The true test of Trudeau's new politics? Electoral reform

Will the Liberals take on Parliament Hill's version of Dungeons & Dragons?

A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Nothing on Parliament Hill says “Screw you” better than the words “Democratic reform.” That’s why there’s a curious mix of optimism and cynicism surrounding Justin Trudeau’s promise to make the 2015 federal campaign the last first-past-the-post election.

The current winner-take-all system has few defenders. After all, the Liberals won a little more than 39 per cent of the popular vote, but took 184 seats, or almost 55 per cent of the House of Commons. It was no better under Stephen Harper’s majority. Trudeau himself, who just benefited from the old system, has long argued that there should be a closer alignment between popular vote and seat count. So, what will he do?

The Trudeau promise is either a crafty ploy to solidify power or a genuine desire to work with other parties to fix a broken system.

Let’s be cynical for a second, set aside those sunny ways, and follow path one. Call it payback time.

Liberals could ram through a new electoral system that would put the Conservatives adrift on the political tundra, gnawing on their boots to survive while waiting to be discovered by a Franklin-style search party. That system is called the Ranked ballot, and it just happens to be the one Trudeau prefers.

In the basic ranked ballot system—also called “alternative vote” or “preferential ballots” (there are multiple variations)—you mark down your first, second and third choice of candidate. If a candidate gets 50 per cent of the vote, they win outright, but if no candidate gets 50 per cent, then the candidate with the lowest vote total is knocked off the list and their vote is split to the others according to each voter’s preference. That happens until one candidate reaches the 50 per cent threshold.

It’s no great surprise why the Liberals like this system. “Given that the largest block of voters in Canada is now Liberal-NDP switchers, they are the parties that would most benefit from any ranked ballot system,” says Darryl Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. “The Conservative party would likely suffer from their lack of second-ballot support.” In other words, in this system, Liberals could solidify power and still fulfill their democratic reform promise. For a party with no natural allies, like the Conservatives, it could be a fatal blow. (Worth noting, however, looking at the 2011 vote, the Liberals were not second choice on most ballots, so it doesn’t work all the time!)

Conservatives already sense the trap. At a recent post-election gathering hosted by Maclean’s, the Conservatives’ former spokesman Kory Teneycke thundered on about the need for full public consultation in the form of a referendum. To be fair, many supporters of a more robust proportional representation system agree that a referendum or plebiscite making any major change to the electoral system is essential.

But a senior Liberal speaking to me on background said there is actually no need for a referendum. The Liberals ran on changing the system, they have promised to strike a multi-partisan committee and come back with an answer within 18 months. That would be the required public consultation. Then they could, if they wanted, legitimately put forward legislation and change our system.

It might not go down this path at all, but the Conservatives’ paranoia that this is all about political payback is a kind of delicious irony. Blame the cynicism on their own work, beginning with the now infamous fiscal update on Nov. 7, 2008. On that day, the Conservatives announced a plan to end the $1.95-per-vote subsidy.

Immediately, the opposition parties pulled the fire alarm. Under the guise of democratic reform, Stephen Harper’s gang (who, to their credit, had a better organized and energized donor base) were cutting off the federal subsidy to which the Liberals, NDP and Greens had become addicted. The vote subsidy actually served to somewhat level the playing field of the wonky first-past-the-post system. Parties that gained high levels of popular vote, but could not translate those votes into seats—like the NDP and the Greens—actually used the subsidy to build their base. The Conservatives knew this. Cutting off the financial supply lines meant starving them all to death.

Uproar ensured. The confidence vote on that fiscal update precipitated high drama—the short-lived coalition to bring down the Harper government followed by the sudden prorogation of Parliament. Ultimately, after a series of opposition bumbles, Harper temporarily withdrew the idea, survived and went on to win a majority government. And then he cut off the subsidy.

Over the next four years, democratic reform became something of a Halloween prank, the kind where a mischievous kid—in this case, former minister of democratic reform Pierre Poilievre—would put the political equivalent of a paper bag full of dog dirt on the front porch of his neighbours, light it on fire and ring the doorbell. You could see him watching gleefully from behind a committee chair, as they tried to stamp it out, all the while getting covered in … well, you get the idea.

The prank escalated to an all-out war, when Harper weaponized his political drone, Poilievre, programming him to carpetbomb experts from Elections Canada during the fight over the Fair Elections Act. I recall watching the upstanding and modest head of Elections Canada, Marc Mayrand, almost reduced to tears after Poilievre’s public attack, which alleged Mayrand simply wanted “more power “ and “less accountability.” It was a baseless claim, especially after Poilievre had already wilfully misconstrued another report on the Fair Elections Act—this one by the stout, former B.C chief electoral officer, Harry Neufeld. Poilievre pushed the idea there was mass voter fraud occurring by conflating voter irregularities, such as a misspelled name, to sinister voter fraud. Neufeld repeatedly insisted Poilievre was taking his report out of context. The Fair Elections Act was, according to Mayrand and Neufeld, more than just a solution in search of a problem. It was a problem in search of a political wedge.

It’s understandable that in this climate, Trudeau’s suite of parliamentary reforms—from giving MPs more power to taking power away from the Prime Minister’s Office—are regarded with some wariness. But the most consequential reform will be ending the first-past-the-post system.

It is a hard system to defend. As Kelly Carmichael of Fair Vote Canada—an advocacy group for proportional representation—told me, more than nine million Canadians in this past election did not get to elect any representative.

“We have to get rid of these false majorities,” Carmichael said, referring to the fact that neither  Harper nor Trudeau got close to a majority of Canadians voting for them. Should a government that gets less than 40 per cent of the vote get to lead as a majority? Shouldn’t the seat totals equate with the popular vote total?

Carmichael believes the ranked ballot is just the same first past-the-post cake, but with more icing sugar, a system that still favours one party over another at the expense of voter choice. “It really doesn’t solve any of the fundamental problems, and likely helps centrist parties such as the Liberals,” she said. “If they don’t have a full, public consultation and possibly even a real, genuine referendum—with a fair question and real public education—then it will all look like a partisan trick.”

Change isn’t going to be easy. As bad as it is, the first-past-the-post system is easy to understand. It’s almost like a long-term employee who looks horrible on paper—there is no logical reason to keep him based on the resumé—but he keeps defying the odds, performing reasonably well. First past the post has actually proven to be surprisingly flexible and responsive.

After all, since the 1990s, Canada has had more changes in government than Italy, the supposed example of unstable proportional representation. Is that so bad? We keep switching from majorities to minorities, wiping out some parties while resurrecting others. Our old battered system has actually been quite democratic … except, of course, it’s not been at all. As Fair Vote points out on its very comprehensive web site, in the 21 elections since the start of the Second World War, Canada has had only four real majority governments. Four! Most people never get their vote counted.

The Law Commission of Canada tabled a report back in 2004 recommending a change to a form of proportional representation, and there have been countless other studies. All repeatedly show that any form of proportional representation would be fairer and more progressive. More women would be represented. Regions would get better response. Voter participation would increase. All great, right? The problem is, pitches for proportional representation keep failing to win over the general population.

In 2005, B.C. tried to switch to something called Single Transferable Vote, or STV—yes, the acronym does sound vaguely like a venereal disease. In that system, your preferred candidate can win, but if they cross a threshold, your votes transfer to your second choice. And then, to a third. Okay. Math is involved, and without pulling a Prentice here, math is … well, hard. Still, 58 per cent of the B.C. population chose it. But the threshold for change was actually 60 per cent, so down it went.

In 2007, an Ontario referendum asked its citizens if they wanted something called mixed member proportional representation, but only 37 per cent of the population voted for it. Carmichael blames the failure on the Ontario government’s lack of support and information about the initiative—did McGuinty wilfully sabotage it to keep the status quo? Still, it was a serious blow to PR advocates.

All those who believe we need electoral reform are looking closely at Trudeau. While this might not be an issue that voters key into during an election—one wag told me that democratic reform is the Dungeons & Dragons of the Parliament Hill crowd—it has huge impact.

Whoever becomes the minister of democratic reform on Nov. 4 will have a very long mandate letter, and will be in charge of some of the most substantial electoral changes in a generation. It could turn out to be the most important position in cabinet. It will likely determine if the Trudeau government does practise politics differently or if power inevitably favours the status quo.

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