The Greens, electoral reform, and the Canadian leaders’ debate

Last week, Canadian party leaders participated in a debate. It is currently the only one scheduled to include the Greens leader, Elizabeth May (the party’s only MP).

The debate included an entire segment devoted to, as moderator Paul Wells put it, “Canada’s democracy — how it works, why it doesn’t always work as well as we hoped.” (From my south of the border perspective, I can only admire a debate that actually asks such a question, rather than implicitly assuming that the debate and election themselves are proof of how great democracy is working, but enough of that digression for now.)

The first question within this segment of the debate went to May, and the exchange, which you can read in the transcript, is very interesting.

Paul Wells: Our first question on this to Elizabeth May. Ms. May, you’ve called the government we have now an elected dictatorship and you’ve called for electoral reform, but this election will be won and lost under the current electoral system. Do you worry that Green candidates will take support away from other parties that could defeat this government? Might the Green Party help reelect this government?

Elizabeth May: When I refer to the government as an elected dictatorship, it’s not personal in any way to the Prime Minister nor to his party…

The only job description for a member of parliament is that found in the Constitution, which is to represent your constituencies.

So we need to actually revisit parliamentary democracy, understand that this election isn’t about electing a prime minister — we don’t do that in this country; we elect members of parliament. And their job is to find the government that will hold the confidence of the House, so we can work for Canadians…

As far as Greens being concerned about this, not at all. We have had success and we’ve now had election – my election in Saanich–Gulf Islands, but across provinces — in British Columbia Andrew Weaver, in New Brunswick David Coon, in Prince Edward Island Peter Bevan-Baker. All of us got elected by driving voter turnout.

So instead of fixating on this splitting the vote non-problem, vote-splitting, we need to focus on the real problem, which is 40 percent of Canadians in the last number of elections haven’t voted. And vote abandoning, in my view, is a much bigger problem than vote-splitting…

Paul Wells: You’ve said we don’t elect a prime minister, and that’s true, but we saw quite a mess of a coalition crisis in 2008. Are we headed towards that sort of arbitrage among parties after the next election if there’s no majority?

Elizabeth May: I can’t tell you how committed Green MPs as a caucus will be to working with other parties, working across party lines to ensure that we go from a precarious, perhaps two-year minority parliament to a stable, productive, effective parliament, because you look at really great parliaments in this country, and I refer viewers back to Lester B. Pearson where the small group of NDPers under David Lewis and Diefenbaker in the Conservatives and Lester B. Pearson delivered our social safety net.

I find the exchange interesting for the effort to drive the discussion way from vote-splitting and choosing a prime minister–two common perceptions of elections in parliamentary systems using first-past-the-post electoral systems. These are perceptions that are, of course, harmful to small parties. So May attempts to emphasize local viability of Greens, and the advantages of cross-party cooperation in a non-majority parliament.

Then things returned pretty quickly to business as more-or-less usual, with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau engaging NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in a debate over the Clarity Act (regarding another potential Quebec secession referendum).

A bit later, Wells raises the issue of electoral reform directly, referencing the proposal of the Liberal Party (see p. 8 of the linked PDF). I will just quote a few snippets here. PM Stephen Harper (Conservative):

Well, I think it’s a very fundamental change to the way our political system would work in this country. We have a Westminster system. Voters are able to elect governments. They don’t elect coalitions that make up the government later. And you know, Canadians – Paul, this has come up before. It was subject of a referendum and plebiscite in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. I have not found Canadians who want to make this fundamental change. In fact, whenever Canadians are asked, they reject it. We know the rules. Let’s play under the rules that Canadians support.

Mulcair did not use the immediate opportunity to talk up his party’s stated commitment to introducing proportional representation (MMP, specifically). Instead he talked about the current government’s “Unfair Elections Act” (it is, actually, of course, the Fair Elections Act). Later, however, Mulcair did say, “We think that there are three main things we can do with regard to our institutions. The first is to make sure that every vote counts with a proportional representation system.” (The others were “open up parliament” to more public scrutiny and abolish the Senate.)

Unless I missed it, Trudeau himself never mentioned his own party’s commitment to electoral reform. Perhaps he thought it was enough that Wells invoked it and gave Harper a chance to denounce it.

29 thoughts on “The Greens, electoral reform, and the Canadian leaders’ debate

  1. As a New Zealander I do find it fascinating that there is such a disconnect in so many of our commonwealth cousins’ minds between Westminster systems and proportional representation. Obviously it isn’t the norm, but our case has shown Westminster style government to be clearly compatible with PR.

    Further, it’s very convenient for Westminster opponents of PR to forget that their party systems grew up essentially as a way of increasing cabinet dominance of their parliaments, where earlier governments were highly dependent on negotiation to keep small crucial groups of MPs happy and maintain confidence. PR, and especially MMP, is a way of restoring that requirement while still staying very true to the “spirit” of the system.

    • The ‘Westminster system’, at least in the political science literature, is majoritarian by definition. New Zealand remains parliamentary, of course, but I don’t think you can still call it Westminster.

      • I used to use the term, Westminster, in that manner–as a synonym for majoritarian/parliamentary. But I am not so sure we political scientists should do that. “Westminster” connotes a whole set of fairly informal procedures that mostly favor the executive, obviously less so when there is no unified majority. But the basic conventions themselves are not dependent on the majoritarian outcome of elections and seat allocation.

      • When I refer to the conventions, I use the phrase “Westminster conventions”. Last time I did that though, my professor corrected me, thinking I meant ‘Westminster system’ (and saying Australia was ‘weird Westminster’, considering federalism and the Senate). So in my experience, in any case, the usage I alluded to above would seem quite well established, to the extent that it’s the conventions that are more likely to be re-labelled successfully. Another reason this might be appropriate is that a number of other parliamentary systems use conventions for government formation that are essentially the same, while obviously not forming part of the same tradition (eg: Denmark).

      • That usage, JD, is by definition well established: I offer as evidence that it was how I used the term for many years! However, I think it is a little misleading, for the reasons I gave earlier. I think it is much better to use Lihphart’s term, majoritarian (with the added qualifier of parliamentary) to refer to the package of institutions and their generally expected outcome. There certainly is a literature that considers several non-majortarian and/or strong bicameral cases to be “Westminster”. One example from my bookshelves: R.A.W. Rhodes, John Wanna, and Patrick Weller, Comparing Westminster (Oxford, 2009). From the back cover: “The book explores how the governmental elites in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa understand the Westminster system.”

  2. So, why did Trudeau never mention his party’s commitment to electoral reform? Why did he divert the discussion to a different topic? (The Clarity Act.) Because Harper was ready to jump on him for promising to implement some unspecified reform with no mandate for it.

    By contrast, the NDP has a policy of a specific form of PR. It is not just fully transparent so that voters know that is NDP policy, but it has also been campaigning on this in the strongest terms for well over two years. It will have it in the platform, has fully committed to implement MMP if elected and is specifically seeking a mandate for this. It will have comprehensive consultations with Canadians and other parties to generate consensus design of the details, will then table legislation for debate and further input from Canadians, and will then have Parliament vote on it. It is hard to see how this is not a profoundly democratic approach.

    If the general election results and the subsequent consultation process show a consensus for change, then Canadians should expect the government to implement that change.

    There is huge support for PR in this country. The media ignore that fact. That is the real issue, the real debate.

    Harper was saying a referendum is needed. The NDP replies: The 2015 election will be the real referendum. That is how our system works. Referendums are not binding on governments under the Westminster system. There’s absolutely no legal or constitutional requirement to hold a referendum. A government cannot abrogate its responsibility and transfer it to the voters.

    Half of the Canadian electorate is unrepresented. The current voting system gives decision-making power to a minority. The majority has the right to make decisions, but the right to representation belongs to all citizens. Is it even appropriate to hold a referendum in order to decide whether people should have equal, effective representation? No.

    Proportional representation is about our equality as citizens. We should never have referendums on extending basic democratic rights. Should there have been a referendum in Canada to decide whether or not to give women the vote? No.

    The irony of a party demanding a referendum on election reform while using its 39% “majority” as a sledge hammer to ram through unpopular legislation (as all parties do from the perspective of some voters) is not lost on citizens who want a fair election system. The Conservative Party of Canada has never enjoyed the support of a majority of Canadian voters. That is motivation enough for them to maintain the status quo. No wonder they oppose democratic voting reform. No wonder they want to divert the debate away from the unfairness of our winner-take-all system and debate referendums.

    Referendums are prone to manipulation by parties and governments that want to maintain or increase their own power. Canadians should be wary of a party that is clearly trying to protect its ability to hold on to power by exploiting the weakness of our voting system.

    • The 2015 election will not be a referendum on proportional representation. Barring a massive surge for the NDP, the majority of votes will be won by parties opposing MMP. It is also not much of an issue, and I don’t think it will be switching many votes.

      Of course there is no Constitutional obligation to hold a referendum. There was no obligation to hold a referendum in New Zealand, but one was held to gauge what people thought and to ensure that the change would be understood and accepted. When a party has already decided what it wants, ‘public consultations’ can produce surprisingly positive results.

      Comparing MMP to women’s suffrage is at best hyperbolic. You can say many bad things about FPTP, but voters are equal under it. It is no crushing injustice, but a political issue over which the majority should show they support. And after all, if it is so popular, what is the NDP afraid of?

    • I find it interesting that you see the usage of FPP election results as a fair mandate to implement a fairly major constitutional reform to remove said electoral system because it is unfair.

      Referenda may be prone to influence by political parties, but under a Westminster system perhaps less prone than the parliamentary process?

      The NDP may have a clear agenda and desired policy package, but I would suggest that in order to ensure legitimacy they ought still to refer to a referendum (which under a Westminster government can make binding on itself) so that it is not accused of “using its [X]% “majority” as a sledge hammer to ram through unpopular legislation”, instead establishing a clear mandate (as suggested by Henry Schlechta’s points already made)?

      Finally I would point out that despite the opposition of both major parties (at the time I believe the only parliamentary parties in NZ) the 1993 referendum on the electoral system was won, and in no small part the fact both large parties resisted change gave fuel to the reform campaign as they could clearly call out their conflict of interest on the issue.

  3. None of the NDP provincial governments has done anything to implement proportional representation. Nor have the NDP tried to use the periods where they held the balance of power in the House of Commons to move away from single member plurality, in contrast to the British Liberals who at least tried to do this.

    I also can’t think of a single instance of in recent decades of a substantial proposed change in the electoral system where the voters were not consulted in a referendum. Maybe Japan? Voters were consulted in France, Italy, the UK, New Zealand, Turkey and two Canadian provinces about the last big proposed electoral system changes. Harper was correct on this, and that recent Canadian history indicates either that SMP is popular or the proposed alternatives are not sufficiently popular.

    The NDP also already has a big constitutional change proposal, abolishing the Senate, that would take up alot of time and effort of a hypothetical federal NDP government. They would have a perfectly plausible case that Senate reform would have to take priority and then they could move to proportional representation in Commons elections. Also one way to square the circle would be to keep the Senate but use proportional representation to elect the Senate, so what happens with the Senate impacts how you reform the Commons! Note that the federal Conservatives have had their own proposals for Senate reform (though they are not that practical and I don’t think they are sincerely meant, the NDP proposal could actually be implemented) and have gotten nowhere with them.

    Changes like Senate reform (definitely) and federal proportional representation (probably) would also require approval by the provincial governments. You just can’t do these things by passing a federal law. Also the Senate would probably vote down a law switching Commons elections to PR without a referendum.

    • There was no referendum in Japan, nor was there in France (a country with a much longer tradition of referenda, interestingly) for either the changes of 1986 or the reversion to the former system before the 1988 election. In Italy, the reform process kicked off with an initiative that struck a key clause from the Senate electoral law. There was never a referendum on the Chamber system or the final package for either house. Israel did not hold referenda to adopt, or repeal, direct election of the prime minister. Developing country cases of electoral-system reform like Venezuela and Bolivia also did not hold referenda.

      On the other hand, every “Westminster” jurisdiction where there has been a specific proposal to move away from FPP has had a referendum on that proposal, and so far New Zealand’s process is the only one where voters said yes, change to a PR system. (British Columbia’s proposal had a majority in favor the first time it went to the electorate, but the provincial requirement was for 60%.)

      In some published work some years ago I suggested that majoritarian governments may feel they need the legitimacy of a referendum to make a “constitutional” change like a fundamental shift in the electoral model.

      Although I can’t make a prediction, I would be very surprised if a hypothetical NDP majority government did not hold a referendum on the matter before implementing it. I suppose if it is an NDP minority government or an NDP-Liberal coalition, the odds of no change without a referendum go up (although I am not sure if the odds of reform itself go up or down in those cases).

  4. Punditry after the debate focused on the Clarity Act discussion, so let me address that. Many observers said that Harper probably won that part of debate, by stating the obvious truth that it’s a mostly moribund issue given the state of the Quebec sovereignty movement. I think it’s probably because most of the people (e.g. Anglo-Quebeckers, Ontario left-wingers) who care deeply about the issue hate the current Prime Minister’s guts. So he is not chasing after those votes and thus he has no reason to obfusticate the issue, unlike on other issues (e.g. the environment, the economy, etc.). Unlike the Liberals and NDP, who are hotly contesting their votes and thus need to sound tough on what has become a non-issue.

    It seems to me that the whole issue would go away if the federalists agreed to allowing a simple majority in exchange for the separatists conceding a simple question (i.e. Do you want Quebec to be an independent state?). Call it a simple question for a simple majority or more simply the Scottish solution. But probably both sides would rather just use the Clarity Act to rally the base, as it shows how either we are defending Canadian unity or how Ottawa is bully poor old Quebec, as always.

    As a (mild) supporter of PR, let me add my pessimism on the issue. While you will find polls with large expressed large pluralities/majorities supporting reform in the abstract, the election results and especially the referendum results show this support be be quite shallow. I think it will probably take an extreme degree of dissatisfaction with Canadian governance for that to happen, but I don’t think we’re yet there. Perhaps four more years of Harperite government, or an extremely incompetent NDP government would do the trick. As stated before, despite this campaign’s pledges, no NDP provincial government has brought forth PR, so it seems like that a federal NDP wouldn’t either. And, of course, the Liberals didn’t do much for PR/AV during their long stays in power. So I don’t think much of their electoral reform pledges. In fact, I am skeptical of Mulclair’s devotion to Senate abolition. He could very well decide that the political effort is just to much to bear.

    I don’t see PR requiring a constitutional amendment, so long as provincial representation is keep intact, something that can done easily with provincial lists.

  5. Every “Westminster” jurisdiction where there has been a specific proposal to move away from FPP has had a referendum on that proposal? Not for its adoption in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or the London Assembly. Quebec had a PR proposal, and a draft bill in 2006, that was not planned to go to a referendum (it stalled because the model was inadequately proportional and the governing caucus wasn’t sure about improving it.) And going back a bit, British Columbia changed to AV and back in the 1950s with no referendum. Perhaps the most significant was Manitoba, which changed to PR (single ten-member constituency) for Winnipeg’s MLAs from 1920 until 1953, ended before 1958 with never a referendum. Why? Because the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 scared the Liberal government into a classic gerrymander: PR for the city, AV in the countryside. PR where the left might win under FPP, but not where it will lose. This continued until 1949 when the Liberal-Conservative Coalition found it embarrassing to have a Communist in the Legislature, and changed to four-seaters in Winnipeg. Which still returned a Communist in 1949 and 1953, so they scrapped PR altogether. It had served its purpose.

    • Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all had general referendums on the introduction of an assembly, where the proposed electoral system was clearly on the table. Japan did not have a referendum, but the electoral reform proposal had broad bipartisan support, seeing as the previous Liberal Democrat government had introduced a proposal and the Lib Dems did back the bill.

      France did not have a referendum, and neither, as you said, did the provinces that changed their electoral systems in Canada in the early 20th century. But there is a common thread here; all of these were done for political advantage. I don’t defend the deeply undemocratic way that these jurisdictions changed their electoral systems, and I hardly think citing gerrymanders as precedent helps your case.

      • The point about partisan advantage vs. a more systemic improvement (where consensus is desirable, even if partisan advantage is rarely completely absent) is a good one. Also an issue I take up at length in my work on the topic (in an volume edited by André Blais, To Keep or Change First Past the Post). So does Alan Renwick in his book, The Politics of Electoral Reform.

    • Wilf provides interest detail there on some of the earlier Canadian experience.

      Amendment to my original statement (which is closer to how I explicate it in the published work on the topic): where there was a specific proportional-representation proposal (a category in which I would not include PR in some parts of a jurisdiction while keeping either FPP or AV in most of it), and in the post-WWII era.

      It is also true that there was no referendum planned in Quebec’s recent proposal. It also never proceed to a final point of adoption/rejection. It just sort of withered, perhaps as Wilf notes, because it did not really address the fundamental problems.

      Taken together, I’d say there has emerged a fairly clear norm that electoral reform–defined as the replacement of one model with a fundamentally different one (like FPP to PR)–does not go forward without a referendum in Westminster systems, but it is more likely to do so elsewhere. Of course, individual cases might break this pattern, but I highly doubt Canada will be one of them.

  6. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we’re not getting rid of FPTP w/o a referendum. What I hope is they use some form of alternative ballot which doesn’t promote the status quo inherently. This was inherent problem with proposals made in the past. It’s easier to shoot down a new proposal than shoot down status quo.

  7. How did most European Countries went from plurality/majority systems to PR? This history seems murky and often hidden

    • This book Andrew McLaren Carstairs, “A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe” (1980) is extremely detailed and comprehensive on the history in each country. May be hard to obtain though.
      Very brief précis: the reason was usually (1) protracted three-party contests with Socialists/ Labour replacing Liberals against Conservatives, and (2) uncertainty caused by rapid expansion to universal (male) suffrage after 1918.

      • In Continental Europe, PR was adopted before any two of the three major new players (Labour/ Socialist/ Social Democrats getting a boost with manhood suffrage after 1918) would eliminate the third. In the UK, FPTP survived until eventually Labour and the Conservatives pushed the Liberals into a perpetual distant third (until the 1974-2015 resurgence). Labour leaders will still tell you with a straight face that FPTP blocks the emergence of ratbag new parties and that’s a good thing.
        I’m not sure how the SNP fits into the Posties’ simple dichotomy of “third party across the entire country = ratbag lunatics whose votes deserve to be summarily thrown in the bin, but any party that comes first or second in a substantial number of constituencies = serious player whose votes deserve to be counted in determining the final winner.”
        Having said that I don’t find the pro-FPTP position to be particularly well conceptualised and I’m sure future historians, centuries after FPTP has been abandoned (along with absolute monarchy, tricameralism, Roman numerals and the Julian calendar), will be puzzled by the conflicting rationales that its supporters half-heartedly put forward, and bemused by the reluctance of most Posties to inflict on their own internal party elections the same savage vote-discarding thresholds they inflict on ordinary voters. (I mean, everyone from the UK Labour No2AV campaign is going to just vote 1 and then exhaust their ballot in the forthcoming leadership election… right? Because second, third, and fourth preferences are bad and shouldn’t be counted… right?)

      • If Jeremy Corbyn wins the most votes on the first count in the Labour leadership ballot, but is beaten on preferences, I expect all Labour MPs who supported No2AV to do whatever they can to remove Andy Burnham/Yvette Cooper/Liz Kendall as leader, because the candidate with the most votes is the winner, right?

    • Yes, thankfully FPTP ensures that the UK – unlike such garlic-munching banana republics as, er, Belgium and Denmark – can never have foisted on it a prime minister who is liked by only 10% or 15% of MPs… Oh. Wait.,_2015#Nominated
      (I must admit to being half disappointed that Keir Starmer declined to enter the ballot for Labour Party leader, or at least for Deputy Leader A Corbyn/ Starmer unity ticket could have left the UKLP with a Deputy who believes that people who joke about hypothetically blowing up buildings should be prosecuted as criminals, working under a Leader who believes that people who actually blow up actual buildings should be invited for tea and scones in the House of Commons.)

  8. Dennis Pilon’s Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the 20th Century West is also an excellent (and more recent) study of this period of electoral history.

  9. On the referendum issue, I would argue that referendums are more of a break from the Westminster system than adopting proportional representation. In Canada, proportional representation could be enacted through statute, as long as all the seats are being elected according to the vote within each province or territory.

    If an NDP or Liberal government were able to put together a reform proposal with multi-party support, a referendum would be unnecessary.

    It’s true that the provincial NDP governments have never changed the voting system, but then they’ve never run on a promise to do so. The federal NDP in this election is running on that promise.

    So are the Liberals and the Greens. The possibility of multi-party support for a reform proposal after this election is real. By saying that, I don’t mean to underestimate the difficulty of reaching such an agreement.

    • The issue with this is that voters have not had their say on a potential cross-party deal. The Liberal policy, as Wilfred said above, is fairly vague, and doesn’t give a specific policy, thus a deal with a NDP minority to introduce, say, MMP, would not have received the support of the electorate. A change in the electoral system would mean a dramatic change in the way Canada is governed, and while there is no requirement for a referendum, it would be best practice to hold one, to ensure public support for the change.

    • It is a fair point “that referendums are more of a break from the Westminster system than adopting proportional representation.” However, the referendum break has occurred already far more times than has the PR one.

      At least in the past century or so, changes to PR, or even serious processes leading to a proposal for PR, have not come about from coalition or minority governments. So, if Canada gets such a government and an actual reform process, it will be an unusual case, if not unique. That is not to say it can’t happen, but I’d certainly bet against it if I were inclined to bet at all (which I am not).

      Far more likely, I suspect, is a move forward by a majority government consisting of a party than ran on a manifesto calling for reform. I won’t pretend to know how likely such a majority government is in this election, or whether either the Liberals or NDP would follow through if they were in such a position. Obviously, manifesto commitments are somewhat “binding”, but far from completely so, and there are many obstacles and conflicting priorities to overcome.

      That was not a prediction of no reform, just a caution.

      • Your non-bet will, by current polls, depend entirely on whether the Liberals change their mind. The Liberal position is to hold 12 months consultations on all forms of electoral reform, and proceed to implement the consensus model in time for the next election, with no referendum. The NDP has been specific, most recently repeated Aug. 18: “”Friends, I believe it’s time to revitalize our democracy. It’s time that every Canadian’s vote is directly reflected in the outcome. The NDP is clear in its commitment to replace the First Past The Post voting system with proportional representation . . . and make this the last unfair election. But we can’t just hope for it. We can’t just advocate for it. We have to win to make it happen. If you want this to be the last election under First Past The Post, then I’m inviting you to join us.” One factor to remember is that it will take four years: 12 months’ consultation, draft legislation, get caucus approval, and table it in the House (3 months?), get it through the House and Senate and appoint 10 new Boundaries Commissions (8 months?), Commissions’ hearing process and final reports completed (17 months?), and seven months is required for Elections Canada to implement. All deadlines subject to revision.

      • That last point is why I figure the odds may go down if there is a minority government; the time horizon then would be that the government might not have four years, as it would be preoccupied with just getting parliamentary support for budgets and other legislation, and surviving till it could call an election under favorable terms. (Don’t rock the boat!) I find any scenario of outside support to a minority government being contingent on the government’s bringing forward a PR proposal at least somewhat implausible.

        Harder for me to guess the effect on the odds if there were an actual coalition involving those two parties. It would depend on whether they could agree to a set of steps as part of their coalition agreement, or whether they would just set it aside as something they don’t actually have consensus on.

        Again, no predictions or bets being made. Just thinking through the many challenges of getting there from here.

    • I think referendums probably are a break from Westminster. That does not make them a bad thing or even a thing we can ignore. Electoral system referendums have become somewhat of a norm in Westminster and that has advantages and disadvantages. It is probably decisively unfortunate that some governments have imposed strange majority requirements on electoral system change and of course the most dramatic example of that was British Columbia.

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