Editorial: Liberal plan to eliminate first past the post is flawed

The Liberal position on electoral reform is ill-advised, hypocritical and needs to be put to a public vote

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a federal election on Monday.  (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

In sharp contrast to an electoral campaign that contained more than 300 promises, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s maiden Speech from the Throne was short and to the point. The new government is focused on a few of the campaign’s major themes: middle-class tax cuts, open government and climate change. The Liberals could improve their to-do list further by dropping their controversial promise to fast-track the scrapping of Canada’s existing electoral system.

According to the Throne Speech, “the Government will . . . take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” Changes are to be in place by mid-2017. Yet there’s no obvious groundswell of support that necessitates such a timeline. And the Liberals lack the moral authority to alter the process by which Canadians choose their federal representatives without giving the people themselves a direct say in this important matter.

Canada’s existing first-past-the-post method of selecting MPs gives the seat to whichever candidate earns the most votes. As is often pointed out, the result may appear contrary to the wishes of a majority of voters. As well, a party can garner a significant share of the national vote without ever sending a single member to Parliament. If these outcomes are considered problems, solutions include pure proportional representation, in which votes are tabulated on a national basis and local representation is eliminated; mixed-member proportional representation, which requires voting twice: once for a party and again for a local MP; or a preferential ballot, in which voters rank every candidate on the ballot according to personal preference and the final winner is calculated by a process of elimination.

Related: A Q&A with Dominic Leblanc, Liberal point man on electoral reform

Having declared their opposition to our current system, the Liberals plan to convene an all-party parliamentary committee (presumably comprised of a Liberal majority) to decide on a new system in short order. Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc claims he’s looking for parliamentary consensus on this issue. But there’s to be no public referendum. Politicians alone will decide. The process seems disturbingly similar to Trudeau’s plan to reform the Senate by creating a new nomination process: a quick-fix solution imposed by political diktat without lengthy consideration or public input.

The Liberals are clearly eager for electoral reform, but what about the rest of Canada? Earlier this month the Broadbent Institute, which advocates for electoral reform, released a poll that it claimed showed substantial support for change. However, the survey is actually more convincing as an argument in favour of the status quo. Given that switching to a proportional or ranked system involves a substantial change to Canada’s democratic mechanisms, it is significant that 58 per cent of those surveyed said they wanted no, or only minor, changes to our system. A mere nine per cent were in favour of a complete overhaul. And when asked to name the top three attributes of their ideal voting design, respondents listed a simple and easy-to-understand ballot, a system that produces strong and stable governments and a clear connection between local representatives and the community that elected them. All these qualities are most closely associated with our existing first-past-the-post system.

To current polling data must be added recent real-world experience. Between 2005 and 2009, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia each held referendums on this topic. In all three cases first-past-the-post was supported by at least 60 per cent of voters. It’s humbling evidence for advocates who claim broad-based support for electoral reform.

Trudeau’s plan also suffers from a problem of internal logic. First-past-the-post is often derided by critics for delivering parliamentary majorities to parties lacking majority voter support. This was a frequent cry among opponents of the previous Harper government, which enjoyed a majority after winning only 39 per cent of the national vote in the 2011 election. Curiously enough, 39 per cent is the same vote share the Trudeau Liberals earned this past October.

If the whole purpose of electoral reform is to enhance the legitimacy of Canadian elections by ensuring the outcome better reflects majority opinion, how can the Liberals justify such a sweeping change while commanding the approval of a mere 39 per cent of Canadians? A change, by the way, that’s to be crafted by a committee of politicians dominated by Liberal MPs. Sheer hypocrisy.

Finally, it should simply be considered unconscionable for any government to contemplate altering the essential core of our democracy without directly consulting the voting public. The provinces have already acknowledged this necessity. Ottawa must as well. Majority approval in a national referendum is essential to legitimizing any change to Canada’s electoral system. To deny voters their say would be profoundly undemocratic.


Editorial: Liberal plan to eliminate first past the post is flawed

  1. One thing you can be sure of is this. The Liberals will come up with a system that provides the most benefits to Liberals. It won’t be a proportional system, it will be a preferential ballot type system. This way, they wouldn’t have to waste money or time trying to scare the bejesus out of the average timid and untalented NDP supporter. The NDP could simpy pick their guy as choice # 1, and have the Libs as choice # 2. This is all the libs need to maintain power in perpetuity.

  2. There is a system which is the best of both worlds preferential voting and PR. (Multi member STV).

    An overwhelming majority of people voted for parties supporting electoral reform.

    Only the Tories are opposed to change and they lost the election.

    If they want to change it back then let them get a majority under the new system :)

    • I agree. Too many people are now saying, “I only voted Liberal for a strategic reason.”

      We voted for change. We got change. Stop the ‘cherry picking’. End of story.

      Thank you.

      • I think it’s pretty silly to suggest that a vote for one party is an endorsement of every single promise made during that party’s campaign. The sitting government should still gauge the preferences of the people it governs over.

        Setting that aside, I have yet to see the party that actually reduces its own power when they eventually get elected. In reality, we tend to see the very opposite take place. The Conservatives, under Stephen Harper, abolished the voter subsidy in the name of “austerity” when truthfully it was little more than an attempt to financially hamstring opposing parties that were less capable of fundraising independently.

        Unfortunately, I see the Liberals’ efforts towards electoral reform to be in this same line of political self-preservation. Undoubtedly they will stack their committee with Liberal MP’s who will then conclude that the best method of reform would be to adopt a ranked ballot system. The reason being for such a system is that Liberals fancy themselves as the logical alternative to anyone’s first choice that isn’t Liberal.

        Regarding a ranked ballot system, I take particular issue as I fail to understand how 30% of first overall votes and 52% of second overall votes constitutes a true majority. In essence, this seems like little more than voter manipulation to achieve pre-desired results, in this case, a stronger Liberal mandate.

        It seems to me that throughout the election and now at the very onset of this government, Trudeau and his party have gotten a fair degree of slack seemingly by virtue of the fact that he is not Stephen Harper. I certainly hope that the lustre of his anti-Harperness will soon wear off so proposals such as this are scrutinized more objectively.

    • I voted for BC STV here in BC (even had my first and last political lawn sign for it). And I am a big supporter of preferential voting. But I totally agree with the editorial. The LPC has no mandate to change the voting system to whatever it decides upon. The people of Canada must have the final say, and there’s no legitimate reason that they shouldn’t.

  3. If the LPC government is truly committed to democratic principles it will not only have a referendum on any proposed electoral change (as ON, BC, and PEI did), but it will also scrap the idea of imposing a change “crafted by a committee of politicians dominated by Liberal MPs”, and instead take a leaf out of BC’s book and create an arm’s length Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform to come up with the proposed change.

    [ON and PEI may have done the same w.r.t. a Citizens’ Assembly, however, it’s BC I’m familiar with]

  4. “Between 2005 and 2009, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia each held referendums on this topic. In all three cases first-past-the-post was supported by at least 60 per cent of voters. It’s humbling evidence for advocates who claim broad-based support for electoral reform.”

    This is false. The result of the 2005 referendum in BC was 58% support for scrapping first past the post.

    • EXACTLY! We were required to have 60% or more in favour, and we lost by 2%. It was a b.s. referendum that spent taxpayer’s money in order to keep the provincial Liberals in power. I was enraged when it failed because of the arbitrary number required.

      The people in Ontario and Quebec seem to be quite happy with the current system. Ask anyone from a province where they have fewer representatives and you’ll get a completely different answer as to whether or not the system should be overhauled.

  5. Here’s an idea…. Let’s actually see how the process works, what the the all-party committee looks like, and what form the public consultation takes before we lambaste a process that won’t begin until 2016. The Trudeau Government only just met the House and yet we’re already decrying something which quite literally doesn’t exist yet.
    There’s also a problem of ‘internal logic’ in this piece. If the results of a FPTP are perfectly acceptable, and a 39% majority is not problematic, how do the author’s of this piece square the fact that they’re essentially arguing that because of the products of that system Trudeau has no legitimate mandate to enact change?
    Finally, another drive-by attack on the Senate appointments model. What does this eminent editorial board propose? It knows quite well that any change requires the consent of the provinces and that’s not going to be forthcoming in the short term (and the Senate needs immediate attention). The point is that rather than accept the status quo and appoint Liberal bagmen, Trudeau is at least trying to get the ball rolling on some modest reform. Again, how about we actually see what the panel recommends and have some actual appointments before jumping to conclusions.
    Let’s see how both play out before clutching our pearls in outrage.

    • I think that outrage is the best response right now. People are skeptical of politicians, and for good reason. Time after time, whether it be Liberal, Conservative, or NDP, politicians have shown that their main priority is their own self-preservation. By taking a passive “wait and see” approach, you remove all pressure from governments and allow them free reign. If enough people show their distaste for policies that have the Liberals’ next election campaign prioritized higher than the interests of Canadians, then this will put pressure on Trudeau to forward this initiative through referendum.

    • I don’t believe the editorial claimed anything that could be construed as the “results of a FPTP are perfectly acceptable, and a 39% majority is not problematic”. The editorial, as I read it, has an issue with
      a) Having a committee of MPs (presumably LPC dominated) devise the proposed new voting system, and
      b) Not putting the proposed new voting system to a nation-wide vote in a referendum

      Although I agree with both points of contention, it’s the latter one that I think deserves the most focus.
      There is no legitimate reason for the voters of the country to not have the final say on whether the voting system is to be changed (and I’m a supporter of a change to the preferential ballot).

  6. Frankly, apart from stated intention to reform the electoral system, a Liberal plan has not been advanced in public or in Parliament. It might be a good idea to attack the idea after we know what it is.

  7. Three parties with electoral reform in their platform got 63% of the votes. Polls have shown for ten years that 70% of Canadians want proportional representation. Of those who voted Liberal, 25% wanted a minority government.

    The Liberal platform on Electoral Reform began “We will make every vote count.” Many Canadians who voted Liberal want assurance that never again will a divisive political leader win 100% of the power with 39% of the votes. And never again will voters have to vote against something, or vote for a less-preferred candidate to block the election of one even less preferred.

    Only proportional representation will respect the wishes of supporters of all parties to cast votes that are not only counted, but count to elect their first choice. Only proportional representation will make every vote count.

    • Given that the largest province in the country rejected a form of PR (MMP) in 2007, it seems a tad hard to believe that 70% of Canadians have been clamoring for PR for the last 10 years. Add to that PEI which also rejected MMP in 2005, and BC which rejected an admittedly much watered down form of PR in 2009 and it becomes even harder.

      Nonetheless, if a clear majority of Canadians do want PR, then that’s what they should get. And they should demonstrate that desire via a national referendum.

      • There are much better ways to consult and implement a voting system that is in the best interests of all Canadians than a referendum. Referendums have been used in this country, and elsewhere, to unfairly defeat electoral reforms.


      • The 2007 Ontario model had a closed province-wide list component. No one is proposing that today for Canada. We need to add elements of proportional representation that also ensure that Members of Parliament remain accountable to their constituents.

  8. I see Maclean’s slapped on the skis for a run down BS Mountain.

    The FPTP system has resulted in the Liberals garnering so many victories over the last 120 years that it has been referred to as the “natural governing party”.

    FPTP has served the Liberals quite well, but not the Canadian people.

    The move to kill FPTP is neither ill-advised (considering over 62% of the Canadian population voted for parties that had ridding ourselves of FPTP as a key platform plank and considering Abacus has recently revealed that 80% of Canadians are open to SOME reform and 40% want major reforms), nor hypocritical (we all knew that for which we were voting).

    And it most certainly does NOT need to be put to a public vote… AGAIN.

    Yes, I said again.

    In the most recent federal election Canadians have already voted on whether we wish to move away from FPTP.

    That part has already been decided, and that part should not be put to yet another vote.

    One could arguably say that a vote is required to chose among the various systems with which we will replace FPTP, but not on whether we do.

    It is common knowledge that the Conservatives (and their media sycophants) will be hardest hit by any move away from FPTP. But that is not because the plan is flawed but rather because since 1993, the Canadian “conservative” movement has been very insular and has dedicated all its energy to insulting, deriding, devaluing, and questioning the patriotism of anyone who does not share its world view.

    The fact that the Conservatives are hardly anyone’s second choice – given that about 66% of Canadians are progressive — is the fault of only the Conservatives. They’ve made themselves unlikable and un-electable (in any situation in which Canadians don’t feel the progressive government of the day needs to be spanked).

    If moving to FPTP, disadvantages the CPC, it will just have to adapt… Much like all the other parties had to adapt when the CPC killed the per-vote subsidy in order to advantage itself because it was miles ahead of other parties when it came to voter information databases and fund-raising.

    The CPC (and its media sycophants) need to be clear on precisely that which they want Canadians to vote:
    1. On whether we ditch FPTP or keep the status quo, or
    2. On which of the alternative systems will replace FPTP.

    The CPC (and its media sycophants) are pushing option 1 (without explicitly saying it) in exceptional sore-loser fashion. The CPC didn’t like what Canadians decided on FPTP in the most recent election so now it is desperately and pathetically angling to re-try this issue.

    It will fail.

    • Well said. This anonymous columnist talks about internal logic, but fails to see the lack thereof in his argument. The Liberals ran on a firm commitment to eliminate FPTP. They were granted a strong majority by the author’s own precious FPTP system AND enjoy the support of two other parties on this issue, indicating that 60 to 70 per cent of the population supports changing the system. Yet somehow the Liberals have no mandate to change it? The voters gave them a mandate. It was called an election.

  9. As much as I’m a critic of FPTP and would love to see it relegated to the dustbin of history, the issue HAS to come back before the public to give them a chance to weigh in on specific electoral reform options. The suggestion is already being made that the Liberals are trying to game the system for their own advantage. Regardless of whether or not that is true, there can’t be a whiff of alleged partisan tinkering if people are going to have faith in the system. Take the time to do it right the first time.

  10. Is the proposed process perfect? Far from it. Would a referendum signalling the support of voters be ideal? Of course, it would. But then we have seen, too often, referendums designed to fail by the ruling class that only gives up any control when it fears something worse.

    FPTP has created a crisis in civil rights in Canada. If we did not know it before, our last government certainly spelled it out for us. The fact of the matter is that, short of rioting in the streets, we are forced to rely on legislation that directs how we elect our politicians to be passed by those same politicians.

    When has a voting system ever been approved by citizens in this country??? Never! In fact, hard-fought-for democratic reforms have been reversed by opportunistic politicians when they think no one is paying attention, or despite howls of protest.

    Whether Canadians should finally get proportional representation (PR) is beyond doubt. All that remains is decide how best to implement it. We’ve had 10 public Canadian studies and commissions that all recommended an element of proportional representation – the last was the 2004 Law Commission under Paul Martin. This followed Pierre Trudeau’s proposal to implement PR in 1980. That followed the LPC’s adoption of PR as party policy in 1921 under Mackenzie King. Only political will prevents us from jettisoning this medieval winner-take-all voting system in favour of PR – something already done by 85% of OECD countries, often generations ago.

    That the Liberals should even include yet another winner-take-all system, AV (ranked ballots in single member ridings), or clutter the issue with red herrings like mandatory and online voting, among possible choices is just more hubris. But, if we are to take the Liberals at their word, that the process will be an open, fair one, with the full consultation of citizens, experts and the other political parties, based upon OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE, then we must expect a proportional voting system for the 2019 election.

    After the 2010 UK referendum on electoral reform, he Spectator’s Alex Massie wrote:
    “The only thing that has been proved by this referendum on changing the electoral system used for Westminster elections is that referendums are a hopeless way of deciding these matters. Neither the politicians nor the press have distinguished themselves during an affair that’s been distinguished by the mendacity of almost all the protagonists, the hysteria of partisans on both sides and the sheer quantity of lumpen stupidity on display. It has not been an edifying or comforting process.”

    Justin Trudeau, and his Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, finally seem to be taking some leadership on the issue of electoral reform. It was the subject of much discussion in the recent election – a referendum in its own right – and in the platforms of three political parties.

    The only hypocrisy being displayed here is coming from the mouthpiece of the powers that be who would deny Canadian their civic rights.

  11. Electoral reform is not really necessary and it will not provide better results. It is also subjective so each of the parties will prefer one system over the other as it will benefit them. Proportional representation favours the NDP, FPTP is the only one the cons can live with and ranked ballots favour the Liberals.

    They all have their problems and they all have their good points but none are better than the others.

    So of course we will get the ranked ballots if the Liberals are implementing this. To me it is only a question of whether it is legal.

  12. FPTP is a great system that encourages strong and responsible government. The system BC came up with was ridiculously complicated and caused more problems than it solved. Let’s keep FPTP as it is one of the greatest things our forbearers gave us.

    • Oh ha ha, I get it, you’re being sarcastic. ;-)
      very funny.

  13. ” the result may appear contrary to the wishes of a majority of voters. ”

    Cough, sputter… MAY APPEAR?! What planet are you writing on?! They don’t just appear, the results ARE contrary to how we vote. Canadian voters lose election after election to just two ruling parties. The only way for Canada to become a real democracy is if every vote counts and counts equally. The only way that is possible is by achieving Proportional Representation AKA a democratic voting system. Anything disproportional like FPTP or disproportional “ranked ballots” (AV) is a scam – decidedly undemocratic trickery. Any form of DM hoodwinks and necessarily misrepresents we the people!



  14. The election is over. I congratulate the Liberals on sticking to their promise to make every vote count. As Justin said yesterday, far too many Canadians don’t feel like their votes count. And it was 63% of Canadians who voted to make 2015 the last unfair election; not just 39%. The mixed member proportional system used in Scotland and Wales, and recommended for Canada by the Law Commission of Canada, has all MPs tied to ridings or local regions; MPs would be elected in each riding but they’d be augmented by regional MPs elected from candidates in a local region, said the Law Commission of Canada, one of the proudest creations of past Liberal governments (until the last government abolished it.)

  15. This editorial’s Monty-pythonesque “logic” is as screwed up as First-Past-The-Post itself.

    The issue is dead simple. All federal electoral systems belong to one of only two possible categories, Proportional Representation (PR) or Disproportional Misrepresentation (DM).

    PR, by definition, requires that our elected governments resemble how we-the-people vote. PR exists and can only exist when Every Vote Counts and counts equally. In stark contrast, any sort of DM, be it Canada’s pre-democratic FPTP or the “fake change” disingenuous AV (disproportional ranked ballots) is nothing better than legal election fraud. With either FPTP or AV the majority of our votes are eliminated at each local riding because the majority of voters do not happen to vote for the single candidate or party that gets picked by “plurality” to misrepresent their riding in parliament. Complicated? Absolutely mind boggling. Multiplied by 338 electoral districts the distortion gets no less grotesque, which explains why in Canada a single party can snag a fake “majority” and 100% of the power when only 38% plugged our noses and voted for it. Distortion between how we vote and the lot that get elected is DM’s defining feature. DM is just like broken steering; it will never allow we-the-people to choose our direction. Each voter is stuck voting for a closed party list of a single party appointed candidate in the riding to which we’re assigned. Canada’s undemocratic single-winner-per-riding scam isn’t just crazy complicated for fun historic reasons, it denies all Canadians our right to fair elections.

    With open-list PR ,voters vote directly for their favourite candidates by name – and candidates who get the most votes rise to the top of their respective party lists – democratic representation doesn’t get more direct than that. PR makes certain by law that no party can somehow occupy more seats in our parliament than they earn from us voters on election night – that’s all that PR means, how simple is that? PR is just a MINIMUM requirement for a fair election. The last important improvement to our voting system was achieved by our great-grandmothers generation, and they didn’t need to ask their husbands in a referendum.

    TO ASK CANADIANS IF WE WANT FAIR ELECTIONS IS ABSURD. Given anything close to a straightforward question, everyone but Mr. Burns wold say YES! The ONLY reason to hold a referendum is to design it with such word-mincing obfuscation that with zero clarity, anyone who hasn’t taken an interest in the issue or knows absolutely nothing about it would be apt to attempt to put off the decision by going with the option that LOUDLY PROMISES TO CHANGE NOTHING. Any Canadian who doesn’t know what electoral system we currently use can not possibly make a coherent decision. The referendum hat-trick was used in 3 provinces to subvert our ever growing demand for PR.

    All of our so-called “majority” governments since Confederation were morally obliged to Abolish Disproportional Misrepresentation. Hyper-partisan self-interest, public silence, and the endless lies and obfuscations planted in the party-aligned media, have allowed both ruling parties to commit this legal election fraud for 148 years. If we can manage to hold the Liberals to their “Every Vote Will Count” promise, then Canadians will achieve true self-determination and democratically legitimate government. The right to fair elections is a human right, but we still have some fighting left to do before we can vote in one.

  16. The Conservatives must be really scared, at least their media supporters seem to be spooked..

    Altogether now………………

  17. So is your proposed referendum going to be awkwardly worded like the separatist one was? Will it require 60% or more approval like BC’s? Will each vote count, or will BC and western provinces once again be told what the result is?

    Spare me your outrage. We elected politicians for a reason – so we don’t have to vote on every.single.thing that comes across Parliament. THEY do it for us. And if we don’t like who is sitting as our representative then perhaps we should change how they get there… oh… wait…

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