Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the recent campaign that 2015 would be the last federal election to employ “first-past-the-post.” This is the electoral system familiar to Canadians, in which the candidate who wins a plurality of votes in each riding is elected to Parliament. In its place we would see the introduction of a more “representative” system, most likely some form of “proportional representation,” meaning that the proportion of MPs from each party would reflect that party’s share of the popular vote.
Canadians should not underestimate the magnitude of this proposed change. First-past-the-post is part of our political inheritance from Great Britain and has been the method of electing Canadian legislators since long before Confederation. Whatever its imperfections, under this system Canada has become one of the most successful and best governed countries in the world.
Scrapping first-past-the-post would substantially alter the political landscape in Ottawa. Gone would be the days of majority governments, which, despite their obvious flaws, have generally provided Canada with stable, moderate governance. Gone too would be minority governments as we know them. With proportional representation, we could see an endless stream of fractious coalitions that characterize countries like Italy and Greece, in which the party with the most seats is propped up by a slew of smaller parties, many of which advocate narrow priorities that scarcely considers the national interest. In essence, special interests would not simply be given a seat at the table; they would occupy numerous seats in the House of Commons and perhaps even in the cabinet.
Mixed proportional representation systems have admittedly proven workable in some European countries with relatively homogeneous populations. But in multicultural and geographically-vast Canada, the change to proportional representation would be problematic. It could give rise to a whole host of regional, ethnic and religious parties, breathe new life into Quebec separatism, and risk transforming fringe groups into coalition kingmakers. This could of course be mitigated by implementing a minimum threshold of votes that any party must achieve to be granted a seat in the House, but this would not truly be representative, and the flaws inherent in pure proportional representation would still be present.
From a legal standpoint, introducing a new system may require a constitutional amendment, albeit one that Parliament could pass on its own (the Constitution grants Parliament the authority to amend the Constitution in relation to the House of Commons). The Fathers of Confederation envisaged a system based on local representation, in which the candidate with the most votes in each riding is elected to the House. The Constitution Act, 1867 stipulates that a given number of MPs shall be “elected” from each province and divides each province into “electoral districts,” with each district returning “One Member.” The clear — and perhaps necessary — implication is that each MP is elected locally in a winner-take-all contest. This is incompatible with proportional representation (and arguably with mixed-member systems, though not with ranked ballots) meaning that Parliament would have to exercise its amendment powers — a drastic measure, to be sure.
From a philosophical perspective, the mandate for a complete overhaul is, at best, ambiguous. The Liberal majority — and thus the party’s ability to enact sweeping electoral reform — is only made possible because of the current system. Under proportional representation, they would have garnered only 40% of the seats (probably less, since new parties would have entered the fray). How, then, can the Liberals justify implementing proportional representation when, by the very logic of proportional representation, they lack the democratic legitimacy to do so?
If the Liberals really are sincere about reforming the system, then they owe it to Canadians to hold a national referendum. By and large, lawmaking is best done by the people’s elected representatives. But when the issue is how those representatives are to be elected, the decision should fall to the people themselves, since the legitimacy of any democratic system rests ultimately on the consent of the governed. Trudeau deserves credit for campaigning openly to dismantle first-past-the-post, but he never offered a definitive replacement and the issue was barely discussed or debated. Put simply, the Canadian people have not yet had their say.
There is ample precedent in favour of dealing with electoral reform by way of referendum. Prince Edward Island went directly to the people in 2005, Ontario did the same in 2007, and British Columbia had a double referendum in 2005 and 2009. In each case, a clear choice was presented to the people and in each case, the end result was the same: over 60 per cent of the electorate voted to keep first-past-the-post.
The Liberals might have better luck on the national stage or they might get the same supermajority in favour of the status quo. If they lose, they will be lauded as good democrats and will still be in a position to seek a second majority. All told, it might not be the worst outcome for “Canada’s Natural Governing Party.”
This article was originally published in the National Post and is being reprinted courtesy of the National Post