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The Liberals Are Mistaken About Electoral Reform In Canada

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This will be my first of three blogs outlining the troubling exercise being conducted by the Trudeau government under the guise of "electoral reform."

After watching this issue unfold in Ottawa, I firmly believe that this exercise is motivated by calculated political advantage to the Liberals dressed up as democratic reform. I wish I didn't have to be so cynical in my assessment, but this exercise is premised upon fixing a problem that doesn't exist.

Rather than improve our system, this exercise plays on inherent frustrations with politics and could ultimately be detrimental to our parliamentary democracy and even national unity.

The electoral reform process plays on frustration by suggesting that political nirvana lies just over the next hill, when a healthy democracy is inherently imperfect. Benjamin Franklin is famous for saying that the only two certainties in life are "death and taxes." Taxes were simply a way of expressing frustration with politics.

Not a single Canadian will see all of their hopes, ideals, interests and aspirations permanently reflected in a political party or leader, so a certain level of disagreement or frustration is a by-product of democracy.

The good thing is that this dissonance leads to compromise and healthy debate both in the House of Commons and within the brokerage parties like the Conservatives, Liberals or NDP that appeal to broad sections of the population. To suggest that our parliamentary democracy is failing because people will not uniformly agree all the time shows a lack of understanding of our democracy.

Once you recognize that a healthy democracy will always have a level of frustration or disagreement within it, you need to consider what part of our electoral system is so profoundly broken that we should toss aside our long-standing and effective electoral system to fix it. By almost any measure or comparison, Canada consistently ranks as one of the most free, successful and envied countries in the world.

"If Canada is one of the leading democracies in the world, what are the shortcomings of our electoral system that require such a dramatic overhaul?"

Whether we are top in the rankings for freedoms, or 2nd in the best places to live, no serious observer could suggest that Canada and the democracy that serves as its foundation is in serious peril.

Our parliamentary democracy is the most stable and successful in the world. All adult citizens can vote. We have free and open elections over regular cycles that produce stable governments that reflect the will of the people. As I witnessed firsthand last fall, Canadians can and will choose to change governments when they desire change. And as we witnessed last fall, the transition of power in Canada is always smooth and professional given our first rate, non-partisan civil service.

So, if Canada is one of the leading democracies in the world, what are the shortcomings of our electoral system that require such a dramatic overhaul?

The Liberals seek to replace our Plurality or First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system with a form of Proportional Representation (PR) or with Preferential Balloting. I will explore the self-interest of these options in my next blog, but will these new electoral systems improve our parliamentary democracy?

The simple answer is, no.

In fact, these alternative systems actually run contrary to the central tenets of the representative government that Canadians expect. PR advocates claim that proportionality helps make "votes count" because it ensures the seat count in the House of Commons better reflects the popular vote. This is inherently condescending, as it suggests that your vote doesn't count unless it elects an MP.

While it might seem logical for overall seat count to somewhat follow the popular vote, the problems created by artificially injecting proportionality into our system are far worse. A PR system would require adding 60 or more Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons to deliver the proportional element.

Apart from the tens of millions spent creating these new proportional MPs, their very role would diminish our parliamentary democracy. These PR MPs would be selected after the election from party lists according to proportional popular vote. These "List MPs" would not represent communities like MPs have done since Confederation, but would be selected from the ranks of party activists, fundraisers and friends to the party leader.

If you think there is already too much partisanship in modern politics, PR will only reinforce that. Personally, I find the concept of a List MP as antithetical to good representative government. I regularly describe the honour I feel representing my hometowns in Parliament. That form of connection to a community and its people is fundamental to representative democracy.

A Ranked Choice or Preferential Ballot system would have voters rank candidates and apply a complex system that redistributes a voters second and third votes as lower ranking candidates drop off. The final result under a Ranked Choice system only ensures the winner has at least 50% of the ballots remaining on the final round not 50% of all votes cast.

The complexity of this option will likely drive down voter turnout and could dramatically weaken the representation of opposition parties in the House of Commons. How are these results positive? Most MPs are already elected with or near the 50% mark, so why would we diminish our system for some artificial exercise searching a few percentage points while driving down turnout?

There are a range of other problems and risks associated with the changes being proposed by the Liberal government that I will explore in subsequent blogs, but I hope it is clear that this exercise seeks to present strange cures that are far worse than the fictional ailments they are meant to treat. We should foster an engaged citizenry and enhance debate in the House of Commons rather than suggesting that some solution exists to provide perfection in the imperfect world of democracy.

As Churchill once said: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

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