Monday, October 26, 2015

In Opening Up the Pandora's Box of Electoral Reform, Canada Should Look Down Under

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable -- the art of the next best.  (Otto von Bismarck)

I never thought that I would see this day come.  We have a newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who stated publically that this election would be last using the first-past-the-post voting system, which is quite something considering he now governs Canada with a majority government although the Liberal Party only garnered 39% of the vote.

Scrapping the present voting system and putting another one in place, especially since it hasn't been decided what that new system will be for the next election, is a monumental task.  It would involve public consultations, adopting legislation, and retooling Elections Canada within the constitutional requirements of section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms  which protects the voting rights of Canadians.

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We also need to keep in mind that in our system of governance Parliament is bicameral, comprised of the lower, elected House of Commons and the upper, unelected Senate.  For any law to be enacted, it needs the assent of both chambers.  As a result, it would be unwise to radically reform the lower chamber with a proportional voting system of which there is great debate with regard to which to choose from and to leave the upper chamber untouched.  Imagine having an unelected Senate ruling over the House of Commons that can no longer effectively control how Senators vote.  Not a good idea!

Fortunately, the Senate as it is now functions is in disrepute and the idea of having an elected Senate has been discussed extensively but never enacted.  So, it would not be a great leap for Canada to change the voting system in the lower house and to introduce one into the upper chamber.

What we must realize is the scale of the institutional change Canadians are now thinking of making.  We simply cannot abandon our present system of governance under the rule of law and start over from scratch.  We would be much better off to take an incremental approach and to look to another member of the Commonwealth, Australia, a nation that has already evolved a political system much more democratic than its predecessor, the Westminster system that we both inherited from Great Britain.

In short, both the upper and lower houses are elected in Australia.  The lower house is elected using a preferential voting system in which electors rank the candidates, and the first candidate that receives fifty percent of the vote after the lower finishing candidates have their ballots redistributed on the basis of their electors other preferences.  The upper house is elected using a single district proportional voting method in which the percentage of the vote obtained by each political party in each state and territory determines who gets elected.

Importantly, this system is transferrable to Canada. 

For the next election in 2019, it would be feasible to transfer in a preferential voting system.  We could use the existing electoral map.  Moreover, this system has the advantage of requiring that each elected representative have the support of at least the majority of the electors that vote in his or her riding.  What it doesn't do is to correct for the distortion of the representation on the basis of the first choice, which, after all, is the most important choice a voter can make on this type of ballot.

Herein lies the brilliance of the Australian voting method.  It is in casting the second vote for the Senate where each vote counts and has equal weight.  The method is proportional, which allows for smaller political parties like the Greens to gain representation, and reflects, in the distribution of seats, how the electors actually voted.  Essentially, the Aussies made their political system more democratic without throwing out the existing system altogether, something I think the vast majority of Canadians would agree to be an important principle to follow.

Presently, Canadians are thwarted in making qualitative change to their dysfunctional Senate because of the Constitutional requirement to have unanimous consent of the provinces.  However, simply changing how Senators are chosen, moving to election instead of appointment, without changing the number of seats each province receives is entirely within the prerogative of Parliament.  Most assuredly, this would be challenged in the courts, which is why the present government must seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter, preferably within the first year of its mandate.  Thereafter, Elections Canada, with the new minted proportional voting method in hand, could then go about educating Canadians on how to vote in the subsequent election in 2023.

There you have it, turning the world upside down by transferring the Australian electoral system into Canada.


  1. Interesting! Because I'm not knowledgeable about the constitutional constraints on changing things with the Senate, I've asked historian Christopher Moore for an opinion of your opinion:

    Your notion that whatever we attempt must be doable makes sense to me. In that regard, it's not obvious (is it) that the folk sitting in the House will support a change that, in effect, extends the power of the folk sitting in the Senate.

  2. I agree that not everyone will support the proposal. The first part, preferential voting, essentially corresponds to the Liberal platform and they control the House of Commons. The second part is more of a challenge. The NDP want proportional representation, but want to abolish the Senate whereas the Conservatives want an elected Senate, but want no part of proportional representation. As far as the Senate, the powers are already there, but they are not used as they could be. In Australia, the Senate actively uses its power. In Canada, most of the time the Senate is a rubber. stamp. In moving awat from the status quo, no one gets exactly what they want when change is made. Hence, the quote applies, "Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable -- the art of the next best." Cheers.

  3. Many thanks for your response! What follows are Christopher Moore's comments to me about the Australian Senate and democracy:
    - - - - -
    -- Here’s Australian political columnist Mike Steketee from The Australian newspaper some years ago:

    ---- “The Senate never fulfilled its intended purpose as a states house and yet to this day Tasmania, with 307,000 voters, has as many senators – that is, 12 – as NSW, with about 3.7 million voters…. [A] vote for the Senate in Tasmania is worth more than 10 times that in NSW, putting a dent in the frequent boast that Federation gave us the most democratic system in the world.”

    -- Or as my brother, who lives in northern BC but knows PEI well, puts it: “PEI has fewer people than Prince George, BC, and 4 senators. BC has 10% of the Canadian population, and 6 senators. You want to give senators power because…?”

    -- Or look at the US, where elected Republican Senators represent about 17% of the US population, but have a Senate majority and tremendous power.

    -- I can live with an unrepresentative Canadian senate as long as it is powerless. But with voting, and power? You source is entitled to be disgruntled, but how is he a democrat?
    - - - - -
    In other words, Moore thinks that we need to adjust the make-up of the Senate (appointed or elected) before we can begin to see it as a force for democracy in Canada. What do think about that? And if you agree, how would we make it happen?

  4. As Prime Minister Trudeau (sounds weird to say that) is soon going to find out, the Senate is not powerless. Remember the Liberal majority in the Senate refused to ratify NAFTA and sent Canada into a general election. We'll soon find out how the Conservative majority in the Senate will react to a Liberal majority in the House of Commons.

    Moreover, we are talking about realpolitik here not political science. It is all fine and well to discuss how political institutions should be crafted in the abstract, but in our present situation, our history as a British colony (the BNA Act) places serious constraints on what can be done. In other words, we can improve, but we can't start over from scratch.

    I don't think that there is a single democrat that would agree that it is better to have an unelected Senate than an elected one. Yes, the devil is in the details, but there has to be the will, determination, and vision to make the institutional changes to move us closer to becoming a democratic country. Presently, we are far from it: a majority government formed with only 39% of the popular vote and an unelected Senate.


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