The all-party Commons committee that is grappling with electoral reform has been given a series of guiding principles, especially improving local representation, accessibility and inclusiveness, and encouraging participation in the democratic process. Unfortunately, these ideals are blocked by the fact that MPs are beholden to their parties. Excessive party discipline is the greatest defect of Canadian governance.

When your MP has no voice, you have no voice. For taxpayers to think as citizens, MPs need to speak for us, to represent us in Ottawa. Political disconnect results when citizens feel disempowered.

So, which voting system reform holds promise for a renewed, more robust Canadian democracy? Which system would shift the distribution of power in Parliament away from the prime minister and cabinet and toward the MPs?

Of all the possible systems, the preferential ballot (or the alternative vote) is the least complicated and easiest to implement, but it has its defects. It ensures each MP is elected with a majority of votes, by having voters rank their preferred candidates on the ballot. If nobody wins a clear majority, the second choices (and even third, fourth, and so on) are redistributed until a clear winner emerges. This system ensures voters’ second choice is important and fosters civility during the election, but not after the election.

And therein lies its weakness. The benefits do not reach into Parliament. The makeup of the House remains unchanged, because a party still only needs a plurality of seats to form government. It is ultimately a winner-take-all system and would produce one-party majority governments secured with 40 percent of the vote, just like the current first-past-the-post system.

The preferential ballot will not lessen the grip of party discipline one whit. That is true of all proportional representation systems, including the NDP’s preferred mixed member proportional model. In that system, voters elect a local MP directly, while other regional candidates are sent to the Commons based on the proportion of the popular vote their party receives. Those candidates are selected from lists the parties compile. These systems are all about parties and party control. Canada needs to empower its citizens, not strengthen its political parties.

Is it possible to attain proportional results without proportional representation? Yes! The multi-seat preferential system, involving the single transferable vote, is not proportional representation — votes are for candidates, not parties — yet it yields near proportional results. With multi-seat preferential, voters rank several preferred candidates in a district that will be represented by multiple MPs. The voter might cast a ballot that shows support for individuals of different political persuasions.

Through this system, the House of Commons would mirror Canada’s political diversity. Multi-seat preferential’s built-in “primary” means voters participate in a candidate’s nomination, thus making MPs beholden more to the voters than to their parties. The system also gives MPs the independence necessary to hold government (the prime minister and cabinet) accountable, lessening the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and empowering MPs to be lawmakers.

In 2005, the BC Citizens Assembly, after meeting for a year, recommended an multi-seat preferential model, precisely because it addresses a broad range of governance problems. In the subsequent provincial referendum, multi-seat preferential enjoyed 58 percent support overall, and majority support in all but two constituencies. Yet it failed, because political interests decreed the referendum would require 60 percent support.

Can we expect consensus among Canadians to implement multi-seat preferential? Probably not. Some will question the wisdom of committing Canada to coalition governments, and in rural Canada voters will resist the creation of districts three times larger than the current ridings. But a hybrid system is possible, with a straight preferential ballot used in rural areas and multi-seat preferential everywhere else. Such a mixed system would suit Canada’s unique geography. The preferential ballot system with a mixture of seats per district was used in Manitoba and Alberta from the early 1920s to mid-1950s, and in the 1951 and 1952 elections in BC. It was discontinued by politicians, and the voters had no say.

A mixture of the preferential ballot and multi-seat preferential would start to address Canada’s democratic deficit.

A mixture of the preferential ballot and multi-seat preferential would start to address Canada’s democratic deficit. In the cities, smaller parties would do a bit better under this system, and rural Canada would remain largely unchanged. Concerns about instability through fragmented parliaments would be mitigated by the fact that this system does not preclude majority governments. And fears that the preferential ballot would give an advantage to the Liberal Party are not supported by the facts. Australia has used the preferential ballot since 1901, and there is no evidence conservatives are disadvantaged. Similarly, the Canadian experience confirms there is no Liberal advantage.

A referendum would be appropriate, but it should be a confirmation referendum after a test-run of two elections. That would give Canadian voters a clear, unambiguous understanding of the referendum. This is how New Zealand did it, and Canada should do it too. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals made a promise, they were elected on that promise, a committee has been struck, so let the conversation begin!


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Nick Loenen
Nick Loenen, former Richmond, British Columbia city counsellor and member of the Legislative Assembly, has written extensively on electoral reform. His 1997 Citizenship and Democracy makes the case for proportional representation.

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