On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Issues in Canadian elections

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Canada elects its national House of Commons in single-member electoral divisions (called ridings). Since the political party system in Canada is now a well-established three-party one, this is generating significant problems with the political legitimacy of the House.

In the French-speaking province of Quebec a fourth major party – the Bloc Quebecois – exists. Further, the composition of the nation’s conservative parties has mutated over recent decades, and there are currently provincial variations. Finally, in the province of British Columbia, there is no seperate conservative party, but it has effectively combined with the province’s Liberal party.

When the Trudeau government came to national office in late 2015, one of its signature election commitments was that 2015 would be the last ‘first-part-the-post’ election. A public enquiry process would be undertaken to determine the best alternative voting system to elect the House.

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform was duly established, and the Committee did indeed carry out a very thorough public inquiry during the second half of 2016.

Your correspondent was one of a large number of submitters, and this ‘brief’ (the term for a written submission to a Canadian parliamentary committee) sets out a range of opinions and arguments relating to the Canadian electoral problem, with comments on both electoral system choices and also on the fundamental nature of a system of ‘representative and responsible government’, and its implications for electoral system choice.

(Alas, the submission at 6,000 words was longer that the requested 3,000 words, so the Committee secretariat politely informed me, given that hundreds of submissions were flowing in from Canadians, that it would not be translated into French nor posted on the inquiry web page.)

Unfortunately, the electoral reform inquiry process was hindered from the start by the fact that every political party had a preferred voting system as their desired outcome.

The Prime Minister and the governing Liberal party appeared to favour preferential voting in single-member electorates (or ‘alternative voting’), as happens in Australia, calculating that they would benefit well as the centrist of the nation’s three main parties, leaving aside the impact of preferences from voters supporting minor parties such as the greens. The preferential  voting method, whilst certainly more representative than plurality voting, would have produced a fascinating variety of outcomes in the four-party scenario in Quebec, where virtually every combination of two of the four parties would have finished first and second in one of more of the provinces ridings..

The New Democrat Party, and most smaller and regional parties, referred party-proportional representation, but there were divisions about whether to do this by seat allocation systems, the mixed-member proportional hybrid, or by direct election using single transferable vote (STV) system.

The Conservative party position was for no change at all, including the tactical demand that change should only happen after a national referendum (which, in a very divided climate, could reliably be expected to yield no public majority for any change proposal.)

Nonetheless, the inquiries’s preliminary papers, the mountain of submissions and hearing transcripts, and the public debate during the consultation process amounts to a very commendable reform effort. Several Canadian provinces have also seen vigorous reform debates in recent decades.

But in the end, the final report of the Parliamentary Committee, while an excellent body of research and analysis into electoral issues, essentially handed the ball back to the Canadian government to choose a reform proposal.

Early in 2017, and citing the indecision of the parliamentary committee, Prime Minister Trudeau broke his election promise, essentially dumping electoral reform as a government project. The original minister responsible for electoral reform (Maryam Monsef MP) was replaced with a new minister (Karinya Gould MP), who was effectively tasked with doing nothing on the matter. On 3 April 2017 minister Gould released a final response to the Committee, essentially closing down the process.

For the moment, it looks as if the Canadians will need to carry on with the current electoral system.

April 2017

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