Our electoral system needs an overhaul

Electoral reform popped up on the national scene recently, when MPs voted on an NDP-sponsored resolution.

Electoral reform popped up on the national scene recently, when MPs voted on an NDP-sponsored resolution that proposed, “the next federal election should be the last conducted under the current first-past-the-post electoral system” and that the best alternative to that system is “a form of mixed-member proportional representation.”

You’re already familiar with how our current system – known as “first past the post” – works: an MP is picked in every federal riding based on whichever candidate receives the most votes.

Since there are at least three candidates (usually more) running in each riding, simple math tells us that the winner will often get less than half of the votes cast. The last time the Yukon sent an MP to Ottawa with more than half of the vote was more than a quarter century ago, when the NDP’s Audrey McLaughlin was first elected to the house with 51.4 per cent of the vote.

The party with the most seats similarly gets to form the government, and if that party has more than half the seats, it wields majority power and essentially has its way until the next election. One consequence of this system is that we often have majority governments elected with less than half of the vote.

In fact, the last party that won a majority government with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote was Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives back in 1984, and then only by the slimmest of margins (50.03 per cent). Before that we would need to go all the way back to 1958 when John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives won 53.6 per cent of the vote.

A country in which a minority of voters select an all-powerful government is missing a pretty fundamental hallmark of “democracy.” This alone should be enough to cause a rethink.

Supporters of the status quo often point to our system’s tendency to produce stable, decisive governments. Unfortunately, this is the same argument used in favour of monarchies and dictatorships. It also ignores the numerous countries around the world that function just fine with governments that are forced to cooperate with others to maintain power.

Mixed-member proportional representation – which the NDP resolution calls the “best alternative” to first-past-the-post – is more complicated than first-past-the-post, and there are a number of variations. It is used in only a handful of countries, including New Zealand and Germany.

Yet if the status quo has one clear advantage, it’s the clear connection it offers between MP and riding. For many voters, particularly in places like the Yukon that are far removed from the halls of power in Ottawa, that connection is fundamental. I suspect many Yukoners would balk at the prospect of losing our voice in national government.

Maintaining local representation is a big challenge for those who want to make the system more proportional – that is, to ensure each party’s seat count reflects its share of the popular vote.

The NDP’s preferred system attempts to do so by creating a Parliament that would consist of a mixture of members chosen from ridings along with party candidates to ensure that each party’s seat count roughly reflects its share of the popular vote.

To achieve this – without greatly increasing the number of seats – sacrifices need to be made. It is likely that under this scheme, voters would be left with larger ridings, and even then there would still be an imperfect alignment between a party’s seat share and its popular vote.

There are important details that the NDP’s resolution leaves unanswered. What balance would be struck between riding seats and party seats? How will those occupying party seats be chosen, and how can we ensure those members have democratic legitimacy and aren’t just party hacks?

And how will the larger ridings be distributed? This question will undoubtedly be of concern to Yukoners, many of whom likely have little interest in having their riding rolled into a larger constituency.

Finally, is the NDP’s scheme really the “best alternative”? There are many electoral systems out there – far more than I can do justice in this column.

The shortcomings of our present system was clear during the vote on the NDP’s proposal. It failed.

The governing Conservative party – which won 100 per cent of the power with 39.62 per cent of the popular vote in the last election – has no interest in any deviation from the status quo. The Liberal Party has benefited from first-past-the-post for much of Canadian history and predictably most of its members also voted to maintain the status quo. It’s always hard to persuade those who benefit from the current system to help change it.

The NDP deserves some credit just for trying (as self-interested as it was) and for raising the important issue of democratic reform. The large majorities won with a minority of votes is a stain on Canada’s status as a democratic country, and I agree that it’s time to revisit our electoral rules. But I won’t hold my breath.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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