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Electoral reform: The Fredo Corleone of campaign promises

How the Liberals turned electoral reform—an issue that Canadians don’t care about—into a pointless legislative car crash


 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Electoral reform is the unloved dope amidst the feel-good clichés of the Trudeau government’s Sunny Ways. It lacks the immediate appeal of middle-class tax cuts or cabinet parity, and is about as sexy as infrastructure spending, without the nerdy zing of the long-form census. If “meaningful action on climate change” is the Michael Corleone of campaign promises, electoral reform is Fredo Corleone, Marlon Jackson and John Oates rolled into one.

That said, electoral reform was part and parcel of Justin Trudeau’s “real change” narrative that so compelled cameras and voters alike in the last election. Changing Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system, in which the winner reaps all the electoral booty no matter how slim a victory, was nothing short of the Liberal plan to “restore democracy,” as Trudeau put it last June.

This bit of hyperbole underscored Trudeau’s narrative: that prime minister Stephen Harper had cynically exploited the winner-take-all formula to usurp and maintain power. Harper did so, Liberals suggested, by favouring rural ridings over big cities and fostering a split of the progressive vote.

Though hardly as nefarious as the Liberals made it sound, the numbers seem to bear the theory out. In the 2011 federal election, it took an average of 35,134 votes to elect each Conservative member of Parliament. It took 43,771 for each NDPer. Meanwhile, the Liberals needed an average of nearly 82,000 votes to elect an MP—more than double that of the Conservatives. “We will make every vote count,” read the Liberals’ 2015 electoral platform. Translation: Harper hijacked the electoral system, and we’re taking it back.

And yet through a series of flubs and unforced errors, the issue has gone from breezy sell into a slow-motion legislative car crash. Trudeau’s now-famous elbow aside, the government’s handling of the file threatens to be the first bit of shade cast upon the Liberals’ Sunny Ways.

MORE: Everyone loses in the Thrilla on the Hilla—especially Trudeau

First, there was Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef’s rebuffing of a (very legitimate) question from Conservative MP Jason Kenney: why not have a referendum on the issue? Flawed as it may be, after all, the current system of electing government has served the country decently enough for nearly 150 years, and is in use by some of the choicest democracies in the world.

Monsef responded by saying a referendum would exclude “those who do not traditionally engage in the democratic process, like young people, women, Indigenous persons, those with disabilities and exceptionalities, and living in remote and rural regions of this country.”

Apart from the preening political correctness oozing from this answer, the minister’s notion is demonstrably wrong. No non-coercive electoral system can ensure universal participation, yet referendums in this country generally strike a chord with the voting public. Seventy per cent of the population voted in this country’s plebiscite on conscription in 1942. Roughly the same percentage turned out 50 years later to vote in the referendum on the Charlottetown accord. Either the minister of democratic institutions isn’t aware of this, or chose to ignore it. Either way, it’s an astonishing oversight.

Still, the Liberals could have sicced a defter maw on the electoral reform file and it wouldn’t have done much to alleviate the party’s headache. Why? Canadians don’t much care about electoral reform. A bid to “restore democracy” sounds grand, yet when Abacus Data polled 3,100 people on their priorities for the next government last October, all of four said electoral reform was a priority. Those are Fredo Corleone numbers.

There is a final irony in all of this. The system that the Trudeau government is so eager to replace is itself responsible for the election of so many Liberals in last year’s election. As Andrew Coyne pointed out in January, it took an average of just 38,000 votes to elect a Liberal MP in the 2015 election—far fewer than the 57,000 Conservative votes and 79,000 NDPers.

The party was handed the keys to the country with just 39 per cent of the popular vote, and has since behaved with a wholly appropriate level of entitlement. The very committee tasked with changing the electoral system is stacked with Liberals—as it should be. The opposition has howled—as it should. To the victor go the spoils, and everyone else complains. It’s the Canadian way.

You needn’t change the system to rid the country of an allegedly hated political dynasty. All you need is a telegenic leader running an efficient campaign. Trudeau’s Sunny Ways, that ruthlessly cheerful moniker, is itself a product of our electoral status quo. Odd that he is so bent on changing it.


 

Electoral reform: The Fredo Corleone of campaign promises

  1. Can someone please explain what Monsef means when she says that women don’t traditionally engage in the democratic process? Women vote more than men and make up approximately 52% of the Canadian population. Just what the hell is she talking about? If women aren’t being heard, then frankly, no demographic is. I thought the Liberals were supposed to be the party of facts and evidence based policy, so why is she is spouting utter nonsense? Why doesn’t the media call her out on this?

    • I don’t have her facts, but the thing with facts and evidence is that she’s got to use them in context, and she explains them in the context of the provincial turnouts for electoral reform referenda. The opposition and the media are admirably showing great Canadian restraint, yet are patiently and persistently bringing up the referendum issue — here’s hoping that the minister may come around and perceive that there is a valid non-partisan point being raised.

  2. I think you are blowing smoke. Just as I think Rex Murphy did tonight when he passionately argued for a referendum. A referendum works when the answer is yes or no….and the voters understand the implications. Like conscription. There is much educating to be done to lift even the politically active voter’s understanding of the risk/benefits of a change in our voting system. And then what type of change do you want? Too much information. They want vanilla or chocolate type questions. Meanhwhile we have campaigns on the go to “make every vote count” as if that is the optimal result. I personally believe ranked ballots is the least disruptive change to make to our current system. It just gives more credibility to a winner who garned say 39% of the vote but also garned 40% of the second choice votes. Nothing has changed except that voters do not have to organize and vote strategically within each riding….if their intent is an “anybody but him/her” type of vote.
    Now if some people want more voices at the table and always a minority type government bargainingt each and every time….well that is a major change of “style” that could always be looked at later in a referendum. I personally believe it is difficult to build a camel with a committee.

    • Maybe you are right, that ranked ballots are better. But we are already a democracy, and we need to have democratic consent. For example, I’m not sure what version of ranked ballots you prefer, but the immediate question provoked is, what of representing diversity? If the hurdle is the education lift work, to get referendum partcipation to include those who don’t normally partcipate, then we should leap over the hurdle head on in innovative 21st century approaches to a referendum. It just won’t do to cheat and place undignifiable and undemocratic step stools that disorient us from the direction towards which we need to leap.

    • I’d have to agree about referenda needing to be on very simple questions. In our 2009 referendum on STV in BC, I think it was 60-70% of people, who were polled afterwards, admitted to not understanding the issue. The problem is that people will tend to favour the devil that they know, as fearmongering campaigns eventually work their effect, even when the other choice is obviously in their best interests.

      I did see a Coyne article that discussed a middle ground: implement the electoral change, then have a referendum after two elections to either keep it or revert to FPTP. Then people can see that the fearmongering is unfounded and can make a more informed decision.

  3. An obvious solution would be to do multiple referenda, one under the rules of each electoral system, and see which one people like better. One uses FPTP, one uses strict proportional, one uses STV, etc. Use a ranked ballot to see which system people prefer the most.

    There’s some nice irony here, actually. The Liberals believe that a proportional system (of some kind) is better than FPTP for electing MPs, but FPTP is sufficient for important stuff like changing the electoral system; the Conservatives believe that FPTP is sufficient for electing MPs, but require proportional representation for changing the electoral system.

    • The Liberals have never expressed support for proportional representation, sadly. Only a willingness to consider it. In the past, Trudeau has expressed preference for AV, a winner-take-all system that uses a ranked ballot. Analysts say this system would have given the Liberals an even greater (false) majority in 2015 — who needs that? I hope they keep their promise to consult and to implement electoral reform, and I feel fairly confident that no neutral consideration of alternatives would come up with another winner-take-all system as a better replacement for FPTP. All 13 commissions and assemblies that have examined reform for Canada and its provinces have come up with a recommendation for some form of PR. Implementing anything else would be recognized for what it is: a partisan betrayal of Canadians.

      • “Analysts say this system would have given the Liberals an even greater (false) majority”….what a bunch of bunk Who-Da-Man. Why don’t you read up on ranked ballots. It is not a rigged system that favours anyone. Political parties use it to select their leaders because it is fairer than first past the post. There is so much stirring the pot with false statements that people don’t question and blindly repeat as you have just done. There are two studies (CBC’s Eric Grenier and Abacus) that show that the Liberals would have had an even larger majority this time if voter’s second place choices were taken into consideration. That is THIS election. That means that in numerous of the ridings across the country voters did not get whom they wanted if both their first and second place votes were taken into consideration. With the ranked ballot all parties will have to work towards not only being the first place choice of voters but also their second place choices. That would make it more difficult for divisive, nasty parties to get into power.

        • Francis Lundhagen: Wrong ! Just wrong…. The most divisive, hate-filled, nasty party IS currently in power; and they are hell-bent on getting their only choice of ranked ballots in place before the next election. Here’s why the selfie-king is simply salivating at this horribly distortive method. Lets say 45% of Canadians vote for the NDP, 45% vote Conservative, and 10% vote Green; BUT they all indicate Liberals as their second choice. Who wins ? The Liberals get all the seats ! Wow, what democracy !

          • How utterly stupid are you, Andrew???? If the Liberals are nobody’s first choice and only manage second place on everyone’s ballots, it is not possible for them to win many or even any seats. You don’t have a clue how that system works. And the blatant partisan ignorance that you have just shown is exactly why there should be no referendum. Besides, your example above is meaningless anyway because you need to look at individual riding counts not the national percentage totals. Wow, what a mind.

  4. Only a desperate about-turn by the Liberal provincial government, with its vetoing double 60% majority referendum requirement, prevented the legitimate implementation of STV in British Columbia, Then Canada would have seen how well it worked. Just as a former generation practised STV for proportional representation in three Canadian cities. Transferable voting can transcend party divisions, and allow a community to unify. People would see it should be the next system for federal elections.
    The BC Citizens Assembly report is Canada’s best hope for genuinely democratic elections.
    Richard Lung.
    Free e-books: Peace-making Power-sharing;
    Scientific Method Of Elections. (Smashwords.)

  5. “Flawed as it may be, after all, the current system of electing government has served the country decently enough for nearly 150 years, and is in use by some of the choicest democracies in the world.”

    Really? From my understanding, only 2 out of the top 10 countries in the world, ranked by highest standards of living, use FPTP. That would hardly seem to be a glowing endorsement of FPTP’s contributions to the economic prosperity of a democracy.

  6. “Appropriate”? How about “predictable”. The catch-22 of voting reform is that the people who can change the voting system are the very people who benefit unfairly from the status quo. When you have 55% of the seats on 39.5% of the votes, it’s clear that “This system is working just fine.” But we have a historic opportunity here. We have a government that promised to “Make every vote count” when they were in third place and screwed over. Now that they are miraculously in power, it behooves a responsible media to hold their feet to the fire and push them to follow through on their promises.

    • I wouldn’t count on the media to be responsible in any way regarding electoral reform. They spread misinformation as readily and willingly as any of partisans. Macleans wrote an editorial in the March 7 edition this year lamenting all the woes of the ranked or preferential ballot used by the Australian Senate. The problem with that editorial was that the Australian Senate actually uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system. Macleans was describing a different electoral system. They were describing the same big cumbersome mathematically complicated system that the Citizen’s Assembly tried to push on the public in BC in 2005 and 2009. I am not sure if Macleans ever retracted or corrected their story or not.

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