Finding the democratic forest among the electoral reform trees: Aaron Wherry

On Tuesday morning, the special Commons committee on electoral reform was presented with a novel idea: perhaps our democracy could be significantly improved without blowing up the basic system we use to elect our representatives.

Whatever we do on electoral reform, here are 3 other ways to improve our democracy

There are potential ways to improve Canada's democracy without totally changing the way MPs are elected. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

On Tuesday morning, the special Commons committee on electoral reform was presented with a novel idea: perhaps our democracy could be significantly improved without blowing up the basic system we use to elect our representatives.

"For most of the problems ailing our democracy," suggested Peter Loewen, a professor at the University of Toronto, "there are potential fixes at hand, which do not require fundamental institutional change."

Loewen identified four such problems: the lack of gender parity in Parliament, lower voter turnout, party leaders who have become too powerful and House committees that are too weak.

And, indeed, all of these ailments might have relatively simple cures (or at least treatments), any of which could be implemented tomorrow without anyone demanding a referendum be called.

Even if it would still leave the primary question of electoral reform unresolved.

What else might be done

Electoral reform — or, more specifically, adopting a system of proportional representation — is sometimes touted as a way to address such issues.

Fair Vote Canada, for instance, links the current first-past-the-post system with low turnout and "the excessive concentration of political power in the Prime Minister's Office." Proportional representation, it is said, will result in the election of more women.
NDP MP Kennedy Stewart introduced a private member's bill that proposes to deny a party the full rebate for election expenses if it failed to run a nearly equal number of male and female candidates. (NDP)

But if achieving gender parity in the House of Commons is a priority, MPs might simply consider passing a private member's bill proposed by NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, or something like what Stewart suggests.

Under Stewart's bill, a political party wouldn't receive the full rebate for election expenses unless it ran a nearly equal number of male and female candidates.

If boosting voter turnout is of great concern, Parliament might simply, as Ryerson Prof. Patrice Dutil suggested to the committee, move election day to a Sunday.

And if one hopes to reduce the power and ability of the prime minister and other party leaders to control proceedings, there are various options to consider. They include giving local riding associations greater purview over candidate selection (as Conservative MP Michael Chong has proposed), and eliminating the power of party whips to determine the membership of House committees or who gets to ask a question during question period.

Such moves to increase the independence of MPs could conceivably increase the breadth of opinion on offer in the legislature as well. Throw in estimates reform and a proper overhaul of the access to information system and we might have the makings of a reasonably mature democracy.

What we can't count on

Testifying before the electoral reform committee last month, Andre Blais, a professor at the University of Montreal, presented evidence to quibble with another set of possible ancillary benefits of proportional representation.

Though it might boost turnout slightly, Blais said the research he reviewed doesn't indicate proportional representation reduces strategic voting, leaves voters more satisfied or produces governments that are more representative of public opinion.

There's another school of thought that suggests proportional representation correlates with better economic and social outcomes in the countries that use it. While such evidence might undermine any claim that reform would necessarily produce ruinous policies, it's not obvious that Canada should choose PR in hopes of raising its score on the UN development index (we have generally placed well despite expressing ourselves democratically through first past the post).
Prime Minister Jean Chretien signs the Kyoto Accord on Dec 16, 2002. Some wonder whether Canada would have abandoned the treaty under a proportional representation system. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

In recent days, it's been theorized that with proportional representation Pierre Trudeau might not have gone through with the National Energy Program and Canada might not have left the Kyoto Protocol. Undergraduate political science students might spend their Friday nights this fall constructing such alternate histories, but otherwise we are straying into the unknowable.

All of which leaves the basic question of whether we should adopt an electoral system that more closely aligns the popular vote with the legislature.

Answering it requires considering the principles at hand and the possible immediate, practical implications of such a change: a different method of electing MPs, a differently distributed legislature, an increased likelihood of coalition government, perhaps a few more parties represented in the House of Commons and some risk of political fragmentation.

And this must all, of course, be weighed against whatever can be said, good or bad, about our current setup.

In the meantime, there are a half dozen other reforms that might be tried to resolve more particular concerns.


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.


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