Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

Setting aside partisanship in order to really change things

by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)

Contemporary Canadian party bannersOkay, I admit it: I am on the left of the political spectrum and, as far as I can recall, I have always voted for the NDP federally. But all along, I couldn't understand why that party always won so few seats compared to its level of support manifested in the popular vote. It just didn't seem fair to me!

<joke>Insert a pouty face here.</joke>

The 1993 federal general election was peculiar to me on so many levels. The oddity was not only that the official opposition had been formed by a regional party that technically did not want to be in that House, but also that the support for two of the three mainstream parties had collapsed. And as I mentioned in "The excesses of FPTP," for Progressive Conservatives, this election was the harbinger of their demise.

It is when I began to research past elections to test the hypothesis that "my" party was being treated unfairly that I discovered that ALL parties are treated unfairly by FPTP. Indeed, now I realize that the electoral results we have been getting are a feature rather than a bug of that system, and that the simultaneous over- and under-representation of political parties has always existed, which is unfair and frustrating for everybody! Although I came to think about this topic from a partisan perspective, now for me it's a non-partisan issue of fairness in representation.

My research has also brought me to see the extent to which participation in elections has been steadily declining. Alberta and Ontario stand out as jurisdictions where turnout has consistently been poor, just as Prince Edward Island stands out as the jurisdiction with excellent voter turnout. However, with some exceptions, since the late 1980s, turnout in general elections has dropped below 70 percent — sometimes well below that. Some of the most extreme examples in the 21st century have been Alberta in 2008, when the turnout was only 37.5 percent, and Ontario in 2022, when it was only 44.1 percent. The result is that Nobody wins.

Some people might be tempted to argue, simplistically, that this disengagement is because "All politicians today are no good, so why bother voting?" But let me be perfectly clear: that argument is pure nonsense. It's nonsense because every generation before us has said that about their politicians. Yet, the large majority of them still took the time to exercise their vote franchise.

However, what, if anything, could Alberta and Ontario have in common, that might explain their traditionally low voter turnout? The first thought that crosses my mind is that both have had political dynasties, during which time one party held power for decades. And what happened to some people (not all) who disliked that party and consistently voted against it at each election, yet that party kept forming government? Well, frankly, some of them just gave up. They came to the conclusion that our electoral system didn't work and that their vote didn't matter, despite seeing evidence that a sizeable minority agreed with them.

Now, notice how, almost without exception, those who have been supportive of those dynasties are also those who are most against changing toward a proportional electoral system. The fact that those with views opposing theirs would have decided to stop voting suits them just fine. Some might even go so far as chiding those who have disengaged as having a child-like tantrum.

That's when partisanship gets really ugly, even petty.

Partisans aren't concerned about fair representation. They're only concerned about getting their views represented — preferably monolithically. Opponents of adopting a proportional system often state that such a system can rarely create a majority government as we have come to know them, and on that point they are right. But what underlies their argument is that these artificial majorities are desirable and that, by definition, majorities work and minorities do not. Yes, that was the case at the federal level in 1957, 1962 and 1979, but the eight other minority governments since 1957 were relatively stable. The only interest these fake majorities serve is that of the governing party — except aren't elected officials supposed to serve the interests of those who elected them to office?

Call me naïve!

Why do we need to set aside partisanship?

Sorry if this seems flip, but the answer is that we have to grow up! We need to recognize that political discourse is sometimes simplistic or gets incorrectly simplified. Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell would quite certainly have something to say about that. When she tried to explain that discussing an overhaul of Canada's social policies in all their complexities could not be done in the 47 days of the 1993 election campaign, her statement was diluted to an election was no time to discuss important issues.

Politics is already a blunt instrument. Partisanship makes it even more brutal. It often cloaks ulterior motives that may be at odds with achieving progress. We must become mature enough as citizens to recognize that it is so. For this reason, partisanship and politics must be removed from any serious discussion of an electoral reform.

I openly told you at the top of this page what my partisan leanings are and have always been. So, imagine my surprise — horror, even! — after the 1984 federal election, when my best friend Paul, who sadly passed away in 2021, "admitted" to having voted for the Progressive Conservative candidate in his riding. His argument was that he really liked the candidate and, therefore, turned a blind eye on the party that candidate was representing. I was 19 years old at the time, and that may well have been my first lesson on why our FPTP electoral system, quite frankly, sucks! I also knew and liked the candidate for whom he had voted, but I have to admit that, had I been living in the same riding as Paul, I don't think I could have brought myself to vote for anyone who branded themselves as conservative.

Would I have considered it, though, if I had had two votes — regional and local? Honestly, the 19-year-old that I was would not have considered it for even a minute! Subtlety is rarely a hallmark of being 19, especially in politics. But the person I am now, in the very latter part of his midlife, would be more nuanced. I would consider it if the conservatives' brand was like it was in 1984, but not like it is in the 2000s. But that also means that, if I were given two votes today, I would most definitely not feel obligated to vote either strategically or for the same party on both ballots.

I wouldn't say that I've grown soft with age — at least, not in the head. If anything, I'd say that my political convictions have only become stronger over the years. But I also think that we would all like to believe that the electoral apparatus is (or should be) absolutely neutral. It should simply be an instrument to allow the people to express their political will, but our current FPTP system has consistently failed to do that.

So let's beware of those who oppose changing it. And let's beware of partisanship in this discussion.

© 2019, 2024 :: (Maurice Y. Michaud)
Pub.:  9 May 2022 23:15
Rev.: 20 Jan 2024 06:06