Skip to main content
campbell clark

The option for which Mr. Trudeau has indicated a preference – an instant-runoff system using ranked ballots – doesn’t have organized backers.John Woods/The Canadian Press

The wonk war on electoral reform is about to begin, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Liberals who think like him don't have an army.

There will be a series of town hall consultations across the country, as a special parliamentary committee is supposed to make recommendations on reform by December.

But who will show up to make their views known? Chances are, it will be those who are organized.

The forces in favour of a proportional-representation system – an alliance of political parties and interest groups with mailing lists and organizational heft – are gearing up a campaign. There will also be folks who don't want change, and the Conservatives, who favour the status quo, are trying to rally public support for a referendum.

But the option for which Mr. Trudeau has indicated a preference – an instant-runoff system using ranked ballots – doesn't have organized backers. Unless the Liberals themselves build a campaign, it's likely to be drowned out.

Mr. Trudeau's government hasn't said which electoral system it would put in place for 2019 – it promised to consult. But Mr. Trudeau and many in his party lean to instant runoff, in which voters rank their choices for MP on a preferential ballot, and if no candidate wins a majority in a riding, second and possibly third choices are added till one candidate obtains 50 per cent of the vote. The Liberals put that proposal in their policy book in 2012.

Now that the Liberals have a majority government, there's another reason why many in the party prefer it to proportional representation, which allocates seats roughly in proportion to a party's popular vote. With instant runoff, the Liberals would be far more likely to hang on to majority government in 2019. After all, if last October's votes were tallied in a proportional representation system, Mr. Trudeau would have a minority, and he'd be relying on the NDP for support.

But if the parliamentary committee decides on reform based on this summer's public consultations, it is not likely to choose instant runoff.

The advocates of proportional representation have websites, backgrounders, e-mail lists, expert advocates, ads and slogans. The NDP and the Green Party are campaigning. A collection of groups have signed onto the alliance, from the United Steelworkers to the Fédération des femmes du Québec to Greenpeace.

The people behind that coalition look at this summer's consultations as a campaign to be won. And they're gearing up to win.

The proportional representation wonks have been itching for this fight for years. Long in the political wilderness, the electoral-reform movement in Canada became almost exclusively a movement for proportional representation. There are few organized groups that support instant runoff.

There is a movement for so-called ranked ballots at the municipal level – a campaign called 123Ontario pushed for a soon-to-pass bill that will allow its use in Ontario's municipal elections. But, at the federal level, most of backers of 123Ontario support proportional representation.

Dave Meslin, co-ordinator of the campaign, said instant runoffs can be an improvement for municipalities; there are no municipal parties in Ontario and many councils are built with one representative per ward. But he calls it a "lousy compromise" for the federal level, where the "gold standard" – proportional representation – can be put in place.

Proportional representation backers have two big selling points. One is a kind of fairness – each party gets seats roughly in line with the proportion of votes it won. The other is preventing so-called "wasted" votes, so voters who support a party that is not popular in their area, like Liberals in rural Alberta, can cast a ballot that will contribute to electing a representative. At times, its advocates have a tendency to insist it is objectively, undeniably better than any other system – so with education, all will agree it's the best.

But not everyone agrees. Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist Barry Kay, for example, argued in a recent article that it promotes the emergence of small parties, sometimes parochial or extreme, that might gain disproportionate bargaining power in Parliament. Prof. Kay expressed a preference for instant runoff.

Mr. Trudeau himself has said he's not convinced about proportional representation, either. He leans to the instant runoff. But the PM who opened the door to reform has no campaign to back his preference.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe