Canadian electoral reform report

I never thought I would see politicians debating the Gallagher index, but since yesterday’s release of the report of the Canadian parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform, that is indeed what is happening. The Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef has taken criticism (justified, in my view) for the way she has mocked the idea of relying on the index to guide reform.

While the governing Liberal Party ran on a platform last year saying the 2015 election would be the country’s last under FPTP, now that the Special Committee has reported, the Liberals appear spooked. The majority of the Committee has said there should be a referendum, and has stated a preference for some model of proportionality (preferably with a Gallagher index near 5%).

While the Committee was not specifically tasked with making a detailed recommendation of a new electoral system, the Minister is seizing on an alleged “lack of consensus” while simultaneously insisting there should not be a referendum. Unfortunately, this is looking exactly like the playbook I cynically suggested on 18 November was the Liberals’ intention.

When you combine cries of “no consensus” with “no referendum”, it might be because (1) you really do not want proportional representation, and (2) you fear the voters do.

The process is not over, by any means. But the government looks like it is running for cover, rather than embracing the report of the Committee that it established to carry out a campaign promise.

13 thoughts on “Canadian electoral reform report

  1. Given the record of referendums on electoral reform in Canada and elsewhere I’d think the chance of the Canadian people entertaining a secret passion for proportional representation (much as we may want them to) is vanishingly small. We could equally speculate that the Trudeau government does not want an electoral reform referendum to go down to another smashing defeat.

  2. The government could do so much better by trying to reform the Senate into a PR-elected body. It could split the Conservatives, who are currently choosing a leader, and potentially the new leader would be elected with a commitment to support such a reform. In any case it may help in making gains at the next election in the western provinces, which have long supported Senate reform and received nothing from Harper, who backed down after the Supreme Court said he would have to amend the Constitution. Most of the Provinces are currently governed by parties who are likely to be sympathetic either to the current government or to such a scheme of Senate reform, and they should find it difficult to oppose reform of such an unpopular institution. Unlike PR, if Senate reform ends up going to referendum, it’s much more likely to meet popular support.

    I know there are many will disagree with my view that such a system of government would be superior to one with a PR-elected lower house and unelected or otherwise weak upper house, but I think many will nonetheless agree with me that it would be an improvement on the current situation, and maybe even that it would be a compromise on which both consensus and success in a referendum would be easier to achieve, and which may hold political advantages for Trudeau he will not get from PR for the Commons.

    • I agree with jd, although I would not say a promotional upper house and a majority lower house is necessarily superior form of government, it would most definitely be superior to what now prevails. It would also have the advantage that neither the Canadian electorate nor the Canadian political elite have any experience of PR and some time with a PR senate may cure vulnerability to a FUD campaign against electoral reform of any kind.

      The level of intellectual confusion in the committee report about the advantages of FPTP is really quite striking. At Chapter 3.A, FPTP is identified as providing stable government because when there were only 2 parties, one of them always won a majority. That Canada has had more than 2 parties for almost a century apparently did not sway the minds of the committee very much. Nor did the recent re-appearance of minority governments in Australia, Britain and Canada itself in recent times.

    • Given the Supreme Court ruling of 2013, a move to an elected senate would be a constitutional change that required the agreement of at least 7 provinces containing at least 50% of the population. At present the four Atlantic provinces have 30 of the senators, where rep-by-pop would give them only 7 senators. Ontario, Alberta and BC together have 63% of the population and 34% of the senators.

      If the senate were to become a body with real clout, there would be groups of provinces with reason and ability to block either the present allocation of senators or one that was substantially closer to matching regional populations. Provincial premiers will look to the long-term interest of their province, whatever affinity they may have with the present federal government.

      Considering, as well, that one-quarter of Canadians polled in 2015 said that they favoured abolition of the senate, a PR senate proposal has the potential to consume much political capital, with uncertain net gain for the Liberals.

      • I cannot speak for for jd, but I doubt he would advocate a population-based senate, any more than I would.

        I doubt the Liberals will proceed with house electoral reform. It is clear they they will get no support for electoral reform from the Conservatives, New Democrats or Greens and they will probably get a FUD campaign from the Conservatives in any referendum. Even an AV referendum would probably get the No2AV/Brexit treatment.

        Senate electoral reform, despite the need for a constitutional amendment, is an option and may open the door to more far-reaching electoral reform further down the track. Or we could adhere to the more-soon theory advanced about the British AV referendum where we heard the interesting theory that the way to advance electoral reform is to defeat it in a referendum.

        I did cast a more-soon vote against the referendum in Australia in 1999, but that model of republic was so flawed that it made the existing form of government a better alternative.

      • What I am proposing is that an incoming government commit itself to reforming the Senate through whatever means necessary. Ultimately this will probably require appealing to the people to pressure Provincial governments to agree to this long-overdue measure. Harper should have done this as soon as he acquired a majority government, and I believe he was well-placed to succeed, especially considering the number of Provinces ruled by friendly governments at the time. Now, representation may well be a sticking point. But I think the federal government, especially if led by a rather popular PM (as Trudeau is at the moment), could be able to leverage the recent scandals and unpopularity of the Senate to put a lot of pressure on provincial premiers to agree to whatever is necessary in order to introduce elections to the Senate. I think the federal government itself should not propose to change the current Provincial numbers in the Senate. Then, some Provinces will surely bring it up. At that point it’s to the negotiating table. If some Provinces are being difficult, that’s the time to frame them as blocking a popular reform that would put an end to the scandals and corruption of the current institution (and in a way which would curtail the power of the government i.e. the PM is certainly not trying to increase his power, quite the opposite). Perhaps make use of the fact that five Provinces are going to the polls in 2017 and 2018 (BC, NS, NB, Ontario and Quebec). I think that with a bit of luck that could force the Provinces to reach some sort of compromise.

        Does it have the potential to consume much political capital? Yes, but so does this electoral reform process, which unlike Senate reform is never going to have bipartisan backing from both the government and official opposition. Would the net gain for the Liberals be uncertain? Definitely, and that is something which this scheme has to recommend itself (for the Liberals) relative to electoral reform, which, if it’s PR, will be nothing but net loss for them, as majority government is never happening again.

      • Personally, as I’ve said before, I think the best apportionment for the Senate would be some kind of compromise between equal representation and by population: e.g. a 50-50 split between the two principles or representation in proportion to the square root of population. Why not by population or by equality? Because it would be good for the Senate to provide some balance to the power of the two largest provinces (Quebec and Ontario) in addition to providing a balance to the power of the government, but equality as demanded by the Western states would probably go too far, considering the huge disparities in population between the Provinces.

        Actually, the current apportionment is more or less based on that balance principle, ensuring no two regions of the country have a majority together, with Quebec and Ontario each having just under 25% of the seats. Apart from the fact that NB and NS have more representation than a number of other Provinces with greater populations, it’s actually not so bad. If when Newfoundland had joined Canada it had been incorporated into one region with the Maritimes (with a total of 24 Senators), it would have been true to the original design principle and rather elegant overall.

  3. How strong is party ID in Canada? I ask because Americanists (rightly?) believe “party ID rules everything around me,” and I’m trying to square that with voters wanting PR independently of party pressure on them.

  4. Twenty years ago the Liberals governed with 2 parties to the left of them and 2 parties to the right. Five years ago the right was reunited in one party, the main party of the left was the Official Opposition and the Liberals reduced to a rump. Now the Liberals are governing from the centre-left. Party ID is not a determining factor for a substantial fraction of voters, especially those near the middle of the left-right spectrum.
    Supposing most “progressive” voters to favour PR and most voters of conservative bent to favour the status quo, they will have no problem falling into line with the party lines of the under-represented NDP & Greens or the Conservatives of the now-united right. Those who voted Liberal in the last election may be less likely to toe the party line en masse (whatever that line turns out to be).

  5. Dave is right. The Liberals are (or were?) the ultimate catch-all party, going left or right as needs tend to dictate. They have also been helped by the fact that Canada’s national political cleavage is a highly regional one, and the Liberals were able to capitalize on their catch-all stance by brokering policies for different regions. Whether Canada becomes more ideological on the left-right cleavage remains to be seen.

  6. The committee deserves to be mocked for their focus of Gallagher Index in the main recommendation on a referendum – to hold a referendum with FPTP as one option and a specific PR system (to be devised by the government) with Gallagher Index less than or equal to 5 for the other option. No other restrictions on the PR system were included in this recommendation.

    While other parts of the report emphasized proportionality (measured by Gallagher Index), desire not to have party lists, desire for local representation, etc., somehow the only constraint that made it into this recommendation was the Index. Canada’s huge spread in population density makes it almost impossible to have a Gallagher Index of 5 or less and maintain all the other things that Canadians said they wanted (or didn’t want, like party lists). So sticking it into the main referendum recommendation may have been a way to kill PR.

    If we get to a referendum on these two choices, with an Index less than 5, people are almost certain to pick FPTP which will make the Conservatives very happy.

  7. The Ministry of Democratic Institutions has opened at which Canadians are supposed to make known the values they wish to see in an electoral system. There are many extreme statements (An MP should always/never rate party interests over constituents’ interests) with which you must indicate one of 5 levels of agreement or disagreement. False dichotomies abound.

    I tried picking always the middle option (“Neutral”, “Somewhat”, “Sometimes”), didn’t tick any Priorities and when forced to make binary choices alternated between the box on the right and the box on the left. This put me among the Challengers, even though I had not selected any of the 5 options said to be characteristic of Challengers.

    It is hard to see how this exercise will serve to inform the Minister as to Canadians’ preferences in voting systems. It is easy to see how more time will have elapsed.

  8. Pingback: Canadian electoral reform: No longer the government’s plan | Fruits and Votes

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