Canada’s current electoral system results in disproportional representation. This is breathtakingly apparent when you look at the back to back “majority” governments we’ve had. The thing that hits the eye with these two election result graphs is the almost identical consecutive wins achieved by different parties. The 2011 Conservatives won a phony majority with 39% of the vote, just as the 2015 Liberals won a phony majority with 39% of the vote. This is a winner take all system, so that’s the only part of the graph that matters.
But looking at the details, you can see a clear picture of the unfairness in the system.
In 2011 the Bloc Québécois won 4 seats with 6% of the vote. In 2015 the Bloc Québécois won 10 seats with only 4.7% of the vote.
I don’t know about you, but I just can’t get my mind around the idea that fewer votes can more than double a party’s seats in Parliament.
In these two elections, the Green Party outcome was consistent, winning 1 seat with approximately 3 percent of the vote.
While the Green Party’s 3-4% of the vote only won a single seat in Parliament, the Bloc’s 4-6% won four and ten seats respectively. Such crazy math in the “easy to understand” First Past The Post is one of the reasons Canadians are likely to say “I don’t understand politics.”
There is a reason for the disparity between the two small parties. While both parties suffer from the inequity in our Winner-Take-All system, the Green Party’s support is spread out across the Canada but Bloc voters are concentrated in the same geographic region. With more Bloc voters in a riding, the party has a much better chance to win seats.
With our single member plurality electoral system, the party that wins a majority of seats wins a disproportional amount of power. This gives the candidate (and party) with the most votes the win.
Not just any win, THE win.
For a candidate, that means s/he is elected to be the only representative — and the only voice — for the electoral district where s/he was elected. For a political party, that means a majority of seats, even though that party failed to win a majority of the votes cast. And whenever anyone talks about electoral reform, that’s pretty much what everyone looks at: how our system works for political parties.
Too often forgotten in discussions of electoral reform is how our system works — or doesn’t — for the Canadian people.
Politics isn’t a job creation program for politicians, it is supposed to provide citizens with representation in Parliament so our laws and policy reflects what citizens want and need.
Our representatives are elected in single member electoral districts: that means each district elects only a single Member of Parliament who is expected to represent everyone in the electoral district. That’s what Canadians are used to, and I (like most of us, I suspect) have long thought this is how it has to be because this is how it’s always been. And yet I’ve learned Canada has used a variety of different voting methods in different parts of Canada over the years. Although our MP can help us all equally if we bring them an administrative problem that requires cutting through bureaucratic red tape, or sometimes find a compromise that will satisfy most citizens, when it comes to policy, none of us can realistically expect an MP who campaigns in favour of one issue to fight against it after they have been elected.
As you can imagine, it isn’t often we’ll hear any sitting MP talking about this problem in public; so it was pretty impressive to hear former Guelph MP, Frank Valeriote admit this publicly during his last term of office.
What ordinary people expect from democracy — what we are told to expect — is that our MP will represent us. But the reality is that one person can’t possibly represent the opposing views of a hundred thousand constituents.
This is why multi-member districts — larger electoral districts which elect multiple MPs — are a great idea. When more than one MP is elected in a district, more than one view from the district can be represented in Parliament. And after all, isn’t that the point of democracy?
Electoral Reform for Greens
Small parties almost always favour Proportional Representation because small parties and independent candidates are the most disadvantaged by winner-take-all systems. The graph shows us just how badly the Green Party of Canada fared in 2015. We all know that it was even worse in 2008 when almost a million votes failed to elect any Green candidates at all. From the outside it looks as though the Green Party is doing badly… worse, in fact, than 2008. Although I haven’t done a scientific study, or even conducted a public opinion poll, I don’t believe that for a minute.
Green supporters don’t often stop thinking green thoughts or wanting a sustainable future or believing green policy. But in the face of an electoral system that makes it nearly impossible to get candidates elected, intelligent people very often switch to other parties in desperation. Although we are all very much aware of the bigger parties appropriating Green policies, we don’t often realize this is often because Green supporters have brought them.
This is not just a Canadian problem; this is a feature of the First Past the Post electoral system. If we look across the pond we can see the UK has the same problems with FPTP as we do. In some ways even worse, as it took four million votes to elect a single UKIP MP in their most recent election.
Politics is not simply a numbers game. Even though most Canadians haven’t really understood why our political system fails to work the way we think it should (by providing us with representation), most of us have known the system is badly broken for a very long time. And since the system has not been working for us, so many Canadians have fallen under the spell of strategic voting in vain hopes of gaming the system to make it work for us.
I can’t tell you how many times during the campaign that people told Bob how much they wanted to vote for him but felt they couldn’t. One of the very worst things about all this strategic voting is that because so many Canadians are not voting for who/what they want, the reality is there is no way to tell what most Canadians actually do want. It’s kind of like not having accurate census data: in the absence of fact, the government is free to do whatever it likes. Especially when a single party holds a majority. And it is worse still when it’s a phony majority, as most of ours are. Since 1945 there have only been 2 majority governments a majority of Canadians voted for, and before that, only 4 Canadian “majority” governments in Canada were actually elected by more than 50% of the vote. And defenders of the status quo try to paint coalition government as undemocratic!
Proportional Representation for Canada will mean larger electoral districts which have more than a single MP, and they will almost always result in coalition governments. Far from being undemocratic, majority coalition governments are elected by an actual majority of voters!
Some people think the political parties advocating for electoral reform to Proportional Representation are doing it because it will give them an advantage. This is simply not true. Proportional Representation would most certainly improve the lot of the smaller parties, but not by giving them an unfair advantage, but by removing the unfair advantage the winning party gets under our winner-take-all system. Proportional Representation is intended to ensure the votes each candidate and/or party earns is reflected in the power they get in Parliament.
Small parties suffer systemic discrimination in the Canadian system. Even with sitting MPs, the Green Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois are treated as equal.
The argument is that neither party has enough seats in the House of Commons to be counted as an official party.
But political parties are required to jump through bureaucratic government hoops to get registered by the government before any candidate is allowed to compete in an election under the party banner. Federal Registration is how a political party gets on the ballot and becomes a real party. Why isn’t a “Registered Party” an “Official Party”?
So where did this crazy idea that a party with a sitting MP is not a real party until X number of candidates have been elected come from? If there was ever any doubt about the fact “X” is a purely arbitrary construct designed to privilege the two largest parties, it was dispelled in the aftermath of the 1993 Canadian election when the Progressive Conservative Party was reduced to two seats. At that point an exception was made to allow the Progressive Conservative Party to retain the special perks of “official party” status even though it had only 2 seats. In spite of the fact the Canadian electorate had just unambiguously indicated that party should no longer be so entitled.
So while the Progressive Conservative Party whose governance angered an overwhelming number of Canadians was allowed to retain its privilege, a Green Party with 2 sitting MPs was not an “Official Party,” any more than the Bloc Québécois is today with 10 sitting MPs.
If the number of votes needed to elect a Member of Parliament was consistent, the Green Party would have earned enough votes to elect 16 MPs in 2015. Which ought to be more than enough to achieve official party status even in our Winner-Take-All world. But the system we have in place is not about fairness for Canadians, it’s about keeping the real power in the right hands.
The idea that any candidate who wins an election and goes to Ottawa to sit as a Member of Parliament should be denied the same rights and respect as any other MP is not only ludicrous, it is undemocratic.
The problem is not so much that the candidate or the party is discriminated against, although that certainly isn’t fair. The real trouble is that the citizens who elected these MPs are being discriminated against. Our winner-take-all system has allowed the deck to be stacked against small parties and independent candidates, but worst of all, against citizens.
A million and a half Canadian voters who ought to be entitled to representation — even in our terribly unrepresentative representative democracy — have been relegated to second class status.
The Committee Has Landed
Now the Liberals have finally announced the electoral reform committee, and I am rather put out at its announced composition. The pessimist part of me (worried the Liberal Party is merely going through the motions with a pre-determined outcome ahead) was kind of expecting something like this. Particularly after the NDP’s Nathan Cullen’s made a public proposal for a proportional committee. That the Government chose to ignore Mr. Cullen’s proposal undermines Liberal talk of overcoming partisanship. Winner-take-all voting systems inherently discourage parties from working together, even when they are in full agreement because working together might help the other party to be the single winner and lock your party out. If the Liberal plan is to come out of this with Alternative Vote (another winner-take-all voting system) this would make a lot of sense.
Although the Greens and the Bloc have been invited to the supposed “all party committee,” their participation has been limited to second class status as they are not allowed to make motions or vote.
But that’s okay… they’re not “official.”
Those calling for a referendum on whether we should have electoral reform have said there is no mandate for any such a change since the Liberal Party was only elected with 39% of the votes cast. I have argued that even though the Liberal Party was not elected by a majority of citizens, a clear majority of citizens voted for parties supporting electoral reform. This broad base of support for electoral reform does indeed provide a mandate for change. But any way you slice it, the election we just had did not deliver deliver a broad base of support for unilateral electoral reform imposed by the Liberal Party. Referenda are not now (nor have ever been) a part of Canada’s political framework. This means first that no Canadian government has any constitutional requirement to have one for any reason. But what it also means that any government that chooses to have a referendum has absolute freedom to do it any way they like. Which makes it inordinately easy for our referendums to be designed to fail.
Canadians have been trying to get electoral reform for a long time. We are at a point now where we no longer have the luxury of sitting on our hands and waiting for some benevolent government to give it to us. That is simply not going to happen. I suspect the real reason electoral reform is on the table at all is due to the growing frustration Canadians have felt with a “representative government” that doesn’t function as advertised. Although Canadian governments have no qualms about ignoring what Canadians want in the regular scheme of things, but they are clever enough to listen to public opinion that is loud enough.
What we can do
Still, most Canadians are not aware of the importance of electoral reform, in large part due to the absolutely stellar job the mainstream media has done in ignoring the issue or publishing misinformation about it. There is no doubt in my mind that New Zealand’s success in adopting Proportional Representation had a lot to do with the fact some of the mainstream media supported it, and so the public actually got enough public education to be able to make an informed choice.
While we do not have that luxury, what we do have is the Internet, alternate media and social media. We need to keep talking about this publicly, online and in person. The beauty of social media is that it means we can share links to articles with our family and friends without having to get into arguments at the family picnic.
- Every time you go online, share a link to something helpful like this Proportional Representation for Canada series
- or my PR video playlist.
- You can get started with the PR 4 Canada Resources conveniently located in the sidebar.
- If you’re on Twitter, check out the #ProportionalRepresentation or Proportional Representation #CDNpoli hashtag,
- if you’re on Facebook join group like the Proportional Representation Canada Discussion Group or CDNpoli or to find links to share,
- no matter which social media you use, search the site for “Canadian Politics”
Even though we don’t control the mainstream media, we have the Internet.
- Write letters to the editor,
- correct misinformation in the comments under MSM articles,
- join Fair Vote Canada
- a political party of your choice,
- or leadnow and volunteer
- call, visit or write you MP to make sure s/he knows you want Proportional Representation.
If we want Proportional Representation, if we want to make the world a better place for our kids, we have to do what we can now, before the window of opportunity closes.
What this really boils down to is that all Canadians are entitled to representation in Parliament. There are many ways to do that, but they all involve some form of Proportional Representation.
Sign and Share Elizabeth May’s
Proportional Representation Petition
The Broadbent Institute has an electoral reform petition too:
as does Leadnow:
• Proportional Representation for Canada
• What’s so bad about First Past The Post
• Democracy Primer
• Working for Democracy
• The Popular Vote
• Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
• Why No Referendum?
• Electoral System Roundup
• When Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey
• Proportional Representation vs. Alternative Vote
• #ERRE #Q Committee
• #ERRE #Q Meetings & Transcripts
• Take The Poll ~ #ERRE #Q
• Proportionality #ERRE #Q
• The Poll’s The Thing
• DIY Electoral Reform Info Sessions
• What WE Can Do for ERRE
• #ERRE today and Gone Tomorrow (…er, Friday)
• Redistricting Roulette
• #ERRE submission Deadline TONIGHT!
and don’t forget to check out the PR4Canada Resources page!
The photo Nathan Cullen in Montreal ©by Jonathan Allard was released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license, so my “Nathan Cullen’s Proposal” graphicgraphic is also shared with a free culture Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Parliament Buildings by Roger Duhamel is in the Public Domain