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Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.


The 2015 Liberal campaign platform promised that "2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." Like many campaign commitments, this will be harder to implement than to promise.

The Liberals would undoubtedly prefer the alternative vote (AV), in which voters rank their preferences rather than simply marking their first choice with X. If no candidate gets a majority of first preferences, trailing candidates are dropped and their votes transferred according to second preferences until a majority is achieved.

Because the number of MPs and constituency boundaries could remain the same, Elections Canada could implement AV quickly and cheaply. Most important, it would serve the Liberals' short-run self-interest because they are now the leading second choice of voters on the right (Conservatives) as well as on the left (NDP and Greens).

However, AV would be a political gamble because it is such an obviously self-serving "reform." All other parties would oppose it vociferously because it would reduce their representation and increase the Liberal majority in the next election. Even if the Liberals pushed it through the House of Commons using party discipline and closure, they would still have to get it through the Senate, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new "independent" appointees might not be reliable supporters.

There would also be inevitable judicial challenges, now that the Supreme Court of Canada has said in the Senate Reference that fundamental changes to a chamber of Parliament require provincial approval. The government might win the legal argument, but the publicity would not be good. And then there is the Conservative demand for a national referendum on electoral reform, which has already found considerable support among media observers.

Against this backdrop, forcing the adoption of AV might bring on a replay of the 1952 British Columbia election, when the governing Liberal-Conservative coalition introduced the alternative ballot to prevent a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation victory and ended up being soundly defeated.

The parties of the left are demanding proportional representation (PR), which obviously works in their own interest. In 2015, the NDP got 20 per cent of the vote but only 13 per cent of the seats (44), while the Greens, with 3 per cent of the vote, won only 0.3 per cent of the seats (1). But most versions of PR will require drawing new electoral boundaries, which will take a couple of years after legislating a new system. The most obvious way around that would be to adopt a German-style mixed-member-proportional system (MMP), which would double the size of the House of Commons by adding a PR list of the same size as the existing membership of 338. Do we really want 676 MPs, and where would we put them?

Even worse for the Liberals, PR in any version would spell the end of majority government. For the foreseeable future, there would be coalition governments of the Liberals with the NDP and/or Greens. The longer-term future is harder to predict because the introduction of PR usually leads to splits in existing parties and the emergence of new parties.

Because of this risk, the Liberals have never favoured electoral reform in the past. They started to advocate it in 2015 when they were relatively weak and it seemed like an effective appeal to the supporters of other parties. Now they must manage a clash of vital interests among parties.

The Liberals already seem to be planning an escape by running out the clock. Minister of Democratic Reform Maryam Monsef has announced a list of eight values to guide electoral reform, but the government has yet to appoint the promised all-party committee for public consultations. By the time consultations are finished, we will be far into 2017, maybe 2018 – too late to do something for 2019.

Look for Sir Humphrey Appleby's "masterly inactivity" to triumph once again.