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Election series part 3: The case for – and against – electoral reform

Various approaches to proportional representation have pros but also come with cons

With an historic provincial election less than a month away that will undoubtedly set the policy tone and trends for years to come, the Albertan spoke with a political science professor for this special series to discuss the state of our democracy, the case for and against electoral reform, and how people can be more engaged between elections


Concerns about imbalanced political representation that inaccurately reflects the citizenry’s will is a common refrain that regularly resurfaces in conversations about Canadian politics.

This has been known to lead to discussions about electoral reform and the push for some kind of proportional representation to replace what some consider to be Canada’s outdated first-past-the-post system in which voters do not directly cast a ballot for a premier or prime minister, but rather must choose a candidate running in their respective riding. The successful candidate does not require a majority of votes to win; they simply need more votes than the other contenders.

However, if numerous failed provincial referendums pressing for electoral reform are any indication, there does not seem to be widespread popular support, asserts University of Alberta political science professor Jared Wesley.

Even at the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had repeatedly and emphatically promised along the 2015 campaign trail that the election would be the last conducted under first-past-the-post. That promise was broken within weeks of his Liberal Party forming government. Both Trudeau and former Prime Stephen Harper went on to form majority governments that had 100 per cent of the power despite each of them not even securing four in 10 votes.

But the federal Liberals are not the only government to have bandied about the possibility of exploring electoral reform.

“If referendums across the country are any indication, most Canadians are quite happy with the way the first-past-the-post functions…it’s very familiar for Canadians,” Wesley told the Albertan. “If you look at the literature on electoral reform referendums in places like B.C. and Ontario, it was that familiarity that proved people really (lacked an appetite) when it came to whether to change the voting system.”

Although Wesley expressed a preference for the well-established first-past-the-post system, which more than anything else might simply be misunderstood, there are both advantages and disadvantages to every electoral system, he said.

“We’ve seen PR systems that are very polarized; we’ve seen first-past-the-post systems that are very polarized,” he said.

Some systems do a good job of geographically representing the electorate, while other systems do a good job of representing different ideological or class groups, he said.

“These are the tradeoffs that we need to acknowledge,” he said.

Asked for his thoughts on a party – regardless of political leaning or affiliation at either the federal or provincial level – being granted 100 per cent of the power in a majority government despite barely securing a third of the popular vote as was the case for both Harper and Trudeau, he said that Canadian history has shown when there is a situation involving wrong winners and wrong losers – in which a party wins the popular vote but fails to form government – the party that lost will tend to campaign on electoral reform in the next election.

“But either they abandon that once they’re in power or they just kind of leave it up to the public to debate without really coming down on one side or the other,” he said.

In Alberta’s upcoming election, Wesley said it’s entirely plausible the outcome will be a "wrong" winner and a "wrong" loser. Either way, electoral reform in Alberta has not been a major political issue for either the UCP or NDP to campaign on.

“Why would you want to change the rules when you have the prospect of having complete power,” he said.

If the matter of electoral reform in Alberta were to become an issue that paved the path toward some kind of proportional representation (PR), Wesley said the first thing people should bear in mind is that electoral systems are a set of rules, which if changed will likely result in a new set of different players.

“And even if they are the same players, they’re going to adapt their behaviour to that new system,” he said. “Second thing is, every electoral system has theoretical advantages and theoretical shortcomings; and those are always a matter of trade-offs. So, for example with first-past-the-post, it’s a very intuitive system.

“In the Canadian context, it’s known; it’s part of the norms and the common understanding of how politics operate. It tends to – in most situations – produce stable, strong governments; but not in all cases,” he said.

In Alberta’s history, there even under first-past-the-past has been parties that won what’s known as a “pure or unmanufactured, natural majority,” he said.

“And who’s to say that having one party control the levers of power for four years isn’t a bad thing?” he said.

“The flip side is that you have divided rule where nothing gets done and you have a complete bogging down of the legislative process; constant elections and constant backdoor negotiations between party leaders.”

Among first-past-the-post system’s downsides is the feeling some people get that their vote for a party that has no hope of winning in their riding is worthless and that their voice will never translate toward representation in the legislature, he said.

“So there’s a feeling like there’s a lot of wasted votes,” he said.

Another drawback boils down largely to perception, with some critics of first-past-the-past asserting the system produces strategic voting where people are more likely casting ballots against a particular party rather than in support for their favoured choice.

“But I’d argue that strategic voting occurs in every kind of electoral system,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome for anyone proposing electoral reform is the fact there are so many different systems of proportional representation, he said.

“It really depends on the system you’re talking about,” he said, adding that about half of the provinces have at some point and in some way, shape or form experimented with forms of majoritarian systems such as the alternative vote (AV), single transferable vote (STV), and instant runoff.

Some proponents of electoral reform seem to think that PR will usher in a “proliferation of minor parties and that will give folks a greater variety of choice on their ballots,” he said.

But the bar is already set fairly low for a fledgling party that wants to enter Alberta politics, he said.

“So if (new) parties wanted to start up, they could,” he said. “But then we’d still be in the same position…in that while there may be a greater variety of parties on offer, there’s only a select few of them that have a hope of forming government.”

The options on a ballot must be measured not only by the diversity of choice, but also by their viability, he said, calling that a downside of PR.

Under pure proportional representation, people go to the polls and vote followed by a couple of months of backdoor dealing among the parties to determine which ones will form a coalition government, he said.

“People say PR is more democratic; there’s nothing less open and grassroots democratic than the Queen’s Round they call it in a lot of European PR systems, where people go behind closed doors and hash out who’s actually going to govern,” he said. “That has very little to do with the way people actually voted.”

Given Canada and indeed even Alberta’s history of flirting with electoral reform, there today seems to be little appetite for proportional representation. Both STV and AV have a record of being temporarily implemented earlier in Alberta’s history, while Ontario, B.C., and P.E.I. all have had referendums and citizens assemblies on the issue, he said.

“Quebec had a special all-party committee examine it. New Brunswick’s had a similar kind of parliamentary process to examine it,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of gone around the bend on this twice.”

For the time being, “we’re in kind of a dark period again in terms of the debate about electoral reform. It just doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s map because it failed so many times in so many provinces.”

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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