Skip to main content

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

New Democratic Party MPs crowed Thursday after the Trudeau government altered course on the long and winding route to electoral reform.

The NDP had been unhappy with the composition of the parliamentary committee designed to study changes. It objected to the Liberals having a majority on the committee, arguing that the party had won only 40 per cent of the votes in the past election; committee membership should reflect votes cast, not seats in the House.

The Liberals yielded to NDP criticism a bit on Thursday, giving the combined opposition parties a majority of the seats on the committee and relegating themselves to a minority. Now, the committee will have five Liberals, three Conservatives, two New Democrats and one each from the Green Party and Bloc Québécois. Such selflessness, however, does not hide that when or if any legislation comes to the whole House of Commons, the Liberals can do what they like courtesy of their majority.

Story continues below advertisement

The NDP, of course, wants proportional representation (PR), the system whereby Commons seats more or less reflect the parties' share of the popular vote. Whatever the philosophical or theoretical merits of PR, it's the only system for the foreseeable future whereby the New Democrats could get a share of power in the kind of coalition government PR systems usually produce. Theory aside, self-interest points the NDP toward PR.

The fervour of the NDP for PR stands in inverse relationship to the party's confidence that the people want that system. Listening to New Democrats, the gullible might believe Canadians are demanding PR from Tofino to Trinity Bay. And not just demanding, but clamouring for PR, so unjust is the existing system of first-past-the-post, whose weaknesses are apparently so evident and injurious.

Were this assertion even remotely correct, the New Democrats would be insisting on a national referendum. After all, if Canadians were to endorse in a popular vote a PR system, the new system would have the legitimacy and popular support that no other method of approval could provide.

It would appear, however, that the NDP is deeply nervous of democracy. It doesn't favour the people voting on this, quite likely because the party actually doesn't believe that the people are gung-ho for proportional representation. Otherwise, the New Democrats would be demanding a referendum.

So the NDP, like the Liberals, offer false arithmetic to back their public claims. Liberals, New Democrats and Green all got elected pledging to end first-past-the-post, without agreeing on a replacement method of voting. Therefore, critics of the status quo claim a "mandate" for change, as if electors had system change foremost in their minds, when in fact few of them gave the matter even a passing thought.

You doubt it? Try this test. Around the barbecue or pool or anywhere where friends gather this summer, pop this question: What do you think of proportional representation? If one in 10 knows what PR is, let alone how they feel about it, you will have hit a group far more informed than Canadians as a whole.

There is every chance, quite ironically, that the NDP will eventually have to demand a referendum. That moment will come when the Liberals, with their parliamentary majority, lay their cards on the table, that is, making public the party's private desire to have a system of preferential voting.

Story continues below advertisement

That system would likely favour the Liberals and hurt the other two parties, the Liberals being a popular second-choice option for both Conservatives and New Democrats. Being self-interested, but wishing to seem "inclusive," "consultative," "transparent," and "democratic," the Liberals will eventually try to manoeuvre this process to preferential voting.

At which point, the New Democrats, out-gunned in the House, will figure out that the only way to stop preferential voting would be a national referendum. Because if only the House votes, then the Liberals can and will get their way.

A referendum would allow all parties to advance their respective cases to the electorate. If the NDP and other PR supporters are convinced that the people want PR, then that system will win more than half the votes and become Canada's electoral law.

This whole electoral-reform game, stripped to its essence, is an elaborate but thus far not very coherent exercise by the Liberal Party in the pursuit of its own long-term self-interest. Only the people in a referendum might choose to stop them. By not aligning themselves with a referendum, New Democrats on Thursday won a small victory in what for them looks to be a losing game.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter