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Electoral reform push attempts to fix what isn’t broken

In last year’s election campaign the Liberal Party of Canada promised that 2015 would be the last election determined by our current electoral system.

by Currie Dixon

Special to the News

In last year’s election campaign the Liberal Party of Canada promised that 2015 would be the last election determined by our current electoral system.

While the Liberals were successfully playing to the sentiment that any system that delivers a majority government to Stephen Harper must be inherently flawed, the Liberals failed to offer a firm commitment as to what alternative they would prefer or what process they would use to enact it. The hapless task of realizing this vague commitment has fallen to Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, who will visit Whitehorse this week to seek the input of all Yukoners through a two-hour open house.

Legitimate criticisms of the vagueness of the commitment, the problematically tight timing, the inadequacy of the consultation process, and the questionable legitimacy of changing the electoral system without directly consulting the electorate through a referendum have all been levied against the Liberals, but what has been absent so far is a proper defense of the status quo. No electoral system is above reproach or without its weaknesses, but it is my opinion that our current system works fairly well. It certainly is not “broken” or “antiquated” as some have suggested.

First of all, our current system does a reasonable job at reconciling Canada’s vast geographical enormity and numerous unique and distinct regions (like the Yukon) by giving less populous regions representation that is disproportionate to population. This is how Yukon, with roughly 37,000 people, gets its own Member of Parliament while most electoral districts in Ontario have well over 100,000.

Often we hear critics point out that our system does not award seats in the House of Commons in proportion to a political party’s popular vote and use this justification to advocate a system called proportional representation. An electoral system that awards seats solely based on a political party’s total popular vote would dramatically erode the influence, representation and voice of Canada’s regions like Yukon that are geographically large and unique, but sparsely populated.

Secondly, I believe that our current system encourages and even requires our political parties to reach out beyond their more narrow constituencies to a broader segment of the electorate. In political jargon, it encourages “big tent” political parties. In turn, this produces governments with mandates that are broadly aligned with the majority of Canadians. In contrast, electoral systems that are purely, or incorporate in part, proportional representation benefit smaller, less mainstream parties and encourage parties to narrow the focus of their appeal. I’m not suggesting, as some have, that Canada would devolve into some sort of outlandish multi-party parliamentary fracas, but for a country like Canada with longstanding regional, cultural, and linguistic cleavages there is legitimate risk to move in such a direction.

Finally, I think our current system provides adequate accountability for individual members of Parliament and the governments they form. In our representative democracy, we allow our Members of Parliament to make decisions and vote on various matters on our behalf and we measure their performance and cast judgement at the ballot box.

Yukon is a perfect example of this: over the course of our history we have had able representation from representatives of all three major political parties. In 2011, due at least in part to dissatisfaction with our MP’s adherence to the party line in contrast to the wishes of his constituents, Yukoners cast him out and tried someone new. In 2015, Yukoners and Canadians alike made it clear that the Harper government had fallen out of alignment with the views of the majority of Canadians and sent the Prime Minister and our MP packing. These are just a few examples of the accountability our current electoral system provides.

In the end, I believe that our current electoral system has served Canada and Yukon well. It has created governments with broad support spanning Canada’s diverse regional, cultural and linguistic communities, and has afforded Canadians the ability to toss out politicians or governments that fall out of alignment with their values. In short, it works just fine.

Currie Dixon is a Yukon cabinet minister and the outgoing MLA for Copperbelt North.