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In Opening Up the Pandora's Box of Electoral Reform, Canada Should Look Down Under

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable -- the art of the next best.  (Otto von Bismarck)

I never thought that I would see this day come.  We have a newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who stated publically that this election would be last using the first-past-the-post voting system, which is quite something considering he now governs Canada with a majority government although the Liberal Party only garnered 39% of the vote.

Scrapping the present voting system and putting another one in place, especially since it hasn't been decided what that new system will be for the next election, is a monumental task.  It would involve public consultations, adopting legislation, and retooling Elections Canada within the constitutional requirements of section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms  which protects the voting rights of Canadians.

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We also need to keep in mind that in our system of governance Parliament is bicameral, comprised of the lower, elected House of Commons and the upper, unelected Senate.  For any law to be enacted, it needs the assent of both chambers.  As a result, it would be unwise to radically reform the lower chamber with a proportional voting system of which there is great debate with regard to which to choose from and to leave the upper chamber untouched.  Imagine having an unelected Senate ruling over the House of Commons that can no longer effectively control how Senators vote.  Not a good idea!

Fortunately, the Senate as it is now functions is in disrepute and the idea of having an elected Senate has been discussed extensively but never enacted.  So, it would not be a great leap for Canada to change the voting system in the lower house and to introduce one into the upper chamber.

What we must realize is the scale of the institutional change Canadians are now thinking of making.  We simply cannot abandon our present system of governance under the rule of law and start over from scratch.  We would be much better off to take an incremental approach and to look to another member of the Commonwealth, Australia, a nation that has already evolved a political system much more democratic than its predecessor, the Westminster system that we both inherited from Great Britain.

In short, both the upper and lower houses are elected in Australia.  The lower house is elected using a preferential voting system in which electors rank the candidates, and the first candidate that receives fifty percent of the vote after the lower finishing candidates have their ballots redistributed on the basis of their electors other preferences.  The upper house is elected using a single district proportional voting method in which the percentage of the vote obtained by each political party in each state and territory determines who gets elected.

Importantly, this system is transferrable to Canada. 

For the next election in 2019, it would be feasible to transfer in a preferential voting system.  We could use the existing electoral map.  Moreover, this system has the advantage of requiring that each elected representative have the support of at least the majority of the electors that vote in his or her riding.  What it doesn't do is to correct for the distortion of the representation on the basis of the first choice, which, after all, is the most important choice a voter can make on this type of ballot.

Herein lies the brilliance of the Australian voting method.  It is in casting the second vote for the Senate where each vote counts and has equal weight.  The method is proportional, which allows for smaller political parties like the Greens to gain representation, and reflects, in the distribution of seats, how the electors actually voted.  Essentially, the Aussies made their political system more democratic without throwing out the existing system altogether, something I think the vast majority of Canadians would agree to be an important principle to follow.

Presently, Canadians are thwarted in making qualitative change to their dysfunctional Senate because of the Constitutional requirement to have unanimous consent of the provinces.  However, simply changing how Senators are chosen, moving to election instead of appointment, without changing the number of seats each province receives is entirely within the prerogative of Parliament.  Most assuredly, this would be challenged in the courts, which is why the present government must seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter, preferably within the first year of its mandate.  Thereafter, Elections Canada, with the new minted proportional voting method in hand, could then go about educating Canadians on how to vote in the subsequent election in 2023.

There you have it, turning the world upside down by transferring the Australian electoral system into Canada.

This post first appeared on The Disgruntled Democrat, please read the originial post: here

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In Opening Up the Pandora's Box of Electoral Reform, Canada Should Look Down Under


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