Saturday, May 7, 2011

(No.151) Canada's electoral failure

The May 2 federal election has produced as much over-heated commentary on its results as it did inaccurate predictions before it took place. A largely ignored result has been the election's illustration of yet another failure of the Canadian electoral system to reflect the preferences of the majority of voters.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Canada's self-styled national newspaper, noted in its May 3 coverage of the election results that Prime Minister Harper's Conservatives now have "a secure majority". Indeed they do: 167 seats, 12 more than the 155 needed for a majority in the House of Commons.

Editorially the Globe referred to Harper's "truly national mandate". Hardly that except in the narrowest sense: the election gave the Conservatives a majority of MPs in the House which, while drawn from most of the provinces, was the product of Canada's unreformed 'first past the post' electoral system.

There is nothing that can convincingly be claimed to be "a truly national mandate" for Conservatives when more than 60% of voters chose other political parties. Nor in a system that hopes to maintain voter respect and gain increased participation should 39.6% of votes be able to provide a party with 54.2% of the MPs in the House of Commons.

The reality is that the splitting of votes in various constituencies between the Liberals and the New Democrats allowed the Tories to add enough seats to their 2008 total of 143 to gain a majority in the House.

What about the great ballyhooing of an electoral upswing in voter interest and turnout endlessly foretold by the talking heads in their media commentary? It jumped 'all the way up' to 61.4% of the eligible total from what it had been in 2008, an all time low of 58.8% [2006 - 64.7%]. Not all that much improvement.

For many years I was opposed to amending Canadian democracy to introduce proportional representation in order to give real meaning to the votes of all Canadians who chose to participate in the electoral process regardless of the political party for which they voted. I was concerned by the possibility of PR introducing to the Canadian system political instability of the Italian sort ( 61 governments since 1945) or the spawning of various small special interest parties which could end up exercising an unhealthy and disproportionate leverage on government ( e.g., the religious parties in Israel).

In arguing my view I chose for a time to ignore or downplay certain realities such as the fact that more than two political parties electing MPs in a 'first past the post' system too often serves to defeat the voter preference of the majority. I remained unconvinced, for example, by such evidence as the record of the Progressive Conservative Party in Ontario. It built an uninterrupted political dynasty from 1943 to 1985 without winning a majority of the total vote in any provincial election.

I did pause to take special note when the NDP formed a majority government in Ontario in 1990 having received only 37% of the vote but I was still loyal (sort of) to our unreformed Westminster parliamentary model. However, when the Quebec government was formed by the Parti Quebecois after the 1998 provincial election my doubts finally took full flight. The PQ won 76 seats in the Quebec Assembly having received 42.87% of the vote while the Liberals gained only 48 seats on the basis of having received more votes (43.55%).

The 'first past the post' system of determining how many seats a political party is to have in the Canadian House of Commons when the House is home to MPs of 5 political parties (as it will be in the next parliament) makes a farce out of claims that the elected majority government reflects the voting intentions of the public.

Meanwhile, to those Canadians who worried about what legislative and policy changes a Harper government would undertake if it won a majority on May 2: buckle up and watch the Tories enact what they could not pass through the House or would not even bother to introduce in the previous minority parliaments. The Conservative Party government will be unimpeded by the fact that 6 of 10 voters opposed them.

Those who decided to vote for the social democratic option and are elated with the NDP's meteoric ascent from 37 seats to 102 (based on 30.6% of the total vote on May 2) to become the official opposition will doubtless have been buoyed by leader Jack Layton's election night declaration of all the wonderful things the NDP will accomplish. In fact it will not be long after the next speech from the throne before it will be seen that the NDP will exercise less political leverage in the House during the next 4 years of Conservative majority rule than it did when it sat across from the Conservatives as the 4th largest party in the House -- but one facing a minority government.

The British held a referendum this week on the introduction of an "alternative voting" system for the Westminster parliament. The proposal was a version of the preferential ballot system and it failed miserably with 68% voting against it. Might this U.K. initiative stimulate some serious discussion in Canada about electoral reform? One can hope but don't hold your breath.

Is it likely that the Canadian electoral system will be revised by any federal majority government to include proportional representation? About as likely as Her Majesty The Queen appointing me the next Archbishop of Canterbury.


I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail on this same subject. It was published in the Globe on May 5 and appears below.

Margaret Wente (Here's Why Stephen harper Really Won -- May 5) declares the May 2 election to have been "a great day for Canada" and claims to understand why Stephen Harper won a "whopping" victory. I don't think she does.

Ignore the post-election analysis from the experts whose predictions were so far off. Mr. Harper's majority was the result of an unreformed electoral system that delivered 54.2% of the seats in the House of Commons to a party supported by 39.6% of the vote.

Alastair Rickard
Elmira, Ontario


by Alastair Rickard