If you are looking to place a small wager on which election promises the new Liberal government in Ottawa will or will not be able to keep, consider this possibility. You might place a toonie on the proposition that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will NOT be able to keep his promise to make 2015 the last federal election to be fought using our traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.
In horse-race parlance, FTPP means that the horse that crosses the finish line first wins the race and collects the prize money. In the electoral world, FPTP means that the candidate who wins the most votes in a constituency gets the seat. The other candidates go home empty handed. The successful candidate does not have to record a majority of the votes cast; a plurality (more than anyone else) will suffice.
Projecting constituency results onto the national electoral map, it means a party can win a majority of the seats with only a plurality of the total votes cast across the county. This is what usually happens in our multi-party system. Only twice in memory has a party collected more than 50 per cent of the national vote. This feat was accomplished by John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney in their landslide victories in 1958 and 1984, respectively. Pierre Trudeau never managed it, nor did Jean Chrétien or Stephen Harper.
They all won a majority of seats without a majority of votes, leaving them with what political scientist Peter Russell calls “false majority” governments.
That’s what we have today: a majority (or false majority) Liberal government with 54 per cent of the seats (184 out of 338) earned by taking just 39.5 per cent of the national popular vote.
Replacement of FPTP is a popular cause among opposition politicians, who prefer minority governments to the majority variety. It is also popular among academics, who envisage an ideal electoral world in which Commons membership is a perfect mirror of the public will as expressed in the popular vote. Political historian David Mitchell calls replacement of first-past-the-post “the Holy Grail of democratic reform.”
But replacement with what? That, as Mitchell acknowledges, is the nub of it. The Liberals, sensing public dissatisfaction with the existing system, say they want to change it but they don’t know what they want to change it to. They are refusing to put the issue to a national referendum because they don’t know what question to ask.
Instead, they propose to dump it into the lap of an all-party parliamentary committee. This may be a good use of the under-utilized committee system, but the Conservatives fear the Liberals will use their majority in the Commons to impose their will, regardless of what the committee may recommend. So the Conservatives are threatening to blockade any reform that does not include provision for a referendum.
The prime minister sort of likes a preferential ballot, also known as the single transferable vote (STV). With STV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate achieves a majority, one in the last place drops off and their second-choice votes are distributed among the remaining candidates. This continues until someone has a majority.
Also in the picture are various forms of proportional representation (or PR), including the mixed-member proportional system (MMP), as adopted in New Zealand. In these PR systems, seats are allocated on the basis of popular vote to candidates drawn from lists provided by the political parties. The problem: the parties get more power over the election while constituents lose connection with whomever is designated as their MP.
Without a clear question, a referendum would be dog’s breakfast. And it is worth noting that referendums to change the system of voting have already failed in Ontario (in 2007), Prince Edward Island (2005) and British Columbia (2005 and 2009).
Voters may not be wedded to FPTP, but they will have to be persuaded that a better option clearly exists. This will not happen overnight.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]