Do the math — Canadians aren't getting the government they're voting for

While some are unhappy at the prospect of another Liberal term, and others with the difficulties that come with running a minority government, Warren Bowen feels frustration at the electoral system itself and how it generated this election result.

National election system is misrepresenting the will of the people

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speak after the results of Monday's election. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press; Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press; Ben Nelms/CBC)

We woke up on Tuesday to a similar but new government: still Liberal, but a minority. While many may feel frustrated at the prospect of another Liberal term, and others with the difficulties that come with running a minority, I feel frustration at how we have arrived at this result.

The seat allocation in the House of Commons doesn't represent what citizens wanted.

According to the CBC, here are the number of seats won and the percentage of the popular vote earned by each party in this federal election:

  • Liberals: 157 seats (with 33.1 per cent of the popular vote).
  • Conservatives: 121 seats (34.4 per cent).
  • Bloc Québécois: 32 seats ( 7.7 per cent).
  • NDP: 24 seats (15.9 per cent).
  • Green: Three seats (6.5 per cent).
  • Independent: One seat (0.4 per cent).
  • People's Party: No seats (1.6 per cent of the popular vote).

This is what happens with the first-past-the-post system. We are not fairly represented, because some parties take disproportionate hits while others make disproportionate gains.

Just look at the numbers. The Conservatives have more support than the Liberals, yet have 36 fewer seats.

The Bloc Québécois have half the support of the NDP, but eight more seats.

The BQ and Greens are closely matched in support, and yet the BQ have 10 times more seats.

The People's Party has four times the support of Independents and yet no seats, while Independents have one.

The clear beneficiaries of first-past-the-post in Monday night's election were the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. The BQ in particular made enormous, disproportionate gains — and in no fair world should they have more seats than the NDP or 10 times more than the Greens.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrates the Liberal Party victory with his supporters in Montreal on Oct. 21. (Sebastien St.-Jean/AFP via Getty Images)

This would be how the allocation of the 338 seats would look if it aligned with the popular vote (two seats are left over from rounding):

  • Conservatives: 116 seats (a reduction of five seats or 4 per cent).
  • Liberals: 112 seats (a reduction of 45 seats or 29 per cent).
  • NDP: 54 seats (an increase of 30 seats or 125 per cent).
  • Bloc Québécois: 26 seats (a decrease of eight seats or 31 per cent).
  • Green: 22 seats (an increase of 19 seats or 633 per cent).
  • People's Party: Five seats (an increase from none).
  • Independent: One seat (no change).

The total number of votes cast for each party indicates that, as a country, we wanted the Conservatives to have more seats than the Liberals, the NDP to have double the BQ, the Greens and BQ to be roughly even, and the PPC to have a handful.

I'm not suggesting that popular vote and seat allocation should be in perfect tandem, but when you do the math it is illustrative that something must change.

How the 338-seat House of Commons breaks down, by party, after the 2019 election. (CBC News)

And if you remember, Trudeau and the Liberals promised four years ago that it would.

Instead, Trudeau broke a central campaign promise of 2015. His stated reason was that there was no consensus among Canadians about how to go about doing it — as if there is no possible way to address that challenge.

However, I believe there is a much more personal Liberal reason. As Trudeau implored days before this year's election:

"In terms of the NDP and the Greens, remember this: If you want progressive action, you need a progressive government, not a progressive opposition. Voting Liberal is the only way to stop Conservative cuts."

The Liberals would be losers if first past the post were replaced. As Trudeau knows, progressive voters choosing between the Liberals, NDP, and Greens will often strategically vote Liberal in order to prevent the Conservative option from gaining power. (The PPC offers another conservative option, but isn't significant enough yet to vote-split the right.)

Reneging on their 2015 promise was, in my opinion, a cynical move on the part of the Liberals to ensure their seat count remains bloated. And it isn't acceptable.

The Liberals would have lost the election to the Conservatives if the first-past-the-post system had been replaced by proportional representation. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Arguably, were we to reform our electoral system, it could change how politicians conduct campaigns and in turn how citizens vote. We would likely see different results, but results that better reflect us as a population. There are also systems that could retain our political ridings while still being proportional.

But we need fair representation in this country. We need consultation, serious dialogue, and expert advice on which electoral system would be fair. We need to be mindful of thresholds that could preclude radical fringe parties.

We may need a referendum on it, or on the options, as the Conservatives wanted in 2015.

And we need the parties that benefit from it the most to do the right thing and reform our broken electoral system.

If we do not, we will continue with unfair elections that do not properly represent the voice of our citizenry.

  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Warren Bowen holds an MA from the University of British Columbia. He is a freelance writer and philosophy instructor living in Vancouver.


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