How to change Canada’s election system

The federal government under leadership of Justin Trudeau has been losing little time in trying to deliver the Liberals' election promises.

The federal government under the leadership of Justin Trudeau has been losing little time in trying to deliver the Liberals’ election platform promises.

After several steps including legislation on taxes, legalization of marijuana and assisted death, the feds now seem to have set their sights on the next important reform that has the potential to reshape the country’s political spectrum for decades to come.

The issue is election reform.

Despite having taken advantage of the first-past-the-post system in last October’s national election to gain a disproportionally comfortable majority of 184 seats with less than 40 per cent of the votes while the main opposition Conservatives took almost half the number of seats with only 8 per cent less vote, the Liberal government seems determined to turn the table to introduce a system which will more fairly represents the will of the electorate.

Our current election system is clearly wasting a lot of votes in the sense that the political weight of a lot votes cast mainly for the opposition parties remain unrepresented in the country’s legislative organ.

If democracy is a system of governance where the will of the majority becomes the order of the day while the right of the minority to oppose to that order within the limits of the law is held sacred, protected and respected as indispensable part of the process of operating the government machinery, election systems favoring a more equitable reflection of the preferences of the voters’ desires have indeed managed to create, mostly through coalitions, consultative democratic governance practices even when parties haven’t won decisive mandates. .

Although the birthplace of the representative democracy still remains committed to the first-past-the-post system, continental Europe has developed far more sophisticated election systems than Britain over the last century and a half or so, systems that have led to more consultative policy making and governing, reflecting the diversity of the electorates in European countries.

It is true that election systems based on proportional representation create more fragmented legislatures as compared to our current first-past-the post system. But one main reason for this is the higher number of political parties contesting elections mainly in western European countries. In some of them, it is not unusual to see up to 40 different parties listed on a ballot paper in any given national election.

As a result of the fragmentation in the distribution of seats, several European countries were and are still governed by coalitions for many years. And coalitions were successful in some countries like Germany, Austria and Belgium, there were also major failures in effective government as in Italy during the 70s and 80s.

Returning to Canada, we don’t have that many political parties and any election system based on proportional representation can hardly create the kind of fragmentation in parliament that characterized the results in European elections. But such a system could help a fairer reflection of the votes cast on the distribution of seats among the less than a handful of parties.

The Liberals have now formed what they call a consultative committee to look into the possibility of changing the election system to ensure that last year’s national ballot was the last to be conducted under the current one.

However, while the goal of the change may be targeting a more democratic outcome of the voting process, there is some justifiable criticism that the method of bringing the change might not be so democratic.

It is customary that in the formation of permanent commissions and committees of the national legislature, the balance of the seats in the parliament is reflected in the composition of membership of those commissions and committees.

But why Liberals chose to include six of their own members as opposed to only three from the main opposition in a consultative committee is a question that does deserve an answer.

Another one is why the government is so reticent with regard to the idea of taking this matter directly to the people through a referendum.

If the electorate has the right to choose the people who will govern them, they should have a say as to how the choose them, too.


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