Liberal move on electoral reform: Big on goals, short on principles

by David McLaughlin

The Globe and Mail
May 16, 2016

On electoral reform, the fix is in. Call it the “big short” – short on principles, short on timing, short on legitimacy.

In the game of political poker, the Liberal government’s formation of a Commons committee to recommend a new federal voting system that is not the current first-past-the-post system is what one would call a “tell.” It calculatingly chooses the principles the government wants to guide Canadians to a new electoral system. It gives the MPs only six months to report. And it leaves to a majority vote of Liberals, not a majority vote of Canadians, the final say.

The starting point of principles for the committee is a good one. Electoral systems should reflect the most important democratic values of society. But the list of values offered is tellingly incomplete. It promises not a debate on what should be the best voting system for Canada, but a frame for the preferred system the Liberals are channelling.

Even then, only four of these values actually pertain to voting system reform: effectiveness, legitimacy, inclusiveness and local representation. But the principle of “effectiveness” is cast only in fairness of votes translated into seats, not effectiveness of government as an outcome. So we are down to three values – all valid – but perhaps the shortest list of democratic principles ever to guide such an important exercise.

This meets the Liberals Party’s platform test but does it meet the test of Canadians?

Instead, the seven guiding principles (which are grouped, curiously, as five) leave no place for recommendation of any system other than a mixed-member proportional representation (PR) system or ranked ballots, which is an alternative voting system. This is by virtue of the last principle cited: local representation. Any new system has to allow voters to choose their individual member of Parliament. Only those two systems can co-exist with that obligation.

Significantly, no principles focus on what kind of government would emerge from a reformed system, an omission by commission that ignores the most important purpose of a voting system: to elect a government that can govern.

Governments and Parliament must be effective to govern. First-past-the-post typically, but not always, gives majorities to parties, allowing them to do just that. Achieving that with PR systems can be done but is much more difficult. The purer the PR system, the more difficult it is.

Coalition governments, a common feature of PR systems, are born from compromise. Smaller parties can gain outsize influence if their seats are the ticket for the larger party to form government. The issues a party campaigned on may not be implemented. Shorter-term governments, another common feature, can prove more cautious and less bold in their actions. Government stability and staying in power will typically override policy progress.

Considering reforms to the electoral system without contemplating government outcomes flowing from it – minority, coalition and short-term governments – is democratically misguided and willfully misleading.

The Liberal pitch for change is clear. It has merit. The current system’s inadequacies are well-documented and worth review. Canada has changed and our voting system must reflect societal and democratic values together. There is a constituency for change out there.

Considering how to change voting systems isn’t new in Canada. But five provinces that did this each took about two years to do it, not six months. Each proposed a two – or three-step process involving the legislature, independent commissions or citizen assemblies and in four cases, a referendum.

The Liberal majoritarian plan is a marked departure. It shortens the time for necessary citizen education and engagement and undermines the legitimacy aspect of giving Canadians a say.

If the fix is in, it is the Conservatives who may yet hold the trump card in this high-stakes game. Their relentless demand for a referendum to approve any new voting system is the highest of high ground. It is the single, clearest way to confer legitimacy on a project that affects all Canadians.

If the all-party committee process persists in a shortened discussion of electoral reform, then the public should at least have its card to play. Otherwise, it all falls short.

David McLaughlin was deputy minister to the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy, 2003-2005.


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