What's in it for me? The vested interests behind electoral reform



While less than 40 % of Canadians voted for him and his party, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party managed to obtain a majority of parliamentary seats, and essentially 100 % of the power. If that seems undemocratic, it’s because it is. To win a riding, a candidate need not obtain the majority (50 % + 1) of the votes; he/she only needs to obtain more votes than his competitors. This means that Brigitte Sansoucy, candidate for the NDP in Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot was able to win her seat with only 28.5 % of the vote.  


Reform to this system was one the Liberal Party’s central promises, inviting Canadians to consider implementing a system of proportional representation, whereby the number of seats given to each party would represent the percentage of popular vote that was won. There are a number of different systems that are considered proportional representation systems, (MMP, STV and PR list being the main three) each with its own intricacies. These different systems fiddle with the current riding system in different ways, but essentially all strive to ensure that the body of Parliament is as representative as possible of the will of the people. As a result, parties would have to create coalition governments in order to obtain a majority in the House. While these systems will be generalized under the banner of “proportional representation” for the sake of this article, it is important to note that these different systems have important distinctions that can have a real effect on our democratic system. 


As consultations on the issue have begun on the Hill, the different parties have begun to take their position. The Tories, unsurprisingly, are sticking to their guns. They’ve repeated endlessly that they will not support electoral reform until Canadians voice their support for it through a countrywide referendum. This position makes sense; conventional wisdom dictates that Proportional Representation would hurt the Conservative party, and a referendum is their best chance to can the entire proposal. Indeed, in 2011, Conservatives won 54 % of the seats with only 40 % of the vote and 46 % of the seats with just 38 % of the vote in 2008. 


 According to a study conducted by the polling website, ThreeHundredEight.com [1], if the 2015 election was done in a proportional system, the Liberals would have won 173 seats instead of 250, the Conservatives would have won 97 instead of 83, the NDP would have won 42 instead of 4, the Greens would have won 15 instead of 1, and the BQ would have won 11 seats instead of none.  


Clearly, this new system would be beneficial to the smaller parties, and make it much harder for the either the Conservatives or Liberals to have a majority in the house. It’s not hard to understand why the NDP, Greens and BQ are favourable to this change. Why then, are Liberals proposing this change, given that they’re the ones with the most to lose? 


Is Trudeau sincere is his conviction that our system must change to be more democratic? Maybe. Maybe this is his attempt to please the 63 % of Canadians who voted for parties that support electoral reform in 2015. Truth is, there’s no way to tell with any certainty what his motivations are. One thing, however, is for certain. No self-respecting party would make a push for such a large change to our electoral system without carefully considering the ramifications in future elections. 


How then, do Liberal strategists plan on maintaining power in the seemingly inevitable era of proportional representation? Well, given that the likelihood that no party will win a simple majority of the vote in a proportional system, governments usually consist of coalitions, where a number of parties decide to join forces to constitute the in-House majority.  


Therefore, in a typical proportional election, the Liberals would need partners in order to form the majority in the House. Despite a number of ideological differences, the most natural partnership would seem to be a Liberal-NDP coalition. If necessary, the Green party may even be part of such a partnership. If such a government seems unlikely, it’s objectively true that such a coalition is much more likely to exist than a Conservative-Liberal or Conservative-NDP partnership. In the former, each party would lose too much legitimacy by partnering with its nemesis, while in the latter, the ideological gap is too vast to be a realistic option. By forcing the Conservative government to find allies within Parliament, a proportional system would make it much harder for the Conservatives to create a majority coalition.  


However, all may not be lost for the Tories.  


The Ed Broadbent Institute is a self-described “independent, non-partisan organization championing progressive change through the promotion of democracy, equality, and sustainability and the training of a new generation of leaders” [2].  This institute has long been involved in this issue, and has found an unlikely ally in their effort to institute electoral reform in Canada. Guy Giorno, Stephen Harper’s former Chief of Staff and former Chair of the Conservative Party’s re-election campaign, has gotten together with the Broadbent Institute in their fight for electoral reform.  


A Conservative insider is working with the Broadbent Institute to implement Electoral Reform. As absurd as that sounds, it merits a closer look.  


Giorno may very well believe that the time has come to make reform our current system, but what about the repercussions on his party’s future?  


Interestingly, there may be a Conservative argument in favour of proportional representation. One of the most well-known proportional representation system can be found in Israel, where coalition governments are the norm. This system has caused serious political crises in recent times. In 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election, but was unable to form a majority coalition within the required time frame, giving Benjamin Netanyahu the power to create a coalition. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s current government is extremely frail, and can lose their majority if a single party decides to leave. This puts immense power in the hands of relatively small parties. Governments must bow to the demands of these smaller parties if they hope to maintain their coalitions.  


Nothing indicates that such problems could not arise in Canada. If a hypothetical Liberal-NDP coalition does not obtain a majority of the seats, immense power would be put into the hands of the Green party, the hypothetical coalition’s only other realistic ally. This, in turn, makes it hard for any party to keep its campaign promises. Even a simple Liberal-NDP coalition could be faced with serious challenges. Each party’s vastly different stance on pipeline issues, for example, can be a realistic deal breaker in negotiations.  


Conservatives would have much to gain from such a scenario. As the only party with no realistic coalition partners in the House, they can present themselves as the only party offering a coherent vision for Canada’s future. If Canadians become quickly disillusioned with coalition politics, the Conservative party has a chance to re-invent itself entirely.  


It’s evident that our current system needs to change. We can’t go on using a ‘first past the post’ system, but it’s important not to romanticize the benefits of proportional representation. Political interests have always played a role in the management of our democracy, so let’s not pretend that this time is any different.  


To end with the words of Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  


1. http://www.threehundredeight.com/2016/09/august-2016-federal-polling-averages.html 

2. http://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/about 

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