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ERRE Committee Report

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Supplementary Opinion of the NDP and the Green Party on Electoral Reform: A Strong Mandate for Proportional Representation

It has been an enormous privilege to serve on the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform.  As a group of individuals, all twelve members of parliament, as well as their alternates from time to time, have done an enormous service to Canadian democracy. There was a tremendous esprit de corps, as the clerk and her team, the parliamentary analysts and the technical, translation and support crew put in long hours on a grueling schedule.  Our chair, Francis Scarpaleggia, deserves special thanks for his deft touch, respectful engagement with hundreds of citizens who waited hours for their two minutes at the open microphone, and his neutral and non-partisan facilitation of our process.  

The New Democratic Party and the Green Party are pleased that the Special Committee on Electoral Reform has recommended evolving Canada’s voting system into the 21st century, by advocating for a strong proportional representation system in its majority opinion. Canada remains one of the few modern democracies in the world that still uses the antiquated first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

The Committee’s decision to support proportional representation for Canada is an historic achievement and an important moment for the deepening of Canadian democracy.

The Committee was given an extensive mandate and a challenging schedule, but we believe that this process has been a strong success. We are proud of what the Committee achieved: a truly broad consensus.

The success of the Committee is inextricably tied to its composition and, indeed, speaks to its final recommendation of proportional representation. All parties in the House of Commons were given seats at the table, and because no single party could rely on its majority of votes, members relied on compromise and cooperation, and sought consensus or at least multi-party support for different initiatives over the course of its study.

As Minister Monsef said before on the committee on July 6, 2016, “first past the post is an antiquated system designed to meet the realities of 19th century Canada and not designed to operate within our multi-party democracy. We require an electoral system that provides a stronger link between the democratic will of Canadians and election results.” The government made two key promises: to repeal our unfair, outdated FPTP voting system and to make evidence-based decisions. Therefore, we urge the Minister of Democratic Institutions and the government as a whole to examine our report and the evidence it contains carefully.  Our key recommendations break down in two categories: those driven by evidence and those driven by an effort to achieve a consensus recommendation. As Mr. Reid wrote in October, each party came to the table with certain bottom lines that, if adhered to, would make consensus not simply achievable but “unavoidable.” The Liberals needed to have changes implemented by 2019, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québecois desired to see a referendum on that change, and our requirement that the change be toward proportional representation. The committee’s majority report reaches this consensus.

The Decision to move to Proportional Representation

The evidence was overwhelming that Canadian democracy will be reinvigorated and the quality of it vastly improved as we reject the archaic FPTP voting system.  The recommendation to move to proportionality to ensure that, in the words of the Speech from the Throne that “every vote counts”, is driven by abundant evidence. 

The Committee heard from the leading political scientists, electoral systems practitioners, academics and public policy analysts from within Canada and around the world.  While we heard many opinions, the vast majority contended that FPTP is a deeply flawed system that perverts the will of the electorate and creates a political culture of hyper-partisan conflict.

Professor Peter Russell coined the term “false majority” to describe the phenomenon only experienced under majoritarian systems, where the minority of those who vote can elect a majority of Members of Parliament.  The dangers of this are well understood.  When asked pointedly in our hearings what harm had ever come to Canada from a false majority, he responded “global warming.” In academic terms the risk is called “policy lurch.”  One government puts in place a policy and a programme, such as a climate plan.  The next government unravels it. All this despite the fact that, since the early 1990s, in poll after poll, 80% of Canadians have said they want climate action.

Some of the Committee’s most persuasive testimony was that of Professor Arendt Lijphart, professor emeritus from the University of California, San Diego. His years of study of thirty-six modern democracies is empirical evidence that proportional representation serves citizens far better than majoritarian systems, such as FPTP or ranked ballots. His seminal work, Patterns of Democracy, clearly shows that evidence for patterns.  Compared to those countries that use FPTP, proportional countries have a higher voter turn-out, elect more women, have greater ethnic diversity, have as stable and marginally more stable governments, superior macro-economic performance and have more effective environmental protections.

The evidence from Australia is particularly convincing.  The Australian lower house uses the majoritarian system of ranked ballots; the upper house is elected using a proportional system, Single Transferable Vote (STV).  At the end of the most recent election this year, the number of women in the lower House rose to 29%, up from 23%.  Meanwhile, in the elected Senate, using STV, the percentage of women was 39%.

No doubt, a focus on other barriers to women and other under-represented groups will make the impact of a change in our voting system more robust - it’s clear that strong barriers exist at the nomination level.

Therefore, we are very happy that the committee has recommended that the government create financial incentives for political parties to nominate more women candidates. Canada currently ranks 64th in the world in terms of gender parity in government. If parties are given stronger incentives to nominate more women, then we will greatly increase our chances of electing a more representative Parliament.

There is clear evidence that proportional systems enhance the voters’ sense of empowerment. Voters have more choice. And this government has many viable choices to replace the current electoral system.

System recommendations

While the committee did not adopt specific electoral systems within its report, we believe the government would benefit from some specifics. We believe the government should consider adopting one of the following models, both of which would result in a Gallagher score of less than four.

  • Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), with 2/3 of the House of Commons elected to represent direct constituencies, and 1/3 elected as regional compensatory members. Regional compensatory MPs may be elected from an open list, flexible list, as recommended by the Law Reform Commission, or they may be elected as “best runners-up”, as per the Baden-Württemberg system. Open and flexible lists have the benefit of letting voters choose. The Baden-Württemberg option has the benefit of forcing all candidates to be scrutinized and supported by voters every election in order to win their seat. Compensatory seats would be drawn from territories, provinces, or sub-regions within provinces. As such, since it would not affect current riding boundaries, a full riding redistribution would be unnecessary. The government could decide to take an incremental approach by adding regional compensatory MPs in groups of 30-45 over the next three or four elections.
  • Rural-urban proportional representation (RUP), as first elaborated by former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, in which current riding boundaries are maintained, but current urban ridings are clustered into multi-member ridings of three to five MPs. To minimize the level of distortion between the popular will of the electorate and the resultant seat allocations in Parliament, in 2019, the government should add an additional 50 seats for regional compensatory MPs. Again, regional compensatory MPs may be elected from an open list, flexible list, or elected as “best runners-up”, as per the Baden-Württemberg system. Like our proposed MMP model, compensatory seats would be drawn from territories, provinces, or sub-regions within provinces. As such, a full riding redistribution would be unnecessary.

Validation and engagement

We take the question of public validation and engagement extremely seriously. We believe that significant additional public education and consultation initiatives on electoral reform must be undertaken. While it remains an option, we have serious concerns about holding a referendum on electoral reform. The evidence for the necessity of change is overwhelming; the evidence for the necessity of holding a referendum is not.

If the government decides it must hold a referendum on electoral reform, it should include both MMP and RUP as ballot options, and Canadians aged 16 and up should be allowed to vote.

Keeping the promise

We strongly support the government’s campaign and throne speech promises to repeal the unfair, outdated first-past-the-post voting system, and replace it with an alternative that will ensure every vote counts. Now that our report leaves the Committee’s hands, it moves into yet another sphere of real politic.

In this, we urge the Minister of Democratic Institutions, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to fulfill the worthy goals buttressed by evidence in the work of our committee.

Canadians are ready for reform: almost 9 in 10 experts and average citizens who spoke to the special committee urged the government to adopt proportional representation and make every vote count. Furthermore, several recent public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Canadians expect the government to make good on its promise of electoral reform.

In our view, there is clear support for action and a clear path to achieve reform – especially given that the approaches iterated above would not require a redistribution of riding boundaries. With a strong electoral mandate comprising nearly two thirds of Canadians in 2015, and an all-party committee recommendation in favour of proportional representation following a five month, national consultation, we believe the government now has the mandate, the path, the tools, and the obligation to make 2015 the last election under FPTP.

There is no question that more work needs to be done to increase public awareness around electoral reform. But we have two years between putting a system in place by 2017 and using it in 2019. That two-year window creates the opportunity for the full engagement of Canadians. Prime Minister Trudeau stated, on countless occasions, both before and after the election, that 2015 would be the last election held under first-past-the-post. He and the Minister of Democratic Institutions promised, in black and white, to make every vote count. The government must not squander this generational opportunity for reform that will have an enormous impact on the quality of Canadian democracy.