Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is assuring Canadians that any proposed changes to the electoral system will require the public’s support.
That’s good to hear. It would be undemocratic, as well as unwise, to try to do anything different.
“We’re going to ensure the will of Canadians is behind whatever we put forward,” Liberal MP Mark Holland said recently.
Just how the “will of Canadians” will be determined is unclear. Previously the federal Conservatives have called for a federal referendum to give Canadians a say in any proposed changes to Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.
Changing the country’s electoral system was one of Trudeau’s campaign promises during last year’s federal election.
But the actual process of overhauling a voting system that has been in place since Confederation is sure to be a complicated one. Even the Liberals’ creation of a special parliamentary committee to look into electoral reform has drawn criticism, with opposition parties accusing the government of stacking the deck in favour of the Liberal Party in establishing the committee.
NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen proposed that the governing party give up its usual committee majority for an electoral reform committee and instead assign membership in proportion to the share of the popular vote won by each party with a seat in the House of Commons. It’s an interesting proposal and makes sense when you think about it, but the Liberals weren’t prepared to go along with the idea.
Earlier this year, the Conservatives suggested what Trudeau is trying to do is rig the electoral system to ensure Liberal victories in perpetuity. It’s a charge Cullen said could have legitimacy if the Liberals failed to accept his proposal for the makeup of the committee.
“If we go through some process in which they have the majority on the committee, that majority then decides on a proposal to the House of Commons where the Liberals have a majority and the Liberals are the only ones standing at the end of the day supporting a new system,” Cullen said back in February.
“They will be open, I think fairly, to criticism that this is to their advantage and to the disadvantage of others.”
Of course, ensuring that no one party or segment of the country has an unfair advantage is the whole point of electoral reform. But devising a system that is fair for all, and workable, isn’t an easy task.
In early February, independent Liberal senator Serge Joyal, an acknowledged constitutional authority, warned that overhauling the electoral system could result in the very constitutional wrangling Trudeau has promised to avoid. Joyal said in a Canadian Press story that adopting some form of proportional representation could diminish the odds of having majority governments and require two or more parties to join forces to form less stable minority or coalition governments.
In the same article, York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, who has studied electoral systems around the world, disagreed, noting it’s wrong to assume proportional represetation would automatically result in less stable governments. The truth is, he added, that Canada has produced “many more minority governments” than other Westminster-style Parliaments, partly because the current first-past-the-post system encourages political parties to be highly partisan and adversarial. Conversely, Pilon said, proportional systems encourage parties to be more collaborative.
More collaboration in Parliament would certainly be a good thing. Canadians have expressed frustration in recent times with the partisan and uncivil antics of Parliament, so a change in that regard would be welcome.
But the trick is to come up with a system that will actually work better, and the challenge is how to determine beforehand that a new system will indeed be an improvement.
Trudeau promised that last fall’s election would be the last federal election under the first-past-the-post system. It could take longer than he anticipates to actually change this long-entrenched system.