Politics·Analysis

There's no sunny way to change Canada's democracy: Neil Macdonald

The Liberals, having mouldered for the past several years in third-party irrelevance, convinced themselves that for the good of Canada (and the Liberals) the electoral system must change. But they will need more than their majority of votes to do it properly, Neil Macdonald writes.

Liberals need more than votes to change electoral system with legitimacy

Justin Trudeau and his family leave a polling station after voting in Montreal on Oct. 19, 2015. The Liberals want to change the voting process for the next election. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

So, as we lurch and clank, supposedly, toward the first Canadian election that will not send MPs to Ottawa using the first-past-the-post system (sorry, already nodding off here, and I know I shouldn't because we are talking about the living flesh of Canadian democracy itself), let's try to understand the problem that needs correcting so urgently.

Essentially, it's that in a multi-party system, first-past-the-post can produce results that reflect the opposite of how most voters voted.

If, for example, the hypothetical people of Fort Qu'Appelle–Pecker's Point–Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! cast 40,000 votes for the Liberal candidate, 39,999 votes for the Conservative, 39,998 for the New Democrat and, say, six dozen for the Greens, then the Liberal wins, never mind that 80,069 people, a tidal-wave majority, voted for other parties.

A watered-down version of that scenario happened last October.

Liberal candidates harvested 6,943,276 votes, Stephen Harper's Conservatives managed 5,613,614, and the NDP under Tom Mulcair achieved 3,470,350. The Bloc Quebecois and the Greens pulled, respectively, 821,144 and 602,944.

Which means that despite the fact that more than 10,508,052 Canadians voted against Justin Trudeau's Liberals, Trudeau rode about seven million votes – 39.5 per cent of the total – to government, and a majority government at that, which is sort of a benevolent four-year dictatorship.

This makes no sense to the people who have all sorts of condescending nicknames for Trudeau, and like to pretend he's a teenager.

It is anti-democratic, they declare, although you didn't hear much squawking from them when Stephen Harper won a minority government in 2006 with 36.27 per cent of the vote, and then another two years later with 37.65 per cent, and then finally, a majority in 2011 with 39.62 per cent.

In each case, far more Canadians voted against Harper than for Harper, but he ended up governing them all the same, for nearly a decade.

And now it's happening again, supposedly for the last time.

The Liberal government last week announced a "special committee" to study electoral reform. (Chris Youn/Canadian Press)

The Liberals, having mouldered for the past several years in third-party irrelevance, convinced themselves that for the good of Canada (and the Liberals) the system must change.

Now, a cynic would say the Liberals understand they would do even better under their preferred alternative – so-called "ranked balloting," in which a voter ticks off not just a first choice, but also a second, and a third, which would allow elections officials to determine a candidate truly preferred by a clear majority of voters.

It's complicated. But it's an option.

Another is some form of proportional representation, where parties are assigned a number of seats based on their share of the popular vote.

It sounds like the purest alternative, and would most benefit parties without great concentrations in any particular region or city. The NDP is a big fan of that system.

The Conservatives, while acknowledging the problems with the status quo, seem to prefer the status quo nonetheless.

So, the Trudeau government last week announced a "special committee" to study the issue.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef says any decision made by the electoral reform committee will be debated and voted upon in the House. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The minister responsible, Maryam Monsef, who is superb at sticking to happy-sunny talking points, smiled a big smile and told reporters: "This conversation cannot be about our parties. This conversation needs to be about what is in the best interest of Canadians."

Except that the Liberals, who, remember, were elected with 39.5 per cent of the vote, decided to award themselves 60 per cent of the voting seats on the committee.

The other four seats will go to the Conservatives and NDP.

In the name of "inclusiveness," the government has given the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party one seat each, but, uninclusively, they won't get to vote. ("Thanks guys, good talk. Now off you go, we have a decision to make.")

Anyway, just in case anyone misses the irony, the Liberals, having won under the terribly unfair first-past-the-post system, have now designed a committee to change the system and awarded themselves decisive power in the process.

Monsef protests that any decision made by this committee will then have to be debated and voted upon by the entire House, which of course is also dominated by Liberals because of that awful first-past-the-post system.

It all does seem sort of rigged.

So, everyone is now talking on cable shows about the need for consensus, and maybe a referendum on whatever deal that consensus produces.

Well, first of all, consensus will necessitate political parties acting to some degree against their own electoral self-interest, which just about never happens.

Ground rules

As for a referendum, consulting the people always sounds appealing, but there's the little matter of wording the question (which the Liberals would control) and spending limits for a referendum campaign (which the Liberals would presumably control).

Besides, as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May points out, we are talking here about basic democratic rights, which, in a democracy, are not supposed to be decided by majoritarian tools like referendums.

There was no referendum among male voters on the subject of giving women the vote.

May thinks a Supreme Court reference would set good ground rules. And that's probably not a bad idea.

Because it may just be that Justin Trudeau thinks he has enough sunny-ways political capital to push this through on his own terms.

If he does so, over the objections of the other parties, it will stink of illegitimacy.

And unless political parties have somehow decided to set aside their own electoral self-interest, something I'm not sure any party has ever done, they will object.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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