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Electoral Reform: What Does History Tell Us?

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In Canada, as is the case with all democracies, how elected officials are selected is at the very core of how decisions are made in our democracy. Effectively representing the interests of the people of Canada as a whole requires that our electoral system reflect, as closely as possible, how we each vote as individual Canadians. In the interests of social cohesion and citizen engagement, it is particularly important that members of the electorate who voted for someone other than the governing party feel that their views and perspectives are afforded fair and accurate representation throughout the life of a parliamentary session.

Achieving fairness and accuracy in representation requires that the balance of power that is created by the electoral system mirrors, as closely as possible, the views and perspectives expressed by voters at election time.

And yet, our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system has regularly awarded 100 per cent power to one of Canada's two established "centrist" political parties -- the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party(formerly, Progressive Conservative Party) -- even when their share of the popular vote has been well below 50 per cent of total votes cast, nationwide. Bestowing 100 per cent power to one political party based on a minority of votes cast creates a power imbalance in our democracy, and increases the risk that decisions made by our government and parliamentarians may not reflect the wishes of a true majority of Canadians.

Given our tendency to make good use of summer months to catch up on much needed rest and relaxation, there is a real risk that many Canadians will miss out on participating in consultations being held over the summer by the recently formed special parliamentary committee on electoral reform. That is a problem if you believe as I do that our electoral system seriously needs updating and that Canadians need to have a voice.

What does history tell us?

A recent piece in the Globe and Mail looks back through history and speculates on how different the National Energy Program might have been in 1980 had the voting system of the day led to a House of Commons that reflected voter intent in a manner that was more proportional to the share of votes each party received during the election.

Tax fairness revelations emerging in relation to the Panama Papers raise additional questions around the extent to which Canada might have benefited from debate by a more proportional House of Commons in 1980 -- a House of Commons that more accurately reflected the values and perspectives of all Canadian voters at that time.

The February 1980 election saw the Liberals win a majority government and 52 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons with a popular vote of 44 per cent, nationwide. The Progressive Conservative Party won 37 per cent of House of Commons seats for 32 per cent of the popular vote while the NDP inherited 11 per cent of the seats even though their popular vote nationwide was 20 per cent.

As recently reported by the CBC, in 1980 Bob Rae -- at the time the NDP's finance critic -- rose to speak against Bill S-2 which aimed to ratify a series of taxation treaties between Canada and a number of countries, including Barbados. Mr. Rae warned that there had been precious little study regarding the consequences of the bill:

"'The government is entering into these tax treaties without being fully aware of the impact they will have on domestic taxation in Canada,' Rae said. 'Money that is income and is not being taxed at the corporate level, on which the government receives no revenue, has the unfortunate effect of increasing the load of taxation on the average citizen.'"

The CBC article also highlights that, in the intervening years, there have been potentially huge revenue losses for the Canadian government and that federal auditors general have taken pains to point this out multiple times.

Looking into the future

The balance of power in our electoral system is becoming increasingly critical to Canadians who question the economic benefit to Canada and our overall approach to development and management of trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Canada-European Union Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) and NAFTA. In practical terms, this balance of power is expressed every time MP's cast their vote in the House of Commons. For the 60 per cent of the electorate who voted for someone other than the governing party, the impact of a misalignment in the balance of power can conceivably be felt with every decision that is made through a vote in the House of Commons.

A point of clarification is warranted at this juncture: popular vote results achieved under our existing electoral system are not necessarily a good indication of how people would have voted under a proportional representation system. The reason for this is that, as noted in this recent Policy Options Magazine article penned by the researcher of a recent study, voter behaviour changes when the electoral system changes. The researcher does not advocate for one electoral system over another. The article does conclude, however, that changing how votes are cast and counted could undeniably change the outcome of elections in Canada.

"Research tells us that such change is very likely, as under a more proportional electoral system many voters would alter their vote choice to support smaller parties."

This leads quite nicely into the next post in this three-part series, which will examine our current FPTP system -- and why it needs replacing -- in more depth and, as well, provides information relating to some of the options for reform being discussed.

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