Canadian electoral reform: No longer the government’s plan

The Liberal Party government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has abandoned its campaign pledge to reform the electoral system.

This is both a surprise and no surprise at all. On the one hand, it looked like a firm commitment: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” On the other hand, since when do parties that can win parliamentary majorities on less than half the votes opt for systems that would make it harder for them to do so in the future?

In parliamentary questions the day the commitment was dropped, Trudeau again indicated his support for a “preferential ballot”. While that could mean STV, a form of proportional representation, it has been clear for a while that he means the Alternative Vote when he uses this expression. The third largest party, the center-left NDP, has no incentive to support this option, and prefers Mixed-Member Proportional (see p. 56 of their platform [PDF]). The Conservatives want a referendum on any proposal, presumably because they are confident the status quo would prevail. These conflicting positions led Trudeau to declare there is “no consensus” on how to move forward.

Were the government actually committed to moving forward, of course, it could have forged a consensus. The parliamentary committee that studied the matter produced a report that could provide the basis for crafting some form of proportional proposal, even with a referendum on it, were the government willing to go that way. It is true it did not propose a specific new model–that was not its mandate!

In remarks I made at a workshop at UBC last summer, I said that from the standpoint of my work on where electoral reform processes emerge, Canada was a surprise. The usual preconditions were not present, at least recently, at the federal level: there have been no plurality reversals and no opposition wipeouts. (Manufactured–or “false” majorities and occasional minority governments are not preconditions, according to my research. The former is expected under FPTP and the latter tends to be short-term and only partially disrupts the normal pattern of adversarial inter-party politics that is the hallmark of the Westminster model.)

In that sense, then, my surprise that Canada had an official process that might have led to a proposal for a new system is vindicated. It “should not” have gotten this far, and it won’t go any farther–at least if the Liberals have their way.

On the other hand, once a reform process is underway–and appointing a parliamentary committee to study electoral system options means it was underway if anything does–a government can lose control of it. That was the case in New Zealand, where a Royal Commission recommendation (for, it is worth making clear, a specific system model) eventually was put to a referendum despite the rather obvious reluctance of each major party in turn.

When the Canadian Liberals were forced by political pressure to relinquish their majority on the parliamentary committee on electoral reform, that seemed like a good sign for reform. Suddenly they could not just have the committee either bury the idea or else slant it towards their preferred variant. This looked like a classic “act contingency”–not wanting electoral reform for the gains a new system would offer the party (which would be “outcome contingency”), but wanting the votes that could come from appearing to be generally committed to “better” governance. On the other hand, the removal of the Liberal majority on the committee also made it easier in the end to claim “no consensus” (as I suggested in November might be the case).

So is electoral reform dead in Canada? I will let others who are closer to the situation tell us. However, I would say, not necessarily. The testimony and committee report are there. The issue has been studied now many times at both federal level and in several provinces. It will not just go away. Even this government could yet be forced to reconsider if the public pressure is there, or if the breaking of a promise looks likely to hurt them at the next election. However, the government presumably would not have taken this step had it not been reasonably confident that it could get away with it, politically.

23 thoughts on “Canadian electoral reform: No longer the government’s plan

  1. One of the takeaways from this process is that a parliamentary committee is a very bad way to achieve consensus on a new electoral system. Parliamentarians have a conflict of interest, they do not necessarily have much knowledge of electoral systems they are (at best) working on the problem part-time. A royal commission may at last have recommended a system rather than a formula.

    The invitation the parliamentary committee extended to the government was: ‘Step out on this branch and then we will tell you why we have chainsaws in our hands’.

    • Of course, a person with a conspiratorial mind might suggest that the use of a parliamentary committee, which does not appear to have been used to determine options for electoral reforms elsewhere in Canada, was set up to not produce either an actual option or a consensus on said option.

      • Actually a parliamentary special committee was used successfully in Quebec in 2005-6, with an interesting twist: it sat in tandem with an eight-member advisory Citizens Committee. They held hearings all across Quebec, for about three months, on a proposed bill for an MMP model with little 5-MNA regions (3 local, 2 regional top-up). The Citizens Committee were a remarkably able group, eight members selected at random from a small pool of those who had responded to a newspaper advertisement. They single-handedly wrote a detailed report with an alternative proposal, a more normal MMP model. The Special Committee then wrote their own report. I say that this was a successful process, in that the Special Committee members listened (due in part to the eight citizens looking over their shoulders), and said the government’s proposal needed to be improved to make it better reflect Quebec’s political diversity — that is, be more proportional, with a lower effective threshold. However, the government then got cold feet, and eventually sent the issue on to the Director-General of Elections for further study, and then took no action on the resulting excellent report. Quebec has produced a gold-mine of fruitless reports on proportional representation, which is still a live debate in Quebec today — everyone says they want a proportional system, but no one does it.

    • Agreed. Parliamentary committees are both too democratic (the members have to worry about being re-elected under a certainly unfamiliar and presumably less favourable system) and too undemocratic (the best electoral system should work primarily in the interests of voters, not of sitting MPs, but representative democracy means a principal/ agent problem interposes itself).

      Having said that, referenda, too, have obvious disadvantages as an alternative. I mean, does anyone think a certain risible example from the UK in 2011 would have differed by more than one percentage point had the question on the ballot-paper instead been “Do you hate Nick Clegg because he’s a right-wing deregulationist sell-out or a left-wing Eurocrat social engineer or both? Yes [__] No [__]”

      While MSS is correct that the electoral reform issue “will not just go away”, my worry is that Canada has form at regressing from better to worse voting systems, ie, replacing STV and/or AV with first-past-the-post – something that in other jurisdictions only happens when the Posters are backed by a political machine as unscrupulous as Tammany Hall (New York) or its New South Wales equivalent (Jack Lang’s Labor Party).

      It’s tolerable to wait for a decade or two before the polity accepts that the arc of history bends inexorably towards replacing single-member and/or plurality with proportional and/or preferential voting systems. But Canada seems to have a history of deciding that twelve months of exactly 30 days each is simpler, and therefore self-evidently superior, than (psephologically speaking) adopting the Gregorian calendar.

    • The NDP would perhaps be in a more persuasive position to debate electoral reform in the pearl-clutching manner they have adopted if they had succeeded in enacting electoral reform in any of the provinces where they hold power. Ditto the Canadian media if they had ever got beyond discussing electoral reform in terms that would have embarrassed No2AV.

      • The federal NDP is always embarrassed by this point, even though they can do nothing about it. None of the relevant provincial parties had proportional representation in their platforms. The NDP has never gone so far as to include it in the party constitution’s statement of principles. Even if they did, “Each province of Canada shall have a fully autonomous provincial Party, provided its constitution and principles are not in conflict with those of the Federal Party” so one would have to argue the provincial party’s constitution was, by its silence, in conflict.

        The closest any relevant provincial NDP came to putting it in their platform was in Saskatchewan. After a two-year internal debate about PR across Saskatchewan within the party’s local associations, they decide to include in the platform for the 2007 election that, if re-elected, they would convene a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform. It was widely assumed such an Assembly would recommend PR. Sadly, it was too late; they lost power in that election.

  2. Canada is not immune to national populism and even Trudeau will regret not adopting Proportional Representation.

    • When the British parliament debated the Second Reform Act, radicals in the house of commons made themselves famous by backing a series of protests, marches and demonstrations under the slogan, ‘No ballot, no bill’. Despite radical concerns with the suffrage and the secret ballot, the bill passed the house with radical support in 1867. The Ballot Act passed in 1872.

      Let us imagine the NDP and Greens (I assume the Conservatives would have maintained their belief that FPTP was instituted at the beginning of the world and any change to it threatens the continuing stability of the cosmos) had offered the Liberals support for AV in return for say a citizens assembly and a guaranteed referendum at the second AV general election. Let us imagine the Liberals had accepted.

      One significant and massive difference when it came to the referendum, would be that the Canadian electorate would have heard all the usual nonsense from the usual suspects and would have the lived experience of using a different electoral system without the sky falling in.

      Perhaps the NDP and Greens should have remembered what Euclid told Ptolemy I Soter I about learning mathematics.

      • That would have happened only in some alternate universe. The NDP hates AV worse than FPTP. Only a tiny handful of witnesses supported AV at the Electoral Reform Committee. When the Committee tabled its report saying the choice was between PR and FPTP, and even the Liberal dissent did not mention the ranked ballot (AV), the press asked why? The Liberal chair Francis Scarpaleggia replied “no one wants the ranked ballot.” And then Justin Trudeau himself said that, although he prefers a ranked ballot system, but he also realized this process would benefit the Liberal Party and thought better of it. “I’m not going near it,” he said at the town hall in Yellowknife. “I’m not going to do something that everyone is convince is going to favour one party over another.”

      • Then perhaps the NDP may care to consider the rationality of its position. There may have been an opportunity to leverage a referendum which appears to have been thrown away in the interests of piety.

      • The Liberals, NDP and Greens were united on the question of a referendum; only the Conservatives wanted one, because they expected it would be lost, and the Bloc, because they expected it would have a 50% threshold and serve as a useful precedent for the threshold on a referendum on Quebec independence. If the Liberals had been open to PR, any form of PR, even phased in, even starting with PR-lite, the NDP signalled many times they were were willing to dance, but they found no dance partner. The Liberal caucus had been split 50/50 on PR in 2014, but as it turned out, Trudeau himself was never serious about being open to PR, which he now claims is unquestionably bad for Canada, leaving open the question “when did you discover that your election platform in 2015 contained an option that would be so bad for Canada?”

      • I am not completely sure you can excuse the NDP from the charge of point-scoring by attempting to score points as you do in your final sentence. Nor can you accuse Trudeau of not understanding electoral reform and then cite him as authority for the proposition that AV would benefit the Liberals alone.

        Commenters repeated that claim over and over on this blog when Trudeau was first elected despite being unable to show any theoretical or empirical evidence for the claim. Australia has 7 AV parliamentary chambers and some of them have been elected by AV for almost a century. If AV would benefit only the Liberals you would expect something like the Liberal Partty of Canada to have emerged somewhere or sometime among those chambers.

        And there is another group, apart from the Liberals, who would benefit significantly from AV. The Canadian people would not have to suffer the bizarre experience of electing progressive majorities to the House of Commons only to see the conservative minority form government.

        I am not in the business of defending Trudeau. I am interested in questioning the idea that the best way to advance electoral reform is always to oppose any electoral reform that is not precisely and exactly what you want.

  3. Suppose the Australian experience is “A dominant party of the centre is unlikely to emerge under AV.” Must it follow that “A pre-existing dominant party of the centre is unlikely to survive under AV”? Did any of the 7 jurisdictions in Australia began AV with a small left wing party that later supplanted a large, more central party? That would be a valuable existence proof that AV wouldn’t necessarily give Liberals a permanent advantage over the NDP.

    • You would have to understand the history of our party system. It is necessary to speak of the parties of resistance and parties of movement because the party structure has proved wildly unstable, particularly on the right. The large parties of resistance since the introduction of AV have been the Nationalist Party, then the United Australia Party, then the Liberal Party of Australia.

      The party of resistance has outright collapsed on a number of occasions. The ALP, which for much of the AV period was the sole party of movement, has also suffered 3 major splits over conscription in WWI, the Great Depression and the Cold War. So the AV experience in Australia gives you multiple cases of dominant parties splitting on both sides of politics and multiple cases of dominant parties of the right collapsing and being replaced entirely by what I suppose we should call challenger parties.

      The National Party has existed for most of that time under various names, including occasional mergers with the large party of resistance such as the current Liberal-National Party in Queensland or the Country Liberal party in the Northern Territory. Merged parties of resistance have tended to lead to the appearance of a new National Party outside the unified party structure. This happened quote recently in the state of Western Australia. One Nation has an established rivalry with the National Party which it hopes to supplant. WA is about to have a general action where the Liberal Party is preferencing One Nation ahead of the Nationals, classic example how influence and opportunities for minor parties is not, under AV, limited only to seats won.

      Australian Greens most definitely see themselves as a challenger party and expect to replace the ALP entirely. It’s notable that they, who have somewhat more experience of AV than the NDP, see AV as an advantage while obviously advocating for STV.

    • I don’t think it is true that AV would just favour the Liberal party.

      We saw after the election, despite only 39% voting for a Liberal candidate, well over 50% were satisfied with the election result. Even now, 15 months later, support for the Liberal government is close to 50%. When Canadians feel like that, the Liberals will do well, no matter what the system is. Go back a few years with the Liberals at about 20% support, and polls found the NDP most often were picked as second choice.

      One thing that the electoral reform debate did was plant the idea that AV is worse than FPTP. It also made it clear that those that advocate for PR would rather have FPTP than AV. This gives a bit of a boost to FPTP.

      The Liberals lost some votes by dropping electoral reform, but they likely would lose even more by pushing through either AV or PR.

  4. 14 November 1916 – Labor Prime Minister Hughes leaves the ALP over conscription, forms a National Labor and then Nationalist government with Liberal support

    05 May 1917 – Hughes Nationalist government wins 20 seats from Labor for a total of 53 in a house of 75 at the last pre-AV election. If 53 seats is not a dominant party of the centre right I do not know what is.

    13 December 1919 – First AV election. Hughes loses 11 seats to the new Country Party. A dominant centre right party went from 53 seats out of 75 to 37 out of 75 and finds itself forced to govern in coalition at its first AV election. The Nationalist Party occupied a central position between Labor and the nascent Country party. This result simply does not square with the proposition that AV always favours a dominant party of the centre.

    Just, for the record, Hughes would go on to bring down a Nationalist government and destroy the party by founding yet another party, the Australian Party in 1929. He would then form the United Australia Party from dissidents from the Scullin Labor government, dissident Nationalists and a few others. The UAP would govern from 1933 to 1942 and then collapse in turn under pressure from among others, Hughes and his supporters in the UAP. Hughes would live long enough to sit in the house of representatives as a Liberal after 1949.

    • Except a dominant party is a party that wins multiple elections repeatedly, which the Nationalist Party, having its first outing in 1917, could not be. One election win does not a dominant party make. The fact that they did so poorly in the next election and had to go into coalition shows they can’t meet the most minimal definition of a dominant party. We need to be careful about the terms we use and how they’re defined.

      • That’s a very fine definition which I would normally be willing to accept. However what I am in the business of refuting is a claim that Av always favours the dominant party. The prophets of that claim can show no case of an AV assembly that shows anything like a dominant party on the Canadian model. Dave Hutcheon then, not unreasonably, suggests that although perhaps AV will not create a dominant party it may maintain a pre-existing dominant party. This is a fairly difficult case to prove if one accepts your definition.

        It is already established that no such party has existed in Australia under AV. You now ask me to show you a concrete example of a party that has never existed. I confess to some slight difficulty in doing so.

  5. Australian federal elections under AV, then, give examples of large near-centre parties (“of resistance”) that fail, but also one example of a party (“of movement”) that has survived for a century. Certain echoes are seen in Canada under FPTP.

    Despite a conscription crisis and spills of 3 prime ministers, the Labor party has survived, winning 35% of first preferences in the 2016 election. Twenty-five years after its formation, the Green party is stalled at about 10% of the vote.

    Despite a conscription crisis and party infighting in the 1980s and 1990s, the Liberal Party of Canada has survived and won 40% of votes in the 2015 election. Four years after its formation the NDP won 18% of the vote; 50 years later it received 20% of the vote. The Right went through a decade of fission and fusion (Reform, Alliance, Conservative).

    I conclude that AV wouldn’t inevitably favour the Liberals in the long run, but we don’t have enough data to calculate the odds. A half century of dashed hopes has inclined the NDP to a pessimistic view of their chances under any DM=1 system.

    • I think that’s an entirely reasonable conclusion, although I’d note that the ALP has spent a great deal more time on the opposition benches in the last century than the Canadian Liberals have. The proposition that AV would advantage the Liberals in Canada is one of those ipse dixit arguments that seems, if anything, more entrenched among sober, rational, informed advocates of electoral reform than among the general public.

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