Other reforms of Parliament are more urgently needed than electoral reform

A reader left the following comment on my post about the Reform Act’s proposals for party leader selection:

While there is much to be said for the concept of MPs having more weight than the average party member in selecting a leader, this assumes that the MPs are properly representative of the party’s voters. Because of our skewed winner-take-all vopting system, this is far from the case. As Stephane Dion never tires of pointing out, our voting system “makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.” It “artificially amplifies the regional concentration of political party support at the federal level. This regional amplification effect benefits parties with regionally concentrated support and, conversely, penalizes parties whose support is spread across the country without dominating anywhere.”

The Conservative “equality of ridings” provision ensures that representative from Quebec cast about 25% of the votes in a leadership contest. If the caucus elected the leader, Quebec representatives would cast 3% of the votes. Stephane Dion would be quick to say that this “weakens Canada’s cohesion.”

First things first. Once we have a fair, modern voting system that lets all votes count equally toward electing MPs, the caucus might be entrusted with more weight in selecting a leader. Not until then.

Many others have expressed a similar view, that electoral reform is a far more pressing issue. However, I disagree, and I think the above misses a couple of critical points: first, that the Canadian Parliament does not work properly; and second, that electoral reform will not only fail to address those very major problems, but might even exacerbate them.

Let me begin by stating that I am not against the idea of electoral reform; I have written a number of posts outlining some of the problems inherent with the use of single-member plurality (or First-Past-the-Post – FPTP as it is more commonly known) in a multi-party state such as Canada (and the UK). However, the problems facing the Canadian House of Commons have very little to do with the electoral system. The main problems (in my view at least) are as follows:

  • the absolute control of party leadership over caucus members;
  • the absolute control of political parties over too many proceedings;
  • the abuse of certain procedures such as time allocation by the Executive.

When people talk of the need for electoral reform, most refer to PR — proportional representation — without specifying exactly what they mean by that. Unlike FPTP, proportional representation is not a single voting system — there are probably as many variations of PR as there are countries which use it. Most, if not all, forms of PR enhance the role of the party, in that you end up with some MPs who are not directly elected by anyone. Those who advocate for electoral reform above any other reform regularly criticize FPTP by hauling out the usual “In the last election, 39% of the vote resulted in 100% of power” or “millions of votes didn’t count!” arguments.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore how our system works. We don’t vote for a government. We don’t elect a government. We elect individuals to represent each riding as an MP, that collection of individual MPs forms a Parliament, and the Parliament determines who will form the government. Rather than view a general election as one election, it really should be viewed as 308 (soon to be 338) individual elections.

This is why the argument that “39% of the vote shouldn’t equal 100% of the power” misses the point. You can’t focus on a “national” percentage of the vote for each party – it’s irrelevant because there is no national party or government vote on the ballot. You have to focus on each individual race in each individual constituency.

If you take this approach to it, then yes, every vote most certainly did count. In a very close three- or four-way race, as in Ahuntsic back in 2011, where the final tally was:

  • Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%,
  • NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%,
  • Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%

every vote most certainly did count, was counted, and at the end of the count, the BQ candidate ended up with the most votes. Now you can certainly make the argument that no one should be elected with less than 50% of the vote, but it doesn’t change the fact that Athuntsic was very competitive and every single vote mattered and was counted and a winner emerged — the candidate with the most votes. And that was repeated in the other 307 separate elections that were held. Some were runaway victories for one candidate — and in those cases, that candidate would have won the seat no matter what voting system we had in place, while others were like Ahuntsic. Others were even closer still, tight two-way battles won by a handful of votes. How can you argue that in those instances, votes didn’t matter? Each one did — a lot. The winner may not have won with over 50% of the votes cast, but every single vote was counted and mattered.

It’s really not fair (or right) to say “votes don’t count” under FPTP — they do. Even if we had a preferential ballot (where candidates are ranked in order of preference, and votes transferred based on those preferences until one candidate has over 50%), there would be people who would not have ranked the candidate who ultimately wins, or maybe would have ranked that candidate last — yet you wouldn’t say their vote didn’t count. Under most forms of Mixed-Member Proportional, the bulk of MPs are still elected using FPTP — the only difference is that each party’s seat total is then topped up with list MPs (whom NOBODY votes for) based on the party’s percentage of the overall vote.

The problem with most forms of PR, because they involve list MPs chosen by the party leadership to fill seats assigned to the party to ensure its percentage of seats in the House more closely matches the overall percentage of the vote received by that party, is that the party becomes even more dominant. Look at New Zealand, for example. As one extreme example, in New Zealand, party votes — which are most votes in the House — are cast based on the number of MPs that party has. If a party has 10 MPs and indicates it will support a certain bill, the party vote is an automatic 10 in favour – and the MPs don’t even have to be in the Chamber when the vote occurs.

FPTP is not the real problem. The UK uses FPTP and their Parliament — while certainly not perfect — operates so much better in so many ways than does the Canadian Parliament. If you follow UK politics closely, as I do, you will reguarly see both political analysts and readers bemoaning how whipped their MPs are; yet compared to Canadian MPs, British MPs appear incredibly independent and even rebellious. If we had far more independent MPs — and by independent, I don’t mean persons elected as Independents, but MPs willing to act more independently/less like party automatons, then our current system could work better. If backbenchers from the governing party understood that they were not part of government and were willing to actually hold the the government to account and vote against it now and then when they believed it was in the best interests of the constituents to do so, as they do in the UK, then even a single-party majority government wouldn’t be able to exercise the same level of power that they currently do. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for governments with even large majorities to see legislation to pass by only a handful of votes because a good number of the governing party’s own backbenchers vote against it. This has been particularly true with the Coalition government (for obvious reasons — Conservative backbenchers feel less “loyalty” to the government since it’s not a Conservative government), but was also true on more than one occasion during the Labour majorities. Blair suffered a number of important backbench rebellions on key pieces of legislation, which in some cases passed by only a handful of votes, or because there was enough support from MPs from other parties to make up for the number of Labour MPs who dissented. Our problem isn’t so much FPTP, but a combination of excessive and abusive party discipline and a need to reform some of the House of Commons’ current practices to lessen the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature.

What reforms do I think would be needed here in Canada?

First, increase the number of MPs. While the next election will see a larger House – 338 MPs instead of the current 308, I would like to increase the number of MPs by a significant margin – at least by 100, preferably by as many as 150. One of the biggest problems here is that it is too easy for the party leadership to “reward” their MPs with positions, thus ensuring their compliance. In the UK House of Commons, with its 650 MPs, the leadership of the two main parties simply cannot exert the same level of control – there simply aren’t enough positions to hand out. Let me illustrate the problem.

The current Conservative caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa numbers 162 MPs. One of those is the Speaker, which brings the total down to 161 MPs. Of that number, 70 would be what is called the “payroll vote” – the PM, Cabinet and the parliamentary secretaries. That is 43% of the caucus. On top of that, 24 of the House of Commons’ 28 committees are chaired by Conservatives. Now, committee chairs are elected by the committee members, but the committee membership is appointed by the party leadership. There are only 44 Conservative MPs who are NOT members of any committee — those who are in Cabinet (39), the Speaker, and four other MPs — two of whom were elected in by-elections only in November of last year and probably haven’t had a chance to be assigned to a committee yet. That means that there are only 4 members of the Conservative Party caucus who have no role in the House other than being an MP (not counting the Speaker). More importantly, this means that there are only four members of the Conservative caucus who haven’t been “awarded” a role by the party’s leadership. The situation would be similar (and even worse) for the other parties in the House given that they have smaller caucuses. However, it matters more, perhaps, for the Conservatives since they form the government. The Conservative backbench MPs are not part of the government; they are simply MPs whose task it is to hold the government to account — same as the Opposition parties. However, because all but a handful of them have been appointed to one position or another by their party leader, they don’t do this. The issue of the payroll vote is one that is regularly raised in the UK — even by MPs themselves (see this article from 2011 by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston). I can’t recall seeing much, if any, discussion of the issue here in Canada.

This would lead to my second reform: change how committee members and chairs are selected. In the UK House of Commons, the issue of the pay-roll vote is a major one, as explained in detail in this article. That said, however, recent reforms all but eliminated the influence of the party leadership in committees. I have explained these reforms in detail in this post, but to summarize, Select Committee chairs are now elected by the whole House using ranked ballots. Party caucuses elect which of their members will sit on each committee. This has led to Commons Select Committees being far more independent, willing to engage in a series of important inquiries, newsworthy, and, in many ways, far less partisan. There is a greater sense that they are accountable to the Commons as a whole, rather than trying to advance their parties’ respective interests. A Private Member’s bill has been put forward in Ottawa proposing a similar reform for the Canadian House of Commons.

Reform #3: Get the parties out of Question Period. Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons is, at best, a farce. It is completely controlled by the parties. Each party decides which of its MPs will ask a question, in what order they will ask the question, and even write the questions out that the MPs will ask. The Speaker has the power to call on any MP in any order, but rarely does so; he or she follows the lists provided by the party whips. In the UK, MPs submit their questions in advance, and these questions are drawn in a shuffle to determine which MPs will get to ask a question and in what order. What difference does this make? MPs are free to ask questions that matter to them and to their constituents. It is very common to hear MPs in the UK House of Commons ask ministers — including the PM — questions that are about a problem in their riding, or about a problem facing one of their constituents. You never hear that in the Canadian House of Commons. Also, questions in the UK are submitted at least three days ahead of the scheduled departmental question time to allow the ministers to prepare thoughtful answers. This in turn means that the questions do actually get answered, unlike in the Canadian House of Commons where a minister is as likely to answer with an attack on the opposition rather than address the actual question.

Reform #4: Bring in Urgent Questions and UK-style Ministerial Statements. You can read about both of those procedures in this earlier post.

Reform #5: Adopt the proposals put forward in the Reform Act. You can read my various posts about the Reform Act for more information.

The pressing problem here is that the Canadian House of Commons cannot carry out its duties of scrutiny and seeking information effectively. Changing the voting system will not address this; in fact, depending on which form of PR were to be adopted, it could worsen the situation by making the role of parties even more central to everything. The most democratic voting system in the world will mean nothing if the legislative body to which MPs are elected cannot function efficiently and effectively. Parliamentary and procedural reform are needed far more urgently. And the simple reality is that it might be easier to address the party control and discipline issues and need for Standing Order changes than to ever get any type of PR adopted.

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  • Wilf_Day

    “Most, if not all, forms of PR enhance the role of the party, in that you end up with some MPs who are not directly elected by anyone . . . list MPs (whom NOBODY votes for).” False. The Law Commission of Canada recommended a mixed model simiar to Scotland’s and Wales’ with one major difference: you not only vote for your local MP, you can vote for your favourite of your party’s regional “top-up” candidates, which counts as a vote for your party. With regions of 14 MPs (Scotland’s regions have 16, Wales’ 12), that’s nine local MPs and five regional, a decent number to be fully accountable.

    As the similar Jenkins Commission in the UK said, top-up MPs locally anchored to small areas are “more easily assimilable into the political culture and indeed the Parliamentary system than would be a flock of unattached birds clouding the sky and wheeling under central party directions.” (This is quite different from New Zealand’s model which has national closed lists.) Fair Vote Canada says “A democratic voting system must encourage citizens to exercise positive choice by voting for the candidate or party they prefer.”

    Unlike US elections, we ARE electing a government, and voting for a local MP who (in most cases)we hope will be in the governing party. If not, we are an “opposition riding” and left out. Fair Vote Canada says “We must give rural and urban voters in every province, territory and regional community effective votes and fair representation in both government and opposition.”

    When we all have competing MPs — a local one, and around five regional ones — the role of an MP will be greatly enhanced, just as you wish. An exciting prospect: voters have new power to elect who they like. New voices from new forces in Parliament, more voter choice. No one party rolls the dice and wins an artificial majority. Cooperation will have a higher value than vitriolic rhetoric. One-party dominance by the Prime Minister’s office will, at last, be out of fashion. Governments will have to listen to MPs, and MPs will have to really listen to the people. MPs can begin to act as the public servants they are supposed to be.

    • http://thoughtundermined.com Radical Centrist

      We DO NOT elect a government. It is a complete misrepresentation of how our system works to say that. Parliament chooses the government.

      The fact remains that our parliamentary system is very, very broken and electoral reform will not fix any of what is wrong. It won’t even come close to addressing any of the issues I’ve been blogging about here for going on four years now. I know you will disagree, but nothing you have written in your comment changes my view – in fact, a lot of what you’ve written just reconfirms what I’ve been saying, even if you don’t really see it.

      And now I must get back to my major research project.

      • 2Jenn

        The problem here, beyond that of semantics, is that the convention that says Parliament chooses the government is itself broken. A Constitutional Convention that isn’t agreed to by all relevant actors is no longer a convention.

        That said, while electoral reform is an extremely important reform needed to restore our democracy to the people, it is absolutely not the only reform–and wasting time agreeing on which order these reforms are done seems counter-productive to me.when the important thing is to bring in the many reforms needed to constrain the powers of the parties to electioneering, and increase the powers of the MPs in governing/holding government to account.

        I like the Reform Act although I think some amendments are needed, and another good start is here: http://www.electoralreformforcanada.ca

        • http://thoughtundermined.com Radical Centrist

          I wouldn’t say that the convention of parliament choosing the government is broken; it’s often simply a moot point – whenever one party wins a majority of the seats. It would be nice, next time there’s a hung parliament, if a coalition were attempted as happened in the UK in 2010. It would also be very very nice if the media stopped calling the government on election night, esp. when it’s a hung parliament outcome.

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