Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau has dug himself a hole on electoral reform – now if only the conservatives had a clue about how to bury him in it

Trapping Canada’s media darling on electoral reform

By —— Bio and Archives--June 19, 2017

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In 2015 Canada’s Liberal party promised electoral reform and campaigned on a commitment to ensure that 2015 would “be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” The Liberals, led by Mr. Trudeau won about 39.4% of the popular vote and a total of 184 seats in a 338 seat House to form a majority government.

An all-party committee of the House was struck in June of 2016 to recommend an alternative voting method; it reported in favor of a proportional representation system in November; and was fully repudiated in February of 2017 when Prime Minister Trudeau announced that “a clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged” and therefore that nothing further would be done.

Note: according to Andrew Coyne writing for the National Post, Trudeau was more truthful a bit later:

Perhaps unsatisfied with the response to his earlier attempt to blame the public for breaking his promise on electoral reform, Justin Trudeau has lately tried a new tack. He did it, he now says, to save the country. The problem, it turns out, wasn’t that there was “no consensus”: the problem, rather, was that there was - in favor of proportional representation. The prime minister who pledged, before the election, to “make every vote count,” now warns that to do so would imperil the Canada we hold dear.

“Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party,” he asked a questioner, bizarrely, at a town-hall gathering last week in Iqaluit. I had not heard it suggested until now that Ms. Leitch was thinking of forming a party of one, but clearly the peril this represents was uppermost in the prime minister’s mind.

Under proportional representation, he told his audience, “a party that represents the fringe voices” (even scarier than the Kellie Leitch Party, one assumes) might win “10, 15, 20 seats in the House” and “end up holding the balance of power.” PR, he elaborated the next day, “would augment extremist voices,” bringing on an era of “instability and uncertainty” and “putting at risk the very thing that makes us luckier than anyone else on the planet.”

This strikes at the heart of the objection to proportional representation because it eventually produces minority governments which then become so involved in trying to maintain their coalitions that the power to affect real change in the country devolves to the permanent bureaucracy.

The reality behind the Liberal commitment to voting reform in 2015 is that Canada has three mainstream national parties two of which, the Liberals and the New Democrats [NDP], represent, respectively, the careerist and idealogue strata of Canada’s political left and this particular Liberal promise seems to have evolved as something the NDP leadership could sell its members to justify campaigning almost entirely against the Conservatives instead of for the NDP, and thus for the Liberals as the most likely to block the Conservatives.

During the 2015 campaign, however, NDP support in Quebec more or less collapsed, the Liberals won 184 seats to 99 for the Conservatives, and so felt free to abandon their commitment to electoral reform.

Note: all numerical data used in this paper is from downloadable spreadsheets produced by Elections Canada and accessible under “Research” here.)

On average a Canadian Member of Parliament [MP] elected in 2015 needed 25,063 votes to win, but the averages differ dramatically by party and region. For example, the average maritime riding has about 75,000 people while the average Alberta riding has over 110,000 - just less than a 50% difference. Thus the 29 Liberals elected in the maritimes averaged only 23,581 votes for the win, while the 29 Conservatives elected in Alberta needed an average of 36,139 - somewhat more than a 50% difference.

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The extreme case, in which the Conservative represents more than eight times as many votes as the Liberal, compares Ken Sorenson’s 47,552 votes in Alberta’s Battle River riding to Hunter Tootoo’s win in Nunuvut with only 5,619 votes.

There are many reasons for these disparities ranging from historical accident through the economic and demographic effects of past political policy in the regions, to the deliberate shift of electoral power toward Quebec and the Maritimes orchestrated by the Liberals under the first Trudeau circa 1980; but the most proximate cause today is long term Liberal and media support for the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in ridings lost by the Conservatives.

Note: The Bloc presents itself as a Quebec separatist party running federally but takes votes mainly from Conservative rather than Liberal or NDP candidates. It was developed in Quebec in response to Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney’s 1984 electoral victory in which he took 58 (out of 75) seats in Quebec to form the largest majority government (211 seats in a then 295 seat House) in Canadian history. The Bloc became the official opposition in the federal parliament in 1993 when Mulroney’s coalition, based largely on his ability to say one thing in English while implying its opposite in French, collapsed and the Liberals took over.

In 2015 the average number of votes needed for a Bloc Quebecois or NDP candidate to win anywhere in Canada was about 20,400 - only slightly more than half what it took for a conservative to win in Alberta - in part because riding populations in Quebec and the maritimes are smaller than in the west, but mainly because widespread media support for non conservative parties, and particularly for the Bloc in Quebec and the NDP elsewhere, tended to split the vote three or four ways instead of two anywhere these parties were competitive.

In the House, however, all votes are equal; and minority votes don’t matter. As a result, Bloc and NDP members have little relevance to a majority government; Hunter Tootoo’s Liberal “Aye” counts for far more than Ken Sorenson’s “nay”; and the fact that Alberta’s 29 conservatives represent 50% more voters than the 29 liberals elected in the maritimes means nothing.

This situation is obviously unfair and undemocratic, but is easily exploited by the left because it means first that angering a western voter to please one in Quebec or the maritimes pays off in votes at better than two to one; and, second, that using a minority party to draw off conservative votes reduces the number of liberal seats needed to form a government.

The obvious remedy, seat redistribution, is impractical in Canada because the winners from the present system have the power to block change - and nothing short of a populist western Canadian movement to leave the Canadian federation in favor of eventual union with the United States seems likely to change that.

On the other hand Trudeau’s commitment to electoral reform together with the enthusiastically expressed support for both electoral reform and the one man, one vote, principle among the minor parties who expect to benefit from proportional representation has opened the door to discussion of a fair and easy way to implement a simple solution: proportional voting by the elected rather than the electors.

Here’s how that would work: winners in traditional first past the post elections would be thought of as representing the people who voted for them, with each of those votes counted equally. So if the average member across the entire House represents Y voters, and the specific member received X votes to win the seat, then that member’s vote in the House is counted X/Y times instead of exactly once.

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In 2015, for example, the average winner across all 338 seats received 25,087 votes but, because Ken Sorenson received 47,557 votes in the election his vote in the House would be counted 1.9 times (=47557/25087) - and Hunter Tootoo’s vote, representing 5,619 voters, would be counted 0.22 times.

Making this happen is simple: it requires nothing more than a rule change in the House - and that’s both well within its purview and completely consistent with the expressed views of the parties: Green, New Democratic, Bloc, and Liberal, collectively making up about 72% of the House.

Making this change has very little impact on standings in the House after the 2015 elections: the Liberals retain their 184 votes and ten votes move from the NDP and Bloc in Quebec and the maritimes to the west - exactly the result redistribution would produce if done fairly.

The longer term effects, however, would be dramatic because this form of proportional representation removes the left’s incentives both for vote splitting and for keeping left leaning ridings much smaller than those which lean Conservative. As a result it seems reasonable to expect that:

  • the people who control the Liberal and NDP parties will want to merge them as quickly as possible.
  • However.. the membership of both have largely bought in to the claim that these parties are different and most, especially the believers in the NDP, will fight the merger. Thus a forced merger will fracture the leftist alliance that now all but guarantees power to the Liberals while a failure to merge will further shift power to the west.
  • the Bloc Quebecois’s usefulness in drawing off conservative votes will end, and it will therefore wither away as its cash sources dry up.
  • inter-provincial equalization payments, under which western monies now flow east, will no longer serve Liberal political purposes, and despite having been written into the 1982 Constitution act by the first Trudeau, will come under increasing attack by western politicians.

Note: the principle behind the equalization program is that the provinces should provide roughly comparable services to their citizens, that taxpayers should share this burden regardless of their province of residence, and therefore that people in richer provinces should pay more per person than people in poorer provinces. In practice, however, equalization has allowed the Liberals to use western money to buy eastern votes. During fiscal 2010/11, for example, the federal government collected roughly $14,000 per person from Alberta and gave just over half this money to the governments of Quebec, PEI, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

The equalization idea started in the 1920s but became critical to Quebec, and the liberals, only after the first Trudeau enshrined it in the 1982 Constitution Act. Since then Alberta has contributed an estimated $130 billion to equalization but has never received any significant benefit.

This would not be an issue for most Albertans if it resulted, like decades of insurance payments made without ever filing a claim, from Alberta’s good luck or good management; but it does not: the disparity is purely political in origin with the Liberals and NDP leveraging population and riding disparities between the west and the rest of Canada to retain federal power in large part by giving Quebec and the maritime provinces the right to administer social programs paid for by the west.

Basically, everyone knows elections have consequences - and the rules governing those elections have less direct, but equally compelling, consequences. Thus proportional representation by the electorate gains enthusiastic support from the NDP and splinter groups like the Greens, Christian Heritage, and the Communists, but leads to governmental paralysis and a defacto transfer of power from the elected government to the bureaucracy. Proportional representation in the House, however, meets Trudeau’s oft-expressed wish to treat each vote cast in federal elections equally, drives toward a clean two party system across the country, doesn’t affect Trudeau’s current majority in the House, and seems likely to eventually extinguish the present Liberal practice of using western money to buy eastern votes.


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Paul Murphy -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Paul Murphy, a Canadian, wrote and published <a >The Unix Guide to Defenestration.</a>
Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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