More than four years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke his promise to replace the country’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, proponents of electoral reform continue to fight for a more representative democracy in Canada.
Four well-known speakers from across the political spectrum participated in a June 4 panel hosted by Fair Vote Canada (FVC), a non-partisan organization that has campaigned for proportional representation since 2001.
“It’s not the kind of cause where you want to be celebrating 20 years,” FVC executive director Anita Nickerson said about the online anniversary panel. “I’d prefer to be celebrating (that) we got proportional representation 20 years ago.”
Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne, the first panelist to speak, criticized FPTP for producing “false majorities” and promoting regionalism over “national vision.”
He also lamented the way it encourages strategic voting.
“You can’t vote for the party you like, but you have to vote for a party you dislike so that you can keep the party you detest from forming a government,” he said. “All of these things are in violation of the basic premises that we think we live under: of democratic government; of one person, one vote; of majority rule; of, that you get to vote for the party of your preference.”
Coyne said the fight for proportional representation is as relevant and important as ever.
Previous setbacks — such as the 2005 referendum in B.C., in which nearly 60 per cent voted to end FPTP — were often the result of the rules being cynically manipulated by the ruling parties of the day, he said.
“Those defeats of course, oftentimes, weren’t really defeats,” Coyne told the online audience. “They were just reflections of how tenaciously the guardians of the status quo will defend their turf and will find any means necessary to overturn results that go against them.”
One of the most recent setbacks came in 2017, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reneged on a key Liberal promise from the 2015 federal election.
While Trudeau didn’t commit to proportional representation specifically, he did pledge to make the 2015 election the last one to use FPTP.
His government eventually engaged in some half-hearted public consultations and parliamentary committee meetings, but Trudeau seemed less and less interested in the project the more his stated preference — ranked ballots — met with resistance.
He officially abandoned his commitment in early 2017, citing a lack of consensus. “There is no clear path forward,” he said at the time. “It would be irresponsible for us to do something that harms Canada’s stability.”
This betrayal would ultimately benefit Trudeau in 2019, when he retained power, albeit in a minority situation and despite Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives winning the popular vote.
Proportional representation modelling shows the Tories would have picked up a few more ridings and the NDP and Greens would have enjoyed huge seat gains. Meanwhile, the Liberals and Bloc Québécois would have won far fewer ridings than they did under FPTP.
Green MP Elizabeth May said during the panel event that Trudeau wasn’t the first Liberal leader to break a promise to end FPTP.
That distinction goes to William Lyon Mackenzie King, who became prime minister 100 years ago on a platform that included a commitment to introduce proportional representation.
May said FPTP brings out the worst in elected officials and party operatives.
“Our political system is toxic because our voting system punishes cooperation (and) rewards parties for wedge issues, which implicitly means that you don’t want to find a solution,” she said.
Cooperation is actually less likely among parties that have the most in common, May said.
“The reality, and it’s a harsh reality, is that the closer you are to another party on the political spectrum, the more they wish to see you as roadkill as opposed to political colleagues.”
Author and activist Judy Rebick, a longstanding advocate of proportional representation, also participated in the FVC anniversary panel.
She recalled key points in the long fight for electoral reform, including the campaign to democratize the Canadian senate.
Rebick agreed with Coyne that ruling parties have stymied previous efforts to establish proportional representation. But she said some internal factors have also hurt the movement.
“The people who tend to support a different voting system tend to be a little geeky,” she said. “We tend to get into all the debates, you know, about this system versus that system, versus another system.”
“I think we have to be a little more generous with our position and be open to other ideas instead of debating it out,” said Rebick, who prefers the mixed-member proportional system but is willing to embrace others. “Let’s get some electoral change.”
Hugh Segal, a former senior Conservative staffer and senator, was the final panellist to speak.
He noted the “hypocrisy” of parties that oppose electoral reform but select their leaders using ranked ballots.
He also rejected the notion that proportional representation is inherently unstable or that coalition governments are necessarily untenable.
New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan — countries that have done “very, very well fighting the pandemic on their own terms and on their own turf” — all have some form of proportional representation, Segal said. “No government gets formed unless there are actually representatives of other parties in that government.”
According to Segal, having multiple parties in government “builds a basis for trust, which does not exist when one party of one political affiliation forms the government all by itself and actually looks for a way to avoid cooperation with other political parties.”