This week one of my students emailed asking if I could help him with a journalism assignment. He was writing a piece on prospects for electoral reform in Canada now that the Liberal government has abandoned its plans to change the voting system, and was wondering if I could give some commentary.
Below is what I sent him. I’m curious to see how it compares with other people’s assessments of the way forward.
I don’t believe that electoral reform is likely to succeed in Canada unless there is a drastic change in the way that it is approached. The one common factor in the reform processes at the Federal level and in BC, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island is that the parties involved campaigned on a promise to pursue electoral reform without specifying exactly what new system would be put in place. Instead, after forming government the parties each began consultation or committee processes to determine proposals for what system should be adopted. In the provincial cases these proposals were put to referendums, all of which failed. In each case (and especially in Ontario), it was argued that the government did not do a good job of promoting the referendums, with many voters not actually being aware of the issues when they went to vote. At the federal level, the government appears to have decided that it did not like the proportional approach recommended by the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, and so decided to kill the process rather than designing a specific system to put forward in a referendum.
I would draw two conclusions based on these experiences. First, governments that run on pledges to pursue electoral reform seem to lose enthusiasm for the process once in office. This is understandable – why change the very system that just brought you to power? Second, the two-step approach of committing to pursue electoral reform and then turning to a committee or other body to actually develop a new system appears to give the government too many ways to stall on the process and eventually bury it. As such, I’m increasingly convinced that the only way we will see electoral reform is if a party has a concrete proposal for a new electoral system as part of its platform, and then campaigns on that platform at election time. This way voters would have a clear idea what the party intended to do and how the proposal was developed. It would also be easier to hold the party to account for its actions if it failed to implement the proposed system. While this approach would seem less consultative, in many ways it would make electoral reform like most other campaign promises. Indeed, the Liberals didn’t say they would strike a committee to investigate whether Canada should accept 25,000 Syrian Refugees – they said they would do it and contrasted their plan with those put forward by the other parties. The same goes for the Liberal child benefit plan, the withdrawal of CF-18s from Iraq, and so on.
However, I do think that any party that puts forward a concrete plan to change the electoral system should also commit to holding a referendum on the issue. The reason is that the voting system is a major component of our democratic system, and it would likely undermine trust in democracy if a party that formed a majority government with just 37% of the vote could then go on to re-write how elections are held. As a result, I don’t think electoral reform is likely unless a general consensus is established between at least two of the major parties, who both include the measures within their platforms.