During last year’s federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that the 2015 election would be Canada’s last under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Today, a special parliamentary committee called for the government to hold a referendum on the issue.
Maxwell Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC, discusses the future of electoral reform in Canada.
What do you think of the special committee’s calls for a referendum?
The Conservatives have advocated all along for a referendum, and it may be the only way of keeping the issue alive. P.E.I. just had a referendum, and the mixed member proportional system won the day. The problem is that we are running out of time. To change the system before the next election requires putting legislation in place right away, and even holding a referendum could be a challenge, especially if a ranked ballot is involved—which is what was done in P.E.I.
The committee is also recommending that Elections Canada conduct a public awareness campaign on the current system and a new one. What is the first-past-the-post electoral system, and why is there an appetite for change?
First-past-the-post essentially means that a party with a plurality of the vote in a majority of the seats can form a majority government. This is often called a false majority because with only 40 per cent of the vote, a party can form a majority government. Proportional representation would mean that each party gets roughly the same proportion of seats as votes. The Harper government had a majority with only 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. I think this is the most important reason why the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens called for electoral reform in the last election.
What are the alternatives to first-past-the-post?
There are many forms of proportional representation. One involves a mix of MPs, some of whom are selected in single member districts, as in our current system, with top-up MPs chosen from a larger electoral area. This is called a mixed member proportional system, or MMP. Another option is the single transferable vote, or STV, also a multi-member system in which voters rank their choices and quotas are filled by re-distributing surplus votes.