How people elect parliaments
Canada has a newly elected national parliament, but its composition is very wrong.
In fact, the party parliamentary caucuses in the new House of Commons are unrepresentative of the Canadian voting population in important ways.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will continue in office, because although his party lost its former (2015-19) majority of the House seats, there is no combination of other parties in the new chamber which will agree on any replacement.
But the Liberals will govern without the reliable ability to pass legislation – even annual budgets – and they will face much greater scrutiny from the House and its committees.
The political situation is a reminder that Canada’s democratic system does not directly elect governments, but only elects parliaments. The system then relies on those (ideally) representative parliaments to replace unwanted governments, and to shape the behaviour of incumbent governments through parliamentary control over legislation, public money, and debates on public controversies.
Canada’s electoral legislation has long maintained the system of electing the House through a network of single-member electoral districts, the effect of which is to distort the composition of the House in favour of a political party which happens to have plurality support in the electorate. The result is most often artificial party majorities in the House, protecting the government not only from removal but from serious challenge to law-making, budgetary decisions and political accountability.
The UK House of Commons, legislatures across the United States, and national and state electoral systems in Australia, India, and numerous other nations also distort the composition of their parliaments in this way.
In last month’s Canadian national election the system failed to protect the governing Liberal party, as it’s voter support fell backwards. Voters in Canada are proving to be volatile in the way they support their multiple political parties, and they are doing so with striking geographical differences across the 10 provinces of the confederation.
The Canadian parliament elected last month is actually the third in the past five elections to see a government without a majority of sitting MPs from Its party. Canada’s complex party-political diversity has become the norm.
Canada made a highly significant contribution to the historical development of the system of representative and responsible government used by most democratic nations. While the ‘mother parliament’ in Britain evolved slowly during the 19th and 20th centuries, originally with a very limited franchise and other defects, people and governments first in Nova Scotia (1845) and later in other parts of Canada, as well as Australia and other countries, established new and cleaner versions of the system of government we recognise today.
But as modern political parties took shape in the democratic nations during the mid-late 19th century, the politicians of the day cottoned on to the fact that legislating for single-member electoral districts would help generate artificial majorities of seats in parliament for the parties that were leading in any given election.
The manufactured results of this electoral system design in fact contradicted the very idea of ‘representative’ parliaments, as well as underlining the accountability of ‘responsible’ governments (that is, governments accountable to parliaments for their operations and for continuing in office).
Parliaments with minority governments that cannot dominate the legislature – such as the Canadian one that will serve from 2019 to 2023 – make governments more democratically accountable.
But even though the coming term will see a government subject to constraints, a major current problem for Canadian democracy is that the national party caucuses that make up the House of Commons are all wrongly constituted, because the electoral system still works to generate very imperfect representation of actual Canadian voters.
The party caucuses are all wrong in size and makeup
In theory, all Canadian voters are represented equally, and enjoy such equal representation regardless of where they live – but that’s not the reality.
Let’s start with the governing Liberal Party’s new caucus, which is both too large, and represents Liberal voters in some provinces far more powerfully than in others.
In Canada at the present time, based on the number of people voting and the established number of seats in parliament, roughly 46,000 voters should collectively elect one MP.
But across the prairie provinces, Liberal voters are dramatically under-represented. In fact, across the two provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, over 356,000 voters wanted to elect Liberal MPs, but will have not a single representative in the new parliament. (Nearby Manitoba will return just 4 Liberal MPs.) That issue is getting media attention at present, because the Trudeau Cabinet will now be unable to have ordinary ministers from the two western prairie provinces.
Liberal voters in British Columbia will be moderately under-represented by MPs, at the rate of about 1 for every 57,000 voters.
Liberal voters in Quebec are going to be slightly over-represented, getting MPs at the rate of just 1 for every 42,000 voters. This is actually a sharp fall from the position in the last parliament, during which there was a large over-representation of Liberal voters. (It is largely this shift in Quebec voter support which has cost Trudeau his former parliamentary majority.)
In the nation’s largest province, the relatively homogeneous Ontario, Liberal voters will also be noticeably over-represented, with 1 MP for every 36,000 Liberal supporters.
Most strikingly of all, the new Liberal parliamentary caucus has a very disproportionate number of members from the four smaller Atlantic provinces, with roughly one MP for every 20,000 voters. (In 2015 the Liberals had in fact won almost all the 32 seats to these four provinces, denying virtually any representation to voters there who supported other political parties. The drop back to a less extreme Liberal over-representation was the other main contributor to the loss of the pre-election Liberal parliamentary majority.)
All of these variations mean that the political make-up of the Liberal government caucus is distinctly imbalanced. Across the country different Liberal voters – and with that different political opinions and priorities – get sharply different degrees of influence in their party’s national group of MPs.
Finally, the new Liberal caucus is also too large overall; if Liberal voters were represented in a fair balance with voters supporting the other political parties, the party’s caucus would have around 115 members, but in fact 157 will be sworn in to the new Parliament.
Turning to the largest opposition party caucus, that of the Conservative Party, there are similar problems of striking misrepresentation.
In total, the Conservative party caucus is around the right size; it should have around 117 MPs if its voters were represented in fair proportion to those of other parties, and in fact it will have 121.
The fact that the Conservative caucus should actually be slightly larger than the Liberal caucus – if all Canadian votes were of equal value – has attracted a good deal comment since the election. The Conservatives narrowly won a plurality of the total national vote – 34% to the Liberals’ 33% – but are actually gettingg a significantly smaller caucus than the government.
In any case, like the Liberal caucus, the Conservative caucus is strikingly distorted. Maritime province Conservative voters are quite poorly represented; the 373,000 Conservative voters there should have around 9 MPs, but only 4 will be actually seated.
Conservatives supporters in Quebec are also slightly duded; they will get 10 parliamentary representatives, instead of the 13 they deserve.
Conservative MP numbers are also a little low from Ontario, with 36 Conservative MPs instead of 40 that, if votes were equal, should come from that province.
Manitoba Conservative voters get 7 Conservative MPs – which happens to be just the right number – and those in British Columbia will send 17 to parliament – just over the 15 that would be a fair delegation.
But the Conservative caucus will be strikingly over-populated with MPs from Alberta and Saskatchewan, with 47 MPs instead of a fair number of 33. (Another 7 Conservative MPs, roughly the right number, will come from Manitoba.)
So the Conservative opposition will be dominated by the political policies and culture of western prairie Conservative MPs, which are on many issues quite different from those of conservative voters in other regions of the nation.
These striking provincial distortions of the composition of the two largest parties will impact seriously on Canadian political decisions. As the Liberal government struggles to maintain control of the political agenda, both the government and opposition caucuses will be pursuing policy directions that will unduly favour some provincial political cultures and aims, and ignore others.
The caucus distortion problem is even worse for the representation in parliament of voters who decided to back the smaller political parties.
Canada’s third-largest nationwide party is the New Democrat Party. Instead of a delegation of around 54 members, which would represent their supporters equally and also in fair proportion to voters of other parties, there will be just 24 NDP MPs.
Moreover, the severely shrunken NDP caucus will come disproportionally from a few concentrated population areas in Ontario and in British Columbia.
Around 480,000 NDP supports in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba should get around 10 representative MPs, but they will actually have just 4 MPs, with none from Saskatchewan, and just one from Alberta. The NDP has a strong history in the prairie provinces, with distinct political views, but the party’s voters will be massively underrepresented in the new Ottawa NDP caucus.
The NDP’s voter support in Quebec fell dramatically at this election, from over a million voters to 464,000. In response the party’s previously representation of Quebec voters, at 16 MPs, has fallen to just a single remaining MP from one small urban district in central Montreal, leaving NDP voters across the rest of the large province unrepresented.
Canadian voters backing the Green Party are even more shabbily treated by the current electoral law. To be represented equally in parliament, there should be a caucus of around 21 Green MPs, with membership from almost all provincial regions (only in Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan is Green voter support so low that no MPs might be elected).
Instead, there will be just three Green MPs, two elected by local districts at the southern end of the island of Victoria in British Columbia, together with one MP from the city of Fredericton, New Brunswick.
This severely under-represents the contribution to national political decisions which nearly 1.2 million Canadian Green voters wanted to elect.
The final player in the new parliament is the Bloc Québécois party, which ran candidates only in the province of Quebec.
Nearly 1.4 million voters have this time strongly backed the party, and they will be getting 26 MPs, at close to the fair national average. Ideally, there would be 32 Bloc MPs.
But the specific localities within the province from which these Bloc Québécois MPs come (mainly rural and regional areas) will leave many of the party’s urban supporters unconnected to an accountable MP.
So every one of Canada’s significant political parties has a caucus in the new House of Commons which is mis-representative of the voters around the nation who support each party.
Most of the caucuses are also too large – or too small – in total, warping the political strength of the parties in Ottawa, and thus distorting the electoral influence of voters of all political opinions, in the four years ahead.
No wonder voters of all political opinions are disillusioned with electoral politics.
One final striking fact: the proportion of the nation’s voters who successfully elected an MP anywhere (even with distorted levels of influence) stands at just 32% of Canadian citizens registered to vote. 34% of those who were registered turned out to cast a vote last month, but did not get the representation they wanted. The remaining 34% did not even turn out to vote.
How did this come about?
All of these distortions of voter influence, and of the composition of the party parliamentary caucuses, are the direct result of the single-member division approach to electing MPs, which was created in the 19th century. This electoral system design and heavily criticized ever since (although not so often by the governing political parties, who enjoy the exaggerated political power which the system creates).
The situation in the Canadian national parliament is particularly bad by international comparison, due to the unusual combination of political parties which are winning voter support across Canada, together with the fact that the patterns of party support vary greatly across the different regions of Canada.
But the same distortion occurs in other nations with similar single-member district systems. (In Australia the outcomes of this electoral design are eased a little by preferential (ranked choice) voting, and are also improved by the very high turnouts generated by Australia’s system of compulsory voting.)
Around the world, many of the national and regional parliaments in Canada, Australia, the UK, the US and several other nations are actually dominated by political establishments which have, through their control of the legal details of electoral systems, substantially liberated themselves from the original principles of ‘representative’ and ‘responsible’ government.
This is no accident. None of the national constitutions of the countries mentioned in this post actually require electoral laws that create single-member electoral districts. Governing politicians legislated these electoral systems into existence at specific points in the past.
The legislators in office today could reform these systems, but most simply do not wish to.