Around the world, countries that inherited a Westminster style of government from their former colonial rulers have been, one by one, democratising and reforming their systems.
Australia and New Zealand, for instance, led the way in integrating more democratic and consensual features into their political institutions. And now it looks like Canada is following suit.
Precedent for progress
While Australia’s lower house moved from Westminster style First Past the Post to the equally non-proportional Alternative Vote in 1918, their upper house has been directly elected using the fairer, multi-member Single Transferable Vote (STV) system – which the ERS supports – since 1948.
The Senate was originally elected by Block Vote, then a form of the Alternative Vote in multi-member districts. Both produced highly disproportional results and almost certainly guaranteed a government majority on a minority of support.
The switch to STV handed control of the Senate to voters, ensuring that the chamber more closely reflects the electorate’s preferences and that legislation has broad popular support.
New Zealand decided to do away with First Past the Post and to switch to the Mixed Member Proportional system (known as Additional Member System – or AMS – in the UK) in 1993. The public then confirmed the decision in 2011, with an even larger vote in favour of proportional representation.
While Westminster has so far remained unresponsive to reform, the UK has also gone some way to address its democratic deficit. There is now a precedent that First Past the Post is inappropriate for new assemblies or positions – with the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish, Welsh and London Assemblies all using proportional voting systems, as do Northern Irish and Scottish local elections.
Stagnation and anger
In this increasingly democratic global landscape, Canada is an anomaly. First Past the Post is used for all elections at the federal and provincial levels, and the Canadian Senate is the only other fully appointed body operating in a large parliamentary democracy, apart from the House of Lords.
Dissatisfaction is running high though and the cracks in Canada’s electoral system are beginning to show. As in the UK, First Past the Post has led to artificially inflated majorities, obtained on a small percentage of the vote. It has also consistently failed to deliver what is considered to be First Past the Post’s main feature – single party governments with large majorities.
Since 1867, Canada has produced 12 minority governments (28% of the parliaments). All of these administrations did not make it to the end of their full five-year term (though in half the cases the government engineered its own defeat), with five lasting six months or less.
The Westminster style electoral system can no longer handle voters’ preferences, as an increasing number of viable parties compete for votes. As artificially inflated governments scrap each other’s expensive programmes, policy lurches from one government to the next.
Calls for change
Hopes that there would be some respite from the instability were raised during the 2015 federal election campaign, when Liberal Leader and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that it would be the last held under First Past the Post. This commitment was a foundational pillar of the Liberals’ campaign platform.
Yet despite having established an all-party parliamentary committee on the subject (to which the ERS gave evidence) which recommended holding a referendum on proportional representation, multiple town hall meetings and a national survey on the issue, Prime Minister Trudeau later abandoned the plan, citing lack of public interest for change and of a clear alternative system of voting. This decision to back-track on a major campaign promise was branded a betrayal by other parties and members of the public.
Change at the federal level appears to be still some way away – though the federal New Democratic Party passed a convention resolution in February 2018 committing the party to make proportional representation a condition for supporting any minority government.
Developments at the provincial level offer hope. Dissatisfaction with the problems of First Past the Post has been increasing in Canada’s provinces for some time with wrong-winner elections and minority governments a common occurrence.
Last month, in New Brunswick, the Liberals won 37.8% of the vote in a five-party race, but gained one seat fewer than the Progressive Conservatives, who won only 31.9% of the vote. British Columbia elected a minority government in 2017, while Québec has experienced two minority governments since 2007 and three of the four main parties pledged to scrap First Past the Post before their most recent election.
For all these reasons, the provinces are now living laboratories for democratic innovation: British Columbia and Prince Edward Island are committed to holding referendums on proportional representation, while parties in Québec and Ontario are once again questioning First Past the Post and seriously considering moving to a form of proportional representation.
The role and composition of Canada’s wholly appointed Senate is being questioned as well – only 16% of Canadians surveyed by the Angus Reid Institute in 2017 said that the Senate should be left as is, while 53% would like to see it reformed. Prime Minister Trudeau has since introduced some changes to move to a merit-based model for Senators.
Canada appears, therefore, to be moving in a piecemeal way to shaking off its majoritarian shackles and moving towards a more consensual and democratic set-up. In Canada, and around the world, the edifice of the Westminster model is crumbling. Will the UK be the last to finally update its institutions?
See the rest of our Spotlight on Canada series