Friday, December 9, 2016

The Pollcast: Electoral reform, like math, is hard

Some of the government's most controversial files — pipelines, fighter jets, a new health accord with the provinces — could seem like child's play when compared to the minefield of electoral reform.

Justin Trudeau's campaign pledge to ensure the 2015 federal election was the last held under the first-past-the-post electoral system is looking like one of his most difficult promises to keep. Time is running out, the opposition is howling for a referendum on proportional representation and the government has yet to give any indication of what it plans to do.

You can listen to the podcast heresubscribe to future episodes here, and listen to past episodes here.

Last week, the special committee on electoral reform put forward its recommendations after spending months hearing expert testimony and speaking directly with Canadians. The report recommended the government develop a proportional representation system and put it to Canadians in a referendum.

But the report was not without its contradictions, with a supplemental report from the Liberals on the committee suggesting that implementing a new electoral system before the 2019 federal election was unrealistic and casting doubt on the necessity of a referendum.

Further complicating matters, the New Democrats and Greens also included a supplemental report of their own questioning the necessity of a referendum.

Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, then criticized the committee for not doing its job and falsely claimed the report recommended putting a mathematical formula on the referendum ballot. She subsequently apologized for the comments.

Now the government has launched an online survey to gauge Canadians' views on electoral reform. But the opposition has made a mockery of the survey's questions and raised privacy concerns.

So, what now?

Joining me again to discuss the ups and downs of the electoral reform file are the CBC's Aaron Wherry and Kady O'Malley of the Ottawa Citizen.

You can listen to the podcast heresubscribe to future episodes here, and listen to past episodes here.


  1. We need MMP. Also a Unicameral Legislature.

    1. Absolutely disagree. One of the main reasons for Canada's success is our stable Government. That is partly a reflection of First Past The Post and our British inspired constitution including bicameralism.

      Bicameralism is also needed in a country as diverse as Canada. From a legislative perspective bicameralism is desired. Important amendments are made and as our system gives the prime minister all the power of a medieval monarch for the time. A second house is important to check this power on occasion. Thirdly, we need these politicians. Canada's Government is so complex with its patchwork of federalism and federal-provincial agreements that we need 500 politicians to keep tabs on the whole thing. The recent Senate committee on Syrian refugees is a case in point. Senators were able to examine how our 36,000 refugees are coming along, how many are employed, how many are participating in Government programs (language training etc..). The House of Commons with its mandate to hold the Government accountable does not have the time or resources to analyse the World of policy as in depth as does the Senate. Finally, no major country has a unicameral Parliament or Legislature and almost all Western countries have bicameralism with the exception of Scandinavia whose Parliaments were bicameral until the 19th or 20th centuries. There is a reason why all major countries have continued with bicameralism. It is a good system! Ireland and Italy both held referenda on abolition (Ireland) and constitutional reform (Italy) on their Senates in the last couple years-both failed. People inherently know giving one person nearly all the power-As a unicameral system would do is inherently poor governance!

      The NDP has proposed abolition of the Senate for over 80 years-look where it has got them-Continued third party status! Dippers will never acknowledge it of course but, their constitutional policies have held them back for years and far from being vote winners they have moved voter toward parties willing to reform.

    2. MMP could be a good system as "top-up" M.P.s could be distributed by region as in Scotland. To do so however would require a constitutional amendment.

    3. WGS: FPTP has resulted in an unstable minority government in Canada in 14 of the past 28 elections.

      The Canadian Senate has never checked the House of Commons' power. The closest it came was in delaying the US free trade agreement in 1988, but the Canadian public re-elected the unpopular government of the day and free trade passed, showing how out of touch the Senate was.

      I'm not sure what you count as a "major country" but more than half the world's countries including South Korea, 10 EU countries, Israel and New Zealand have unicameral legislatures. All Canadian provinces that had second chambers have abolished them as expensive and unnecessary.

    4. Goaltender Interference,

      First off, Your opinion is that minority governments are unstable-they are not inherently so, but, are likely to be more tenuous with a proportional system. First Past The Post creates an environment where even minority governments are relatively stable. Half the Parliaments elected since 1921 may have been minority Parliaments but, the average longevity of even minority governments in Canada easily surpass the life expectancy of Italian governments who routinely fall and re-form. They are going through the process at the moment and soon will have either their 63rd or 64th government since the end of the Second World War.

      The Senate forced an election on Free Trade thereby, checking prime ministerial power. It was important for Canada to have a debate on the issue. If free trade was simply imposed on Canadians at the end of Mulroney's first term the legitimacy of the agreement would have been questioned (ironically such an imposition may have improved John Turner's chance of winning the subsequent election). The Senate wasn't out of touch-they did what Canadians wanted: They initiated a national debate. It should be remembered Turner only ordered his senators to block the Bill after substantial public opposition.

      South Korea great example: They've just impeached their president and were a dictatorship until 1987. I do not think we want to emulate them.

      Most countries with unicameral legislature are homogeneous ethnic nation states with small populations. New Zealand was bicameral until 1952 and there is a movement to bring back bicameralism in that country. Israel is a country based on ethnic-nationalism so, they see no need for diversity in their Parliament. Neither are "major countries" in my opinion and none of the 10 EU countries you mentioned are "major" countries in my opinion either. The five big European countries: Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain all use bicameralism.

      Obviously, a cost exists with more politicians but, reviewing and revising legislation are important jobs as I am sure you would agree. The Senate and Upper Houses in general have a different mandate than Lower Houses whose mission is to keep governments accountable. Upper Houses are tasked with helping to determine policy outcomes, effectiveness, conduct hearings and investigations as needed. If you don't think this money well spent-that is fine, but, I believe it important and useful

      Yes Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia all abolished their Legislative Councils and once they did protection for linguistic minorities were quashed by the majority and Quebec occasionally elects separatists governments. So, perhaps abolition was not such a good idea in hindsight? In addition Nova Scotia was forced to create "special ridings" in order to ensure Acadian and African-Nova Scotian enclaves able to elect members of their community to the House of Assembly and they also created a Law-Amendments committee to essentially do the work formerly done by the Legislative Council. The Legislative Councils in both Canada and New Zealand were not abolished because of their work but, due to the nature of their selection- appointment. If they had been reformed and democratised I suspect we would have legislative councils today in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and New Zealand.

      Finally, in 2013 Ireland (Eire) held a referendum on abolishing their Senate-it failed. The Irish Senate is nominally elected by "sectors" of society; The Universities, Industry, the Arts, Labour Unions etc... but, for all practical purposes senators are appointed by party leaders. Why? I believe it is because good citizens know that good governance sometimes require a check on the populist element of democracy represented in the lower house.

    5. Hi WGS:

      Your Italian example is the poster child for the problems with bicameralism. Two chambers, each chosen by different methods, produce gridlock, resulting in multiple collapses of governments.

      That's ultimately the problem with any bicameral system. Either the second chamber is powerful and has democratic or representative legitimacy, in which case it creates gridlock (eg., US, Italy, Australia) or it is weak and/or lacks legitimacy and therefore redundant (eg., UK, Canada). In Germany, you have the worst of both worlds: the Bundesrat is powerful but appointed by the States, and so federal politicians try to influence State elections, undermining the federal division of powers that it was supposed to support.

      The 2013 Irish referendum no more failed (by 51%-49%) because people like the useless Irish senate any more than the Charlottetown Accord referendum failed in 1992 because people were against reforming Canada's useless Senate. People sometimes like to stick it to governments in referendums.

    6. I take your point regarding the Irish Seanad but, I think your explanation only part of the story. The second proposal in the referendum passed with flying colours and so, the rejection of Seanad abolition combined with the approval of a new appellate court I think shows rational thought and consideration rather than an outright snub to the Government of Enda Kenny.

      The House of Lords and Senate's mandate is not redundant in my mind. They are tasked with examining in detail legislation and the potential impacts it may have on Law, society and government-they are tasked with analysing long term trends and issues not currently in the public spotlight. The House is tasked with day-to-day affairs of the Government. The House of Lords and The Senate are tasked with the long-term and medium-term affairs of state and policy. I am the first to admit I have presented an ideal, maybe only a theory of how the Canadian Senate and House of Lords should act. They have not always lived up too such high standards. However, at base, both Upper Houses have substantially different mandates than the elected Commons and they do more or less examine issues not high on the public's or Government's agenda. The recent Senate report on Syrian refugees is a case in point. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration did not examined how our 36,000 Syrian refugees are doing a year after arrival. This important task was left up to the Senate. I do not know why but, either because the House committee was too busy or perhaps the issue too partisan or perhaps the Government just did not want the Syrian refugees to be in the spotlight. Whatever the case the Senate's work is useful to ensure the new arrivals are settling well in Canada.

  2. Well, maybe the panic over the Liberals saying it can't be "in time for the next election" is overblown? Maybe, they've realized that if they're going to do a reform, they have to bite the bullet and go MMP, which will mean either redrawing the electoral map, or adding seats to the Commons, or both... and maybe they think that it can't be done in time for it to be in effect for the next election. Maybe they expected IRV to be an easier sell, which would have been very easy to do quickly. When members of the Conservative Party are asking the Liberals to either have a referendum or abandon the idea altogether, spidey senses should be tingling.

  3. And now Rona Ambrose is reported as telling Justin to just forget the whole thing. For once I can agree with Rona !

    Electoral reform has become that dog turd in the park no one picks up

    Hill Times

  5. Electoral reform is a bad idea for Canada. We are too diverse both socially and geographically. Much of Canada's success can be attributed to our stable Government, instability leads to economic uncertainty-Do Canadians really want economic uncertainty? I do not think so.

    One topic rarely discussed is the outcome the proposed electoral systems will bring. PR for example would IMO lead to a permanent BQ presence in the House of Commons. Is this desirable? Would most Canadians approve? I doubt it. MMP-not a bad system but, in Germany it has lead to AfD, a far right anti-immigrant party to a sizable number of seats in the Bundestag. Do we want extremists in Parliament? I doubt it. IRV as they have in Australia, also not a bad system but, it often leads to very close elections and Government dependent upon either single issue parties or independents. Do we really want a party that may have received less than 5% of the vote deciding who will become prime minister? I doubt it.

    To paraphrase Churchill: First Past The Post is the worst form of electoral system except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    It is easy to understand, quick and simple to tabulate, establishes a clearly delineated line between Government and the people and holds Governments accountable for their actions!

    Canadians need to ask themselves; "In whose interests is it to change the electoral system"? If one concludes it is not in the People's best interest then something sinister is going on courtesy of the Liberal party.

    1. Capilano: The Bloc has been a permanent fixture under FPTP since 1990. The Bloc has benefitted the most of any party from the FPTP system, winning a majority of Quebec seats in six straight elections despite getting as low as 38% of the popular vote, and even when losing the popular vote by 4 points in the 2000 election.

      There is nothing stable about the Canadian FPTP system. Under FPTP, Canada has had 14 of its last 28 elections result in minority governments. Both Martin and Harper governments put the country through unstable periods trying to fight off government collapses, only to eventually go down to defeat in no-confidence votes anyway.

    2. We've had 28 elections since 1921. Italy's had 34 prime ministers since 1946. Canada 12. The same dynamic of intercine party rivalry and inconclusiveness of the electoral result has lead to even more Italian Governments than prime ministers! FPTP just does not produce that degree of instability.

      Yes, half the time a General Election results in a minority government but, Government turnover is much less frequent. Mike Pearson won two back to back elections, PET won a minority in 1972 before another majority in 1974. Harper won two minorities before a majority in 2011. Clark and Martin were a notable exceptions.

      Perhaps the BQ is a permanent feature; that is a distinct possibility. My reading of Canadian history is that parties not only ebb and flow are born and die. The same process happens in PR systems of course. In Europe where PR is more common I note that almost every regional nationality that can have its own party does. In Canada by contrast places that maybe should have autonomist movements don't. If Canada followed Europe's example; Labrador, Vancouver Island, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Northern Ontario, Newfoundland and perhaps even Toronto would all have some form of self-government or autonomist movement. It is not just Canada: Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico have very small separatist movements.

      I would submit this is a reflection on the efficacy of FPTP where geographically based representation produces a high level of satisfaction and good governance.


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