Before any changes are made or any referendums held, Canadians must understand that many of the proposed alternatives come with drawbacks
The federal government is walking away from its campaign promise to change the way Canadians vote in federal elections. Given that the task was always going to be complicated and the results messy, the decision is understandable.
In his recently-released mandate letter to Karina Gould, the newly-appointed minister of Democratic Institutions, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”
Trudeau justified his change in intention 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.”
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 federal deficits. 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 now uses. The study also found that PR countries tend to finance this extra spending by running larger deficits.
The reason? PR systems tend to elect more parties to the legislature, 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.
We should also consider the drawbacks of the alternative vote (AV) or ranked ballots system, another reform option. This system has the potential to reduce competition in our elections, a key attribute of a healthy democratic system.
For example, another study examined the impact adopting AV rules would have had on Canada’s seven federal elections between 1997 and 2015.
The study found that just 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 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, 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’s in the best interests of all Canadians.
By Lydia Miljan and Taylor Jackson
Lydia Miljan is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. Taylor Jackson is an analyst at the Fraser Institute.