The Canada Elections Act needed amending. As first set out by the Conservative government, the original changes encouraged and rewarded abuse. However, I disagree with the amendments passed last week thanks to the Conservative majority in the House of Commons.
Bill C-23 ignores the principle of equality of representation which is the problem at the root of the Canada Elections Act. In a multi-party society the first-past-the-post voting system encourages abuse which it then rewards with power.
The abuse built into our voting system is that it routinely metamorphoses a minority of popular votes into a majority of parliamentary seats. In the British Columbia general election of 1996 the NDP won a majority on the strength of 39.45 percent of the popular vote while the Liberal Party with 41.82 percent became the opposition. Premier Glen Clark and the NDP did not cheat. They gained majority control of the legislature and the power to govern as a consequence of the winter-take-all voting system’s inherent inequities. However, the temptation to ever so slightly tilt the system to favor the party in power is enormous and the rewards for doing so are rich.
Replacing our winner-take-all voting system with proportional voting may be too radical a departure. That does not mean, however, that we are doomed to be governed by the wiliest among our political parties. With a relatively simple amendment to the Canada Elections Act we could adopt a two-round voting system to provide for a second ballot in every constituency in which no candidate received at least 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first ballot.
A second round would take place with only the top two candidates from the first round listed on the ballot. A two-round voting system would ensure that all MPs are elected by the majority of voters in their constituencies. In other words, we would have a parliament whose members individually and together represent the will of the majority. However, majority parliaments as we know them today would tend to be rare. Judging by historic election results, coalition governments would tend to be the norm with a two-round voting system.
We have voted in 33 general elections since 1900; only six – 1900, 1904, 1917, 1940, 1958, and 1984 – resulted in parliamentary majorities matching the will of the majority of voters.
The prospect of coalition governments may be a cause of concern for some, but such fears are unfounded. Coalition governments have been the norm in Germany since 1945, the most peaceful and most economically and socially productive period that country’s history. It defies logic to suggest that fairness, efficiency, effectiveness and accountability are best achieved when legislative and executive powers are vested in just one party. How can any single political ideology embrace the full diversity of Canada’s social, economic, cultural, and historic characteristics from coast to coast to coast?
Forming a coalition government necessitates flexibility. A parliament in which all members are elected by a majority and which is not dominated by a single party is better suited to hold government to account. Adopting a two-round voting system in Canada would not be a first for a country governed pursuant to the British Parliamentary system (New Zealand used it in the 1908 and 1911 elections). Two-round voting systems are in use by stable democracies such as Austria, Finland and France, and by more recent democracies such as Poland and Chile.
Bill C-23, even with the amendments called for by the Senate Committee, will render government less accountable and weaken Canadian democracy. However, rather than defending the status quo and demonizing the government, political parties who plan to participate in the next general election should offer Canadians an alternate amendment to the Fair Elections Act. New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens should work together and jointly commit to amend the Canada Elections Act with the introduction of a two-round voting system which would strengthen Canadian democracy.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator living in Terrace, B.C.