Those who advocate the electoral system, who want every vote to count, don’t want to apply that principle to a yes/no vote
A plank in the Liberals’ election platform aimed to ensure “that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post” electoral system. It was enshrined in the December throne speech. The objective is “to make sure that every vote counts.”
The ensuing discussion has recapitulated a lot of post-Second World War analysis by political scientists on the effects of electoral systems on the new governments of Europe and of Europe’s former colonies. The high point came in 1951 with the publication of Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values, for which, in part, he received the 1972 Nobel Prize in economics.
Arrow’s argument, summarized in his “impossibility theorem,” reveals that, in democratic societies where individuals hold distinct preferences, if there are more than two choices, it is impossible to order those preferences consistently. The relevant conclusion to his complex argument is this: there is no best electoral system.
So why are Canadians repeating a 70-year-old debate? And why have the Liberals decided against a referendum on the question?
To answer these questions, first jettison the malarkey about every vote counting. Every vote counts now and has done since the Constitutional Act of 1791. Second, even if no electoral system can produce a rational outcome, different systems contain different incentives. Here’s why:
Parties, whatever the electoral system, are coalitions that want to rule. The present system incentivizes parties to keep the coalition within the party and win a parliamentary majority. All other systems provide incentives for single-issue parties (or, in Canada, regional parties) to run on their own and form a governing coalition in Parliament, not within a big-tent party.
This is not news. But there are additional implications that are often overlooked.
The first is that, when several parties form a governing coalition in Parliament, the largest has to buy off smaller single-issue parties. From around the world the evidence is overwhelming that this entails higher government spending, increased deficits, lowered ability to deal with financial crises and greater bureaucratic control, all of which leads to increased government instability.
The second is that, while electoral changes always have consequences for specific interests, and notwithstanding the truth of Arrow’s theorem, centrist parties typically think they will be the short-term beneficiaries by being the second choice of left- and right-wing voters.
The first implication explains why Elizabeth May and the Greens favour change; the second explains why the Liberals do.
But now things get weird. Those who advocate changing the electoral system, who mouth the bogus claim about wanting “every vote to count,” do not want to apply that principle to a yes/no vote on electoral change, even though it would produce a genuine majority vote. In fact, when Canadian electorates in B.C., Ontario, and P.E.I. were asked to approve electoral changes, they refused. This is why National Post columnist Michael Den Tandt points out the Liberals are just saying “trust us.”
Even if we were all so stupid as to trust any government, including that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Liberals may have no choice about a referendum. The legal logic is identical to that which required Pierre Trudeau to consult the provinces in 1981. Stéphane Dion, whose day job once was teaching political science, had it right: “precedent makes holding a referendum necessary.” As in 1981, precedent matters. After 225 years, the existing electoral system amounts to a constitutional convention.
In short, the Liberals have neither political mandate nor constitutional right to change the electoral system without a referendum that they likely would lose.
By Barry Cooper
Barry Cooper teaches political science at the University of Calgary.