Should the Liberal Party Embrace a Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform?

… by Carolyn Inch

If I were a strategist for the Liberal Party, I would be eyeing the future with some concern about Canada’s electoral system. It is a first-past-the-post system, which represents the population well when there are only two major parties. Voters can decide whether they want to vote left or right and the majority of voters get to see their views reflected in the resulting government. 

In an increasingly multi-party system, such as that in Canada, the first-past-the-post electoral system results in several anti-democratic outcomes over time. As the smaller parties begin to attract more votes, it takes fewer votes for the two dominant parties to win a riding or a country. Between 30 and 40% of the voting populace can elect a government wih a false majority to enact their platform. The next shift of power pulls the floor out from their programs. The resulting seesaw policies make it difficult to plan ahead and make consistent progress. 

The second inevitable result of using first-past-the-post in a multiparty system is that people who feel their vote won’t count decide not to vote at all. The group of disaffected voters is now the highest percentage of the electorate in most parts of Canada, exceeding the percentage of votes received by any single party. That is a very sad state of affairs for a participative democracy.

As well, we have the situation in Western Canada where there is not one Liberal member in either Parliament or the Cabinet from Alberta or Saskatchewan as a result of the 2019 election. But based on their proportion of votes, in Alberta, Liberal voters should be represented by five out of thirty-four seats. In Saskatchewan, Liberal voters should have two MPs out of their fourteen seats. 

It is little wonder that our western friends consider that the east is where the decisions are made and that perhaps they could do better on their own. These ‘shut outs’ of parties are not uncommon. This is just the most recent and it is at a time when we face many complicated issues. It is ruinous having the small Canadian population divided against itself by an outmoded and non-representative system.

These are some of  the reasons why the more successful democracies have an electoral system that reflects the voting population. Proportional representation has been practiced for decades in many countries, including most of the best performing and wealthiest OECD countries.

So what is it that the Liberal Party in particular should be thinking about?

While the two dominant parties continue trading power back and forth with false majorities and distorted electoral results, and as democratic apathy grows, there is a scenario that can’t be easily discounted. If the NDP and Green parties were to unite, attract a few of the lefty liberals and a few of the non-voters, under first past the post, the Liberals could be squeezed out of the middle and headed for extinction. 

How the Liberal government could save face and the future of their party

As many Canadians know, in 2016 Justin Trudeau ran on a platform that stated that 2016 would be the last first-past-the-post election. He switched gears by the next election and electoral reform has been dropped like an embarrassing hot potato.

Recognizing this, Fair Vote Canada, an advocacy group for electoral reform, is recommending that the federal government establish a Citizen’s Assembly on electoral reform. According to a Leger Poll done in September 2020, 80% of Canadians from all parties support this approach to study electoral reform.  This mechanism  has been internationally recognized as a way to strengthen democracy by giving citizens a more deliberative role. A 2020 report from the OECD titled Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions – CATCHING THE DELIBERATIVE WAVE summarizes recent experiences countries have had in dealing with thorny ethical and social issues. 

Despite the Citizen’s Assembly being a proposal put forward by Fair Vote Canada, the outcome should not be assumed. Experts on the democratic process have a lot to teach and it could be very informative for everyone. It is likely that proportional representation would be preferred after people have a chance to learn more about it, but a possible option could be that the voting system stay intact but that only two parties be allowed. That would require intra-party compromise with fractional elements before elections and may result in less voter alienation. 

If proportional representation were to be recommended, another myth that prevails in Canada is that it would mean the end of right leaning governments. In fact, successful democracies that have long had proportional representation like Denmark and Germany have had a relatively even split between right and left leaning coalitions over time. 

Finally though, consider what the Liberals might gain under proportional representation. Besides being anointed with the heroism of saving participatory democacracy, they could very well wind up as the party which would have a powerful role in every government. Why? Because they could collaborate left or right to form a majority, and effectively orchestrate the defeat of almost any governing coalition.  

There is presently a motion before a committee of Parliament regarding a Citizen’s Assembly. Fair Vote Canada hopes we can convince the Committee on House Affairs that an independent, non-partisan Citizen’s Assembly that will look at ALL options is a good way forward. 

If you are interested in supporting this initiative, go to the Fair Vote Canada website  and follow the links under Act Now, Vote Coming on the home page.

Note: Both graphics are from the Fair Vote Canada website.

One comment

  1. This is an excellent summary of why the Liberals should pursue further study toward the end of adopting proportional representation.


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