Electoral Reform is Finally on the Political Agenda

A couple of days back, Ed Broadbent, Hugh Segal and I published an op-ed making the case for some form of proportional representation. Yesterday the government announced its process for assessing a range of options to make 2015 the last federal election under our first past the post system. And today the editorial pages are awash with commentary on what kind of reform and what kind of process we need. Electoral reform is now, officially, on the political agenda.

This is one of those issues that prompts either eye-glazed indifference or inflamed passions. For some, me included, electoral reform is a prerequisite for democratic renewal. For many others it’s an inside-the-bubble issue of little direct relevance to the things that matter most to our everyday lives and our future. That latter group has likely expanded during this extended political honeymoon period given that a majority of Canadians, regardless of how they may have voted, seem relatively content with the direction of the government and the country.

The hunger for major electoral reform no doubt increases the more dissatisfied we are with the government our system ended up granting authority to. But electoral reform does matter.  We do deserve something better than our winner take all approach. And, finally, we do have an historic opportunity to strengthen our democracy, to fix some of the problems with our current system that undermine unity, exclude voices, and erode trust. The strength and legitimacy of our democratic institutions matter profoundly to our ability to solve our collective action problems from inequality to climate change. We must not squander this opportunity.

It should come as no great surprise that a government that garnered a majority under our current arrangements would proceed with caution, even reluctance, on this issue. Indeed much of the discourse on electoral reform is framed in partisan political terms: which parties would win and which would lose under this system or that  (as if parties wouldn’t adapt to change). In any case, this interplay between partisan interests and democratic policy is one of the reasons that process matters so much. As the Toronto Star editorial puts it, it’s almost banal to say that democratic reform should be undertaken democratically but, especially given the high partisan interests, this deserves particular attention.

As Andrew Coyne points out, while most of the process debate revolves around whether or not a referendum is essential, this is not the first issue. Referenda can too easily be manipulated for example in how the question is phrased and where the threshold is set. Whether or not a referendum is deemed essential, what matters most is what comes before. How hard has the government tried to achieve all-party consensus or at least created a truly multiparty approach which is and is seen to be fair and representative? How hard has the government worked to ensure that Canadians are given the information they deserve on the options under consideration? How hard has the government worked to ensure the kind of democratic discourse that ought to precede any such major reform? I suppose as a former public servant it comes as no great surprise that I would argue that process matters. But, frankly, it’s pretty troubling that some would dismiss a commitment to engaged democracy as mere process. Process matters. Democracy matters.

That also suggests that the proponents of reform ought to use language that promotes rather than cuts off such discourse. That means a recognition that no system is perfect and no reform fixes all our democratic deficits. Whatever system we opt for must be designed for Canada; it must, in particular, respect and reflect our federal structure and regional, social and cultural diversity. Design matters. Details matter. Indeed much of the criticism of proportional representation is based on PR designs that would and should never be implemented in Canada. Specifically, we would never adopt, nor has any of the many electoral commissions recommended, a proportional system that did not put local and regional representation – and accountability – at the centre of its design.

Yes, I am one of those who believes that a well-designed proportional system is crucial to strengthened democracy and, to repeat, it would be tragic or at least foolish to squander this opportunity. Success will require not just the right outcome but also the right process getting there. Indeed, if we do find the vision and courage to undertake serious reform, given the stakes, it makes sense to build in a requirement to review how the new system worked and to provide an opportunity for Canadians to assess the consequences.

35 Responses to “Electoral Reform is Finally on the Political Agenda”
  1. Alex: This is what I wanted to say! Thanks for putting it so well. Ignore my hopeless little posts. Andy

  2. megannety says:

    The winner is quite happy with the process; the losers, thinks some other way is better. I sincerely hope that someone, anyone can bridge these 4 or 5 solitudes without the kind of rhetoric that is flowing from the advocates of proportional rep. But then, I’ve always wanted to live in Italy.

    • himelfarb says:

      It’s fascinating that Italy, as much as I love that country, is trotted out by PR’s opponents when they might choose Germany or Denmark or Norway or the majority of advanced democracies.

      • Mark Greenan says:

        Alex, perhaps those opponents trot out Italy, because they are not interested in an informed and informative debate about proportional representation?

      • himelfarb says:

        You may be right – certainly the opponents of change have used Italy as a cautionary tale often with little knowledge of Italy or the many other countries with PR.

  3. Mark Hammer says:

    I was trained as a contextualist. That is, as psychologist, I look for how circumstances shape the individual, rather than what happens in spite of circumstances. So I’m generally biased to make attributions towards structural and experiential factors, and less towards things that one may consider as intrinsic to the individual.

    My own view is that, in politics, there are things that stem from structure, and things that stem from character and culture. The current urge to change the way electing is done strikes me as a reflection of the perceptibly obstinate winner-takes-all political culture that emerged over the past several decades (perhaps aided and abetted by the 24hr news cycle and the general tone of electronic popular culture and reporting).

    But what those restless for structural change neglect is that ANY party always has the option to be consultative, co-operative, and act in the broader national public interest, instead of indignantly declaring “My house, my rules”, and using every device available to retain such power. The choice to be the one or the other is not a function of the structural features of government and the electoral system, but of the deliberate decision to set partisan politics aside for a bit, and nudge the culture in a different direction.

    Conversely, would structural changes, such as a shift to some other form of how votes translate into HoC representation, *necessarily* produce a change in attitude amongst those elected? Yes, perhaps they would not have any “false majority” to club others over the head with, but would they automatically behave any better? And would any better behaviour we see NOT be the result of the same deliberate decision to adopt a more consultative and cooperative approach that I tout as pivotal to the existing electoral format?

    I realize there is a hunger for having other viewpoints better represented in the House, and some see other electoral forms as assisting that. But imagine a house like the Israeli Knesset, with a dozen or more parties, and a persistent need to form viable and stable coalitions. Yes, every little marginal group could point to a party and say “Those are my guys”, but would Parliament get any more done? Would they reach wiser decisions and better legislation than by simply consulting, cooperating, and having the Senate, Supreme Court and the various Agents of Parliament to tap them on the shoulder and gently say “Um, that’s not gonna work”?

    I’m not adamantly opposed to electoral reform or democratic reform in the grand scheme. But I think we always have to stop and ask what we want and need in the *behaviour* of those elected, and whether such behaviour can be more successfully shaped by structural changes to democracy and government, than by conscious changes to political culture prompted by character and popular pressure.

    Though I’m sure the current government will have no shortage of opportunities to stumble, and will likely lose steam after a period of time, as nearly all non-dictatorships do, they have amply illustrated so far that it IS possible to nudge the culture in a different direction without requiring structural changes.

    • himelfarb says:

      Interesting though surprisingly evidence free – the empirical data on electoral systems does suggest they do make a pretty powerful difference. Putting that aside, you’d think that representativeness would be a pretty important value in a representative democracy and that, notwithstanding the importance of local representation, shared geography shouldn’t be the sole or even major basis for determining representativeness in a modern, diverse, pluralistic society.

    • himelfarb says:

      I should add that I find it fascinating how often Israel and Italy come up in these discussions when in fact the majority of democracies and the vast majority of OECD countries have adopted some version of PR so how about Norway or Denmark or Germany or Sweden or New Zealand … And of course electoral reform on its own is insufficient and design matters.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        I suspect those countries come up because they represent what many are afraid could happen, rather than because it is dead certain that *would* happen.

        As for the role that “shared geography” ought to play, I think we would be wise not to ignore it. The nations where PR is in place and functioning well are nowhere near the size of Canada. I’ve had the good fortune to have lived in St. John’s, Fredericton, Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, and Victoria, and have driven the width of the country several times. It is just SO many very different places. And for very understandable reasons, all those places are comforted by the idea of local sensibilities representing them.

        At the same time, when it comes to matters of national public policy, I think I would rather have consultative national parties with local representation attempting to form policies in the national public interest, than a constellation of local parties each competing against each other. But what I’d rather have can, I suppose, easily crumble under the weight of the way in which population and share of the economy is distributed in this country, and the manner in which that impels the prioritizing of regions in forging policy.

        A government can be as national in orientation as it wants, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to ignore where the votes are. I don’t say that in any cynical way. I understand that many worthy initiatives take more than a single term of office to bring to life and full and sustainable implementation, such that re-election is a means to support the initiatives, and not simply secure “power” as so many seem to believe. Election allows one to see things through. What I am sorely under-informed about is the extent to which PR helps, hinders, or is agnostic, with respect to those longer time-arc initiatives.

        To some extent, the national experience of the last decade was a sort of “revenge of the regions”, where an ostensibly national party tried to “correct” an undeserved neglect of the 50 years that preceded it. So I’ll be among the first to say that engineering (or preserving) an electoral system that ONLY encourages national parties is no panacea for pitting region against region, or thinking in tribal ways. In the same way that patriarchy and sexism can manage to find a way into just about any religion, bad political habits can always find their way into any political or electoral system.

        You’re quite correct that I say this in an evidence-free manner. But I’m just saying how I feel, and where my own sentiments lie. And, yup-eroonies, design matters VERY much.

        As a side-note, the public and media response to the announcement of an electoral reform committee the other day was discouraging. To my mind, a great deal of the cynicism I saw in print bespeaks a lack of familiarity with how HoC committees are composed, how they function, and what their role is.

        I’ll stop rambling and get back to work now. 🙂

      • According to “The Politics of Voting” (2007), Italy had many changes of ‘government’ (akin to cabinet shuffles) over the past half century, but actually had fewer elections than Canada. In fact, some critics alleged the problem with Italy’s government was that it was TOO stable. So, Italy doesn’t prove that PR causes instability. It’s up to the voters and politicians.

      • himelfarb says:

        Exactly – and of course, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland – to name a few – also have PR and stable government

      • himelfarb says:

        As you put it Maxwell, in PR it’s pretty much up to the voters

  4. himelfarb says:

    For the record – and to repeat – all of the electoral commissions ever struck in Canada recommended some version of PR and not one recommended a version that ignored local or regional representation. As for the rest, given that most democracies use some version of PR there’s pretty abundant evidence of how they are working – and they are working – some of course better than others and not all suitable for Canada – because as you say, design matters.

  5. debdavemg says:

    Gents, thanks for entering into this discussion. I sense already a media slant that the committee is not balanced in a true bipartisan manner. Keep us informed about your comments/criticisms of the coming process. We value your opinions.
    Dave Hughes.

  6. Andrew Hall says:

    As a life-long Maritimer, I am very interested in how a PR system could incorporate (1) the necessary guarantees of regional representation, and (2) give the necessary weight to our major cities which were never anticipated as major economic drivers of our economy and never adequately accounted for in the original 1867 design of Confederation. Just to go through a process which highlighted and legitimized these issues would be a worthwhile outcome in making Canadians aware of who we are and might be.

    • himelfarb says:

      Good questions. Here are the major pr approaches that incorporate local representation. The Dion version http://thetyee.ca/News/2015/11/05/Repair-Damaged-Democracy/ which is a variation of http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/single-transferable-vote and the mixed approach http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/J31-61-2004E.pdf

    • Jared Milne says:

      That’s why people in my own province of Alberta-agreed on by various Newfoundland leaders at different times-has also advocated a Senate that still allows for regional representation.

      Whether it’s the Triple E Senate, where every province gets 6 Senators regardless of its size, or one that I prefer, where each province has a specific number of Senators based on multiples (e.g., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick might each have 4 Senators, while Saskatchewan has 8, and Ontario has 16, for instance), plus regional vetoes on things like Constitution changes, the Senate might counterbalance the smaller parts of Canada being swamped in the Commons, particularly if party discipline continues to be as stringent as it historically is in Canada (and which we as Albertans have been frustrated with for a long time).

      • Mark Hammer says:

        We shouldn’t confuse HoC electoral reform with Senate reform. Matthew Mendelsohn, formerly of the Mowat Centre, and now in PCO, wrote a very good piece a year or so back, on the problems that would arise with an elected Senate, and they are not insubstantial.

      • Jared Milne says:

        I’m assuming that one of the main objections is the possibility for gridlock if an elected Senate uses its powers more extensively, as is the possibility of underrepresentation. Stéphane Dion summarized them nicely in his critiques of Stephen Harper’s Senate reform plans back in 2011:


        That said, as Dion points out viable Senate reform would require constitutional change to achieve it. Assuming that one can actually muster the support necessary to change it, could we not institute some sort of safeguard to ensure that the Commons vote has priority, and that while the Senate can review and amend legislation, and provide a voice for regional concerns (e.g., from Alberta on energy-related bills, or from PEI on fisheries-related bills, etc.) they cannot stop legislation that has already been passed by the Commons.

      • himelfarb says:

        Fair enough but whatever ones views on senate reform I’d hate to hold electoral reform hostage to it given the difficulties in constitutional change.

      • Jared Milne says:

        I’m not necessarily suggesting that Senate reform should be a requirement for electoral reform. I’m just trying to address Andrew Hall’s question.

        Here’s an alternative that might be easier to swallow-given that each province already has a constitutional minimum guaranteed representation of seats in the Commons, That could and should remain to ensure that the different regions remain an important consideration, particularly in minority governments where every seat and vote counts in order to avoid a confidence vote. That would also force governing parties to pay more heed to every part of the country and engage in more horse-trading and deal-making in exchange for support.

        As for the representation in the cities, I don’t see that as much of a problem given that so much of our population already lives in them. Such a large proportion of voters living in the cities would ensure that politicians would have to pay to urban issues to get as much of the proportionate seat allocation as possible.

      • himelfarb says:

        I agree that regional representation, regional voices, should be a key principle for a federation such as ours. One of the main reasons I like PR if well designed is that it would eliminate the possibility of any region or province of being totally shut out of government.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        If I both interpreted it and remembered it correctly, one of Mendelsohn’s points in rejecting the idea of an elected Senate is that it becomes difficult to determine just exactly who represents “the will of the people”. If both upper and lower houses are elected, then they both represent that will, so whose vote should be the determinant? He also notes that electing roughly 1/3 as many senators as MPs means that a single senate vote “counts” for more than an MP vote. In short, an elected Senate would require an entire overhaul of our governance system in order to circumvent the legislative and constitutional complications it creates. It would be easier to redraw provincial boundaries, or carve up Ontario and Quebec into four smaller provinces than to implement an elected Senate.

        I remain unconvinced that any of the alternatives proposed to electing the lower House would have prevented the sort of nonsense that erupted the other day from happening.

        For me, electoral reform is a bit like astrological signs. Are people born at different times of the year a little different from each other? Sure. And before we knew much of anything about the relationship between day-length and neurophysiology, annual hormonal cycles and their potential prenatal impact on developing nervous systems, we looked for those things we could easily see that seemed to be pretty regular about the seasons, recognizing celestial patterns as having that predictability. We attributed personality to constellations and their position in the sky, even though no such influence could conceivably exist. We may be in a similar position with respect to our understanding of what ails politics and Government.

        Are there reasons to be dissatisfied with many aspects of how public policy is formed, the manner in which it is debated (or not debated at all), and implemented? Sure. But are the pivotal reasons for that the way that the decision-makers arrive at their office? Would the things that displease us most about “Government” change in the desired fashion under a different electoral system? I don’t know.

        I *would* like to see a system in which money plays less of a role such that candidacy is not as contingent on one’s ability to raise funds. I *would* like to see a system in which the best possible quality of policy-thinkers seek out such positions, rather than shying away. I *would* like to see the reflexive urge to “seize power” curtailed. Is all of that a product of the structural aspects of electing people to Parliament, as opposed to the style? I don’t think that’s a foregone conclusion.

        My anxiety is that we will have gone through much upheaval and turmoil only to find that what we wanted to be different hasn’t changed at all, simply because we attributed it to the wrong causes.

      • himelfarb says:

        Mark, you know I always value your comments and perspective but quite honestly this just sounds like the typical conservative view of change – what if it’s worse? What if some problems remain? Of course we have to ask those questions but no big or structural changes would ever happen if we stopped there. The principles are pretty central – improve representativeness which ought to matter in a representative democracy, ensure all regions are represented, capture our diversity, promote cooperation, make every vote equal…And given that most democracies have adopted some form of PR there’s loads of evidence of how it works and of the relative strengths of various models. I sure hope the parliamentary committee is driven neither by partisan interests nor a conservative bias but by principle and evidence to build the best possible system for Canada.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        ….like I value your courage and generosity of spirit, Alex.

        I’m not concerned that it could be worse. And I’m not concerned that it wouldn’t work as well as it does in other places. I’m concerned that unless we are very clear, and all on the same page about what it is we *really* want to change, and what causes it, we could be embarking on an expensive, exhausting, and most importantly, *divisive* endeavour that still leaves us in the same place, without fixing the things we wanted to fix.

        You may remember the brouhaha over harassment statistics among public servants. The numbers were woefully misunderstood by senior management, and people threw money at sensitivity training, which didn’t fix anything. We’re still where we were in 1999 and people are cynical about the sincerity of such efforts. I don’t want the same thing to happen with civic engagement, where we place our chips on something that won’t directly address the malaise.

        I certainly know what *I* want to be different, and haven’t yet seen a strong link between those desired changes and other ways of bringing people to office. But I’m just one citizen. If electoral reform fixes what it is that the majority believe needs fixing, I’m fine with that. It’s everybody else’s country too. I just want what’s best for it….even if it’s not the “best” I was thinking of. 🙂

      • himelfarb says:

        You’re right to note that it won’t fix everything and we ought to have a discussion of objectives. I also have no problem with building in an opportunity to review what we have wrought. But the idea that a government that gets a minority of electoral support – say just over a third – can take full control over the agenda – we don’t have the checks and balances that the US has – strikes me as unfair, undemocratic and dangerous. People may not be so worked up today as they seem relatively satisfied with the government but that’s pretty shortsighted. Given that about 90% of OECD countries use PR we can know a lot about how it’s working and of course we ought to design our system for Canada – our federal structure, out regional diversity, our cultural and social diversity. That should be the job of the Committee. I think reform would also give us a chance – not a guarantee- for a better less polarized politics and more cooperative parliament. Finally electoral reform should be the beginning, not the end of democratic reform.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        I will gladly defer to your far greater knowledge on the matter; I’m just asking the pesky questions.

        And one of those quesions is “Why now?”. We’ve had a very long time to question the nature of our electoral system. Why the current hunger? I don’t ask that to suggest it’s ephemeral, but to ponder the circumstances that are prompting it. And as I see it, the biggest prompt has come from the rise of other parties, and what that has done to the distribution of seats and concomitant balance of power, including the emergence of “false majorities”. Not that it is anything to pine way for, but the days of two major parties and a couple of bystanders generally precluded 36% of the popular vote translating into an unstoppable Parliamentary force. Either one “side” or the other would hold the balance of power and majority of votes at the same time. Splitting seats and popular vote amongst 3 parties, then 4, and now 5, makes it mathematically unlikely for any party to hold a true majority and reflect “the will of the people”.

        Now, in the spirit of democracy, that is most certainly NOT a veiled recommendation that the Green Party and Bloc should just pack up their things and go home, just to make life less complicated. But the fact remains that it is their emergence (and the recent Orange Wave) that pretty well put us in this spot of needing to find a solution to a Parliament that doesn’t feel “representative” to a great many Canadians.

        I would hope that any electoral reform that does occur does not saddle us with even more fragmentation and parties. It is also worth pondering the extent to which the presence of smaller regional parties in the House might provide an impetus for breaking up the country. The 2008 and 2011 elections demonstrated to at least one (and maybe two) of the parties that an election could be “won” without Quebec, through the magic of false majorities. If PR facilitates the emergence of more regional parties (and I’m assuming we would be smart enough to sidestep the debacle that Israel faces with well over a dozen nickel and dime parties), that would certainly preclude false majorities. But would any of the more prominent parties now feel the sense of obligation they’ve traditionally felt to include the priorities of this region/province or that in their platform if a majority – false or otherwise – is unattainable? And if that obllgation fades, what happens to the sense of obligation that region feels to be part of the federation? If “they” are not for *me*, why should I be for *them*?

      • himelfarb says:

        Again the evidence – I repeat, evidence – shows that these worries are not really justified. Of course we can never be sure about the unintended consequences. That’s true as well of a decision to leave things as they are. People too often discount the risks of inaction. As for why now, perhaps the real answer is that countries evolve, Canada has evolved. We inherited our electoral system when democracy was less loved, deference to authority was the order of the day, our voters were less diverse, our citizens less savvy, our politics less polarized. Why now? Because it’s high time. Because we have changed. Because we have experienced a government that seemed to govern for its base more than for the many. Because we have the opportunity. Because we have the obligation.

  7. Robert says:

    Right outcome and right process! Easy to say. But how to do?

    • himelfarb says:

      If the government is serious about engaging all parties and Canadians it’s not really that hard – as for outcome, I think some version of single transferable vote or mixed proportional works just fine.

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