A story by Terry Pedwell of The Canadian Press was often run with a headline claiming that Canadians are content with our current electoral system. Really?
A better headline would have been “80% of Canadians believe our democracy could be improved.”
The story reported on the results of the Liberal Party’s web site on electoral reform values, MyDemocracy.ca. Postcards sent to every Canadian household invited them to participate between Dec. 5, 2016 and Jan. 15, 2017.
The MyDemocracy.ca question that generated the headline was “In general, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Canada?” That’s significantly different from asking how the electoral or voting system works.
Unfortunately, 50% of us are only “somewhat satisfied” with how democracy works in Canada and another 32% of us are not satisfied. Digging deeper into the survey offers clues to how we might improve our democracy.
The survey asked about cross-party cooperation a total of seven different ways. In six of these, Canadians expressed a clear preference for cross-party cooperation.
Seventy percent want several parties to agree before a decision is made.
Governments that consider all viewpoints before making a decision was the top priority for Canadians. Governments that collaborate with other parties in Parliament was the third highest priority.
62% agree that it’s better for several parties to govern together, even if it takes longer to get things done. 62% also agreed that governments should have to negotiate their policy decisions with other parties in Parliament, even if it is less clear who is accountable for the resulting policy.
More than two-thirds of us, 68%, agree that the party that wins the most seats still needs to compromise with the other parties, even if it means reconsidering some of its policies.
Notice that the last three questions – and many others in the survey – contain a negative clause at the end of the question: “Do you agree… even if …”. It would be interesting to see how much greater the agreement would be without trying to bias the results against change.
These findings indicate that Canadians are ready to change our first-past-the-post electoral system in which a party can get 100% of the power with less than 40% of the votes. It’s a system that is engineered to produce governments that can impose their own will without collaborating with other parties.
Proportional representation systems are generally viewed as producing more collaborative governments – exactly what MyDemocracy.ca shows that most Canadians want.
Proportional systems usually result in governments where no one party has all of the power and thus several parties must collaborate. This helps ensure that policies are accepted by a broad cross section of citizens.
The Liberals (and the New Democrats and the Greens) all promised in the last election to replace our current electoral system with something better. But now the Liberals appear to be getting cold feet in actually implementing their promise.
They have claimed that there is no consensus. But MyDemocracy.ca – their own tool – is showing a remarkably broad consensus that winner-take-all politics is not what Canadians want.
The MyDemocracy.ca results are consistent with the testimony to the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform. Eighty-eight per cent of the experts that expressed an opinion on electoral reform suggested some form of proportional representation (that is, systems that lead to cross-party collaboration).
The MyDemocracy.ca results are also consistent with the town halls held across the country by the Electoral Reform committee. According to NDP record-keeping, 87.4% of the participants who spoke up supported proportional representation.
The Liberal excuse of “no consensus” is gone. Canadians have clearly said that a new system is needed. They’ve said it to the Committee. They’ve said it at the town halls. They’ve said it at MyDemocracy.ca.
It’s time for the Liberals to act on their election promise to replace first-past-the-post with a modern electoral system that helps generate collaborative governments.
Byron Weber Becker has generated computer models of many electoral systems in a Canadian context and presented those findings to the Electoral Reform Committee. He teaches computer science at the University of Waterloo. He testified to the Electoral Reform Committee on Oct. 19, 2016 and was asked by the Committee (in a formal motion) to perform additional analysis.