Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada by the Law Commission of Canada
Law Commission of Canada, Ottawa, 2004, 209 p.
On March 31, 2004, the Law
Commission of Canada released its report entitled Voting Counts: Electoral
Reform for Canada. This report is the culmination of many years of research
Discussion about electoral
reform in Canada is nothing new. Murmurings over the inadequacy of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system have existed for years. With concern
over the “democratic deficit” at the forefront, it should come as
no surprise that electoral reform is being discussed so widely. Distorted
election results, under representation of women and minorities and swollen
governing majorities in the House of Commons have led many to suggest that the
electoral system no longer fits with the democratic values of Canadians. In its
report, the Law Commission admits that electoral reform is not the answer to
all of Canada’s democratic malaise, but that it may be a starting point
for “energizing and strengthening Canadian democracy.”
The report examines the
debate around electoral reform and evaluates how different voting systems could
fit in to our Westminster-style parliamentary system. The report concludes by
recommending the addition of an element of proportionality into the electoral
system. The report is careful to ensure that any changes suggested can be
realized without a constitutional amendment.
The report begins by
examining the pros and cons of the first-past-the-post system, arguing that an
increasing number of Canadians feel that the “drawbacks of our electoral
system may outweigh its advantages.” The intent is not just to
criticize the status quo, but rather to review the validity of the arguments in
favour of electoral reform and to examine the possible impacts of electoral
reform on Canada’s system of governance.
The report seeks to achieve
this through five main objectives. The first reflects on the evolution of the
debate on electoral reform in Canada in order to understand how the arguments
for reform have changed over time and to understand the factors that help
characterize the present discussion. Readers are reminded that there was
a time in Canada’s history, from about the mid-1920s, when the rise of
progressive and united farmers’ parties encouraged electoral reform at
the provincial level.
Talk of electoral reform has
resurfaced as a prominent issue only recently when a sharp decline in voter
turnout, distorted electoral results, and under representation of women and
minorities have led many observers to demand that something be done to address
these concerns. The report notes that reforming the electoral system coincides
with the responses of a number of countries, including New Zealand, Japan, and Scotland to similar issues.
The second objective
explores the concerns around the current electoral system. It does this
by determining the most important values that an electoral system must reflect,
such as an effective and accountable government, a diversity of ideas, valuing
votes, and regional balance. These criteria are extremely useful in
understanding the rational behind the recommendations made by the Commission
and in illustrating exactly what the current system lacks. Although the
benefits of a stable and accountable government should not be overlooked,
neither should they be oversold. The assessment of the first-past-the-post
system finds that it performs poorly on many criteria.
These criteria are used to
achieve the third objective of making recommendations for electoral reform.
A number of electoral
systems were surveyed and the strengths and weaknesses of each evaluated
against the selected criteria in order to determine which system would best
reflect the values of Canadians. The foundation for the examination of
different electoral systems is to balance the benefits of some element of
proportionality while maintaining accountable government, which is represented
in this report by the relationship between Members of Parliament and their
constituents. To achieve this, it is suggested that a mixed member proportional
system with a flexible list system be adopted.
Since one of the primary
aims of modifying the system is to enhance diversity and representation, the
report makes further recommendations to ensure that these values are achieved.
For example, upon adoption of a mixed member list system, the report recommends
that a parliamentary committee review the measures parties have taken to
promote equal representation of women and minorities in the House of Commons.
While it is doubtful that political parties will welcome any parliamentary
involvement in their activities, this recommendation makes an important point:
electoral reform is not enough to eliminate the under representation of women
and minorities. Other modifications must also be made to ensure that the
projected benefits of a proportional system are maximized.
Assessing the potential
impact of the recommended reforms is the fourth objective of the study.
Replacing the first-past-the-post system with a mixed member proportional
system would mean that only when a party obtains more than 50 percent of the
popular vote would a singe-party majority government be most likely to occur.
As the report notes, since 1921 such majorities have occurred only five times. As
such, it is reasonable to speculate an increase in minority or coalition
governments under a mixed system. The report dismisses the idea that coalition
governments unavoidably lead to instability, and suggests that countries such
as New Zealand and Scotland show the opposite.
The issue of two
“classes” of representatives that would result under a mixed member
list system is also addressed. The report acknowledges the potential conflict
between MPs elected from the list and those elected directly by the constituency.
To help eliminate some of the likely difficulties, the report recommends that
list MPs should have the same rights and privileges of constituency MPs and
that parties develop protocols to ensure the effective co-functioning of all
The final objective of the
report is to discuss how the process of electoral reform could unfold.
The discussion stresses the importance of public involvement in the process,
but cautions against the use of a referendum to achieve this purpose since referendums
can be divisive and run the risk of selling electoral reform as being the only
approach to improving Canadian democracy. The report recommends that the
federal government prepare draft legislation and direct a parliamentary
committee to initiate a public consultation on the proposed system.
Furthermore, the report calls for a parliamentary committee to review the new
system after three general elections, should the system be modified.
One of the strengths of the
Law Commission’s review of electoral reform is the recognition that a
change in the electoral system will not guarantee that the concerns facing Canada’s democracy will be eliminated. Although the list of benefits of a
proportional system is quite long, the report is careful to reinforce that
these are only possible benefits. The report also recognizes that no electoral
system is perfect, but argues that a mixed member system would be fairer, more
inclusive, and more representative of society.
The report is also
successful in noting the possible effects of coalition governments on public
policy, explaining that even though the life of a coalition or minority
government may be shorter than that of a majority government, this appears to
have little effect on public policy. The report also acknowledges the concern
over negotiations and agreements that lead to coalition governments, but offers
re-assurance that voters can still punish parties that they feel stray too far
away from electoral promises.
One problem with the
examination of electoral reform is that the parliamentary perspective is often
overlooked. For example, although the report’s discussion of coalition
governments is quite useful, it does not address the way that these types of
governments will reconcile parliamentary principles such as cabinet secrecy and
solidarity and ministerial responsibility.
In the case of
representation, the report properly recognizes some of the issues and conflicts
surrounding Members of Parliament who are elected differently but does not
really discuss if or how a modified electoral system will affect the role or
expectations of Members of Parliament. The report also overlooks a small but
significant point: in order to accommodate the mixed member proportional
system, it would be necessary to increase the size of electoral districts.
Although the report does consider a reasonable riding size important in
maintaining the relationship between MPs and constituents and notes that the
impact of the expansion could be lessened somewhat by the possibility of an
additional MP, it does not provide an adequate discussion of the impact an
increased riding size could have on already strained Members. Augmented ridings
would not only mean an increase in population but also, in many cases, more
territory to cover. Members of the House of Commons repeatedly stress the
budgetary and time constraints they face and larger ridings are not likely to
be a welcome change.
Overall, the report is a
noteworthy addition to the current debate on electoral reform. Whether or
not any change takes place remains to be seen.
Megan Furi, Law and Government Division, Parliamentary Research