A hasty change to the electoral system was never in the interest of Canadians

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, February 2, 2017
A hasty change to the electoral system was never in the interest of Canadians

The federal government is walking away from its campaign promise to change the way Canadians vote in federal elections. In his recently released mandate letter to Karina Gould, the newly appointed Minister of Democratic Institutions, Prime Minister Trudeau said that “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”

The prime minister justified his change in attitude by saying that “a clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest.”

Changing the electoral system was always going to be a complicated task. Had a referendum taken place—and it should have—Canadians needed to fully understand that while there may be benefits to other electoral systems, there are also drawbacks.

Consider a proportional representation (PR) system, which the special parliamentary committee recommended in December. While many may know about the potential benefit of distributing seats in parliament more closely to vote shares, there are also costs.

For example, a recent study found that a move to PR would likely lead to higher government spending and larger deficits (borrowing) in Canada. Indeed, the study found that the average size of central governments from 2000 to 2014 in countries with PR was almost 25 per cent larger than in countries with majoritarian/plurality election rules similar to what Canada currently employs. The study also found that PR countries tend to finance this extra spending by running larger deficits.

The reason why a PR system would lead to more government spending and higher deficits is that PR systems tend to elect more parties to the legislature, thereby increasing the likelihood for coalition governments. In order to form coalitions, larger parties must gain the support of smaller parties, often by capitulating on their main issues, which leads to higher levels of government spending.

Moreover, smaller parties in PR systems are able to exert a disproportionate amount of power at the expense of the preferences of the majority of voters who didn’t vote for such parties.

Consider the drawbacks of another system—the alternative vote (AV) or ranked ballots—which was also a reform option. This system has the potential to reduce competition in our elections, a key attribute of a healthy democratic system.

For example, another recent study examined the impact of adopting AV electoral rules on Canada’s seven federal elections between 1997 and 2015.

The study found that only one party—the Liberals—would have gained seats in every election. In fact, they would have gained an average of 19 seats per election. To a lesser extent, the NDP would have increased their seat totals in more recent elections. Only the Conservatives would have lost seats every election.

The study also found that AV electoral rules would have changed the outcomes in a number of elections, including in 2006 when instead of a Conservative minority government, the Liberals would have won a minority.

Before any changes are made, or any referendums held, on this issue, Canadians must understand that many of the proposed alternatives come with drawbacks. Changing the electoral system in a hasty manner was never going to be in the interest of Canadians.

The government should be congratulated for its willingness to make a tough political decision that is in the best interests of all Canadians.