Partisan interests difficult to avoid in electoral reform debate

Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, hopes MPs will be able to put political interests aside as they debate changing the way Canadians vote. That seems unlikely, as the electoral impact of reform will be hard to ignore for MPs — including those Liberals dominating the committee studying the issue.

Politics, as well as Liberal MPs, will dominate the electoral reform committee

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef and Dominic LeBlanc, government House leader, announced Wednesday the plan to set up a committee on electoral reform. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"This is not about what's good for one party over another," said Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, on Wednesday after announcing the Liberal plan to set up a committee that will look into changing the voting system.

"This is about what's in the best interests of Canadians."

Maybe. But the fact remains that some parties stand to do better than others, depending on which rules are in place by the next election. And the people who will be deciding on the rules just happen to be those who will be most affected by them.

The politics of the issue are unavoidable.

Though the committee will consider all proposals, it will largely come down to either a ranked balloting system or some form of proportional representation. The New Democrats prefer the latter, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has in the past stated his preference for the former.

The Conservatives support keeping the status quo, but are primarily concerned that whatever changes are proposed by the government are put to Canadians through a referendum. With good reason — past experience suggests that given the choice, Canadians would be more likely than not to opt for the status quo.

Preferring a preferential ballot

That the Liberals, who will have a majority of seats on the committee, may already be leaning toward their leader's preference was suggested by some of Monsef's statements on Wednesday.

Among other things, she emphasized that a future electoral system "must ensure that governments appeal beyond a narrow base," that it produce "stable governments that Canadians can rely upon," and that it "incorporates the accountability of local representation." She also said that elections should be about finding common ground.

Put together, that sounds a lot like a preferential or ranked balloting system.

This sort of system, in which voters rank candidates according to preference, encourage parties to appeal to the widest base possible. It is more likely to elect majority governments than a proportional representation system. And unlike some forms of preferential voting that have representatives elected from a list, it maintains accountability between constituents and their local MP.

And, according to an analysis conducted last fall, all else being equal, a preferential ballot would have delivered the Liberals a larger majority government in October's federal election. They would have won about 224 seats, compared with the 184 they currently hold. 

Estimates of the results of the 2015 federal election with the implementation of proportional representation and a preferential ballot. (Éric Grenier)

So the Liberals have an incentive to push forward with a preferential ballot. A party occupying the middle of the political spectrum is well placed to garner the second-choice support that is key in such a system.

Although the Liberals would have benefited from a preferential ballot in 2015, and would likely benefit from one today, it does not follow that they would do so forever. Had a preferential ballot been in place in 2011 or in an election held when the New Democrats were leading in national polls, they might have benefited most. 

This is because the Conservative Party is the second choice of few Canadians, according to recent polls. Unless that changes — and a change in the electoral system would force the party to adapt its strategy — the Conservatives stand to be penalized the most by a preferential ballot.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised 2015 was the last election to be fought on first-past-the-post. What shape could electoral reform take? 2:39

The wisdom of crowds

The Conservatives' demand for a referendum makes political sense. Recent polls have shown that a majority of Canadians think a referendum on electoral reform should be held. But it also gives the Conservatives the best shot at blocking any change.

Three provinces have held referendums on electoral reform. All have failed — sort of.

The first was held in 2005 in British Columbia, asking voters whether they wanted to adopt a single transferable vote system. Fully 58 per cent voted in favour. But that failed to meet a threshold of 60 per cent set by the B.C. government for the change to be implemented, so the government held another referendum in 2009. This one gave voters the choice between the current first-past-the-post system or single transferable vote. In that vote, 61 per cent opted to keep the current system.

Also in 2005, 64 per cent of Prince Edward Islanders voted against a change to a mixed-member proportional system. In 2007, 63 per cent of Ontarians chose to keep first past the post over a mixed-member proportional system.

Referendum window closing

But the odds of a referendum being held appear long. The Liberals have not been keen on the idea.

They are also up against the clock. Elections Canada needs about two years to prepare for the next election if the system changes, meaning the decision needs to be made by early fall 2017.

The deadline to report for the committee established Wednesday is Dec. 1, leaving a very small window for the House of Commons and Senate (which itself could be unpredictable in its newly independent ways) to consider and pass any legislation, let alone organize a referendum. And if the Liberals wanted to win such a referendum, they would need the campaign to be long enough to give them the time to sell the new electoral system to Canadians who, in the past, have been reluctant to vote for change.

The Liberals can rule out getting the support of the Conservatives on any proposed electoral reform without a referendum. But it is an open question how Canadians will react to electoral reform designed by only one party — particularly if that party is best placed to benefit from said reform.

That leaves the NDP as the only potential dancing partner for the government. Will that push the Liberals into adopting a form of proportional representation, which the NDP supports, or will the Liberals use their majority on the committee and in the House to get the kind of electoral reform they want?

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About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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