On May 11 the Government of Canada announced the long-promised committee on electoral reform – the press release is here.
The CBC reported here: “At its core, the current plan tasks a ten-member committee with studying alternatives to the current first-past-the-post setup. Six of those ten would be Liberal MPs, three Conservatives and one New Democrat (a Bloc Quebecois MP and Green MP Elizabeth May would sit with the committee, but would not be able to vote)”.
The argument has been made that only political parties officially recognised by Parliament are eligible to be members of Parliamentary Committees, thus the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party are not eligible for full, voting membership. The presently proposed format ensures a Liberal majority in the committee and deprives the Green Party and Bloc Québécois of a vote each. If the Liberals allowed full membership to the Bloc Québécois and Green Party, theoretically the Liberals would be deadlocked against ‘the rest’ of the membership, if voting followed the usual party-mandated lines. But wait – didn’t the Liberal Party campaign on a platform of electoral reform and adopt Fair Vote’s slogan (since 2000), to ‘Make Every Vote Count’?
In February 2016 and again on CBC’s ‘The House’ on 14 May 2016, NDP Democratic Reform critic Nathan Cullen suggested an exception to the convention that parliamentary committees reflect the apportionment of seats and officially recognised parties in the House of Commons. For this exceptional occasion, to correct the false majority-producing single member plurality electoral system (First Past the Post or FPTP), he suggested the All-Party Committee on Electoral Reform should reflect the popular vote rather than the election result. That FPTP result produced the present distorted assignment of seats in the House of Commons. Cullen said the committee should comprise 12 MPs, with party membership assigned approximately proportionally to October’s popular vote: five Liberals (including the committee chair, who does not vote), three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one Bloc Québécois MP and one Green Party MP. Under this proposal, no one party can direct the outcome and all must negotiate to reach a decision. Ideally, decisions would be reached by consensus rather than majority vote.
That is what electoral reform is all about: reaching a decision the nation, the voters, the people want, not the decision the party power brokers want. It is all about returning power to the electorate.
Cynical me says this is yet again a government with a false majority pushing its own agenda through the committee process to get its own concept of electoral ‘reform’ into power using its parliamentary majority.
What is that agenda? The Liberals haven’t talked about it much since the election, but we keep hearing about ‘preferential votes’ or a ‘preferential ballot’ and these words are included in the terms of reference for the committee.
A preferential ballot used in a single-member electoral district leads to the same result (most of the time) as FPTP but with a supposedly ‘better’ result for the winner since the MP will be declared elected with more than 50% of the vote. The corollary is that nearly 50% of the votes will be wasted and serve to elect no-one. This is not electoral reform! This system is usually called the Alternative Vote or AV. This form of ‘preferential ballot’ is seldom used and only in Australia to elect members of the House of Representatives (the House of Commons equivalent). This alteration or change to the electoral system could easily be introduced in Canada, using the existing electoral districts – just introduce a changed ballot and counting system. You can see why the politicians are tempted – quick, easy to introduce, produces an apparent (not real) majority. Electoral reform or proportional representation it is not!
A preferential ballot used in a multi-member electoral district could lead to one of the best forms of proportional result for Canada, usually known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It requires larger electoral districts in which voters indicate their MP preferences (1, 2, 3 and so on) on a ballot with more names for each party and independent candidates. The counting system sorts out who should be elected … and every vote counts, every candidate is elected by the voters. The MPs in the House of Commons reflect the preferences of that electoral district. The larger the electoral district and the more MPs elected, the more proportional the result. Multiplied by the number of electoral districts across Canada, to produce the same number of MPs (338), we could have a Parliament that closely reflects the popular vote across the nation. You can find out more about STV here.
STV is not the only form of voting that produces a result proportional to the popular vote. The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, recommended to Canada by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004, will be the subject of another post.