Is Electoral Reform Dead in Canada? 


After attempts at both the federal and provincial levels to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system with a more democratically representative alternative, electoral reform may have exhausted its momentum. As former B.C. MLA David Mitchell writes, Prince Edward Island’s referendum in April may be the last chance for a breakthrough.


David Mitchell 

After the Trudeau government abandoned an effort to overhaul Canada’s electoral system in 2017, reform advocates turned their sights to British Columbia. In the wake of last fall’s referendum, which produced a 61.3 per cent result in favour of the current first-past-the-post system, it’s quite possible that the dream of changing the voting system in Canada is dead, at least for the foreseeable future.

Electoral reform has long been a cause among some policy aficionados, especially in parliamentary democracies with multi-party systems. The impetus for change springs mostly from a desire for fairness. After all, why shouldn’t our elected bodies be represented according to the expressed wishes of the electorate? Why are Canadian governments routinely elected with less than a majority of votes? How are majority governments sometimes formed in our parliaments and legislatures with fewer than 40 per cent of the popular vote? And why is it that parties winning the most votes don’t always have the right to govern?

These questions understandably give rise to efforts to change our system. Proponents of reform advocate for methods used in other jurisdictions that seek to elect representatives in a manner proportional to the votes cast by the electorate. Sounds reasonable, right? In Canada, however, it turns out to be easier said than done.

For more than a generation, partisans, academics and activists have advocated, sometimes stridently, in favour of reform. Several national and provincial organizations have also promoted the idea of fairer voting in Canada. Opponents of reform have argued that the status quo has long served Canadians well by providing generally stable government. In addition, some have insisted that such a fundamental change to our democratic franchise should first require public approval in the form of a referendum. Some claim that such a referendum needs a super-majority of 60 per cent approval in order to legitimize changes to our voting system.

British Columbia was the first to succumb to this unfounded notion. In 2005, a referendum was held in conjunction with a provincial election to determine whether or not to adopt a single transferable vote system. This had been recommended by a specially-convened Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Although none of the political parties campaigned in favour of the change, the referendum garnered strong support, with almost 58 per cent of British Columbians voting in favour. This fell just short of the 60 per cent approval target.

As it turns out, the 2005 B.C. referendum would be the highest indication of support yet seen for electoral reform in Canada. If not for the supermajority requirement, viewed by many as unfair and unnecessary, B.C. could have become the modern Canadian test-case for reforming voting systems. Instead, in the aftermath of the narrow defeat, the provincial Liberal government promised a second referendum on electoral reform. This took place four years later at the time of the next provincial election in 2009 and resulted in bitter disappointment for advocates of change, with fewer than 40 per cent of voters this time in favour of reform.

So far, two other Canadian provinces—the smallest, Prince Edward Island, and the largest, Ontario—have flirted with electoral reform via referendum. P.E.I.’s first referendum was held in 2005, garnering only 36 per cent approval. In 2016, a nonbinding plebiscite resulted in a vote of 52 per cent in favour of changing the voting system to mixed-member proportional representation. However, primarily due to low voter turnout, the plebiscite was not considered to be a clear expression of the will of the populace. The government of P.E.I has now committed itself to another referendum on the matter, with the question on the ballot of the provincial election to be held on April 23 this year.

The province of Ontario followed the referendum route on electoral reform in 2007. This was preceded by the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly, similar to the one convened in B.C., which recommended a mixed-member proportional system of voting for the province. The ensuing referendum campaign was chaotic with a paucity of clear information on the proposed new system and confusion or indifference from the major political parties. Not surprisingly, the recommended change received the support of fewer than 37 per cent of Ontario voters.

Perhaps thankfully, the federal government never got to the stage of what might have resulted in a national referendum on electoral reform, as the consultation process on the promised reform was flawed and the parliamentary committee reviewing the matter was dysfunctional. In spite of the fact that following the last federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had declared that “2015 will be the last election under first-past-the-post”, this major policy commitment was ultimately abandoned. The official reason, provided in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to his then new minister of democratic institutions, Karina Gould, in February 2017, was that “A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged.”

So where did that lead us? Back to B.C.

The May 2017 B.C. provincial election resulted in an extraordinarily polarized legislature, with an alliance between the NDP and Green Party narrowly securing an opportunity to form a government. Both parties had campaigned in favour of electoral reform, by then a seeming staple in B.C. politics. The two leaders signed an agreement to cooperate, including a commitment to put the question of electoral reform to yet another referendum. And the agreement stipulated that, contrary to past practice, both parties would actively campaign in favour of changing the voting system to proportional representation.

Following a controversial campaign, the actual voting took place by mail-in ballot between October 22 and December 7, 2018, with an additional week extension because of a Canada Post labour dispute. While more than 40 per cent of eligible B.C. voters cast ballots in the referendum, that seemed like a less-than-inspiring turnout for what was presented as significant democratic reform. But those in favour of maintaining the status quo triumphed decisively, with 61.3 vs. 38.7 per cent support.

For the third time, British Columbians have now voted by referendum to maintain the first-past-the-post system for provincial elections. And no one appears to have the appetite to try again. Surely this represents a stake in the heart of electoral reform.

It’s worth noting that Quebec’s new CAQ government, led by Premier Francois Legault, has also promised to reform that province’s electoral system. However, given the experience of other Canadian jurisdictions to date, it would be unwise to expect too much from such a pledge.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that P.E.I.’s forthcoming referendum might deliver a different outcome. And maybe it would be appropriate for a smaller province to succeed where others have failed. In fact, reform at the local government level appears more plausible than in larger jurisdictions and at senior levels of government, which are more complex by their nature. For example, the Ontario provincial government has passed legislation allowing municipalities to change their own electoral systems, with some experimentation already taking place—and without any requirement for referendums. 

Indeed, this is the real moral of the story: an effective way to kill any proposed reform of our electoral system is to argue that a referendum is necessary to approve such a change. The forces of resistance, conservative defenders of the status quo and various assorted mischief-makers can be counted upon to vigorously oppose almost any initiative emanating from governments today. It’s an unfortunate legacy of the so-called “direct democracy” that first emerged in Canada in the 1980s, based on a distrust of institutions of governance, including elected representatives. The impulse still lingers in our politics and doesn’t serve us well.

What most people don’t realize is that electoral systems can and have been modified without resorting to a referendum. This is the case in several countries that have moved toward different forms of proportional representation. It’s far from perfect, but that’s how our system of governance is actually designed to work.  


David Mitchell is a political historian, former B.C. MLA and currently serves as President & CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations.