Should We Change How We Vote?
That was the title of the symposium organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada together with McGill Faculty of Law and the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance this past Tuesday at McGill Faculty Club. The event was well-timed since in a month, on December 1, the all-party Committee on Electoral Reform must issue its report to the House of Commons in Ottawa.
The first session of the symposium focused on the “general principles that should guide us in evaluating an electoral system” and was moderated by Alain Dubuc, a columnist for La Presse and Le Soleil. Daniel Weinstock, McGill professor at the Faculty of Law and Director of McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former Chief Electoral Officer, and Arash Abizedeh, McGill professor in Political Science, were the panelists. The main issue on which the participants centred was representation, and how the present system (First-past-the-post) would fail to reflect the support for the different political parties accurately. The issue of the low turnout at recent elections was also mentioned, with various possible solutions, from lowering the voting age, to introducing mandatory voting. But in adopting any of those possible approaches one would have to be very careful about their possible repercussions.
The second session discussed Evidence and Experience, this regarding the performance of the current First-Past-the-Post system in Canada. It was moderated by Martin Patriquin, Quebec bureau chief for Maclean’s magazine, with the participation of Peter Louwen, professor at the Dept. of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Elizebeth Gidengil and Angelia Wagner, from McGill, William Cross from Carleton University, and Colin Macleod from the University of Victoria.
Professor Louwen stated what he called uncertainty regarding the proposed reform. He was more inclined to retain the First-Past-the-Post system on the basis of three principles: that Canada is a democracy (the fourth oldest after the U.S., the U.K., and Switzerland) which has been able to extend rights quite effectively; that Canada is a regionalized country in many aspects including its economy, with an ethnic heterogeneity; and that it is a society in constant state of reform. Panelists Gidengil and Wagner focused their intervention mostly on the issue of women representation at the various levels of decision-making bodies, which is far from satisfactory. They also mentioned the cases of other groups currently underrepresented such as visible minorities and members of the LGBT community. Professor Cross referred to the implications of changing the electoral system including possible effects on political parties. He cited examples from New Zealand and Australia. Professor Macleod for his part centred on four facets in the political discourse that we should care about, civility, substance, inclusion, and responsiveness.
The last session focuses on Electoral Reform and Democratic Legitimacy, moderated by Celine Cooper, a columnist with The Gazette, and the panelists were Dominique Leydet from the Dept. of Philosophy at UQAM, Hoi Kong from McGill Faculty of Law, and Lydia Miljan a Political science professor at the University of Windsor.
The issue of whether to hold a referendum to ratify any electoral reform was at the centre of the debate. Professor Leydet argued that changing the electoral system could be seen by some as being as important as changing the constitution; she also mentioned that elected officials would be in a conflict of interest if they proceed to change the system on their own. On the other hand, the electoral system contains some complex technical elements that are not easily understood by the general public and—important as it is—the electoral system doesn’t compromise the core of our democratic system. Holding a referendum could give more legitimacy to change than if it is adopted only by a majority in parliament, it wouldn’t be necessary, but it would be better to assure that constraints have been put to any possible abuse. Professor Kong also mentioned the role of the provinces, and whether they should have an input into this debate as well; this may not be constitutional law, but constitutional convention, however, still important to consider in any electoral reform.
AND FOR SOME BACKGROUND
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised, during the last electoral campaign, that that would be the last time MPs were elected by the First-Past-The-Post system, inherited from the British parliament, which has been questioned because it doesn’t reflect the actual support political parties get in the polls. To replace it different alternatives have been suggested: a preferential system in which electors rank the various candidates in order of preference (say from 1 to 5), then the ballots in the different categories are counted until a winner gets 50%+1 vote. It seems that the Liberals prefer this system. A proportional representation system (there is a variety of them) allocates the elected officials in proportion to the support each party obtains. The NDP favours this system. Conservatives prefer to keep the status quo.
By: Sergio Martinez – totimes.ca
You must be logged in to post a comment.