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Electoral reform is for losers

Like my post about "Canada's 'blue wave'" this is an expansion on something I touch on in an article I recently wrote for the Brown Political Review about Canada's "fundamental centrism".


In a semi-recent article for Maclean's, former NDP leader Tom Mulcair reminded us of something that's been repeated ad nauseum, but still hasn't really sunk in with many Canadians: The Liberals lied about electoral reform.

It was a lie without any qualifications or justifications. The promise was made emphatically in the 2015 Liberal platform: "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-past system." It was then broken as early as February 2017, when it was announced that the government would no longer be pursuing electoral reform. That's the kind of one-eighty made in a single term that dooms politicians ("Read my lips... No new taxes.").

Mulcair rightly calls the Liberals out for this, even three years after the fact. He has a particular right to be angry, as electoral reform was not an insignificant part of the appeal of the Liberal Party that beat him in 2015. Even more infuriating, I'm sure, is that he believes Trudeau's promise for electoral reform was little more than him aping NDP proposals he had no intention of implementing in order to win the support of progressive voters.

Certainly, when you look at the government's weak explanation for why they cancelled the Special Committee for Electoral Reform, this seems to be the case: Trudeau said that a "clear consensus," had not emerged among MPs or Canadians as to which electoral system would end up on a referendum about electoral reform. This was a problem he could have foreseen when he promised electoral reform, and the committee existed to solve that problem (the committee did explicitly recommend a form of proportional representation).

Seeing all of this, it's understandable that the simplest explanation for Trudeau's broken promise is that he never intended to fulfill it. I'd propose an alternative theory: The Liberal Party was absolutely committed to electoral reform, if they lost. They lied, but only insofar as their desire to fulfill their promise was contingent on being in the opposition.

This is because of a pretty basic rule in electoral systems, that the winner of any election is likely to be a party who benefits from how the system is set up. In the case of Trudeau's Liberals in 2015, they were the only party with a greater share of seats in parliament (54%) than their share of the popular vote (39.5%). Were the seats assigned proportionally in 2015, the liberals would have gotten somewhere around 130, and a weak minority government.

While the Liberals were the greatest beneficiaries of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system in 2015, that was not the case in 2011. In that bizarre election, both the NDP and Conservatives won a greater share of seats than their share of the popular vote, while the Liberals' seat count was adversely affected by FPTP. This electoral system inevitably benefits the one or two parties at the top of the heap.

And so the Liberals, having been the third party since 2011, trailing the NDP and Conservatives in the polls for most of the campaigning period, and understanding that third parties are the biggest losers of FPTP, put electoral reform into their platform. And then, in small part because of their promises for electoral reform, they were the biggest winners. FPTP gave them a majority without a majority of votes. In 2019, they won a minority without even a plurality of votes.

A summary of opinion polling during the 2015 federal election from Wikipedia. Note that that the Liberals trail the NDP for most of the election period. The Liberal platform is released on October 5th, just as the Liberals begin to take the lead.

While the accusation that he never intended to implement electoral reform is damning for Trudeau and co., I'd argue that something more insidious is at work here. While the Liberals deserve all of the criticism they've gotten (and then some), the problem is baked into the system itself. It's not that electoral reform can't win (Trudeau proved that it can), it's that the winners are never going to want electoral reform.

Therefore, a bit of nuance: Electoral reform can't win by conventional means. A party that wins a parliamentary majority would be crazy to undermine their success with changes to the system. But, the opposition in consort with other parties could pass legislation to at least get the ball rolling with another special committee.

The idea has been floated by members of the NDP and the Green Party. By working together to avoid vote-splitting (most likely by splitting the ridings they are running in 50/50), the left-wing parties could increase their collective share of seats in the House of Commons, and together push for electoral reform. Neither Jagmeet Singh and Annamie Paul are keen on the idea. In fact, the NDP wasn't even willing to pull their candidate from the by-election in Toronto Centre, where Paul was running. The One Time Alliance for Democratic Reform doesn't seem like the best way to achieve democratic reform.

However, there still may be hope for proponents of electoral reform, coming from the right. In 2015, 28 percent of Conservative voters supported electoral reform. Since then, that number has jumped all the way to 69 percent. This change in support is in part due to more awareness of the issue. Before 2015, electoral reform was a fringe idea from the left-wing parties. In 2015, it became a Liberal proposal, which was not going to garner more support for it among conservatives. But now, electoral reform is a fixture of the national political conversation.

There's also the fact that the Conservatives won the popular vote in 2019. While they still had a higher share of seats than votes, if seats were assigned proportionally, they would have a (very weak) minority government. This graphic from The Conversation shows how the House of Commons would look if seats were assigned proportionally in 2019, in comparison with FPTP:

The actual seat totals from the 2019 federal election are shown on top. What the seat totals would have been with a system of national proportional representation is on the bottom.

From these graphs, it is clear that the Conservatives, Greens, and NDP are the biggest winners of proportional representation, while the Liberals and the Bloc are the biggest losers. As Mulcair notes in his article, Conservatives have the highest floor for voters, almost always winning above 30 percent of the vote. If this remains the case, there may be more elections going forward where they win the popular vote while the Liberals win a minority government.

With a new leader who is clearly willing to adapt the Conservative agenda in Erin O'Toole, the Conservatives may warm up to the idea of electoral reform. There's nothing necessarily left-wing about it. It's a favourite of the Greens and NDP mostly because FPTP has shafted them more than anyone else. As of right now, the Conservatives' easiest path back to government is to win more votes, not make those votes count for more by changing the electoral system. But as Mulcair notes, their ceiling of voters is low: Only around 35 percent. While the Conservatives may remain cool to the idea of electoral reform for the foreseeable future, a few more years of PM Trudeau may change their minds.

As for the Greens and NDP, these numbers may be underestimating their success under proportional representation. Under FPTP, a good number of Liberal voters have really just been NDP and Green voters worried about playing spoiler and accidentally electing a Conservative. This would be a boon for the Greens in particular who, despite almost matching the Bloc's proportion of votes, won 29 fewer seats!

The case for electoral reform is clear. A growing number of Canadians support it. And yet, while three of the five parties have something to gain from it, it's future is uncertain. Will O'Toole be the Conservative to endorse it? It sounds funny to say that out loud. Will the Greens and NDP form a strategic alliance? That sounds more plausible, and yet, neither party seems willing to go there.

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