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With the design of a new electoral system destined for the agenda of a House of Commons committee on democratic reform, the respectful atmosphere that all sides have promised for Parliament is likely to give way to shrill and highly partisan debate. Soon after Parliament resumes on Jan. 25, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef will ask the committee to study alternatives to the first-past-the-post voting system that Canada has followed since Confederation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely believed to favour preferential voting, or a single transferable vote (STV), rather than full proportional representation (PR) that would assign seats based on each party's share of the popular vote.

If this be so, the well-known adage "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" could serve as a note of caution for the Prime Minister in his presumed desire to implement changes seen as likely to favour the

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Liberal Party.

Experiments with alternative voting systems have produced surprising and even bizarre results in provincial elections. Politicians need to remember that under whichever system

Canadians may cast ballots, they are likely to find a way to express a common will, often channelled into the theme of "throw the rascals out."

Systems similar to the single transferable vote have been used in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, but it was the B.C. election of 1952 that produced perhaps the most bizarre outcome in Canadian political

history.

After the collapse of a wartime coalition of Conservative and Liberal parties, outgoing Liberal premier Byron (Boss) Johnson decided that a switch from first past the post to a preferential ballot was the only way to keep the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF (predecessor to the New Democratic Party), from gaining power. Supporters of the two old-line parties, he reasoned, would opt for each other's candidates as their second preference.

It didn't quite work out that way. Voters were so fed up they turned to a band of political neophytes running under the Social Credit banner. It took three weeks to complete the recounts. The CCF won the most first choices (21 seats to 14 for Social Credit) but the final tally put Social Credit on top, 19 seats to 18. The new system deprived the CCF of power, but it destroyed the Liberal and Conservative parties. Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett reverted to first past the post after winning a majority in 1953. He accurately predicted the old-line parties would be out of power "for 50 years."

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Alberta used STV to decide urban seats from 1926 through 1955, and Manitoba from 1920 to 1953. Its adoption was pushed by the Progressive movement, a precursor to the new parties that would later rise in the West.

Ms. Monsef has promised public consultation but no referendum on the new system the House committee may recommend – and the government chooses to adopt – for the 2019 federal election.

Not surprisingly, in view of the fact that in referendums in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba in 2005, 2007 and 2009, voters rejected proposals to dump first past the post. They were uncertain about new and unfamiliar systems of proportional representation.

These outcomes are encouragement for the Conservative

opposition in its demands for a referendum. They fear STV would produce Liberal governments "forever" but believe an aroused Conservative faithful would be able to win a referendum.

One study, done after Oct. 19, suggests that under STV, the Liberals would have bolstered their majority, with fewer Conservatives and more NDP members being elected. But STV could have other results. Rather than reinforcing the Liberal hold on the electorate, it could cause a rush to the middle with three or four centrist parties feeding off one another's second choices. If it induced the Conservative Party to rebrand itself, possibly under a female leader, the Liberals could lose any advantage they might have expected.

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There may be little room in future Canadian elections for parties that take extreme or highly targeted positions on the issues of the day.

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