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.

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