Martyn Brown: Voting to be heard—or not (Part 1)

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      (Editor's note: Read Part 2.)

      “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly…”
      – Section 3, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

      As we celebrate Canada Day, it is worth reflecting on our nation’s most precious and undervalued instrument for self-determination: our right to vote.

      It is a right that is intrinsically tied to our electoral system that, in turn, determines how our votes are to be counted and translated into our representative voices in Parliament and the governments that exercise power on our behalf.

      How sadly ironic it is, then, that the opposition parties who now agree that our first-past-the-post system is unfair and unrepresentative should also want the politicians who get elected under that system on October 19 to make that decision for us.

      The federal Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens now all want to change our current electoral system to make it fairer and more representative in how it reflects each party’s proportional share of the popular vote. Excellent.

      But they want to do that without giving Canadians a direct say on the matter. They want the politicians in Parliament to decide what type of electoral system our country should have, not us.

      And that is dead wrong.

      If our voting system is to be changed, all Canadians should have a vote on whatever proposed model might be put in its place, by way of a national referendum.

      That is the only fair and democratic way to decide something so fundamental as how we elect our supposed voices in Parliament and how we collectively “choose” our so-called “responsible governments”. It goes to very heart of our right to vote, protected under the Charter.

      The NDP, the Greens, and the Liberals have now all seen the light.

      They say that our current electoral system may be a model for more stable government, but that it also devalues democratic expression as its distorts voting power and denies effective representation. And so, it has to go.

      We need to change the system to “make every vote count.”

      Well, OK.

      But how, exactly? To be replaced by what? By whom? And at what consequence to our country, to its governance, and to its political foundations?

      Our nation yawns in indifference.

      The subject is dry as toast and the choices are hard to fathom.

      Some other plurality/majority model perhaps? A Block Vote, Alternative Vote, or Two Round system? Or better yet, some form of proportional representation, be it List PR or a Single Transferable Vote?

      Or possibly a Mixed Member Proportional system? It combines elements from both of those main models, with two votes for each voter—one for their preferred candidate in each electoral district and another for their preferred party.

      Of course, in that model, favoured by both the NDP and Green Party, we would also have to consider the method for allocating those proportionately awarded party seats. How to do that? The Sainte-Laguë method? The Webster method? The D'Hondt method? And how to deal with any “overhang” and “underhang” seats?


      But wait, there are other options!

      What about a semi-proportional system? A Single Non-Transferable Vote? Or perhaps some type of parallel voting system? Heck, we might want to go with either a Supplementary Member model, or a Mixed Member Majoritarian Member system.

      Whatever. It is all Greek to most Canadians.

      The mind boggles at the myriad electoral models and empty acronyms that make our eyes glaze over and that turn away our tweeting thumbs.

      Electoral reform may be a top-of-mind concern for political parties and interest groups whose voices are diminished and marginalized by our simple plurality voting system. But it is certainly not on anyone’s “trending now” list.

      Few Canadians are using the channels for expression they have today to fight for the right to have a direct say tomorrow.

      Not even in the hashtag #poli Twitterverse.

      The goal of improving Canada’s voting system is entirely laudable. Yet the legitimacy of that enterprise will be fatally compromised if the voters who would be directly affected by any proposed alternative are denied the right to give it their democratic blessing.

      It would be the height of absurdity and an offence to democracy to change a system that allegedly lacks legitimacy by putting the matter to a vote of the same elected representatives who its critics contend do not speak for the majority of Canadians.

      The Green Party maintains “Our electoral system unfairly punishes Conservative voters in cities, Liberal and NDP voters in the west, and Green voters throughout Canada. Ultimately, it does not produce governments that reflect the diversity of people in Canada, nor does it do a good job of accurately reflecting voters’ wishes.”

      Maybe so.

      Then why on Earth would the Green Party want the people who get elected under that electoral system to be the only ones who get a vote to change it? Why does it want Parliament to make that decision, instead of affording Canadians their most basic democratic right of self-determination?

      The New Democrats make a similar argument.

      They say, “Under our current system, too many Canadians are being shut out….Far too many Canadians are currently represented in Parliament by people they voted against….Over 60 per cent of Canadians did not vote for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, yet the Conservatives enjoy a majority of seats in the House of Commons – a false majority.”

      By that logic, regardless who wins the fall election, it will produce a Parliament and a government that the NDP says “shuts out” too many Canadians. It will also give us unrepresentative MPs that “far too many” of us “voted against.” If all goes well for the NDP, it might even elect a “false majority” Mulcair government.

      So why, then, should an NDP government get to decide on behalf of all those newly disenfranchised Canadians what sort of electoral system they should have, to supplant the one that has been in place since Confederation?

      What say will Canadians have in that matter? Who knows? All we know is that the NDP is officially committed to “Ensuring electoral reform is based on a transparent process with wide citizen involvement.” Like its online petition, perhaps.

      It urges us all to “call on Parliament to adopt a proportional representation voting system so that the House of Commons better reflects the diversity and political preferences of all Canadians.”

      That petition may be primarily aimed at collecting supporters’ names and emails for the NDP’s own partisan purposes; yet it is also illuminating.

      It suggests that Tom Mulcair is content to let the members of Parliament decide what voting system Canada should adopt, instead of putting that decision to us and running the risk that a majority of Canadians might reject it.

      Why would any party want to bring in a new voting system that a majority of its citizens might not actually want? Why would any leader want to put in place a new electoral system that could not past the most fundamental acid test of democracy?

      Politicians often seem to find twisted rationales for justifying morally bankrupt positions that are above all intended to serve their own partisan interests, public interest be damned.

      Trudeau is no exception.

      If his True Grits prevail, 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under our present system. A “national engagement process…will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered.”

      Good stuff. But how?

      “This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.”

      How reassuring. Trudeau’s “consultation” process—like Elizabeth May’s—would be carried out by a special “non-partisan” parliamentary committee of partisans. Not by judges or by some other independent body.

      Why put the task to an independent body, like a Citizen’s Assembly, as in British Columbia and Ontario, or to some other independent commission, like the ones employed in PEI and New Brunswick?

      Better to just ask our elected foxes to redesign our collective chicken coop.

      Better to have the parties’ hand-picked minions study the alternatives, prove we were consulted and recommend the “right” course to Parliament, for its wise men and women to decide on our behalf.

      Anyway, it is best not to risk being told directly by Canadians that the politicians’ recommended model for electing themselves and their parties is less preferable to the status quo. We all know too well how that worked out in Ontario, British Columbia, and PEI.

      In each case, when given a choice and armed with ballots to make their mark for any “better” electoral system recommended by various independent processes, Canadians have emphatically said “no thanks.”

      Oh, Canada. Trudeau, Mulcair, and May know us better than we know ourselves.

      They have seen the true enemy of a “truer” democracy and they believe that it is us, the people of Canada.

      We cannot be trusted to democratically embrace the electoral changes we really need, as determined by our intellectual betters. Rather, the best way to make our vote really count is to elect a new government that vows to deny us a vote on how our future votes will count in Canada’s electoral system.

      Welcome to young Trudeau’s new Just Society: it will just not trust you enough to vote for your voting system.

      Welcome to the Brave New World: one that promises to better represent our aims and interests through a supposedly fairer voting system that is predicated on the fear that we might reject it, if given the chance to vote.

      Happy Canada Day.

      The Dalai Lama once wisely observed, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”

      To that end, all voters would be well advised to consider the desired endgame of electoral reform and the best means to achieve it. And all political parties would do Canadians a service if they trusted us enough to let us vote on any proposed change in our electoral system.

      We will not enhance democracy by subverting that most fundamental democratic right. We will not strengthen the legitimacy of our election choices by denying voters a chance to choose a new electoral system that will determine how their votes count and apply.

      Trudeau, Mulcair, and May may be right that our electoral system should be reformed to make Parliament more broadly representative of each party’s level of popular support and to produce governments that are formed with a “fairer” show of majority support.

      But the way they hope to advance that end in their mutual partisan interests is itself hopelessly distorted in its backwards view of “responsible government.” It is wrong for Canada and should be corrected, so that more of us might have cause to celebrate and support their vision for change.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British Columbia. Contact Brown at



      Wayne Smith

      Jun 30, 2015 at 1:31pm

      Unfortunately, a referendum is more often a tool for avoiding change than an instrument of change. Certainly we need a citizen-driven process to design a new voting system. That process should involve extensive public education, and should be long enough and thorough enough to capture public values and build public buy-in. The Citizens' Assemblies in BC and Ontario were models of public consultation, and each did a wonderful job of designing a better voting system. The two citizens' assemblies came up with two different proportional voting systems. Then they went to referendums, and that's where the wheels fell off. Hostile governments did not allow the public to become properly informed. Vested interests subjected people to a barrage of misinformation. Of course we need public involvement in designing a new, proportional voting system for Canada. But that doesn't mean we need a referendum.

      Wilf Day

      Jun 30, 2015 at 8:03pm

      Red herring # 1: "A parliamentary committee of partisans" will carry out the public consultations?

      Yes, MPs must be involved. A totally non-parliamentary group would propose a model that MPs inevitably would want to revise. But no, MPs must not be the sole participants. Fair Vote Canada wants "a consultation process including citizen participation and multi-partisan experts, to determine the best model of Proportional Representation for Canada, while respecting the need for all MPs to face the voters and be accountable to voters." The Liberal Party voted for "an all-Party process involving expert assistance and citizen participation." The NDP proposes "first having an all-party task force work closely with experts and consult thoroughly with citizens on the best design features of an adapted-to-Canada mixed-member proportional representation system. Legislation will then be tabled based on the task force recommendations, and a parliamentary timetable adhered to that will ensure the legislation can be adopted, then implemented in time for proportional representation to be in place for the 2019 federal election."

      Mr. Brown lists six PR or semi-PR options, along with the Sainte-Laguë method and the D'Hondt method, and suggests the choice be made -- by referendum?

      The last time Canada had a referendum was on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. That worked out well. Before that, on conscription in 1942, another disaster for Canada.

      It's a basic civil right. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons. Including Alberta Liberals, Montreal Conservatives, and Greens everywhere, none of whose votes have counted for the last 20 years (except in two Edmonton ridings and one Green riding). We don't hold referendums on civil rights in Canada, any more than the USA held a referendum on giving blacks or women the vote.

      Wendy Bergerud

      Jul 1, 2015 at 8:41am

      Part I:

      1) Why can a government do anything that it does when it doesn't have majority voter support? Why is changing the voting system different?

      2) Don't get me wrong - the voting system should be for the voters and NOT for the parties. But how do we actually engage Canadians to do that? I was a member of BC's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. That process was very good and comes close to letting citizens choose their voting system. But why didn't we get change?

      The most important reason is that government, the government that sponsored the assembly, set 1) a ridiculous 60% bar and 2) did NOT provide adequate funding and support for a truly civic and civil discussion about voting reform. For some reason democracy is something that citizens should do with little support from their government. Proper impartial education/information requires a great deal more money than any government here in Canada has been willing to spend.

      In fact, my conclusion after participating in both of BC's referenda and watching the others is that, quite simply, politicians in this country use referenda as a means of pretending to ask the citizens what they think while actually using it as a tool to get the change (or not) that they want. It simply looks good but they find that ignorance (lack of information) is a great way to ensure that they will get the outcome they want. Without a commitment of truly sincere and massive funding of an impartial information campaign I am now suspicious of the motives of anyone who pushes the idea of a referendum.

      3) The first referendum in BC "passed" by any normal standards. The Liberals and NDP could have taken the results (after all it did pass in 77 of 79 ridings) and implemented them anyway. That they didn't is a sign of their lack of sincerity and lack of their commitment to voters.

      What really happened, of course, is that we (the assembly) surprised them by not only succeeding in picking a voting system, but in getting out and letting people know about the work we had done. For all the succeeding referenda, those not wanting change were better prepared to ensure that they failed.

      Wendy Bergerud

      Jul 1, 2015 at 8:43am

      Part II:

      4) I agree that HOW the current opposition parties will set about choosing a voting system is truly vital. One important lesson from BC's assembly is that voters do indeed see the voting system DIFFERENTLY than party partisans AND political experts. Many political experts believe that voting is about choosing between parties. BC's assembly members were more focused on having true voter choice AND in being able to pull their MLA towards representing them instead of having their MLAs represent their party to the voters. This is why we chose STV over MMP.

      Our "representative democracy" does not have a good way to let voters learn and make informed decisions. The assembly was indeed a good impartial way to ask the voters what they'd like. But, clearly, the parties weren't actually willing to act on that work.

      Will the current federal opposition parties actually find a good way to ask the voters? I bet not. This is one of the biggest puzzles for me. Supposing that the parties are indeed sincere about changing the voting system FOR voters - how would they go about doing that? How would they truly and sincerely ask voters what system would do the best job of translating their votes into a parliament? Of course, they won't really. But, I have to hope that the first move to a proportional voting system will be the first step towards taming the parties and giving citizens more of a voice.

      Maybe I am simply being foolishly hopeful.

      Laurel L. Russwurm

      Jul 16, 2015 at 6:19am

      I love how people who benefit from the status quo can always spin a narrative to support it's continuation.

      Martyn Brown tells us that "The federal Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens now all want to change our current electoral system to make it fairer and more representative in how it reflects each party’s proportional share of the popular vote. Excellent.

      But they want to do that without giving Canadians a direct say on the matter. They want the politicians in Parliament to decide what type of electoral system our country should have, not us."

      Funny thing; in a democracy the only civilized way of making changes is through our elected representatives. The way Representative Democracy works is that the politicians who get elected under whatever system is in place make decisions for us.

      Every electoral reform referendum we've had in Canada has been designed to fail, because it's really difficult for any party that has achieved a disproportionate amount of power from our unfair system to adopt a system that would limit their own power to what they deserve.

      And besides, referendums don't change laws, elected representatives do.

      Mr. Brown artfully suggests Canadian voters have said "no" to electoral reform through referendums, but as Wendy Bergerud points out in a previous comment, a clear majority of British Columbians embraced the adoption of STV in their first provincial referendum. The reality is that referendums can b e designed to fail.

      Wikipedia tells us that "BC-STV was supported by a majority (57.7%) of the voters in a referendum held in 2005 but the government had legislated that it would not be bound by any vote lower than 60% in favour."

      Electoral reform is a complicated issue, particularly for a nation with no direct experience of proportional systems. Over the last decade or so, Canada has condicted ten studies that have all concluded the adoption of some form of proportionality is needed. (You can find out about these studies on the Fair Vote Canada website.)

      The first part of achieving electoral reform is to ignore purveyors of gloom and doom who hope to frighten or confuse us into retaining the status quo that benefits them, and elect MPs who sincerely support Proportional Representation. (1 of 2)

      Laurel L. Russwurm

      Jul 16, 2015 at 7:26am

      (2 of 2)

      Probably what bothers me most in this article is Mr. Brown's insistence that any of the Canadian parties would impose their favored form of electoral reform without consulting Canadians. Although all parties have their own policies on electoral reform, each one includes citizen consultation.

      One good thing about Canada's tardiness in modernizing our unfair electoral system to one that will actually represent us is that those who've gone before have demonstrated what works.

      New Zealand's brilliant method of introducing electoral reform used a series of referendums. They first asked voters if their First Past the Post system needed changing, then which type of system to choose. The final referendum asked whether they should keep their new proportional system after having used it for nearly a decade. (Yes!)

      Over the last few years I've learned a great deal about electoral reform from people in the multi-partisan grass roots organization Fair Vote Canada. The most important thing I've learned is that accountable representative democracy is possible. The problem is that droves of nay sayers try to frighten us into thinking proportional representation is too hard for Canadians, or that it would somehow be worse than what we have now.

      The truth is that it doesn't get much worse than what we have now. And while politicians inclined to think they will form a majority government might advocate electoral reform to another winner-take-all electoral system that supports the status quo, Canadians are waking up to the fact that what we have is broken.

      So we're fortunate to have Fair Vote Canada, which has built up a repository of information and evidence about proportional representation. FVC advocates for meaningful electoral reform through education and raising public awareness. And it's working. Thats why we're seeing articles like this one.

      The NDP and Green Party have both shown their strong commitment to meaningful electoral reform. The Liberals have committed to getting rid of First Past The Post, but are divided on Proportional Representation.

      I hope those who've given up on our broken system join the Canadians who want meaningful electoral reform for ourselves (and future generations) by voting this. If we elect enough candidates supporting Proportional Representation we will see change for the better.