How Can Canada Still Call Itself a Democracy?

By Rosalind Horrobin

It has been called the election that “nobody wanted” and a “$600-million cabinet shuffle.” Eight weeks ago, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced a snap election in what was widely seen as an attempt to regain a majority in the House of Commons.

Justin Trudeau (and the Liberal Party that he leads) fell short of securing the majority mandate they wanted by just ten ridings, and in doing so exposed the issues with the Canadian electoral system. This will be Justin Trudeau’s seventh year as prime minister, despite never securing more than 40% of the vote. Even when Trudeau’s Liberals had the majority in parliament, they had only secured 39% of the vote. This election he has cut down this slim ‘majority’ to only 33% of the vote, making Trudeau the prime minister with the slimmest share of overall support in Canadian history. When we factor in the lowest voter turnout for a federal election ever (58.5%), then Trudeau’s Liberal Party won only one in six votes. There has never been a more undemocratic prime minister of Canada.

Canada has a First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system that greatly mirrors the UK’s system.  FPTP is a plurality voting system, meaning that the candidate with the most votes in any constituency is elected. Canada is divided into 338 constituencies which means that 170 seats are needed for a political party to win a majority and control over the country. The FPTP system means that an MP does not have to have the majority of support, just more than their opponents in that constituency. Under this system, it is common for constituencies to elect representatives that the majority of constituents did not vote for. According to the Electoral Reform Society, “This tends to generate two large parties, as small parties without a geographical base find it hard to win seats.” This is why Canada is sometimes referred to as a “two-party plus” system as only the Conservative and the Liberal Party have any real election prospects. This system sidelines popular, but geographically inefficient parties, like the Greens and New Democratic Party (NDP), while amplifying the power of regional parties like Bloc Quebecois. For example, the New Democratic Party won 25 seats and 15.98% of the overall vote. Comparatively, Bloc Quebecois – a Quebec nationalist party with concentrated support in the region of Quebec – won 32 seats with only 7.63% of the vote. This gives Bloc Quebecois an unrepresentative amount of power in national matters.

When Justin Trudeau announced the snap election back in August, the Liberal party was up in the polls and there were favourable odds that they would gain back a majority. Throughout the campaign Trudeau was fighting off claims that the election was unnecessary, and a transparent “power grab.” By election day, Trudeau had lost the edge he had in the polls and the Conservative candidate Erin O’Toole subsequently won the popular vote. The Conservatives won 34% of the vote, compared to the Liberal party’s 33% of the popular vote. Yet, the Conservatives gained only 119 seats compared to the Liberals 157. The Conservative Party has won the popular vote in Canada for two elections in a row now, but due to the geographical location of its voters the party has been relegated to second place and allowed Liberal Party the opportunity to establish a majority coalition. It could be argued that this large disparity silences the voices of many Canadians and weighs some votes as more important and influential than others.

Many analysts have noted the efficiency of the Liberal Party’s campaign. They targeted key swing seats where they only needed to win a slim majority. They did not campaign for overall support but instead targeted key voters who would change the election. It was a cynical campaign that exploited the faults in the system and has been very effective for the Liberals. It has been so successful for the Liberal Party in recent years that some have suggested the new title of “one-party-plus” for Canada’s electoral system.

The question that arises is that if it is truly democratic to have one person’s vote matter more than another due to their location? A vote in a swing seat matters significantly more than one in a safe seat – surely that is undemocratic?

The Electoral Reform Society advocates for the adoption of Single Transferable Vote (STV) rather than FPTP, which is the system used for Senate and most local government elections in Australia. STV is a system of voting where voters number candidates from favourite to least favourite. Each voter has one vote. Once the voting has finished, any candidate with more number-one votes than the quota is elected. If no one candidate reaches the quota, then the least popular candidate is removed, and their votes divided. People who voted for the least favourite candidate, have their votes moved to their second favourite candidate. It’s a rather complicated system that results in larger areas being represented by a smaller group of representatives, rather than one person representing everyone in a small area. It creates a more diverse and representative parliament. STV was used historically in various provinces in Canada, including the cities of Calgary and Winnipeg, so there is historical precedent here. However, an STV approach to Canada’s political system would bring about unintended consequences. It would be difficult to determine a clear victor of an election, and the majority of elections would most likely end in a power-sharing alliance. These alliances are often less stable and are seen as less viable internationally.

There is no one answer to the issue of voter representation in Canada. It is a complex and multi-faceted problem that results from the nature of democracy itself – voting for a singular person to lead a nation and represent all its people equally. It is an issue that affects all democratic nations; Canada’s problems are just made all the more obvious by its repeated public failings. In the future, it is something to keep in mind when looking at the public policy of any democratic system, not just Canada. The question we must always be asking is ‘How representative of public opinion is the leader of a country being?’ In the end it seems obvious, one man cannot accurately represent an entire nation of people and all the diverse opinions these people hold.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Photo by Renan Kamikoga on Unsplash

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