Our Electoral System Is Fine

June 4th, 2016 | R. Rados
maryam monsef

Our first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system is fine. Maryam Monsef's rhetoric about bringing Canada's democracy into the 21st Century comes from her party's grab-bag of fun words and platitudes. It's the same grab-bag that Justin used when he was buttering up naïve students and first-time voters last fall. They're fanciful words that serve no other purpose but to sell an agenda. It's like a car salesman using your own emotional yearnings to upgrade you to a Cadillac just to fatten his own wallet. His tried and tested techniques are designed to bypass your logic and go straight for your feelings. You don't need a new Cadillac, just like Canada doesn't need a new electoral system, but those well-rehearsed talking points are designed to make your emotions take control of the wheel.

Straight out of the oven, Monsef's logic collapses.

In a multi-party democracy like Canada, first-past-the-post distorts the will of the electorate. It's part of why so many Canadians don't engage in or care about politics. While there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system, we can do better.” – Maryam Monsef

First of all, October's federal election saw one of the highest turnouts in two decades. Second, a proportional or transferable voting system won't necessarily engage more people. Third, proposing to reform the electoral system with a House made up of MPs elected through a FPTP system contradicts Monsef's rhetoric.

Reforming FPTP with FPTP?

If FPTP distorts the will of the electorate, then so do any reforms approved by a government that was elected by FPTP. Until a few days ago, Monsef's committee was made up of a majority of Liberals, which means that any electoral reforms would have ultimately been decided by Liberals. It will still be a Liberal majority that decides on the committee's recommendations, but giving up their majority on the committee gives opposition parties a sense of hope. Rather than even bother trying to make electoral reform completely non-partisan, Liberals originally decided to stack the committee in their favour. A fair proposal to reform our system without a referendum would have involved a committee made up of three Liberals, three Conservatives and three New Democrats. But, like a referendum, such a committee might not produce the results Liberals are looking for.

A recent Global News poll conducted by Ipsos found that 73% of Canadians want a referendum on electoral reform.

Disenfranchised Voters And Perpetual Coalitions

Engaging more voters and encouraging participation isn't accomplished by forcing people to vote or by implementing proportional representation. The fringe communists, anarchists and independents will still feel disengaged and alienated when they only hold twenty seats in a parliament of nearly 350. If a new proportional system was introduced without increasing the number of seats in the House Of Commons, it's unlikely commies, anarchists and independents would win any. Depending on the system, the influence of fringe parties would be as negligible as it is now. Even in European countries with proportional systems, fringe parties and principled socialist and conservative parties are forced to abandon their own values in order to form coalitions.

When it comes to disenfranchising voters, a proportional system does a good job. The most notable consequences of proportional systems – like the systems in Germany and Israel – are perpetual coalitions. If Canada were to adopt a similar system, we'd likely never see another majority government again.

In Israel and Germany, coalition governments are the status quo. This disenfranchises voters by forcing their parties to make compromises in order to prop up other governments. Ruling minority governments looking to be propped up by opposition parties often have to make concessions that go against their values and against their promises. Nothing disengages voters like an electoral system that encourages parties and candidates to abandon their values and break their promises.

As for voter turnout, since 2009 Germany's turnout has averaged 70% and has been steadily declining since 1998. In October, Canada's voter turnout was 69% – the highest in 22 years. This alone proves that it's not the system that encourages voter engagement, but the politics and the policies. Canadians will show up to vote in droves when they're inspired or angry. That's how democracy has always worked in Canada and it's not a bad thing.

FPTP Keeps Governments Accountable

Almost seven million Canadians had enough of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Regardless of the reasons, Canadians were angry and fed up. Canadians of all genders and ethnic backgrounds turned out on October 19 to punish the Conservatives. It was the FPTP system that made that punishment possible. It was the same punishment that was doled out to Paul Martin, Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker and countless other Prime Ministers throughout Canada's 149 year history. No other systems could have held these governments as accountable for their actions as FPTP.

It was also through FPTP that the New Democrats made history by becoming the official opposition in 2011.

FPTP can be fatal and rewarding. Corrupt parties can be ousted in the most brutal fashion and lose all of their influence in a single election. A proportional or transferable voting system would have kept previous ruling parties in positions of power. Although proportional representation strips most major parties of principle, it can keep the power players and their establishments in key positions. As an example, Germany has had cabinet ministers from opposing parties as a part of coalition deals. To put that into perspective, let's look at how seats might have been distributed in the last election under a proportional system.

The ideal proportional system tries to distribute seats in parliament in ways that match the popular vote. Currently, Trudeau's Liberals control 54% of parliament, but they only won 39% of the popular vote. In the ideal proportional system, Liberals would only control 39% of parliament and would have a minority government. To the dismay of Liberals, Conservatives would be in control of 32% of parliament, rather than 29%; and New Democrats would control 20% rather than the 13% they control now. A proportional system would also enable smaller parties and a lot of normally unelectable fringe parties.

What Elections Would Look Like

If the last election was a hypothetical proportional election, Conservatives would have nine or 10 more seats, the NDP would have 24 more seats, and the Liberals would have about 50 fewer seats. This might sound good to Conservatives and New Democrats, but that changes when we apply proportional representation to the 2011 election.

Under a proportional system, Harper's Conservatives would have been 35 seats short of a majority in 2011. Conservatives would have had a weak minority government of 120 seats, followed by the NDP in official opposition with 92 seats (not the 103 they actually won), Liberals with 55 seats (not the 34 they actually won) and the Green Party with 3 seats.

All of this is just a rough estimate, but if Canada were to adopt a system like that of Israel or Germany, no party would ever win a majority government with less than 50%. Canada would be doomed to a future of permanent coalitions made up of parties that have been forced to abandon their values and their promises. Canada would see Liberals, Conservatives and socialists forced to prop up their ideological opposites, or face another election. In a proportional system, voters and parties would be forced to choose between perpetual coalitions or perpetual elections.

In Germany, Angela Merkel's right leaning Christian union has been propped up by the leftist Social Democratic Party since 2013. Germany's last and only majority government happened in 1957. After that, the closest Germany ever came to having another stable majority government was in 1980, when the right-wing Christian union fell six seats shy of the 260 seats needed for a majority. Ever since, right-wing and left-wing government policies in Germany have been watered down and diluted by opposition parties. No ruling party within any coalition in Germany has been held fully accountable or been completely ousted by the country's half proportional system.

Israel's system is more complex and completely proportional. The one and only time Israel ever had a majority government was in 1969, under an alliance of two parties called The Alignment. Even the country's single historic majority required a union of two separate parties under its proportional system.

Focus On The Senate

The only electoral body in Canada that needs reform is the Senate. The Senate is undemocratic, unaccountable and completely outdated. If anything needs to be brought into the 21st Century, it's the Canadian Senate. It's hard to imagine that Liberals and Maryam Monsef aren't trying to deflect attention away from the Senate and their party's failure to successfully reform it. Rather than make the Senate electable and meet with provincial leaders for a resolution, Liberals have put the Senate on the back-burner and put their focus on the House Of Commons.

Senate Liberals pretend to be independents under current rules and Trudeau's fake reforms have left the Senate virtually unchanged. Senators are still vetted secretly and appointed by the Prime Minister. By the time Trudeau's government is put up for democratic judgement in 2019, the Senate will be fully stacked with ideological liberals that will never face democracy. Senators will serve until they retire and they'll never be held accountable. They'll block bills and stall future Conservative and New Democrat initiatives at will, without any consequences.

If reforming the Senate is difficult, reforming the House Of Commons shouldn't be easy. Although there aren't any real constitutional barriers preventing electoral reform, voters should hold Liberals accountable. The Senate is an undemocratic body that shouldn't be able to escape reforms. Since Harper's defeat, Senate reform has dropped off the radar and media seems to have forgotten the controversies that absorbed news coverage under the previous Conservative government. It's up to voters now to refresh their memories, because no one else will.