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The many sides of electoral reform

By: | September 20, 2016

What are the chances the Liberal government’s electoral reform initiative will lead to the end of our first-past-the-post system?

Marilyn Reid
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St. John's East MP Nick Whalen (left) and St. John's South--Mount Pearl MP Seamus O'Regan (right) lead a town hall discussion on electoral reform at Memorial University. Sept. 12, 2016. Facebook photo.

In the 2015 federal election campaign Justin Trudeau promised that, if elected, the Liberals would take steps to make 2015 the last election under our first-past-the-post system. In keeping with that promise last week Avalon MP Ken McDonald, St. John’s East MP Nick Whalen and St. John’s South—Mount Pearl MP Seamus O’Regan held two public consultation sessions on the Avalon Peninsula regarding electoral reform. Between 25 and 30 people attended each of the sessions. 

In the Avalon constituency there were about half a dozen people under 30 years of age. By contrast, at the Memorial University (MUN) session most attendees were young people. The different demographics made a difference.

Perspectives from Avalon district

At the Avalon district meeting, younger participants strongly supported proportional representation; they expressed the view that every vote must count. It was less clear how older participants felt. Much of the conversation that night focused on changes that could be made within the context of our current first-past-the-post system.

Individuals spoke up for lowering the voting age, for mandatory voting and online voting, for tighter and fairer control of election finances to level the playing field among parties, and for avoiding a referendum.

Perspectives from the MUN session

At the MUN session there was also strong support for lowering the voter age. People were ambivalent about mandatory voting and the point was made that, if it was introduced, there should be the option to indicate lack of support for all the candidates. 

But the MUN session was very different in some respects. Every single person that attended was opposed to our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. A principle objection was that FPTP repeatedly produced majority governments ruled by parties that held less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Most participants were in favour of introducing some sort of proportional representation system.

There were further surprises. 

Opposition to online voting considerably outnumbered support for it. Clearly, the argument, so often heard, that online voting will encourage more young people to vote, is not predominantly made by young people.

The biggest surprise was that only one person in the room supported a referendum on electoral reform. That was me. Everybody else wanted government to directly implement reform. To put that in perspective, last July a Forum Research poll showed that as many as two thirds of Canadians agreed that a referendum was necessary before we change the way MPs are elected.

Participants gave compelling reasons for avoiding a referendum, including a disinterested and uninformed public, the complicated nature of proportional representation models which could be a turn-off for voters, and the failure of past referendums.

Lessons from past referendums

As a trade justice activist, I understand all too well how difficult it is to mobilize a disinterested public on political issues that don’t immediately affect their welfare. Electoral reform certainly does not immediately affect people’s welfare, which is perhaps why as of late August only three percent of Canadians were following the electoral reform process closely. That’s a hard place to start from.

Almost everybody who spoke up at the MUN session feared the likelihood of history repeating itself with another referendum where people vote for the status quo largely because they have little information on, or understanding of, the alternative options.

The statistics bear out that concern. An Angus Reid poll, in the final weeks of the 2005 B.C. referendum campaign, showed 64 to 66 precent of respondents still claiming they knew “nothing” or “very little” about the proportional representation option single transferable vote (STV).

As for the 2007 Ontario referendum, while many voters voiced their dislike of increasing the number of MLAs under mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), the most important single reason given by ‘no’ voters for their decision was still “lack of information”.

The commonality here is that both the B.C. and Ontario governments initiated the electoral reform process because it had been a campaign promise while in opposition. Once in government both governments lost enthusiasm for electoral reform and inadequately promoted it. 

Is alternative voting really a fair option?

Could the same thing happen again now that a CBC article has let the cat out of the bag about how alternative voting, the Prime Minister’s favoured electoral model, heavily favours the Liberal Party? Alternative voting is not a proportional representation system. 

According to the CBC, had alternative voting been used in the 2015 election the Liberals would have ended up with 40 extra seats. In other words, with 39.5 percent of the popular vote they would have captured 66 percent of the parliamentary seats. That’s because the second choice of voters in alternative voting’s ranked ballot system tends to favour the party in the middle, which in Canada often means the Liberals. Conservatives are unlikely to rank the NDP as their second choice, and vice versa.

The Conservatives, in particular, are going to object strongly to alternative voting, and they have a point. There should be no bias towards a particular party built into a voting system. That raises the big question: will the Liberal government still be so enthusiastic about getting rid of first-past-the-post if alternative voting is no longer a viable option?

I hope so.

Proportional representation: So many different options to choose from

I also hope that the proportional representation system chosen won’t be STV or MMP, both of which have already been rejected in past referendums. Moreover, neither model will work well in Atlantic Canada with our comparatively small number of ridings.

The good news is that we actually have a lot more options to choose from than we did in the past. The Liberal government appointed a parliamentary committee to research and select an electoral model that best suits Canada’s unique demography. For the past several months the Electoral Reform Committee has been taking briefs from the public and posting them on their website.

Canadians have risen to the challenge and there are some very interesting electoral proposals on the table. To my knowledge, there are at least three submissions from Newfoundland and Labrador, either already there or about to be submitted.

What if there is a referendum?

 It’s my belief that the Liberal government will ultimately choose to take the electoral reform decision to the people. If this happens it is essential that we not repeat the mistakes of past referendums.

I understand why so many people do not want another referendum. On the other hand, a lot of  good reasons can be given for why we should have one. It’s my belief that the Liberal government will ultimately choose to take the electoral reform decision to the people. If this happens it is essential that we not repeat the mistakes of past referendums.

The referendum ballot should be structured so that the winning choice has the support of at least 50 percent of the people. To me, this means a two-part ballot. The first part would ask voters if they want to keep first-past-the-post or change to a different model. The second part would ask voters to choose between the alternatives. 

If alternative voting is to be one of the options, there must be one proportional representation option as well. We don’t want a repeat of the 2011 British Referendum where the choice was restricted to first-past-the-post or alternative voting, even though Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had selected a proportional representation model for their regional parliaments. 

On the other hand, if the government ultimately decides that it is not in the best interests of the country to offer alternative voting as a choice, then there could be two proportional representation options on the ballot.    

The lead-in process

Above all, this is a referendum that cannot be done in haste. I would advocate taking as long as two years to prepare the public for a referendum. By next spring government could have a plan in place that includes information packages on the different options, educational initiatives—particularly within the high schools—extensive publicity, particularly through CBC, regional citizens’ assemblies whose goal would to reach out to existing community groups in creative ways, and so much more. 

This doesn’t mean that the political parties, including the Liberals, shouldn’t indicate their preference. In fact, it was pointed out in the MUN session the Conservatives have already begun extolling the merits of a simple, easy to understand FPTP system compared with those complicated proportional representation systems. The other parties need to react. 

But government’s first responsibility is to find creative and informative ways to engage the public in discussion and debate about electoral reform. In light of our past history any failure on the part of government to commit to that campaign, or any attempt to rush it, would be an indication they are really in favour of continuing the status quo. 

As for the role of our MPs, Nick Whelan announced there would be another public consultation in January; I believe Ken McDonald intends more meetings as well. All of this is good and I hope they will find other ways to spread the word.    

Done properly, something wonderful could come out of the electoral reform process — a renewal of our tradition of participatory democracy, which has been in decline for many years. 

But it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of thought, and significant public engagement and participation.

Marilyn Reid writes from Conception Bay South. She is a member of Citizens against CETA and the Council of Canadians.

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