By Richard Forbes.
Like all great ‘eureka’ moments, this one came to me in the bath while thinking about water levels; to reheat a bath, you lower the water level and run the hot water simultaneously – and with that thought, the basic structure of a very different kind of electoral reform proposal was born. And if this teaser of a lede hasn’t convinced you to read the rest of this article on the relatively esoteric subject of electoral reform, well, I’ve tried my best.
Electoral reform has not been a smooth ride for the federal government to say the least – out of all of its contentious files, its pledge to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post system in preparation for the next election has become its hottest political grenade, zinging back and forth across the parliamentary benches. Just before parliament’s winter break, the former democratic institutions minister Maryam Monsef was criticized for dismissing the all-party electoral reform committee’s final report; she argued, among various things, that the ERRE should have concluded with a specific electoral system to recommend.
While it’s never good when a minister criticizes a committee’s findings (and it may have precipitated her departure), the minister had a point.
Although the committee’s vice chair, Nathan Cullen, is correct in saying the committee was not explictly required to conclude with a specific proposal, it was, however, the general expectation. Concluding as the final report did with a recommended Gallagher Index (“equal to or less than five”) as its primary recommendation was deliberately obtuse: the Gallagher Index does not factor in, or recognize, the value of second and third voter preferences (e.g., more consensus, majority support for candidates, less tactical voting), punishing systems that feature ranked balloting for their distortion of voters’ first preferences. Worse still, such a low and arbitrary choice in number, ignores disproportionalities that are inherited constitutionally or an inherent feature of Canada’s vast political geography.
Like any ranked ballot system, the proposal I will make in this article does not meet the ERRE’s recommendation, but with a Gallagher score of 6.3, it gets rather close and would cut Canada’s disproportionality in terms of seat count versus popular vote in half.
This December, the Liberals were also lambasted for their online survey, MyDemocracy.ca, a quiz that slotted Canadians into categories based on their personal values and their ideal notion of democratic governance. In this respect, the criticism was unfair. Electoral reform is a debate about values. At its heart, the seemingly cavernous divide between PR advocates and supporters of preferential ballots is not just a matter of political self-interest but a genuine and sincere difference of opinion. Proportional systems have the effect of blurring the responsibility for decisions as governing parties are forced to cooperate and coalesce for their survival, while non-proportional systems reinforce the disproportionate strength of leading parties to the detriment of collaboration.
The advantage to my proposal is that it makes a compromise that no other system could make between proportionality’s cooperativeness and non-proportionality’s decisiveness; and it achieves this compromise by changing the way parliament operates to correspond and correct for changes in how it’s elected, in effect “westminsterizing” a proportional electoral system with a countervailing measure.
How it would work…
Central to the proposal is its changes to traditional parliamentary procedure. The required measure of support for confidence votes, like non-confidence motions, would be raised from 50%+1 to a higher threshold (for example, 60%+1) to compensate for the generally smaller governing caucuses that we could expect to see with a more proportional electoral system. Thus, a budget implementation bill could be thought of as “passing” in all cases where it was not vetoed by more than 60% of parliament. This arrangement, which could be paired with any proportional system, would routinely encourage more cooperation on general legislation (engendering a more collaborative parliament) without affecting the stability of parliaments and the frequency of elections. Since the survival of a government would not depend on other parties any more regularly than under first-past-the-post, the new electoral system would not result in more coalition governments.
This could be thought of as weaving a new concept within the framework of Westminster governance; alongside the “minority” and “majority” governments we’re familiar with, would be much more common “submajority” governments (40%-50% of seats) which would largely be protected in confidence matters, like majority governments, but without a monopoly on general legislative decisions – in that sense, limited on routine matters in the House of Commons like minority governments. The result is a reform proposal that is a modest democratization of parliament – a more collaborative parliament – without sacrificing the principle of responsible government; remaining faithful, that is, to the general shape and architecture of our Westminster principles despite the modern update.
Certainly, making these changes to how confidence votes work would require a constitutional amendment. However, a simple act of parliament (not the general amending formula, or god-forbid, the unanimity formula *shudders*) is all that is necessary to amend parts of the constitution related “to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.” (Canadian Charter, 1982, §44.)
My preference would be to see this arrangement paired with a proportional system that respects the need for single candidate rural ridings (in areas over 1000 km2) and empowers voters with a ranked ballot; in doing so, freeing voters of the need for tactical voting and retaining a sense of ‘localness’ to rural ridings.
A hybrid STV-AV model would accomplish this, boasting modestly more proportional results and preferential ballots universally. The beauty of a system like STV-AV is that it would result in only small changes in the overall seat counts of each party because the softening of the urban-rural divide that occurs would provide a relatively stable net outcome. Major parties would win in areas they couldn’t expect to win previously; in effect, urbanizing the Conservative party and ruralizing the Liberal party, and making Canadian elections more competitive overall.
To steal a phrase: in Canada, better is always possible.
I’m reminded of an anecdote from Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power about finance minister John Crosbie who vetoed a plan to tighten EI and cut equalization payments; Crosbie did so because he knew the cost-cutting measures would have been anathema in Atlantic Canada even if it would have appealed to Conservatives in southern Ontario. Believing you have the possibility of winning seats across diverse parts of the country has the effect of strategically moderating a government’s rhetoric; reducing ‘safe seats’, as a STV-AV electoral system would do, has the potential of rejuvenating Canadian democracy and diminishing the strategic value of regionalism and extremism for electioneers.
The advantages of STV-AV (paired with stricter confidence votes, as proposed) over other electoral systems are:
• More collaborative parliaments on general legislation.
• No sizable change in the stability and frequency of elections.
• No change in the number of MPs.
• No additional “blurring” of responsibility regarding budgetary measures.
• Greater proportionality for elections.
• More voter choice.
• Less tactical voting.
• All MPs elected by majorities in their ridings.
• No MPs elected without a local consistency.
• Rural constituencies retain a sense of local identity.
• Fewer safe seats, more competitive races nationally.
• A softened urban-rural divide.
• With both the losses and gains the Bloc would incur from these urban-rural shifts, the expected net seat change is zero for the Bloc, unlike in other PR systems where they could be expected to make noticeable gains.
• Faithful to Westminster traditions.
The uncertainty ahead
If the recent campaign shuffle really was preparation for a Trump presidency, perhaps it could be said that the decision to appoint a new democratic institutions minister, Karina Gould, is also apart of those preparations? Perhaps the victory of such a despised figure has cast disproportionality in a new light for the Trudeau government as a venue for extremism? After all, Donald Trump would not have won the presidency under a proportional system. Given the distortion caused by the Electoral College was central to his win, Trump is a shocking and dramatic example of what can go wrong in the otherwise rather dusty and academic subject of electoral systems.
While appointing a new minister could be a capitulation on electoral reform it could also be a sign that the Liberals wish to make a last ditch attempt to meet its campaign promise. If that’s true, we believe the proposal as suggested above is as fair to all parties, including the governing party, as proposals come.
The proposal would be a concrete fulfillment of the spirit of Trudeau’s campaign as a coming of real change, changing more generally how parliament would operate in its resolution to a democratic deficit that, while as old as the constitution itself, was on its fullest display in the Harper years. It’s a fix that speaks to the liberal reformer: compromising, pragmatic, enterprising and an all-around creative ‘third way’ to electoral reform. Its modest but diverse and complicated implications would ensure that every political party in Ottawa could see a silver lining in the proposed changes overall for both their party and for their country. It’s those mutual positives and its general acceptability as a model that would make it both more politically viable and desirable over its alternatives. As a plan, its basic structure is flexible and can be adapted to any proportional system and any threshold for confidence votes agreed upon in negotiations with other parties.
The 2015 Liberal platform, A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class, ultimately calls for election reform legislation to be tabled “within 18 months of forming government” which could mean either April 19 2017 (as news media typically reports it as) or May 03 2017 (based on the official forming of the government.)
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.