Last night’s election results showed a majority of Canadians preferred a minority government, with wide speculation that “progressive” voters throughout the country voted strategically to prevent the main opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada, from achieving major electoral breakthroughs.
The crisis of the Canadian centre right remains to be analyzed, but the fact that the Liberal Party won what might be described as a “stable minority” with barely a third of the total votes demonstrates that our First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system distorts Canadians’ electoral preferences.
Arguably, Canada pays a price for this distortion. Not only is the will of the people not reflected, but certain regions—such as Alberta, where 30% of the population didn’t vote Conservative—will not be represented in government (barring a formal Liberal-NDP coalition that would see Edmonton Centre MP added to cabinet). That means that important voices will not be heard in party caucuses, or around the cabinet table.
Moreover, the distortions in our voting system produce apathy amongst part of the electorate. No doubt, there are other reasons why people don’t vote, but one is that they don’t feel that their vote will make any difference. In an FPP system, if you are an NDP voter in a riding where the overall NDP vote is marginal (say, less than ten per cent), you may feel like voting doesn’t count for much anyway.
So it is instructive to see what a Proportional Representation (PR) voting system might have delivered given last night’s numbers. Bear in mind that last night’s numbers are also distorted by our electoral system, because it incentivizes strategic voting, meaning that the real results don’t necessarily represent most Canadians’ voting preferences. This too is part of our voting system’s distortions.
The voting results in our 2019 using the FPP system gave a strong Liberal minority. But it also severely distorted the Liberals’ results over much of the country. If we went only by national voter turnout, results from last night’s elections would look very differently. Supposing a five per cent cut-off for parties to be represented in the House of Commons, the seat totals using the total national vote would look like something close to this:
In a PR system, voters would vote for candidates on a party list. In Europe, rather than marking a ballot, you usually place a party list in a voter envelope, which you drop in a locked, reusable transparent glass box—quite different from the Canadian method.
Eight remaining seats representing the just over two per cent of the population who voted for other parties would have to apportioned to the main parties, using an agreed upon formula. This is because fractional numbers need to be turned into whole seats. The numbers above round each party’s seat total to the nearest whole seat, but that leaves several parties with over- and under-votes that are fractional and not represented. There are several formulas for resolving this, the most widely used is the D’Hondt method, but there are other methods that are considered even more proportional.
In Canada, one could reasonably object that this system would distort regional differences. What if we used a regional PR system, in which each of 5 regions are represented by national parties with their own regional list. In this event, a strong Liberal showing in Atlantic Canada could be represented more fully, without being weakened by the party’s weak showing on the Prairies.
How would this system look? Taking last night’s results and breaking them down by region which would each retain the same number of regional seats chosen proportionally (Atlantic Canada 32; Quebec 78; Ontario 121; Prairies 62; BC 42), the results would look something like this:
That would mean reapportioning about 14 other seats, five of which represent Green votes in Quebec and on the Prairies where the Greens would have failed to make the five per cent cut-off for representation (they would have made a three per cent cut off in both regions).
Assuming some agreement on these issues, as well as a method for redistributing fractal voting shares into whole seats, the electoral coalition going to the House of Commons appears significantly weaker. In both national and regional PR systems, the outcome also appears about the same.
The outgoing Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, would continue to enjoy the constitutional right to form a government first, but he would need the help of both the NDP and the Bloc in order to achieve it (unless there were a grand coalition with the Conservatives – unlikely). This Parliament would require a lot more cooperation between major parties to pass legislation and stave off confidence votes.
If Prime Minister Trudeau failed to win the confidence of the House of Commons, the likelihood that the Conservatives could do better is highly doubtful. Just like Trudeau, Andrew Scheer’s chances of becoming Prime Minister depended on our FPP electoral system’s ability to distort his party’s size in the House of Commons. Scheer’s overall numbers look similar, he loses only five votes in a PR system, but this is because he would have picked up seats in Atlantic Canada and Quebec using PR to make up for the ones he would lose in Alberta without FPP.
There are advantages to moving to PR in this instance. There are talented Conservatives in Atlantic Canada who don’t get to represent public interests in the House of Commons under FPP, and who would arguably be much more valuable members of the Conservative caucus than an extra Tory from Calgary. The same could be said of Liberals in Alberta – some don’t even bother running because there is no chance of winning. This too is part of the distortion of our FPP system.
The qualification of representatives may increase and become more diverse (professionally, regionally, ethnically, gender, etc.) if we used party lists rather than local riding committees to decide on candidates. One of the most important issues to avoid concentration of political power under this type of PR system would be to ensure that the party lists were democratically selected.
Could PR work better in the Senate?
An alternative way to represent Canadians with a new electoral system would be to use our bicameral Parliament more efficiently. There are advantages to our current FPP riding system, and it forms part of our political tradition and political culture. Perhaps seats for designated ridings would work well in a revamped Senate.
Or perhaps it is the Senate itself—that chamber of sober second thought—that might best be used by a proportional voting system. That would allow for our FPP to exaggerate the power of the leading parties to control money bills in the House of Commons, but put in place powerful regional and electoral checks on the parliamentary dictatorship imposed by the Prime Minister’s Office in our current system in the event of majority governments.
Whatever Canadians and their representatives choose, it appears we are entering a new period of parliamentary minorities, which will require new levels of cooperation between political parties.
Matthew Hayes is the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies and teaches sociology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.