Canada’s voting system is functioning just fine

Posted on November 27, 2019 in Governance Debates

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Compromise is not necessarily a bad thing: Canada has made an art of it over the years. Yet it can also breed uncertainty

If Canada’s electoral system was in the pugilism business rather than the voting business, it would stagger around the country with a blackened eye, cauliflower ear and three or four permanently aching ribs. First past the post gets very little love. Canadians regularly indicate they’d like an alternative, backtracking only when they get a look at the options.

Their concerns are reasonable enough. FPTP allows a party to run the country, headed by a prime minister with formidable powers, based on the support of substantially less than half the population. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are back in office despite the fact two-thirds of ballots were cast for other parties. The number of votes is often less important than where they’re located: the Bloc Québécois outpolled the Greens by just one percentage point but was rewarded with 10 times the seats. The Conservatives won more votes than the Liberals but placed second in seats.

First past the post gets very little love

Still, for all its flaws, it can’t be said the system failed to capture the mood of the country. Voters in October had largely lost their crush on the 2015 version of the Liberal party, all shiny-clean and new, dressed up in its Sunday best and determined to say all the right things. Millions wanted a change, but weren’t impressed enough by the main-alternative Conservatives to give them a turn, so they handed the Liberals a second, short-term opportunity, on a tightened leash, with everyone keeping a close eye on their performance. The Tories didn’t get their victory, but were made well aware of where they will have to up their game if they hope for a different verdict next time around. New Democrats got just about what they could expect: fewer seats to reflect the poor start by leader Jagmeet Singh, but a late-innings uptick to reflect his improved performance during the campaign. The Bloc’s Yves-François Blanchet would have liked a bigger separatist club to wave at Ottawa, but he didn’t get it, reflecting the fact much of his vote wasn’t separatist in nature in the first place. He got just enough seats to attract attention without being overly scary. And the message from the West was about as subtle as a brick through the window.

Odds are there will be another election before the usual four-year term, but meanwhile the country has a functioning, stable government with the levers needed to address the issues voters identified as important.

Edmontonians arrive to vote at an advance poll at St. Anthony District Archives and Meeting Centre on Oct. 11, 2019. David Bloom /Postmedia News

On the other hand, consider Israel, which is facing the likelihood of its third election within a year. On Thursday, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz admitted he’d been unable to scrape together enough support to form a coalition government, which is the rule in a country where the larger parties aren’t big enough to rule on their own and need backers from among a plethora of smaller parties with varying agendas. Gantz’s rival, long-serving Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, had already tried his hand and failed. It was his second attempt: he came up short in an earlier try after an election in April, when he chose to push for a new election rather than let the opposition have a try.

Now there could be a third vote, but not before the Knesset gets a chance to settle the issue. It has 21 days to find someone able to form a government. That could include Gantz or Netanyahu, despite their lack of success so far. If that doesn’t work, a third election will be required.

Israel uses a fairly straightforward version of proportional representation to fill the Knesset. Voters cast ballots for the party of their choice, rather than individual candidates. The parties put forward lists of candidates to choose from. Parties must get at least 3.25 per cent of votes to qualify; those that pass the threshold get seats in proportion to their support.

In the strictest sense, the system is more fair than the one Canadians are familiar with, producing a result that more closely reflects the voting choices of the population. As is often the case with proportional representation, however, it also tends to favour the formation of smaller parties able to exert outsized influence due to the need to win the support to form coalitions. That in turn leads to deal-making, horse-trading and backroom agreements, with the ongoing need to keep smaller allies happy if the coalition is to remain in power.

Compromise is not necessarily a bad thing: Canada has made an art of it over the years. Yet it can also breed uncertainty. Belgium once went a full year trying to form a government after an election left it with 11 parties, each attracting less than a fifth of the vote. Italy is famed for its revolving-door governments as rivals vie for a piece of the spoils. Much of Europe is watching Germany nervously, fearful extremists could grow strong enough to claim a position of influence in the Bundestag, with all the uncomfortable memories that will give rise to.

It could be argued that Canada’s minority governments carry the potential for similar instability, except that it doesn’t happen. The system isn’t broke; replacing it is a risk we don’t need. Canada has enough challenges without making government uncertainty another of them.

National Post View: Canada’s voting system is functioning just fine

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