A Ray of Light for Canadian electoral reform: A new voting construct may be on pause but it’s still very much needed
Originally published in The Hill Times
By Wayne Pajunen
When Prime Minister Trudeau pronounced: “I think we can see that there is a fairly clear desire out there to improve our electoral system” he was right. Although he recently darkened the skies of electoral reform by claiming: "There is no consensus. There is no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible to do something that harms Canada's stability," his original assessment of the desire for betterment was still correct.
To the consternation of many the Prime Minister has wisely drawn the shades on his proposed “Sunny Ways” for electoral reform pledge that considered only radical transformations to Canadian governance.
An Angus Read poll published November 29th, 2016 concluded significantly that two-thirds (66%) see changing the current system a “low priority” and three-quarters (75%) of us “would like a referendum on any major changes to the electoral system.”
Disunity among average Canadians and those advocating for major transformation does not mean we should abandon the search for a fair solution that shines on a means to elect parliamentary representatives to further the inclusion of our disaffected.
On February 11th from sea to sea to sea Canadian’s attended rallies demonstrating against the government’s pause reminding us of the need for electoral reconstitution.
With too many feeling that their vote doesn’t count it has become a bane to Canadian democracy fomenting voter apathy and disrespect for the nation at large. Any proposal to get back on course and address this smouldering structural deficit should be considered.
The current 3-way impasse has resulted from consideration of two dramatic alterations to our electoral process and a procedural demand. The NDP and Green Party endorse Proportional representation (PR), the PM prefers a Preferential or Ranked Ballot (PR/RB) voting system and the Conservative Party requests a referendum on any change.
What’s wrong with PR and RB voting for Canada?
Vocal advocates of PR trumpet the one citizen one vote panacea, which sounds as fragrant a rose smells but its prickly thorns of divergence make it intractable for a vast and diverse country like ours to embrace.
PR threatens to fracture the nations psyche fostering narrowly focused and even single-issue parties. Hence it is not difficult, especially with our history, to imagine, provinces, territories, cities and even more cultures and regions becoming singularly represented on the national stage advocating self-centered goals at the expense of our broader national common cause.
Canadian parallels with Spain and separatist movements along with the difficulties of even forming a government with PR voting as experienced by Ireland, Belgium and Spain are well articulated in Jonathan Manthorpe’s The Perils of Proportional Representation.
The Prime Minister’s expressed favour for a Preferential Ballot system could leave parties with significant public support under or even unrepresented in Ottawa only to exacerbate the core problem of voter under-representation.
A CBC analysis of an election under RB concluded the Greens could win two seats and the Bloc Québécois reduced to one, and that shortfall would be two reasons enough to discard its consideration.
Electoral reform needs to foster a sense that each vote can count, not necessarily in the literal sense but that each vote has a fair chance to affect representation in the House of Commons.
The desire for a new way is strong and to the nation’s detriment is expressed by apathetic voters conveniently not going to the polls. The Ontario provincial election of 2014 reflected the urgency of the impotency felt with “anti-apathy demonstrations” as a record 31,399 voters actually took the time to go to the polls only to register a protest non-vote!
The government’s recent Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) released its report on December 1, 2016, “Strengthening Democracy in Canada: Principles, Processes, and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform.”
After extensive nationwide consultation and analysis the Committee concluded with recommendations that included two key points that address election time estrangement among Canadians:
“The Government should, as it develops a new electoral system - minimize the level of distortion between the popular will of the electorate and the resultant seat allocations in Parliament.”
“That any electoral reform seek to enhance the likelihood of improving voter turnout and to increase the possibilities for historically disenfranchised.”
Canadians have voiced two basic desires on electoral reform
Firstly, as the PM said, there is no consensus for wholesale change to our tried and true voting ways as polls and past referenda have demonstrated. Second, we want change with a say in it.
Canada works because our cooperative diversity breed’s empathy, and this empowers common ground as witnessed by the Herculean political effort to patriate our Constitution in 1982.
Also, Canadians have voted at every opportunity against radical electoral amendments: P.E.I. 2005, Ontario 2007, and B.C. in 2009.
Witnessing entrenched and discordant opinions on a major overhaul to the way our votes formulate representation in parliament I introduced the Canadian Representative Parliamentary System (CRPS) option, also published in The Hill Times early on in the government’s mandate.
The CRPS is drafted to harmoniously augment our current parliamentary model with the belief that Canada is a successful nation, served well by Parliament and therefore wasn’t in need of a disruptive overhaul.
What Canada does need though is a means to address the disparity of representation and its alienation conundrum. A means to provide a voice to political parties with substantial support at the polls only to be under-represented in the House of Commons i.e. make their votes garnered, and their voters, count.
Although as reported “changing the electoral system will not be in the new – Minister of Democratic Institutions’ – mandate,” mandates evolve and are of undetermined duration.
In an attempt to jumpstart the ways and means of addressing electoral reform I will endeavour to expand on the original CRPS concept with the remainder of this article.
The clearest example of disenfranchisement and those asserting “my vote doesn’t count” is exemplified by the Green Party winning only one seat in the last federal election. This injustice focuses when considering the Green’s vote count was over 600,000 and only 1.3% of total votes cast fewer than that of the Bloc Québécois, victors of ten Members of Parliament.
To address this injustice CRPS would carve out or add ten seats to the House of Commons facilitating parliamentary inclusion within a quasi proportional representation for parties that suffer under the first past the post (FPTP) procedure.
What is a Canadian Representative Parliamentary System?
The ten new seats would be allotted to parties garnering more than 15,000 votes and fewer than five seats won after the votes are tabulated in conjunction with our current FPTP method.
Party’s accumulating 15,000 votes would qualify for a minimum of one of the ten seats up for allotment. In 2015 three parties garnered at least 15,ooo votes and won less than five seats qualifying them for a proportional share of the ten new CRPS seats.
Actual results after the 2015 election allocated the Green Party only one seat while the Libertarian’s and the Christian Heritage Party were left out in the cold. Whereas under a CRPS construct all three parties would be represented in Ottawa and the Green’s605,864 votes would earn it eight seats in line with the ten seats the Bloc Québécois won with their 818,652 votes.
The full breakdown would look like this: Green Party received 602,944 votes representing 92% of the three qualifying parties’ votes qualifying for eight CRPS seats. While the Libertarian’s 36,772 votes at 6% and the Christian Heritage Party’s 15,232 votes or 2% would be allocated one seat each in the House of Commons.
(To view a chart of the above stats please click here)
The system of governance we’ve had since 1867 has served Canada well by any reasonable assessment, so why make extreme modifications to our electoral process when Canadian’s are neither eager for it nor able to find consensus?
FPTP with a splash of PR as CRPS proposes is just a beginning and will require study, debate and compromise on details such as adding 8 or 10 seats to the Commons and whether a 15,000, 100,000 or other vote minimum should qualify a party for Members in parliament etc.
In the meantime though the minor yet politically engaging modifications that CRPS makes to further representative inclusion may pass a desired referendum and address the alienation challenge, until a likely combination of technology with another option shines a consensus over our horizon.
The Canadian Representative Parliamentary System endeavours to draw upon the spiritof a classic Canadian compromise by promoting our exceptional model of inclusively and harmony.
Extending representation to advance participatory inclusion reflective of our ever-expanding diversity CRPS could be the ray of light to the “Sunny Ways” of electoral reform Canadian’s believed to be on the horizon when this discussion began.
Wayne is a political affairs columnist, consultant and former employee of Canada’s House of Commons and the Liberal Party of Canada. His work also appears in The Hill Times, The News Lens, Taipei Times and AMCHAM Business Topics magazine.