Canada keeps getting it wrong

Regular readers will know Canada as the home of one of the democratic world’s worst electoral systems. For almost a decade, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper remained in power despite rejection by voters: Canadians voted for the centre-left in three successive elections to no avail.

That period came to an end in 2015 when the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau won government, with a promise to implement electoral reform. But having won a parliamentary majority with just 39.5% of the vote, Trudeau decided he quite liked the old electoral system, and last year the promise was ditched.

So weird results keep happening. There have been three provincial elections this year. In Ontario, in June, the three centre-left parties – Liberals, New Democrats and Greens – won a large majority of the vote, 57.8% between them.

As you’ve probably guessed, none of them ended up in government. The centre-right party, the Progressive Conservatives, won comfortably, with 76 of the 124 seats from just 40.5% of the vote.

At least you can argue that the centre-right was the most popular single party. In New Brunswick, last week, even that wasn’t the case. The Liberals outvoted the Progressive Conservatives on their own by almost six points, 37.8% to 31.9%. But the centre-right still won more seats, 22 to 21.

Another two small parties – one left and one right – won three seats each. Since the Progressive Conservatives will only need the support of one of them, it’s likely they will make a deal to take government, despite the fact that 54.7% of the voters opted for left-of-centre parties.

And then this week it was Quebec’s turn: always the most interesting province, because its party system is unlike the rest of the country. Instead of a conventional left-right setup, it’s based on support for or opposition to Quebec nationalism.*

Last time around, in 2014, the Liberals, who are anti-nationalist (and not affiliated with the federal Liberals), won an absolute majority with – yes, you’ve guessed it – much less than half the vote (41.5%).

Broadly nationalist parties won more votes, but a lot fewer seats. The pro-independence Parti Québécois had 25.4%, the more moderate Coalition for Quebec’s Future (CAQ; nationalist but against independence) had 23.1% and the left-wing Solidarity Quebec (also pro-independence) had 7.6%.

As I’ve said before, if the parties won’t take measures to avoid wasting their votes, the voters will eventually do it for them. This time they clearly decided that CAQ was on the rise, so they flocked to it. It took 37.4% of the vote and a substantial majority of seats, 74 out of 125.

At least this time you can say that a majority of voters wanted a nationalist government and that’s what they got. The three nationalist parties had more than 70% of the vote between them. But it would have been fairer if they had had to co-operate a bit rather than one of them getting an artificial majority.

Why does Canada do so badly at electoral fairness? It has the same electoral system – first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts – that Britain bequeathed to most of its colonies. But it combines that with a multi-party system, producing rapid shifts in support and unpredictable relationships between votes and seats.

This is not rocket science. Most democracies manage to do much, much better than this. With a simple spreadsheet you can do a D’Hondt or a Sainte-Laguë calculation in  minutes. There’s no excuse for being content with such patently arbitrary results.

But the politics are another matter. Reform efforts in the provinces have followed the same pattern as Trudeau’s betrayal displayed at federal level: once in power, parties develop an affection for the system that got them there, regardless of their promises.

So, for example, in the smallest province, Prince Edward Island, a referendum two years ago voted for a change to mixed-member proportional representation. But the provincial Liberal government, using the excuse of low turnout, decided to ignore the result, proposing instead to hold another referendum in conjunction with the province’s next election.

British Columbia, a much bigger prize, is holding its own referendum in a few weeks time – it’s a postal ballot, running from 22 October to 30 November. But that’s happening because the Greens managed to win the balance of power at the last provincial election, and were able to insist on reform as the price of their support.

Maybe if British Columbia successfully manages the shift to proportional representation, it will encourage imitation elsewhere. But don’t hold your breath.


* Although that issue was not entirely absent in New Brunswick: the small right-wing party, People’s Alliance, is mostly known for its opposition to measures catering to the French-speaking minority.


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