Canadian electoral reform–Trudeau’s comments

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau denies he wants electoral reform simply to entrench his party in power. It is not a good defense to have to be playing when you are committed to the next election being under a new system.

While he says he has no specific model in mind, it sure seems like he favors Alternative Vote, based on a few of the points in the linked article:

“During the Liberal leadership race, Trudeau expressed a personal preference for ranked balloting.”

“Trudeau said he feels “very strongly” that a reformed electoral system should not weaken a member of Parliament’s connection with and accountability to constituents in a specific riding.”

“I’m wary of disconnecting any MPs from specific groups of citizens or geographic location. I think that’s one of the strengths of our parliamentary system and as soon as you get into lists by parties or groups you have people who owe their election to the House of Commons to a partisan organization rather than to a group of Canadians.”

He also has not ruled out a referendum, but apparently prefers not to have one. Also, a weak position–it seems an admission that it would lose. I follow a discussion group about electoral reform in Canada, and it is striking how vehement the opposition is to a referendum among many of the people who frequent the discussion.

I don’t have a particular view on whether there should be a referendum or not, but I would be concerned that a system adopted without either cross-party consensus (which looks hard to achieve) or a referendum (or both) would be highly vulnerable to repeal if the Conservatives came back to power at a time when the question of the electoral system remained contentious.

44 thoughts on “Canadian electoral reform–Trudeau’s comments

  1. “I don’t have a particular view on whether there should be a referendum or not, but I would be concerned that a system adopted without either cross-party consensus (which looks hard to achieve) or a referendum (or both) would be highly vulnerable to repeal if the Conservatives came back to power at a time when the question of the electoral system remained contentious.”

    I wholly agree, not least because this is precisely what happened with PR in France in 1986-88.

    • Yes, although that one was a pretty naked partisan-motivated reform; I do not think this one is. The problem, however, is that the Liberals’ efforts could be portrayed that way by the opposition, and it just might stick.

      • Once again I’m in full agreement, but one should not forget that the 1981 Socialist Party platform, 110 Propositions for France, did call for instituting PR for legislative elections:

        47 – La représentation proportionnelle sera institué pour les élections à l’Assemblée nationale […]

        Of course, had the Socialists instituted PR right away, instead of four years and four consecutive election defeats later (in cantonal, municipal, European and again cantonal elections), the move might not have been perceived as being motivated purely by partisan considerations, all the more so since it was clearly spelled out in the party’s platform. That said, there’s a lesson to be learned there: if Trudeau and the Liberals are bent on imposing AV, they better do it while they remain popular; it might not prevent opponents from attempting to portray the reform as being partisan-motivated, but under such circumstances it’s far less likely that the argument will stick. On the other hand, those very circumstances might cause complacency to set in and kill any chance of reforming the electoral system.

  2. I’m not sure that a referendum would effectively entrench any change, although that is not a reason to avoid a referendum. A Conservative majority in the House of Commons could repeal any electoral reform, although it would be more politically costly if the reform had been enacted by referendum.

    I profoundly hope that no referendum repeats the BC supermajority requirement. There is a case for a two-stage referendum like New Zealand.

    • Well, yes. The political cost of repealing a referendum would be the entrenchment there, although I suppose you could do what NZ does and legally entrench it. Here’s a question, though; could the Governor-General refuse to sign legislation abolishing entrenchment, on the basis that no referendum had been held?

      • No. In Australia the Governor-General has actually vetoed a small number of laws, but it was on advice and in a peculiar situation where the laws in question had not been properly passed by the parliament. I am not aware of any case where a governor-general has refused to assent to a law except on advice.

        Ultimately the only way to legally entrench a law is by constitutional amendment. The House of Commons and Senate could probably amend the Canadian constitution under S44 to entrench a particular electoral system but that would not invoke a reserve power of the Governor-General and would be horribly controversial without a referendum.

        The legal entrenchment in New Zealand is actually fairly dubious because without an entrenched written constitution there is really no effective way for one parliament to bind another.

  3. “During the Liberal leadership race” is almost three years ago. Why do they quote what he said so long ago? Because he hasn’t said it in the past two years. In December 2013 the Liberal caucus made a decision to add PR to their platform. They submitted a resolution to their national convention held in February 2014, which became Resolution 31. It said “AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT immediately after the next election, an all-Party process be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better.” It was caucus priority resolution #1, so it would be sure to get to the floor. After three speakers on each side, it passed with only a handful of opposing hands. It became a Liberal platform plank under the title “We will make every vote count.” And since December 2013 Justin Trudeau has never repeated that he prefers AV. He has never recanted either, which leaves the media using three year old quotes. He’s not going to say “I’ve changed my mind” a political no-no. So he just keeps saying he has an open mind. The closest he came was Dec. 16: “I’ve met and heard from far too many Canadians who are frustrated, they don’t feel like their votes count. They don’t feel like they have a concrete way of making a difference in our electoral process. And I’ve committed to ensuring that we move beyond the first past the post system. Now what that looks like, there’s a number of different possibilities and alternatives out there. And some seem to work better for some parties than others. In any situation there’s going to be questioning about whether the government in place is just picking a path that they think might benefit themselves.” In other words he suggested his government will not just pick a path that it thinks might benefit itself. Very good.

    • I find it not surprising that Prime Minister Trudeau is not saying that his electoral reform will benefit his own party, given that admitting that would likely put him in an uncomfortable political position and give the Conservatives and New Democrats ammunition. Indeed, his statement that “I’m wary of disconnecting any MPs from specific groups of citizens or geographic location. I think that’s one of the strengths of our parliamentary system and as soon as you get into lists by parties or groups you have people who owe their election to the House of Commons to a partisan organization rather than to a group of Canadians” would seem to be a move towards AV.

      • Yes, some media have taken it that way, if they did not notice that both the Law Commission of Canada and Fair Vote Canada said and are saying “no closed list component.” The problem is, will “the Bavarian model” sound any better? Talking about “open lists” still has that boogeyman “lists.” So we’re trying to talk about regional MPs elected from local regions by voters whose votes were ineffective to elect a local MP. Wordy. We could say “voters unrepresented by their local MP” but that just sparks an argument about whether the local MP “represents” everyone. We could say “those whose votes were wasted” but that just sparks an argument about whether your vote is wasted if it doesn’t help elect anyone, and might also get an STV purist claiming that surplus votes are also wasted unless transferred, to which an anti-STV person will rebut that STV wastes all the votes counted for the final-count-loser. “First-past-the post threw nine million ballots in the trash on October 19” seems to resonate, But “AV would still have left most of them in the trash” is not yet part of the dialogue.

      • An interesting question–to which I make no claim to having an answer–is whether, in the imagination of that segment of the public that tunes in to such things, “lists” are understood as “closed lists”. Or are lists lists?

    • “Never recanted” is good enough for me to assume that the prior statement likely still reflects his preference; but I have no intentions of trying to pry inside the man’s mind. If he wants the replacement of FPTP to work (and I have no reason to doubt that) he has to be coy about his own preferences over specific systems.

    • How on earth does ‘a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation’ exclude a preferential ballot?

  4. Is the electoral system similar to and akin to Constitutional Amendments, but the funny thing is that most countries do not Constitutionally enshrine the electoral method in their constitutions (Ireland being the exception), the electoral law, system, and methods are regulated oddly enough by ordinary law and can be changed easily, but are rarely done so.

    • Constitutional entrenchment of the electoral system is increasingly common. See for example:


      ART 45
      The Chamber of Deputies is composed of representatives of the people, elected in each State, Territory and the Federal District by a proportional system.
      §1°. The total number of Deputies, as well as the representation of each State and the Federal District, shall be established by complementary law in proportion to the population. The necessary adjustments shall be made in the year prior to the elections, so that none of the units of the Federation has fewer than eight nor more than seventy Deputies.
      §2°. Each territory shall elect four Deputies.

      the Netherlands:

      ARTICLE 53
      1. The members of both Houses shall be elected by proportional representation within the limits to be laid down by Act of Parliament.
      2. Elections shall be by secret ballot.

      and South Africa:

      1. The National Assembly consists of no fewer than 350 and no more than 400 women and men elected as members in terms of an electoral system that- prescribed by national legislation; based on the national common voters roll;
      c.provides for a minimum voting age of 18 years; and
      d.results, in general, in proportional representation.
      2. An Act of Parliament must provide a formula for determining the number of members of the National Assembly.

      Generally, newer constitutions are more likely to provide for the electoral system. Newer federal constitutions are more likely to directly provide for representation of federal territories and districts as well.

      • Those countries don’t specify the type of Proportional Representation as in Ireland and whether it mandates a minimum and/or maximum district magnitude, nor do they allow or disallow electoral thresholds as well. Brazil’s case didn’t say whether the states could be subdivided into smaller districts. Theoretically, these PR countries could introduce a system with a high district magnitude and threshold.

  5. The Canadian Liberals are exactly the sort of catch-all centrist party that would have the most to gain from AV, and which would be hurt the most by PR.

      • There are long existing AV party systems in Australia, NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Northern Territory.

        It is surprising that an electoral system which is said to be so favourable to centre parties has never produced a dominant centre party like the Liberal Party of Canada. Not only has no dominant centre party emerged, but actual centre parties like the Australia Party, the Liberal Movement and the Australian Democrats have struggled, usually unsuccessfully to establish any presence at all in AV lower houses. The actual record is long periods of dominance by parties of the right (Federal, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory) and one example of a dominant party of the left (New South Wales). I suppose one could stretch a point and claim the NSW ALP as one example of a centre party, but it would still be one case out of 7.

        Those who forget AV history are condemned to invent it.

      • I did not include PNG because they have a relatively short history with LPV. However as a multiparty system they may be a better fit to Canada as an empirical test for the dominant centre party claim. Nope, no sign of one there either.

      • That is not quite my argument, although most Australian elections were contested by at least 3 parties and occasionally by 4 between 1918 and 1945. Non-labor political parties were extraordinarily unstable between 1901 and 1945. Between 1915 and 1943 Billy Hughes was prime minister in three different parties and leader in 5 different parties. There have been repeated atom[ts to establish centre parties under AV in Australia. None have succeeded.

        These threads contain repeated claims that AV favours centrist parties. That is a necessary condition to the accompanying claims to the effect that AV is a plot by the Liberals. If AV favours centrist parties there should be some sign, at least one case, of real world AV systems favouring real world centrist parties. Closer to home for Canadians, no dominant centre party emerged during the 2 elections that British Columbia used AV in the 1950s. It is possible there are arguments specific to Canada that would make AV favour the dominant centre party in Canada, but we are yet to see Canada-specific arguments, just universalised claims that AV favours centre parties. The universe of those claims mysteriously excludes the empirical record in Australia, PNG, and British Columbia.

        These claims are not empirical and merely express fervent belief. If anything, the raw numbers show that AV is favourable to longterm dominance by parties of the right, but that observation would not serve the forensic purpose of denouncing advocacy of the system by the Canadian Liberals.

        In the bad old days of the Queensland gerrymander I had an enlightening discussion with a National supporter who argued that the gerrymander made elections fair because there were more Labor voters than National and without the gerrymander National would be unable to win elections.

      • I suppose I should mention that as late as the 1970s leading figures in the ALP occasionally claimed that AV was illegitimate because it enabled the DLP to channel preferences to the Coalition, depriving Labor of seats they would have won under truncated voting. No doubt if they’d had access to Fruits and Votes they would have made statements about the ‘known’ tendency of AV to favour parties of the right. The emergence of the Australian Democrats and then the Greens in the 80s and 90s made Labor the beneficiary of preference flows and they forgot their older opposition to AV.

      • I think such a maximalist interpretation is a bit unfair. Saying AV will benefit the Liberals in the short run is not equivalent to saying they will continue to dominate in the long run. Even more than Australia (but unlike the UK), Canada’s third party is not of the centre, while neither of the larger parties are really a centre party. Of the two parties of the left, clearly the Liberals are likely to do better than the NDP, in the short run as well as the long run.

        In the short-run, the Liberals will derive great benefit from AV, which will make things difficult for the Conservatives. But that short-term advantage is only likely to hold if the Conservatives don’t adjust to the new situation. But that is unlikely. How will the Conservatives adjust? I don’t know. It may be so that they will move to the centre. It may be so that they split up again into a conservative Alliance which will dominate in the West and a more moderate Progressive Conservative party which will do well in the East. After all, the key strategic reason for the merger – the potential for vote-splitting – will be gone under AV. What will happen under either of those scenarios is not certain but the Liberals should find it more difficult to ‘dominate’, probably facing a real challenge from a more moderate CPC or a PC-Alliance coalition.

        Either way, the result is a more centrist House overall, but the domination by one centrist party in the long term is probably unlikely (but is that really what people are saying?). For that kind of result, you’d probably need Borda, Approval or Condorcet.

      • In terms of first preference support, Alan, the Australian Democrats never got off the ground. If you look at the seats where Democrat-Labor or Liberal preference counts took place (there were quite a few of these in the 1997 South Australian election), you can see that the Democrats actually did very well off the preferences of both major parties. The Liberals have the first preference support that the Democrats didn’t.

      • I look forward to Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin, and other life-appointed Senators taking a stand for a principle that the Plain People of Canada should get a direct vote in deciding how their lawmakers are chosen.

      • Well, we’ll just have to wait until Trudeau appoints his new senators. I’m sceptical that he won’t take the opportunity to appoint partisans, but if he doesn’t, it could be a bit tight in there (regardless, as Tom says, of how strange it would be for unelected senators to block such a change)

  6. If Canada decides to go for true electoral reform, I’m trying to figure our what their favorite alternative would be. MMP? MMM? STV? Something else?

    I’ve been crafting a new system that allows for a mixed system with seats being allocated at the district level and the constituency level. District seats would be competed between 2 candidates and the constituency seats would be competed among the other parties, with all district runners-up qualifying for the constituency vote with all its district votes. This would call for ballot access equality and doesn’t allow for the so called decoy lists. Every district will have 2 district candidates and x constituency candidates. Every district would see all parties on the ballot, whether it’s the district or constituency ballot. I’d even suggest that all parties competing in the constituency vote could compete in teams of 2.

    If you’re living in a province with 10 seats and you have 5 district seats and 5 constituency seats, you could have the following results.

    District 1 is between a Green and a Liberal, district 2 between a NDP and a Conservative, district 3 between a Liberal and a Conservative, district 4 between a Green and a NDP and district 5 between a Liberal and a NDP. Let’s assume that each party won at least 1 district seat and the NDP got 1 more.

    Since every party will get to compete in a 2-way race, this will actually help the third parties grow. Major parties like to force independent and third party voters to choose for one of their own in the average district, so it’s only fair if a district has 2 third parties competing for a seat once in a while.

    The district vote can have a preferential ballot and so can the constituency vote.

    • Unless I’m mistaken, seats in Greek single-member constituencies are allocated to the qualifying i.e. above-threshold party with the largest number of votes in each constituency. However, in practice seats have gone to the actual largest party, since none of the single-member districts has voted for a below-threshold party during the past eight years (although Evrytania came close to doing so in the May 2012 general election).

  7. Does anyone know what would had the Canadian Election of 2015 had been re-run under preferential voting and assuming Canada’s would be using the optional ranking of preferences? Would the Liberals win more or less seats under such a system? It may be possible in districts that are a fight between Conservatives and the NDP, that some votes of the Liberals would flow to the Conservatives and not to the NDP.

    Canada would be wise to consider using the Single Transferable Vote system a la Ireland as it uses small multiple member districts, and keeps the close links between MPs to a district. Representing the Territories and sparsely populated rural areas could use single member districts if the concern that rural districts are too large. It may not be realistic to set aside 10% of the countries parliament for at large representation. Canada would have to amend it’s Constitution to do that, and only the most vanilla and boring of amendments are every proposed.

    How many countries use Proportional Representation, but have small states, regions, rural areas that elect one member? I know Switzerland does, and Finland does with Aland.

    Proportional Representation would be good for Canada, but the problem is what is the best system of PR for the country. It doesn’t seem as if any system would fit Canada well. MMP might be good with provincial best loser and/or open party lists. Again, the problem is how to insure proper proportional representation for the Territories.

    It may be better to embrace majoritarian preferential voting for the House, and a system of Proportional Representation for the Senate.

    • Regarding how common one-seat districts are in PR systems… In addition to one district in Finland and two (from memory) in Switzerland, you also have at least one such district in the PR systems of Peru and Spain. I think Honduras has one or two, as well.

      Finland and Peru are the only cases I know of in which the lists in the one-seat district contain more than one candidate, with open list (making the winner the candidate with the most votes within the list with the most total votes). Switzerland’s lists are also open, but lists never contain more candidates than there are seats in the district, so it reduced to FPTP in the one-seat district (just as it does in closed–list cases like Spain).

      • Switzerland has six. Greece has seven, which I think are the only ones whose seat is allocated independently of the national allocation and the bonus for the largest party.

  8. Regarding the effect of AV (IRV) on centrist parties, I think my position would be close to JD’s. It may or may not be “true” that AV favors a centrist party. The national party system of Australia over the past so many decades certainly calls such a claim into question. However, when your party system starts off with one of its two largest parties being in the center, it is hard to see how adopting AV does anything but favor it. This may be true only in the short run, but it is only in the short run that partisans of the other parties will be making their calculations about the costs and benefits of proposed new electoral systems.

    • I would agree. While I have probably been the most vocal in contesting the claims about AV and centre parties I was only ever contesting the claim that it is an incontrovertible fact that AV always favours centre parties. If Australia tells us one thing it is that:

      The history of Australian electoral institutions indicates that path dependency plays a critical role in electoral design and, as a consequence, impacts significantly on the representative nature of the democracy.

      Apart from path dependency, I think Canada is complicated by a recently-defeated conservative party that has never shown much institutional imagination and a third party that entered the election campaign convinced (and not irrationally) that they were about to win their first parliamentary majority.

    • Whoa.
      I’ve just sent this to Maclean’s editorial:

      Dear MacLean’s,
      I was directed to your recent article “Australia’s ranked ballot holds grim lesson for electoral reform: Is anyone in Canada really ready for the Motoring Enthusiast Party?” published 26 February at
      Can I please advise you to remove this article before Mac leans embarrasses itself very badly. (I don’t think appending a correction will suffice to remove the “D’oh!” factor here).
      Your anonymous writer has made a very basic mistake – confusing the preferential single-member voting system used for Australia’s House of Representatives (the system that Justin Trudeau is proposing for Canada, which does not use group voting tickets, and which has never led to the election of minor-party candidates like Ricky Muir) with the preferential proportional system used for the Australian Senate (which is not the system that Justin Trudeau is proposing for Canada).
      In effect, this article sounds as risible to an Australian reader as my writing, for example, “Australia should not use first-past-the-post voting: Canada uses first-past-the-post voting, which has given it 105 members of the federal Parliament who are hand-picked by the Prime Minister and who remain in office, never facing the voters, until they die or turn 75” would sound to a Canadian of high-school age or older.
      All the best
      Dr Tom Round
      Lecture, School of Law & Justice
      Southern Cross University

  9. Maybe Canada should emulate Australia, use Preferential Voting for the Lower House, and the STV system for an elected Senate, hopefully weaken the powers of the Senate so that it can’t block supply.

  10. Actually, Rob, I occasionally hear the “Australian Rules” package (AV SMDs for the lower house, an upper house elected by PR-STV, and compulsory voting) mooted for the UK, so if it’s been put forward in Canada as well, that may explain why so many right-wing Canadians seem to think that Ricky Muir and ticket-voting are the inevitable result of preferential voting, even in SMDs.
    Like I said, it’d be like saying “Canada uses fist-past-the-post voting for all elections. And Canada has seen, eg, a former federal parliamentarian get publicly beaten up by now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then get suspended from his parliamentary seat: he is now moonlighting as manager of a strip club.” Not untrue: just grossly misleading as to cause, effect and correlation.

  11. Will any Canadian providence enact electoral reform, seems odd if the Federal Parliament enacts it and no providence is doing so, this is unlike Australia where the states used preferential voting before the Federal Government did. Is Alberta ripe for electoral reform?

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