My Father-in-Law, a native Calgarian marooned in Mississauga, spent several minutes at the dinner table last Sunday complaining about the lack of Western Canada representation in the new federal cabinet. His disappointment was palpable. When my wife suggested that it might be time for a change to the voting system he was quick to agree. However, as we debated the various versions of proportional representation it became increasingly difficult to reconcile the benefits of one over the other. Dad became quarrelsome and then confused. He decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, lost interest in the topic, and began instead to speak of different ideas on how the PMO could connect with the West. So much for the electoral change discussion in our home. I think we are representative of most Canadian households.
The debate around electoral reform lies in the hands of two main camps. First Past The Post (FPTP) is the current process used in Canadian federal elections. Proportional Representation (PR) is usually proposed as an alternative and is in place in several countries.
PR is an attempt to achieve a more accurate correlation between the voters and their government. Proponents of reform argue that FPTP does not offer an accurate reflection of the wishes of the individual voters because, depending on where they live, their votes may not impact the outcome. Advocates for PR point out that the current system allows a Quebec focused party to win a disproportionate number of seats in parliament, unduly influencing the rest of the country. FPTP also allows one party to hold every seat in a region and eclipse the voice of the minority. Examples are the Liberals in the Maritimes after 2015 and the Conservatives in the Western Provinces after 2019. Finally, they argue that PR should result in greater parliamentary diversity and it would provide more opportunities for alternative points of view to gain a voice.
Supporters for the existing FPTP system argue that because it more often results in a majority government, it offers the best chance for political stability with consistent, long term domestic and foreign policies. With FPTP, it is less likely that a minority party wielding the balance of power can have lasting control which is fitting since, by definition, a minority party does not represent the wishes of the majority of the population. FPTP allows local independent candidates to have a voice because a strong contender can win a seat without being unduly impacted by a vote sharing or re-assignment scheme. Local constituencies know their representatives better and have a direct impact on the choice of candidates who will stand for election. Lastly, defenders argue that FPTP is simple and easy to understand.
When I started this assignment, I expected to argue on behalf of PR as it seemed to be more equitable. However, I had done sparse reading about it and my information had been gleaned almost entirely through social media and short TV news clips. Now, in light of more information, I have realized that neither solution is ideal. I find myself defending the retention of the FPTP electoral system because I believe that the two most important aspects of Canadian politics are legislative stability and the engagement of as large as possible a portion of the voting public in the political process.
I contend that Canadians generally prefer stability and the status quo. 45 years in business has taught me that change and uncertainty are regarded with suspicion and unease. It’s clear that this inclination translates from business to all aspects of everyday life, including politics. This aversion to uncertainty is manifested by the fact that over the past 120 years, Canadians, after expressing dissatisfaction with a party or leader, have settled for a less than perfect choice rather than continue with the upheaval of a dysfunctional minority government and non-stop electioneering.
Because PR promotes the inclusion of smaller parties and greater variety, it would almost always result in minority governments and more frequent elections. Voters could anticipate several regional opposition parties less able to form an effective opposition. This could encourage political backroom dealing as parties trade favours and compromise their election platforms to win support in the Commons.
Under FPTP, policies based on the election platform of a winning majority party could be more readily implemented. The government could pursue its announced objectives without being held ransom by a party holding the balance of power. In addition, FPTP results in a strong official opposition party, likely to have the ability to hold the governing party’s feet to the fire.
As to the issue of voter engagement, electoral reform is an attractive idea until you realize how confusing some of the PR choices can be. People like simplicity and they don’t like change. Apathy is common in our political environment. In Canadian federal elections, fewer than 70% of voters make the effort to participate. In 2019, that number was 66%. The current election process is to select one of 5 or 6 names on a ballot and the election results are easy to follow and understand. In a PR system, voters would be asked to make multiple selections, a sort of first choice, second choice and so on. Then, it would be left to a complicated calculation and/or backroom decisions to identify the winner. This process could result in no direct relationship between an elected representative and their constituency. A more complicated PR voting system would likely result in fewer voters.
Some of the issues raised by pro-reform supporters could be resolved under FPTP. Diversity could be addressed by political parties selecting candidates to stand for election under their banner that more accurately reflect the communities and the party planks they seek to represent. Regional differences such as those in the Maritimes, Quebec and the Prairies will always exist in a country the size of Canada. While PR may provide more parliamentary seats for the minorities in those regions, they would only have the power to affect change if and when they could act in concert in a minority government situation. Few such parties have platforms that would suggest they could do so. Instead, Canada could better move forward if the major parties address the gaps and deficiencies within their own platforms so as to reach out to these disaffected voters.
Finally, we must remember that the question has been asked and answered by the voters themselves. Canadians have rejected change four times over the past 13 years. British Columbia voters went to the polls in 2018, for the third time since 2005 and when presented with three different PR options, most BC provincial ridings voted to retain the existing FPTP system. The overall result was a resounding 61% plurality. Similarly, in 2007, an Ontario referendum resulted in nearly identical results. 63% of voters chose to retain the existing FPTP system. Only 5 ridings voted in favour of PR. While those referendums were about provincial elections I’m confident that the results would be the same in a federal plebiscite.
So, it seems clear that neither the FPTP or PR systems solve the country’s problems. We can’t afford to initiate such a change if there is no strong constituency mandate to do so. Electoral changes might inspire the enthusiastic few but may alienate the indifferent many. Minority governments who spend their time running for office every year or two would have little time for governing and lawmaking. Election related costs would skyrocket. It’s time to put the question to bed and take up a different discussion.
With thanks to: http://www.cbc.ca, samaracanada.com, theglobeandmail.com