The NDP and Greens see the Liberals' promise to explore electoral reform as their golden ticket...but will it come to fruition?

One of the more intriguing Liberal campaign platform promises this campaign was a commitment to electoral reform by 2019.  Since their victory on Monday, there has been a lot of chatter and excitement among certain circles about this particular promise. I see most of it being optimistic.  In NDP and Green circles, it seems to be serving as something of an island in a sea of terrible electoral results. People seem to be hoping that if the Liberals do stick to their promise, it will represent a  quick way to increase their influence by translating their “wasted votes” into seats in a the 43rd Parliament. But I think this optimism is näive.  I don’t think we’re going to change the voting system any time soon.

There are a couple of reasons why commitments to electoral reform made it into the Liberal, Green and NDP platforms in this election.  One, electoral reform is a cheap promise to make and fulfill.  Two, opposition parties usually are the ones who suffer the most under single member plurality systems, governing parties gain the most.  Three, public opinion polls suggested there was a tight three-way race heading into this election, making a minority parliament likely. In such a situation, both the Liberals and the NDP faced the prospect of finishing third and holding a balance of power. Some form of proportionality is precisely the type of promise a third-party might want to extract from the senior party in any type of accord or coalition.  And fourth, electoral reform and proportionality tend to be popular.  Famously, in British Columbia, a referendum on a switch to a proportional electoral system won majority support (57%) in 2005.

The interesting question now, is: what are the chances that the new government will actually follow through on its commitment to electoral reform? Colour me skeptical, but my own answer is that they will implement some form of electoral reform, but this will not necessary be a shift to proportional representation away from the single-member plurality system we have today. People waiting breathlessly today for a different electoral system will be disappointed.

Take a look at the precise wording of the Liberals’ promise.

We will make every vote count.

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.

This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

Now, I don’t mean to be pedantic about this, but I think it is worthwhile to go through this sentence-by-sentence.  Central to political success is to sound like you’re promising something all the while maintaining an exit strategy for yourself so that you can plausibly avoid doing precisely what it sounds like you are promising to do.  All parties do this; I’m sure a political philosopher familiar with Macchiavelli will find passages advising the Prince to get good at doing precisely this.  And the Liberals are a slippery party, routinely capable of running from the left and governing from the right, alternating between being the party of change, optimism and progress to being the hard-nosed party of realism, stability and order. So, it is sensible to pick the promise apart.

Sentence 1:

We will make every vote count.

This one will be easy to deal with.  One of the stock arguments against single member plurality (or first-past-the-post) is that votes cast for losing candidates are “wasted”.  This is a fair point, but there is an equally fair rebuttal to this that will be available to the government, should they shy away from changing the voting system. Namely,  just because a vote does not translate into a seat, does not in any way mean that it is wasted.  Its influence is felt in different ways.  MPs, strategists, party leaders pore over electoral results and shifts looking for increases here and decreases there, trying to use these changes to understand what ultimately matters to politicians: public opinion.  This may not be as direct as electoral reformers like, and that’s fair, but it’s not true that votes are “wasted” in the current system and the new government will be able to say precisely that.

Sentence 2:

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

OK, so far so good, this sounds like the party made a firm commitment to ending first-past-the-post voting system by 2019.  But they didn’t say “promise”, or “guarantee”; rather, the Liberals are “committed to ensuring”.  Compare this with the NDP’s promise (p. 56) on electoral reform which noted that an NDP government will: “Make your vote truly count by bringing in a system of mixed-member proportional representation that is appropriate for Canada in our first mandate.” That’s a lot more specific about what would have come next.

Sentence 3:

We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.

Here is where the waffling really starts.  First, they will set up a committee. By contrast, the NDP never made any such promise.  Second, although the platform commitment is non-exhaustive in that it mandates the committee to review “a wide variety of reforms”, it specifically mentions four topics: ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting. Only two of these four –ranked ballots and proportional representation — deal with the heart of gets electoral reformers so frustrated, which is how votes are translated into seats.  Mandatory voting and online voting are interesting reforms in their own right and there has been a lot of discussion about their merits, but they are manifestly not about addressing the discrepancies inherent in the first-past-the-post system that was mentioned in Sentence 1. Moreover, of the two that deal with that question, only one (proportional representation, obviously) deals with the problem with the current situation that most people tend to talk about, which is that votes for candidates who lose in constituencies are not translated in any way into the composition of the House of Commons and thus, “wasted”. So the committee that will be set up, will have been charged, in writing, with studying a wide variety of things and specifically, three issues that deal with electoral reform in a broad sense, but not with the issue that people really think about when they hear the words “electoral reform”.
Sentence 4:

This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

So, here we are back to sounding more firm and resolute.  The committee “will” deliver recommendations, and legislation “will” be enacted.  But the legislation will enact “electoral reform”, but not necessarily proportional representation.  Note the contrast with Sentence 2 which named the first-past-the-post system specifically as being not long for this world.  But there, the party was only “committed to ensuring”.  Here they are stating what they “will” do, but what that is, is suddenly broader, more ambiguous and, thanks to the topics specified in Sentence 3, might have a lot less to do with single-member plurality and proportional representation and a lot more to do with things like mandatory or online voting, or anything, really.

So, here is how I think this will play out.  Political parties do tend to take their campaign promises seriously (one review found that on average, parties kept 67% of their promises), which is why they spend so much time crafting their promises carefully, and which is why it is so important to parse their words equally carefully.  So, there will be an all-party committee, with a majority of Liberal MPs, each of whom will probably have been elected with less than 50% of the vote (Note: that will be an interesting signal to watch for when the committee is named. MPs elected with more than 50% of the vote in their district might be more open to ditching SMP; MPs elected with less will be most definitely hostile to the idea).  The committee will study a wide variety of topics, including the ones specified in the platform and it will make recommendations which will be implemented.  Who knows, maybe the committee will lower the voting age by a year (that would actually be interesting).  Maybe it will recommend extending advance balloting by a few days (because of busy schedules and lifestyle preferences, turnout in advance polls has been increasing  in recent years).  Maybe it will restore the right of Canadian ex-patriate citizens to vote in elections.  Maybe it will recommend getting rid of fixed election dates.  And ultimately, the government will, as promised, pass these “electoral reforms” into law.  And as for the single-member plurality system: I would be nothing less than astonished if the majority of the committee, sitting there with a great deal of influence would voluntarily give that up, knowing that this would mean that in the next Parliament, they would almost certainly be obliged to share power with the opposition.
The government will, of course, be accused of backsliding on its promise, but the new Prime Minister will be able to say, in all honesty, that the party never promised to end the single-member plurality system, and, they were only “committed to ensuring” it and that, after careful deliberation, the majority of an all-party legislative committee recommended staying the course.

So, colour me skeptical, but I wager that in 2019, we’ll voting in an electoral system that will have some minor, and perhaps very interesting, variations in the rules governing the conduct of elections, but that votes will be translated into seats in exactly the same way.