Time to change the electoral system?

Two high-profile MPs have gone face-to-face over the issue of electoral reform in wake of Justin Trudeau’s pledge during the 2015 federal campaign that the Oct. 19 election would be the final time Canadians vote in the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Michelle Rempel, Conservative MP for Calgary Nose Hill, participated in a debate on November 25 about federal electoral reform at the Calgary Public Library’s John Dutton Theatre in an event organized by Calgary Legal Guidance.

“We are about to embark on a national conversation about democratic reform,” May said. “I’m excited about it. I think it is essential that we change our voting system.”

The two MPs were tasked to debate both sides of the topic, with May arguing for reform – such as to a proportional system that aligns the number of representatives from each party to the popular vote – and Rempel arguing that the electoral system does not need to be changed.

Canada’s first-past-the-post system is at risk of creating a two-party arrangement, said May, arguing that it increases voter apathy through “orphaned voters,” or votes that do not count towards the representative proportions.

In the 2015 federal election, the Liberals won 184 seats out of 338, but garnered only 39.5 per cent of the popular vote. A proportional representation system would make the number of seats a party holds more representative of its popular support.

There are a variety of proportional representation arrangements practiced around the world, but the specific system that the Trudeau government is seeking has not yet been announced.

Rempel said changing the electoral system is not guaranteed to solve all of Canada’s democratic problems, like voter apathy, regionality, an uninspired electorate and a lack of cooperation between political parties.

“I think we have to be careful to prescribe causality because of this system,” the MP said.

The current system, Rempel argued, suits Canada’s broad geographical diversity and prevents extremist parties from gaining power. In addition, changing to a more complex electoral system carries the risk of voter confusion, she said.

I think it is essential that we change our voting system. – Green Party Leader Elizabeth May

May agreed that changing the electoral system is not a “panacea that will automatically restore Westminster Parliamentary democracy.” However, changing the electoral system is still an important and necessary step for Canada’s democracy, she said.

“We really do have an opportunity to influence the course of electoral reform and fixing the democratic deficit in Canada,” May concluded. “It has already started.”

Duane Bratt, moderator for the debate and professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, pointed out the ramifications of electoral reform.

“This is an important subject because once you change the electoral system, or whichever electoral system you have, [that] changes everything else,” he said. “It changes party organization. It changes the incentives for voters [and] the disincentives for voters.”

There are a variety of different electoral systems used in democratic countries around the world, he said. “Depending on the system, you get a different result.”

About Jeff Wiehler 6 Articles
As a writing and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Jeff Wiehler worked as a reporter for The Press during the 2015-16 academic year.