Electoral reform to potentially move away from the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system was a central promise of the Liberal platform under Justin Trudeau in the 2015 federal election. Prime Minister Trudeau announced Wednesday, February 1, that the Liberal Government will be taking electoral reform off the table. The NATO Association Program Editors give their take on whether or not electoral reform is a priority for Canadians, and which system would be a better option than FPTP.
Phil Rafalko – Program Editor, International Business and Economy
Of course electoral reform is a priority for Canadians as voters from across the political spectrum have been vocal on this issue. However, Canadian governments rely on the First Past the Post (FPTP) system to stay in power. Canada’s Westminster parliamentary system is what scholars call a “majoritarian” system: it is literally designed to produce majority governments. The British exported this model to all their colonies to foster “Peace, Order and Good Government”. They promote stability and deference, which are quintessentially Canadian things. In the past 25 years there has been much contention over Liberal and Conservative majorities that received less than 40% of the popular vote. This will be a permanent trend as long as 3 or more parties compete for significant shares of the vote to form a majority government. The question we should be asking is not what alternative system Canadians desire – we haven’t gotten to that step yet, and there is no national consensus on the issue – but how can we move the issue away from a structure that gives majority governments no incentive to deliver on electoral reform? It has to start as a grassroots democratic movement so that ownership of the process is public, not partisan.
Marietta Armanyous – Program Editor, Emerging Security
I feel that Trudeau has gone back on several pledges made during his campaign, and electoral reform is just another broken promise. Unfortunately, this has become a commonality in politics. While reform of the Canadian electoral system is necessary, I believe there are other issues that citizens should be focused on at the moment—such as Trudeau’s approval of two major pipelines that will move oil from Alberta into global markets while greatly increasing greenhouse-gas emissions. On the topic of electoral reform, though, Canada along with other developed nations that use “first-past-the-post” voting need to modify the way they choose their leaders. This system simply does not represent all voters; as long as a party gets 51% of the vote, it wins the seat and the other 49% of voters go unrepresented. Meanwhile, nations like New Zealand use proportional representation, electing MPs in proportion to the percentage of the total votes their parties received. This way, a small majority does not dictate the entire new government’s make-up.
Mark Jarratt – Program Editor, Canada’s NATO
I believe that electoral reform is a priority for Canadians, however, not an immediate priority. I think there are better options than the FPTP system as it causes wasted votes and doesn’t always represent whom the majority of voters cast ballots for. I personally think that Canada should adopt the semi-open-list proportional representation system where you choose a party as in a closed list system, but have the choice to vote for your preferred candidate under the party list. This system is most notably used in Scandinavian countries and other European nations. Despite this system increasing the chances of coalition governments, it may force parties to work together better in order to pass policies, rather than being at each other’s throats by only having a ruling party and an opposition. I think this system would also force people to become more informed voters to do their research on parties and candidates, which could create a higher voter turnout rate in Canada.
Bianca Hossain – Program Editor, Society, Culture, and International Relations
As much as I feel like we need to reform the electoral voting system, I don’t think it’s a priority for Canadians right now. I think it’s much more important for Canada to address the issues that directly affect us right now – like the human rights and foreign policy issues the U.S. is infringing upon with President Trump’s executive orders. Electoral reform, at this moment, does not directly affect us. But if we are to go through with electoral reform, I believe a mixed-member proportional representation system would be the best for Canada. Like Germany, it would allow us to still choose who we think as the best, local MP to represent us in the House of Commons while also giving us the option to vote for the party we would like to see in the House of Commons, avoiding a clash between our local choice of representation and national representation.
Project Manager: Erin Loney – Program Editor, Expanding Community
My colleagues bring up excellent points. While I agree that electoral reform may not be a priority for Canadians given other pressing domestic and international issues, I do feel that it’s more important than ever to hold our government accountable. The priority of Canadians should be to demand transparency and responsibility from our leaders. The Liberal government won a majority in the 2015 federal election with a platform that promised electoral reform. Liberals pledged that 2015 would be the last election held under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system and vowed to introduce legislation within the first year and a half. The Liberals, NDP, and Green Party all pledged electoral reform, clearly assessing that it was important to Canadians, and received 63% of the vote combined. Though the 2015 federal election received the highest voter turnout in two decades, previous elections received historically low turnouts, possibly indicating that democratic changes may be required to encourage continued participation or at least pique renewed interest in voting.
Though the Trudeau administration made primary steps to fulfill its pledge, the government provided no clear alternatives to the FPTP system, and the special committee that it created to recommend a replacement system by December 1, 2016 concluded that a referendum should be held to discover the preference of Canadians. It is debatable which system would be the most effective while being equally democratic. In 2004, the Law Commission of Canada recommended a mixed member system, and Fair Vote Canada advocates for proportional representation citing feedback from experts. Regardless of the proposed alternative, the Liberal Party made a promise in its campaign, and as recently as October 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated that he is “deeply committed” to reforming the voting system. An online petition calling for the Liberal government to recommit to the pledge has received more than 55,000 signatures, somewhat discrediting the idea that public interest in the promise has faded.
It is not altogether surprising that the party that formed a majority government under the FPTP system is hesitant to change that system now. The catch-22, however, is that switching to a different system may make a repeat majority win harder, but breaking this promise could wind up costing Liberals the majority in the next election. Overall, electoral reform may not currently take precedence in the opinions of Canadians, but it appears that accountability does.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.