Was there a lack of consensus to move ahead with proportional representation?
“The Liberal talking points on electoral reform: a collection that belongs in an alternative facts class of its own.”
– National affairs writer Chantal Hebert
One of the main Liberal talking points given for dumping the campaign promise of electoral reform is that “there was no consensus.”
In customized form letters from MPs to constituents, it is often expressed like this:
“While I and leaders in the Government have heard a wide range of opinions, there is no clear consensus on an alternative voting system for Canada. It has become evident that the broad support needed for this change does not exist.”
Let’s dig into the issue of consensus.
Before the election: A basis for consensus already existed
Three parties, representing 62% of voters, campaigned on a promise that 2015 would be the last election using first-past-the-post and that they would “make every vote count” in 2019. That was an unequivocal promise.
They all campaigned on a very specific and realistic timeline for consultation and implementation for 2019. A consensus also existed on that.
No party qualified their promise with an asterisk, but after the election, the Liberals started inventing them.
The Liberal Party resolution of 2014 – “Restoring Trust in Canada’s Democracy” – endorsed by their caucus and members which formed the basis of their platform, recommended a study of “preferential ballots and/or proportional representation.”
There are two main families of systems:
- Those which aim to make almost every vote count (proportional), and
- Those which aim to produce single-party majorities by giving representation only to one group of voters in each riding (“winner-take-all”).
Proportional systems – which can include a preferential ballot as a feature – are the only way to come anywhere near “making every vote count.” None of the winner-take-all systems even try.
This isn’t up for debate – it’s just the principle and math of electoral system families.*
Unless they were walking around with blinders on, the Liberals who authored the electoral reform part of the election platform had to have some idea that for most people, “making every vote count” meant proportional representation, not a tweak on first-past-the-post.
They had to have some idea – when Justin Trudeau explicitly promised evidenced-based policy on electoral reform – that since the last 13 commissions, committees and assemblies on this issue in Canada – involving experts and public consultations – recommended PR, that this one would, too.
They had to be aware that 14 years of national polling showed Canadians support the principle of proportionality.
Popular policy ideas win votes. The promise to make every vote count didn’t become a platform issue by accident.
In a letter issued to Fair Vote Canada from Justin Trudeau’s office before the 2015 election about the process to come – and copied in part by many candidates, he stated:
“In order for meaningful electoral reform to take place, a full study of all the options needs to be conducted, and a consensus needs to be built. To do this properly and with the greatest chance of success, such a study must be undertaken with no preconceived notions of what the best solution would be.”
A logical assumption would be that the study and consultation with “no preconceived notions” would be to listen to the evidence with an open mind and determine how to best fulfill the promise to “make every vote count.”
“No preconceived notions” harkens back to the Liberal refrain that the NDP’s earlier fixation on Mixed Member Proportional as the only option was too narrow. In 2014, 15/31 Liberals voted no to an NDP motion for MMP, some stating they supported PR but wanted a process to look at all the options.
The Electoral Reform Committee: Overwhelming consensus points one way, Liberals go the other
MP Mark Holland, the Parliamentary Secretary to former Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, promised Canadians a consultation that was historic in its scope, and indeed it was.
Despite its well-known flaws, the consultation included:
- 173 MP town halls
- dozens of community dialogues hosted by citizens and 600 individual submissions
- Five intense months of meetings by the electoral reform committee (ERRE), most of which were open to the public and recorded on CPAC
- A 22 stop cross-Canada tour by the ERRE committee, hearing from Canadians
- Hundreds of top experts from Canada and around the world heard by the ERRE committee
- A 19 stop cross-country tour by Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef
- An online survey asking about preferences for specific electoral systems using ballots and clear descriptions, completed by 22,000
- Mydemocracy.ca – advertised in a mailout to almost every household and completed by 360,000 Canadians
For five months, the MPs on the ERRE committee heard overwhelming evidence and heartfelt pleas from Canadians for proportional representation.
Thousands took their time to participate in good faith.
In the end, 88% of the experts the ERRE heard (invited and vetted by all parties) and 87% the public who testified were for PR. The ERRE online survey found strong support for both the principle of PR and specific proportional systems.
The mandate for three parties – representing 62% of voters – to fulfill their campaign promise was only strengthened by the evidence and the consultation.
Alarmingly, the more the evidence and public sentiment added up, the more the Liberals seemed to retreat.
Over the five months of witnesses, the five Liberals on the committee seemed more interested in “playing devil’s advocate” with the experts in their questions than seeking to find consensus with the other parties.
In November, 2016, Justin Trudeau announced that perhaps electoral reform wasn’t as important, since now he was Prime Minister.
In a high-risk move at the tail end of the ERRE committee, the NDP decided to make a deal with the Conservatives – a referendum on a proportional system – even though nobody but the Conservatives wanted a referendum.
It seems the goal was to create a “majority” (opposition) report from the ERRE, because they had no-one else to dance with. They were facing an ending to electoral reform where the Liberals could claim “no consensus” among the parties on how to fulfill their election promise – even though the Liberals themselves had created that situation.
The NDP and Greens had knocked themselves out trying to find a crack in the brick wall of Liberal disinterest.
Ranked ballots as part of a PR system? Absolutely!
Give up our favourite system – yes – several systems will work!
Keep rural ridings a manageable size? There are ways to do that!
Use existing riding boundaries? Sure thing!
New MPs make the transition easier? We can do that!
No new MPs make it sellable? Understood!
Partially proportional now and maybe more later? Yes, let’s talk!
The Liberals on the ERRE, whether by their own initiative or direction from the Prime Minister’s Office, refused to even try find any common ground with the NDP and Greens to fulfill their promise.
The Liberal ERRE “supplemental report” recommended the government break its own election promise, calling PR “radical”.
The Liberals on the ERRE went on in Parliament to vote against their own unanimous committee motion to use the ERRE’s system-specific questions in the survey to go out to all Canadians – Mydemocracy.ca.
Liberal Chair Francis Scarpaleggia went so far as tell reporters who questioned him about the election promise:
“Election platforms are to engage voters.”
Maryam Monsef refused to include even one straightforward question about proportional representation in the survey.
The reason is obvious: It would have made even clearer – if that is possible – a consensus the Liberals were determined to pretend did not exist.
When 70% of the 360,000 Canadians (exponentially larger than any “special interest group” could muster) answered five different ways that they want to be governed by multiple parties who make decisions together, these results were shuffled to the archives as fast as they could get there.
Instead, the government shone a spotlight on the answer one vague introductory question: That most Canadians said they were “somewhat satisfied” with democracy in general, claiming that most Canadians really meant they wanted to elect their representatives using first-past-the-post.
What about the argument that there was “no consensus” on a specific PR system?
A few MPs are claiming that they couldn’t proceed because there was no consensus on one specific PR system.
This despite most of the Liberal MPs, Mark Holland and Maryam Monsef telling audiences at all their consultation events that they didn’t want to talk about specific systems, they wanted to hear about “principles”.
Is it realistic to ask most Canadians to become experts on electoral system design and by some gigantic coincidence, all show up at the ERRE consultations with exactly the same set of mechanics in mind?
Would that be a reasonable expectation related to any other policy decision?
If an overwhelming number of Canadians vote for parties promising pharmacare, for example, should they then be required to produce an identical and detailed design implementation plan to the politicians to expect any action on a promise?
If most Canadians agree on the principle, and all the evidence supports the principle, and the system solutions are at their fingertips, our leaders should utilize the evidence and the experts at their disposal to design a system and implement it. That’s what they were elected to do.
Most Canadians want fairness. They want their votes to count. They want proportional results. They want to be governed by genuine majorities. They want parties to cooperate together. They want to keep local representation.
The three main proportional models on the table for Canada – covered extensively in the ERRE report – all accomplish these objectives.
After the broken promise: Reinforcing the story of “no consensus”
Harkening back to Justin Trudeau’s statement before the election, describing the consultation process to come:
“A consensus needs to be built. To do this properly and with the greatest chance of success, such a study must be undertaken with no preconceived notions of what the best solution would be.”
It’s hard to build a consensus when you refuse to have a conversation.
It’s hard to build a consensus when your own “preconceived notion” – for a winner-take-all ranked ballot – turns out to be the only thing that matters.
In delivering their dissenting verdict for no change on December 1 on behalf of the Liberal members on the ERRE, Chair Francis Scarpaleggia bluntly stated they had found:
“Nobody wants a ranked ballot.” (*Meaning, Alternative Vote).
Explaining why he broke his promise, Justin Trudeau categorically stated:
“All proportional representation is bad for Canada.”
He went on to explain he likes winner-take-all ranked ballot.
In other words, it was winner-take-all ranked ballot from the beginning, or nothing.
Perhaps he could have told Canadians he would never negotiate one ounce of proportionality before he made the promise which raised the hopes of so many.
Perhaps he could have told Canadians what the deal was before he enticed those on the left who wanted to “stop Harper” AND end 39% majorities to vote Liberal in 2015.
Perhaps he could have been up front before he repeated the promise 1813 times and dragged Canadians through a 4.1 million dollar evidence-based process that ended in a flat-out NO to evidence.
But that would have been too honest.
And that is what voters won’t forget.
*Notes on winner-take-all ranked ballot (Alternative Vote)
A preferential ballot in a single member riding – Alternative Vote – is a winner-take-all system, a close cousin of first-past-the-post. In practice it means that if no candidate has 50% of the vote, the second choice of the voters of the least popular candidate(s) who drop off the ballot first might come into play in a handful of swing ridings – that’s all. It certainly does not pretend to aim to “make every vote count.” A study in Australia – one of only two countries to use this system nationally compared to 90 which use PR – showed that over 90 years, it changed which candidate won in a riding compared to first-past-the-post about 5% of the time. Simulations in Canada going back decades and including the 2015 federal election show it does not make the results more proportional but would usually change the outcome in favour of the Liberals, giving them bigger false majorities, sometimes on fewer first choice preferences. As the UK Independent Commission of the Voting system stated, Alternative Vote can produce election outcomes even more disproportional than first-past-the-post.