The in-house method of choosing the Speaker is of little interest to the broad Canadian public. That’s a pity because the ranked preferential ballot could fix one of the major problems in Canada’s modern, fragmented democracy.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 9, 2019.
OTTAWA—The ranked preferential ballot is how we ended up with a new House Speaker last week.
Many arcane processes surrounding the opening of a new Parliament are obscured by the subject matter of the Throne Speech. Political parties, especially in a minority, are most interested in discerning whether their political wish lists are included in what constitutes the government’s broad-brush agenda.
Interest groups focus on whether their specific area of expertise gets a mention in the Speech from the Throne. If it does, even minus any details of budget and timing, that constitutes a win.
But the in-house method of choosing the Speaker is of little interest to the broad Canadian public. That’s a pity because the ranked preferential ballot could fix one of the major problems in Canada’s modern, fragmented democracy.
With five political parties represented in Parliament, Canadians can arguably claim that there is no party with clear support from across the country. The Liberals managed to form a robust minority with the support of only 33.7 per cent of the population. The seat count for the Liberals was much higher than the Conservatives, even though the Tories got a bigger popular vote, because of the efficiency of their vote.
But the Conservatives still have bragging rights for securing the largest popular vote, with 34.41 per cent, bumped up by hyper majorities in the Prairie provinces.
And the other national parties in this minority Parliament have electoral reform on their wish list for a productive political agenda. The Bloc is not particularly interested in changing the current voting system because the first-past-the-post system has served them well. They have only one province to promote in their political agenda and with the huge increase in numbers in this past election, they are not going to be calling for an electoral change.
But both the New Democratic Party and the Green Party have made electoral reform an element of their political wish lists.
Political experts can make a compelling argument about how the current composition of Parliament misrepresents the views of Canadian voters when a party with less than 32 per cent of the popular vote can form government.
But the Greens and the NDP falsely claim that the only alternative system to fully represent the views of Canadians is that of mixed-member proportional representation. The problem with that claim is that their proposed system takes power away from ordinary voters to give it to political parties. In the PR system, even when it is mixed, some Members of Parliament are chosen by their own party based on a ranked list. In order to succeed in Ottawa, the focus of a listed Member of Parliament is to keep their party happy.
It doesn’t matter whether Canadians are satisfied with your work because they don’t vote for you. PR supporters dispute that claim because in the mixed-member proportional system, citizens vote twice, once for a local member and another for a party list choice.
Nonetheless, in three provincial referendums, citizens have voted the system down. But instead of going back to the drawing board and reviewing other systems that could achieve fairer representation, PR supporters restart their campaign after every election.
The new iteration of recycled PR supporters has just launched an organization called Unlock Democracy, raising money and promoting their message through social media. Their website claims the current system leads to a “hostile and polarized insiders’ game” and claiming that their system would deliver elections that are “fair, friendly, inclusive and diverse.”
The government of Israel has been in crisis for the last several months, because in their system, a party with eight members in the 120-seat Knesset currently wields the balance of power. The Parliament also includes more than 25 political parties, with a fragmentation that makes the country almost ungovernable.
Even though the PR system has been rejected by three different provincial referenda, across the country, proponents appear unwilling to consider any available alternative.
The best alternative is a preferential ballot. Your vote is efficient. Like that of the new House Speaker’s vote last week, voters rank their preferences from first to last. So, the winner needs to reach out to everyone. In that circumstance, the candidate who is everyone’s second choice, could beat out the frontrunner.
The key element in voting under a ranked ballot is that the person who has the most support from all sides wins.
Not a bad model to consider if we truly want to elect a government supported by the majority of Canadians.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.