The Canadian Electoral Reform Debate

Background

The legacy of British rule over Canada, Canadian elections are held under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. The country is divided into electoral districts, or ridings, where parties nominate candidates to run for election. The candidate elected then becomes the riding’s representative in the Canadian Parliament, with the party with the most representatives typically forming government.

Although it is one of the most stable forms of government, First Past the Post is often criticized for not being representative of the population. Having the majority of the vote in the ridings, or the overall popular vote, is not necessary for an electoral victory. In fact, only three governments since 1950 have won the election with more than 50% of the popular vote, as a plurality in the individual seats is what is needed to win.

Proponents of the First Past the Post system argue, however, that the alternative is no better. Whatever form of Proportional Representation would replace it would not be able to deliver a stable government. Coalition governments would collapse frequently, and policy sacrifices would have to be made in order to retain other parties’ support. As well, many fear that the introduction of Proportional Representation would introduce into the House of Commons many smaller fringe parties that would prevent any one coalition or party gathering more than 50% of the Members of Parliament.

2015 Federal Election

During the election that would bring to an end the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the Liberal Party, under Justin Trudeau, promised to reform the Canadian electoral system. Unveiling his platform at a rally in August of 2015, Trudeau announced that within 18 months of being in power, the Liberal Party would announce a new electoral system, and implement it by the 2019 election, so that the 2015 election would be the last election held under FTPT.

Brampton. October 4, 2015.
Justin Trudeau revealing his platform at a rally in August 2015

Quickly gathering support, the Liberal Party was swept to power on October 19th with a strong majority government, yet garnering just 39% of the popular vote.

Appointed the Minister of Democratic Institutions on November 4th, Maryam Monsef was to begin the process of reform.

Special Committee on Electoral Reform

On June 7, 2016, the Liberal Party moved to create a special committee to consult with Canadians about possible electoral systems, and to prepare a final report by December 1st, 2016, that would outline a new system, and the process required in which to implement it.

The Liberals quickly drew criticism from the Official Opposition and the NDP. Initially, the composition of the committee was to be like any other: by proportion of seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals would get six seats, the Conservatives three, the NDP one, and the Green Party and the Bloc Québecois would each get a non-voting seat. However, the pressure placed on the government by NDP MP Nathan Cullen caused Monsef to change the committee: now the Liberals would have five, the Conservatives three, the NDP two, and the Green and Bloc Québecois one each.

The members of the committee were then to travel around the country to host town halls and consultations with Canadians, to gauge support on the issue and to gather ideas for possible systems. By October 16th, the Committee had wrapped up its studies and began preparing the report.

The Major Parties’s Stances

The Liberal Party of Canada

In the 2015 election platform, the Liberal Party committed to abolishing the FTPT system. The Prime Minister has voiced personal support for a form of mixed-member preferential ranking system, but has also said he would listen and take into consideration the results of the Special Committee’s report in December.

Criticism arose following the 2015 election, when Trudeau and the Liberal Party began to signal that electoral reform would not be coming in 2019, if at all. In an interview with Le Devoir, on the 1 year anniversary of his election victory, Trudeau said the following:

“A lot of people I’ve talked to have said, ‘Oh yes, we really, really wanted electoral reform because we had to get rid of Stephen Harper, but now we have a government we sort of like so electoral reform just doesn’t seem as much of a priority anymore”

-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, October 19th 2016

This drew harsh words from the Opposition and the NDP, who claimed that this was yet another example of the Liberals over-promising and under-delivering.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party maintained its position that it would continue with consultations, and that while no decisions would be made until the presentation of the report, the final say would be the Prime Minister’s.

The Conservative Party of Canada

rona-ambrose
Interim Leader of the Official Opposition Rona Ambrose

Following the 2015 election, the governing Conservative party was removed from a majority government, and reduced to the Official Opposition. Prime Minister Stephen Harper resigned as the leader of the party, and Rona Ambrose took over as Interim Leader. Although officially opposed to electoral reform, the Conservatives say they would support putting any proposed change to a referendum. Demanding that the Liberal Party hold a referendum, Interim Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose pushed for the Liberals to change
their mind, lobbying both in and out of the House of Commons. Citing the need for Canadians to express their opinions, the Conservatives have said they would vote against any reform not voted on by the people. For their part, the Liberals have so far only committed to seeking “broad consultations” with the people of Canada, and have not committed to anything further.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada

After the 2015 election, where the NDP also campaigned on electoral reform, the Official Opposition was relegated to third-party status. Taking much of the blame for the loss, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was removed by NDP delegates at the March 2016 convention, although he would stay on as Interim leader until the leadership selection in 2017.

Even before the election the NDP sought to abolish FPTP. In 2014, a bill was tabled by the party, calling for an end to the system, and a commitment to establish Proportional Representation by 2019. The bill was defeated by a majority, as the Conservatives, and half of the Liberal caucus, including Justin Trudeau, voted against it.

In their official platform, the NDP promised to establish Proportional Representation in Canada. Since the election, this has been further clarified to mean a Mixed-Member system, similar to those of Germany and New Zealand, and the one proposed by Justin Trudeau. The NDP has, since the announcement of the Special Committee and Justin Trudeau’s comments about the reform, fought to reduce Liberal control over the issue, including removing their majority on the Committee.

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