If climate change and electoral reform have one thing in common, it’s their intractability.
Climate change is an issue for human civilization that requires a global effort to overcome a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. At the same time, electoral reform has been bogged down for decades due to reluctance by politicians to change the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that brought them to power in the first place.
Solving two intractable problems of this kind simultaneously may be too tall an order for even the most ambitious of reformers. Yet, the two issues are closely related, and solving them together would be the best way forward.
FPTP as a barrier to climate action
Strong climate action is made immeasurably more difficult under FPTP. Consider that the two federal parties whose platforms are the strongest on climate change – the Green party and the NDP – are splitting the vote between themselves and getting squeezed out by larger parties.
In the 2019 federal election, these two parties combined took just over 22 percent of the popular vote but obtained only 8 percent of the seats (27 seats). It’s no mystery that Canada’s climate action has been weak, and voters who care most strongly about climate action are unable to secure the representation they deserve.
What climate change action there has been under FPTP seems particularly tenuous due to a phenomenon known as policy lurch: policy reversals when power swings from one party to the other. This was dramatically illustrated at the provincial level in Ontario when Doug Ford’s Conservatives replaced the Liberals. The new Conservative government immediately withdrew from the cap-and-trade program and cancelled numerous renewable energy projects. A similar phenomenon occurred in Australia with the reversal of the carbon tax by the Liberal-National Coalition in 2014.
Comparative research on countries with winner-take-all versus proportional voting systems shows a marked difference in performance in these two groups of countries. In a ranking of 58 industrialized countries on the Climate Change Performance Index, countries with FPTP such as the US, Canada and Australia are near the bottom of the list.
At the top are mainly countries with proportional voting systems such as top-ranked Sweden and Denmark. Of course, there are exceptions. FPTP countries such as the UK and India placed fourth and sixth respectively. But the correlation is clear, and has been confirmed by other research.
Breaking the logjam on electoral reform
The link between climate action and proportional representation suggests that breaking the deadlock on electoral reform should be a strategic priority for climate activists. Not surprisingly, one finds climate change activists in large numbers within the electoral reform movement.
Various approaches are being tried. One strategy is to treat electoral reform as a civil rights issue, based on the right of all citizens to cast a meaningful and effective vote. Combining forces, Fair Voting BC and Springtide Collective have filed a constitutional challenge based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Others, like Fair Vote Canada, are asking politicians to acknowledge the conflict of interest that they are in when it comes to electoral reform. An alternative approach now being used in many parts of the world to deal with politically challenging issues is the convening of citizens’ assemblies.
Deliberative citizens’ processes like citizen’s assemblies have been gathering steam in recent years. France recently organized a Citizens’ Convention on the Climate which submitted its report in July 2020, and a similar assembly in the UK submitted its report in September 2020.
Citizens’ assemblies are composed of a representative group of citizens that have been randomly selected to deliberate on an issue over an extended period of time. They learn from experts and study the options before delivering their consensus recommendations for review and consideration.
Recommendations emerging from citizens’ assemblies can find their way into government policy in different ways. Citizens’ assemblies on electoral reform provincially in British Columbia and Ontario were followed by referendums. However, a referendum does not provide the same opportunities for all citizens to learn and deliberate as a citizens’ assembly does.
A better path may be to follow up a citizens’ assembly with the creation of a joint parliamentary committee to consider the assembly’s recommendations. This is what the Irish Citizens’ Assembly did on the topic of climate change. Recognizing the complexity of the topic, the Irish government formed a joint parliamentary committee to translate the assembly’s recommendations into policy proposals. This helped ensure recommendations were taken seriously and resulted in a new more ambitious climate action plan.
In the political arena, the NDP and the Green party have the strongest stances on both climate change and electoral reform and similar stances in matters of social justice. In September 2020, a citizens’ group called the One Time Alliance for Democratic Reform launched an advocacy campaign calling for one-time collaboration between these two parties in the next federal election.
The group argues that such an arrangement between the NDP and the Green party would make possible a win-win scenario for both parties in terms of increased seats in Parliament. Advocates for the One Time Alliance estimate that their proposal could lead to a doubling of seats by the NDP and the Greens compared to the 2019 results.
Precedent exists for parties to join forces electorally at strategic moments: in the most recent UK election, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru formed a Unite to Remain Alliance and ran only one candidate among them in 60 competitive ridings. A formula such as this would not require a complicated merging of parties, but merely a one-time commitment to cooperate in pursuit of common goals in key ridings.
It’s clear that increasingly urgent action is required to address both climate change and electoral reform. It’s time for advocates of both to adopt new strategies to break through the vested interests that impede progress on these files.