The evidence is clear that with our first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP), federal elections in an open society can deliver majority control in parliament with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. FPTP allows a political party to claim that it has a “mandate from the people” and that it is “speaking for the people” even if more than 60 per cent of the voting population rejected that party’s agenda and principles.
A look at the last 20 federal general elections reveals interesting disparities arising from FPTP.
Eleven of these elections resulted in majority, and nine in minority parliaments. In only two elections (10 per cent) did the majority of voters – more than 50 per cent – support one political party: 1958 (Diefenbaker, 53.66 per cent), and 1984 (Mulroney, 50.02 per cent).
Two comparisons highlight the inconsistencies in how FPTP converts votes into parliamentary seats. In 1963, 41.48 per cent of the vote resulted in a minority parliament (Pearson); in 1993, 41.24 per cent was enough for a majority parliament (Chrétien).
Similarly, in 1972, 38.42 per cent of the vote resulted in a minority parliament (P. Trudeau); in 1997, a virtually identical 38.46 per cent was enough for a majority parliament (Chrétien).
The difference between a minority and a majority parliament, 38.42 per cent (P. Trudeau, 1972) and 38.46 per cent (Chrétien, 1997), amounts to a handful of votes in a few ridings.
What the history of the past 20 federal general elections suggests is that a political party is most likely to win a majority by focusing its campaign on a few narrowly defined short-term issues.
It is easier to sell a tax cut with a slogan than it to explain a strategy to achieve fiscal stability over the long term.
The history of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is an example of how FPTP elections reward election campaigns focused on short-term benefits without regard to their long-term consequences.
In 1989, the Mulroney government (elected with 43.02 per cent) determined that the 13.5 per cent Manufacturer’s Sales Tax (MST) undermined export opportunities for the nation’s industries.
Mulroney proposed to replace that tax with a new 9 per cent federal sales tax at the retail level. Political opposition to the proposal was immediate and vociferous.
Responding to opposition protests, Mulroney reduced the tax rate to 7 per cent, and he enacted the GST at that level in 1991 by relying on his majority in the House of Commons and on an obscure constitutional provision that allowed him to also secure the majority he needed in the Senate.
Campaigning on a promise to scrap the GST helped Chrétien gain a parliamentary majority in 1993 on the strength of 41.24 per cent of the vote.
Chrétien did not honour that promise, but he retained his parliamentary majority in the next election (1997) on the strength of just 38.46 per cent of the vote. In the campaign leading up to the 2006 election Harper, whose party had originally calculated that to replace the 13.5 per cent MST would require a 9 per cent GST, promised to lower the GST from 7 per cent to 6 per cent.
That promise helped Harper form a minority government with 36.27 per cent of the vote. Harper kept his promise; the GST was lowered to 6 per cent. He promised to further reduce the GST to 5 per cent if re-elected. Voter support increased marginally to 37.65 per cent in the 2008 election, leaving Harper with a minority government.
He honoured the promise to further reduce the GST and on the strength of 39.62 per cent of the vote Harper gained the parliamentary majority he desired in 2011.
Discussions about what effects successive tax cuts would have on government services and on the nation’s economic and social well-being were conspicuously absent from the successive promises to lower the GST from the initial revenue-neutral rate of 9 per cent to the final 5 per cent.
The consequences of this 44 per cent GST rate reduction forced successive governments to impose cuts on all public services. These service reductions were in turn exploited by J. Trudeau who won a parliamentary majority in 2015 with 39.47 per cent of the vote on the promise of running deficits to restore funding to public programs.
There were no discussions on how or when the borrowed money would be repaid.
Trudeau’s election promise to scrap FPTP elections played as well in our winner-take-all electoral system, as Chrétien’s promise to scrap the GST did 22 years earlier.
There are diverse proportional representation systems, but they all have the same impact on election campaigning. With proportional representation, no political party wins the power to impose its ideology and philosophy on the nation. With proportional representation, parliaments are challenged to engage in relentless negotiations in a search for compromise answers to difficult questions.
Compromise solutions grow from reciprocal recognition of and respect for opposing principles and priorities.
A compromise is a solution with which nobody is totally happy, but one with which a broad majority can accept and live.
Proportional representation has a kinship to municipal elections. Candidates run as individuals or in slates in a single constituency.
Citizens may vote for one or more candidates, supporting those who share their views and priorities. Successful candidates will be those who best demonstrate a willingness to work toward solutions that respect rather than ignore or offend the nation’s many concerns, priorities, and ambitions.
The difference between cooperating with legislators beholden to different political philosophies in a search for answers, and campaigning for the power to impose one ideology on the country is as negligible as it is compelling.
Political parties are easily addicted to FPTP elections because the system offers an opportunity to unilaterally impose their ideology on the nation. Proportional representation fosters a political climate that rewards reciprocal recognition and compromise to serve the nation’s long-term interests.
This was the climate of the 1960s minority parliament era (Pearson 1963, 1965) when opposing political parties negotiated compromise solutions.
Their efforts produced two of the nation’s most treasured and enduring programs: Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan.