The quagmire of electoral reform and the hunt for legitimacy

The quagmire of electoral reform and the hunt for legitimacy

A referendum may not be the answer. But the Liberals need to show they’re changing the system for Canadians, says Paul Wells

Voters enter a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a federal election on Monday. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Voters enter a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a federal election on Monday. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

To proceed with electoral reform, I asked Justin Trudeau before Christmas, “Do you think that your government needs to demonstrate support that’s broader than the Liberal caucus in Parliament?”

“Oh, absolutely,” the Prime Minister said. “I think we need to engage with Canadians, and I know the question’s leading toward, ‘Do we need a referendum on that?’ We’ve committed to consulting broadly as many Canadians as possible, as many different communities and organizations—including political parties—as possible, and we’re going to move forward with that and we’ll see where it takes us.”

I like the first two words of that answer best. The rest was mush, though I don’t think it was entirely meaningless. It’s easy to understand why Trudeau believed I was “leading toward” a question on referendums. Everyone is asking him about referendums. Trudeau spent the election campaign promising that 2015’s would be the last federal election held under the familiar first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the largest number of votes in every riding wins a seat in the House of Commons. He has not specified which system should replace it.

Related: The Liberals’ plan to fix the way we vote

The Conservatives, temporarily meek about criticizing Trudeau on more value-laden matters, have latched onto electoral reform as a low-cost way to harry Trudeau. On the last sitting day of Parliament before Christmas, four Conservative MPs demanded a referendum. Scott Reid, the eastern Ontario MP, has launched a petition urging one. At this writing he’s collected about 4,000 signatures—maybe not a groundswell.

Related: Rona Ambrose sits down for a year-end interview with Maclean’s

But concern about Trudeau’s plans isn’t coming only from Conservative dead-enders. The NDP worries the Liberals won’t endorse proportional representation, which would make it impossible for a party to form a majority in Parliament with only 39 per cent of the popular vote, as the Conservatives and Liberals did after the 2011 and 2015 elections.

There is, you see, more than one way to reform an electoral system. First-past-the-post, the system we have, is easy to understand but it exaggerates the winning party’s advantage. It’s routine for a party to win a majority of seats without winning a majority of votes. Smaller parties get shortchanged. But you could “reform” that system by introducing a ranked ballot, where voters’ second and third choices help determine the winner. Such systems tend to reward centrist parties: If you love the Floating Wing-nut Party but you are willing to live with a Liberal, your ranked ballot will probably help elect a Liberal. To reformers whose goal is a proportional system, which would give 10 per cent of the seats to a party winning 10 per cent of the vote, ranked ballots are no improvement.

Are the Liberals required to hold a referendum before changing the voting system? Not by law. Maybe not by any standard. National referendums are exceedingly rare in Canada. We had one in 1898 on prohibition, another in 1944 on compulsory military service, and a third in 1992 on the Charlottetown constitutional accord. There was no referendum on the 1982 Constitution, which Charlottetown sought to amend. There is no rule, nor even a coherent standard of practice, to determine which changes get sent directly to the people and which don’t. In 2001, New Brunswick had a referendum on video lottery terminals. In 2004, Nova Scotia had a referendum on Sunday shopping, then ignored the result. There’s nothing magic about letting the people decide. Often they don’t decide. Often they think they have, but governments do something else anyway.

There are laws in British Columbia and Alberta that require referendums before the provincial legislatures ratify constitutional amendments. But a change to the electoral system falls well short of that standard of importance. It’s more in line with the wholesale changes the Harper government made to Canada’s elections laws in 2014. Without a referendum. Scott Reid forgot to launch a petition against those.

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc gestures during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday December 3, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc gestures during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday December 3, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

But it’s a bit short to say the Liberals are allowed to rig the electoral system because the Conservatives did. In fact, Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc has said something close to the opposite. In an interview with Maclean’s, he called Harper’s so-called Fair Elections Act “an example where a majority was changing the rules that affected everybody over the vociferous, and, I think, compelling arguments of those that opposed it. I hope and believe that that’s not where we end up.”

Well, then. How could LeBlanc ensure his government doesn’t end up like the Conservatives? He could ensure it meets a higher standard of public approval for its reforms. Hence my question to Trudeau. How could he show that his proposed changes, whatever they may be, aren’t just a mechanism for helping Liberals win more elections? He could get another party to vote for his plan in Parliament. He could line up a number of provincial governments’ approval. He could even hold a referendum. Political legitimacy isn’t binary: it’s not something you either have or you don’t. It’s a sliding scale—the more approval you gather, the more you show you’re changing the system for Canadians, and not just for the Liberal party.


The quagmire of electoral reform and the hunt for legitimacy

  1. “There are laws in British Columbia and Alberta that require referendums before the provincial legislatures ratify constitutional amendments. But a change to the electoral system falls well short of that standard of importance.”

    Wouldn’t bet the ranch on that. One would have thought at least a couple of the more innocuous senate reform proposals would have passed SCC muster but nada.

    Regardless of whether it is the anticipated court challenge of any Liberal electoral reform package that brings it to bear, it will be fun watching either the SCCphilic Liberals hoist with their own petard the next occasion the SCC exercises its law-making franchise to thwart democracy or, alternatively, dance on the head of a pin as they rule differently on a legislative measure for no apparent reason than the political party that authored it.

    • One would have thought that people who were putting forth laws might have consulted the SCC on their constitutionality- but one would have been wrong.

      As far as a referendum on the proposed voting system (whatever it is); not necessary.

      We have elected representatives- that is why we have them.

  2. It is indeed a blatant side-stepping of the question at hand. They had started out with giving the impression of going for proportional representation.

    Thank you for your work, for telling it like it is.

    Somewhat illuminating too on the red herring of the referendum, being used as a distraction to the question at hand.

    • As I recall, the LPC had mentioned a preference for the preferential ballot and made no mention whatsoever of proportional representation.

      And a referendum on any proposed change is hardly a distraction. It will in fact turn out to be the only reasonably way to break a logjam should one arise from not being able to achieve all-party consensus. And, the likelihood of all-party consensus is slim to none given that
      1) The NDP wants PR or MMP, and nothing but
      2) The CPC wants the status quo
      3) The LPC favours the preferential ballot

      Personally, I think one cannot make a significant change to the method by which MPs are selected without having a referendum on it. And, I’ll point out that I’m in favour of change along the lines of the preferential ballot, or Single Transferable Vote (STV), or possibly Jenkins Commission AV+.

      • You misrepresent all 3 parties. In any event, electoral reform s.b. about the voters, not the parties.

        1) The NDP wants PR. It has expressed a preference for MMP as this seems to be the path of least resistance. MMP was recommended in most Cdn studies on electoral reform. Craig Scott indicated some flexibility on type of PR if Liberals would just come to table. h$ttps://

        2) The CPC wants a referendum. In the past, they have strongly supported PR. Who knows what they want now except to create partisan havoc for Liberals? h$ttps://

        3) Trudeau has expressed a preference in the past for AV (ranked ballots in single-mbr ridings). AV was official LPC policy in 2012. In 2014, Res # 31 was adopted on which the recent electoral reform platform was based. More recently, Trudeau has indicated support for Res # 31 and indicated that his personal preference should not influence the consultations.

        In 2014, Trudeau allowed a free vote on an NDP motion for MMP-PR. The majority of Liberal MPs supported the NDP motion. h$ttp://

        A Liberal free vote is expected on future motions for electoral reform.

        A very large proportion of Liberal members support a proportional voting system. AV is very unlikely to be adopted, especially given the negative press it has received. In any event, the LPC platform commits to making every vote count. AV does not do this. h$ttps://

        • I should have been more precise:
          1) The NDP benefits from PR or MMP, as PR (or MMP) are likely to result in NDP Cabinet seats in a LPC led coalition government, and the NDP has apparently returned to its usual position as 3rd party making forming government unlikely in the foreseeable future.
          2) The CPC benefits from the status quo because PR would likely result in LPC-NDP coalition governments into the foreseeable future, and the PB (AV) would seem to significantly favour the LPC as it would seem to be 2nd choice of many LPC and CPC supporters.
          3) The LPC benefits from the PB (see #2), and does not benefit from PR (or MMP) as PR/MMP would make majority LPC governments difficult or impossible in the future.

          As such, at the end of the day and despite public statements and platforms perhaps to the contrary, I would fully expect to the LPC, NDP, and CPC to line up behind the choices of status quo, PB (AV), and PR/MMP as stated above.

      • I think the preferential ballot is the way to go- people can understand it.

        As far as the other parties wanting something different- they will adjust. The conservatives are worried (and will fight tooth and nail for a referendum that they can try to scuttle-as the PCs did in Ontario); but they might learn that- if they are no-one’s second choice- they might have to move a bit to the centre.

        Who knows- we might see them putting that dreaded word ‘progressive” back in their name!

    • While the Constitution is remarkably specific as to the content of the Senate and as to how Senators are chosen, it is also remarkably silent on how members of the House of Commons are chosen. Electing members of Parliament is government by the Elections Act and, as such, does not require a Constitutional amendment to make changes as to how we vote and how the votes are cast.

      The only requirement is that the House of Commons be proportional in representation as much as possible without reducing a province’s number of seats. Going to proportional representation might require a Constitutional amendment should the method chosen for PropRep affects the representation in the House, but otherwise, voting rules and how the election of candidates is undertaken falls under the Elections Act and does not require either a referendum nor a constitutional amendment to effect the change.

  3. Paul Wells’ job has always been to defend the defensible on behalf of the Liberal Party. So he argues that there are other agendas for a Government that are mora value–laden than ensuring their own legitimacy inside the Parliament. Rigging the voting process is a natural consequence to follow from this argument, it would seem. Canada’s election laws may offer some administrative/organizational advantages to registered political parties. Other than that it is not even necessary to be associated with a party in order to contest an election. The elections are held to elect ONE representative for A WELL-DEFINED CONSTITUENCY which the elected member shall represent in the Parliament. You cannot get anything good by violating this fundamental principle. Up to now, it has not been possible for a voter even to vote in any other place than his own constituency. Only a select few of the members of essential services got any exemption from this rule. Theoretically, it is possible to elect 338 independent members, whose job is to choose their head of Government. It is even possible to have 338 political parties in the Parliament and a majority of them can form a coalition as well. The Supreme Court has already declined to refuse the right of the people to do just that. Therefore, it is unconstitutional to deny that right now through subterfuge. Furthermore, it is also plain that through that decision, the Supreme Court has just upheld that a voter gets to choose ONE AMONG THE CANDIDATES as his elected representative. The idea that he will get to choose only half-a-member, the other half being nominated by the boss of someone else’s second choice is incomprehensible. It is tantamount to taking away the voter’s fundamental right to choose his elected representative without any compromise. The idea that in the “first-past-the-post” system, a party with a minority of votes gets to rule against all voters is peculiar only to these left-of-centre parties that add up their votes together and imply a false majority. It is plain that the Supreme Court doesn’t count that way. I believe that it was Winston Churchill who once said that the “first-past-the-post” system stinks but not as much as the other systems of voting.
    Political Party conventions are not at all the well-attended events. It is not even possible to attend one of these without ever paying the party membership fee. It goes without saying that if you cannot afford the membership fee, then you do not get a say in electing the party leader. It is incomprehensible that a person who has been nominated or elected as leader in such a convention which didn’t enjoy universal electoral support, will come back to dictate the manner in which your vote will be counted on the election day. It actually goes against the grain of universal franchise.
    Another point that Paul raises here is that referenda are useless because people don’t understand or that they are not followed through. Is that a good defense to deny a voter’s right to choose? Posing a question in a referendum and then not making the desired change as elicited in that referendum is not the same as not conducting a referendum on a vital matter or making a change that has been rejected in such referendum. Paul’s thinking is as mushy as that of the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader, at least, has a hidden agenda to entrench himself in power. Once he gets the change he desires, it is obvious that he will appoint his lackeys only as Members of that august House. Others need not waste their time working for his party or even showing any interest in the parliamentary elections generally. But what is your stake in all this, Paul?

    • @T.KANTHIA Didn’t you know Paul is the third PM® (Puppet Master) the other two are Katie and Jerry WHO are the real Powers Behind Zoolander…………

    • You make several errors in your analysis. But I would only point out that you have misquoted Winston Churchill. It seems to be a virus going around.

      In fact, Churchill said on November 11, 1947: “Indeed, it has been said that DEMOCRACY is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters” (bold added)[h$ttp://]

      Of AV, Churchill said, ” The plan that they have adopted is the worst of all possible plans. It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal that the Government have embodied in their Bill. The decision of 100 or more constituencies, perhaps 200, is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates….Imagine making the representation of great constituencies dependent on the second preferences of the hindmost candidates. The hindmost candidate would become a personage of considerable importance, and the old phrase, “Devil take the hindmost,” will acquire a new significance.”

      Of proportional representation, Churchill said, “is incomparably the fairest, the most scientific and, on the whole, the best in the public interest…”

      You may be interested in the 2004 Law Commission Report to see the finer details of what electoral systems would be acceptable in Canada. h$ttp://

      • Thanks for correcting me on Churchill. I made it plain that I wasn’t sure about the quote. I didn’t deal with PR system since it wouldn’t provide the stability required for any government to lead the country in a consistent and steady manner. At best, we would be like Italy or Israel, all the time haggling on coalitions. It is harmful to the security of the Country. There is nothing to dispute on the main thrust of my argument that Liberal scheme would force us to vote for only half of our representatives while the other half will be appointed by a party leader whose election itself we have no control over. It will be the end of democracy. My contention here was that Paul Wells usually doesn’t deal with these issues adequately. He just glosses over Liberal haphazardness.

        • Pardon my aged eyes, it’s difficult to read your very long post with no breaks. Try ShftEnter

          In general, proportionally representative (PR) countries have fewer elections and provide much more consistent government than those under winner-take-all. I’m sure that you have noticed the laundry list of things that the LPC intends to reverse that the CPC put it. Policy lurch happens in Canada with great regularity. That is why the most economically, socially successful countries use a PR system. h$ttp://

          PR usually results in stable coalitions. There is no incentive to keep having elections when no-one is likely to get a majority. With cooperation and collaboration, the best policies are established the first time with the broadest support of the public. Long-term planning is undertaken with confidence knowing that the plan will not be thrown out with the next gov’t and that there will be some continuity in who makes up the govt.

          None of this happens under FPTP where all the parties pander to a small group of swing voters in order to form a majority. So we get short-term partisan planning that is thrown out with a change in govt.

          Israel & Italy are both poor PR examples. Look at the 80+ (85% countries) that successfully use PR like Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, etc.

          I don’t know what Liberal scheme you are talking about. Their platform is here: They intend to consult widely and seek cross-party consensus. They may “haggle” to this. It’s what mature people do to arrive at reasonable solutions acceptable to most instead of trying to divide & conquer citizens.

          AV (ranked ballots in single-mbr rdgs) is unlikely to be adopted as it is not acceptable to NDP, Grns or many Liberals.

          All proposed proportional voting systems will offer open lists which mean that all candidates will face voters directly. There will be no appointed MPs.

          You can get more information about proportional representation here: h$ttp://

  4. Firstly, Wells, you’re operating from the point of supposing that the Liberals don’t consider Canada a wholly owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party of Canada. Once you put that behind you, then you can begin to understand that the Liberals will do almost anything to stay in power. They understand that the electorate is somewhat mercurial. Justin’s victory was largely a product of a fawning media, like it or not. (Evidence? This organization alone has become the media page of Justin Trudeau. Holy crap, guys.)
    But, as the media slowly falls off the Justin bandwagon, and they will simply because the guy is just plain stupid, the Libs will be faced with an electorate that is tired of the failures of the kinds of big government favored by journalists. Look around. Every bad situation faced by any government in Canada is a problem that is built upon a foundation of big government.
    High pubic sector costs not matched by the tax base’s ability to fund it? See: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, etc.
    Low and no private sector growth due to high business costs driven by flawed public policy? See: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, etc.
    Runaway pension costs due to long term inaction on union featherbedding in the public sector? See: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, etc.
    Are we seeing a pattern here, Wells? believe it or not, we are a deeply conservative country in that we believe quite deeply in thrift and self-reliance. This is a collision in the making with the big government dream of the Trudeau Liberals, and you can bet your own paycheck that Canadians will undoubtedly see Justin’s electoral reforms as wholly illegitimate unless we’re given a say in the matter.
    Both Charlottetown and Meech Lake died because Canadians rightly saw them as being the products of the efforts of people who had been told since birth that they were our moral and intellectual betters, most of whom had never earned a buck in their lives that didn’t come from some government department or other (sort of like Justin).
    Justin’s legitimacy, like every one of his utterances, comes with an expiry date.

  5. Anyone interested in the variety of voting systems available could do a lot worse than looking here (the chart sums things up nicely):

  6. A good perspective on referendums but the details on ranked ballots need some tweaking.

    The Liberals threw in some red herrings in their electoral reform platform. RB was one. Mandatory voting and online voting also muddy the waters when talking about voting systems as they are side issues and can be used with any voting system.

    Ranked / preference ballots are not a voting system. They may be used in either winner-take-all or proportional voting systems, depending upon whether ridings are single-member or multi-member. AV, with single-mbr ridings is winner-take-all. STV, with multi-mbr ridings, is proportional. Other proportional systems with ranked ballots include Dion’s P3 and Jenkins-inspired MMP. h$ttp://

    Trudeau may have expressed a personal preference for AV in the past. But the majority of Liberal MPs supported a NDP motion for MMP-PR in Dec 2014 under a free vote. A very large % of Liberals support proportional representation. Liberal MPs will likely be voting freely in the future on electoral reform motions.

    AV may be worse for Canada than FPTP. It is likely to result in more Harper-like majorities. The only comparable country using AV for parliamentary elections is Australia. OZ also has an elected, proportional Senate that often blocks legislation from the AV-majority on the House of Reps. As we have seen, Canada has few protections against one-party rule.

    In OZ, AV has resulted in a duopoly, squeezing out smaller parties or making them feeder votes for the 2 main parties. Under AV, small parties may get more votes, but not more seats. The party with the most first preference votes wins the seat 90% of the time. h$ttp://

    As with other winner-take-all voting systems, under AV, votes get locked inside silos (ridings). Votes that do not elect a MP fall off the table never to elect anyone. In the last election, 9+ MM voters elected NO-ONE. It would not be much better under AV, even with mandatory voting.

    Politics can be polarizing and extreme under AV, just as under FPTP. In OZ, mandatory voting has been proven to lead to more socialist policies. Mandatory voting also favours the largest parties who advertise heavily to disengaged voters.

    The other benefits often attributed to AV are overstated and not worth the risks. h$ttps://

    Only a well-designed proportional voting system will accurately convert votes into seats such that parties receive seats in proportion to their popular vote by province, or region. Only a proportional voting system will guarantee that the median views of the broadest segment of Canadian citizens is reflected in government policies.

    10 Cdn studies/commissions have already been undertaken. All recommend a proportional voting system – most frequently a form of MMP. The 2004 Law Commission consulted extensively with the public across the country. We do not have to reinvent the wheel but we can develop a made-in-Canada PR system based upon past studies and the experiences of the 80+ (85% OECD) countries that successfully use a proportional voting system. h$ttp://

    It’s well past time to move past AV and start discussing which proportional voting system would best lead to accountable and representative governments. Given the complexities, this is best handled by our MPs who have the resources to make the difficult decisions, in broad consultation with the public, experts and other parties, aiming for a cross-party consensus.

    Even the best pundits do not understand all the nuances of voting systems. How can we expect citizens with busy lives to do so? Engaged citizens will keep the Liberals feet to the fire during the consultation process. Other citizens will render their judgement on the results at election time.

    • The biggest flaw with mandatory voting is a simple logic test. If we agree, and probably all of us do, that voting is, aside from a civic act of citizen involvement and citizen governance, symbolic of our longstanding rights as free people, what then is mandatory voting? if we are free to vote, or not vote if that is our free decision, then are we actually free if we are not free to not vote?
      How can we claim to be a free people if we are willing to bring the full authority of the state down upon someone who chooses not to vote, for whatever reason? Mandatory voting is the exact opposite of freedom.

    • re online voting:

      With online voting, how would you
      a) ensure the person who is voting is who he/she claims to be? E.g., what prevents a person from giving/selling their PIN to someone else?
      b) ensure that the person voting is not doing so under duress? E.g., what prevents the dictatorial head of a family from looking over each family member’s shoulder to ensure he/she votes as instructed?
      c) ensure that the voting software is correctly recording votes and not miscounting, either by accident (bug) or design (malicious)? Since voting is supposed to be secretive there is no real record to inspect (unlike with paper) to validate the vote results.

      IMO, online voting is a moronic idea.

      And, personally, I can’t get worked up about people who can’t be bothered to spend at most 1/2 hour of their lives once every few years and find their way to a polling station.

  7. re mandatory voting:

    I do not understand how it is in everyone’s interest to force people who have no interest in voting, and thus are probably unfamiliar with the issues/platforms/candidates, to do what they have no desire to do.

  8. So, if we DO have a referendum, how will the voting be conducted? The most popular option wins (i.e., a first past the post result), or do we use some form of ranked choices, or some other option?

  9. As usual Paul Wells nails it.

    If you think Parliament should represent a diversity of viewpoints then proportional representation is for you. If you think Parliament should represent a consensus then a ranked ballot system is for you. But don’t kid yourself: you can’t have both.

  10. Here’s a thought…for about 6,000 years no human government has been able to solve even basic issue’s like justice, poverty, and the list is endless. Not one vote solved these basic issues yet people still vote. Are they mad ? Are they blind ? Have they been misled ? One can only assume all of the above…….I think all people really vote for is who gets the Golden Pension’s and the comfy temporary life. But relief is in sight those elected ones will soon enjoy the same weather as the sucker’s that voted for their pensions…