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Medicine for our democratic malaise (2)

16The benefits and limitations of electoral reform

Paul Howe, Richard Johnston and André Blais, eds., Strengthening Canadian Democracy.
Montreal: Institute 
for Research on Public Policy, 2005. vi + 361 pages.

Henry Milner, ed., Steps toward Making Every Vote Count: Electoral System Reform in Canada and Its Provinces.
Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2004. 319 pages.

by Brian Tanguay

For most of the post–World War II period, electoral system change was a relatively rare occurrence in the established democracies, with the notable exception of France. This pattern of electoral system stability was shattered in the 1990s, however, as an impressive number of countries sought to change the method by which they translated votes into seats, often in response to political crises that threatened the democratic legitimacy of their regimes. Italy, Japan and New Zealand all adopted new electoral systems in the early 1990s. The Labour government in Britain established regional parliaments in Scotland and Wales in the late 1990s and determined that the members of these legislatures were to be elected by means of a hybrid system (mixed-member proportional, or MMP) similar to the one employed in Germany and New Zealand. Other “emerging democracies” in the former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Russia and Hungary, experimented with hybrid electoral systems, as did a number of Latin American countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico).

Until recently, Canada’s political class seemed determined to avoid a wide-ranging public debate on reform of the electoral system. In 1991, for example, the Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing issued a four-volume report and published 23 volumes of research studies containing virtually no discussion of the formula used to translate votes into seats in this country. Indeed, the Lortie Commission was specifically instructed, through its terms of reference, not to examine the existing voting system. At that time, much of the political class saw the issue of reforming Canada’s electoral system as peripheral to the national unity crisis then afflicting the country. For the most part, electoral reform was a decidedly minor theme in the political debates of the period.

All of this has changed dramatically in the last five or six years. A series of distorted election results at the federal level, growing concern among political elites with the so-called “democratic deficit,” and the example of other Westminster countries such as New Zealand and Britain that have broken with tradition and adopted new ballot laws have combined to nudge the issue of electoral reform toward the top of the political agenda in Canada. By 2004, five provinces – British Columbia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Ontario – were engaged in meaningful efforts to reform their electoral systems. Federally, in early 2003 the Law Commission of Canada submitted to the Minister of Justice a report calling for the implementation of Scottish-style MMP. The minority Liberal government of Paul Martin established a ministry for democratic reform and charged the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs with recommending a process for consulting Canadians on electoral reform. For a country that in the postwar period has been among the least inclined of all the established democracies to change its electoral system, this flurry of reform activity represents a radical departure from politics as usual.

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About the Author

Jared Wesley
Jared J. Wesley is Director of Social Policy in Alberta’s Ministry of International and Intergovenmental Affairs. He is the author of Code Politics: Campaigns and Cultures on the Canadian Prairies (2011).


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