The Greens want electoral reform. It’s no surprise why.

The Liberals promised to change the way we vote. At its biennial convention, the Green Party is making its case for proportional representation.

Daniel Green, deputy leader of the Green Party, uses Lego to demonstrate the disproportion between a party's share of the vote and the party's share of seats in a first-past-the-post system. (From left to right: ranked ballot, proportional representation, and first-past-the-post).

Daniel Green, deputy leader of the Green Party, uses Lego to demonstrate the disproportion between a party’s share of the vote and the party’s share of seats in a first-past-the-post system. (From left to right: ranked ballot, proportional representation, and first-past-the-post).

Daniel Green lays out six Ziploc bags of Lego blocks on a table in a downtown Ottawa hotel boardroom. Hundreds of blocks—enough to earn him a membership in the VIP Lego Club at the Lego Store in Montreal. The 61 year old isn’t building castles, or submarines, or homes for yellow-headed men. “This is Elections 101: Lego,” Green explains.

Green, deputy leader of the Green Party (and no, that didn’t involve a strategic name change), sets up a series of histogram-style dioramas using the blocks—a proportional, didactic look at how Canada’s five main parties fared in October’s federal election, and how they would have fared under different types of voting systems.

Green has made presentations like this for the past few months, hosting town halls throughout Quebec to make the case for electoral reform in the form of proportional representation. A second diorama shows a reduced red Liberal stack, a relatively stagnant blue Conservative stack, and an increase in the orange NDP, green Green, and light-blue Bloc Quebecois stacks.

“This,” he says, holding his hand over the proportional diorama, “is more democratic than this,” he says, moving his hand to the diorama illustrating the election’s first-past-the-post results. “It’s kind of a joke, because we say democracy is serious, but I will use a toy to talk about something serious. It’s a way to make it fun.”

On Saturday, Green will stack his blocks for fellow Green Party delegates and guests at the party’s biennial convention in Ottawa. His presentation is just one of many on the weekend that look at electoral reform.

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The confab began Friday morning, a few hours before convention registration even opened. Elizabeth May, the party leader and its one and only elected MP, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with her New Zealand counterpart, James Shaw, to make a case for a proportional voting system at a press conference. Shaw, a Kiwi MP and co-leader of his own Green Party—the third largest party in that country—delivered the convention’s keynote address on Friday night.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of New Zealand’s first mixed-member proportional representation election. Shaw, appropriately wearing a green tie, was part of the campaign to bring about electoral reform in the 90s, and said he sees parallels between Canada now and New Zealand then. “In New Zealand, we had identical fears about the way [proportional voting] might turn out,” he said. “And none of them happened.”

Those fears include worries that electoral reform could produce unstable governments; that extremists could more easily get elected (“It’s tended toward centrism, because every single vote counts,” says Shaw); and that large parties could fade away (said Shaw: “There are still two dominant parties in our Parliament … and they still have a significant level of support”).

Shaw’s speech kicks off three, proportional-representation-heavy days in Ottawa. On the agenda: a workshop on proportional representation, a round-table session on proportional representation, and, of course, Daniel Green’s Lego presentation on PR—in French. That’s because the Green Party needs electoral reform in order to survive, and also what it needs to rack up more than one seat in the House of Commons. After the 2016 election, the Green Party’s federal council decided that electoral reform was the top the party’s top concern (though May said for her, climate change takes priority).

WATCH: Remember electoral reform? Here’s an update on that work.

In the most recent EKOS poll tracking support for different political parties, 5.9 per cent of the 1,003 Canadians surveyed said they would vote for the Green Party if a federal election was held tomorrow. If Canada had a proportional representation electoral system, that would translate into 20 seats for the Green Party, a nearly 20-fold increase from its current caucus of one.

Frank Graves, CEO of EKOS and a speaker at this weekend’s convention, said electoral reform is “absolutely critical” to the future of the Greens. “Green parties are doing very well in Europe, and other places, and certainly all the ingredients are there for them to do much better in Canada. There’s a long, arduous path which involves the status quo in terms of the electoral system.”

New Zealand switched from first-past-the-post to mixed-member proportional representation after a referendum in 1993. Three years later, after the first election using the new system, New Zealand formed a coalition government between two previously oppositional parties: the National Party, their own equivalent to our Conservative Party, and the Labour Party, which is politically similar to our Liberal Party.

Shaw said there’s no need for Canada to hold a referendum on the issue as happened in New Zealand, because the circumstances are different. “Here, the Liberal Party advertised the fact in advance of the election, so it was part of the platform,” he said. “People knew when they were casting their vote that this was going to be part of it.” He compares New Zealand’s situation to Brexit, where a Conservative prime minister who hadn’t campaigned on electoral reform, and wasn’t actually in favour of change, “thought he would win a referendum to maintain the status quo, and it went the other way.”

May added Canada’s current Referendum Act doesn’t allow the government to hold a referendum on electoral reform, meaning that legislation would have to change the voting rules. And Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, has said a referendum would come with a price tag of $300 million.

Since 1996, diversity in New Zealand’s government has improved—in 2014, out of 121 seats, 38 were held by women, and 25 by people of Maori descent. “The House of Representatives is now more representative than it has ever been before,” Shaw said. His Green Party’s share of the party vote in 2014 was 10.7 per cent, giving them 14 seats in Parliament—one of which is held by the world’s first fully deaf MP.

In Green’s ranked ballot diorama, the red stack towers nearly two feet over the Conservative and NDP stack. The Green stack stays the same as it was in first-past-the-post, and the Bloc Quebecois stack is halved. “A Liberal cannot look me in the eye and say this is better for democracy,” Green says, tapping the red stack, “‘cause it ain’t. No way.”

May said she hasn’t taken a position on mixed-member proportional, single transferable vote, or a hybrid of the two. “My main reason for wanting to get rid of first-past-the-post is not for what it would do to advantage any particular party, including my own,” she said. “It’s for the voters, not for political parties, that we need to change our voting system.”

May hasn’t expressed a preference, but it’s clear the Greens would benefit from most alternative systems. Don’t call them opportunists, though. May’s deputy leader hopes another bit player on the scene can make its mark. “If the Rhinoceros Party can get their act together,” Green says, referring to Canada’s satirical fringe party, “and get one MP, would Parliament be diminished by having one Rhino MP whose job, a bit like a court jester, is to ridicule, but smartly, how the other parties act?”


The Greens want electoral reform. It’s no surprise why.

  1. This is lazy journalism, providing little insight and relying on a banal headline to stir up interest. When a party receives only one seat with 600K votes, of course, it has a real interest in changing to a voting system that more accurately reflects its support. But it should also alarm Canadians of all stripes to how poorly our winner-take-all FPTP voting system reflects the choices made by all voters when they cast a ballot.

    What Canadian could argue that it is anyway fair that Libs are rewarded a seat with 37K votes while it takes Cons 56K votes and NDP 78K votes to win a single seat?

    How can Parliament be anywhere close to being representative of Canadians when 560K Cons in the Atlantic and Toronto fail to gain a single seat?

    How can Parliament reflect any sort of equity when it takes 225K NDP votes and 118K Lib votes to gain a seat in Alberta while Cons need only 40K votes?

    What kind of governance do we get when our government has no MPs in large regions of the country? Can the East ever hope to satisfy the West or vice versa when our government reflects only the dominant group in one or the other?

    Why would we expect our government to be accountable to us when 9 million votes (51%) elect no-one? Surely, the Greens & NDP would like a system that would more accurately reflect their support. But Lib and Con voters make up most of the voters denied representation when votes get locked up inside riding-silos never to elect anyone.

    We routinely give parties 100% of the control on the basis of 39% of the popular vote. Opposition parties feel so impotent that they resort to blocking MPs from getting to their seats in Parliament or calling for divisive referenda to override our elected government. But that does not begin to reflect the fact that all parties pander to those very small groups of swing voters that determine the difference between having it all and having to share governance with other parties. That is a powerful incentive for all manner of chicanery.

    No wonder our governments cannot focus beyond the next election when all or nothing depends on the shift of a very few votes. Omnipotence breeds contempt and corruption. Canadians get fed up with one bunch, throw them out and then do the same with the next bunch. What the last government put in place gets chucked out when the new one attempts to stack the odds in its favour for the next election. Is this the basis of sound policy-making for the long-term benefit of Canadians?

    Electoral reform is not about the fortunes of the Green Party, the NDP, the CPC or the LPC? Electoral reform should be about ensuring that our Parliament is truly representative of all Canadians and is accountable to them. Winner-take-all voting systems such as FPTP and “ranked ballots’ fail spectacularly at this. Only a well-designed proportional voting system delivers an equal & effective vote to every Canadian. That’s what journalists who have any respect for their craft should be writing about.

  2. Elizabeth May is right in saying that elections are “for the voters, not political parties.” That is why a democracy requires an election system that fulfils that role.
    John Stuart Mill knew that, 150 years ago, when he purposely described Proportional Representation also as Personal Representation, requiring a preference vote, as well as a proportional count.
    Likewise, 100 years ago, HG Wells said the right or definitive method is “proportional representation by the single transferable vote in large constituencies.”
    An x-vote for a party list makes the proportional count exclusively for political parties. This is true of both closed and open lists. An open list can elect a candidate with few or even no personal votes, because the open list is still primarily a party proportional count.
    With the Single Transferable Vote, individual candidates have to earn an elective proportion of the votes by being personally prefered by the voters. It means that the voters can prefer candidates, for any reasons whatsoever, and not just party. That is power to the people, not the party list-makers.
    Richard Lung. (Free from some firms and sites):
    Peace-making Power-sharing;
    Scientific Method of Elections;
    Science is Ethics as Electics.

  3. The ranked ballot would also be must fairer and much more representative of the broader wishes of the voters. The Citizen’s Assemblies in this country have always jumped on the PR bandwagon and each time have blown the chance for electoral reform. There is such a narrow mindedness and arrogance to the PR advocates you would think that everything will be perfect once a form of PR is implemented. The way the Bloc (with the Green’s blessings) blocked the formation of the “Assisted Dying” and “Finance” Committees last Dec (thus forcing the govt to wait to set up those committees until late in Jan) was another reminder to me why I don’t why small parties holding the hammer in any future government. If the PR advocates think that the small parties are not going to push beyond their weight, they are dreaming.

    And by the way, Richard, STV that was proposed for B.C. was a dumb choice that was not honestly presented to the B.C. citizens. It doesn’t do half the things that the Citizen’s Assembly claimed that it would do. Check out the Irish Elections results!!!

    • I cannot agree with you about BC CA, whose report, including the technical report, I think Canada’s best hope for genuinely democratic elections. (The record is in my book: Peace-making Power-sharing.)
      It is true the 2016 Irish election did not show transferable voting to its best advantage, one reason being that the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gail both have lost support but are traditional rivals, so there was little cross-party transfer of votes to justify their coalition. But in the past, Fine Gael and Irish Labour did have their respective supporters continue their preferences to candidates of the other party. Transferable voting makes possible democraticly prefered majority coalition and that is the important point.
      Also STV allows independence of candidates from party control. And indeed I once read that Ireland has more Independents than the rest of Europe combined. There was a significant increase, in 2016, with the growing distrust of party politics, which voter-based STV makes it possible to express.

  4. The suggestion that a referendum is not needed because the Liberals campaigned on electoral reform is ridiculous. First, this was a minor part of their platform and few specifics were outlined. Second, “electoral reform” could mean almost anything.

    • Then the referendum should be to chose which electoral reform we are going to adapt.

    • Of course a referendum is required!

      1) A specific voting system was not part of the Liberal platform. So there was no way for people to vote LPC in an informed manner w.r.t. electoral reform.

      2) Electoral reform was not a prominent aspect of the Liberal campaign. Many people could have voted LPC without even realizing electoral reform was part of the platform.

      3) Nobody that votes for a party agrees with every single aspect of the platform, especially a platform with 200+ promises. Indeed, many people could have voted LPC while disagreeing with the need for electoral reform, while agreeing with the vast majority of the rest of the platform.

      4) History has shown that the LPC considers campaign promises to be “fluid” – consider the LPC’s pre-election stance with its post-election governing action on wage and price controls in 1974 election, gas tax in 1980 election, FTA (precursor to NAFTA) in 1993 election, and GST in 1993 election. So, anyone with a memory would know that just because the LPC promises something, it doesn’t mean the LOC will deliver, and that really one should vote LPC because one thinks the LPC will govern intelligently, and not because of any particular promise. (Same can likely also be said for other parties)

      5) Precedents have been set by Ontario, BC, and PEI holding referendums on electoral reform. If referendums were good enough for the largest and 3rd largest province, then a referendum is good enough for the nation.

      6) Winning government does mean a mandate to implement a particular policy unless the election was for all intents and purposes a single issue election – and the only one of those that I can think of was the election of 1984 w.r.t. Free Trade. If there was one prominent issue in the 2015 election, it was the need for a change of government – electoral reform didn’t even register.

      So, yes, I think a referendum is absolutely needed.
      AFAICT, the only people that don’t want a referendum are the ones that don’t think they can make a convincing argument for electoral reform.

      Having said all of that, I think FPTP is a moronic voting system when applied in a more-than-2 party system. My preferred system is the preferential ballot (AKA Alternate Vote). It’s an evolutionary, not revolutionary, change to how we vote. It is easily understood. It eliminates the need for strategic voting. It means votes aren’t “wasted”. And it retains direct representation for ridings with no changes in riding boundaries. STV almost (but not quite) does this, and I did indeed vote for BC-STV (both times). I intensely dislike proportional representation due to the loss of direct representation, and MMP isn’t much better if it retains FPTP for the directly elected members. A potential compromise system is what the UK Jenkins Commission came up with – alternative vote top-up or AV+. Unfortunately, that may be too complicated to win appeal.

      Getting back to the referendum, here’s a compromise approach that I would be perfectly happy with:
      – government implements electoral commission’s recommendation
      – 2019 election is held under the new system
      – 2 or so years later a referendum is held on whether to retain the new system or revert to FPTP. More than 50%+1 is required to revert – exact number TBD (55? 60?).

  5. Yeah, she is leader of a progressive party and our system and democracy are antiquated. It was devised over a hundred years ago. It’s time to modernize it.

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