Electoral Reform – what is best for the North?

February 22, 2016 - There is a growing national debate about electoral reform in Canada. Putting aside issues of democracy, representativeness, fairness and government stability for a moment, let’s focus on what is known as “realpolitik.” Which electoral system would give those of us here in the North the biggest say in national policy-making?

Most would say we do not have an impactful voice right now. The current list of examples start with the crisis in our Indigenous communities, moves to our lack of infrastructure, and generally ends with questions about progress in the Ring of Fire and support for other resource industries. With multiple education, health-care, trade, social and environmental stops in between.

All of this despite the fact that the current electoral system of first past the post (FPTP) has been pretty good for Northern Ontario. The last government had four members from here, two of whom were ministers. Now we have seven government members and one minister (to start). In fact, we have consistently had a voice at the Cabinet table under FPTP. So, decent electoral success, but a mixed policy result. Maybe it is time to shop for something different.

Unfortunately, a single transferrable ballot system isn’t likely to treat us any more kindly than FPTP. In broad strokes (and admitting there are multiple models for every system) the basic concept of transferrable ballots is that voters rank their local candidates in order of preference. If in round one no candidate gets the majority of votes, the lowest vote getter sees their votes redistributed. This process continues until a winner is selected.

In the recent election, transferrable votes would have seen the Liberal majority reinforced. They were the second choice of lots of voters. This is likely the reason why we heard endless complaints of electoral illegitimacy when Harper’s Conservatives got a majority with 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, yet we hear almost no complaints of the Liberal majority founded on just 39.5 per cent.

Unfortunately, having your second choice in power is perhaps enough to placate you, but it isn’t enough to guarantee you that your voice gets heard. Given that far more seats reside elsewhere, putting even more of those members on the government benches would have seen our voice reduced, not enhanced. Stated baldly, a national landslide for any party, however it is delivered, is bad news for the North.

That leaves us with some form of proportional representation: the percentage of your popular vote dictates your percentage of the seats in Parliament. Given no party has gotten more than 50 per cent of the vote since 1958, ongoing minority government is virtually a certainty under proportional representation.

For a small population looking to have a disproportionate impact, minority governments are just what the (policy) doctor ordered. International examples of relatively small and regionally based political parties having real policy impact are readily at hand: for good or ill, Italy, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and many others are regularly treated to the experience of coalition building. In the U.K., the Scottish National Party’s strength saw huge progress for Scotland’s self-determination.

In Canada itself, we have seen several minority governments implement their opponent’s ideas. The “Building Canada” plan, for example, or at least the concept of massive stimulus spending in the face of a global downturn, was largely a result of the work of the Liberals and the NDP. Similarly, Ed Broadbent’s NDP had a disproportionate impact on federal social and labour policy with Trudeau Sr. in minority in the 1970s.

Another Canadian example is even more apropos for Northern Ontario. When Quebec failed to maintain secession as a credible threat, they quickly discovered that voting as an organized group in the federal house could be just as effective at securing special status. This ensured Quebec voters, not the bureaucrats in Ottawa, set the agenda.  Quebecers also proved that this power could be exercised even while shifting party allegiances (in their case from the Bloc to the NDP). Food for thought as the electoral reform debate unfolds.

By Charles Cirtwill, President & CEO of Northern Policy Institute. First published in Northern Ontario Business, February 2016.

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