If there is one thing certain about the evergreen electoral-reform debate in Canada, it’s that the same politicians who loudly call for the end of our first-past-the-post system while in opposition never do so if they happen to get into government. There are two vivid recent examples of this.
First up, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. His victory speech the night the Liberals won an unexpected majority in 2015 included a surprisingly forceful declaration to the effect that Canadians had just seen their last first-past-the-post federal election.
Barely a year later, Mr. Trudeau disappeared that promise by failing to include it in the mandate letter he wrote for his minister of democratic institutions. He simply edited it out of existence.
Next up, Quebec Premier François Legault. When his Coalition Avenir Québec was in opposition, he was so keen on electoral reform that his enthusiasm managed to briefly survive his majority election victory in 2018. His government even tabled a bill in 2019 to create a hybrid system, one where 80 seats would be settled the old way, and the other 45 would be assigned based on the popular vote in the province’s 17 administrative regions.
And then Mr. Legault killed his own bill on second reading, arguing that the average Quebecker didn’t care about an issue he suddenly deemed to be only of interest to “a few intellectuals.”
Mr. Legault’s transformation from intellectual to average person took a little longer than Mr. Trudeau’s, but the result was the same. It’s easy to understand why. Both ended up with majority governments, and majority governments are heroin to politicians: distortive of reality, jealously sought, and even more jealously guarded.
Any party that holds more than half the seats in Parliament or a provincial legislature forms one of the most powerful and unchecked governments in the democratic world. Majority government bills move frictionlessly from tabling to enactment; at the federal level, the prime minister can name judges and senators without interference.
Politicians who get a taste of that lose interest in jeopardizing their next hit. Anyone already high on the rush of unfettered legislative power is not going to change a winner-take-all system that just turned their 40 per cent (or less) of the popular vote into a massive majority government.
So we can’t expect politicians to reform the system. And we shouldn’t. When they lose an election, they favour options that would give the government fewer seats and them more; when they win, they favour the opposite outcome. Their democratic ethics tend to be highly situational.
More importantly, it’s not their system. It’s ours. It belongs to the voters; they should decide how it works. And that leads to a bigger issue: Canadians have repeatedly shown themselves less than persuaded about the need to change the electoral system, even when it yields results that leave a majority of voters feeling shortchanged.
Monday’s Quebec election was an example. Mr. Legault’s party got 41 per cent of the vote, which translated into 72 per cent of the seats. Four other parties each took between 13 per cent and 15 per cent of the vote, yet ended up with vastly different seat counts: 21 for the Liberals, 11 for Québec solidaire, three for the Parti Québécois and zero for the Parti Conservateur.
The upshot is that Quebec will spend the next four years being governed by a party supported by well under half of voters. But that sort of outcome has been the case in federal and provincial elections for decades, and Canadians haven’t stormed the barricades over it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Mr. Legault shredded his promise to bring in electoral reform, and was rewarded with a bigger majority in his second election. Multiple provincial referendums have been held on ditching FPTP for some sort of proportional representation – Prince Edward Island in 2005, 2016 and 2019; Ontario in 2007; British Columbia in 2005, 2009 and 2018. In none of them did enough voters endorse the new over the old.
Canadians are apparently comfortable with a system that, however imperfect, has produced 150 years of stable government, and are suspicious of changing it.
That’s not to say there can’t ever be new ways of doing things. But if there are better arguments out there that can convince average Canadians to join the electoral reform bandwagon, so far they haven’t been made.