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jeffrey simpson

Democracy belongs to the people, not political parties. Parties are necessary creations for structuring democratic debate. One or more of them forms a government after elections that, in turn, belong to the people, not the parties.

Get that principle straight – democracy and elections belong to the people and not political parties – and the danger becomes apparent in the way the Liberal government proposes to change the federal election system.

The Liberals promised in the campaign that the election would be the last held under the first-past-the-post system that Canada has always used.

The Liberals did not commit themselves to another system. They just said the issue of changing the system would be sent to a parliamentary committee for study and recommendation.

Once in office, the Liberals are giving the committee 18 months to recommend something new, presumably so that Parliament can implement that system before the next election.

Procedurally, this is wrong on every count.

First of all, the Liberals have a majority in the House of Commons and will have a majority on all committees. Therefore, the Liberals can slam through any change they want – unless they agree to give MPs a free vote. And even if they do, MPs, being politicians, will sniff which system will give themselves the best advantage.

Second, the three major parties' positions on electoral reform have already been largely framed by the pursuit of their own interests.

The Conservatives, by and large, favour the existing system since they have seen how they can win a majority of seats by expanding their solid base of 30 per cent to something in the 35-to-39-per-cent range. At the moment, the Conservatives are the least-favored second-choice party. They need first-past-the-post.

The New Democrats favour proportional representation because that system almost always produces minority governments. When minorities are the rule not the exception, coalition governments are likely. Coalitions would give the NDP a chance for a share of power it would probably not achieve under any other system.

The Liberals are usually the party with the most second-choice support among both Conservatives and New Democrats. A preferential voting system in which electors rank preferences would likely favour the Liberals, which is why leader Justin Trudeau has spoken approvingly of it.

Send the issue to a parliamentary committee, and watch the three parties very quickly coalesce around their preferred options. Maybe a consensus would emerge, but the chances of that result would be extremely slim, because the parties will be calculating which system would favour their interests.

Third, if the electoral system that frames an important part of democracy belongs to the people, then the people and not the parties should decide if a change is needed and, if so, what kind.

In a representative democracy such as ours, direct voting should occur only on the most fundamental questions such as constitutional changes, dividing a country or how elections are framed.

Changing the electoral system is so fundamental that it requires a national vote of the kind that occurred in New Zealand. There, a majority of the electors voted against retaining the first-past-the-post system and opted instead for a kind of proportional representation. The decision having been taken, the Kiwis are not going back.

In Canada, by contrast, voters in Ontario and Prince Edward Island turned thumbs down by large majorities to changing the status quo. In British Columbia, 57 per cent of the voters did vote for change (to a system used in Ireland, the single transferable vote) but then-premier Gordon Campbell had decreed that 60 per cent was needed.

Nonetheless, Mr. Campbell took note of the 57 per cent and decreed that British Columbians should vote again, at which point fewer than 50 per cent wanted change.

Based on these New Zealand and Canadian provincial examples, it is impossible to know how Canadians would vote if consulted directly. What we do know is that, even among those who say they want change, no consensus exists on what kind of system should replace first-past-the-post.

A referendum on two new systems, without the status quo in the mix, would be a farce, since polls suggest a number of Canadians prefer the existing system. For them not to have their preference among those under consideration would smack of manipulation.

If the parties and not the people make the change, you can bet your last nickel that calculations by politicians will define the outcome.