The issue of electoral reform has hounded Canadian politicians for almost a century. Ever since Canada evolved from being a two-party system, some people have questioned the wisdom of retaining our first-past-the-post system.
In all that time, no government took serious steps towards reforming. As cynics would suggest – why change the system that got you elected?
But 2015 brought signs of change. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made bold declarations that 2015 would be the last federal election to use the first-past-the-post system. Other Liberal candidates embraced the issue, and electoral reform became a central piece of the Liberal Party platform during its campaign.
The Liberal Party won an easy majority in what was to be the final first-past-the-post election.
Once elected, the government formed a special committee on electoral reform. The committee studied the issue at length. The government polled Canadians on the type of electoral system they wanted to see. The committee consulted with academics and experts both within and beyond Canada.
To outsiders, it appeared that the issue was moving forward. The committee decided on an alternative system and tabled its report. All this was done in time to implement the promised change before the next federal election.
Then, suddenly, it was over.
Problems with First-Past-the-Post
The crux of the argument against first-past-the-post is that the system was designed with two parties in mind. It awards victories to whichever candidate gets the most votes cast in a riding. When there are only two candidates vying for that seat in the House of Commons, the person with the most votes wins at least 50% of the votes.
However, with more than two major parties running in each riding, the winning candidate often wins his or her seat with less than 50% of the vote. This can result in a government that does not reflect the will of the majority of voters in the riding.
Consider our most recent federal election. In that election, 39.5% of Canadian voters cast ballots for the Liberal Party of Canada. This added up to 6,943,276 votes. The second runners up, the Conservative Party, received 31.9% or 5,613,614 votes. Because of how first-past-the-post works, the Liberals won a majority government with 54% of seats in the House of Commons.
This means 60% of Canadian voters did not vote for the current government.
Not everyone has a problem with this. Supporters argue that the first-past-the-post system helps maintain stability by discouraging minority governments and keeping parties on the fringes of mainstream politics out of government. Given the rise of right-wing extremism in parts of Europe, this is a fair argument.
Why Electoral Reform Isn’t Dead Yet
These setbacks have not deterred electoral reform advocates. Though Justin Trudeau has renounced his support, a Member of Parliament from any party could introduce a bill on the subject. If a majority of members were persuaded to support it, reform could move forward with or without the Prime Minister’s approval.
However, the time for reform is running out.
The government has to act quickly if Canada is to use a system other than first-past-the-post in the next federal election. It would have to draft and pass a bill, then make changes to Elections Canada guidelines in time for the election in 2019.
Nathan Cullen, a member of the special committee, plans to put the committee’s suggestions to the House of Commons in May. It is likely that this will be the last chance to implement reform until after the next election.