Recently, there have been increasing cries for the Liberal government to hold a referendum on any new electoral system. On the CBC News website today, there is a report on a poll conducted by Insight West which found that nearly two thirds of Canadians polled considered that there should be a referendum on any new system of voting. But would this be a good way to decide upon such an issue?
Respected political columnist and commentator Andrew Coyne provided a very good three part primer on the problems with our current “first-past-the-post” (“FPTP”) system and potential reform models that we may consider. His first column, entitled “What problem is electoral reform supposed to solve? Here are a couple, to start” (National Post, January 11, 2016), underscored the problem with the current inequities that exist in relative voting power (some Atlantic ridings having 5 times the voting power of Ontarian, Albertan or British Columbian ridings) and the fact that the current system rewards parties that can concentrate their vote geographically as opposed to a wide-based national support.
His second column, “Our deeply flawed, winner-take-all voting system” (National Post, January 13, 2016), he examined the FPTP system in more detail. He stated near the conclusion of his piece:
The nature of winner-take-all systems, moreover, is that they are highly leveraged: A comparatively small shift in the popular vote often results in hugely disproportionate swings in the number of seats a party wins. Politicians are by nature risk averse. Consequently there is little incentive for parties to take chances aimed at expanding their support, for example by staking out new or distinctive policy positions — for they might just as well see it shrink. Instead they tend to hug the middle for long stretches, save for a few wedge issues aimed at a relatively small number of “swing” voters, which they trot out at election time.
In sum, the present system gives rise to false and exaggerated majorities, discriminates among voters, rewards regionally divisive parties and polarizing political strategies, strands many voters in “safe” ridings and wastes the votes of many others.
In his final column on the question, “Electoral reform wouldn’t end majority governments – only phoney ones” (National Post, January 15, 2016), Mr. Coyne did not delve deeply into different types of proportional representation, leaving that for another time. Instead, he noted that the difference between FPTP systems and proportional systems is that, under the latter, each vote is more or less equal. He answered the question as to whether such a shift would mean the end of majority governments by saying “no, it would be the start”. He stated:
Would this, as commonly claimed, mean “the end of majority governments”? No, it would mean the start. Under first past the post, parties can and do win a majority of the seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote: under proportional representation, a majority means a majority. Only since it is rare for one party to win that much support on its own, governments are typically made up of coalitions of parties.
Would that mean institutionalizing the sort of crisis atmosphere we associate with multi-party governments? No, that’s a function of the system we have now. Under first past the post, relatively small changes in popular vote can produce quite enormous swings in seats. So in a minority parliament whichever party is up in the polls at any given moment will be tempted to force an election. Under PR, there is no such payoff: small changes in votes mean small changes in seats. Coalitions, as a consequence, tend to endure.
Wouldn’t that mean handing disproportionate power to a minority of the electorate, as larger parties courted the support of the smaller? It can. But there’s always the next election to bear in mind: if a small party is seen to overplay its hand, or a large party to be too eager to bargain, it will pay the price at the polls. Besides, that’s as true, in a way, of the present system: parties pay vastly disproportionate attention to a small number of swing voters.
Thus, a strong case can be made for the desirability for electoral reform. But people tend to be hesitant to move to systems that they are not familiar with. Thus, putting such a new system to a national-wide referendum could prove to be “Dicey” (sorry, I could not resist the constitutional pun). Canada’s success with putting issues of constitutional significance to the general voting public has not been stellar to say the least. The spectre of Charlottetown still hangs over our heads. In British Columbia, even after a lengthy citizens’ assembly specially held to examine this very issue, two referendums on a form of proportional representation met with failure (one may claim that the bar had been set too high in British Columbia’s case – the first referendum had 58% but a super majority was required under the provincial referendum legislation).
Andrew Coyne had earlier taken up the suggestion of NDP MP Nathan Cullen that we should first adopt a new electoral system, hold one election, let the new Parliament operate for a while and then, after that collective experience, hold a referendum. In his earlier article, “Try out a new voting system and then let the voters decide” (National Post, January 4, 2016), Mr. Coyne noted that in this way, the voters would at least have a fuller set of facts on which they could base their decision. They would have voted in such an election and seen whether it worked better or worse, whether the electoral results were more representative of the votes actually cast, whether the new Parliament was hobbled or functional. He said:
My concern would only be that they be presented with a fair question, meaning a fair presentation of the alternatives. The status quo in any such event enjoys an inevitable advantage: however unsatisfactory, it is at least a known quantity — versus the limitless horrors that can be attached to “a leap into the unknown,” as any and all reforms are invariably described when first proposed.
So I think there is merit in NDP MP Nathan Cullen’s compromise suggestion: that the voters be called upon to pass judgment on any reform after they have had a chance to see it in operation, that is after at least one election has been held under the new rules, and the resulting Parliament has sat for a while. The requirement could be built into the implementing legislation. They might then choose between two knowns, rather than a known and an unknown.
This is a significant change, after all, but it is not an irreversible one. Let the people decide, by all means. But let them decide in full possession of the facts.
I think that Mr. Coyne (and Mr. Cullen) have good points to be made on this issue. It is not that the electorate cannot be trusted with the question. It is simply good policy that, in making this sort of decision, the voters be fully armed with the facts and experience so their decision is an informed one.