Election reform is coming to Canada — somewhere, somehow, and soon

Posted on October 8, 2017 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment – And when the sky does not fall, when the Nazis do not take over, when we do not turn into Israel or Italy — then at last maybe we can have a proper national debate
October 6, 2017.   ANDREW COYNE

It is going to happen, eventually. Some day, somewhere in this country, at some level of government, the monopoly will be broken, and the debate will have changed forever.

The monopoly to which I refer is the system by which we elect members of Parliament, the provincial legislatures, and city councils: single-member*, plurality-wins voting, or as it is popularly known, “first past the post.” And not only them — mayors, school boards, the works. Canada is one of the few countries that still uses first past the post, but it is the only one that only uses first past the post, universally and exclusively.

As it is the only system most of us have ever known, so it is the only system most of us can even imagine. Proponents of alternative models, notably proportional representation, are in consequence presented as if they were asking people to take a risky leap into the unknown, and not to adopt a system already in use in dozens of countries around the world. Opponents of reform, meanwhile, have had free rein to make the wildest claims about how PR systems work and what their effects are, undeterred by mere fact.

But that won’t be true forever, or perhaps for long. Justin Trudeau may have put the issue on ice at the federal level, having quite spectacularly reneged on his 2015 campaign promise to make that the last election to be held under first past the post. But elsewhere change is very much in the air.

Ontario has passed legislation allowing the province’s municipalities, if they choose, to use ranked ballots for their elections: earlier this year, London became the first to take them up on it, while Kingston will hold a referendum on the idea in 2018. This isn’t proportional representation: it’s still one member per district, winner-take-all, rather than the sharing of representation among several members on which PR is based. But it’s something other than the status quo.

Prince Edward Island, meanwhile, voted in a 2016 referendum to switch from first past the post to a hybrid system known as mixed-member proportional. Turnout, however, was “only” 36 per cent — as high as for most municipal elections in this country — on the basis of which Premier Wade MacLauchlan has ordered a do-over, to coincide with the next provincial election in 2019.

And now British Columbia. Readers will recall that B.C., too, voted by a majority to switch to a form of PR (known as the single transferable vote, or STV) in the 2005 referendum: nearly 58 per cent, in fact, including a majority in 77 of the province’s 79 ridings. But the rules, unusually, stipulated a 60 per cent threshold. In the rematch four years later, the same proposal obtained just 39 per cent.

With the coming to power of the NDP, however, the issue is back on the table: both the NDP and the Green Party, on whose support it depends, had made proportional representation part of their election platforms. Refreshingly, the government may even keep its promise — I take nothing for granted — with a referendum now scheduled for November of next year. Unlike the two previous referendums, a majority of 50 per cent plus one will be sufficient. Another key difference: this time the government will be campaigning in favour of reform.

That still leaves much to be decided: how many questions to ask and what kind; what sort of reform proposals to put on the ballot, and how many; and so forth.

Should they follow the model of New Zealand in 1992, for example, and ask voters two questions: do you want to replace first past the post, and if so, with what? I do not see how this is helpful. It’s more or less the Trudeau approach, albeit without the interposition of an election between the two. But it’s still odd to ask people whether they would like to change systems in the abstract, without knowing what they were changing to: some systems might be preferred to the status quo, some might not.

At the same time, it is not obvious why first past the post should be given, in effect, a bye into the finals, the default option in the event a proposed reform fails, as in past referendums. Maybe that particular proposal did not obtain the required level of support, but another might have; it seems odd, again, to simply assume that first past the post would be in people’s top two.

Both considerations argue strongly in favour of a single referendum question, but with several (ie more than two) options, of which first past the post would be just one. That would require that the referendum itself be conducted on something other than first past the post lines — a ranked ballot, perhaps — to ensure the 50 per cent plus one test was met.

This is essentially the model on which the P.E.I. vote was held — while avoiding, one hopes, some of the pitfalls of that exercise. P.E.I. put fully five options on the ballot, a couple of which were decidedly eccentric. Most of the discussion in Canada over the years has centred on some form of either mixed-member proportional or the single transferable vote. Perhaps one other system might be included. But no more.

B.C., P.E.I., London, Kingston: change is coming, somewhere, somehow, and soon. And when the sky does not fall, when the Nazis do not take over, when we do not turn into Israel or Italy — then at last maybe we can have a proper national debate.

* Some cities, like Vancouver, elect members at large, but otherwise the system is the same.


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