There has been a lot of chatter in the media over the last couple of months about electoral reform, both north and south of the border. For Canada, it might actually be a reality. In 2015, the Liberal Party of Canada ran on a campaign promise to ensure that the 42nd general election of Canada, would be the last under the “First-Past-the-Post” (FPTP) electoral system. Sounds lofty, right? The problem with such an enormous change means that the Liberals need a lot of support in the House of Commons in order to make that happen. Justin Trudeau didn’t say what the new system would look like, but he did promise to strike a multi-party committee, which would assess the political climate for such a change. The FPTP system has been around for 150 years, and was a system inherited by Britain. Technically, a win in the FPTP system means that your party received the most votes, and your party was the first to make it “past the post”. Where it can get confusing is when we start to look at the math. Canada is divided into electoral districts, or “ridings” as the politico’s like to say. Each riding is entitled to elect a Member of Parliament. Ridings were supposed to be based on population (Representation by Population), but they don’t work out that way… nor are they based on geographic area. Someone, a long time ago, with infinite wisdom, decided to take the number of seats in the House of Commons (yes, literal chairs), and allocate one seat to each of the Territories. Then they took the population of Canada, and divided by the number of seats remaining, which gave a random number, which was divided again to determine the number of ridings per Province.
Confusing? To say the least.
In theory, the idea is to have a “Rep by Pop” system, but it has never worked out that way. A riding in Prince Edward Island with a low population is still entitled to one “seat” in the House of Commons. A largely populated riding in Toronto is also entitled to one seat in the House of Commons. Not exactly a fair division, however, if I live in Prince Edward Island, I’m afforded a higher level of democracy, under this system, than if I live in Toronto. Getting back to the FPTP system. In order to get elected, and literally win the “seat”, a party needs to get a majority of the votes in their riding. A majority of the votes cast. That doesn’t mean the majority of people eligible actually voted. Here is where Trudeau is getting himself in trouble. Canadians are not overly patriotic. We recognize that the system isn’t perfect, but also recognize that it isn’t exactly broken. The question remains – is there a better system?
With five political parties, and a diverse number of views, it is highly unlikely that Canada will land on one system that satisfies the masses. One eligible voter commented that they didn’t want to change the system because they didn’t want to have to vote in a strategic way. Which brings me to my next point – voter gaps. Canada currently has five political parties. Each vying for seats in the House of Commons. The two main parties (or the parties that get the most number of seats) are the Liberal and Conservative Parties. The New Democrats (or the NDP) are not far behind. Followed by the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party. (It is worth noting that the Bloc only run candidates in Quebec)
A better question to ask is how many parties are actual contenders? Sure, I just said there are five, but is this a five way poly system or are we more likely looking at a committed relationship between two parties or even a scandalous third?
The Green Party has started to make some waves in the last few elections due to the fact that they are a party based on promoting a more “green” society. Everyone tries to do their part for the environment, but should that be the basis for an entire government? We have more issues to consider. What about the economy? What about unemployment? What about child and health care? Perhaps this is woven into the Green Party’s platform, but they haven’t put forth a diverse enough platform to make headway. The Liberals and the Conservatives go head to head in most elections. They often run on similar platforms with the Liberals being a bit more left leaning, and the Conservatives leaning towards the right. The leader of the party will also make a difference in terms of the platform – whether it’s about social or environmental change, or whether it’s a new way to jump-start the economy. Both have their merit, and both have their faults. The one party that should not be underestimated in this political climate is the New Democratic Party or the NDP. The NDP run on the platform of social change, mainly by targeting Canadian youth. The NDP are primarily seen as socialist, in that they want to ensure that people who are at a disadvantage are able to be supported in a way that helps them to see their full potential. The NDP has come to us at a time when we think we want something different. Are they the equal third in this relationship or the scandalous mistress?
Getting back to voter gaps. The reason that these exist is because of those “other” parties. Essentially, if you don’t vote Liberal or Conservative (and for the sake of argument, NDP), your vote essentially doesn’t count. Why? Because the number of seats that the Greens or the Bloc hold is so insignificant that, dare I say it, they shouldn’t even be considered. A vote for one of these parties is literally like throwing your vote in the trash, under this system. There are a lot of people who flip-flop between voting for the Liberal Party and voting for the Conservative Party. Their platforms overlap. Their views overlap. Their policies overlap. And yet, we keep electing them. Back and forth like a tennis match. We repeat history, and say we want to see a change. When asked their view on electoral reform, one elector said they didn’t want to see a change in the electoral system, because they don’t want to have vote strategically. Meaning, they see a new system as possibly requiring more thought and ultimately more options. If this is how we view a fictitious electoral system, how can we possibly think that voters will ever elect one of the fringe parties? Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-democratic, but a change in the electoral system isn’t going to fix the problem with Canadian politics. It is not going to make someone suddenly vote for the Green Party, who has been a long Liberal supporter. Nor is it going to give more seats in the House of Commons. Let’s face it, that building literally cannot hold more “seats.” What it will likely do (and what I’ve likely done) is confuse the issue further.
The bottom line is that people don’t want to make decisions. We are faced with “decision fatigue”. Simply put, there are too many things that we have to make decisions about throughout our day. It is believed that people want choice, but the hard truth is, they don’t. Asking Canadians to chose between the Liberal and Conservative parties is relatively easy for the reasons stated above. Flip a coin. Draw it out of a hat. Either way, the needle will remain in a fairly consistent place. Canada is, unfortunately, a two-party system. The Conservatives and the Liberals make up one party, and the NDP are slowly starting to form the second party. An overhaul in the electoral system would physically produce more parties, however that doesn’t necessarily mean more options. As stated above, more options doesn’t necessarily mean a better outcome. You could also make the argument that they are three (or more) distinctly different parties with their own views and platforms. I don’t see it that way. Too many times we see backbench MPs voting for their constituents, which ends up being a vote against the party. While I agree that MPs should not have to “tow the party line”, the system rewards those that do. And if you are an MP who constantly votes in line with another party, doesn’t that mean you should be in that other party?
Canada was built on the values of “Peace, Order and Good Government”. These have a very specific political meaning, but if we examine it as a statement unto itself, it simply means we have no ambition to make things complicated, or to even colour outside the lines. Trudeau is getting a lot of heat right now as he pulls the plug on any kind of electoral reform. Maybe its backlash from going against a campaign promise. He did convene a multi-party committee, but my guess is that with such a diverse group of people he was unable to get any kind of consensus. Which is the “rub” in all of this. Those five parties are what make up the House of Commons. Those five parties, in whole, represent the entire nation. Those five parties represent the unusualness of our fabric. A change may give us a more balanced system, however, those five parties may dissolve and we may actually become a two-party system. Whatever you think the number is, the bottom line is this: Like most relationships, the political union is complicated and change will only happen when all parties can commit to putting in the effort required to make the union successful.