Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed Canadians will never again elect a federal government with the first-past-the-post system.
Opponents of the status quo say it’s unfair to smaller parties like the Greens, who end up with far fewer seats than their share of the popular vote.
If Trudeau is serious about his promise to deliver electoral reform within 18 months, B.C. lawyer Bruce Hallsor has some advice: Consider the Single Transferrable Vote (STV). That’s the ranked ballot system B.C. nearly adopted when it first went to referendum in 2005, falling just short of the 60 per cent threshold to pass.
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Voters rank their preferred candidates by priority, and their second, third and fourth choices can help more than one candidate get elected.
Hallsor co-chaired the Yes referendum campaigns on STV in both 2005 and 2009 (when it failed by wider margin) and remains a defender of the system.
He pitches it as a less radical option for change that would deliver many of the advantages of pure proportional representation but with fewer negatives.
“I think you would find an STV system gives better proportionality among the existing parties but wouldn’t add a lot of new parties to Parliament,” Hallsor said.
That’s one of the knocks against pure proportional representation, where seats are handed out in exact proportion to the popular vote.
Right now, many don’t vote for fringe parties because their candidates have almost no chance. Proportional representation (PR) would change that, unleashing votes back from mainstream parties.
Besides more Greens in Parliament, there might be Libertarians or Christian Heritage Party MPs.
As in the pizza parliaments of Europe, where far-right nationalist parties or orthodox religious parties gain sway, we might see more seats for Quebec separatists, even a Rob Ford-led party.
The result would almost always be minority governments, haggling and horse-trading to build coalitions, and the end of stable four-year majority rule.
Hallsor said STV would still generate occasional majority governments, as well as stronger minorities than under PR.
STV would see larger ridings, each with multiple MPs.
There might be four seats each in new enlarged ridings like Victoria, Surrey and the Fraser Valley, but instead of those areas electing nearly all one party (NDP in Victoria, Liberal in Surrey or Conservative in the Valley), Hallsor said STV would tend to result in at least one more MP that’s not from the dominant party.
“You get a little more diverse representation.”
MPs ‘more beholden’ with PR
Hallsor admits a pure list-based PR system is simpler to understand.
A party that gets 12 per cent of the vote gets 12 per cent of the seats. Those 40 seats go to the top 40 candidates on the party’s list.
But PR leaves big question marks over who has a duty to represent voters in a given community. Detractors fear vast areas might go unrepresented.
It also concentrates more power in the hands of party insiders who decide which candidates will go on the party’s list and in what order.
Complaints about MPs who parrot the party line, rather than voting according to local wishes, would multiply under PR, Hallsor predicts.
“The reason you got elected is because you were placed high on the list,” he said. “So the MPs become even more beholden to their party leaders than they are now. Because they don’t have any pretence to represent any region or any small group of voters.”
He argues STV would make MPs more responsive to local voters and more likely to act independently.
“It’s not good enough for the party bosses to nominate you,” Hallsor said, noting STV forces candidates to compete against rivals in their own party and lets voters sift out the duds.
He gives the example of Victoria, where one seat of four available under STV would likely go Conservative, in addition to perhaps two for the NDP and one Green.
“If there’s only going to be one Conservative elected in Victoria – and there’s four Conservative candidates – you need to be the Conservative candidate that’s more connected with the voters than the others,” he said.
Voters strongly aligned with one party can vote for all four of its candidates, or devote choices to a strong candidate from another party, or even to independents, who have no place in PR’s party list system.
Having multiple MPs in a riding from a more representative mix of parties would offer citizens more choice when they need help.
“I can try to talk to them all or I can decide ‘This is the one that cares about this issue or that I connect with,'” Hallsor said. “So, as a voter, you don’t have to feel disenfranchised because you’re an NDPer living in a Conservative riding.”
A PR variant called mixed member proportional would see voters mark their ballot both for a local candidate conventionally as well as for a party, with some seats doled out according to party lists to deliver a more proportional result.
Hallsor calls that an improvement from pure PR, but he said it’s unclear how either version could meet constitutional requirements that guarantee each province and territory a set number of MPs.
Will Liberals get cold feet?
Will the Trudeau Liberals lose their appetite for reform now that they’ve won a majority with less than 40 per cent of the vote, an outcome that would never be repeated under a different system?
Hallsor isn’t holding his breath.
But if they press forward, he recommends a referendum be held to get voter consent to whichever system is unveiled.
“I don’t think it’s good enough for Parliament just to pass a bill and say ‘Here’s our new system.’ People inherently and for good reason distrust a bunch of politicians writing their own rules for how they get elected.”
Trudeau has promised that an all-party committee will study the options but has not committed to a referendum.
David Schreck, who co-chaired the No campaign against STV in B.C., also thinks government MPs’ may waver.
“A third of them wouldn’t be there if not for first-past-the-post,” he noted.
Schreck predicts Canadians would reject any specific proposal – once they see the details and hear the dueling arguments – as too distasteful or confusing, if it gets put to them.
“The surest way to sandbag it and get out from having to implement his promise is to put it to a referendum.”
SEATS EACH PARTY WON OCT. 19Liberals – 184Conservatives – 99NDP – 44Bloc Quebecois – 10Greens – 1
IF DISTRIBUTED BY POPULAR VOTE %Liberals – 134Conservatives – 108NDP – 67Bloc Quebecois – 17Greens – 12