'Canadian democracy will be healthier': Elizabeth May on electoral reform

Photo: flickr/Laurel L. Russwurm

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On June 2, the Liberals agreed to support the NDP's proposal that the electoral reform committee be proportional to the popular vote in the 2015 election. The NDP's proposal ensures that parties will have to collaborate on electoral reform because no one party will have a majority.

The Greens, NDP and Liberals support some form proportional representation whereas the Conservatives and Bloc seem to be in favour of the status quo, first-past-the-post voting.

rabble spoke with Elizabeth May over the telephone about Canadian electoral reform, proportional representation, and what to expect from the electoral reform committee.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Why does Canada need electoral reform?

[The Greens] have believed for a very long time as a party that our current voting system, first-past-the-post, is a perverse voting system and dangerous for Canada. It's perverse because a minority of the voters can elect a majority government, and it's dangerous because of all modern democracies, we're one where a majority of the seats can turn into 100 per cent of the power, and allow that power to centralize in the hands of the prime minister.

And that's unusual, even in other Commonwealth democracies that have the same voting system. A prime minister in the United Kingdom or in Australia doesn't have as much power as the prime minister in Canada because we've overlaid on Westminster parliamentary democracy an adherence to political party rules that more resembles the United States than the UK, Australia, or other Commonwealth countries.

We're an anomaly in that the prime minister of Canada can't be removed by [its] parliamentary caucus. Margaret Thatcher didn't lose an election, she was removed by her own caucus. That can't happen in Canada because we've got a system where political parties elect their leaders and the parliamentary caucus can't remove them.

A prime minister in Canada also, unlike the [president in the] United States, has more power. The Constitution of the United States created separation of powers, so the legislative is completely separate from the executive. In Canada, a prime minister with a majority can, if [they choose] to, have one person control the legislative and the executive. And that's certainly what happened after Stephen Harper.

It wasn't Harper all by himself, but it was a trend that started under Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau. For the first time under Trudeau, we had something called PMO, the Prime Minister's Office. Such an animal didn't exist until Pierre Trudeau became prime minister [writer's note: the PMO did exist before Trudeau, but was expanded and modified under Trudeau, and which was adopted by his predecessors.]

Under Lester B. Pearson, the PMO was not an entity or a power base, it was just a principal secretary. Tom Kent [Lester B. Pearson's Policy Secretary and Coordinator of Programming] once described the PMO under Pearson as a handful of file clerks and stenographers. There was no power base called PMO. And that grew over time from a fairly minor effort to coordinate things within the government under Pierre Trudeau. It grew more under Mulroney and it grew more under and Chrétien and then it reached its apex under Harper.

The Green Party is calling for a proportional representation. Why would proportional representation be better for Canada and how would it change the way Canada votes?

Well it wouldn't change much about the way Canadians vote. They'll go into a voting booth and pick the candidate or the party that they want, they'll pick what they want. But the difference is that systems of proportional representation ensure that every vote will count.

We want to get away from the perverse result where so many Canadians voters have felt for years that if they're a Conservative voter in a safe Liberal riding, or an NDP voter in a safe Conservative riding, they feel that there's not much point in going out to vote because their vote doesn't count.

We're a multi-party country, and we've been a multi-party country since 1920. Since 1920, we've had no fewer than four or five parties that are serious. But we have a multi-party Parliament with a two-party voting system.

That's not a voting system. First-past-the-post in a multi-party country basically discourages people from voting because they think their votes don't count. That's why we see the province of Alberta with some of the lowest voting rates of any other province. Rachel Notley was elected with the all-time high vote in the past 20 years and it was still only something like 58 per cent [writer's note: the 2015 Albertan elections saw a 58.1 per cent voter turnout, the highest since 1993.] We get really low voting rates when you think your vote doesn't count.

The other thing is that first-past-the-post voting systems elect fewer women, they generate less ethnic diversity, elect fewer Indigenous peoples. The thing I've come to realize about first-past-the-post since I've been in politics, which isn't that long -- I joined the Green Party 10 years ago and I certainly haven't been elected that long -- is that first-past-the-post as a voting system creates incentives for hostility, opposition, mindless partisanship.

First-past-the-post voting systems encourage the wedge issue[s], it certainly encourages strategic voting as a trend, [which] means that parties will do anything possible not to say anything respectful or collaborative about another party if they fear their voting base will turn out to vote for another party.

It creates a toxicity around our politics that's really unfortunate, and this does a lot of damage to developing consensus, making progress, working together. All those ideas are part and parcel of voting systems, or more likely to be found in voting systems, that promote consensus. We really need to find consensus-based voting systems as opposed to oppositional, partisan voting systems.


What can we expect from the Liberals on the issue of electoral reform, especially in light of their June 2 decision to back the NDP's proposal to make the committee proportional?

We start with a commitment from the Liberals, both a campaign commitment, and then [the commitment] enunciated in the speech from the throne. I think the speech from the throne commitment is even better than their platform commitment, which was just that 2015 would be the last first-past-the-post election. They provided more principle to it in the speech from the throne by saying, in order to ensure that every vote counts, 2015 will be the last first-past-the-post election.

Now if you're going to make sure every vote counts, you're really looking at a proportional representation styled system. Because preferential voting or ranked ballots are basically just another form of majoritarian voting systems, which like first-past-the post don't ensure that every vote counts. So, the speech from the throne commitment to ensure that every vote counts is quite important.

If you look at what kind of legitimacy there is for changing our voting system before the next election, it's important to bear in mind that the NDP also called for the last first-past-the-post [election], although the NDP is the most prescriptive of all the parties in terms of saying that they also want the replacement system to be mixed-member proportional.

The Greens of course also said we want to get rid of first-past-the-post, but we said we want [the replacement to be] proportional representation without committing to one of the many options or hybrids of options that are out there.

But the key point is that when you add up the votes for all the candidates who either ran under a Liberal, NDP, or Green banner, you get over 63 per cent of the Canadians who voted in the last election [writer's note: 62.6 per cent of Canadian votes were for the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens.]

They voted for a party that made the commitment to make sure that 2015 was the last election held under [a] first-past-the-post [system.] There is legitimacy in a perverse voting system of first-past-the-post even though the Liberals were elected with 39.5 per cent of the popular vote on this issue. [But] as long as they were moving towards proportional representation, they [represent] a majority of Canadians.


What can Canadians expect from the committee over the upcoming months? How will the committee ensure that Canadians are engaged and involved in the process of electoral reform?

It's really important that the committee work, and I think we will work in a really respectful, collaborative fashion going forward. We want to really make sure that we're educated first, bearing in mind that the eyes of Canada will be on this committee, at least I hope so. The way we absorb evidence, the way we listen to experts, and the questions we ask the experts are going to be very important. And it's important that Canadians follow that process.

Of course it's to our disadvantage that we're starting in the summer months. And we don't know for sure yet [who will be on the committee] because of course the committee isn't formed officially: we haven't had our first organizational meeting, we don't even know who the members will be on the committee from the other parties. I'm the only member from the committee that's actually named in the resolution that creates the committee. So there's no doubt I'm on the committee.

What I expect Canadians who are interested in electoral reform will want to watch for is that there will be four different types of consultations that will be going on between now and when the committee report must be in on December 15.

[The first type of consultation] is the committee hearings themselves, and I'm fairly confident that they'll be live-streamed, that all meeting will be public and televised. I'm pushing that we do some innovative social media things like allow Twitter questions from the public into the meetings. I think that would be a really good way to engage people.

The second thing people should watch for is that every MP has been asked to host their own town hall meeting in their own riding to consult with their voters about what system of voting people want.

The third type of engagement over the course of the summer is going to be that Minister [of Democratic Institutions] Maryam Monsef and her parliamentary secretary Mark Holland have also said they'll be prepared to travel Canada to listen to Canadians directly themselves.

And then of course there are going to be public meetings of all kinds for people who want to make sure that we take advantage of this. The Green party has held quite a lot of them already. Daniel Green, Deputy Leader for Quebec is doing one tonight in Gatineau, Bruce Hyer [Green Party Deputy Leader in Alberta] [held] one in Victoria, but he's already done them in Calgary and Edmonton. So we're already fanning out across the country trying to share information. I've done them in Vancouver, Kingston, Halifax, and outside of Charlottetown. So there's a lot going on.

For Canadians who are engaged, there will be a lot of ways to share your views. One of the things that I think is a real challenge is how we get people who have never been interested in electoral reform to actually learn what first-past-the-post is and learn why proportional representation would be better for our democracy.

And [by the way,] this isn't opinion but [it] empirically clear that Canadian democracy will be healthier when the minority of voters cannot elect a majority government, when we have a system that encourages people to vote, that elects more women and minorities.

But how do we connect with people who are not really policy wonks, and particularly democracy wonks, and get people engaged in the process of what we're doing? To do that I think we need to be really innovative in the committee and do things that most committees don't do. But there will be a lot of different ways to get people to engage and a lot of things for people to watch for in their own communities.


Interested in contributing to this series on proportional representation? Send us a pitch to editor@rabble.ca with the title "Proportional representation series"

Part 1: Proportional representation is not 'too complicated' -- the fix is in

Part 2: Activists gear up for 'historic opportunity' to usher in proportional representation

Part 3: Proportional representation for Canada: A primer

Part 4: Nation-to-nation recognition, not electoral reform, key to increasing Indigenous voter turnout


Sophia Reuss is a Montreal-based writer, editor, and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal. She is rabble's current news intern.

Photo: flickr/Laurel L. Russwurm

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