Vote-fixing: The Liberal plan for electoral reform in 2016

The Liberals hope to change the way we elect MPs and win over the opposition in the process

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

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

Before overhauling the way Canadians elect their MPs, the new Liberal government hopes to somehow win over the opposition parties to the changes. House leader Dominic LeBlanc, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s point man when it comes to fostering a working relationship with Conservatives and New Democrats, says electoral reform is one file on which the Liberals don’t want to use their majority to roll over their rivals. “Changing the electoral system, in a perfect world, should be done by consensus, or with broad support in Parliament,” LeBlanc said in an interview.

Trudeau promises to set up a parliamentary committee to study the options and pass a reform law within 18 months. He vows to get rid of the so-called first-past-the-post system, in which the local candidate with the most votes gets to be MP and the rest get nothing. The alternatives include proportional representation, in which a party’s share of the popular vote would be better reflected in its number of MPs, and preferential balloting, in which voters rank the candidates from most to least preferred. LeBlanc admitted there is “a high level of confusion and misunderstanding about options.”

Faced with those doubts, Canadians have repeatedly voted to keep the status quo. Between 2005 and 2009, in three separate referendums—in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia—electoral-reform proposals went down to defeat. Trudeau isn’t offering to hold a referendum, but LeBlanc allowed that a forceful enough expression of public opposition might make the Liberals rethink the issue. “Look, if we’re honest, if there is an overwhelming, massive conclusion that Canadians are so profoundly attached to the current system and believe it bears no adjustment, the government might be in a position to consider that.”

Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader, says that whatever reform proposal the Liberals finally put on the table, Tories will demand a referendum. “I pass no judgment on the type of electoral reform because I don’t know what they are proposing yet,” Ambrose said. “But I do think when you are talking about the most fundamental way we govern ourselves, it’s not up to the House, it’s up to the people.”

So far, the people are deeply divided. A recent poll, conducted online by Abacus Data for the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, found that only nine per cent of Canadians thought the voting system needs a total overhaul, while 33 per cent favoured major changes. Most people were far less enthusiastic about reform, with 41 per cent saying only minor changes are needed, and 17 per cent satisfied with the traditional system.

Those numbers may not add up to the massive opposition LeBlanc says might halt the Liberal reform push, but neither do they suggest the broad consensus he says is needed to forge ahead.

Last spring, when Trudeau first vowed to end first-past-the-post elections, he seemed acutely aware of that ambivalence. “We’ve committed to strong, open consultations,” he told Maclean’s in June. “But it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites.”


Vote-fixing: The Liberal plan for electoral reform in 2016

  1. After the new voting system comes into force, would there be any real difference between Canada and other one-party states like Zimbabwe or the Peoples’ Democratic Socialist Republic of Korea? Remember that the rulers these countries still go before the voters and they garner a minimum of 99% of the votes polled. Something inside me tells me if they get less than that, like say for example only 95% of the total polled, then they might quit the government and commit suicide.

    • The title to this article is not supported by its contents. I wonder how the author John Geddes feels about his work being so badly misrepresented.

      Macleans is quickly becoming yellow journalism.

    • Zimbabwe uses First Past the Post……. Anyway, electoral reform in the form of proportional representation will only serve to Canada more democratic.

      • I was talking about one party states only, not about their voting systems. How they arrived at their present point in governing is what matters. This unfortunately will be the case for Canada, if Justin things that he can do whatever he wants in whatever manner he chooses. Just look at the way he is handling other vital issues, and you will see my point. By the way, he isn’t supporting proportional representation anyway. He just wants to propose a legalized system of vote-rigging. That’s all!
        Even though the proportional representation remains the most equitable seat distributor of all systems, it also provides for the most unstable of governments. Haggling among parties who to begin with, could not find the rationale to merge themselves into one, shouldn’t be allowed to be opportunistic about it after the elections. Look at the haggling that is going on in Italy or Israel. At least they have a matured approach. Here we deem every other party as an enemy of the state. It will not augur well for us.

        • It’s absurd to use Italy or Israel as examples of how proportional representation would work in Canada. Nobody has suggested that we adopt party-list systems similar to theirs, and our political cultures are 100% different. When you look towards countries which we have more in common with – Germany, New Zealand, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden, the Australian State of Tasmania – you see more stability there than you do here.

          1/4 of the time we elect minority parliaments and they last roughly two years on average because First Past the Post creates no incentive for Government or Opposition to cooperate. Proportional voting systems do, however.

        • I have no problems with parties having to work together to sort out their differences and I’m not sure why anybody would. We vote people into office to debate ideas and come to compromises. You’re just so used to the back and forth dictatorships we have in this country where the winner gets to do whatever they want for 4 years. Harper’s best years were in minority because he was forced to appease the majority of voters who voted against him. His majority, when still more people voted against him then not, was his undoing because he didn’t have to respect the majority of people.

          It goes the same for the Liberals when they are in power. So our majorities have to force the Government to respect the majority of voters more often if not all of the time.

          Your haggling remarks don’t convince me that it is a bad thing

  2. The only moral and ethical way to change Canada’s system of voting in a manner that doesn’t appear biased towards the ruling party is to hold a referendum.

  3. It is more important that all eligible voters are on the voting list and receive information containing were and when to vote. Making large changes to the process in selecting who actually gets a seat in the House of Commons is putting the cart before the horse.

  4. I find Rona’s comments kind of amusing, given her party’s handling of the vote-rigging Fair Elections Act. Before she can have any kind of legitimacy in calling for a referendum, she first needs to publicly admit that their own party’s reforms were driven by partisan aims, and their process exceedingly flawed.

    • I would urge anyone who wants to mount a campaign against the Fair Elections Act to make an effort to study the Act personally before opening their mouth. The Act was mostly an effort of administrative reform in nature. And it was a noble effort. It did not seek to interfere with the common man’s right to vote as he chose fit. The ban on vouching for one’s identity by another voter is the only part in that Act that was deemed interfering with the right to vote. Even that provision was amended later on to provide for other means of proving one’s identity. Considering the fact that impersonation is a not a remote possibility rather a real one, no one should have to object to such streamlining of the process. Even if one were to adamantly argue against correcting this fundamental flaw, here is the fact from the previous election that make that argument irrelevant: In the polls of 2011, it was estimated that of the 12,490,692 total votes cast, only 120,171 were vouched for by a third party which fact means that less than 1% would be actually affected. Even such people weren’t really affected by this Act, since other means than unfettered third party vouching was provided for them in it. Even if one were to assume that all these 120,171 people were voting for Liberals (which again would raise other rather serious suspicions about it), it isn’t a case of vote rigging. The accusations of the Act interfering with the right to vote is absolute nonsense and purely a myth perpetrated by those in the media and academia who wanted to mount a vicious campaign against Conservatives, no matter what. The current Government’s fiasco is about interpreting the voter’s intentions behind his back and it alters the process of electing our representatives in fundamentally undemocratic ways. Comparing it to the Fair Elections Act doesn’t even amount to comparing apples to oranges. Rather, it is tantamount to comparing thievery to the right to defend one’s property.

  5. “Changing the electoral system should be done with broad support in Parliament,” says Dominic LeBlanc. I agree, since 63% of the voters voted for parties pledging to make every vote count. If the government fulfills that promise, it would surely have the support of the NDP and Greens. Only if it attempts a partisan reform would a problem arise. The Conservatives are crying wolf. Maryam Monsef told Peter Mansbridge in November that, yes, people want the system changed. “Canadians voted for a government that puts their needs ahead of the party’s. A government that celebrates our diversity, and not takes a divisive approach.” Excellent.

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