How to renew Canadian democracy

Canadian Democracy


Canadian Democracy

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 24, 2011/ Troy Media

There is much evidence that Canadians are dissatisfied with the present state of politics in the country. They hate the hyper-partisanship and many feel that politics doesn’t speak to the pressing problems they face. But even assuming they are interested in voting, under our present electoral system (“first-past-the-post”, or FPTP) and a multiplicity of parties, a conservative core gathered in one federal party has been able to eke out a series of minority victories. Recent polls do not indicate much of a shift in the coming election.

For the majority who does not vote Conservative, what can be done about this? FPTP was designed for more homogenous, less diverse jurisdictions, with only two mainline parties. This is not representative of Canada, however, which has three well-established parties – the Conservatives, Liberals and NDs.

Then add in the Green party which is struggling to elect its first Member of Parliament even though it garnered one million votes in the last federal election. Now look at the Bloc Quebecois, which, under FPTP, gained a seat in 2008 for every 28,163 votes they received because its support is concentrated in Quebec.

Frustrating the will of the people

FPTP distorts election results in Canada by frustrating the will of the people and thereby discrediting democracy.

Want some more examples? In New Brunswick in 1987, Frank McKenna’s provincial Liberals received 60 per cent of the vote, yet won all the seats. That means that 40 per cent of the voters supported parties which were totally excluded from the Legislature. These voters might as well have stayed home.

In Alberta’s 2008 election, Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives received 52.6 per cent of the votes, but won 87 per cent of the seats. Almost half the voters had to be content with their parties’ taking only 13 per cent of the seats.

Under Kim Campbell’s leadership in the 1993 federal election, her Progressive Conservatives received 16 per cent of the vote, but won only two seats. Yet in the same election, the Reform party with about 19 per cent of the vote won 52 seats, 26 times more, because its support was heavily concentrated in one region, the west.

Both grassroots and traditional party organizations are investigating various alternatives. The “Catch-22″ movement is targeting that number of Conservative seats for defeat in the looming federal election, by urging strategic voting to concentrate the opposition. And FairVote Canada and other organizations, including the federal Green and New Democratic Parties, want to exchange the present FPTP system for some form of Proportional Representation (PR).

A government benefiting from FPTP is highly unlikely to accept an alternative system which benefits smaller parties (and democracy) by increasing the diversity of voices in the legislature. This is true even though PR has been accepted in at least 80 other countries. But a number of efforts have been made to implement PR in Canada. The Alberta Democratic Renewal Project (DRP) has met the reform challenge by advocating a strategic voting campaign, via a new website – The DRP will study the situation in individual ridings, including past results, identify the strongest progressive candidate there and urge strategic voting for him or her.

Canada’s own “purple revolution”

Of course, strategic voting is not new. For example, many inner-city Calgarians crossed party lines in 2001 to vote for Progressive Conservative Joe Clark in Calgary Centre. It was an “anybody but the Alliance” movement and it worked. Mr. Clark won. Today, in the Calgary Centre North federal by-election, both the Green and Liberal candidates are suggesting strategic voting on the doorstep (although the Greens did much better than the Liberals in the last federal election and thus are better placed to benefit from strategic voting) and pressure has been brought on the able former NDP candidate in the riding not to run. A less well-known NDPer is less likely to split the opposition vote.

But, in the long run, we need PR. Adopting it is not just a topic for political junkies. The renewal of democracy is a serious moral issue. It is wrong to thwart the will of the people by sticking with FPTP. All candidates and parties, federal and provincial alike, have a moral responsibility to take a position on PR. And the political pay-off could be enormous. Young people and political idealists – of which there may be many more than the cynics can imagine – may flock to a party that supports PR. We could have another “purple revolution” like that which brought Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi into office and see a re-engagement of young people and other alienated voters. How good would that be?

Phil Elder is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.

As some of my readers may know I have been a strong proponent for Proportional Representation believing it is the cure for many of our ills for both this province and our country. The present system is broken as it was designed for a different time and era from ours. Until we address this we will continue to flounder, disenfranchising huge segments of our population while alienating many of the rest. An overhaul of our democratic institutions along with electoral reform is long overdue, as is the need for proportional representation.


Government is too big and too important to be left to the politicians.

from John Prince
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3 Responses to How to renew Canadian democracy

  1. Anonymous says:

    Here is an even better explanation, this fellow is also an Albertan, but has Canadianized the proportional representation.

    He also has a FB page

    I have just come across all of this today and I’m elated that their are other people on the same page. Somehow we all just need to get together.”


  2. Anonymous says:

    John, I’m sure you were loving FPTP when Chretien and the Liberals were getting their majorities with 39% of the popular vote. Now that the Conservatives have been winning elections, all of a sudden it’s time to change the rules. Typical lefty thinking. I’m cheering for a Conservative majority this time around, and then we can get something meaningful done in Ottawa. I know you probably won’t post this, but it felt good typing it up anyway.

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