New Brunswick electoral reform proposal (yes, again)

The New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform has issued its report, “A pathway to an inclusive democracy”.

There are many recommendations regarding changes to voting procedures in the proposal, but those that focus directly on the electoral system are as follows (quoting form p. 19):

The government enhance the voting system by moving to Preferential Ballots.
Š Consideration be given to some form of Proportional Representation during the process of considering the redistribution of electoral boundaries.

While preferential ballots could mean STV, from the overall context of the report, it is clear that “Preferential Ballots” is a term limited in application to the alternative vote (instant runoff), in other words keeping single-seat ridings (districts). The weak “consideration” for “some form of” PR follows an indication earlier in the report that exploration of proportionality was “not within the mandate of the commission”, but that the commission would be “remiss” not to address the issue.

New Brunswick once had an electoral commission report in favor of a mixed-member proportional system. The recommendation was never put to a vote–notwithstanding that the decision to shelve the proposal came after yet another anomalous outcome in a provincial election. And that anomaly was not the last, so far, even if the latest election was somewhat “normal” (by FPTP standards).

Given its record, New Brunswick has an “objective” need for electoral reform if any democratic jurisdiction does. I doubt the alternative vote really is the answer to its electoral needs. And, given the recent past in the province and elsewhere in Canada, including at the federal level, it might be getting ahead of the story to expect even such a tepid reform to happen. But there the issue is, again, in a nice independent report.

27 thoughts on “New Brunswick electoral reform proposal (yes, again)

  1. In the best of all possible worlds New Brunswick should be considering ListPR, MMP, or STV, but we are talking about a country that appears to believe, about electoral reform, that better is never possible.

    Let us assume by some miracle (leaving aside a repeat of the unsustained centroalternativist view of AV for the sake of the argument) New Brunswick adopts AV and uses it at several elections. Is a Canadian electorate with lived experience of at least minimal electoral reform more or less likely to view non-minimal electoral reform kindly? And would they be more or less likely to believe the sort of nonsense promulgated by No2AV?

  2. A rigged consultation produces a plan for rigged elections. What a surprise.

    The consultation did not even include proportional representation. Despite that, the one public consultation meeting saw a strong majority supporting proportional representation.

    Many pundits have shown that preferential ballots in single-member ridings will help the Liberals.

    It’s as easy as 1,2,3 to stack the deck.

    Justin Trudeau rightly said (in Yellowknife Feb. 10, 2017): “I have heard very clearly that people think it would favour Liberals too much. And therefore I’m not going near it, because I am not going to do something that everyone is convinced is going to favour one party over another.”

    Or was he just biding his time? New Brunswick may have this in place for the 2018 election. Great promotion for the federal election the following year.

    • I am somewhat reluctant to get into discussing the strong version of the centroalternativism claim yet again, but what pundits have shown that AV will help the Liberals and on what empirical data did they base their conclusion?

      • If I might endeavour to help Wilf out a bit here, the most convincing analysis of the issue I’ve found was Eric Grenier’s article here . The flaw with such analysis is that it doesn’t look into whether the party system were to change in response to the new electoral system. But saying *all else being equal* AV would help the Liberals is probably right.

      • At the Electoral Reform Committee, the Liberal minority report did not even mention the alternative of the ranked ballot in single-member ridings. At the press conference on the filing of the Committee Report, Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Chair of the Committee) confirmed “no one wants the ranked ballot.” A huge step forward: all parties agree, the choices are proportional representation or first-past-the-post.

    • Special Minister of State Matthias Cormann and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Penny Wong are both familiar with AV and STV which have prevailed for their entire working lives as professional politicians. Both are familiar with the way AV and STV work not only from their experience as senate candidates but because Australian political parties use AV and STV to determine leadership positions and candidate selections. Both made gross errors in predicting the impact of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Most spectacularly, Wong predicted the disfranchisement of millions of electors as a direct result of optional preferences. If politicians familiar with the system are unable to predict its impacts why then should Justin Trudeau, who appears to be thought wrong on most electoral issues by most commenters at this blog (including me) suddenly acquire pundit status on this one issue and no other?

      The Grenier analysis, as discussed previously at this blog, has two decisive weaknesses. As Henry notes, Grenier assumes everything else is equal when we know that is unlikely to be true. Grenier relies on respondent allocation of second preferences which, apart from the ceteris paribus issue, also fails to address the Australian data on respondent allocation of preferences discussed in the next para.

      Grenier’s problem with respondent allocation of preferences is that it depends on Canadians with no experience of preferential voting being better at predicting their second preferences than Australians who have never voted by any other method. When polls in Australia estimate the 2-party preferred vote they find that using the allocation of preferences from the previous general election is more accurate than relying on respondent allocation of preferences. ‘If you voted your first preference for Party X who would you vote your second preference?’ is already quite a complicated question. It may be the third or later preference which is actually decisive so the actual polling is usually done by handing the elector a sample ballot and asking them to complete it. Prefacing the question with ‘If we had a completely different electoral system in which you have no experience’ makes the question very abstract indeed.

      Is there some sound empirical reason we can find that Justin Trudeau knows more about preferential voting than Cormann or Wong? Is there some sound empirical reason we can find that Grenier’s data-free zone is somewhere that we can find valid conclusions?

      Either there is some solid research using actual data that supports centroalternativism, or there is not.

      • Alan, the point I would make here is that respondent-allocated preferences do not massively skew polls in Australia (the skew, from what I’ve seen, is in the area of two to four points). The poll also seems to not have mentioned AV, and instead asked only about the ‘second choice’ of voters.

        I agree that the analysis is far from perfect, but I would venture to say that using an example from a country which already had a two-party system before the introduction of AV is more flawed. Existing context matters, and I don’t think we know nearly enough about the general operation of AV to draw broad conclusions that would override these domestic figures.

      • Before 1982 every doctor in the world ‘knew’ that gastric ulcers are caused by diet and stress. Gastric ulcers are actually caused by the microbe helicobacter Pylori. Brian Marshall, one of the 2 doctors who would ultimately receive Nobels for their work on h Pylori, on one famous occasion drank a petri dish of cultured h Pylori to prove it would give him gastric ulcers.

        The problem with the strong version of centroalternativisim, that AV always favours centre parties then Australia should show some evidence of this. The semistrong version, that AV sometimes favours centre parties is probably arguable, but it still requires real data and serious analysis and neither Trudeau nor Grenier meet that standard. One would also expect some discussion of centroalternativism outside Canada. I would offer only one small correction to your statement.

        The Commonwealth parliament had 3 major parties, Protection, Free Trade and Labor until 1910. At the 7 general elections before the introduction of AV only 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2017 produced two-party parliaments. By the 1919 election the parliament would be back to 3 parties. The Commonwealth Liberal Party which formed the government in 1913 and the opposition in 1914 was replaced by the Nationalist party before the 1917 election. Australia simply did not have a stable two-party system before the introduction of AV.

        ‘Everyone knows’ is no more conclusive for the diet and stress explanation of gastric ulcers than it is for the strong version of centroalternativism.

      • My view of the centroalternativism hypothesis, as you put it, is that in countries with an already existing strong centrist party, that centrist party will be provided with advantages by AV (at least in the short and mid-term). I don’t take the first four elections before the introduction of AV producing two-party parliaments as a serious challenge to my argument that there was no strong centrist party to be rewarded or punished in Australia when AV was introduced.

        I largely agree with you that Trudeau’s analysis of the system should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think you overlook the Grenier analysis too easily. Here’s another poll, from 2013, that asks much the same question. As you can see, the Liberals are the most popular second preference of both NDP and Conservative voters in every province bar Quebec, by in most cases wide margins that would be widened by the low chance of the Greens proceeding to further counts. Obviously, these polls are not perfect, but I think there is a very clear point that they are all making.

      • We in Canada are always amazed that the UK referendum’s stinging defeat of AV (68:32) did not bury it once and for all in countries with parliamentary democracy and a multi-party system; is AV a zombie system, that comes back from the dead? Not in Canada: during many months of parliamentary committee hearings in 2016, hardly any Canadian experts could be found who would advocate for it. Rest in peace.

      • That is a most persuasive argument. As Canada has defeated at least 5 times as many referendums on PR as Britain has defeated referendums on AV, does it not then follow from your argument that PR is five times as dead as AV?

      • PR has won majority support in two referendums in Canada: last November in PEI (open-list MMP), and the first BC-STV referendum. Closed-province-wide-list MMP has lost two referendums, as it frankly deserved to. That leaves the second BC-STV referendum, which perhaps showed BC’s geography would disfavour STV when a real map was produced. Lessons learned.

      • I’d offer a different explanation than the design of proposed new systems for the referendums failing or gaining majority: The level of systemic failure at the time. It had been high in BC up to 2005, whereas the functioning of FPTP had returned to something quite normal by the time of the second one. PEI has been in long-term systemic failure, as has New Brunswick (where the prior referendum was never allowed to go ahead). Ontario? Not so much.

        (Based on Shugart, in Blais, ed., 2008; key parts of the argument have been summarized here at blog entries on the various cases.)

  3. Yesterday’s New Brunswick election has produced the worst plurality reversal in Canada in 52 years, with a spread of 5.9% of the votes between the Liberals who won fewer seats than the PCs with more votes . In the Quebec election of 1966 the Union Nationale won more seats than the Liberals despite having 6.5% fewer votes.

    And the New Brunswick Liberals would NOT have been helped by a ranked ballot. Their problem is the huge majorities they are racking up in their strongholds, the other kind of “wasted votes,” the reason the Quebec Liberals can lose to the PQ with more votes piled up wasted in their federalist strongholds. The Liberals won over 54% in New Brunswick’s 12 northern ridings, and 56% in the 8 ridings of the Acadian Shore, the east half of Moncton and Dieppe.

    Suddenly the need for PR in New Brunswick is obvious.

    • And it may come…

      The Liberals are trying to hang on, the two minor parties both want electoral reform. (I think, I’m not certain what the People’s Alliance actually wants on any matter) A confidence and supply and electoral reform deal could give Gallant enough votes to win a floor vote.

      • “A confidence and supply and electoral reform deal could give Gallant enough votes to win a floor vote.” That’s not clear. Which major party can lead a coalition appears to depend on the outcome of recounts in two very close ridings. But taking the preliminary results at face value for a moment, the Tories and the People’s Alliance would have a majority, 25-24. The Liberals and Greens would not. Or am I missing something?

  4. “Francophone Tory MLA Robert Gauvin has already warned Mr. Higgs that he’s against any formal deal with the Alliance.” Newly elected in a very francophone corner of the province by a 99-vote margin, any deal with the anti-bilingualism party would be fatal to his prospects, especially if the next election comes soon as could well happen. So this legislature has too many moving parts for a simple analysis. As well, one victory was by 10 votes, another by 11 votes, likely candidates for a judicial recount, so stay tuned.
    Only one thing is certain: a 4-party House. Donald Wright, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick, says: “Darwin was right. Ecosystems need genetic diversity … finally, we have some in the legislature.”

  5. Does one reverse plurality in a FPTP election lead to electoral reform or does it have to happen twice in a row? Couldn’t the main parties enact electoral reform without a referendum or will such a reform be done once, and then be reverse at the next election a la France in 1986? Most European countries embrace PR and Australia (preferential vote) before, during, and after WW1 all without referendums except Switzerland.

    Electoral Reform in NZ came by accident by one of the major parties saying that they would have a referendum on the issue, then they didn’t do it, so the other party said they would hold the referendum, they were would hoping it would fail, (David Cameron did with the Brexit referendum), but it backfired on them spectacularly because both parties were so oppose to electoral reform that the people vote for it to spite them.

    • Not an accident at all. Electoral reform in New Zealand started with commissioning of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1985 which recommended the change to mixed-member proportional. It just took a while. Similarly, in Canada we had the Report of the Law Commission in 2004, and in New Brunswick, the Report of the Commission on Legislative Democracy in 2004.

      Quebec has an election October 1 in which all three opposition parties have agreed on a fleshed-out Mixed Member Proportional model to be introduced within the first year of a new government. Current predictions are not for a coalition but for a minority CAQ government, but the CAQ leader says he will honour his promise and bring in PR within a year, which will be passed by the other two parties in the PR alliance. No referendum required.

      • I’m increasingly persuaded that referendums on electoral reform, especially where neither politicians nor electors have experience of anything but FPTP are really not a good idea. Referendums with supermajorities are simply a farce.

      • Although without a referendum, you do kinda have to rely on the equilibrium brought about by the new electoral system to keep it in place.

      • In Australia, proportional representation is only entrenched by referendum in the ACT unicameral assembly and the NSW legislative council. Nevertheless, repeated attempts to move PR chambers to majority systems, or even STV chambers to a list system system have failed. The problem is when you have an electorate, and a political elite, with no lived experience of PR.

      • What Alan said. Hermens or No2AV would be laughed out of sight in Australia, much as you would be laughed out of sight in the UK if you tried to warn Britons that having a monarchy would mean King Charles II would feed his subjects to his dragons.
        (Actually, to truly translate the surreal absurdity of No2AV’s arguments you would need something more like “On 4 April 1968, a King was assassinated in the USA, and racial tensions increased. DON’T HAVE A KING!”)

      • I certainly agree with you that PR is generally stable because of elite and electorate experience, but I don’t see how ‘experience’ protects an electoral system for the first few elections, as would be the case in Canada. MMP was very unpopular in New Zealand at the 1999 election, and it’s not impossible to see how a more opportunistic government could have replaced it.

  6. How relevant is language as issue dimension in NB politics? With Liberals versus People’s Alliance on the opposing ends of the continuum?

  7. The CBC reports “People’s Alliance agrees to support a PC government in N.B. ‘bill by bill'”

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/kris-austin-people-s-alliance-election-higgs-gallant-1.4842748

    Rather than an agreement on confidence and supply, as in BC and NZ, this sounds more like the traditional Canadian minority government: each party (including the governing party) will be jockeying to find an issue over which to engineer the defeat of the government at the greatest advantage to themselves.

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