Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau
Canada’s new Prime Minister has a big pair of shoes to fill. While Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have pledged to implement major changes to Canada’s federal government, one promise may be a case of biting off more than they can chew. In their official party platform, the Liberals have proclaimed that the 2015 Canadian federal election will be the last one using “First Past the Post” (FPTP), and have pledged to overhaul the current system in a mere 18 months. Given that the Liberals now control a majority of seats within the House of Commons, this project may actually happen. However, despite Trudeau’s rhetoric, political scientists and opposition on the Hill remain skeptical that electoral reform will be accomplished in such a short time; some question whether it can be done at all. From a policy perspective, electoral reform can be achieved, as long as the following issues are addressed.
Not All Electoral Systems are Created Equal
The first point of concern are the vague statements offered by Trudeau and the Liberals when it comes to describing exactly how they intend to modify the electoral system. Members of the political opposition have argued that the Liberals are not actually interested in implementing an electoral system that offers fairer representation. Unlike the New Democratic Party (NDP), who have publicly endorsed a mixed-member proportional representation system – used by European countries such as Germany and New Zealand – the official Liberal Party platform does not contain an endorsement for a specific alternative. What the Liberals have promised instead is the establishment of a Parliamentary committee composed of members of the major political parties, charged with reviewing all possible alternatives to First Past the Post. The committee’s recommendations would then be considered by the House in enacting legislation for electoral reform.
An essential component of choosing a suitable alternative is to recognize that different electoral systems produce varying results, mainly because each system weighs votes differently. For instance, if the 2015 election took place using proportional representation, the most probable result would have been a Liberal-NDP coalition government. If instant runoff voting (IRV) was used instead, the result, according to a Nanos Poll, would have been an even greater Liberal majority with 206 seats, which would have exacerbated the inequalities of the first-past-the-post system. These differences highlight the importance of due diligence on the part of the committee when it comes to choosing a system that best represents Canadian voters.
Maclean’s writer Evan Solomon reports that Justin Trudeau himself supports IRV in the form of a ranked ballot, which has voters rank candidates from most to least favourite. With this method, candidates who gain over 50% of the vote win outright. In cases where this does not occur, there is a process of elimination using voter preferences to allocate votes until a candidate gains more than half the total votes. As Solomon suggests, “In this system, the Liberals could solidify power and still fulfill their democratic reform promise. For a party with no natural allies, like the Conservatives, it could be a fatal blow.” In light of Parker’s objections to IRV, which he describes as “FPTP on steroids,” this may not be the best system when it comes to ensuring fairer representation. The NDP’s preferred system of mixed-member proportional representation, on the other hand, would yield more equitable results, in comparison. Unfortunately, the Liberals may not want to entertain that option.
Power versus Principles
Another issue for policy analysts is the potential lack of political motivation when it comes to implementing electoral reform. Despite Trudeau’s consistent support for the initiative, some political scientists argue that the 2015 election result will instead dissuade the Liberals from implementing changes. Under FPTP, the Liberals managed to obtain 54% of the seats with only 39.5% of the popular vote. The ability of the current system to create parliamentary majorities without requiring a majority of the popular vote is why some experts such as Max Cameron, a political science professor at UBC, believe that changing the system would harm Liberal party interests. In an interview with the CBC, Cameron argues:
“A [Parliamentary] majority, I think, in an interesting way gives the Liberals the means to make change but paradoxically, at least in this respect, diminishes their motivation. … [FPTP] gives them many, many more seats than they got in terms of percentage of the popular vote. In some sense, they’ve got not a lot to gain from changing the current system.”
The controversy surrounding Trudeau’s intentions has spectators questioning whether Canada’s new Prime Minister is serious about enacting electoral reform. For Dennis Pilon, a political scientist professor at York University, the way in which Trudeau decides to enact electoral reform will reveal his true political goals — that is, whether he has a genuine desire to fix a broken system or simply wants to solidify his power within the status quo.
What are the legal processes of electoral reform? On the one hand, Canada has a troubled history when it comes to amending electoral law via referendum: Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have all attempted and failed. In addition, there does not seem to be enough political consensus among the provinces to advance a constitutional amendment. Fortunately for Trudeau, reform can also be achieved by amending the Canada Elections Act, which can easily be done through Parliament. The choice of approach will reveal how seriously Trudeau is committed to reforming the electoral system. Engaging Parliament would be the obvious choice for a genuine reformer. But if Trudeau actually opposes reform and wants political cover, he could go down the (doomed-to-fail) referendum route, which would allow him to shift political responsibility onto the Canadian public for blocking reform.
Living Up to a Legacy
One must never underestimate the allure of glory in politics. The opportunity to make history offers Trudeau a powerful incentive to uphold his campaign promise and change the electoral status quo. For a young prime minister eager to step out from his father’s long shadow of achievement (the elder Trudeau is lauded as the prime minister responsible for repatriating the Canadian constitution and establishing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) electoral reform is low-hanging fruit.
Political legacy aside, upholding campaign promises is important at a more basic level: ensuring a future in politics. The fact remains that the Liberals were elected partly because of their promise to change the way in which the Canadian government represents its constituents. If the Liberals fail to act on electoral reform, then Trudeau will likely serve only one term as Prime Minister.
When it comes down to it, electoral reform is actually quite achievable from a policy standpoint, and the Liberals have the political incentive to ensure that it happens. Given their majority within the House of Commons, the Liberals have the biggest influence in terms of picking an alternative electoral system, but what they ultimately decide on may not necessarily be in the national interest or in the name of fairer representation. Trudeau’s approach — be it through statutory amendment or national plebiscite — will determine not only the future of the prime minister’s political career, but whether Canadians are serious about changing the way their interests are represented by Parliament.
Michal Jastrzebski is a graduate of the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and History.