Written by Timothy J. Tetreault on September 15, 2019 (Mount Royal University)
Is Canada’s political system in need of change? Every election cycle, the losing party complains about the current ‘first past the post’ system. They complain that the election was lost because of election bias, where the winning party is over-represented in the House of Commons, and the losing party is often under-represented. The current system allows for majority governments to be formed, even with a lower than opposition popular vote count. Supporters of this electoral system would argue that it gives power to people whose vote would otherwise not count. (Brodie, 2017)
The current Canadian system is a single member plurality (SMP), one which is designed to manufacture majority governments. Majority governments are more effective at passing legislation because the focus is primarily on majority groups, and legislation is able to quickly and efficiently be passed. The system is designed to be a winner-take-all approach to the individual constituencies across the country. (Norris, 1997, pp. 3 para. 1)
The seats in the House of Commons are awarded to the winner of each of the 338 constituencies. This assures that each region of Canada has input into the decisions made in Ottawa. For example, a riding in Nunavut will have as much influence in the House of Commons as one from Vancouver.
Proportional Representation Advocates
Opponents to the current SMP system argue that manufactured majority governments are undemocratic and the elected representatives may not properly reflect the values held by the majority. Their theory is that proportional representation (PR) is a more democratic option. Proportional representation is a system in which seats are divided according to the percentage of overall party votes. This would mean that majority governments would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible in Canada because a 50% vote is required for a majority under this system. Supporters of PR would argue that manufactured majority governments prevent democracy because they overcompensate the winner and undercompensate the losing parties. For example, in the 2015 Canadian federal election the Liberals won a majority (54%) with only 39.5% of the vote. The Green Party received 3.5% of the vote, but only received 0.3% of the seats. (CBC, 2015; Nicula, 2014)
Improved Representation From SMP
Canada does not need to change electoral systems and doing so will result in alienation of minority groups and provinces with lower populations. The current system allows the rural, isolated people of Canada to have more of an impact on the political decisions of the country. A revised system based on population or majority will hand the power entirely to those who live in the cities. This is due simply to the population of the cities compared to the rural areas. If the pluralist electoral system is abandoned, then the northern territories as well as possibly PEI could lost political power and influence in Ottawa (Monroe, 2002).
Benefits of Majority Governments
In addition, the election bias could be a positive thing for the political process in that it makes relatively frequent majority parties. Majority parties are more easily able to pass legislation and bills do get passed more quickly. Simply put, majority governments tend to be efficient since legislation proposed is nearly always passed regardless of opposition from other parties. Party discipline ensures that elected representatives remain loyal to their caucus leader and the their voters. As a result — unlike the US — elected representatives remain loyal to their leader and vote in favour of legislation proposed by their party (Chodos, 2006).
Minority government parties are constantly under threat from opposition. The leading party is often cautious in proposing legislation because the opposition parties can strike down a bill if they collaborate. Under the constant threat of a non-confidence vote, the leading party may have difficulty providing good leadership since their concern includes their public image. Policy is often abandoned in favour of ensuring the party survives its term in office.
“Policy is often abandoned in favour of ensuring the party survives its term in office.”
Accountability of the leading minority party is lost due to the unstable foundation upon which they are built. Minority parties are cautious introducing revolutionary or controversial bills independently. Omnibus bills are commonly used instead. These bundle policies together and include the desired bill along with other clauses that opposition parties support. Since it is an all-or-nothing vote, the leading party is able to still pass their legislation (Massicotte, 2017). Majority governments would not need to ‘hide’ legislation in an omnibus bill in order to get it passed and as a result, government transparency and accountability can be better achieved.
Governance Through Coalitions
Majority governments also prevent coalitions from forming. Coalitions tend to reduce transparency in government in addition to the potential dangers of alliances and factions. The coalitions can lead to lies, deceit, mistrust and a general shadiness of the political parties. Leaders of these parties align themselves to the ideas of the other parties and occasionally go against their own policies. Coalitions will support a bill one time, and oppose a similar one the next. When parties work together in government, often it is for political interests, as opposed to public interests. In minority governments, parties need to win support of another party to pass any bill. This often means compromising and negotiating which could change the bill to not align to the party’s platform.
“Coalitions can lead to lies, deceit, mistrust, and a general shadiness of the political parties”
For this reason, minority governments could also be less democratic than majority governments. With majority governments, bills can be more freely passed and backstabbing of other parties is less frequent. Minority governments are also commonly much more unstable than majority ones because in order to be successful, they depend on support of other parties.
An example of how coalition governments could be unstable and potentially dangerous is the 2016 Israeli government coalition which saw the parties: Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu and the Jewish Home unite to obtain 61 of the 120 seats in Knesset (Assembly). This coalition deal was secured by the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and is described by the Guardian as the “most rightwing nationalist government in the country’s history” (Beaumont, 2016).
The coalition saw five of the largest conservative parties come together and dominate the government. Many of the ministers in the new government have been replaced by ultra-nationalist and controversial leaders such as Avigdor Lieberman (Chief of Staff under Coalition)(Beaumont, 2016) This lays the foundation for the most recent coalition crisis in which the prime minister declared the Israel Broadcasting Authority be shut down. Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister and leader of one of the other major coalition parties believed that the authority be allowed to operate as planned. This disagreement led to speculation that the coalition could fall apart (Hoffman, 2017; Jazeera, 2017). These coalitions can grind the government to a halt and lack the foundation found in majority governments.
Manufactured majority governments are a positive thing because they ensure efficiency, transparency and strength in government.
The SMP system serves Canada well, despite the controversy that surrounds the overcompensation of the winner and penalization of the losing party. Rural areas and those of lower populations have more influence in Ottawa under the current system, and a proportional representation system will hand political influence to cities and urban centers.
Canada simply does not need to change its electoral system.
Beaumont, P. (2016, May 25). Israel coalition deal brings in its most hard-right government ever. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/25/israel-coalition-deal-hard-right-government-avigdor-lieberman
Brodie, I. (2017, February 11). Disappointed electoral reformers can learn from firearms activists how to advance their agenda: Opinion. Retrieved April 07, 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/opinon-ian-brodie-electoral-reform-1.3977906
CBC News: Election 2015 roundup. (2015). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/results-2015/
Chodos, H., Furi, M., Hurtubise-Loranger, E., & Robertson, J. R. (2006, July 13). Party Discipline and Free Votes. Retrieved April 6, 2017, from http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/ResearchPublications/tips/PDF/tip81-e.pdf
Hoffman, G. (2017). Deal ends coalition crisis over public broadcasting. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Political-crisis-that-threatened-Israeli-coalition-resolved-485646
Jazeera, A. (2017, March 19). Israeli coalition crisis raises threat of snap polls. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/israeli-coalition-crisis-raises-threat-elections-170319193406754.html
Massicotte, L. (2017). Canadian Parliamentary Review – Article. Retrieved April 07, 2017, from http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=214&art=1517
Monroe, Burt L., and Amanda G. Rose. “Electoral Systems and Unimagined Consequences: Partisan Effects of Districted Proportional Representation.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 46, no. 1, 2002, pp. 67–89., www.jstor.org/stable/3088415.
Nicula, M. D. (2014, January 23). The ‘First Past the Post’ Elections System Doesn’t Work for Canada. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/michael-d-nicula/proportional-representation_b_4120269.html
Norris, P. (1997). Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems (J. Laponce & B. Saint-Jacques, Eds.). Retrieved April 5, 2017, from https://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/Choosing%20Electoral%20Systems.pdf