Do we need a referendum on electoral reform?

    A letter to the editor from 2016

    Benjamin Woodman was still clearly towing the Conservative party’s line when he wrote in last week’s letter to the editor about holding a referendum on electoral reform. Unfortunately, it did sound a bit hypocritical for him to write that the current government “cannot unilaterally force changes to how Canadians cast their ballots”. The party he ran for did just that – the Fair Elections Act – with no referendum.

    Referenda are exceedingly rare in Canada. There have been just three on the national level since Confederation: one on prohibition, one on conscription during WWII, and one on the Charlottetown Accord. Should there be a fourth on changing how we elect MPs? Perhaps. Should there be one on the Trans Pacific Partnership? Or on implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Or introducing a carbon tax? Which policies are of sufficient gravitas to warrant going directly to the people? It’s hard to say.

    Electoral reform is perceived as different from other policy changes because it’s seen as benefiting one political party over another. The Greens and NDP are supposed to do better under proportional representation, the Liberals under preferential ballots, and the Conservatives under the status quo. So how can we allow one political party to decide the rules under which future elections will be held? Surely they will rig the game in their favour.

    The problem with this argument is that is assumes parties and voters will continue to behave the same way under a different system. The truth is that parties do change the rules all the time – whether it’s riding boundaries or campaign spending or party financing or voter registration. Each change may initially benefit one party, but soon they adapt themselves to the new system and do what they need to do to get elected. The same would be true for electoral reform.

    So the question becomes not, “Which party will most benefit from voting system X, Y, or Z,” but, “How will changes to the voting system change the nature of governance in Canada?” Fortunately, since 85% of OECD countries use a proportional system to elect their representatives, researchers have been able to study the results, and they are: higher voter turnout, more women elected, policies closer to the median voter’s view, stronger economic performance and fiscal responsibility, better environmental stewardship, and lower income inequality, to name a few. Canada’s international competitiveness is at stake the longer we cling to our inherited heirloom of first-past-the-post voting.

    But for me what it really boils down to is, “Is it right that 38 – 40% of the vote is enough to form a majority government (as is currently often the case)?” Mr. Woodman believes this is “fair and democratic”. Call me crazy, but my definition of a majority is 50% plus one. Do we really need a referendum (which would need a real majority to pass) to establish this as true?