The current political ruckus over whether Canadians should change how they vote for their federal representatives in Parliament isn’t the first time the issue has been brought up.
As a matter of fact, you can go all the way back to 1921, when the federal government of the day established a special committee to consider the subject of proportional representation so that instead of the winner take all approach that existed then as now, seats in Parliament are accorded to the number of votes a party receives across the country.
And while there is debate about the kind of proportional representation that might be entertained such as ensuring that voters in some fashion still have a Member of Parliament that represents the area in which they live, the issue of changing how we vote has never really gone away.
A special parliamentary committee was also struck in 1935-1937, a parliamentary task force was created in 1979, Royal Commissions were named in 1985 and 1991, and the Law Commission of Canada in 2004 looked at the matter.
In 2005 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs recommended “a process that engages citizens and parliamentarians in an examination of our electoral system with a review of all options”.
But the difference now is that the call for change became an election issue during the successful federal Liberal campaign last year, repeated consistently by the current Prime Minister and which took the form of the creation of yet another special Parliamentary committee this past June.
But, as Machiavelli reminds us in The Prince, “a sagacious prince cannot and should not fulfill his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes which induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist.”
In the Speech from the Throne a year ago the Governor General stated that: “The Government will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post system.”
To change our voting system was no longer merely an election promise by a party leader; it was now a firm commitment by the Government of Canada to its citizens. In his mandate letter to the Minister of Democratic Institutions the Prime Minister reminded her that “It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we fulfill our promises.”
The committee recommended that a referendum be held “in which the current system is on the ballot” as well as “a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of five or less.” The committee further recommended “that the Government complete the design of the alternate electoral system that is proposed on the referendum ballot prior to the start of the referendum campaign period.”
The Gallagher Index, named after Professor of Comparative Politics Michael Gallagher who created it, measures the difference between the percentage of votes parties receive and the percentage of seats gained from the vote; the higher the score the wider the difference between the two.
New Zealand switched from first past the post to proportional representation in 1996. New Zealand’s average Gallagher Index score in FPTP elections from 1946 to 1993 was 11.10. The average score for the seven proportional elections held since 1996 is 2.83. Canada’s average score for the 22 elections held since 1945 is 11.61, worse than New Zealand’s when it decided to adopt proportional voting.
One of the committee’s key discoveries arising from consulting Canadians online was that a majority (53.5%) believe that “Canada’s electoral system should favour the following outcome: no single political party holds the majority of seats in Parliament, thereby increasing the likelihood that political parties will work together to pass legislation.”
The committee’s final report includes a supplemental report by its Liberal members, and a supplemental opinion by its NDP members, including our very own Skeena – Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May.
The NDP/Green members support the government’s throne speech promises and call on the minister, the Prime Minister and cabinet “to fulfill the worthy goals buttressed by evidence in the work of our committee.”
The Liberal members recommend further comprehensive and effective citizens engagement before making any changes. They don’t believe it can be completed before 2019.
Should I place my bet on Machiavelli’s Prince?
Retired public sector administrator Andre Carrel lives in Terrace, B.C.