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.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

No events are scheduled at this time.


Global Times: BRICS summit displays the potential of a new future

by Editorial Staff (feat. Swaran Singh), WSFA 12, June 24, 2022

Oil's Dive Won't Bring Any Immediate Relief on Inflation

by Alex Longley, Elizabeth low, and Barbara Powell (feat. Amrita Sen), BNNBloomberg, June 24, 2022

China To Tout Its Governance Model At BRICS Summit

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), The Asean Post, June 23, 2022

Soutien aux victimes d’inconduites sexuelles dans l’armée

by Rude Dejardins (feat. Charlotte Duval-Lantoine), ICI Radio Canada, June 23, 2022

Defence: $4.9 billion for radars against Russian bombs

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), Archynews, June 23, 2022

The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

by Elin Hofverberg (feat. Natalie Loukavecha), Library of Congress, June 22, 2022

What the future holds for western Canadian oil producers

by Gabriel Friedman (feat. Kevin Birn), Beaumont News, June 22, 2022

At BRICS summit, China sets stage to tout its governance model

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), Aljazeera, June 22, 2022

Crude oil price: there are no changes to the fundamentals

by Faith Maina (feat. Amrita Sen), Invezz, June 22, 2022

Few details as Liberals promise billions to upgrade North American defences

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Andrea Charron), National Newswatch, June 20, 2022

Defence Minister Anita Anand to make announcement on continental defence

by Steven Chase (feat. Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2022

Table pancanadienne des politiques

by Alain Gravel (feat. Jean-Christophe Boucher), ICI Radio Canada, June 18, 2022

Russia Ukraine conflict

by Gloria Macarenko (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Radio One, June 17, 2022

New privacy Bill to introduce rules for personal data, AI use

by Shaye Ganam (feat. Tom Keenan), 680 CHED, June 17, 2022


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email