There was a vote in the House of Commons this week that probably drove a stake into the failing heart of electoral reform. With a politically polarized country facing the prospect of  further division as we head toward the next election, parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly to leave in place the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that exacerbates the disunity. 

The vote was on a private member’s motion calling for the federal government to establish a citizens’ assembly to “determine if electoral reform is recommended for Canada and, if so, recommend specific measures that would foster a healthier democracy.” The motion failed to pass by a vote of 220 to 101 with the Liberal cabinet and the majority of its caucus joining with the Conservatives to defeat it. The NDP, the Bloc and the Greens voted in favour, along with 40 Liberals and three Conservatives. 

Unless something unforeseen happens between now and whenever it is called, the next election will be a re-run of the sort of campaigns that have been dominant since the Reform party arrived on the scene three decades ago. By wiping out the old federal PCs and embracing right-wing populism, the Reformers created a scenario in which three or four parties of the centre or left have competed for the votes of  the 60+ per cent of voters who want nothing to do with the new Conservative brand.

The Conservatives under Stephen Harper formed two minority governments with less than 38 per cent of the vote and won a majority in 2011 with 39.6 per cent. Recent polls put support for the Conservatives in the same range as 2011. With the anti-Conservative vote split at least three ways in English Canada and divided among four parties in Quebec, there’s a clear path to victory for the Conservatives. 

Sadly, based on what the Pierre Poilievre-led Conservatives have shown so far, in hindsight the Harper days don’t look that bad. With Poilievre in charge, a Conservative victory would be a win for mendacity, provincial rights and excessive partisanship, a defeat for the environment, action on climate change and human rights. And it would be one more demonstration of why we need to change the way we elect our representatives.

Some history

At one time, very early in the Trudeau government’s  initial mandate, it appeared that first-past-the-post was past its best-before date. A campaigning Trudeau promised his victorious 2015 campaign would  be the last one contested using FPTP. And the Conservative campaign, Harper’s final, demonstrated how the system magnifies differences, encouraging parties to fire up their base, even if it means dangerous attacks on the vulnerable.  

As I argued in this July 2016  commentary,  FPTP in a multi-party system encouraged the kind of divisive politics we saw during the 2015 election campaign when the Conservatives stirred up anti-Muslim sentiment by, among other things,  proposing a “barbaric practices snitch line.” 

The campaign strategy was a doubling down of the game plan the Harperites had been following since winning a majority of seats in 2011 – stay in power by keeping your supporters happy while taking advantage of FPTP and a divided opposition. That approach of firing up the base while ignoring the concerns of the majority of Canadians was evident in many policy areas, notably foreign affairs, the environment, First Nations, corrections and culture.

While the Conservatives have to be held responsible for raising those particular travesties, I would argue that the campaign dynamic that gave rise to them was much dictated by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. A clear majority of voters had long ago made up their minds to get rid of the Stephen Harper Conservatives, but didn’t know which opposition party to support in order to bring about that result. The Conservative re-election strategy was to hope that confusion among anti-Conservative voters continued right up to election day while doing everything possible to maximize their own votes by using fear and prejudice to motivate their supporters.

And now

Similar arguments were heard this week from MPs who spoke in favour of the doomed motion. New Democrat Daniel Blaikie:

The fact of the matter is that Conservatives are misrepresenting the truth on any day of the week, because they are chasing 40% of the vote. It is because we have an electoral system in this country where one can fight tooth and nail, and not to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Canadians, but just to get 40% or even 39% of the vote of Canadians. These are Canadians who, despite being disgusted with the state of political discourse, still show up to vote. However, if one can get 39% of those votes, and if one can use dishonesty and other misrepresentation to drive well-meaning Canadians away from polling stations, then one can get 100% of the power with just 39% of the votes.

Ontario Liberal Leah Taylor Roy used as an example of  such “dishonesty and misrepresentation” the wild claim by Poilievre during his leadership campaign that public health efforts to track the spread of COVID-19 amounted to government surveillance. (“They’ve been following you to the pharmacy, to your family visits, even to your beer runs.”) Alberta New Democrat  Heather McPherson used events in her province to illustrate how the electoral system encourages catering to the extremes, describing Premier Danielle Smith’s attack on trans youth as a strategy to protect herself from far-right activists who brought down her predecessor, Jason Kenney.  

Trudeau responsible?

It’s tempting to place the blame on the FPTP system and those zealots  who take advantage of it, but  a lot of the responsibility rests with the Prime Minister. Despite his bold campaign promise, getting rid of FPTP was never going to be easy, requiring commitment he was not prepared to make.

The first hurdle was to get agreement on what system should replace it. The Liberals favoured a ranked system. With that approach, if the top candidate fails to receive a majority of votes, the second choice of lowest ranked candidates are counted until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes cast. The NDP and the Greens preferred the mixed member proportional system under which a certain percentage of MPs are chosen through FPTP at the riding level while another batch are elected off  lists based on each party’s share of the overall vote.  

The second challenge was to get public buy-in. Despite the flaws of FPTP, provinces that have tried to change it have encountered public resistance. Ontario, B.C. and P.E.I have all followed up consultations with referenda, but each time voters opted for the status quo. From the outset, Conservatives positioned themselves on the side of the angels of democracy and demanded a referendum, no surprise given they have the most to lose from changing the status quo.

But it never came close to a referendum. A special committee on electoral reform toured the country in 2016, holding 57 meetings and  hearing from 196 expert witnesses. Most members of the public who appeared favoured proportional representation and were sceptical of Trudeau’s favoured approach. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when, citing a lack of consensus,  he quietly dropped the initiative by omitting any reference to electoral reform in a mandate letter to a new minister responsible, suggesting to some he was never serious in the first place about reform.

In any case, getting rid of FPTP would have required Trudeau spending a lot of political capital. And that expenditure would have produced either a reform the Liberals feared – mixed-member proportional representation – or for the ranked ballot, which the Liberals wanted but most advocates of electoral reform rejected.

And rejecting  reform of FPTP has worked to the Liberals’ advantage so far. Their share of the popular vote has dropped from 39.5 per cent in 2015 to 33.1 per cent in 2019 and 32.6 per cent in 2021. But notwithstanding some concessions to the NDP as part of the parties’ 2022 Confidence and Supply Agreement, the Liberals have not been obliged to share power with MPs representing  more than 67 per cent of the electorate. That would not likely have happened under proportional representation. But now, with the flawed electoral system pointing to a radical Poilievre government that could undo much of  his legacy, Trudeau may be having regrets about breaking his promise to fix it. If he is having such regrets, many Canadians will be sharing in them.