Our democratic reform minister doesn’t understand our democracy

By Andrew Potter

In his classic book The Parliament of Canada, C.E.S. Franks suggests that the crisis facing Canada’s democracy is not that its institutions need to be reformed, but rather that they need to be understood. Perhaps no one is more in need of taking this advice to heart than Canada’s Minister for Democratic Reform, Maryam Monsef.

On Wednesday, Monsef introduced the special parliamentary committee that will be tasked with studying alternatives to our current “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, which the Liberals have promised to replace by the time the next general election rolls around in October 2019. Monsef’s announcement was greeted with widespread derision, in large part because the government has allocated spots on the committee in proportion to each party’s share of seats in the House of Commons. That is, to staff its electoral reform committee, it used the results of the very electoral system the committee is charged with replacing.

Mystifying as that is, what is far worse was that Monsef also took the opportunity to give credibility to some of the same misconceptions and outright falsehoods about how our system works that Franks was complaining about when his book was published in 1987.

Let’s start with her claim that “we can do better” than FPTP.

While it is an article of faith among hipster pundits, electoral reform weenies, and perennial political losers that electoral systems sit on a continuum from the less to the more “democratic” (with first past the post at the far barely-legitimate-and-patently-undemocratic end of the line), it is not true. Every electoral system involves a host of tradeoffs and compromises between desired virtues and unavoidable defects. In particular, it requires balancing the competing goods of stability, democratic legitimacy, effective representation, deliberation, and accountability. However these are weighed, it is simply not right to describe one system as “more democratic” than another.

How does FPTP look when it comes to this balance? Because it enables a party to form a majority government with less than 50 per cent of the vote, FPTP does very well on stability. By the same token, it also tends to ensure clean lines of accountability: voters know who to hold responsible, and to punish or reward as they see fit come election time. But FPTP is seen as doing less well when it comes to values such as deliberation and effective representation.

That seems to be what Monsef was getting at when she said the electoral system must produce governments that “appeal beyond a narrow base of Canadians and encourage the building of a national consensus.” She added: “We need to move beyond a system that pits neighbour against neighbour. Elections should unite Canadians and not appeal to narrow constituencies.”

As an account of the incentives that arise out of FPTP, it is exactly wrong. In fact, is systems of proportional representation (PR) that tend to give rise to issue-specific parties that target a narrow base of Canadians. That is why niche-issue parties like the Greens are so keen on moving to PR. Furthermore, if it is the building of a “consensus” you want, again you aren’t going to get it from PR. As narrowcast parties proliferate, the resulting parliament will be a beggar’s banquet of horse-trading, log-rolling, and gutter brinkmanship, with voters left looking on in anguish and impotence.

In contrast, the logic of FPTP inevitably leads to the creation of “big tent” parties that have comprehensive platforms designed to appeal to wide swaths of the country. And as the McGill law professor Daniel Weinstock argues in a new paper, this means that parties under FPTP tend to be excellent forums for deliberation and national consensus-building, as all the single-issue constituencies come to the table to get a hearing inside the tent.

In short, the virtues that Monsef wants to see in Canadian politics are pretty much already fulfilled by the current electoral system. Instead of wasting its time trying to find a new electoral system, her special committee would do well to figure out ways of helping Canadians understand the one we have.

Their first student should be the Minister for Democratic Reform herself.


Andrew Potter is a former editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the incoming Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.


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