A tinpot Parliament voted in by a tiny minority

One crude but effective remedy is to do as Australia has done: make voting mandatory


A tinpot Parliament voted in by a tiny minority

In retrospect, the wonder is not that two in five Canadians do not vote: the wonder is that three in five still do. Consider what happened in the recent election. Consider what happens in every election:

After dissolving Parliament at a time calculated to no other purpose but its own re-election, the government of the day, though it offers little in the way of a serious platform and differs hardly at all with its main opposition, is nevertheless able, by a combination of false promises, venomous attack ads, and fortuitous media blunders, to stampede a little over a third of the electorate into voting for it, which when processed through the vote splits and other tricks of the first-past-the-post electoral system, is magically transformed into a majority—or in the present example, a near-majority.

Thus empowered, the prime minister rules with something approaching dictatorial powers until such time as he desires to repeat the process, ideally shortly after the opposition has exhausted its energies and its funds choosing another leader. As for the other 306 members of Parliament, their usefulness ceases the day they are elected. From then on, their role is strictly to vote as instructed—to stand up and sit down when they are told.

As I say, it’s a wonder anybody votes at all. If this were one of those tinpot parliaments in an undemocratic country, it would be dismissed as “largely ceremonial.” But it is a tinpot Parliament, and with the latest appalling turnout figures, it’s touch and go whether we should even properly be described as a democracy. The official figure is 59.1 per cent, but that’s of registered voters—that is, of the names Elections Canada maintains on its permanent voters list. Throw in those who registered on election day, or those who never registered at all, and the reality is that barely half of the voting-age population cast their ballot.

So we have something of a crisis on our hands. It is not only a crisis of legitimacy—between plummeting turnout and the increasing fragmentation of the electorate, governments are routinely elected nowadays with the support of little more than two in 10 adult Canadians—but an existential crisis. With so few Canadians bothering to take part in national elections, it is debatable who the resulting Parliament is answerable to, or what it represents. The Canadian polity—the very notion of Canada as a single, self-governing people—is dissolving before our eyes.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? I want to be realistic here. We could ask that the parties behave less thuggishly, or that the media cover elections less asininely; we could suggest that elections ought to be a discussion with the voters, not a self-enclosed loop of partisan spin and media gotcha; but it’s not going to happen on its own. We have to change the structure of these things, and with it the incentives for the various players to behave in different ways.

The simplest reform we could make would be to stop treating televised debates as some kind of dangerous innovation, to be used sparingly and only after furious last-minute negotiations. Nearly 50 years after Nixon-Kennedy, it is time the debates—the one opportunity for the voters to have sustained, unmediated exposure to the party leaders and their positions—were acknowledged as the central feature of any modern campaign. Let future elections be constructed along a spine of regular debates, one a week at least, their terms spelled out in the election laws.

More debates would mean that each one could be more substantive and detailed, without the scattershot generality or prizefight hysteria that inevitably attends today’s one-offs. They would also use up more of the “oxygen” of a campaign, leaving less for the moronic advertisements and silly photo-ops that are the parties’ current vehicles of choice. They would give the media something to talk about, besides polls and gaffes.

That’s just a start. We might also abolish the current system of taxpayer funding of campaigns, for example, which subsidizes parties that have little real support among the public (or in the case of the Bloc, commitment to Canada). Parties that had to raise all of their funds from individual voters would be that much more attentive to their concerns—not just on election day, but every day in between.

A crude but effective remedy would be to do as the Australians have done, and make voting mandatory. It needn’t be enforced overly harshly; we might even frame it as a positive incentive for voting, a tax credit of some kind. And you could still spoil your ballot, or vote “none of the above,” or whatever means you wished to signal your displeasure. The one option that wouldn’t be available to you would be to sit on your duff.

But there’s no getting around it. If we really want to give people more incentive to vote, we have to make the vote itself worth something. That means reforming an electoral system that, for too many people, effectively wastes their vote. The 940,000 people who voted for the Green party without electing a single member are only the most egregious example. The hundreds of thousands of people who voted Liberal across the Prairies, or who voted Conservative in Toronto and Montreal, were also largely shut out. So, for that matter, is anyone in any riding who votes for anyone but the winning candidate. Usually that’s the majority: 50.7 per cent, in the latest exercise.

The fundamental promise of democracy is “one person, one vote”: everyone gets one vote, and every vote is equal. That is simply not the case in Canada today, and may explain why so many Canadians refuse to indulge in the charade. What looks like apathy may in fact be resistance.


A tinpot Parliament voted in by a tiny minority

  1. Given the stance of the PM on electoral reform (in the house) that their will be no reform! So if we want to reform over voting method we’ll first have to remove the CPC from power. This can only happen if the LIBS/Greens/NDP form a coalition and run a single candidate against the CPC. If the Left does not consider this option, in time for the next federal election, I pledge to go and vote, but will spoil my ballot.
    In this way I will due my civic duty and will ensure not party will receive a $2 stipend from a vote. I challenge all Left leaning supporters to lobby their parties local EDA to adopt this resolution. If anyone has a better way to defeat the CPC, I would welcome your comments.

  2. Hello Andrew and all,

    I won’t take the line “sitting on your duff” personally :-)

    The 15-20% of voters who used to vote but have not voted in the past three federal elections are not apathetic and cynical, they are frustrated and skeptical (with good reason), as the results of the only extensive surveys of non-voters (both conducted by Elections Canada) has shown clearly.

    The number one reason for not voting given in these surveys is lack of honesty in politics, and lack of accountability for dishonesty — both breaking promises and the day-to-day false claims by both government officials, and by politicians (which, unfortunately, is protected by parliamentary privilege if the statements are made in the House of Commons or Senate).

    Therefore, a comprehensive honesty-in-politics law, with an easy complaint process (e.g. to the federal ethics commissioner) and high fines for violators is needed — a sort of “political hot air tax” to clean up the misleading and libellous statements by politicians and government officials that make Canadian politics dirty, and sicken most Canadians. Of course, if circumstances change in an unforeseen way, or if opposition parties vote to change a government’s proposal, then broken promises would be justifiably excused.

    With regard to your other proposals, more debates would be better, but only if there are specific criteria concerning which leaders participate, with decisions made by Elections Canada, not a cartel of broadcasters, and only if all broadcasters are required to air the debates (as they should be, given that they are using airwaves owned by the public).

    Your statements concerning taxpayer funding for parties imply that some parties are subsidized above their actual level of voter support. In fact, every party (including the Bloc) receives funding on per-vote basis, and so the subsidy they receive is essentially equal to the amount of voter support they receive.

    There is a strong argument that the subsidy should be cut from its current level of $1.95 annually to each party per vote received in the most recent election (given that the Liberals chose that subsidy amount based solely on wanting to replace every dollar of corporate donations they lost).

    Maybe your comment was aimed at the secondary subsidy given to losing candidates (currently every candidate who receives 10% or more of the votes in the riding receives 60% of their expenses back).

    However, this secondary subsidy in part makes up for the flaws in our first-past-the-post voting system, which unjustifiably rewards winning candidates and some parties, so it should not be removed unless we make our voting system more proportional in some way (which, as you note, is another much-needed change).

    As for mandatory voting — only a good idea if the option to vote “none of the above” is on the ballot, and is binding.

    Making MPs more independent would likely help with turnout as well, as voters would feel that they are electing a watchdog who will hold the governing elite (Prime Minister, Cabinet, party leaders) accountable, instead of electing a lapdog. The key changes needed are to prohibit party leaders from appointing a candidate in any riding that has democratically elected a candidate (which Harper’s Conservatives promised but failed to prohibit), give each riding association a portion of the per-vote funding received by each party, and strictly define confidence votes so that almost every vote in the House of Commons will be a free vote.

    And, of course, reducing the too stringent voter identification requirements will help ensure people who want to vote aren’t unjustifiably turned away at the polls.

    Finally, changes are possible and realistic to stop the media from being poll-obsessed in their reporting. A simple requirement that every poll result number must be reported with equal prominence would solve that problem (and would be a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society, given that many, many, many examples exist of media hyping polls in their headlines and reporting in misleading and even fraudulent ways). If a poll result number could not be reported in a headline without reporting every other result number in the headline, the misleading headlines would stop, as would the frequency of reporting poll results.

    Hope this helps, and see more details at:

    Duff Conacher, Coordinator
    Democracy Watch

  3. Don’t think so. Mandatory voting only leadst to spoiled ballots. What we really need are some HONEST politicians with a little pazass. A ballot with “non-of the above” might help. Would a 50%+1 of the total votes mabey help. Even if you have to hold run off elections. Mabey 1 prime minister and 1 elected representative from each province and the territories. Sure would save money. Let the work be done by bureaucrats. If they don’t do the job we can fire them a lot faster. Lol

  4. Crude but fascistic.

  5. Wow, Andrew, I don’t think I have ever disagreed more with a series of your arguments.

    Cut / abolish the mandatory theft of taxpayer cash that feeds the parties? Where do I sign! But after that, hooo boy…

    FREEDOM is both a powerful and a simple word, isn’t it? I was pretty sure, Andrew, you had an understanding of this. Freedom is what you lose when well-meaning busybodies tell the rest of us how we should behave. When mandatory voting forces the clueless and the mischievous to do more harm to the country by casting a ballot in ignorance or mischief, or when it forces the infirm to risk health & safety. When the media gets told how it should lower its “asininity” score and report on campaigns some other way. When governments can no longer govern according to actual circumstances, instead constrained by election promises under penalty of judicial sanction. When party leaders are compelled to sign on to weekly debates because that’s how Coyne ordained it in ’08. When broadcasters are compelled to show them to an unwilling audience because Duff thinks we still all pull our signal in over public airwaves to our rabbit-ears. What’s next — some eyeball tracking device to make sure every voter is paying attention to every leader’s debate? Like we’re only supposed to care about the leader and party, not the candidate?

    The Green voters did not waste their vote. My anti-Lib vote in an obviously Liberal riding was not wasted. A western Liberal vote was not wasted. We just lost — we were outvoted. Fine, I will never cease to be thankful that I live in a country that lets that happen without anybody getting shot, and see you at the next election.

    Freedom, Andrew. Please, never let us forget freedom.

  6. See, there I go trying to be all poetic and eloquent, and Jack cuts to the chase with just three words…

  7. No no, MYL, your reasoning is great. Hey, we should start a blog: you can write the posts and I’ll write the titles, we can split the proceeds 50/50.

  8. Hmm, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation based on labour, and 50-50 doesn’t do me justice. Based on impact, it won’t do you justice.
    Of course, haggling over the distribution of the non-existent proceeds of a blog seems, well, trifling.

    Let’s just stick to our defense of FREEDOM here at blog central, ok?

    Ah, FREEDOM. What a wonderful, blessed, scarred word…

  9. This call to make the democratic aspect of our government more representative should have made mention of those who don’t participate in campaigns, in elections and in political debates, due to poverty and social exclusion. To think of making the electoral system wholly funded from private non-government sources is also to say that you exclude from electoral process (and from these new legislated Debates you propose) those who can bring perspectives and goals for spending, without which, every government spending program is without moral ‘spine’.

  10. A $50 instantaneous refundable tax credit for voting for a candidate or none of the above? Oh, you’re right. Canadians better learn some slave songs. The injustice!

  11. You really have to wonder how far our political system has to deteriorate and how low voter turnout has to fall before Canada’s political leaders will do what they apparently fear most – let Canadians use a voting system where every citizen can cast an equal and effective vote. Come on guys, it’s really not that scary.

    When developed in the 11th century, first-past-the-post voting was an amazing advancement. It provided an alternative to the biggest guy with the biggest club making all the decisions. Life moved on. Over the centuries, people discovered the earth wasn’t flat and that leeching didn’t cure cancer. And last century, most western industrialized nations discovered better alternatives to the 900-year old first-past-the-post system. They developed a variety of fair and proportional voting systems. Why? Because the newer systems better reflected the core values of democracy – an equal voice for every citizen and legitimate majority rule. And those democratic values translated into more accountable and effective governance for the entire electorate.

    We no longer travel in carriages. We no longer send little kids into the mines. We no longer use the quill and parchment to communicate. That would be ludicrous. But we still base our entire system of governance on a voting system even more outmoded than any of those other long abandoned practices.

    I hope you’re right about the apparent voter apathy really being the first stage of resistance. Sometime soon, a new-generation political leader or leaders will emerge, having realized there is a lot more to be gained by leading the nation in democratic and political renewal rather than standing smugly in the corridors of power while the nation crumbles around us. Let’s hope it’s very soon.

  12. Andrew, all the reasons for poor voter turnouts being provided by politicians and pundits ignore what our coalition believes is a major cause… government secrecy. Freedom of information legislation, introduced with fanfare, is usually ignored by governments, even those that introduced it.

    Voters are disengaged because they have no reason to feel engaged. When politicians and bureaucrats spend more time looking for reasons to deny information than they do to providing it ; when delays are too long and fees are too high citizens give up using that important democratic tool..

    If governments don’t trust the citizens by sharing information why should the citizens trust politicians enough to vote for them. As Pulitzer prize winning journalist Bob Woodward put it: “The thing that will do us in is secret government… democracies die in secret governments.”

    Our coalition believes that secrecy leads to suspicion which leads to apathy and that’s where Canadians are now.

    Parliamentary reform and electoral reform (proportional representation) may work but I don’t think that can be done in time. Government transparency can start tomorrow and I beleieve that would provide a quicker fix..

    Former Justice Gerald La Forest of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote: “The overarching purpose of the access to information legislation is to facilitate democracy. It does so in two related ways. It helps to ensure that citizens have the information required to participate meaningly in the democratic process and secondly, that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the public”. (Dagg v Government of Canada.)

    Darce Fardy
    Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia

  13. I do not want mandatory voting. I don’t want a lot of yahoos who never pay any attention to politics or anything else being forced to vote. They would have no idea what or who they were voting for, and probably care less. Voting is a privilege and should be left to those who want to inform themselves enough and make the effort to cast a vote.

  14. I agree with Lois. If someone can’t be bothered to vote, then I don’t want their opinions diluting the results anyway. Isn’t there a famous line about history being made by people who show up?

    I’m also all for getting rid of the $1.95 per vote. It should be phased out gradually over the next couple of years, which would allow the parties some time to get tproper grassroots fundraisng machines up and running.

  15. This problem is only going to get worse as the teen generation enter the electorate. Youth today are probably even more political and vocal that generations previous, but they have a different view when it comes to “how” voting should take place. We’re in a world now where most voting (e.g. questions of the day, consumer research polls, etc.) happen online. So why shouldn’t we elect our politicians the same way? There are certainly challenges to this idea, but nothing that a few bright minds can’t figure out. It’s critical that we learn how to harness the power of the internet to not just only inform people on political issues, but also to enable them to speak with their voting power.

  16. Thanks for reminding us, Daniel H, that schlepping to the school gym or the church basement is just sooooo lame-o that it’s just not worth doing. If that stupid ballot won’t fit on a cellphone screen, forget it.

    Can the citizens of this country contribute NOTHING without everything being handed to us on a silver platter?

  17. So civic duty isn’t what it used to be – so what else is new. What’s the alternative – a return to the days when your vote was determined by how much property you owned? People aren’t voting because they don’t think it matters anyway – they didn’t get there simply becauce they couldn’t be bothered [ well not all of them anyway ]. Many people these days are not content to simply hold their nose and vote; it is the new silent majority – not nice- but there it is. The system’s broke, let’s get on and fix it.

  18. No, Andrew – your intentions are good but your remedy is wrong. I remember my mother’s comment, many years ago, when as a polling clerk she watched voters come in as a response to the then ‘you must vote’ campaign. One voter, obviously illiterate, placed an X on the counterfoil of the ballot, and had to be re-directed as to where (more or less) to place the X. My mother’s comment was somewhat to the effect of that person’s vote is counted the same as mine when I have studied the issues? Fast forward: our family all voted: I personally delivered the last straggler to the local polling station 15 minutes before close (and, as an aside, where are the laws which state everyone has a clear 3 hours to vote?). But my family took the time and trouble to inform themselves as to the issues beforehand.

    Make voting manditory, and you will have too many voters casting their X anywhere just to avoid penalty.

  19. Andrew-
    Easy and simple-make it a majority parliament do a run-off for each candidate with less than 50% of those voting-then all have been elected by majority vote-re-ordering parliament can be achieved from within-when parties run on the need to re-order it will happen!

  20. I’m always amazed that the left will harp (er, no pun intended) on this issue when the Conservatives win and election, but are silent when the Liberals win. Why was this not an issue when less that 50% of the registered voters (which is less than the total eligible to register) voted in the Chretien Liberals for years? Andrew Coyne, you disappoint me. I thought better of you!


  21. I’ve been calling for electoral reform since the right split.

  22. jvp
    what’s your point? Surely it’s the job of the right to make a fuss when false majorities go against them – tihs is politics after all. Besides if we waited for pol. reforms to be proposed by the right we’d all stilll be feudal serfs. A bit of a streach i know; however, if you were simply pointing out that lib/ lefties whine too much, i must sadly agree.

  23. Amazing how under years of Liberal mismanagement this was never an issue. Perhaps the 2 in five who don’t vote just don’t know and don’t want to know what’s going on. I say good. I’d rather less people voted. Those that vote are those that hopefully have some idea of how the world and politics works. I’m in favour of a test being put on the ballots of simple canadian political facts, you fail, your vote doesn’t count because you don’t know enough to vote responsibly. Making people vote is going to get people named Adams and Zowski elected. People will just check off the first or last name on the ballot. Democracy is not in danger. But it will be if forced voting is imposed

  24. AC, you are right, for all kinds of reasons that need not be reiterated here – and which you understand far better than most – federal electoral reform is really important, not only for fairer, more accurate democratic representation, but also for stability of governance and for national unity. So…beyond writing the occasional column, what are you going to do about it? What about playing a more deliberate role as a leader of a renewed national movement for federal electoral reform? The potential is there.

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