A graph comparing the percentage of popular votes won by each party in the 2021 federal election compared to the seat count.
Fair Vote Canada (Colour code: Liberal–red, Conservative-dark blue, Bloq–light blue, NDP–orange, Green–green, PPC–purple.)

So, one more federal election, one more failure to get the results we voted for, one more missed opportunity to change our archaic and unfair electoral system.

You may remember the last real opportunity.

It was 2015, and the Liberals were in deep electoral doo doo. The party’s already shaky support in public opinion polls was cratering, thanks in part to their opposition to the Conservative government’s anti-terrorism bill.

Justin Trudeau seemed destined to join the likes of Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff as the latest Liberal losers to perennial Prime Minister Stephen Harper, becoming yet another one-term Liberal-leader asterisk in Canadian political history.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, our then prime-ministerial-wannabe (who is now our third-term prime minister), pulled a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket out of his back pocket.

His magic words? “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

Justin Trudeau declared it thus. And declared it. Over and over. According to the opposition, he said it at least 1,800 times in the leadup to the Oct. 19, 2015, vote.

Electoral reform became a concrete pillar in that year’s Liberal election platform.

It worked. And no wonder.

Canadians were clearly looking for a bigger something new and different that year. Although the Liberals weren’t the only party promoting electoral reform in 2015 — “63 per cent of voters cast ballots for parties that said they would make every vote count” noted Policy Options in 2017 — Trudeau’s promise captured the popular imagination. As Trudeau himself noted in a slightly different context: “Because it’s 2015.”

The idea wasn’t even all that new. There had already been more than a dozen “previous studies and consultations that all recommended adding proportionality to the voting system.”

Globally, proportional representation reality was far from radical. More than 80% of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a collection of close to 40 wealthy countries who all describe themselves as democracies — already had some form of proportional representation.

Canada?

Using Canada’s skewed political math, 39% of voter support often equaled more than 50% of seats in the House of Commons. In the 70 years since World War II, in fact, there had been 16 “majority” governments in Canada, only four of which had earned more than 50% support among voters.

In 2015, of course, Trudeau’s Liberals themselves would go on to win just 39.5% of the popular vote but 54% of seats. As Kelly Carmichael, the then-executive director of Fair Vote Canada, put it starkly in Policy Options in 2017, “a mere 4.6 million Canadians [of 17.4 million voters out of a national population of nearly 36 million] voted for the 184 Liberal MPs who currently hold power.”

And yet… there’s the sandpaper rub in the snake-oil Liberal reform promise.

The Liberals won that year — as Liberals often do — precisely because we have a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Which led — as it so often does with eyes-always-on-the-prize Liberals — to a post-election, post-haste Liberal retreat.

The Liberals did appoint an ass-covering all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform. It spent $600,000 holding hearings in every province and territory across the country, occupied 217 hours in committee meetings and compiled a 333-page report “recommending major changes to the country’s voting system,” including a national referendum on switching to some form of proportional representation. Some percentages worth noting from that process:

  • 80% of citizens who attended committee-organized town halls asked for proportional representation;
  • 88% of experts who made submissions to the committee (and indicated a system preference) recommended proportional representation;
  • The committee’s own survey found 71.5% of Canadians wanted a system that “respected voter intention where the proportion of overall votes match the percentage of seats in the House of Commons.”

The Trudeau government’s response? The report was “largely rejected by the Trudeau government within hours of its release,” reported the Hill Times.

Trudeau claimed there was no consensus — see above — and therefore he wouldn’t go forward with any sort of electoral reform at all.

And he hasn’t. In our most recent election campaign — the second since his original promise — Trudeau insisted, for photo-op purposes, that he remained open to getting rid of the first-past-the-post system, but it was no longer a priority since there was “no consensus.”

“If ever there is more of a consensus,” he declared two days before Canadians went to the polls, “it could be interesting to follow up on, and I’d be open to that.”

How open? Consider the results of the 2021 election. This time the Liberals actually lost even the popular vote. They got 33% compared to the Tories’ 34%  but will get to form the government because they spread their vote more “efficiently” over the country’s 338 ridings. The Tories racked up huge majorities in a limited number of western ridings, winning just 119 seats, while the Liberals managed to snaggle just enough votes to win in more different ridings, winning 158 seats.

How likely do you think it will be that the Liberals bring in electoral reform in this term? Your first two guesses don’t count.

Support for other parties is just as skewed but in different ways. The NDP won 17.7% of votes cast but ended up with just 7.4% of seats. The Greens got 2.3% of votes cast but just 0.6% of seats. Maxime Bernier’s right-wing People’s Party, on the other hand, won 5.1% of votes but got no seats at all.

Wait a minute! If there was simple proportional representation, that means the right-wing, anti-vaxx fringe PPC could end up with 20 seats! Who wants that?

Not me, but I’d rather have those marginal views represented in the House of Commons where they can be countered than in the streets where their fringe frustrations can grow unchecked.

Besides, as Fair Vote Canada, a lobby group for proportional representation in Canada, points out, simple proportional representation in Canada — a geographically huge country with many regional interests — would not be the most likely-to-be adopted system to accurately reflect the country’s political views.

Instead, Fair Vote Canada’s experts prepared two simulations of the 2021 election outcome based on the most commonly recommended proportional representation systems for Canada: single transferable vote (STV), or mixed-member proportional (MMP).

The short explanations:

  • Single Transferable Vote: several local ridings are merged, and voters collectively elect several MPs using a ranked ballot (allowing them to mark candidates 1, 2, 3 etc. in order of preference).
  • Mixed Member Proportional: voters elect both a local MP in a larger riding using first-past-the-post and one or more MPs that serve the entire region. The regional MPs, selected by voters from an open list, compensate for the distortions of the first-past-the-post results and ensure that the overall seat totals for each party more closely reflect their share of the popular vote.

The envelopes please:

Fair Vote Canada

And Mixed Member Proportional:

Fair Vote Canada

In the second scenario, the Liberals would still win narrowly. In the first, the Tories would win, also narrowly. In either case, they would need the support — as the Liberals do now — of some combination of smaller parties to effectively govern.

The big difference — and it is big — is that all the parties’ seats in parliament would more closely reflect our support for them.

In a democracy, can that be a bad thing?


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Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Elected politicians should not be the only, or even primary, deciders on whether or not to optimize the system for how they get their jobs, nor what that system should be. As another poster mentioned, the net should be cast widely for the most optimal system. Surely in a world that is changing exponentially we need to evolve. This would apply to our entire democratic practice, not just the process of voting.

  2. We have seen this type of analysis from Fair Vote Canada time and time again.

    It is based on a core assumption that, when I vote, I am voting for a political party represented by this candidate. What if this assumption is wrong, at least for some Canadians, and maybe for an increasing proportion of Canadians?

    Perhaps Canadians want to vote for individuals who have skills, knowledge, and experience, relevant to being a parliamentarian. Many municipal and territorial elections use this idea. Perhaps Canadians want to vote on policies related to specific issues, and a balance that is not reflected by any political party (for example: strong climate change actions, targeted social programs, and a balanced budget).

    I believe it is time to think “out of the box”, and stop assuming that political parties are the right answer.

    Fair Vote Canada have proposed a citizens assembly on electoral reform. That is a good idea, if the process remains wide open to many different options and assumptions.

    1. “…a core assumption that, when I vote, I am voting for a political party represented by this candidate…”
      That is mostly the case in my experience.
      All the focus groups, the opinion polling, the slick, expensive advertising and the cute TV debate one-liners lead to that outcome. It’s all about The Leader.

      Sure there are some folks who actually know their local party candidate and would vote for them no matter what party they stood for but they are an increasing minority IMHO. Party electoral district associations look for just such trusted, saleable people to package and market under the party brand. We send them off to The House confident they will represent the values and priorities of our electorate only to find them return as franchisees and sales reps of The Party which demands they vote as directed by The Leader and speak only “talking points” supplied by Head Office.

      Their prime jobs are to both form a human tally that decides which party governs and to represent The Party to us first before representing us to The House, although it’s that latter role that pays their salaries and generous pensions. They have become electoral proxies for The Party, whose public face is The Leader. Come election time, most voters will elect their preferred party leader through these proxies – who will be unfamiliar names for most. I recall a story about an Ontario voter some years back feeling confused because he came to vote for Stephen Harper but couldn’t find his name on the ballot.

      It’s not just our parliaments that are controlled by self-serving political parties. They also dominate our electoral politics to the point that it’s virtually impossible for independents to compete against the finances and volunteers of party machines.

      A Fair Vote Canada citizen’s assembly will begin from the assumption that electoral reform must be some flavour of proportional representation.

      Look how well that has worked for Israel over the last few years, finally returning a fragile coalition government that includes small extremist parties advocating policies that at times sound close to genocide. Look how well it worked for Italy since World War Two.

      Right now Germany is going through a PR election that will eventually return another grand coalition. This is where the centre right CDU/CSU and the centre left SPD, unable to govern in their own right and unable to form a coalition they can control, end up forming a coalition with each other and smaller parties. The result is that in order to hold the coalition together no strongly progressive nor strongly conservative bills get passed. Once again, the interests of the parties will be put above those of the nation.

      It seems to me that ballot systems that require a FPTP vote for a local candidate and another for a party list candidate further enshrine the power of political parties within our democracy. In these days of growing hyper-partisan madness, that’s the very last thing we need. Instead, I believe we should be looking for ways to reduce the power parties have over elected representatives and over elections, not increase it further. Some flavours of proportional representation “top up” the seats they actually won to become a proportion to which they feel entitled by appointing un-elected party people into The House to sit alongside elected Members.
      No thanks. I believe every Member should only be in The House because they were elected by a majority of their constituents.

      I believe we need a ballot system that puts more power in the hands of voters, not parties. One that is unlikely to return unstable or unexpectedly extremist governments. One where the simple act of filling out a ballot represents strategic voting by default. One where nobody can win a riding with less 50% voter support.

      I believe Canada needs a Ranked Ballot.

  3. All of which ignores the fact that PEI has 4 MPs in a House of Commons with 338 members. Based on population PEI should have just 1.4 members of parliament. The argument also fails on the grounds of not knowing why people choose to vote the way they do and that voters would have no say in who represents them. Messing with the electoral system may be acceptable if voters were allowed to vote on a budget or other important issues. Perhaps we should have a greater focus on how municipal government works and how to make it more responsive to residents.