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Want to rewrite Canadian democracy? Hold a referendum

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Chris Wattie / Reuters/REUTERS

For as long as there's been a Canada, Canadians have voted according to what's known as first-past-the-post. Each voter gets one vote, and each electoral district gets one member of Parliament. In each of Canada's 338 federal districts, the candidate who has the greatest number of "X"s beside their name wins, and becomes the MP.

In last fall's election, the Liberal Party promised to scrap this system: "We are committed," says the platform, "to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." The Liberals didn't say what they would put in its place, only that the system that has been around since Confederation is so unacceptable it has to be quickly be replaced with something – anything.

It was one of scores of planks in the Liberal platform, and it received almost no discussion during the campaign. But if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government carries through on this pledge, it could be the most significant thing his government does, likely bringing about the biggest ever change in Canadian democracy. It will change how members of Parliament are elected, how governments are formed and who forms them, how Canadians vote and how parties seek the votes of Canadians. Yet the PM is proposing to rewrite the basic rules of Canadian democracy with nothing more than a simple up-down vote in a Parliament his party controls.

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The Liberal plan raises three big questions: Should Canada ditch first-past-the-post? Is so, what should replace it? And who should have the power to decide?

Let's start with the last question. It's the easiest to answer. When it comes to a change this big and this fundamental to our democracy, the only people qualified to decide are the people themselves. This has to go to a referendum.

But in year-end interviews, both Prime Minister Trudeau and Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc rejected that. The Liberal platform says that "legislation to enact electoral reform" will be introduced within 18 months of forming government. Canadians, it says, will be consulted through a "national engagement process." The plan is not for the people of Canada to be consulted democratically on the subject of democratic reform; instead, they will instead be asked to give curated and managed feedback in the manner of, say, corporate comment cards and employee satisfaction surveys. How progressive.

Electoral reform of this magnitude is not regular legislation. This isn't the usual business of government: reworking the tax code, amending criminal law or rethinking how and where government spends. All of these moves can be undone by a subsequent administration, as the Liberals are about to do with much of the Tory legacy. Rewriting the rules of democracy isn't like that.

Compare it to the previous Conservative government's Fair Elections Act, which generated enormous and justified opposition due to provisions making voting more difficult for a small number of Canadians. That Conservative legislation was wrong and deserved to be opposed – but its impact was minuscule compared to the consequences, for good or for ill, of ditching first-past-the-post.

Electoral reform will not just change government. It will change who forms government, and who has political power. It will decide who governs, and who does not. It cannot be left to politicians – particularly politicians soon to be seeking re-election – to decide this.

Canada long ago took the question of drawing electoral boundaries out of the hands of politicians, because of the conflict of interest that comes from letting them pick their voters. For the same reason, politicians shouldn't get to pick their preferred electoral system.

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Mr. Trudeau is mistaken in arguing that a change to the foundation of Canadian democracy can be treated as just a regular piece of legislation. He cannot seriously believe that a promised special parliamentary committee on electoral reform, its government members drawn from a House where MPs have traditionally taken daily dictation from their party leader, will really be independent and non-partisan. Nor can any member of the government assert with a straight face that euphemistically "consulting" the people is the same as actually consulting them democratically, with a vote. That's just politics as usual, isn't it?

First-past-the-post has been around for longer than Canada, and like Canada, it isn't perfect. It delivers majority governments that win only a minority of the vote – see the Liberals in 2015 and the Conservatives in 2011, each elected with less than 40 per cent support. (Some think of this as a defect, others see it as a virtue.) Tomorrow, we'll look at the two main alternatives: Ranked ballots and proportional representation. Each has its upsides and drawbacks – and depending on your political party, its electoral payoff.

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