Not so long ago I had no idea there was any other way for Canadians to elect our government than the system we use now. When I began getting frustrated that no one I ever voted for ever got elected (no matter which candidate or party) it never even occurred to me the solution to my problem could lay in our voting system. All I knew was that the time I invested in Canada’s democracy ~ time spent learning about the candidates and issues and then voting for the candidate I thought would best represent me ~ the whole process had proven to be a futile exercise. In more than 30 years of voting, no one I had ever voted for got the chance to represent me in Ottawa. Or Queen’s Park, for that matter. It got even worse when I moved back to my home town to raise my family, because it was a “safe seat.”
Since there didn’t seem to be any point to voting, I began wondering why I should keep doing it. Every time an election rolled around, there was a lot of talk about how awful our low voter turnout. But maybe all those Canadians who weren’t wasting their time casting ineffective votes were smarter than I.
The lightbulb only went on over my head when I found myself listening to what people were saying at local Fair Vote events. They talked about why 39% of the votes shouldn’t equal 100% of the power. That made more sense than what happens when 39% of the voters elect a majority government. I learned that the only reason we use this system is because it was the same system England had been using… a system forged in the middle ages. Nor did I realize that a large part of the problem with our Westminster plurality electoral system had not even been designed to be democratic until I heard Canadian electoral system expert Dennis Pilon tell this to the ERRE Committee.
The reason is that the system was not designed to be democratic. Its origins are in the pre-democratic era, and it has been kept in place for electoral self-interest. Canadians have struggled to make their system democratic despite these institutional barriers. Proportional representation systems, by contrast, were designed to represent voters effectively, even if the motives of reformers were not always democratic.”
At first I felt pretty silly for not having figured it out myself. But the more I learned, the less foolish I felt. The first time I saw the John Cleese on Proprotional Representation video (yes, that John Cleese), I was a little jealous that our British friends found out about Proportional Representation decades ago. But I have to tell you, I was shocked when I discovered they hadn’t adopted it for UK General Elections in spite of the clarity Mr. Cleese brought to the subject. Although the new voting systems established for Scotland and Wales are proportional. Just as Ireland uses Proportional Representation.
The more I’ve learned about proportional Representation the more flabbergasted I am to realize more than ninety countries around the world have adopted Proportional Representation systems but Canada has not. But not for want of trying. Most Canadian electoral reformers date the need for Proportional Representation to the 1920’s, when Canada shifted from being a two party system to a multiparty system. The reason for this is that when you have a 2 party system, whoever wins a First Past The Post election will have has done so with an actual majority of votes. But because FPTP is a plurality system, the winner needn’t have a majority.
Still, even before we had more than 2 parties, not everyone was happy with our system.
There have been Canadians looking for electoral reform since before Confederation when the British government decided to pass The Act of Union amalgamating Upper Canada (Quebec) and Lower Canada (Ontario) in 1840. Each province received 42 seats in legislature. Unsurprisingly French Canada got the short end of the stick because of it’s larger population of 697,084. This meant on average 16,597 French citizens shared a representative, while an average of only 10,849 English Canadians shared a representative. Naturally the French Canadians protested this, clamouring instead for Representation by Population or “Rep By Pop”… or at least until the English population began outstripping the French when the tables turned.
In the late 19th Century, noted Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming offered a thousand dollar reward for anyone who could come up with a better way to elect our parliamentarians in An appeal to the Canadian Institute on the rectification of Parliament (1892) So there have always been Canadians dissatisfied with the inequities inherent in our system. And over the years there have been changes made, it took a while, but we finally managed to achieve universal that allowed every adult Canadian, regardless of race or gender to have a vote. Bur even so, Canada’s democratic deficit has been growing. In recent decades, our system more and more Canadians have disengaged from politics, leaving the job of voting up to only about 60% of the eligible voters. Even more alarming has been the fact a growing number of Canadians have largely stopped voting for what they actually want because they know there is little or no chance of getting it. After all, we live with a system in which a party seeking the dismantlement of Canada managed to become our Official Opposition Party decades before the NDP could. The fact is that voting “strategically” — not for the candidate who will best represent us, but for the candidate we think is the least worst. So many Canadians feel compelled to try to game the system that doesn’t work for us is a sure sign we are not getting the representation we want and we dare not even try.
The main reason for all of this is that our FPTP system does not deliver the results most Canadians want. When a party with a 39% plurality wins the election, that means 61% of eligible voters didn’t vote for that party. But the way our system works, that party can walk away with 100% of the power, because the winner only needs to get more votes than the others to get majority power. (And that is without factoring in the uncast votes of the 40% of eligible voters a constituency comprised of more eligible voters than those who voted in a 39% majority Liberal Government in 2015 or a 39% majority Conservative Government in 2011. In our multi-party FTTP system, we get far more phony majorities than actual majority governments. As the Liberal Party did in 2015, and the Conservative Party did in 2011.
The problem with disproportional results is too many voters don’t get representation in Parliament. And the problem with phony majorities is that a Majority Government without the support of a majority of voters has the power to make policy and law without the support of a broad base of Canadians. That’s why proportionality is important.
The Liberal Party promised electoral reform during the 2015 election, and the system we have gives them the power to deliver. And they have. The LPC Government has gone so far as to accede to the NDP request to restructure the composition of the Parliamentary Committee studying electoral reform to be proportional. These are good signs.
The ERRE Special Committee on Electoral Reform has been tasked with consulting with Canadians to find out what we want out of Electoral Reform. The ERRE Committee is reaching out to Canadians in a variety of ways, both online and off. One of the most important pieces of the process ought to be the ERRE Committee’s Cross Canada tour so they can consult with ordinary Canadians face to face.
This is a natural part of any consultation process. Earlier in the year I was the photographer for all 5 Fair Vote Waterloo delegations to the Waterloo Region MPs elected in 2015. Fair Vote asked each Liberal MP to do what they could to bring the Electoral Reform Committee to Waterloo Region. So I was surprised when I saw that Waterloo Region was not included on the itinerary the ERRE Committee had set out for the real world part of the consultation.
Some of my Fair Vote friends have suggested Waterloo Region might have been omitted because their group is so active here. After all, Waterloo Region might even be considered responsible for the fact the Federal Government is holding an Electoral Reform Consultation at all.
As the Honorable Bardish Chagger wrote,
The Liberal Party electoral reform policy plank, which received wide spread support from Liberals across the nation, originated right here in the Waterloo Region as a grass roots initiative within the Liberal Party Membership. It was one of my proudest accomplishments, as the past president of the Waterloo Federal Liberal Association, to work with a team of fellow volunteers dedicated to electoral reform.
I can understand why the ERRE Committee wishes to to seek out and consult with Canadians who are not as well informed about electoral reform issues as some Waterloo Region residents are, but I see no good reason for the ERRE Committe to avoid ordinary Canadians who do have some understanding of the issue. Isn’t the point of a Parliamentary Consultation to consult with all Canadians, to find out what Canadians might want from electoral reform — even those who might already know what they hope for from electoral reform?
That is worrisome.
But even more worrisome is the proposed ERRE Committee Itinerary.
ERRE Cross Canada Consultation
Ontario Population: 13.6 million (January 1, 2014)
Population: 8.215 million (July 1st, 2014)
1. Québec, Québec
2. Joliette, Québec
3. Montréal, Québec
Population: 4.631 million (Jul 1, 2014)
1. Victoria, British Columbia
2. Vancouver, British Columbia
Population: 4.146 million (Oct 1, 2014)
1. Leduc, Alberta
Population: 1.282 million (Jul 1, 2014)
1. St-Pierre-Jolys, Manitoba
2. Winnipeg, Manitoba
Population: 1.13 million (Oct 1, 2014)
1. Regina, Saskatchewan
Population: 942,926 (Apr 1, 2015)
1. Halifax, Nova Scotia
Population: 753,914 (July 1st, 2014)
Fredericton, New Brunswick
Newfoundland and Labrador
Population: 526,977 (July 1st, 2014)
1. St. John’s, Newfoundland
Prince Edward Island
Population: 146,283 (July 1st, 2014)
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Population: 37,174 (est Jan. 1, 2016)
1. Iqaluit, Nunavut
Population: 44,291 (est Jan. 1, 2016)
1. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Population: 37,193 (est Jan. 1, 2016)
1. Whitehorse, Yukon
I have no problem at all with this Parliamentary cross Canada Consultation stopping once in Nunavut, twice in B.C and Manitoba, or even 3 times in Québec. The point is to consult with Canadians across the country.
What I simply can not understand is how the ERRE committee can limit its itinerary to a single stop in the most populous province, Ontario.
• 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!