Monday, October 12, 2015

What part of “No” don’t they understand?

In recent years, three provinces in Canada rejected proposals to change their voting systems. In referendums in Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia, the people all said, No thanks. We like our current first-past-the-post system just fine.

These repeated defeats should surprise no one. Has there been any groundswell of support for such changes? Is this what people are talking about at Tim Hortons? Not at all. The campaign to throw out our voting system is embraced largely by amateur policy wonks who have never graduated from the debates of their political science classes.

The NDP has also long-endorsed proportional representation. But the NDP has never won an election, which perhaps explains why they imagine the current system must be unfair.

After falling to third party status, the Liberals also came out in support of adopting a voting system that favours losers, though surely, that must be a coincidence.

Previous attempts to change voting systems in Canada were all – quite properly – put to a referendum. When other democracies have considered retiring the first-past-the-post system, they’ve done the same. In 2011, the United Kingdom rejected a change in voting, while in 1993, New Zealenders passed a referendum to adopt a new system.

Indeed, in a democracy, a referendum is the only legitimate way to change the voting system. Really, it should be obvious that no government can have the right to rig all future elections by adopting a system it finds more to its advantage.

More profoundly, in a democracy, governments receive a mandate through elections, but the electoral process itself belongs to the people.

It is such a deep change and so difficult to undo that democracies require a super-majority before changing the voting system. It is a change to a constitutional convention, not something that can be done democratically with 50% plus one or at the whim of the government of the day.

Yet in the current election both the Liberals and the NDP have declared that they will change our system of voting without a referendum. And why? Because they know Canadians don’t support the changes they want, and if the question were put to a referendum, they’d lose.

Together, Ontario, PEI and BC represent over half the population of Canada, and they’ve already said no. The Liberals won’t even say what change they want. Trudeau promises to consult broadly, if elected, but then as the P.M .he’ll do exactly as he pleases. As for the the NDP, it wants a Mixed Member Proportional system. This is the voting system that was proposed for Ontario and suffered one of the greatest defeats in Canadian history, with 102 out of 107 ridings voting against it.

The proposed change lost because proportional systems are less democratic.

Member of Parliament elected under a proportional system don't receive votes directly; rather we’d vote for a list created by the parties themselves. The people elected wouldn't be our MPs; they'd be the party's MPs.

Moreover, proportional systems guarantee that no party can win a majority, creating continual instability. We could well have an election a year, as they do in Italy, or perhaps five elections in just four years, as they’ve had in Greece.

Perhaps worst of all, proportional systems take power away from the consensus shared by all parties in the political centre and gives power to the political fringe.

In our current system, parties gain power by adopting polices that with broad appeal; the broader the appeal, the more likely a party can form a government. 

A proportional system reverses this dynamic.  A party prospers by finding a niche, electing some members to parliament, then extorting concessions from other parties in exchange for joining a coalition.

For example, in Canada, every party favours immigration. The current government has brought in more immigrants than any other in Canadian history – and the only complaints from other parties have been that the government’s not doing enough.

In a proportional system, Canada would soon have the kind of anti-immigrant party we see all over Europe where proportional systems are common. In our current first-past-the-post system, a racist or xenophobic party couldn’t elect a candidate anywhere. But in a proportional system, racist candidates wouldn’t need a concentration of votes in a single riding; they’d be elected by scattered votes from across the entire country.

Fans of proportional systems claim that coalitions represent more people than any single party. Not so. A party that gains, say 10% of the vote, still only represents 10% of the people, but their policies get enacted because they’re able to extort concessions their coalition partners would otherwise oppose.

Before changing our voting system, Canadians would consider what price an anti-immigrant party and other extremist parties would demand in exchange for propping up a minority government – and then Canadians would vote against a proportional system, as they have in the past.

But if elected, the Liberals or the NDP will not give us that choice. Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that changing the voting system is a good idea, not just good for themselves, so they’re willing to “improve” our democracy by trampling our democratic rights. 

They will claim they have a mandate to change the way we elect all future governments. When Canadians object that this isn’t the way things are done in a democracy, they’ll say, So sue us. If we say but this wasn’t what the election was about, they’ll say, You should have read the fine print. Too late now.

Brian Henry is a Toronto writer and editor. During the referendum on whether Ontario should retire its first-past-the-post voting system and adopt a mixed member proportional system, he wrote an opinion piece about it for The Toronto Star (see here). In this election, changing the way we elect all future governments hasn’t attracted enough attention for the newspapers to want to give space to the issue.


  1. What does this sad, misplaced tirade have to do with writing and writers? Find another soapbox, please.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      I know it's difficult to hear opinions you disagree with. But it's a usual feature of human discourse, so do try to relax.
      As for whether the post belongs here, you'll have noticed that I post pieces of writing, and political opinions are a genre of writing. So, yes, I'm afraid it does belong here.
      All the best,
      P.S. As a courtesy, you should post with your name.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi Brian. Obviously this is something you are passionate about. I have a great interest in the topic as well. I agree there are issues with MMP and proportional election systems. But our current system is also flawed. Voter turnout is at a steady decline and undermining our democratic institutions. Although voters have rejected MMP, it doesn't necessarily mean they have endorsed the status quo. Voter apathy is serious problem. What is the answer?

    1. Willie,
      If it were easy, we would have found the solution already. Certainly there are issues with first past the post. I'm willing to be convinced proportional representation is a good idea; to date, though, I haven't heard a convincing arguments. Does proportional representation increases voter turn-out? If it does, that would be one point in its favour.

      In any case, though my main point is that it's wrong for a govt to change our electoral system without a referendum, especially as all the evidence suggests that Canadians don't want it. And I find it enormously ironic that we ahve parties that want to save democracy by trampling on it.

  4. I find this explanation of mixed member proportional systems is at best simplistic, at worst, misinformed. Under this system each voter casts 2 votes - one for a regional MP elected first-past-the-post, and the other for a party whose representatives are chosen from a pre-determined list by proportional popular vote. It is proposed that the candidates on this list be chosen by registered members of the party. IMO this system would truly represent the views of the majority of Canadian voters, instead of the existing system, which in our current parliment constitutes a governing party that rules absolutely based on the votes cast by only 38% of those who chose to vote. It might also encourage more Canadians to become involved in the political process. Contrary to prohibiting a stable mandate, this system is used to much success in Germany and some members of the British Commonwealth. Marketing it to Canadians has failed, again IMO, in large part due to conflating it with personal proportion representation as you appear to have done, and the devisive scare tactics of the Conservatives who have benefited by the current system.
    It is not surprising that members of the Jewish community are being encouraged by their religious leaders to vote Conservative. It's no secret that the Conservatives are staunch supporters of the state of Israel in the face of shifting world views. But anyone who believes this to be Conservative support of Jewish people rather than a desire to maintain a western nuclear base in the middle east has been drinking too much kool-aid.
    It's my deep belief that Canadians at heart desire to support the freedom and human rights of all people, yet in the past Conservative decade our position as a global leader on these issues has been serious eroded.
    Thank you very much for offering this forum for debate. Respectful, informed discourse is never out of place.

  5. Dear Anonymous #2 (unless you're Anonymous #1 adopting a more polite tone? The only way to truly be polite is to use your name):

    You suggest that Canadians have so decisively rejected proportional representation and its variations such as MMP because of the “divisive scare tactics of the Conservatives. “ This is simply false.

    During the Ontario referendum on Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP) The Toronto Star came out against it. The Toronto Star (fondly known as the Red Star for its leftist leanings) loathes the Conservatives with every drop of ink it publishes. During the current election, the Star has been printing six or seven opinion pieces per day dedicated to the general proposition that Stephen Harper eats kittens for breakfast then brushes his teeth with starving orphans.

    But the Star opposed MMP for the same reasons I do: Proportional systems do not more fairly represent the people; instead they give power to fringe groups. On top of which, they create more unstable governments.

    The Globe and Mail, which swings Liberal, also came out against MMP.

    It wasn't a partisan issue. During the Ontario referendum, the parties did not campaign for or against it; they respected the fact that in a parliamentary democracy, the voting system isn’t within the mandate of any govt, that how they get elected is not up to them, that it musn’t be a matter of one party trying to take advantage.

    It’s too bad the federal Liberals and NDP have decided this should be a partisan issue and to ignore what Canadians want.

    I find it ironic that people such as yourself, who claim you want to improve democracy, also seem to believe that Canadians don’t understand what’s good for us. Essentially, you’re saying Canadians are easily manipulated and too stupid to recognize that a proportional system is superior. Thus, you refuse to accept a straightforward “no.”

    You apparently believe that since Canadians keep saying no in referendums, then we should have the decision taken away from us and have the change snuck in as obscure planks in the Liberal and NDP platforms. This isn’t how it’s done in a parliamentary democracy, but how else are you going to get what you want when the majority so strongly opposes you?

  6. You also say: "It is proposed that the candidates on this list (of candidates to be elected by propositional representation) be chosen by registered members of the party" - or they may be chosen by the party leader, as is the case in most Proportional systems. But in any case they will be the Political Party's members and will not answer directly to the people who elected them, as do members of Parliament under our current system. Which is exactly my point. Thank you for re-iterating it.

    You note that in our current system a party might gain a majority with as little as 38% of the vote. Yes, this is because the vote is fractured among five parties in Canada, so it's unlikely for any party to get a majority of the vote. That's simple mathematics.

    Your proposed solution is to give power to parties who get an even smaller proportion of the votes. So a party wins 20% or 5% joins a coalition, and although 80% or 95% of Canadians oppose their policies, they get made into law anyway, because that’s the party’s price for propping up the coalition. I cannot understand why you imagine this is an improvement.

    You bring up Israel (not sure why, since it's wildly off-topic), but since you have, let’s use that as a concrete example. Religious Parties have been part of almost every government since the founding of the state. Why? Because they’re needed to create a governing coalition. Do Israelis approve of their policies? Not at all.

    If, for example, you want a civil marriage in Israel, you simply cannot have one. Israelis go to Cyprus if they want a civil marriage or want to intermarry between Jews, Muslims or Christians. Some tiny proportion of Israelis support this absurdity, but it’s one small part of the on-going price they pay for having a proportional system.

    You note that Germany has a mixed member proportional system and still manages to have stable governments. True. So your argument is that we should cross our fingers and hope Canada turns out more like Germany than Greece. Forgive me if I’m underwhelmed.

    If that’s your best argument, then I can certainly understand why you wouldn’t want it put to a referendum.

  7. Thank you Brian, for posting the most easily understood critique of proportional representation I've ever read.

    I agree it is sad we have to live under those who arrogantly and foolishly view themselves as world improvers, who know what's best for we who are too simple to grasp such intricacies.