election is quite unusual in that it is a ‘double dissolution’ election for all 150 lower house seats and all 76 Senate seats. The Australian constitution gives governments the power to dissolve both houses if the Senate, which shares legislative power with the lower house, has frustrated government legislation. The Senate is elected under a system of proportional representation which has meant that most governments face an upper house with significant numbers of minor party members. Most of the time, governments learn to live with this lack of power. The last double dissolution was under the Hawke Labor government in 1987. The 2016 double dissolution arose from a bill to establish a commission to regulate union practices in the building industry which was twice rejected by the Senate.

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Canadians to debate electoral reform, again – but at this stage success seems unlikely


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.

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The Australian Senate’s reformed electoral system is a major improvement

Harry Hobbsperson portrait

The most significant changes to the system for elections to the Australian Senate since 1984 received Royal Assent last week. Harry Hobbs and George Williams explain the background to the legislation, which will give voters more control over how their preferences are distributed. They argue that, in reflecting the principle that candidates should be elected based on the size of their vote rather than opaque preference deals, the changes are a major improvement.

After a marathon debate lasting over 28 hours, the Australian Senate has passed the most significant changes to its method of election since 1984. The changes are contained in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016, which was given Royal Assent on 21 March, just in time for the upcoming Federal election – though a quixotic High Court challenge to overturn the legislation has been launched.

The Australian Senate

The Senate differs from the House of Lords in several important respects. Australia’s upper house is an elected body. Section 7 of the Australian Constitution provides that:

The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.

Since 1949 the Senate has been elected under a proportional voting system. As six Senators are elected for each state at each normal half-Senate election, a candidate requires 14.3 per cent of the vote to be chosen. A candidate who fails to reach this quota is excluded and their votes transferred to the voters’ second preference. This process continues until all six Senators have been elected. This proportional method of selection means that the government of the day typically does not command a majority in the chamber.

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The new government’s constitutional reform agenda – and its challenges

Meg-Russellrobert_hazell (1)

Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.

Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.

Scottish and Welsh devolution

The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.

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Could tactical voting dilemmas in 2015 revive calls for AV?


The growth in minor party support in the 2015 general election looks set to create very difficult tactical voting dilemmas in some constituencies. Meg Russell reflects on how a move to the Alternative Vote (AV), which was rejected in a referendum in 2011, might have eased such dilemmas – suggesting that a messy election result could unexpectedly put AV back on the political agenda.

Almost exactly four years ago the British public rejected the option of changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) to the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV). The May 2011 referendum result was decisive, with fewer than one in three voters backing AV. This made the prospect of Commons electoral reform look distant, and particularly the prospects for AV. Nick Clegg had famously described it as a ‘miserable little compromise’ between FPTP and a more proportional system – a quotation used ruthlessly against him by opponents of reform in the referendum campaign. And indeed most electoral reformers, before and since, have been more focused on introducing greater proportionality. Hence many ‘yes’ voters did see AV – which retains single-member constituencies and simply introduces preferential (1, 2, 3) voting, with second and subsequent preferences redistributed as necessary until a candidate has 50% support – as a compromise. This half-hearted attachment even by some supporters of change probably did little to further its referendum prospects.

But in the increasingly multi-party environment of 2015 – as most visibly reflected in the TV leaders’ debates – it’s worth considering how things might have been different had Britain voted yes. One of the notable features of AV is that it greatly reduces the dilemmas of tactical voting. And in 2015, those dilemmas seem greater than ever before.

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The AV referendum will be lost

Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost

Yes to Fairer Votes launched their formal campaign for the AV referendum on 2 April.  Electoral reformers fondly suppose that if only the public were offered a better alternative to first past the post, people would be bound to vote Yes.  This piece does not go into the respective merits of AV and first past the post.  It simply forecasts that AV will be defeated, for the following reasons:

  • The public know nothing about electoral systems, and care even less.  The Constitution Unit did detailed research on public attitudes to different voting systems for the Independent Commission on the Voting System, and we found we were plumbing deep wells of ignorance.  The Yes campaign have a huge mountain of ignorance and indifference to overcome.  The government have given them very little time.
  • Even if the Yes campaign manage to engage people’s interest, they will find it hard to explain the difference between AV and FPTP.  AV is not a proportional system.  The overall result will not be that different from FPTP.  In the 2010 election it is estimated that the Conservatives might have gained 30 seats less, the Lib Dems 20 seats more, and Labour about the same.
  • The public will be confused by the arguments in the referendum, some technical, some contested, some misleading.  Research shows that when the public find political issues difficult or confusing, they look to political leaders that they trust to give them a lead on how to vote.  But the AV referendum offers no easy cues.  The Conservatives will campaign against, the Lib Dems for, and Labour are divided.
  • Clear signals from political leaders will be masked by the elections also being held on 5 May.  There are devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and local government elections in 80% of England.  The political parties will put their time and energies into campaigning in the elections, and not the referendum.
  • This is what happened in Canada, where they held referendums on electoral reform at the same time as provincial elections in Ontario (2007) and British Columbia (2009).  The political parties were silent about the referendum issues, and electoral reform was defeated in both cases.  The same is likely to happen in the UK.

Should the UK adopt the alternative vote system?

A UCL debate on the AV referendum

Monday 11 April 2011, 6.00pm

The UK faces its first national referendum for over 30 years and has an unprecedented opportunity to change the voting system and reshape the future political landscape. The referendum also raises profound questions about electoral reform in the UK.

This debate will provide an opportunity to discuss the arguments underpinning electoral reform and the AV system and to hear speakers from both sides of the argument, as well as insights from an expert panel.

Have your say: questions from the audience will be a key feature of this event.

Speaking in favour of a ‘yes’ vote:

  • Billy Bragg, singer and political campaigner
  • Peter Facey, Chair, Unlock Democracy

Speaking in favour of a ‘no’ vote:

  • Jane Kennedy, National Organiser of Labour No to AV
  • Charlotte Vere, Finance Director / National Organiser, ‘No to AV’

Expert panel

  • Professor Justin Fisher,Magna Carta Institute, Brunel University
  • Peter Kellner, YouGov
  • Dr Alan Renwick, University of Reading
  • Professor Tony Wright, UCL Constitution Unit

UCL Bloomsbury Theatre
15 Gordon Street

To register for this event or to read more about UCL Public Policy, please see our website:


External Events

Institute for Government

Electoral Reform and Diversity in Parliament: Lessons from New Zealand

Thursday 13 January 2011 – 6pm start, followed by a reception

Institute for Government, 2 Carlton Gardens, London SW1Y 5AA

Following the adoption of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representation system in New Zealand, its Parliament has grown increasingly diverse and representative of modern New Zealand society. This seminar, with Professor Margaret Wilson, reviews the influence of electoral systems on the diversity of Parliament, particularly in terms of gender and ethnicity. With a referendum on MMP set for New Zealand in 2011, Professor Wilson also raises the question the effect which the abolition of MMP might have on parliamentary representation. By bringing these issues to a UK audience, the seminar will also consider the issue of diversity in the UK Parliament, and the potential for reform, including some of the issues raised by the 2008-9 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation.

Speaker:                              Professor Margaret Wilson

Respondent:                      Trevor Phillips – Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Respondent:                      Baroness Parminter of Godalming

About Professor Wilson:

Professor Margaret Wilson was the first woman Speaker of the NZ Parliament (2005-8), first woman President of the NZ Labour Party (1984-87) and a prominent MP throughout her parliamentary career (1999 – 2008). She was appointed a Minister on her entry into Parliament and between 1999-2004 held a number of portfolios including Attorney-General, Commerce and Labour.

The New Zealand – United Kingdom Link Foundation is, in conjunction with the School of Advanced Study, University of London, sponsoring the first Visiting Professorship to the United Kingdom and a series of lectures and seminars. The Foundation’s purpose is to make a substantial and ongoing contribution to the intellectual, educational, vocational and academic underpinning of the bilateral NZ/UK relationship in a changing World.  For more information, see: www.nzuklinkfoundation.org

This event is invite only, please respond to: events@instituteforgovernment.org.uk

What does parliamentary scrutiny mean in 2011? A speech by The Rt Hon. John Bercow MP

Tuesday 18th January 2011: 18.30 – 19.30. The speech will begin at 18:30 and will be followed by a drinks reception

You are invited to attend a speech by The Rt Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. He will address the question “What does scrutiny mean in 2011?”. It is often said that better scrutiny makes for better government. The Parliament of 2010 is showing a new confidence and engagement with the ancient and challenging task of calling the executive to account. What has been achieved, and what aspirations remain?

This event will be chaired by Andrew Adonis,  Director of the Institute for Government.

Please respond to Alice Le Gros at events@instituteforgovernment.org.uk