Platform Primer: Electoral Reform

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Platform Primer: Electoral Reform

In the run-up to the federal election on May 2, we’ll be comparing the major parties’ platforms on issues that matter to urban voters.

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Each party’s key messages, according their respective colours. Image by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.


Is the electoral system in this country broken? In spite of frequent tweaking to the seat-assignment formula over the years, current seats in the House of Commons don’t properly reflect regional populations, such that the 140,000 residents of Prince Edward Island have four members of Parliament while Brampton West, home to 170,000 people, has just one.
In addition, the First Past the Post (FPTP) system used in Canada sends only the top votegetter per riding to the House of Commons, which marginalizes independent and minor-party candidates and lends itself to regional divisions.
In spite of this, voters have rejected forms of Proportional Representation (PR) in Prince Edward Island in 2005, in Ontario in 2007, and in British Columbia in 2005 and again in 2009. There are various reasons for this, not least of which is that PR voting systems can be complex to understand and boring to read about. FPTP, on the other hand, is familiar and straightforward: whoever gets the most votes wins the seat, and whoever gets the most seats forms a government (usually).
Failed referendums notwithstanding, electoral reform in various forms remains a hot topic at election time, although the parties have divergent views on what, if anything, we should do about it.

Conservatives

Just about any kind of proportional representation would see fewer Tory seats in the House of Commons, which may be why it’s not something they like to talk about. Moreover, PR systems lead to coalition governments, which ranks behind terrorism but ahead of climate change in the Conservative list of Potential Canadian Disasters.
Although PR is off the table, the Tories have advocated for Senate reform since they first formed a government in 2006, and are making an issue of it in this election. The Senate, of course, is the appendix of Canadian government, in that no-one knows exactly what it does, but as long it’s not actively harming anything the general view is that it’s best just to leave it alone. Key Tory proposals: a term limit of eight years as a short-term measure, followed by the ultimate goal of having an elected rather than an appointed Senate. However, they’ve been repeatedly stymied in their efforts by several provinces and by the “Ignatieff coalition” (i.e. anyone who’s not a Conservative). Distrust of an appointed Senate has not, however, stopped the PM from dropping 30 Senators into the upper chamber.
While not proponents of proportional representation as it applies to political parties, Conservatives would adjust the current House of Commons representation to more accurately reflect the geographical distribution of Canada’s population. To that end, they promise to increase the number of seats for Alberta, Ontario, and BC to align with their population growth, which seems reasonable. However, they also commit to “ensuring that Quebec’s seat numbers will not drop below its current 75 seats” (a right which Quebec has been guaranteed since 1985 anyway) which smacks of sophistry in that ensuring la belle province séparatiste keeps 75 seats doesn’t buy them much if other provinces double up their count.

Liberals

Like the Tories, the Liberals would likely lose seats under any form of proportional representation, and their platform doesn’t address the idea at all. Rather, the Grits look to secure the hipster/gamer/shut-in vote by advocating an “online voting option,” which is exactly what it sounds like. While it might be fun to vote without leaving your poker game, online voting is hardly more revolutionary than online porn was, and is likely to be less popular.
The Liberals would also like to see a People’s Question Period, which in spite of its Cultural Revolution nomenclature is a fairly benign innovation which would allow regular folks to ask online questions of government ministers (“UR SO STUPID WHY DON’T YOU GO TO CHINA IF U THINK ITZ SO GRATE?”).
The Grits would also like to restore civility to Parliament, reduce partisanship, and create more interesting committees. However, when it comes to electoral reform that extends beyond cosmetic change, the Grits are strangely silent.

NDP

Traditionally third-placers at the federal level, the New Democrats have been long-time advocates of electoral reform. Like the Tories, they don’t care much for the Senate, but instead of moving towards election rather than appointment of our most useless legislative body, they’d take a sledgehammer to the whole thing. Failing that, the New Democrats would enact laws preventing failed candidates and party insiders from getting cushy senatorial jobs.
The NDP also like proportional representation, which as a smaller party would typically work to their advantage. While the New Democrats have yet to offer a specific plan, leader Jack Layton has been quite open about his desire to institute some form of PR at the federal level. Of course, that view could change with the rising popularity of the NDP and the increased chance of Layton pulling up in front of Stornoway, or even 24 Sussex, with a U-Haul full of mustache wax and socialism.

Green Party

The most significant party never to win a seat in Parliament, the Greens are strong backers of a PR system that would allow them to enter the House of Commons without a tour guide. As a small party with supporters spread across the country, First Past The Post is no friend to the Greens: to put it into perspective, in the 2008 election 74,000 voters in PEI got four MPs, while almost a million Green voters only got a warm and fuzzy feeling that they’d Done The Right Thing.
As far as the Senate goes, the Greens advocate curbing “abuses” (specifically by not allowing unelected representatives to block legislation) but don’t speak with the confidence of the resurgent NDP about abolishing the institution altogether.

The Upshot

The NDP promise the most change, if that’s your thing. They’d get rid of the Senate and move towards a proportional representation voting system (assuming the electorate wants such a thing, which they haven’t yet indicated). If the NDP stick to their guns, the surprising spike in their popularity could mean it happens sooner rather than never.
The Greens also advocate for PR, but will be lucky to elect a single MP without it, so their influence is likely to be limited. The Conservatives would like to have an elected Senate, but view it as a long process, and have expressed no interest in any change to First Past the Post voting. And the Liberals are essentially status quo. Apart from letting you vote from home in your underwear, they seem pretty happy with the way things are right now.

For more on the federal election, check out our politics hub, with a complete guide to every riding in Toronto. For all the details on their policy plans, also check out the platforms of the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party.

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