How electoral reform could benefit Elizabeth May's Greens

For all the principles and possible consequences that might be considered, there is at least one likely outcome of federal electoral reform: more Green MPs.

Leader says current system yields 'very perverse results'

Proportional representation could be a significant boost to Elizabeth May's Greens. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

In convening reporters on Friday to hear reassurances about the mixed-member proportional system of voting from the co-leader of New Zealand's Green Party, the leader of Canada's Green Party commented that our first-past-the-post design produces "very perverse results."

One such perversity, if you follow this thinking, would be the current representation of Elizabeth May's own party.

Last fall, for instance, Green candidates received 3.5 per cent of all votes cast in the federal election. But just one of the 338 seats in the House of Commons — the one belonging to May — is now occupied by a Green MP.

The explanation for that is both simple and obscure: a federal election is not a contest of national parties and leaders, but rather 338 regional contests pitting representatives of those parties against each other.

But it's an incongruity that drives the desire for electoral reform. And it's why reform could be pivotal for May's Greens.

"I know for a fact that once we get rid of first past the post, the votes for Greens will reflect what our real level of support is," May told reporters, "which is far above what we actually were able to achieve in the election."

May stresses there are other reasons to pursue electoral reform, but for all the principles and possible consequences that might be considered, there is at least one likely consequence of federal reform: more Greens.

Going the way of the Kiwis

James Shaw, the aforementioned co-leader of New Zealand's Greens, was in Ottawa to address Canadian Greens at their party convention.

Seated beside May on Friday, Shaw graciously conceded his party would not have the representation it has in New Zealand's legislature if not for that country's decision to adopt MMP, in which citizens vote for both a local candidate and a national party.

In the 1990 election, before that reform, the Kiwi Greens won 6.9 per cent of the popular vote, but no seats. Nine years later, under MMP, the party won seven seats with 5.2 per cent of the vote and could provide the government of the day with enough votes to pass legislation (and was thus able to negotiate some budget concessions).

New Zealand's Greens have since come to win 14 seats in each of the past two elections with more than 10 per cent of the popular vote.

Canada's Greens, meanwhile, have continued to struggle under our first-past-the-post system. May's win in 2011 was a breakthrough, but the party has otherwise slumped: after winning 6.8 per cent of votes cast in 2008, Green candidates won 3.9 per cent in 2011 and then fell further last year.

On this point, May argues there was another first-past-the-post perversity at work: many of those who might have voted Green, instead voted Liberal in hopes of ensuring the Conservative government was replaced.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (2nd L), says her party suffered in the last election because the electorate was so focused on ousting Stephen Harper (R) and the Conservatives. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

"Once you get rid of the first-past-the-post voting system, you allow people to vote for what they want," she said. "You empower people to use their vote to deliver, not only a message, but MPs who will work for what they want to see done in the country."

Proportional representation won't entirely eliminate strategic voting, but in giving smaller parties a better chance of winning seats, it could reduce the incentive for voters to go with a second or third choice that seems more likely of forming government.

EKOS pollster Frank Graves suggests that, under a different system, the Greens could draw 10 per cent of the popular vote.

What would more Greens mean?

Here is where a particularly interesting possibility emerges: a group of Green MPs holding the balance of power in a House of Commons where no party has a majority. But with or without a direct influence on the government, there's a good chance a Green caucus numbering more than one would somehow have more impact on the national debate. 

The party obviously advocates for aggressive action against climate change, but its 2015 platform also included commitments to implement a guaranteed income and abolish tuition fees for post-secondary students.

Asked what Greens might bring to the discussion, May notes she was the only MP to oppose military intervention in Libya and has been outspoken in her opposition to Canada's foreign investment protection agreement with China.

With greater power would come greater scrutiny too, some of which might not help the party's cause.
Last fall, Green candidates received 3.5 per cent of all votes cast in the federal election, but won just one of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. (Chris Youn/Canadian Press)

May was chided in 2011 after questioning the safety of wireless technology. This weekend, party members are debating whether to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel — a cause that was condemned by the House of Commons in February — and a call to revoke the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund.

Asked about those motions, May says the party might change the threshold required to put a motion forward (apparently something that has been discussed in the past), but that the Greens will "never do what other parties do" and spike a motion that passed through a legitimate party process simply to avoid embarrassment.

Also on the agenda is a motion calling for a tax on sweetened beverages, a not-entirely radical notion that is currently without a party championing it in the House.

More voices in Parliament

In their most recent election, New Zealanders elected representatives of seven parties, two more than won a seat in last year's Canadian election. That there weren't several more parties is because New Zealand requires that a party win five per cent of the national popular vote before it's eligible for a proportional seat.

In the Canadian case, the Greens could be the only national party initially positioned to benefit from a similar setup. No other party received more than 0.3 per cent of the popular vote in 2015 (the Libertarians and Christian Heritage received 0.28 and 0.21 per cent, respectively).

Canada's Greens could draw inspiration from similarly styled parties in not only New Zealand, but also Germany, Sweden and Finland, where Greens have been able to win footholds under proportional representation.

Mind you, May says her party could benefit in 2019 regardless, not having to contend with an overwhelming desire to replace a Conservative government. But a new system would certainly provide an easier route.

"We know that in those countries, there is a percentage of the population whose voice wasn't being heard in the political discourse and we know that to be the case in Canada," said Green Party president Ken Melamed. "And we know that the only thing really holding back the strong representation of that voice is the current electoral system, which favours inertia and the status quo."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.