Electoral Reform in Canada

In the recent Federal Elections the ruling Conservative Party was ousted for the opposition Liberals. The Liberals have promised electoral reforms. What shape might they take?

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper


Canadian Prime Minister (PM) Stephen Harper was a good friend to Israel and a vocal critic of the Iran Deal. Harper’s incredible accomplishments include helping Canada through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He reduced taxes and made Canada one of the most business friendly tax environments in the developed world. He also ran budget surpluses during a time of economic downturn, demonstrating extraordinary fiscal restraint. He earned the admiration of many around the world and is a prime example of successful leadership in so many areas.

Election Results: Conservatives Blue, Liberals Red, New Democrats Yellow, Quebec Party Light Blue, Green Party Green.
Election Results: Conservatives Blue, Liberals Red, New Democrats Yellow, Quebec Party Light Blue, Green Party Green. (Google)

Harper’s government faced challenges recently as the decline in oil prices ended a major energy boom in western Canada. The slowing US economy has also hurt Canada, as the US is their primary export market. Neither of these factors was Harper’s responsibility. After nearly a decade of Conservatives in power, however, voters were eager for a change. As the map above shows, the Liberals made strong gains in the Maritimes and along the Atlantic Seaboard against both the more left leaning New Democrats and the ruling Conservatives. Of the total 338 seats in Parliament, the Liberals would take 184, the Conservatives 99, the New Democrats 44, the Quebec Party 10, and the Green Party 1.

2011 and 2015 Comparative Election Results (Courtesy BBC).
2011 and 2015 Comparative Election Results (Courtesy BBC).

With a landslide win, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party will hold an outright majority of the seats in Parliament. Trudeau, whose father was Prime Minister twice and is much celebrated by those on Canada’s left, will have to prove his leadership abilities over the course of this term. The Liberal’s agenda includes increases in the top tax rates, increased spending on social benefits, and increased spending on infrastructure and green energy; the traditional promises of the left. In this recession, give aways are especially attractive to voters. Harper’s government has maintained a balanced budget and has run several surpluses. The Liberal government will certainly have to run a small deficit in order to maintain current spending levels let alone to pay for their new spending regime. Will this produce the desired economic recovery? Unfortunately, not. Neither will have any impact on oil prices and the US economy. The Canadian economy will recover in time, the only question is, how much money will be wasted in the meantime?

Justin Trudeau Canada's Incoming Prime Minister
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Incoming Prime Minister (Courtesy CBC)


In addition to these reforms, Trudeau’s Liberals are interested in electoral reform. Trudeau has expressed a desire to prevent the largest parties, especially the Conservatives, from earning majorities in Parliament without earning a majority of the votes. This goal may backfire, however.

While he has spoken of the increased use of technology in the election process and other details, Trudeau has primarily targeted the so-called “first-past-the-post” election system which produces results like these. The Liberals landslide victory was fueled with just under 40% of the total number of votes cast. The current election system in Canada has its roots in early elections under the English Magna Carta, eight centuries ago. Yet, in the Anglo-American political world, first-past-the-post is the most common method for the election of legislative offices. Precisely what the Liberals have in mind is unclear, but there are plans to establish a committee representing all of Canada’s political parties to discuss possible reforms. What paths are available to them?

In the United Kingdom the Liberal Democrats proposed a majoritarian system, that is runoff elections for parliamentary seats when none of the candidates receives a majority of the vote outright. Instant runoff voting, or prioritized voting might also be considered to save the cost of successive elections. Runoffs would certainly change the election system, but it might not work out the way the Liberals intend. In a runoff between a conservative and a liberal, which candidate would other voters choose? One might expect New Democrat voters, for example, to choose the centre-left liberal candidate, but what of they choose to upset the Liberals by strategically voting for the Conservative candidate? Suppose the New Democrats beat out the Liberal in a given constituency to go up against a Conservative candidate in the runoff. Will Liberal voters elect the New Democrat, a candidate for a party that competes with theirs to the left, or choose the more centre-right Conservative? Likewise, in a runoff between a New Democrat and a Liberal will Conservative voters go with the more centrist Liberal or try to upset the Liberals by voting for the New Democrat? Add the Quebec Party and the Green Party to that equation and an even more complex dynamic emerges, especially in eastern urban centres.

In the State of California, the introduction of runoff elections was done such that any candidate from any party may be among the top two. This has led to having two candidates from the same political party on the runoff ballot. The idea was to encourage more centre-oriented candidates by allowing the opposition to choose the candidate in seats strongly controlled by one party. The net result, however, has been that the ruling Democrat establishment has only tightened its grip on the state’s political offices; it has reduced accountability. Giving the polity over to one party rule is hardly democracy.

Runoff elections might appear to improve democracy on the surface. Each constituency (or Riding in Canadian political parlance) would ultimately elect a single candidate with a majority of the vote, even if that candidate was not the first choice of some members of that majority. The narrowing of an election to two candidates, however, might very well undermine democracy in a four or five party system. Limiting democratic choices is not an excellent way to improve democracy. If Canada does choose to go down this road, instant runoff voting would be the most cost effective means. With so few parties, it would not be difficult for voters to select their second or third choice for office.

Proportional Representation

Suppose Canada were to choose a proportional system? In a proportional system voters cast their vote for political parties that receive seats in parliament according to their proportion of the vote. In the German System, considered a model for parliamentary systems, half of the seats are proportionally elected and the other half are from single member electoral districts called mandates, much like those common to Anglo-American countries. This is the two-vote system whereby voters vote for a party nationally, and vote for a local geographic representative as well. Parties still earn their proportion of the vote, but greater geographic dispersion of representatives results. Geographic dispersion is an important concern in a country as vast as Canada.

New Zealand

In a 1993 referendum, New Zealanders opted, with 53% of the vote, for a Mixed Member Parliamentary system based upon the German model. Of their 120 seat House of Representatives, half are from electoral mandates (single member geographic constituencies) and half are proportionally chosen. During most of the 20th Century, the centre-right National Party and the Centre-left Labour party were able to dominate parliament. The rise of significant third parties since the 1950’s led to the concern that the system was too little democratic. The shift to a proportional system, it was hoped, would lead to more centrist government. It is probable that many voters hoped it would lead to more left leaning governments.

In 1996, the first proportional election was held. Kiwis would find the results displeasing. The National Party won the largest parliamentary bloc, but had to form a coalition with the rightwing New Zealand First (NZF) Party. The coalition turned out to be disastrous. Soon, Prime Minister (PM) Jim Bolger found himself ousted for Jenny Shipley, the country’s first woman PM. The unpopular coalition would collapse in 1998. The following year, Labour would come to power in a coalition of their own under PM Helen Clark. By that time support for proportional elections had fallen to a mere 29% approval in opinion polls.

In time, support would increase again. In 2008 the National Party would return to power with a smaller coalition and they have won successive elections in 2011 and 2014. In a 2011 referendum on the subject, 58% of those who turned out voted in favor of maintaining the proportional system. It had taken years for voters to truly understand this electoral system and come to appreciate its clear benefits. The transition was, however, unpleasant, to say the least with many surprising twists and turns.

A Mixed-Member Parliament for Canada?

As with the example of New Zealand, a proportional system also may not work out the way Trudeau and the Liberals envisage. In proportional election systems a single party rarely receives an outright majority of seats, the result is that coalitions of two or more political parties are necessary to form a government. Under such a system, a coalition party may choose to depart the government if it feels it is not achieving its own ends; or if that party believes it stands to win from early elections. This element of instability is one that is quite foreign to Anglo-American political systems. New Zealand has been fortunate that only one government has fallen, but then New Zealand is one of the most stable and well governed countries in the world.

In first-past-the-post Parliaments, governments occasionally fall, elections are occasionally held early, but coalitions are rare. The United Kingdom (UK) just came off of a laboured coalition between the centre-right Conservatives (Tories) and the very leftwing Liberal Democrats. Voters seemed eager to restore a single party to office after this coalition, giving the Tories an outright majority in elections earlier this year. Coalitions are not going to be a pleasant prospect for voters in an Anglo-American political system, much as the first coalition in New Zealand was a disaster. The question is, how would the system function as it goes forward? Will voters come to appreciate the benefits of proportional systems or will they suffer from instability and poor governance? This cannot be truly known in advance.

If Canada had adopted the German System prior to this election how might results have looked? As a caveat, it is impossible to predict how voters might have responded differently to a proportional election system, so this assumption is not a completely accurate representation of such election results; it will, however, do nicely for a thought experiment. These results assume an electoral threshold of 3% as any higher threshold might have excluded one or two parties. The results would have been as follows:

Liberals 135, Conservatives 109, NDP 67, Quebec 16, Green 12.

Bear in mind that 170 seats constitute a majority. Thus, the Liberals would have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to form a coalition with their competitors to the left, the NDP, or a unity government with the recently defeated Conservatives.

It is possible that Canada could adopt a reinforced proportional system like that used in Greece. I have written on the subject before. In such a system a percentage of seats in parliament are withheld from the election and are awarded to the party that wins the popular vote. This election system also does not typically produce a majority party government, but it does strengthen the winning party’s faction in parliament and increases the likelihood of forming a successful coalition.

Leave Well Enough Alone?

While I have been a tireless advocate for proportional systems and electoral reform in the Anglo-American world, there are times when one must admit that perhaps no change may be better than trying to reinvent the wheel. Canada, like most British descended nations, has become accustomed to majority party government. Introducing a more fractious political system may not be the best approach to reform. Rather than open this particular Pandora’s Box, perhaps it would be best to leave well enough alone. Modernizing election technology and improving the process might be of value. Majoritarian reforms such as runoff elections or instant runoffs, might be experimented with. In the end, Canada’s democracy seems to work very well. The voters know what they are voting for and are able to achieve their desired ends.

About the Author
Isaac Kight earned his MBA at Bar-Ilan University in 2010. He served as a volunteer for the Knesset State Control Committee from 2009 to 2010. Isaac has a broad experience of Jewish community and religion in the US and Israel.