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On February 7, 39 Liberal MPs and 3 Conservative MPs voted against their party’s position, joining the NDP, Greens and Bloc in voting for Motion M-86 for a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

In recent weeks, MPs have been speaking out about what happened, and how important it is to keep fighting for progress on electoral reform..

Green Party MP Mike Morrice spoke passionately on the Mike Farwell show on CityNews about how you made a difference (the interview Mike starts at 35:10): 

“We had 39 Liberal MPs voting for the motion and 3 Conservative MPs. MPs vote with their party 99.5% of the time. To have that number voting in a way that prioritizes their communities…. I look at the organizing people did. All that grassroots democracy had an impact. Those votes were because of people power.”

 NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron, sponsor of the motion, told the Hill Times

“I think it’s a really good sign to see that we have members across party lines agreeing that this is an issue that needs to be prioritized. I think it also reflects the dedication of so many across the country, who have been making sure this issue is front of mind for MPs. I’m going to make sure this is one of my very first priorities if I’m re-elected again into the next Parliament.”

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s post – “We killed electoral reform again” – speaks bluntly about his view of the self-interest and missteps of all parties on electoral reform and its consequences. It’s a long post, but well worth reading. We’ve copied it in full below, with links to share at the bottom.

7 years ago, we killed electoral reform.

Two weeks ago, we killed the idea again, and you probably didn’t even hear about it.

Of course, M-86 wouldn’t have brought electoral reform to Canada right away. But it would have re-started the conversation through a citizens’ assembly.

Specifically, the parliamentary motion called on the government to establish a citizens’ assembly to “determine if electoral reform is recommended for Canada, and, if so, recommend specific measures that would foster a healthier democracy.”

Despite an EKOS poll showing 76% overall support for the idea (73% of Liberals and 69% of Conservatives), and despite support for the idea at the 2023 Liberal national policy convention, the government opted to vote it down.

It turns out that the government still really doesn’t want to talk about electoral reform.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

CTV News reported that “Trudeau and Singh’s teams quietly planning electoral reform legislation”.

Sounds promising.

Except that the legislation will apparently only do these three things:

  • allow for an ‘expanded’ three-day voting period during general elections;
  • allow voters to cast their ballots at any polling place within their riding; and
  • improve the mail-in ballot process.

None of this is controversial. But, on the other hand, does any of it really matter?

Go back and reimagine 2015, with the promise of real change in the air. Do these three barely discernible improvements constitute “real change?”

We promise to make every vote count!

We promise a technical change to make voting slightly easier!

Now, I have a long-standing bias in support of electoral reform. Before I was elected, I was involved in some local advocacy with Fair Vote Canada.

As I’ve written before, we live in a representative democracy, and our democracy should be more representative of where we live. I believe in the value of minority parliaments, cooperation, and a less partisan approach to our politics.

I think the see-saw as between different majority governments undermines sensible long-term policy-making.

I’m obviously in the minority in Parliament in thinking this way, given M-86 was soundly defeated 220-101.

Although, it’s worth noting that 39 Liberal MPs voted for M-86, and that number would have been significantly higher had the government not taken a position on the motion and encouraged a free vote instead. Three Conservative MPs even voted for it!

To understand why the two dominant parties in Canadian politics might be skeptical of electoral reform, it’s useful to consider our electoral history.

In the last 20 federal elections (over the last 60 years), the Liberal Party has outperformed its popular vote (i.e. received a higher percentage of seats as compared to its popular vote percentage) a total of 16 out of 20 times (exceptions: 2011, 2008, 1988 and 1984).

Only in 1984 and 2011 was the Liberal Party particularly mistreated by first-past-the-post. In 2011, it received 18.9% of the popular vote and 11% of the seats in the House, while in 1984 it received 28% of the popular vote and only 14.2% of the seats.

In that same time period, Conservative parties outperformed their popular vote percentage 15 out of 20 times (exceptions: 2015, 2000, 1997, 1993, 1968, although only the PC underperformed in 1997 while the Reform Party did not).

1993 was, of course, a particularly bad year for the Progressive Conservatives, with 16% of the popular vote and only 0.7% of the seats in the House.

How does the NDP fare in comparison? Very very badly.

In those same 20 elections, the NDP’s seat count outperformed its popular vote only once. In 2011. And only by 2.8%.

If you add up every percentage they have underperformed the popular vote by since 1962, it comes to a collective 136.9%.

In the interest of completeness, the Bloc Quebecois has outperformed its popular vote 8 out of 10 times since its inception in 1993, the Green Party has never done anything other than underperform through 7 elections since it started in 2004, and the People’s Party of Canada has never had a seat in the House of Common through two elections.

First-past-the-post clearly punishes third and smaller parties in our multi-party system (and provincially that means punishing Liberal Parties for the time being).

Given the stakes here, there seem to be three overall takeaways:

  1. Having burned the promise of electoral reform to the ground, the Prime Minister and this Liberal government don’t want to talk about electoral reform ever again.

    I believe it’s to the country’s advantage to prevent the near absolute power of a Poilievre Conservative majority government when a majority of Canadians do not want that outcome. But it isn’t necessarily to the Liberal Party’s advantage to move away from FPTP if history is at all an indicator of future success, and Liberal reformers tend to split between ranked ballots and proportional systems (there’s the potential to overcome this, but we’d have to talk about it again!).

  2. Despite three supportive MPs, the leadership and party continues to see electoral reform as a threat. And given the consolidation of PC and Reform/Alliance, it’s no wonder. Vote splitting on the right is limited, and even less likely with Poilievre at the helm, given he speaks the same language as Bernier at times (WEF conspiracies, anti-vaccine mandates, pro-convoy, anti-trans, etc.).

  3. This particular NDP leadership hasn’t understood the importance of electoral reform to their own cause. There’s a motion in Parliament backed by your own MP on an issue that your base and many others care about. It is essential to your party’s long-term success. And in a game of electoral chicken, the Liberals definitely do not want to cause an election over a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform with its popularity where it is at the moment.
    If you don’t negotiate support for a citizens’ assembly in these circumstances, perhaps you don’t truly understand that your party has underperformed the popular vote 19 out of 20 times since 1962.

Now, a citizens’ assembly isn’t a total answer.

We’ve had assemblies in Ontario and BC, followed by failed referendums. There’s no guarantee that it leads to change.

But it’s also an opportunity to re-start a conversation that was killed too soon.

And it’s a conversation worth having in a thoughtful way, divorced from partisan interests.

Consider the challenge from the Prime Minister, and others, that a more proportional system “would empower fringe parties.” No doubt, some PR systems do.

A thoughtful answer back would be that one can establish a 5% threshold that parties need to reach to receive top-up seats in the House.

Or one might consider that the greater threat to our democracy is for one of our natural governing parties to be taken over by a radical. Shouldn’t we be more worried about Bernier taking over the Conservative Party (he almost did!), than Bernier representing 5% of the seats in the House of Commons?

Leslyn Lewis and Cheryl Gallant are members of the Conservative Party, holding People’s Party views. Pierre Poilievre wants us to honk for freedom and police bathrooms and he may well be the Prime Minister of Canada.

South of the border, we see an even more extreme example. Donald Trump took over the Republican Party and has a better than decent chance of becoming President of the United States again. I don’t even understand how those words can be real as I write them, but they are.

First-past-the-post might discourage fringe new parties. But it does little to discourage the fringe from taking over existing ones. Which strikes me as worse.

And nothing new here at all, but FPTP also dramatically distorts the amount of power a political party controls in comparison to its popular support.

As I write this, 338 Canada has the Conservatives in the lead with 41% of the popular vote, which would lead to a resounding majority government.

The Liberals (25%), the NDP (19%), the Bloc (7%) and the Greens (5%) collectively account for 56% of the vote. These are all parties that believe in climate change, as just one example. They don’t believe in austerity, or cutting childcare, as another.

At the height of Conservative popularity (or Liberal unpopularity?), at least 56% of Canadians still want a more progressive direction for this country. And yet, because of our electoral system, we may well get saddled with a majority government that axes much more than the most efficient and effective way of reducing GHG emissions.

Imagine if we hadn’t broken our promise on electoral reform.

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